Monday, April 22, 2013

Mad Men Season 6, Episode 4: “To Have and to Hold”

Here’s one account for why I think Mad Men is the best show on television: as I proceed through a new episode, I am constantly given cause to think that each successive scene is the best of the episode (with the exception of episodes heavily featuring Betty). No other show routinely causes me to fawn over individual scenes the way Mad Men does.* Tonight’s episode is exemplary – most scenes made me think, “Well, that has to be the best this episode has in store,” especially the scenes in the middle involving Joan and Harry, and then the succession of scenes toward the end. It’s a delight not be able to choose between them.

*Game of Thrones is a good counterexample. I enjoy it very much, and frequently wish the show would spend more time with its characters, but it can be very uneven in a given episode, which is probably a product of the number of characters the show needs to serve, and of many of those characters attending to business unrelated to that of other characters (John, Daenerys, Bran, Theon, Arya etc. are all off in their own parts of the world – by far the most interesting stuff happens at King’s Landing, where we have the highest concentration of important characters and the most chance for them to interact).

Tonight’s episode, for instance, gave us a string of pearls near its end, from Don’s pitch to Heinz ketchup, to Peggy’s pitch to the same, to the bar scene afterward, and then to Don’s hypocritical abuse of Megan. The look on everyone’s faces when the SCDP team leaves the Heinz pitch and confronts Peggy’s crew in the hallway was pretty priceless.* Don and company go from confusion to disappointment to anger, while Peggy is simultaneously happy to see them and also uncomfortable about her betrayal of Stan’s trust (and implicitly, of Don’s trust by defecting to Ted Chaough). Don then decides to pour salt on the wound by listening in on Peggy’s pitch and hearing her parrot an old line of his about changing the conversation if you don’t like what you’re hearing. Jon Hamm is fantastic here, showing us Don’s reaction to this line: he’s both proud of Peggy, upset that he didn’t think to say it himself, and insecure over the ingenuity of her campaign relative to his.

* It was also a nice touch that the episode withheld Peggy's appearance before this moment - keeping her offscreen made her bumping into Don and company a bit of a surprise, and helped to keep the focus on how Don and company felt about her and Ted's sudden appearance, rather than on how Peggy felt about the encounter (even though we get a nice close-up of her during this scene). Never before has Peggy seemed as defamiliarized as she did in tonight's episode, and it was put to good use by creating sympathy for Don (which he will quickly spend in his mistreatment of Megan).

The subsequent bar scene was a nice clusterfuck for SCDP: not only does Ted waltz in and tell Don and company that SCDP has lost the Heinz ketchup account, but then Ken storms in and tells them they’ve also lost Heinz beans because they went behind Raymond’s back after he explicitly told them not to. Ken is understandably pissed, and throws Don’s hypocritical words about loyalty back at Don before leaving. Then Stan gives Peggy a long, hard stare, and flicks her off on his way to the bathroom. The parallel is clear: just like Don, she too could use a lesson in loyalty.

Don probably needs the lesson more, however, as his hateful, spiteful, hypocritical side comes raging to the fore once again in the episode’s final scenes. He stops by the set to watch Megan’s kissing scene, and then angrily confronts her about it afterwards, implying she’s a whore for kissing people for money, and then sarcastically asking if she was at least going to brush her teeth before coming home.* Don hasn’t been this abusive since he threw money in Peggy’s face last season, and since he no longer has Peggy to kick around, it was somewhat inevitable that he would eventually take out his misery and self-loathing on Megan. Megan is fantastic in this scene, showing all of the backbone Betty never could: she lashes out at him for not coming to the set of her show until now, and for having to tiptoe around him every time something good happens to her. Even though she's in the right, it isn't enough to make Don relent. And of course, his hypocrisy is driven home immediately: after leaving Megan devastated, we cut to Don approaching Sylvia’s apartment for a tryst.

* His accusations of Megan were somewhat reminiscent of his hypocritical accusations of Betty when he learned about Henry Francis.

Tonight’s episode also dipped a toe in the subject of
1960s race relations, and gave some long
overdue screen time to Don's secretary Dawn. Her first scene tonight nicely conveyed the tension she feels over working in a very white part of town, as well as how strange it is for her to run into other black people there. I like that they’re making Dawn more of a character beyond her being the victim of Peggy’s shameful impulse racism last year. We’ve been missing the perspective of the secretaries ever since Peggy left the secretary pool and Joan promoted herself out of it, so it’s nice spend some time with a character who still can provide us with this view of SCDP, especially since so much has changed since the first few seasons. Dawn is a particularly good choice for providing this view as well, because like Peggy, she also worries about fitting in and performing to her peers' and superiors’ satisfaction. However, unlike Peggy, her worries stem less from her upwardly mobile aspirations and more from her difference in race. “Individual must unfairly represent large swathe of society” is a common trope (as is “minority excels in the face of adversity”), but here it’s downplayed in favor of the more individuated conflicts and relationships she has with various members of the office. She insists to her friend at the diner that her coworkers are her friends, and not just pretending to be, and that she’s not the only one who is scared there, offering a frank (and funny) description of SCDP: “Everyone is scared there: women crying in the ladies’ room, men crying in the elevator. It sounds like New Year’s Eve when they empty garbage, there’s so many bottles.” Perhaps some things don’t change after all.

Finally, we get a big Joan episode, and it’s an interesting one, as we see her struggle with the disparity between the appearance of her position at SCDP and her experience of it. Over dinner with Kate, Joan’s friend from out of town, Joan’s mother says, “My daughter is a partner in a Madison Avenue advertising firm. That’s something I enjoy saying.” Joan smiles and giggles as she replies, “It does sound pretty good.” Yet despite her good humor here, this episode shows us that sounding good and actually being good are two different things. She tells Kate that no matter how her interview goes, at least she’s appreciated somewhere, which is certainly not how Joan feels at SCDP. We see this play out in minor and major ways.

Joan appears much scarier to the secretaries in this episode than she ever did previously, partly because there’s now a greater age and rank difference between them than ever before, but also because Joan has clearly tired of policing the secretaries, who foolishly think they can scam her without suffering consequences. In this episode, her dissatisfaction with her position at the company makes her seems like an angry parent whose children must tiptoe around her, lest they set her off and receive undue scolding (just note the coldness with which she dismisses the blonde front desk secretary early in the episode). Indeed, Harry’s secretary Scarlet sets off just such an outburst when Joan discovers that has Dawn punched her out a few minutes late; Joan fires Scarlet, and Dawn is only spared Joan’s anger by a request from Don.

However, Joan does not long remain a villain. Harry catches Scarlet on the way out of SCDP and drags her back into the office to angrily confront Joan over Scarlet’s firing, demanding that Scarlet be reinstated. Perhaps Joan was being too harsh with Scarlet, but Harry’s transgression here is worse: by confronting Joan publicly he is completely undermining what little authority she has (and without even bothering to figure out why Joan fired Scarlet in the first place). It’s no wonder she’s so dissatisfied with SCDP. Harry, selfish and insensitive boob that he is, doesn’t stop here, however.

Harry is hot off his successful pitch of a special Broadway musical hour of television meant to ease Dow Chemical’s PR woes. Remarkably, it’s a good idea that Harry executes with aplomb (a rare departure from his usual assortment of empty, self-aggrandizing bluster). It’s a success that likely motivates him to confront Joan in the first place. However, he’s still Harry Crane, and as he sees Joan sit down for the partners’ meeting, his insufferable sense of entitlement emerges alongside his even more reprehensible chauvinism. He storms into the partners’ meeting, demands to be made a partner, and then proceeds to lambast the others for making Joan a partner and not him, implying that Joan did not earn her partnership (clearly he’s privy to how she became a partner). This is simultaneously one of the most impressive and one of the most repulsive things Harry has done in the course of this show. It’s impressive because Harry usually takes the coward’s way out, weaseling his way out of confrontation and getting by with a half-assed work ethic. It’s repulsive because he tries to lift himself up by putting Joan down, belittling her and demeaning her sacrifice for the Jaguar account, and implying she doesn’t deserve her partnership. The worst part of it is that Joan casts a downward glance when Harry implies that Joan didn’t earn her partnership. My heart broke a little to see such a strong person like Joan get wounded so deeply by a pompous ass like Harry. I wanted to rush into the room to remind her that a couple of seasons ago she learned that she’s actually much better at Harry’s job than he is.

Nevertheless, Harry leaves the partners speechless, and the encounter underscores Joan’s misery at SCDP; as she tells Kate later, it seems she's powerless to make them see her as anything other than a glorified secretary. Kate, however, plays viewer advocate, trying to convince Joan that she deserves to be admired for her trailblazing lifestyle, and tries to convince her to own a more positive self-image: “What does it have to do with them? You’re there, Joan, and from where I’m sitting, it’s damn impressive. I don’t care how it makes you feel; it’s right in front of you for the taking.” In Joan’s final scene of the episode, we see her put Kate’s view into effect in a small way: she punishes Dawn by giving her most of Joan's former duties as head secretary: monitoring the supply closet, and policing the other secretaries’ timecards. It’s authority Joan should have delegated a long time ago, and she’s immediately rewarded by winning Dawn’s esteem (and not just her fear). Dawn responds that she doesn’t care if everyone else at SCDP hates her, so long as Joan doesn’t. Joan smiles cryptically, and responds, “We’ll see.”

Heartbreak aside, one of the most interesting things about this entire exchange is that the show simultaneously gives us the perspective of the many different characters involved in this conflict: from Dawn’s perspective, Joan is a scary superior who has the power terminate her for the slightest transgression, while from Harry’s perspective (unjustified as it may be), his value to the company has been overlooked for far too long, and his inability to retain the services of a secretary he likes is the last straw (especially coming on the heels of his successful pitch to Dow Chemical). From Joan’s perspective, Scarlet and the other secretaries are lazy schemers, and her male coworkers (and subordinates) have the power to undermine her authority over them, and the power to take away whatever value she once thought being a partner held (since they know how she debased herself to get in the first place). It’s a nice treat: the show is giving us cause to feel sympathetic to characters we don’t usually find sympathetic, and giving us new lenses through which to view Joan (chauvinistic or distorted as they might be). The same is true of Don’s behavior at the end of the episode; he’s a scoundrel and hypocrite, but we can also see where he’s coming from – his abuse of Megan stems partly from his feeling betrayed, which he feels acutely at this particular moment of defeat in the wake of Heinz. Considering that both Peggy and Megan were at one point the most important women in his life, it makes sense that he would undeservedly take it out on Megan, who has the misfortune of still being beholden to him.

Other thoughts:

- I liked Pete’s exchange with Don at the start of the episode, where Don complements Pete on his place. Old Don, meet young, socially inept Don. Then again, perhaps Pete is more intuitive than I give him credit for – note his smugly apathetic nod at Don’s denial that Don would ever need to use the apartment (because Don already lives in the city, you see). Then again, perhaps Pete’s just presumptive.

- Ken has sage words of wisdom for his father-in-law Ed; who runs Dow Chemical: “If he wants people to stop hating him, he should stop dropping napalm on children!”

-Nice spy music as Stan sneaks into a room marked “private” to work on the Heinz ketchup pitch. I also liked the camaraderie between him and Don when they both laugh over Stan’s possibly pot-motivated suggestion that they order lunch. Good to see Don making friends with the other non-Roger SCDP jester.

- Bob Benson is not only a parasite, but he’s also an idiot. He was in the meeting with ketchup, yet doesn’t stop to think for a moment that “Project K” might have anything to do with ketchup. Although then again, he did leave the meeting before Raymond told Don and Ken that the ketchup was DOA if they wanted to keep Raymond’s beans account. Regardless, I loved Don’s total disregard of Bob’s attempt at small talk. Bob: “How are things, Don?” (Don walks away with only a slight glance in Bob’s direction).

- The blonde front desk secretary with the high-pitched voice (whose name escapes me, despite it being mentioned this episode) continues to amuse me to no end. Every time she enters a scene, she seems like she’s just huffed paint and inhaled helium in quick succession.

- Oh Megan. She tries to break the news to Don about her kissing scene in a very roundabout fashion, and Don instantly reads her strange behavior and asks, “Megan, what happened?” She replies, “Just once I’d like to be that wife that lays a trap and has her husband walk right into it.” Don has spent so much of his life avoiding traps that he’s not going to just fall into one as transparently set up as this one. On the contrary, she’s the one in his trap.

- I like that Roger stops Joan from setting Harry’s mind at ease when Harry immediately storms into the partner’s meeting, in the hopes that Harry will embarrass himself in some sort hilarious fashion. Sadly, this does not come to pass.

- I thought Don was going to punch Harry in the face when he started attacking Joan. I certainly wanted him to.

- The show mined some delicious discomfort from Don and Megan’s dinner date with Mel and Arlene. Note that neither Don nor Megan gets what the swingers are offering at first, and that Megan thinks the offer of marijuana “sounds like fun.” She’s pushing Don here, who just wants to go home. Don and Megan’s stunned amusement in their taxi ride afterwards was also nice.

- Apparently, Bert's office is actually the room with the glass wall behind secretary at the head of the stairs on the second floor. Harry takes off his shoes upon entering the space, much like others had to do upon entering Bert’s office at the old Sterling Cooper digs.

- Lest the show leave us wondering if they really considered making Harry a partner, Roger jokes about whether or not they should fire Harry before he cashes the commission they gave him for the Dow Chemical show.

- Joan’s baby is huge.

- I liked Don’s ketchup campaign ideas better than Peggy’s.

- Joan literally handing Dawn the keys to more responsibility could open the show up more to topics involving race relations – it might be easy for the other secretaries to dislike Dawn’s new authority because of the color of her skin. However, the other secretaries are so underdeveloped as characters that it does not seem likely to me.

- Teddy is extremely happy to shove his victory over Don in Don’s face. Just look at Ted's smug smile as he orders his and Peggy’s drinks.

UPDATE: Apparently Ted and Peggy didn't win the account over Don - seems I misunderstood Ted's remarks.

- I thought Megan’s soap character (Corinne) was supposed to be a villainess, yet Megan plays her like a sweet, innocent naïf.

- Don’s disdain for Megan is evident in other scenes aside from the penultimate one of the episode. Note the speed with which he dismisses Megan’s explanation of her kissing partner’s backstory when she originally approaches Don with the news. His anger at her career switch simmers below the surface, and manifests in his willful ignorance of her work.

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