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Mad Men: Hot Topics

September 13, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

The fourth season of Mad Men is freaking awesome right now.  It  has been tonally different from previous seasons since the start–a reflection both of the formation of the new company, as well as of the cultural changes going on in America at that time.  Some people worried that the voodoo of Mad Men was going to get ruined by the swinging sixties, but so far the show is doing amazing things with it.

The last few episodes have been particularly good, and all of these compelling stories are developing.  Here are some topics that are especially interesting to me right now:

Don and Peggy’s relationship

Episode 4-7 “The Suitcase” was fun because it positioned Don and Peggy as equals for perhaps the first time.  (Arguably, Peggy has only ever had the potential to become Don’s equal—I’m thinking of when he visited her in her hospital bed, for example, when it became clear that they had that kinship of people who Want to Leave the Past Behind, but equally clear that Don had to coach Peggy how to do it.)  They shared an unaccustomed intimacy in “The Suitcase,” too—revealing facts about their childhoods to one another, Don admitting that the woman in the photograph was his dear friend and had also probably died that day.  I didn’t expect that after all that Peggy would walk back into Don’s office there at the end, but she did, and let him curl up in her lap and go to sleep.

One thing Don has always lacked is a nurturing mother figure—his actual (step)mother was not exactly Betty Crocker, and neither was Betty Draper.  (Of course a man’s wife shouldn’t also have to be his mother.  But some of them seek women out for that purpose, and if Don did so with Betty he must have come away disappointed.)  Joan, of course, is a world-class caretaker of men, but we know two things about Don and Joan that precluded her from becoming anything more than a secretary for Don: one is that prior to this season, he didn’t dip his pen in the company ink.  And two, even if that weren’t the case, Roger totally got there first.  (We had this confirmed in episode 4-6, “Waldorf Stories.”)  Anna Draper was wonderful for Don, in this sense, but she was far away, and he could only see her in secret.

So Peggy, interestingly, is in a position to become Don’s new lady confidante.  They have a lot in common emotionally, plus he has secrets about her just like she has about him.  But, when you have two single, hot people on a TV show, the question of whether they will stay just friends is always there.  (In the words of Monica Geller, “it’s tough, this platonomy thing.”)  So “The Suitcase” has caused me to consider the question of Don and Peggy.  Do I approve?

More about Don & Peggy, the times are a-changing plus the race issue, ahead.

I feel very protective of Peggy, because she’s the character I think I have the most in common with.  (OK, that’s a lie.  She’s the character I would LIKE to have the most in common with, especially considering how awesome she’s been this season.  Of all the show’s characters, without any kind of ego inflation, I am probably closest to Harry Crane.  Sort of a geek, not very charismatic.  You know how some weeks we forget he’s even there?)  Anyway, after “The Suitcase,” the question of Don and Peggy: Where Are They Headed? suddenly became foregrounded.  She asked him why has he—let’s be classy and say “romanced”—his other secretaries, but why not her?

Well, he didn’t have a good answer, and I don’t think Peggy came away satisfied.  Peggy is becoming quite a liberated woman now, and she may start to hold Don up as sort of a trophy.  Sort of a,  “I’ll know I’ve made it when I can make it with Don Draper.”  She did learn the philosophy of feminine power at the knee of Bobbie Barrett, after all.  All the same, I hope Peggy never lands him—even if he eventually tries, which I find not unlikely.  Peggy would be a great mate for Don, and he probably knows that, and that’s probably why he has avoided her up to this point because at some level his entire Don Draper life has been about atoning for what he did to Dick Whitman.  He consciously makes choices that he knows will not lead to happiness.  (Pop psychology!)

But despite how good a match Peggy would be for Don, he would be a terrible one for her.  Peggy needs someone less complicated than she is.  That’s clear to me, even if she doesn’t know it yet.  And not someone like that jerk who dumped her on her birthday.

Changing social structures of the 1960s

On one hand, we heard “Satisfaction” this week!  On the other hand, that little shit from creative called Joan “Mom.”  From our privileged position here in the 21st century—knowing what’s going to happen and all—I’m starting to wonder who is going to get most royally screwed by cultural revolution, and who could possibly survive it.

Roger has clearly stepped over the line into obsolesence.  His showdown with the Japanese may have actually opened his eyes a bit because it’s led him to just about where he should be at this point in his life: reflecting.  He’s writing his memoirs.  They’re no good, because, of course, he has failed to grasp the key to memoir: self-evaluation.  Roger made it very clear in “The Suitcase”—anything he doesn’t like about himself he can drink away.  He is not interested in growing or learning.  Which is why all he can seem to talk about is long-dead affairs and eating ice cream in his mother’s house.

Well, as this most recent episode illustrated, Joan too is rapidly becoming a product of the past.  Someone on the internet (OK, I spend TOO MUCH time on the internet reading about Mad Men, but I’m not alone in that) compared the creative team’s reaction to Joan this week to that amazing moment in season one when the account guys saluted her hotness (it was in “Babylon”).  She had bent over to throw something away, fully aware that they were all on the other side of the one-sided glass.  Then she turned and gazed at them full-on, as if to say, “Yeah.  That’s right.  I’m JOAN.  This ass would make Napoleon surrender.”

And I think by this point we’ve all begun to feel that way about her.  She’s this incredible combination of sexy and professionally capable that makes me (and most other women, I imagine) insanely jealous.

And in this most recent episode, “The Summer Man,” both of those attributes were ridiculed.  Can I tell you how…uncomfortable this development made me?  I watched last night’s episode feeling literally nervous about those kids with their sideburns and their rock music.  For the first time I understood how youth culture—something my generation has always, always taken for granted—must have felt to the older generation.  Joan, for better or for worse, was a prime product of her time—the late 50s and the early 60s.  It seems unlikely that she’ll be able to adapt, even if she wants to, which I also doubt, because she is already very bitter.

Don’t think it’s escaped my attention, either, that in “The Suitcase,” Roger (via his tape-recorded memoirs, listened to by Don and Peggy) claimed to have had a fling with Don’s decrepit secretary Miss Blankenship in her younger days.  Very suddenly this show is asking to me to accept the fact that Joan is headed for the land of Miss Blankenship.  And Joan’s disappointment with her lot in life—which so far she has carried with exquisite tragedy—is about to become grotesque.

Peggy and Pete have both always been a little bit more in step with the way the wind was blowing.  Of course, they are also the two youngest in the office.  But I think Don, too, has it in him to connect with late 60s culture.  He is creative and—possibly because he’s such an outsider—he’s devastatingly observant.  The season opener, which ended with Don self-promoting to the reporter, celebrating his own role in the breaking away of SCDP, seemed to me like a positive development.  He’s reached a point in his life where he can let go of all that depression-era despair he grew up with.  He has money, he has freedom, and the world no longer cares what his family name was.  Of course, he’s learning this slowly, like people do.

Racism in America’s Most Critically-Acclaimed Show

Go ahead: Google “mad men racist” or “mad men black people” and see all the articles, blog entries, opinion pieces, etc. that come up.  This question popped up for me this past weekend on a TV forum I go to on occasion.  Somebody had made the argument that Mad Men was deliberately created to be minority-proof–basically, that the showrunners chose to examine the 60s so that they would have the option of saying, “Well, you don’t see minorities very often because it’s the 60s and segregation and institutionalized racism and pre Civil Rights era and yada yada yada excuses.”

So, what does this mean for me, somebody who prides herself on an open-minded, liberal point of view and who nonetheless is absolutely in love with this show?  Well, I went on the defensive. Critics and America’s liberal elite aren’t connecting with this show because it’s (Liz Lemon’s hometown) White Haven.

The fact is, the show has engaged on the race issue more than once.  A lot of people mention and then dismiss Paul Kinsey’s black girlfriend from season two.  Came and went too quickly.  Also, Joan was rude to her.  (Joan was formerly Paul’s girlfriend, also.  You’d have to had watched the show before to get at that motivating factor.)  Even more people mention Roger’s infamous song in blackface in season 3’s “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Yeah, let’s talk about this.

This was not meant to be funny.  (Well, maybe cringe-funny in how utterly awful it was.)  This was not meant to be charming and nostalgic.  Watch this episode again and see who’s actually laughing while Roger does this stupid song.  Now see who’s laughing who’s not on Roger’s payroll.

This was an illustration of just how Roger’s choice to divorce his wife and marry a teenager has laid waste to his judgment in other areas.  Remember what he says before he sings the song?  He did it for Jane once and she thought it was sooooo funny.  And she does laugh and coo while he sings to her.  But she’s an idiot!  And she’s made the previously powerful Roger an idiot along with her!  It’s not stated outright, it’s subtext.  We have to watch the show, we have to figure it out.

And if that’s not enough subtext for you, consider that another plotline in this same episode is Grandpa Gene and Sally Draper reading The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire together.  After Roger’s party, Sally reads aloud about how the Romans partied while Rome burned or some such thing.  Oh, and Don had that long conversation at the bar with Conrad Hilton about how those who earn their riches have a better perspective about people than those who have been rich all their lives.  Hey, you know who’s been rich all his life?  ROGER.

Again, the show does not state these thematic connections outright.  You have to make them yourself.  Nobody is going to stand up solemnly and say, “No, Roger.  This is insulting.”  That’s what they’d do on Full House.  That’s not this show.  This show is subtle.  See my entire paragraph above about Roger’s ever-increasing inability to get with-it.  This is exactly when that started.  This is Rome burning.

Now, having said all that, I will admit that now that we’ve reached 1965, there is no reason not to cross some racial boundaries more than has been done up to this point.  Some people say, give Carla a plotline.  (That’s the Draper kids’ nanny, in case you didn’t know her name.)  I don’t agree with that necessarily, because even Betty is barely on the outskirts of the ad man setting of the show anymore, and Carla would be one step further away.  Other people say, just hire a black guy.  But ugh, that’s so PHONY.  Even if the plotline is all meta and SCDP hires him because they’ve been accused of racism.  It’s still phony.

My prescription: don’t elevate minor characters unnecessarily because they are black, and don’t just hire some Jackie Robinson figure to integrate Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and teach everybody about tolerance.  This show is better than tokenism.  Instead, revisit that plotline from season three where Pete talked about the untapped “Negro market.”  Get SCDP pick up some accounts for products marketed directly to black people and let the account guys and the creative team deal face-to-face with the black executives.  With questions like “do you even know who you’re pitching for?” and “how wide is this cultural divide anyway?”  They kind of already did this with “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” when SCDP did business (or tried to, anyway) with the Japanese executives from Honda, but my idea would push the conflict even further.  I mean, it’s already there–it’s in the news, it’s in the streets.  The social change would reflect in the business, which is what the show is all about anyhow.

Having said that, I don’t write for Mad Men.  I don’t know where it’s going.  But I trust it.  It’s really, really good.  Let’s give it the benefit of the doubt.

  1. Leanne
    September 14, 2010 at 7:55 am

    Of course I must comment on the clothes. I read a blog that pointed out that Joan’s wardrobe is standing still, where Peggy’s is just getting cooler all the time. And I am always stunned at how great Betty looks when she’s all dressed up. In my office there are those who watch the show, and those who dismiss it after watching half an episode. One woman said she can’t watch it, because as a smoker, it bugs her that they’re smoking all the time.

  2. September 14, 2010 at 10:04 am

    It’s true about Joan, I mean look at the picture up there. That’s from season one. Compared to how she looks in season four, you can see in Christina Hendricks’s face that time has passed, but you’d never know from her clothes or her hair. Betty looked killer going out to dinner with Henry. That outfit seemed unusually trendy for her. I want everything Peggy wears.

    No one in my office has even heard of Mad Men, much less tried to watch it.

  3. Stella M.
    September 15, 2010 at 4:54 am

    I love how Peggy has changed since season 1. I remember her at the doctor’s, she seemed so small and weak.
    I still have hope that Joan is not headed to “Msn Blankenship land”.
    Whenever Betty Draper dresses up, she does look amazing. Overall Mad Man’s outfits rock, I agree.
    Your comment about racism are really interesting. I don’t think hiring random black housekeepers would make the cut. I would prefer black executives involved in kiss-a$s story lines as well. As for the whole “subtle” thing, since day 1, Mad Man does “subtle” so, so well that one has to pay attention to actually notice it. That’s one of the reason why this show is so great, I think.

  4. Mom
    September 17, 2010 at 9:43 am

    I just watched this episode last night. I love how Peggy is “growing.” Didn’t realize until this morning that Elisabeth Moss played Zoey Bartlett on West Wing!! Reviewed her lengthy bio on IMDB. She was also Baby Louise in the TV version of “Gypsy” in 1983.

  5. Mom
    September 17, 2010 at 9:44 am

    Oh, by the way, I loved Peggy’s navy blue dress with the red pleats.

  6. September 17, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    You DIDN’T KNOW she was Zoey Barlett? Mom, you watched that show for years!

    • Mom
      September 18, 2010 at 9:25 pm

      Nope, didn’t realize it until yesterday. Remember, I just stated watching Mad Men last year and I only occasionally see an episode of West Wing.

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