Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mad Men 409: After The Fall

It's there for the retina -- if not the mind -- to see. As the first shot of "The Beautiful Girls" comes up, an image near enough to the last shot of the credits fills the same shapes of light and dark and it is not plausible that director Michael Uppendahl staged the shot without intending this. The repeated image asks for a reexamination of the much-admired credits, which show a man walk into an office that disintegrates before he can sit. The collapse of the room sends him into a fall to the backdrop of Fifties-seeming advertisement art with a strong emphasis in the subject matter on beautiful women, or as they would have been known at the time, beautiful girls. The man's fall transitions to a shot of him in repose, right arm outstretched. And so we see Don in this episode -- in that pose, just as his destructive negligence of his children and self has been halted. Whether series auteur Matthew Weiner gave his approval or not, the director is telling us that we are moving to a new phase in the series -- what comes after the fall.

How the series begins this new phase is by moving sideways -- Don is still the central figure in this episode, but only insofar as a few, but not all, of the titular beautiful girls are involved in plots that revolve around him. Spanning the range of ages from ten to dead, Sally, Faye, Betty, and Miss Blankenship become plot devices that impact Don's life in suddenly inconvenient ways. An early episode of The West Wing, also featuring Elisabeth Moss, had "these women" as part of its title and focus, but only part. "The Beautiful Girls" suggests that women are inherently enough of a type to group them and make an episode around them; to make an episode about nothing more specific than women is in fact as well as politically objectification.

But there's no mistaking that that's how Don sees the collection of females who complicate his week in this episode. While he sees them as a nuisance to the career and affair that he wants to be having successfully and simply, he is with lies turning away the daughter who has taken a considerable risk to reach out to him. And however much Ida ruins Don's afternoon with her demise, the event certainly inconveniences her more than it does Don. Don's self-centered take on these events, along with parallel insensitivity from lesser characters such as Stan and Harry, call attention to Peggy's less-than-resounding call for civil rights for women.

The strongest of "these women" are weak in this episode: Peggy somehow has to read Abe's piece to be insulted by it, not seeing enough in the reference to Nazism (and the "I was just following orders" defense) in the title. Her efforts to instill social consciousness in the company only make her laughable. Joan, still wearing the pen around her neck that earned Joey's spite last episode, is all too easily wooed by Roger. Faye, who has stumbled into Don's life long on schooling and short on extracurriculars, feels that she has been judged for how she measures up in precisely the endeavor she has neglected, mothering.

The episode comes together in Roger's line, "If it looks like I'm going [to die], open the window. I'd rather flatten the top of a cab." This reprises the culmination of the opening credits' fall and Roger possibly chooses his words mindful of the 1947 suicide of Evelyn McHale whose suicide note lamented that she would not "make a good wife for anybody." Literal ups and downs fill the episode, from Bert Cooper's sadly superficial eulogy noting that Ida died at a higher elevation than she was born (making her, in the era of Program Gemini, an astronaut), to Sally's spill onto the floor.

Is the fall from the opening credits a deliberate topic in this episode? Stan croons with anatomical thoughts that Peggy is going to meet Joyce "Down below..." Megan consoles Sally with "I fall all the time." And the episode's final and signature moment is the closing of elevator doors on Joan, Peggy, and Faye, before they begin to descend. Certainly they are taking a slower and safer descent than Miss McHale's fall from the Empire State Building. And in all probability, with Don's life as the show's utmost focus, their gender's "Mad Men" episode in the spotlight closed along with those doors.


  1. Nice...very well done from top to bottom.

  2. first time posting. But wanted you to know that I so look forward to your reviews. great job; always. did not notice the credits and Don sitting at this desk comparison - loved that side by side photo comparison. I do think that was the last of the ladies night and agree with your last sentence. also, regarding falling - there was the lamp falling during Don's lunchtime quickie w/Faye. What will come after the fall....? i want to know - but I don't want it to end.

  3. I know. The first time I watched the episode I had to laugh at Jon Hamm's pose in the first frame. Of course the episode descends into absolute chaos from there.