Monday, October 4, 2010

Mad Men 411

"Were you lying when you said your career came before everything?" That's a line from 1927's The Jazz Singer, the first "talkie" Hollywood ever made, but it could have fit into just about every scene in "Chinese Wall." Men -- and sometimes women -- sacrificing the rest of their lives for career has been a theme illuminating the series as a whole. But in this episode, it glowed white hot, leaving virtually no one with their non-work life unscathed.

To see Ken Cosgrove walk out of dinner with his fiancĂ©e and her parents is to be reminded of Peggy's missed birthday dinner four episodes back. Ken, having at least shown up before hearing the black news about Lucky Strike, walks away without incident. In the next scene, and others throughout the episode, Pete Campbell is called away from his wife's labor. In one of Mad Men's "sign of the times" moments, his father-in-law admits to having been absent from his daughter's birth, and cheerfully excuses Pete to do the same. Perhaps it was excusable for men to be at baseball games while their wives delivered, but Ted Chaough is driven enough to turn up for Pete's wife's delivery so that he can hard-sell Pete with a job offer -- a car and driving lessons included. That work should take precedence over the birth of one's daughter is so taken for granted that when Don accuses Pete of having the delivery as a higher priority, Pete rebuts the accusation instead of accepting and defending it.

Screenwriter Erin Levy adds a deliberate "from the cradle to the grave" universality by showing the SCDP men trying to save their business with a mercenary approach to David Montgomery's funeral. They whisper strategy between eulogies, and that the event is for them purely a work event is highlighted when Megan asks Don how the funeral went and Don, thinking of business, not reincarnation, replies, "We'll see."

Birth and death fall by the wayside. Naturally, so does love. Don without hesitation asks Faye to break the titular "Chinese Wall" of confidentiality that should keep her from using her insider status to help Don, her lover. After Don makes his Jazz Singer confession that his career "is everything to me", Faye becomes the episode's lonely mouthpiece for the alternative perspective, saying, "I know the difference between what we have and a stupid office." Eventually, she recants, and gives Don an "in" with one of her other clients. And in the betrayal that makes her regard for Don painful to behold, we get a suggestion that Sex -- for Don, following up the lingering gaze he held on Megan last episode -- actually does trump Work even though Birth, Death, and Love do not. In Megan, he may have found his perfect woman -- one who wants him to go home and sleep alone after they are done for the evening. And his flirtation with truthfulness may have received its own eulogy when, undoing the ending of "The Suitcase", he asks Peggy to shut the door to his office.

Roger joins Don as a man who betrays the love of the beautiful woman in his life. In fact, he betrays two, keeping his dark secret from Joan until he begs for the consolation that she can't give. This feeds Joan's best line of the series thus far, "I'm not a solution to your problems. I'm another problem." Soon enough, Roger burns with Bert's brutal but accurate assessment of him inside as his wife Jane (who poses when nobody else is around) lovingly presents him with his now bitterly ironic autobiography in hardcover. (How many copies will this book sell? Ten? Five?) He signs Jane's copy with the agonizingly specific, "To my loving wife", with no comment about loving her back.

Once again, Peggy has hope of being the moral survivor in this dark world. She finds love with Abe despite the fact that his leftism may endanger her role as a cog in the corporate machine. But she has more experience than most people in juggling work and non-work: Stan's pass at her leaves him in need, again, of reading material to cover the sight of his lap, and later asking her, with double entendre he does not intend, "No hard feelings?"

Is there hope for the men of SCDP? Don doesn't see it when his shifty eyes look past the loving and trusting Faye before he nuzzles her hair. Maybe it's there in the eulogies for David Montgomery, who felt that his daughter and not the Buick account was the best thing he ever did. Then again, why are all of the stories about the late Mr. Montgomery about his work?

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My previous Mad Men Season Four breakdowns:

Ep 01 Public Relations
Ep 02 Christmas Comes But Once a Year
Ep 03 The Good News
Ep 04 The Rejected
Ep 05 The Chrysanthemum and The Sword
Ep 06 Waldorf Stories
Ep 07 The Suitcase
Ep 08 The Summer Man
Ep 09 The Beautiful Girls
Ep 10 Hands and Knees

1 comment:

  1. This should have been entitled "Collateral Damage". Everyone deceived everyone else. Matt Weiner is reaching the bottom of the barrel into a black hole. There is not one character who has any personal dignity. Too much "Sopranos" gutter writing.
    You are losing me, Matt. I may find something more inspirational next year like this:
    An upbeat video when Bert Cooper was the new guy on the block!