In the Old Fashioned Hangover post below I inked to this blogpost at the New York Review of Books blog. In giving that post a more thorough read just now I was struck by this line:

How else can one begin to describe the series’ principal protagonists, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Betty Draper (January Jones), except in terms of their dazzling good looks, which so effectively distract us from their underlying weirdness?

This season especially, it’s becoming apparent how imperfect both Don and Betty are. Betty’s new mother in law hit the target when she described Betty as a “silly person” and it’s hard not to see that Don is not the perfect coworker, husband, and father that he appeared to be when the show began (especially lately) but did the viewer think otherwise because of how perfect the Draper family looked? Or was it an evolution of small little quirks that, over the course of four seasons, became undeniably bizarre personality traits?

—Daniel

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Mad Men’s Love Theme

August 2, 2010

Disclaimer: I have to wait a day before I see the latest episode so I’ve avoided reading any commentary about the show, even Ned’s which, I’m sure, is excellent. The following is my immediate raw reaction from seeing the episode about three minutes ago.

I must admit I didn’t like the season premiere, this one was much better. Now that the viewer is a bit more oriented it’s easier to pay attention to the parts of the show that are most interesting. For me that’s the theme of love this season. Unlike past seasons love and romance play a much bigger role in the show. To be clear, I’m not talking about sex. There was plenty more of that in the previous seasons. Rather, I’m talking about actual physical-emotional connections.

We know things are extremely bleak for Don these days because he’s sleeping with hookers, breaking his no-sex-with-coworkers rule, and failing to capitalize on romantic opportunities that cross his path. What I like most about this theme for Don is that he’s also experiencing a highly consistent truism that when you look for love you can’t find it, and when you don’t, you can. I don’t think I’ve seen anything more timeless than that in the entirety of the show. That implies another truth about love: even the best looking among us aren’t free from the agonies and loneliness of love.

The love theme affects other characters too. We didn’t see too much of Betty and Francis’s relationship —clearly imperfect à la last episode— but we did see a fair amount with Peggy, who is often the show’s greatest enigma (at least I think so). I can understand why she didn’t tell her boyfriend that she’s had sex before, she’s in denial that her affair with Pete and their child ever happened. Completely pretending it’s a fiction means leaving no air for that truth to breathe. But what’s really interesting to me is the fear she showed in this episode about being alone on New Year’s eve. “I don’t want to be alone on New Year’s” she said. That’s a common fear for just about everyone, especially the most lovesick amongst us. And the expected result is she does something she’s not ready for: sleep with her boyfriend.

Over all I found this episode to be a refreshing, if a bit high and mighty, exploration of a few major themes about love. The moral, as Freddy Rumsen eloquently put it, is that “it’s not a joke.”

—Daniel

Even though both season three and the season four premiere ended on surprisingly upbeat notes, this is already starting to look like the darkest season of Mad Men yet. Some fans might be disappointed at the dour turn after the first beaming moments of SCDP’s existence, but I’m not; it feels true to life, and true to the tone of the show. This has always been a show that puts considerable emphasis on internal struggles–as herr doctor puts it in this episode, the conflict between what you want and what’s expected of you–and this year, Don, Peggy, Roger, Joan, Betty and the rest are learning the hard way that those are the struggles you can never run away from. Start a shiny new business and a shiny new marriage, but it won’t make a bit of difference; you’ll still have to live with who you are and what you’re like.

As it turns out, none of the people I mentioned above seem to be particularly happy with what they’re like, and so they try as hard as they can to avoid being alone with that person. Roger finds companionship at the bottom of a bottle, and Peggy finds it in a squeaky little shitbird who thinks sex is owed to him because he gave her cookies, and because of, y’know, Sweden.*

As for Don, well, he splits the difference by getting hammered at every available opportunity and then making flailing passes at every attractive woman in sight. It’s no longer irresistible or charming;  just sad and desperate. As we saw tonight, the specific woman barely matters to him. He just can’t stand the thought of spending yet another night alone.

But there’s not a whole lot you can do to put off the inevitably confrontation with yourself that won’t make things worse. Roger is clearly headed for a crash later in the season, but in the meantime we got to witness the presumably less dramatic consequences of Peggy and Don’s efforts: Peggy finds herself in a profoundly unsatisfying relationship based, at least in part, in lies, and Don ends up treating his secretary’s feelings like a hit-and-run case. Not only does he show his worst side in his treatment of her, but, if the preview for next week’s episode is any indication, there are sure to be repercussions down the road.

Incidentally, the hilariously awkward Christmas party in last night’s episode provided a nice echo to the theme I’ve been discussing. As individual SCDP members struggle to hold their lives together by anesthetizing themselves in dubious ways, SCDP as a whole puts together a big, stagey Sweet Sixteen for the head of their one big client, the thoroughly reprehensible Lee Garner Jr. Eventually the company is going to need to deal with the fact that they can’t survive on Lucky Strike’s patronage alone, but for now they’re throwing away any semblance of dignity just to stay afloat. Normally Roger has the best line of the night, but I have to give it up Lane Pryce, who sums up the situation brilliantly after Lee receives his Christmas gift from SCDP.

Lee Garner Jr: Aw, you guys didn’t have to do that!

Lane Pryce: Yes we did.

*Seriously, how aggravating was that guy? He almost makes Pete look like a grown-up.

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Season Finale

November 9, 2009

In consideration of the people who haven’t yet seen this very awesome episode of Mad Men, I’ll warn you that the post below has a bunch of spoilers. Don’t click further if you haven’t seen the episode yet and don’t want to know what happens…

Read the rest of this entry »

You People

October 12, 2009

Up until tonight’s episode, a political question mark hung over Don’s head.  He always sided with his fellow outsiders (promoting Peggy, not outing Sal), sure, but the undercurrent of a potential anti-civil rights backlash was always present.  Don is noticeably apolitical, both in the workplace and at home, but that certainly never meant he’d shy away from challenging the conventional social order.  He tended to see people for who they really are, so to speak, judging others based on their abilities rather than their ascriptive identities.

Still, I always thought Don could go either way; either side with the civil rights activists of the ’60s or buy in to the silent majority backlash; either side with the underdog, or belittle their fight for equality.

At first, Don represented the latter.  I mean, his mentorship of Peggy was unprecedented for the time.  He valued the opinions of African Americans (Season 1, Episode 1, Scene 1), a trait that seemed to rub off on Pete, of all people.  He looked past Sal’s homosexuality and infidelity, and even promoted him after catching him with another man.

But recently, Don has represented the former.  He essentially told Peggy to wait her turn and stop asking for so much after she requested a (arguably) deserved raise.  Then tonight–coincidentally National Coming Out Day–Don slipped in a disgusted “you people” quip while firing Sal.  “You people“? In this obvious disassociation and linguistic distancing, Don established the direction of his–up to this point unknown–future political leanings.

As Betty grows more and more independent and dissatisfied with her life, Don grows more and more resistant to change.  As social unrest builds throughout the country and minorities grow more and more dissatisfied with inequality, Don grows more and more agitated with his fellow outsiders, forgetting that he too is somewhat distinct from mainstream America.  Don’s conquest of Sally’s teacher–dismissing her progressive idealism–symbolically represents Don’s dismissal of fights for civil rights in general.

In Don, I see the awakening of the silent majority.

-Jeremy

That may very well have been my favorite episode of the season. I saw Greg not getting the promotion and saw that somehow, I saw in some way Joan would keep her job, I saw that Lois wouldn’t be able to drive a lawnmower (just not as badly as she did), and saw that things wouldn’t go well with the overlords visiting. What I didn’t see was that Conrad Hilton would actually show up (and kudos to Judy for pointing out that could very well be the Hotel king himself) nor that Lois would mow over Guy’s foot. I also didn’t see that whole exchange between Joan and Peggy coming (Peggy thought that Joan had helped her? And that Joan thought she was somewhat responsible for Peggy’s ascension?) These were all big surprises.

Ok seriously though. An overarching theme of this episode had to do with greed, I think. Things have been disastrous for PPL and Sterling Cooper since they decided to get bigger. We know with SC, at least, that business was much better when the partners were the absolute head honchos. But look what happens when they do get greedy, someone’s foot gets chopped off. Don also knows better than to get greedy and take all of the Hilton Hotel advertising business (or perhaps a job) and instead go piece by piece. Joan and Greg didn’t know better than to assume their professional life was on the rise before it happened and instead became gravely disappointed. Better to remember what you’re good at and stick with it, that was the moral of the episode.

I was also surprised with who was disappointed by what. Joan seemed less than enthused with the prospect of having to continue to work for a living (although maybe she was processing the whole thing) and Don seemed excited (and later on disappointed) by the prospect of being promoted and moving to London. Didn’t see that coming.

The one thing in an otherwise excellent episode that didn’t do it for me is the Sally-Grandpa McCain storyline. I just never really cared, never had an interest, never sympathized.

Back to the Joan and Peggy goodbye. I think they were probably right, they were both responsible somewhat for the course of each others’ lives since they met by showing a possible path in life that either of them didn’t want to take. That’s my take on that. Maybe there were others. I think it’s fascinating whatever the correct interpretation is.

P.S. Ned totally called the outcome on the Pete vs. Kenny competition.

—Daniel

db_conrad_hilton3

In the comments to an earlier post about the last episode of Mad Men Judy writes:

Just discovered this blog! I read some comments earlier this week for the NYT article that suggest that “Connie” was really Conrad Hilton. If so, this gives us even more layers to unpeel in this already multi-layered show.

Conrad Hilton being the founder of the Hilton Hotels chain. This is entirely possible as (I believe) “Connie” said he was from San Antonio and born into a family of humble means. That’s the same as Conrad Hilton.

If that really was Conrad Hilten then the reason Don gets along with Connie so well probably has to do with where they are both from: humble backgrounds. In contrast, there will always be a divide between Roger and Don because Roger was born into money, he never earned it like Don or Connie (if he’s indeed Conrad Hilton).

—Daniel

BS AE.ZONTV28P1I’ve only talked to a few people about this but from what they said and my own interpretation of the situation I think Don doesn’t really care about Sal’s homosexuality. If I interpreted his glances at Sal correctly, Don was surprised and merely processing what he saw, running through the possibilities before finally concluding that yes, Sal is gay.

I still don’t know how Don feels about people who are unlike him. He talks to the black server in the first episode of the show, he dates the Jewish store owner, he’s kind to the black housekeeper even offering to give her a ride home, and he doesn’t reveal that Duck is an alcoholic. All that seems a bit unbelievable to me. It’s the 1960s, Don is a conservative rich white guy in a world dominated exclusively by rich white men, he must have some prejudice. I have serious doubts believing otherwise.

I don’t have a problem with Don’s respect for secrecy though. Don is the avatar of the private and the secondary life, that’s why he doesn’t share his opinion on whether Duck is an alcoholic —he just respects Duck’s desire to stay away from alcohol. That’s also why Don tells Sal in his own subtle ad man way to “limit your exposure”, in other words ‘I won’t tell anyone so don’t give anyone else the opportunity to and you’ll be fine.’ That’s something Don can relate to, he’s obviously wished that those who do uncover his secrets would just leave them alone instead of, say, try and blackmail him and then burst into the head honcho’s office to no avail.

—Daniel

Out of Town

August 17, 2009

Last night’s episode didn’t exactly get off the new season with a bang; it was mostly just getting the pieces in order so that the writers can ratchet up the tension later. But that being said, there were a few interesting character moments, especially from Don and Pete. And it’ll be interesting to see how their new English overlords handle running the company as things progress.

So as Daniel mentioned, Don’s sexual-conquest-of-the-week was a blonde this time around. Seems to me this shows he’s found some level of comfort, or at least complacency, leading his double (triple!) life. He thinks nothing of adopting the role of Bill, played by Don, played by Dick, conducts his adultery in a businesslike manner, and even invents a pretty good line of bullshit about investigating Jimmy Hoffa. In other words, he’s enjoying the deceit tremendously, at least until he gets back to his family and remembers who it is he’s betraying.

But back to the blonde hair; I think the more or less submissive blonde girl (versus the strong, independent brunette) represents a certain set of lifestyle preferences for Don, and he’s settled, at least temporarily, into that set of preferences. Too bad for him that reminders of his fake persona–such as the opening flashback in which we discover that he’s not just a bastard in the figurative sense–keep creeping back into the edges of his consciousness.

Maybe those reminders are why he goes so easy on Sal. I’m sure a lot of viewers recognized that significant look in Don’s eyes when he told Sal that the tagline for their new ad campaign was going to be, “Limit Your Exposure.” It was also a piece of advice from one impostor to another: keep your personal tastes on the DL, and we won’t have any problems.

Meanwhile, back at home office, we got to see Pete Campbell at his most delightfully insufferable. Did anyone else think it was hilarious how he started brown-nosing his new Brit boss before he even knew why he had been called into a meeting? If that takes first place in the “Pete Campbell Makes an Ass Out of Himself” awards for this week, a good runner-up is his outburst at Ken Cosgrove after he discovers they’re competing for the accounts throne.

The funny thing about Pete is that he’s not really all that more venal than most of the other folks at Sterling Cooper; he’s just a hell of a lot worse at hiding it. Both of the aforementioned incidents drove home that Pete’s naked ambition will, time and time again, end up being more of a hindrance to his career than a help. If there’s one lesson we’ve learned from Don Draper’s business dealings, it’s that a successful businessman goes to war without ever formally declaring it, and Pete just threw the declaration right in Cosgrove’s smug, Atlantic-published face. More than any of the other running subplots introduced in this episode, I’m excited to see where the Campbell-Cosgrove rivalry goes over the course of the season.

As I expected, in season 3 the world is changing but the main characters are pretty much the same. Pete is still whining, Bert Cooper is still a dirty old man on an Asian kick, and Don is still philandering. Except…with blondes now. In an earlier post I said that there’s more to Don’s selection of mistresses and what not than just a healthy admiration for beauty and horniness, Don chooses women who are very unlike his wife which helps retain his anonymity as a person. Don never fully becomes any identity by always having another world he can enter and exit.

Someone who I watched the episode pointed out to me that Don was pretending to be Bill Hofstadt, his brother-in-law, and perhaps Bill Hofstadt likes blondes. It wouldn’t be unprecedented. Each of Don’s personas are different. Dick Whitman is a sincere single man. Don Draper the married ad man is faithful to his wife, Don Draper the Philanderer likes strong, independent women. Perhaps Don’s Bill Hofstadt likes blondes like Don the married man does. But does Don need a new world for that? I’ve always thought Don got something big out of creating and switching between his different world.

In one world he has blonde women, in another he has strong independent brunettes. Perhaps Don’s new world is one in which he has a lot of one night stands. After all he says that the married life doesn’t end all the “chances” one gets. Still, this new world doesn’t seem that different (in terms of the anatomy of the woman) than the one he already retains as Don Draper the yuppie husband.

—Daniel