Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Mad Men Season 3, Episode 1: Out of Town

Today is Dick Whitman's birthday, but that means nothing in Donald Draper's world.  He takes some warm milk to his pregnant, sleepless wife, goes into work to deal with a final round of post-merge layoffs, and heads out of town on a business meeting like it's any other day.  But in a parallel universe Dick Whitman is another year older.  On his non-birthday, Don learns he's not the only one living a lie, not the only one with deep secrets.

Don stands at the stove and imagines back to the night he was conceived and the day he was born.  How much was told to him, how much he made up, we'll never know, but the story he sees in this strange hallucination/false memory is of his father impregnating a prostitute who dies in childbirth, leaving the child to be raised by his father and the man's childless wife (who had suffered many miscarriages).  Not the most savory of backstories, not a warm, fuzzy memory of how he came into the world.  But then, that is Dick Whitman's origin story, not Don Draper's.

Don and Betty have gone ahead with the reconciliation Don begged for at the end of last season and they're very sweet together.  But we are reminded that Don and Betty had split for a while and that but for her pregnancy they might not have reconciled.  Sally certainly has not forgotten that there was a time that her dad was not living at home and she didn't know when she would see him again.  We discover that she's so concerned about losing her daddy that she broke the clasp on his suitcase so Don couldn't leave home again.

The British have come to Sterling Cooper, following last year's merger with PPL, and if there weer any question who would win the war between Don and Duck, the answer is not surprising.  Duck is nowhere to be seen and Don is the one in charge.  The British overlords are represented in New York by Lane Price and his secretary right hand man, Mr. Hooker.  Lane is the financial officer whose first job is to take care of "redundancies," i.e., trim the fat.  He accomplishes that feat by, among other cuts we hear about but don't see, firing the Head of Accounts (Don gets to do the honors as Roger was late to the meeting).  In an inspired move, Lane splits the job between two junior account executitves, Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove.

The interplay between Pete and Ken over their promotions was great.  How they each handled their meeting with Lane, how they dealt with the news, how they interacted with each other. Pete pretends not to now Burt was just fired, Ken lets it be known that he heard the fallout.  Pete doesn't even ask how much money he'll make in his new job, Ken asks about his new salary first thing.   It was a throwback to the office comedies of the 40s, very cute but also telling about each character.

So about that marital bliss?  Don may be the loving husband at home, but when he's out of town, he's back to his old ways.  And that involves making up a new identity and finding a girl to cheat on his wife with.  Shelly the stewardess (back before "flight attendant") is more than game to take ol' Bill Hoffstadt for a little roll in the hay.  She's engaged and looks at the handsome stranger as her last chance.  But as Don/Dick/Bill tells her, she'll have lots of chances.

While Don is pursuing an extramarital dalliance in his room, Sal is similarly finding someone other than his wife to spend the night with.  The bellhop who comes to fix his thermostat has amazing gaydar and recognizes Sal as interested in what he has to offer.  The two start having sex in Sal's room, while Don and Shelly are taking their sweet time getting to the same place up in his room, when the hotel's fire alarm goes off.  During the evacuation down the fire escape, Don peers into Sal's room and sees him in flagrante delicto.

The next morning, Sal is late, and visibly nervous, at the meeting with London Fog.  This was one of Burt Peterson's clients and Don and Sal's job is to alleviate their discomfort with Burt's leaving and deal with their concerns about their business.  One of the latter is the shrinking market for raincoats - basically, after you've bought one, you don't need to buy another.  The client wants to look into divesting into accessories, but Don (a bit of a dinosaur) says not to panic, not to go where other companies already are, and to stick with their strength.  It's safe, but not very forward thinking.

Don and Sal never talk about what happened at the hotel, what Don saw.  This is 1963 and if you think coming out is a big deal in 2014, imagine in back then.  Sal is a married, closeted man and his cover's been blown.  But Don knows a thing or two about not being who or what you say you are, about keeping secrets and being in fear of being found out.  So he does what he thinks is the kindest thing he could do for Sal, he ignores it.  He lets Sal know that as far as he cares he saw nothing and while that may comfort Sal that his secret won't be spilled, it's not the same as being free to be who you are.  So back into hiding Sal goes.

At the office, Peggy is griping to Joan about her secretary Lola and about one of the many distractions in Lola's way, Lane's secretary right hand man.  Joan blows off Peggy's concerns.  Joan is so over the office at this point and can't wait till she's a doctor's wife, living the life eating bon bons on Park Avenue.  Meanwhile, Pete Campbell is furious to find out that he is co-head of accounts with Ken Cosgrove, while Ken could not be happier to be sitting at the big kids' table regardless of whoever else is sitting there.

In the end, Trudy convinces Pete to grin and bear what he views as a slap in the face and he pretends to be happy with the promotion.  For their part, Sterling Cooper show him that he's appreciated.  As the company is taken over by the British, it's nice to have an old time Yankee on their side.  The partners may be enjoying the spoils of war - their raises, the imported vodka and cigars - but they still have to deal with living under someone else's rule.  How long will that last?

Mad Men knows how to pull on our heartstrings, while making us a little sick to our stomach at the same time.  Thus we have one final scene, back at the Draper residence at the end of the work day (following his return from Baltimore).  Seeing Sally, so sad that her dad might leave home again, so excited to think he brought her a present home from his trip.  But the present is a remnant from daddy's latest one-night-stand.  Then we watch as Don wells up with emotion, telling Sally the story of the day she was born and we know that he knows that he's a cad and doesn't deserve this sweet moment or this love.  He's fallen back into his old bad habits and only a crazy person thinks you can do the same thing and get a different result.


Oh, Burt Peterson.  He is one of the most interesting characters on Mad Men.  He operates in this world of Madison Avenue ad men, an accounts man with his Rolodex of clients who flits from agency to agency.  It is through characters like this, who stay part of the story whether in the main or on the periphery, that the world of Mad Men seems so real.  We first heard of Burt back in Season 2, Ep. 5 "The New Girl" in this quote: "Duck called Burt Peterson a Mongoloid."  He came up again in Ep. 12 "The Mountain King" when he supposedly complains about someone's expenses and they reply: "Why doesn't he just die already?"  We finally met Burt in this episode, but it won't be the last time we see him.

I love how this episode starts, not with something to tied you back to the end of last season, not with a by-the-numbers introduction into this new season.  Instead, it's a bit of a jolt.  A thematic set piece, not a flashback nor a memory, but a mini-play that Don imagines being performed for his benefit.

There is such a matter-of-fact feeling to this episode as we see the new normal at Sterling Cooper following the big changes at the end of the last season.  Not much time has passed, Betty is more pregnant but not bursting at the seams.  Lane Pryce is just there, in Bert's office, apologizing to Don for sending him to Baltimore, while calling him the face of the business (and showing us definitively that it was Don, not Duck, who came out on top).  He gives us a factoid we didn't know - there's no fog in London. I love how Bert Cooper seems incredulous and dubious despite the information being presented by the guy with the British accent.

Speaking of Lane, it's a great introduction of a character.  No fanfare, no phony external dialogue to set him up, he just appears seamlessly in his new job and we learn about him from how he interacts with the other characters.  He is smart, understands people, is a little awkward and yet is very aware of how he is perceived. It is he who tells Mr. Hooker that demanding his own office is unseemly and he knows how not to step on toes.  Hooker complains that the office is a gynocracy - no doubt feeling that Joan runs things - but so far, Lane hasn't had any problems with her.

Betty:  She's taken to your tools like a little lesbian.

Burt:  Fellow comrades in mediocrity, I want you to listen very carefully. You can all go straight to hell! 

Pete: I don't even know if I'm getting a raise. I didn't ask; I forgot!

Ken: I wouldn't be much an account man if I didn't ask what it pays.

Don:  I keep going a lot of places and ending up somewhere I've already been.

Shelly: I'm engaged.  On the other hand, you might be my last chance.
Don:  I've been married a long time.  You get plenty of chances.

Sal: Well, our worst fears lie in anticipation.

Don: Limit your exposure.

Pete: Why does it always have to be like this? Why can't I get anything good all at once?

Sally:  I'm sorry I broke your suitcase.
Don:  Find out how much it is to repair And it'll come out of your allowance.
Sally: I don't have an allowance.
Don:  Then don't break things

SPOILERY OBSERVATIONS (Don't read unless you're caught up):

Burt was mentioned again in Season 5, Ep. 10 "Christmas Waltz" when Don and Joan were sitting at a bar reminiscing.  Don mentions that when he first arrived at Sterling Cooper, "Burt Peterson told me you were the one person in the agency I shouldn't cross."

Poor Burt, happy and successful at Cutler, Gleason and Chaough, was once again fired (following his new company's merger with his old) by Sterling Cooper in Season 6, Ep. 7 "Man with a Plan."  Two episodes later, we hear that Bert landed on his feet again as Duck Phillips got him a job at McCann Erickson.

Sal's homosexuality comes to a head when Lee Garner, Jr., of Lucky Strike, makes a pass at him that is rebuked at the end of the season.   Garner does not take rejection well and gets Sal taken off the Lucky Strike account which leads to him getting fired.  This was not one of Don Draper's shining moments as his response to hearing about Sal rejecting Lee was that Sal should have gone along for the good of the company.   It marks the end of Sal at Sterling Cooper and, sadly, the end of Bryan Bratt as Salvatore Romano.

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