Monday, September 20, 2010

Mad Men Season 4, Episode 9: "The Beautiful Girls"

This was the Sally episode I've been hoping for, but oh man, was it heartbreaking. This episode shifted gears so often I think I got whiplash, if whiplash was awesome. I'm floored, ecstatic, heart-warmed, and devastated. The different emotional registers this episode goes through: the satisfaction of seeing Don enjoy what is perhaps the healthiest and most mature relationship we’ve seen him in; the hilarity of watching Pete and Joan deal with Mrs. Blankenship’s corpse in the background of a shot (Harry on his afghan-turned-death-shawl: “My mother made that!”); the shock and anxiety of two characters getting robbed at gunpoint, and then the heat-of-the-moment passion in which Joan finally gives in to feeling good, even if it’s only fleeting (also, check out Roger’s mad deferential skills! You’d think he gets robbed at gunpoint all the time); the wonderful moments between Don and Sally, and finally and most distressingly, the terror Sally expresses at having to return to living with The Worst Mother in the World in her Palace of Ice and Terror.

“You see what it’s like,” Betty says to Don when Sally has foisted herself on Don for two days. That’s all we get of Betty’s awfulness this episode (she sees Sally as a burden), but coupled with Sally’s behavior near its end, it’s more than enough to drive home how awful Betty continues to be. Much like keeping the shark on the margins in Jaws, the show effectively reminds us of Betty’s tyranny without showing it. Watching Sally’s behavior change when she approaches Betty in the lobby was like watching Sally get stuffed into a bag. I’m tempted to say that Don is as good a father as Betty is a bad mother, but it’s not quite true, because if he were really that good, he’d try to do something about the way Betty treats Sally (perhaps even acquiesce to Sally’s desire to live with him – given how Betty views her, she might even agree, although given how petty she is, she might try to fight it just to spite Don). Perhaps his attitude toward Betty is a product of the times (concede all domestic authority to the mother), and Sally’s misery certainly seems to be eating him up inside, but he just can’t seem to push the issue with Betty, even with all of the other female characters at Sterling Cooper present as sympathetic witnesses to Sally’s plight (and it was the saddened looks of Joan, Peggy, Faye, and the swan-like lobby secretary whose name I don’t remember that truly made this one of the saddest scene in a season full of them). I truly fear for Sally now; she’s discovered her father can’t save her. Where might she turn next to escape from The Worst Mother in the World and her Palace of Ice and Terror? It can’t be anywhere good. “What a mess,” indeed.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mad Men Season 4, Episode 8: "The Summer Man"

So many joys in this week's episode! Interior monologues! Henry Francis realizes he married a woman with the psychological makeup of a 12 year old! "Satisfaction!" Confronting 1960s sexual harassment! Exercise! The return of suave (and sober) Don! A significant stylistic departure from the Mad Men "house" style (retrograde zooms, slow-motion POV shots, no closing credits music, voiceover)!

This episode seems to mark a turning point in Don's arc this season, and I think it's reflected in these stylistic departures, the episode's form signaling its content. As Keith Phipps points out in his review (,45047/), we've never had such access to Don's subjectivity before. Phipps seems to think it's another persona, one created to make himself feel better (which it seems to do), but I think it's more genuine than that. For one, his genius is evident here - his observations are insightful, eloquent, and sharp - just like his ad pitches. And it seems to be working. For once, he stays sober over the course of the episode. Also admirable (relative to the Don Draper Morality Scale, which ranges from "reprehensible" to "kind of a dick but in a good way"): his restraint with Dr. Miller (a development I really like, by the way. Of all of Don's love interests, I think she's the most suitable match for him so far. Intelligent and classy, she can match Don in conversation like few others have in the past. He seems to respect her. Plus he thinks she smells nice).

Despite the wonderful access we get to Don's subjectivity here, my favorite scene of the episode was the one in the car between Betty and Henry. Not only does Betty finally let slip how childish she can be (or at least, this is the first time we've seen it become a conflict for them), but I think her reaction to Don at the restaurant is an indication to both us and to Henry that Betty married Henry partly (or mostly, or only?) to get back at Don for being so awful to her. Thus her being so upset with seeing Don happy, on a date, and unconcerned with her in the slightest stems from her realization that taking away from him everything (or everything she can) hasn't hurt him as much as she'd hoped (although she's wrong - until now he's been a fucking wreck). Francine's husband is right, he is a sad son of a bitch (or whatever the exact phrasing was).

Other things to love about this episode:
- some really wonderful underwater photography during the swimming scenes. I also like that Don is exercising - it shows a little forward thinking on his part, something that he's been lacking in the past, despite his adaptability.
- I could write a lot more about the sexual harassment and office politics, but I'll just say that I loved Joan's "scorched earth" method of dealing with the assholes in creative. Basically, she told them, "You may die soon and that would make me happy." I was expecting it not to have an affect on them, but they seemed pretty devastated. Also, I was cheering Peggy on when she went after Joey, but everything Joan said in the elevator was right - Peggy didn't make it better for either of them. Ick.
- Another nice scene (nice because it's so perfectly horrible): Joan breaks down in front of Greg, and rather than console her, he tries to fuck her (or perhaps it was a lousy attempt at consolation - "I know what will make her feel better: satisfying my desires!") What an asshole. As Phipps writes, "He’s awful, but he’s all she’s got." Poor Joany. 
- Another sign of a healthier Don: seizing more control of his life doesn't just mean getting his mojo back, it means attending his son's birthday party.
- I've been warm to Henry Francis, but that phone call he placed to Don, plus his willfully ignoring Don when Don comes by to pick up his stuff, ticked sympathy meter into the antipathy zone. I had been hoping he'd be a positive influence on Betty, but it seems the opposite has begun to happen.
- Finally, good laughs: Don's zinger when asked by Bethany about who Henry and Betty were (paraphrasing from memory): "My ex-wife, her husband, and some poor slob who's about to have the worst dinner conversation of his life."