Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Mad Men Season 7, Episode 6: The Strategy

If the strategy behind tonight's episode was to give us one of the best Mad Men episodes in the series' history, mission accomplished.  This episode gave us everything we wanted and more than we dared to dream, from the best Don-Peggy scene since The Suitcase to the most lovable Pete "I'm drinking rum" Campbell has ever been.  Add the return of Bob Benson, a proposal, an arrest, the Mile High Club, shirtless Roger, a secret, and the Cutler/Avery alliance under attack, it was a near-perfect episode (a tenth of a point off for Stan's distractingly unruly beard).

Don hasn't been fired after bursting in unannounced to the secret meeting with American Tobacco, but neither has his stock been raised with Lou "Did you need something, Don?" Avery.  Continuing to look at Don as a stain on his favorite shirt that he can't remove, Lou is noticeably alone in his extreme hatred of Don.  Peggy's working relationship with Don, while still having some growing pains, seems healthy enough and with Pete back in NY, Don is back at the adult table.  He's been working "on the team" to put together the pitch for Burger Chef and he's had a hand in coming up with what looks to be a successful pitch.  


It's saccharine sweet and doesn't seem to come from the same minds who brought you the Glo-Coat prisoner or the Rosemary's Baby pitches, but it is serviceable and on topic and seems to please everyone.  Though it's Peggy leading the charge, and Lou putting the exclamation point on the end, Pete is not used to the new way of doing things in Creative, and so he turns to Don for reassurance that this is the way to go.  Don, towing the line as a team player, no longer the maverick, gives his blessing and everyone is happy.

Still Pete, whose account this is, wants Don to make the presentation rather than Peggy.  While this is great news for Don (notice his fist pump after Peggy leaves with the news), it's hard for Peggy not to take it as a slap in the face.  She's Don's boss, this is her team, and having Don give the pitch rather than her is insulting, demeaning and ignores the new power structure at the firm.  It's bad enough she didn't get Don's job and the firm brought in a man to be her boss, now she has to subordinate herself to her subordinate?  At other agencies, there are women running the business.  But here at SC&P, she is still just used to add a feminine touch after the men do all the heavy lifting.  But Peggy is a good soldier and she will do what she's told and is prepared to do that, until Don makes an offhanded comment that he's been thinking of a different strategy than the one just pitched.

This sends Peggy into a tailspin.  Don wouldn't still be ruminating on another approach if he thought the pitch was a winner. And she wants to come up with the best idea, not a good enough idea (which would be more than satisfactory to Lou).  She drives herself crazy, but luckily not Ginsberg crazy.  She tries to get Stan's help, but he has plans and thinks she's over-thinking things.  She reaches out to Don, finally, not as a damsel in distress but as a peer, a colleague, and, yes, finally, as a friend.  She asks him to tell her "how do you do what you do" (though what was really meant was how did you do what you used to do before your world caved in around you?).  She wants to see the process in action.  And so Don gives her the secrets (abuse the help and take a nap) and most importantly, please yourself.  With that advice, and much brain-storming, Peggy ultimately hits on the perfect pitch.


As Sinatra's version of My Way comes on the radio, Don chuckles for all of us at the obviousness of the song, and yet ultimately embraces it. He reached out to his one-time protege, now superior, and asked her to dance.  It was like a father taking his daughter out on the dance floor after she's said her wedding vows.  She's a grown woman now, not his little girl anymore.  And he held her as she rested her head on his shoulder, seeking comfort not romance, and he gave her a paternal kiss on the head.  That was the emotional payoff for them and for the viewers.   He recognizes the sacrifices she's made for her career and the toll it's taken on her.  He knows that he was part of the problem and that it's not improved with him out of the way.

In the end, Peggy comes up with a new, better strategy which she shares with Pete.  One that's hers, that recognizes where she is in her life -- not living as part of the traditional married-with-children family but instead surrounded by people with whom she has a shared history, a common understanding, and, sometimes, love.  This is the new version of a family that reflects the time -- that family is who you choose to be with.



Since the episode's title is strategy, it's natural to look around at who was executing a strategy aside from the obvious pitch to Burger Chef.  Pete's girlfriend Bonnie had a strategy. Come to New York, meet Pete's co-workers and his daughter and close the deal on their relationship.  That plan backfired when Pete realized that he still had feelings for Trudy and wasn't ready to bail on the marriage.  Megan had a strategy to bring more of her old life out west, to help make California feel like home which only served to highlight that she and Don are not in the same place and don't want the same things.

Bob Benson's strategy was to make Joan his wife so he can present himself as the perfect family man to GM and to the world.  The GM executive's unfortunate run-in with the law opened Bob's eyes and told him that if he wanted to portray the kind of man GM would hire, he needed the wife and kid to create that image.  But Joan, pushing 40 with no prospects, would rather be alone and hope to find love than settle for a marriage of convenience.

Jim Hobart is still trying to execute his company's strategy to reel in Don Draper, but this time because McCann Erickson knows that Buick may be up for grabs and Don might be their best chance for locking down the car giant.  Jim Cutler is focusing his strategy on jettisoning Don so that SC&P can become American Tobacco's new agency and his power position in the company will increase.  Meanwhile, trying to thwart both of their plans is Roger Sterling -- but he is being coy about what his strategy is to both keep Don and make SC&P more successful. 

But possibly lost amidst all the strategy talk was the new Don Draper.  The one devoid of artifice, who wasn't strategizing in his talks with Peggy but was being more forthcoming than ever before.  His acknowledgement of his managerial style (that he'd abuse his underlings then take a nap), his mock surprise at hearing how his pitches come across (like he'd written them on the spot - "I do that?"), his deep-seated fears (that he has done nothing and has no one) and his supreme confidence in Peggy are all laid out for everyone to see. 

OBSERVATIONS:

Back in Season 2, Peggy was shocked to learn that Joan was 31 (after one of the secretaries posted her ID above the copier) and now Peggy finds herself in her thirties.  In that decade of her life, Joan gained a son and a partnership, so hopefully Peggy still has much to look forward to.

The last time Peggy's birthday was mentioned on the show was when her then-boyfriend was waiting at a restaurant with her family for a surprise birthday dinner while she was stuck at the office brainstorming, and bonding, with Don. The episode?  The Suitcase.

Harry Crane being made a partner was long overdue.  One of the few visionaries at Sterling Cooper he created a media department and single-handedly brought the stodgy old firm into the new world. Joan isn't happy - Harry never kept secret his displeasure with how she earned a partnership before him - and Roger also was not behind the promotion.  But the scene was a good one for Don where his position won the day, with none other than Bert Cooper bringing the decision to a quick vote.

Peggy says, of the Burger Chef they visit, "It's a clean, well-lighted place." and ,... jokes, "Okay, Hemingway."  A Clean, Well-Lighted Place is indeed a short story written by Ernest Hemingway about a lonely, depressed old man who bides his time at a diner. One of the two waiters observing the man mentions that he had tried to commit suicide recently.   says, of his  “It was all a nothing and man was a nothing too.” Nothingness, and avoiding the nothingness by being there amongst people, was a major theme and in some way the ad they came up with created a place where people could avoid the nothingness and feel like family.


The newspaper that Don saved with the headline about the JFK assassination is fitting as that was when his marriage to Betty unraveled.

It was surprising to see that a major hit in 1969, arguably the best year in music, was a slow standard by an aging '50s crooner.  My Way, written by Paul Anka, was released by Frank Sinatra in June just before the official Summer of Love.  That this song was on the charts at the same time Woodstock was going on is a bit mind blowing.  It was actually a French song that was rewritten by Anka with Sinatra - someone about to give up the business and leave it to the younger generation - in mind.

The final scene with Don, Pete and Peggy had so many overtones.  They are the only three at the company who know of Pete and Peggy's out-of-wedlock child and they are three people who are separated from their own families.  But together, they are themselves a family - awkward at times, battling, jockeying for position, jealous, bickering, but still, ultimately, supportive. When the final shot pans out to show us the three of them we think back to Lou Avery's line which now fits so perfectly: It's nice to see family happiness again

QUOTES:

Roger (to Jim Hobart): When we grow up, we're going to kill you and marry your wife.

Roger: The New York Athletic Club frowns on people making advances in their steam room.  I was kidding around, but I think you're making eyes at me. I'm gonna go get a massage, relieve some of this tension.

Pete: I'm drinking rum.

Pete:  Don will give authority, you will give emotion.
Peggy: I have authority. And Don has emotion.

Marsha (after being introduced to Megan): I didn't know he was married.

Cutler: Ah, good, you're still here.
Roger: That's your opinion.

Peggy:  But we both know there's a better idea.
Stan:  There's always a better idea.

Peggy: Why are you undermining me?
Don: From now on I won't express myself.
Peggy: Well, now it's tainted. It's poisoned, because you expressed yourself.

Pete (to Trudy):  I know your debutante maneuvers.

Peggy:  Did you park your white horse outside? Spare me the suspense and tell me what your "save the day" plan is.

Don: That's just the job.
Peggy: What's the job?
Don: Living in the "not knowing."

Peggy:  You really want to help me? Show me how you think. Do it out loud.

Don: Well whenever I'm really unsure about an idea, first I abuse the people whose help I need. And then I take a nap.

Bob:  My face doesn't please you?

Joan:  I want love.  And I'd rather die hoping that happens than make some arrangement.

Peggy:  Does this family exist anymore? Are there people who eat dinner and smile at each other instead of watching TV?

Peggy:  I just turned 30, Don.
Don:  Shit. 

Don: I worry about a lot of things, but I don't worry about you.
Peggy: What do you have to worry about?
Don: That I never did anything, and that I don't have anyone.

Peggy: It's a clean, well-lighted place.
Pete: Okay, Hemingway.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Mad Men Season 2, Episode 1: For Those Who Think Young

Let's twist again, like we did last summer.

The second season bursts onto the screen with vibrant music and color and -- while the show is set in the past, it feels fresh and new.  We are reintroduced to some of our favorite people, seeing them ready themselves for the work day.  The first thing we notice -- well, third actually after Joan readjusts in the mirror -- is that Peggy is looking much better than the last time we saw her, hospitalized after giving birth to a baby she didn't even know she was carrying.  Don's office has a new lock and Betty has a new hobby (flirting and holding onto her youth, not horseback riding).  Everything is fresh and new.

Don goes in for a routine insurance physical and if this were on the Lifetime channel there'd be repercussions for his heavy drinking and smoking, but this is AMC so a few pills will take care of his hypertension.  He's given a stop and smell the roses speech, which he'll ignore, and parses out a bit of info that we didn't know - he's 36 and both parents are deceased (childbirth/accident). There is no payoff for this scene, no medical emergency for Don.  More likely it is a sign that Don is no longer young.  Although the doctor refers to him as a "boy," the clear implication is that at the ripe old age of 36, Don can't be so cavalier about his health and needs to start being more careful. You're not young any more, Don.


It's Valentine's Day and Don and Betty have a romantic evening planned.  Betty bumps into an old friend at the hotel where they were about to eat and is shocked to learn that she's now some rich guy's escort.  She can't wait to tell her friend Francine all about it the next day and she naively peppers Don with questions about what it all means and why she's doing it. She seems intrigued by someone using their attractiveness for currency.and it's really not surprising considering how much she values appearance over all else.  Their romantic night turns into a dud when Don can't perform and they end up watching the First Lady's tour of the White House and eating in room instead.  Though the next day, she denies having seen the show, wanting Francine to think she was too "busy" in that hotel room for TV.  (Parenthetically, handing your husband a Valentine's Day card from your daughter is also not the best way to get him in the mood).

There's a new delivery at the office - a copier.  This technological breakthrough is greeted with oohs and aahs by the secretaries and it's a little reminiscent of the Coke bottle among the aborigines in The Gods Must Be Crazy. It's a behemoth and where to put it is a problem that Joan finally resolves by taking over part of Peggy's office.  This will not be the last time that creative has had to make room for technological advances and the tension between the new and the old will be a theme that plays out over and over.

Speaking of new versus old, Don is told he needs to hire some younger people for the firm.  Clients want that hip new perspective and while Peggy herself is just 22, she's not really part of the younger generation.  So Don interviews candidates almost young enough to be his offspring and the contrast between them and the button-downed '50s throwbacks in the office is jarring.  While the copier is a welcome sight, two young admen is scary and the existing Sterling Cooper employees worry (some with good reason) that they will become obsolete.

Don interviews a dynamic duo - 24 and 25, both named Smith - about coming on board to service Duck's coffee client and the rest of the staff is not happy with this change in direction. The one who should be most worried is Kinsey who drew up the list of candidates.  Don is doing what Duck asked - he's interviewing new copy-writing teams, they bought a copier - but it's now up to Duck to perform and actually land the coffee client.  There is tension in this relationship and Duck's look conveys a lot of pent-up anger.

The guys wonder behind Peggy's once again slim back what was the reason for her disappearing for a little while and then returning as a copywriter, with some guessing she had Don's love child and others (notably, Pete, the real reason - even if he doesn't know it - for her unexplained absence) surmising she went to a fat farm.  But regardless, she's now one of the boys writing copy and making pitches. She's very protective of Don and makes sure his new secretary knows what her job entails.

There's an awkward scene after the guys leave to go help Harry celebrate his wife being pregnant.  Pete and Peggy stay behind and Pete - not realizing that Peggy just had a baby and that it's probably his baby - mocks all the attention the father-to-be is getting and asks her if she ever wants children.  Someday, she says.  


The episode is framed by a book of poetry by Frank O'Hara called Meditations in an Emergency.  We first see it as Don is having lunch in a bar rather than be in the office for the staff meeting everyone else is waiting for him at.  The man next to him is reading the book and when Don inquires about it, the man sizes Don up and tells him that he wouldn't like it.  Challenge accepted.  By the end of the episode, Don has not only read the book but liked it enough to send it to an unknown recipient. 

Don feels old, not just because he's forced to hire 20-somethings, but just the overall recognition that he's now part of the older generation. The guy at the bar thinking the book he's reading wouldn't be of interest to Don, his disgust at the two uncouth frat boys in the elevator, even the vast difference in age between him and Peggy, all solidify his position as a grown up.  But his wife is fighting that.  She's enamored of the new young guy at the stables and she flirts blatantly with the car repairman. And then lies about it to Don.  So, see, he's not the only one with secrets.

OBSERVATIONS:

Betty really hammers home what she thinks is important this episode.  She grumbles at the idea that everyone in Sally's class was forced to give everyone else a Valentine's Day card - this should be a meritocracy!  And she encourages her friend's young daughter in skipping meals to stay trim.  Great values as always from Betty!

Don had trouble performing in the hotel room after Betty ran into that old modeling friend of hers who is now a "party girl."  It could be that Madonna-Whore complex thing because he was very interested in being alone with Betty when she was wearing that puff pastry of a pink dress, but when she stripped down to the naughty black nighties (and after showing him their daughter's Valentine) maybe he lost interest.

The mention of Julian Koenig's work being apparent in the book the two young admen brought in refers to a copywriter known to be one of the best ever - responsible for, among other things, the Timex "takes a licking and keeps on ticking" tag and the "Think Small" ads for Volkswagen (which we first saw in episode 1.3).


QUOTES:

Roger (about Don): Just assume that he knows as much about business as you do, but inside there's a child who likes getting his way.

Roger: They say once you start drinking alone, you're an alcoholic.  I'm really trying to avoid that.
Don: So I guess I'm helping both of us.

Don:  Clients don't understand. Their success is related to standing out, not fitting in.

Don: One wants to be the needle in the haystack, not a haystack.

Don:  Young people don't know anything, especially that they're young.

Duck (to Don): You know, there are other ways to think of things than the way you think of them.

Peggy: Sex sells.
Don: Says who? Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this. And they take all this monkey crap and just stick it in a briefcase, completely unaware that their success depends on something more than their shoe shine. ...  They can't do what we do.  And they hate us for it.


Spoiler-y Observations (DO NOT READ unless you're caught up on the whole series):

The physical seems like a throwaway scene since Don's health has never been an issue in the show. 

The secretaries worry about losing their lunch room for the new copier.  In Season 7, the creative lounge is displaced for the new computer.

Peggy tells Don's secretary: "I want you to imagine, when you talk about Mr. Draper, that he's standing right behind you, and think about that whenever you speak of him" In Season 7, she says something negative about Lou with him standing right behind her. Also, last season it was Joan giving her advice on the proper care and feeding of Don Draper.

Sally makes her Dad a Valentine's card.  One of the most poignant moments in the series comes many years from now, in Season 7, when teenaged Sally tells the father she now really knows "Happy Valentine's Day, I love you."

Roger tells Don, "I had Paul Kinsey make up a list.  He had no idea he was signing his own death warrant."  And, indeed, Paul was replaced (while Pete and Ken are still there).

Ken Cosgrove tells Pete, Sal, Paul and Harry that Don has a rope under his desk that is coiled around Duck's neck and that Duck would run around and around until - thump - he's hanged himself.  Well, it's not Duck that happens to, but it is perhaps foreshadowing of Lane's suicide.  

The book of poetry we later learn was sent to Anna Draper and the passage Don was reading would be particularly apropos as it discusses becoming "myself again," something that he does when he's around her.  The book also contains these line: "I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love."  That is a major theme of Mad Men.  Don claims early in the show that he doesn't believe in love, yet so much of his journey seems to be alternately searching for love and running away from it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Mad Men Season 7, Episode 5: The Runaways (Recap)

Usually, there's a unifying theme in each Mad Men episode, but Ginsberg's breakdown was such a shocking development, it's hard to connect it with Megan's insecurity, Cutler's power play, Lou's pettiness, Henry's exasperation, and Betty's burgeoning independence.  So let's save it for the end.

Don is at peace with his new role at SC&P; he's cordial with Peggy, he's on time with his work, and he's regained enough swagger that the lower-level employees still think of him as management.  He's patched things up with Megan and even gets a call from the past to remind him of the good old days in California and to make him feel needed and important to someone.


In a scene reminiscent of Season One when Kinsey's unpublished play Death is My Client was a source of much humor and ridicule around the office, it turns out that Lou Avery has aspirations of becoming a rich cartoonist and has a bunch of cartoons based around a military-inspired monkey named Scout.  Stan discovers the artwork and lets his mocking of Lou go too far... all the way to Lou's ears.  Lou will not be challenged and he exerts his power by ruining everyone's evening including Don's. Don handles Lou's petulance surprisingly well.  He get in a jape - telling Lou that if it were up to him, Lou wouldn't be there - but he doesn't implode.  He is on his best behavior.

The call from Anna's niece Stephanie brings a smile to Don's face and he's looking forward to a California reunion as soon as he can hop a plane, and he sends her to Megan to wait for him.  But Stephanie is not a welcome guest in Megan's house.  She mentions, twice, how beautiful Stephanie is, but that only shows how threatened she is by the glowing, expectant hippie for whom Don will drop everything.

Megan clearly has trouble handling the shared history Stephanie and Don have and the fact that Stephanie knows the real Dick Whitman.  When Stephanie reminds her that she knows all of Don's secrets, a switch goes off in Megan and she basically buys Stephanie off, getting her out of the house before Don can get there to see her.  Megan tells Stephanie that the money comes with no strings and that is one truthful statement she made.  She wants no strings because she wants Stephanie - and what she represents - out of her and Don's life forever. Then she lies about it to Don.  Megan's lack of confidence in her relationship with Don manifests itself  further by her trying to make Don jealous at her party via some provocative dancing.  When that doesn't work, she pulls out all the stops and invites her friend Amy from Delaware into their bed for the least sexy threesome I've seen on TV.  Desperation, thy name is Megan.

Sally Draper has an accident at school and busts up her nose.  She comes home and instead of a hug and warm cocoa she's given a lecture about damaging the money maker and knowing the value of a good, aquiline nose.  Betty is as shallow as ever, only concerned with Sally's looks.  Sally has been fed up with Betty for some time and her preferring to slink off to be alone was not surprising, but the visit from Bobby was unexpected and sweet  They haven't spent much time together and their age difference and differences in life experiences create a chasm between them.  But when he tells her how he wants to runaway and how the escalating fights between Betty and Henry are giving him an upset stomach, it's a monumental bonding time for the two of them. Instead of hitching a ride back to school to get away from her toxic mother, Sally stays to support her brother.  Awww.


It seems that Henry's frustration level with Betty has hit DEFCON 1.  He was uncharacteristically harsh with her, but understandably. It can't be easy living with a grown woman who refuses to grow up and then the first time she does speak her mind it's to commit the cardinal sin of discussing politics at what was supposed to be a friendly social outing. The other wife followed the rules - "the rumaki is delicious" was her contribution to the discussion - why couldn't Betty play her role as the dutiful spouse.  This is the tension of the time as the old rules are starting to give way and Henry is nothing if not from the old school.  Betty's retort, "I'm not stupid.  I speak Italian." may be one of the greatest Mad Men lines of all time, but it does remind us that she (unlike her husband #1) is a college graduate and maybe had she been born later, or with a mother who didn't focus on looks, she might have been a career woman.  Maybe it's time for the Betty we saw in Shoot - taking matters into her own heavily armed hands - comes back to take control of the rest of her life.
"Well, I'm going to make sure that you're still important. I don't know how.  It's gonna take some thought.  It's gonna take some major brain power. In fact, you might have to figure it out." - Harry Crane to Don Draper
Harry's conversation with Don at the bar.  Halle-effing-lujah. It's easy to forget that Harry was not always insufferable, that once he and Don got along reasonably well and Harry was a smart, hard-working guy who was just trying to get some respect in the office for what he did.  Somehow, he's become the enemy over the years, and computer-gate landed squarely on his shoulders.  Yet, he has always respected Don and the work he does and part of Harry would like to keep Don around.  So he tells Don what he knows - that Cutler and Avery are secretly meeting with Phillip Morris and trying to land that big tobacco account.  Don knows what that means for his future at the firm.  There's no way a tobacco client will hire the firm where the author of "the letter" still works.

Armed with that information, Don hatches a plan.  If he is forced out of the company he started, it won't be because of these yahoos plotting against him behind his back.  He crashes the meeting Cutler and Avery are having with the Phillip Morris execs and offers himself up - he'll quit so they can get the business.  But then comes Don's real pitch and it's one that's been used before.  How much better for them if the author of the letter was forced to apologize and go to work for them?  Wouldn't that make their competitors a little nervous.  Don is trading off his (old) reputation (as a genius) and hoping he's not now known as the sot who was raised in a bordello.  He's hoping the Don Draper name still means something.

Don walks out of the meeting and strides confidently to the street to hail a cab.  Obviously, his appearance at the meeting had some repercussions as he was followed quickly by Cutler and Avery.  They insult him and snarl, but Don doesn't seem at all worried. And he's right not to worry.  They've been planning on getting rid of him since he was brought back.  Things can't keep going the way they are, so he either rides this out until he's fired or shakes things up.  You know what Don says, if you don't like what's being said, change the conversation.  So now he's in charge of what's being said.


There was no reason to be surprised about Michael Ginsberg's mental breakdown.  We've known from early in Season Five that he was a terribly broken young man and, as discussed below in the foreshadowing section, we had ample evidence that he was headed down this road.  It was a very realistic portrait of someone whose mind was wired to be wickedly creative but also to harbor deeply irrational thoughts.

Ginsberg was an important character for Don Draper's arc.  At first, Don was dazzled by his creativity, possibly seeing a bit of himself in Michael's book of ideas.  But there was an uneasy tension and jealousy that revealed some of the worst of Don.  That moment in the elevator where Ginsberg, not out of anything but honesty, says he feels sorry for Don and Don shoots back that he doesn't think of him at all was not only harsh and hurtful, it was a total lie.  Don was threatened by the young copywriter with the inventive ideas, that's why he didn't pitch Ginsberg's idea for Sno-Ball back then.  Don needed to win.  He needed to prove he was sill the alpha male.  But, if it weren't for Ginsberg, Don may have walked out of SC&P never to return.  Ginsberg was the first person to welcome post-meltdown Don back to the firm and to treat him not like a pariah.


Ginsberg has been under-utilized this season and that may be why for some his break from reality seemed - for lack of a better word - crazy.  But it was completely predictable, even if the manner in which he expressed his inner turmoil was startling.

With Ginsberg gone and Ted checked out mentally in California, there is a bit of a brain drain at SC&P.  Whether that bodes well for the most creative of the people left - Don and Peggy - remains to be seen.  Don's tobacco gambit will either work (in which case, there's no need for the second half of Season 7) or he will flame out brilliantly and have to develop a Plan B.  Whatever happens, it's going to be difficult for the firm hiring new employees in the future now that they can add self-mutilation to the list of awful things that have befallen people at the office. 

OBSERVATIONS:

There were a number of Holocaust references in this episode, which remind us of Ginsberg's origin story.  If we are even to a small part shaped by the story of how we came into this world, no doubt Ginsberg has been marked from day one as a doomed, helpless victim of his time and surroundings.  Born in a concentration camp later found in an orphanage, that identity was sewn into the fabric of his identity.  So we hear him say "That machine came for us. And one by one..." - reminiscent of Martin Niemoller's famous poem ("First they cam for the Socialists...") We have Harry's mention the Cutler-Avery meeting with the tobacco company as the "final solution."  And Wagner's music (Hitler was a big fan) was even played in the background before Henry returned home.

The friend of Megan who was in bed for the threesome was named Amy.  I had my own Mad Men flashback as Megan started seducing Don, despite his protestation, which reminded me of the molestation scene from the whorehouse with Aimee.  I don't know if that was deliberate, but if so I would have expected Don to be more agitated the next morning. 

The song played at the end was Waylon Jenning's "Only Daddy That'll Walk The Line" which was a pretty bad ass way to hint that Don is tired of playing nice.

Ginsberg asks if he's Cassandra (as in, what am I a fortune teller).  Interestingly, Cassandra was cursed with never being believed. Perhaps Ginsberg's final message "get out while you can" should be believed.

Last week I extolled the virtues of Caroline, Roger's secretary.  This week let's pause and appreciate Meredith.  Really loved hearing Don dictate to her: "S-T-R-A-T-E-G-Y. Meredith, honey, I don't want that spelled out, I just want it spelled right."  Her comment last week about her weekend - wouldn't you like to know, her confusing having to change his plane reservation with having to cancel her plans.  She is adorable. As sweet as she is clueless, she's one of the few bright spots remaining at what increasingly is a very negative work environment for everyone. 

There is growing discussion of the rift between the anti-war movement and the old guard who believe favoring pulling out of Vietnam to be disloyal and Un-American.  Lou mentions it when he's calling out Stan for insulting his military-themed comic and the husband at the Francis' (and Betty) mention it as well.  Even with a Republican president pushing for withdrawal, there was a huge divide in the country who thought we should stay and fight and those who thought we should cut our increasingly huge losses.

It's ironic that a major plot point comes with the opportunity SC&P has to get back into the tobacco business (and Harry talks about his media plan) right before tobacco ads would be banned from TV.

Two references to someone tucking Don in.  First, Lou says it in a needling/threatening manner, then Amy in a sexually playful manner.

The scene of Bobby crawling into bed with Sally when he was upset was reminiscent of a scene in Season 2, Episode 2 when Bobby was having trouble sleeping - he thought he saw a ghost - and Betty showed him no compassion, just sent him back to bed.  Don took him upstairs and tucked him in, but later found Bobby sleeping in Sally's bed (where he felt safe).

Another parallel to early in the show was the discussion of Sally's nose.  In Season One, Betty's jittery hands led her to a minor car accident with the kids riding in the back (sans seatbelts as was the norm back then).  Betty panics at what could have happened - what if Sally had suffered a tiny scar.  ON HER FACE.  It was inconceivalbe to Betty that something so horrible could befall a girl - what would Sally do or be if she wasn't beautiful?

QUOTES:

Ginsberg:  Stop humming! You're not happy!

Betty: They get so tongue-tied around us.  They can only pretend so long we're just regular neighbors.

Lou: I don't know, Stan. Can you be smug from over there? 

Lou: You know who had a ridiculous dream and people laughed at him?
Stan: You?

Don:  No, I'd let you go, Lou.

Lou: I'm not taking management advice from Don Draper.


Stephanie: I know all of his secrets.
Megan: But you don't know him very well.

Henry: From now on, keep your conversation to how much you hate getting toast crumbs in the butter and leave the thinking to me.

Sally: It's a nose job, not an abortion.

Sally (to Betty):  Don't worry about me finding a man. I already have you to keep me in line.

Bobby:  I have a stomach ache all the time.  

Betty: I'm not stupid.  I speak Italian.

Ginsberg: I'm myself again.

Ginsberg: Get out while you can!

Lou: You're incredible.
Don: Thank you.

Jim: You think this is going to save you, don't you?

FORESHADOWING:

Many people thought Ginsberg was comedic fodder, an odd Woody Allen-ish character, but the signs of mental illness were there from his first scene, in Season 5's Tea Leaves.  He tells Peggy that he didn't pick advertising, it picked him.  That's okay, many people might say that about their career.  But then he adds, "I didn't have any control over it." He goes on to tell her that he's a great employee because he has "no hobbies, no interests, no friends.  I'm one of those people who talks back to the radio."  Peggy even says on that first day, "I thought you were crazy when I met you and you have confirmed it."

A few episodes later, in Far Away Places, Ginsberg and Peggy have the follow exchange and you watch as Peggy goes from thinking he's joking to realizing that he's telling her what he believes to be the truth:
"I'm from Mars. It's fine if you don't believe me, but that's where I'm from. I'm a full-blooded Martian. Don't worry, there's no plot to take over Earth. We're just displaced. I can tell you don't believe me. That's okay. We're a big secret. They even tried to hide it from me. That man, my father, told me a story I was born in a concentration camp. But you know that's impossible. And I never met my mother because she conveniently died there. That's convenient. Next thing I know, Morris there finds me in a Swedish orphanage. I was 5; I remembered. And then I got this one communication. A simple order: Stay where you are."
"Are there others like you?"
"I don't know. I haven't been able to find any."
Last year, in A Tale of Two Cities, we find Ginsberg is sitting on the floor of his office, rocking back and forth, in full blown meltdown.  "I'm a thug, I'm a pig, I'm part of the problem!  Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds!"  Then the most telling line, "I can't turn off the transmissions to do harm. They're beaming 'em right into my head."  This is not open for interpretation, these are not the words of a sane man

So why were the signs missed?  Well, back in the mid-60's we weren't as aware of mental health issues as we are today, especially something as complex as schizophrenia.  It wouldn't be until 2001's A Beautiful Mind that a movie shined a light on the disorder and then the cinematic floodgates were open (Donnie Darko and K-Pax came out that year as well). We viewers suspected that there was something seriously wrong with Ginsberg (claiming to be from Mars, complaining about the transmissions, etc.) but it's not surprising that his co-workers thought he was a little "off" but not seriously mentally ill.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Mad Men Season 7, Episode 4: The Monolith (Recap)

 You can no more make someone tell the truth than you can force someone to love you.
- Philip Roth, "Portnoy's Complaint"


Like Alexander Portnoy, Don Draper's "sense of himself, his past, and his ridiculous destiny is so fixed." He's nothing if he's not Don Draper -- dashing, successful adman extraordinaire.  Don doesn't know how to be anything else. If he isn't barking at his secretary to get him coffee or making sure the underlings at the office cower in his presence, who is he?  So with his new role as lowly copywriter, Don is lost.  And he handles this loss by checking out, mentally at first, then physically.

Nothing has changed for Peggy since her first few months at Sterling Cooper.  Back then, she was used by a superior to get back at someone they considered a thorn in their side.  In Season One's final episode, Don promoted Peggy and assigned her to her first client to stick it to Pete.  Now, some nine years later, she's being used by Lou to stick it to Don.  Somewhere else, Mary Wells has started her own successful firm and women are burning their bras, but here at SC&P Peggy is still being manipulated by the men around her as a pawn in their giant chess games.

And Roger.  He's been skating by all his life, first thanks to the wealthy upbringing, then to his indulgent mother, to his forgiving (to a point) wives, to the random girls who stroke his ego and other parts, convincing Roger that whatever he is doing is a-okay.  But finally his daughter turns the mirror on him and asks him to take a look at what his selfishness, hedonism, and sense of entitlement has meant for the people in his life.  For her.  Margaret claims (somewhat unreasonably) that abandoning her son to find inner peace is certainly no worse than what Roger did for decades.  Whether they are similar in weight, Margaret's point has been made.  


At the office, it's a brand new world.  Years ago when the first copier came into the office it was hailed as a move towards the future that everyone could embrace and benefit from.  But the behemoth computer that displaced the creative team's brainstorming space is looked upon with awe by some (Harry and Jim) and hatred and fear by those it seems poised to replace (see above).  It's not a metaphor, Harry says.  And he is right.  As Don notes, the computer literally is aimed at making creative obsolete.

But Don has bigger problems than the computer.  The deal he made to come back to SC&P in practice is much worse than it was in theory, and Don can't operate under these conditions. He's used to being the one with the aura of genius, the one who could dismiss an underling with a withering gaze, the one who instilled awe and fear.  It kept him above and apart from everyone else at the office.  He didn't have to learn spouse's names or where you grew up.  He wasn't the everyman, he was Batman. Superman.  Unreasonably, Don thought he'd step right back into that position.  That there would be no further repercussions for his past actions.  This unrealistic, magical thinking that everything can go back to how it was, as if Don never did any if the things that got him exiled in the first place, it's a sign that Don still doesn't understand just how many bridges he burned.  But he is being held accountable, and he is not the only one.


Perhaps Don had been cushioned from this reality by Roger.  But Roger wasn't there to fix things, he had his own problems to deal with.  Marigold.  His daughter has run off to join a commune, an anti-everything group of young people who just want to get high and have sex.  In other words, she's living out his last few years.  Roger is confronted by what an absentee father he's been and how providing money is not all that a child needs from their parent. Like Don, Roger is seeing the consequences of his actions.  While Margaret has no right to abandon her son, Roger isn't exactly the paragon of parenthood who can convince her to go back. His collapse into the mud may have been one of the least subtle moments this show has ever had and it's too bad they went so heavy handed here.  Watching a clean, pristine Roger leaving the filthy shack would have been a more compelling contrast - he looks pure and upstanding yet that's just a fa├žade

The main plot point of Episode 7.04 was ostensibly about the transition and move forward for the firm as they embrace computers as a significant part of their business. The monolith of the episode's title could refer to the imposing IBM 360 that is both an eyesore and a source of great sadness to those who value the old ways and it can be a salute to Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey which was a touchstone for many obvious references throughout the show.  Usually, the show tips its hat more obliquely but this episode was so heavy-handed that there's no point in noting all the obvious symbolism and allusions to the movie.


Slightly less on the nose was the discussion that Don had with Lloyd about his company:
Lloyd: I saw that they have got a great product, but they don't trust it.  I've worked with these machines.  I know how resilient they are.  I don't want to find them in a junkyard in two years.
That's what's going on with SC&P.  They have a great product - Don - but they don't trust him any more.  Is Don resilient or will he be in on the streets shortly?

If it were up to Bert - if he hadn't gotten Don to sign that contract way back when - Don would be rotting in a junkyard right now. Yes, he's back at the firm, but Bert makes sure that he understands what that does - and doesn't - mean:
Bert:You have a fundamental misunderstanding of what went wrong here.
Don: So, that's it? You want me to be a janitor? Whistle while I work?
Bert: You thought there was going to be a big creative crisis and we'd pull you off the bench, but in fact, we've been doing just fine.
Don: So, why am I even here? I could've gone anywhere.
Bert: Why are you here?
Don: Because I started this agency!
Bert: Along with a dead man-- whose office you now inhabit.
Yeah, Bert's invoking of the late Layne Price was the lowest of low blows and the strongest sign yet that Don was only brought back because it was cheaper than buying him out.  While I'm not entirely sure that Bert's heartless dismissiveness is in character - if Don can come back and make them money, what else matters to Bert - it serves as a sign that Don is much further down and has much farther to climb to get back to where he once was.


Will Don bounce back?  Thanks to his decision to call Freddy, he was saved from imploding and was given one get out of jail free card.  There was another not too subtle hint about a possible outcome for Don.  The Mets banner that he conveniently, if inexplicably, found folded under the couch in Lane's old office, is a reminder that as bleak as their start was, back in 1969 they had a miracle year where the chumps became champs.  I can't see him embracing AA like Freddy, but he's going to have to stop turning to drink - being "in the bag" as Freddy referred to it - whenever things don't go his way if he wants that miracle to happen to him.  Him finding the miracle Mets banner on what could have been his last day at SC&P, maybe it means a turnaround is coming.

Another too-cute, not at all nuanced, moment was the final song, The Hollies' "On a Carousel" which of course harkens back to Don's shining moment as a copywriter.  We can hope that Don is on his way to being that guy again, but let's also hope that the writers of Mad Men bring back a lighter touch next week.

OBSERVATIONS:

Season 7 has been chock-full of callbacks to Season 1, but this episode had a scene that was straight out of the first episode of Season 2 when the new copier is brought into the office.
Joan: I could take out the lockers and use that wall.
Hildy: The break room? Don't take away the break room.
Joan: I'm not taking away anything.  Believe me, this machine is a gift to you girls.
Pete discusses with his real esta-girlfriend Bonnie going to Yosemite.  This was a more subtle approach to the episode's title than the black door and the many 2001 references as Yosemite is home to not one but two monoliths - Half Dome and El Capitan. Speaking of Pete, how disassociated is he from his family by living out on the West Coast.  Sure, he and Trudy may be separated on the way to divorced, but for him not to know that her father, their daughter's grandfather, had a heart attack was surprising.

Interesting conversation between Jim and Lou:
Lou: I thought we had an understanding about Don.
Jim: There's nothing to be afraid of.  He's an exquisite copywriter, if nothing else.
Lou: He's gonna implode.
Jim: That's a distinct possibility, isn't it? On the other hand, you might get some good work.
Lou is threatened by Don and well he should be considering he came in to replace Don.  If Don is back, what is Lou doing there.  But it looks like he was assured that Don would not replace him and that he'd be kept at bay - their "understanding" about Don.  Jim dismisses Don as a copywriter (albeit an exquisite one) and that gives Jim the opening to assign him to the client as Pete and Roger instructed but not at all in the capacity they intended.  Very sly of Lou.

Aside from the many references to Stanley Kubrick's 1968 Sci Fi masterpiece, there are also many nods to Kubrick's 1980 film adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining.  Lloyd, the bartender who tempts the alcoholic writer, here played by the LeaseTech exec Lloyd tempting Don with the prospect of a new client and a whole new industry.  We have Ellery and his Dutch boy haircut running down the halls a la Danny Torrance.  The movie's theme of isolation and loneliness are two themes that have plagued Don's life since he was the whore child growing up on a farm surrounded by two people who wished he'd never been born.  But unlike Jack Torrance, we don't expect Don to take a murderous path as he faces his demons and we're still hoping this is a story about redemption and acceptance.  Of course, all bets are off if next week Don's 25 tags each start out "all work and no play."

So is Don obsolete?  Has the modern world passed him by as he's spent much of his time at the bottom of a bottle (or a fake out can)?  He went through all that effort to create the perfect package and the perfect pitch and no one is buying it any more.  In the larger picture, is creativity being pushed aside for the newness of the computer age?  Is information -- rather than ideas -- king?

You want more symbolism?  Don helps Ginsberg with the couch, but he is holding his side too high, he has to bring it down.  And Ginsberg - his former underling - is the one barking out orders, where to go, how to hold it.

Peggy should have been more suspicious that mere minutes after she's caught by Lou making a snarky comment about him --  he doesn't believe in creative because he doesn't know how to do it -- he gives her a raise and puts her in charge of a new client.  It wasn't until Joan cued her in at the end that she realized that none of this was about her and it was all about Don.

The scenes between Don and Lloyd were too cartoonish to take seriously.  Lloyd, who looks like a cross between Don and Caesar of Planet of the Apes, comes off like a snake oil salesman whose tonic will cure all ills.  Don's drunken verbal attack, likening him to Satan himself, was out of character for Don and over the top even for someone who'd imbibed that conspicuously. 

How great is Roger's secretary?  From playing with Ellery to her perfect reading of Mona's message, she is the sunshine on a cloudy day.

"Turn On" - the TV show referenced in this episode - is considered one of the biggest flops in TV history.  The filmed sketch comedy show, without a laugh track but with the quick cut aways that are now the post-MTV generation norm, was based on the premise that it was produced by a computer.  It was cancelled after one episode (some stations stopped airing it after the first commercial break) for being both too blue and too unfunny.

Don had watched "Lost Horizon" when he was back in LA with Megan and in this episode there was a reference to Shangri-La the utopian earth-bound paradise from the movie. Since the start of Season 6, with Don reading Dante's Inferno, the focus has been on Don's travels through hell and whether they'll lead him to ultimately to paradise.  His current position in his marriage and at work cerainly seem like the middle ground - purgatory - and we're set up to see if Don rises or falls from here.

Bert's shooting down Don's idea was a flashback to a scene in Season 2, Episode 2. Back then, Duck Phillips shoots down Don's plan to stick with Mohawk Airlines and discusses jettisoning them for a shot at American Airlines.  Duck tells Don that he knows what Don's fantasy was, i.e., that the president of American Airlines would see Don's work, fall in love, and have to hire him.  But that's not how it is going to play out.  Duck has the connection, he's made the first overture, and he'll be the one to land the airline. And we all know just how well that went!

QUOTES:

Peggy: He [Lou] doesn't believe in creative because he doesn't know how to do it.

Roger: We're getting a computer.  It's going to do lots of magical things, like make Harry Crane seem important.

Ginsberg: Harry Crane took a huge dump, and we got flushed down the toilet.

Ginsberg: Let me put this in terms the art department can understand-- they're trying to erase us! But they can't erase this couch!

Pete: Well, I'm glad all agree the client is going to love having a woman's point of view-- or whatever Peggy counts as...

Roger:  He's spent three weeks alone in that cave, and he hasn't clubbed another ape yet.

Mona: I only know one other person who would do something like that.
Roger: How is this my fault? 
Mona: Because she is a perverse child who only thinks of herself.

Don: Who's winning? Who's replacing more humans?

Harry: It's not symbolic.
Don: No, it's quite literal.

Lloyd: It's been my experience these machines can be a metaphor for whatever's on people's minds.

Joan: Well, Peggy, I don't know if this makes you feel better, but I don't think they thought about it at all.

Freddy: Do the work, Don.

Suicide watch:

Harry: Tim Conway plays a guy who's trying to kill himself the whole show.
Don: Probably to get out of his contract.

Freddy: I mean, are you just going to kill yourself?