Monday, September 13, 2010

Mad Men 408

"I was blind. And now I see." Miss Blankenship is referring to her cataract surgery. Don has found some Amazing Grace of his own, and perhaps it is enough to save a wretch like him. This is old Don Draper. Bruised a bit and making some risky bets (like eavesdropping and two-timing). But he's not an adulterer anymore, and he's set aside serious alcohol abuse in favor of the existential woes that used to be conveyed with a grimace and now come forth in graceful, penetrating and -- for writers Lisa Albert, Janet Leahy, and Matthew Weiner -- triumphant prose.

Don's career has made him a sprinter among wordsmiths, the mind behind clever slogans half the length of a haiku. Don's journal shows him to be gifted in introspection, at least now that saving himself has proven to be necessary and worthwhile. When we first hear the words of his monologue, it sounds like one end of a conversation with a therapist, but we see that it's just Don, alone with his brilliant mind and his newfound -- or newly revealed -- self-awareness. It's an exercise in salvation. The optimism of the last episode has been borne out, thus far: The best idea does win. At least, a much better idea than waking up badly hungover with the waitress he left his one-night-stand for, and in so doing standing up his own children. Don's arc of personal improvement is obvious at every turn -- he wins an impromptu swimming race at episode's end, and wins the battle with the usurper in his home just by showing up. As another testament to his turnaround, he is invited to more sex than he accepts, and makes his model ex-wife feel insecure upon glimpsing his new life. It's telling that he sends Miss Blankenship away with the alcohol she brought -- the amount that she expected him to consume.

While the B plot brought the series to its full potential as a fraternity movie, the A plot -- Don's plot -- was resplendent, beginning with the long corridor of the swimming lane symbolizing the difficult route ahead. We later see Don submerged like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, in much the same state of disillusionment. But this is an improving Don Draper, who looks a lot like the Don Draper of seasons one and two, standing outside the health club, watching a market basket of 1965's people and styles go by as the Rolling Stones remind us that Don's trade tells us how white our shirts can be and that a man's not a man if he doesn't smoke the same cigarettes as he.

Particularly when last season's episode "Seven Twenty Three" showed Don as perhaps the first member of his generation to be knocked down -- literally -- by a member of antiwar counterculture, we knew that the series has always had the option of a larger historical metaphor, with Don symbolizing the end of Eisenhower America as it slides into decay with the changing times, as season upon season slowly undoes him. But Don came apart quickly and has soon been -- for the most part -- put back together. He's on the rise precisely as the war in Vietnam begins to hold a combat role for U.S. troops. Don may yet see worse than he has seen, but his arc will not rise and fall precisely with historical trends that we already know.

Broadly speaking, "control" underlies all of the episode's interactions, but that is such a general concept that it is either unintended, or is a throwaway. It is true that Peggy and Joan both try to get control of Joey and Stan, and when Peggy succeeds, Joan diminishes her victory as a way of finding the control that she has lost in her home life as well as in her marriage. To chastise the boyish men of the writing staff, she uses the threat of the war as a form of control -- and destruction -- at which they can't and don't laugh. But this is nakedly a compensation for the loss of control that she feels, worried even that her husband has to come in proximity to ammunition at boot camp and leave her without a confidante. In a still more peripheral plots, there was the battle between the vending machine and everyone who tried to use it.

But these parallels are weak and beside the point. Perhaps the meticulously-constructed parallel plots that have appeared in previous episodes this season were beside the point, or a kind of stunt. (In this episode, the most obviously parallel scenes are Don's two steamy cab rides with blondes.) Perhaps Don's rise from the abyss is itself the story arc of a self-help book or an after-school special. But the readings in the journal, and how the accompanying imagery is filmed by director Phil Abraham, delivers the depth and impact of this episode. There is Don, in bed alone, the way he has always wanted to be: Comfortable, rolling to the cool spots, feeling like a skydiver. When he says it so clearly -- and beautifully -- it isn't so hard to see who is Don Draper. Significantly, Don does not derive any particular empowerment in this episode from further openness with Peggy. What bridges the two episodes is that Don has found a voice with which to speak his feelings -- something that Joan also says she needs. We perhaps best understand Don Draper when we see that he prefers to direct his openness to one and the same person who is his bed partner -- nobody else at all.


  1. Great recap! Though I was surprised that you described the B-plot as just Peggy and Joan trying to get control of Joey and Stan. For me that B-plot was about moving forward as much as Don's was. Peggy was the future, the woman having legitimate power, and Don's good advice to her on how to use it--the way I man would. Joan was seeing the lessons she was taught about power as falling out of favor and the only thing she could think of to do about it was spitefully tell Peggy that she would never get the thing that Don told her she already had.

    Meanwhile, Betty goes through her own conflict about just how much she's moved forward when her new husband treats her like a child and scolds her for showing too much emotion about Don. In the end, does Betty really change her feelings about Don? Or does she just take Francine's advice about having "everything to lose" and go back to hiding her feelings to be more what the man she now works for wants to hear?

  2. Did anyone catch the Buddy Ebsen\ Jed Clampett picture? When Harry crane was talking. Made men have been using hillbilly jokes and sayings is to remind us of dons past where he came from.

  3. I interpreted Joan's reaction to Peggy's firing of Joey much more darkly than Sister Magpie. It's not that Peggy represents the future and Joan the past. It's that no matter what they do in the workplace, women still can't win, even to this day. Don's advice to Peggy, though sex-blind, was also naive--he may be able to respect Peggy as a co-worker but most men would react the way Joey did.
    I also disagree with Magpie's intepretation of Betty's behavior. Betty "allowed" Don to come to the party not to please her husband but to get a chance to see Don, with whom she's clearly still in love, or at least fascinated by. She's just zoomin' poor old Henry.

  4. The relative fact that a narrator-style reading hasn't been used by this show that I can recall makes it stand out that much more as being sort of monumental.

    The best kind of introspection ironically comes from hitting rock bottom - because it's only the view from down there that allows you to get a good, full view look at yourself.

    To me it seems like Don was on a fast track toward being burnt-out (wherein the results would've been the same - eventual hitting of rock bottom and some serious reassessments, but it would've taken an unknown amount of time. Maybe years.). But if he had burned out, where would he have gone to do so? Retreated to California, maybe. But that option was taken away from him last episode and it forced "rock bottom" on him early.

    Which is actually a good thing. He seems like a guy who does good things under pressure, and having nothing to lose is a pretty quick way of making a man think long and hard and realize that means "everything to gain" as well (and that it isn't hard to find a few new things).

    His writing was fantastic to hear and Jon Hamm had better reap some more rewards for his performance this episode.

    If there's still more "crash and burn" in store for Don Draper ... at least he's prepared for it now.

  5. sistermagpie, thanks!

    In comments on the AMC board, I agreed that the "B" plot was probably more complex and definitely more reflective of the societal issues of the day. The Don plot, for me, won the beauty contest with brilliant prose and imagery. Betty's plot was more involved, as well. In essence, the other plots are about character interaction and Don's is in large part about a lack of interaction, at least regarding his actual feelings. So his plot is all monologue when its personal. Maybe the season is heading towards more personal *dialogue* for Don.

  6. Oddball, that was another thing I mentioned on the AMC board, but I couldn't fit it into this post: Harry is a name dropper, as Lane mentioned already, but the choice of Buddy Epson shows that he's not the most flashy or effective name-dropper. And, now that you mention it, Don is a "Beverly Hillbilly" of sorts.

  7. kitty, I haven't given the series a full end-to-end review recently, but I think Peggy has been confronted with this no-win-scenario in previous seasons, with Joan as the messenger. It makes sense that Joan is the one to speak up, because she has actually been as successful as a woman could be in that environment, using her looks and dinner invitations (as she mentions here) to get her way with feminine wiles. We may already wonder if the show is leading to a finale (perhaps set after a jump forward of some years) with Peggy really winning. When Peggy is 45, it'll be the mid-Eighties. She can live to become a high-ranking woman. Don thinks so already.

  8. I think Matthew Weiner said season 6 will be the last one I forgot the reason to this.

  9. The theme was SELF-RESPECT: Finding it, & holding on to it & keeping your head above water in a competitive business.
    Buddy EBsen was an inference & inspiration for the (rejected) Mountain Dew boards.