"Mad Men" episode 12: The Warmth of the Sun

Even the weather went berserk.

We’re talking about the ambient temperatures inside the literal offices of Sterling, Cooper — where it’s freezing cold one day, and blazing hot the next — but as metaphorical gives go, this barely discussed element cast a long shadow across the hour. Because if you can’t count on stability in your office environment. . . .if all the promises that the building staff always know what to do, everything will be fine. . . if you have to wear gloves at your desk one day, and then glisten with tropical heat the next, can you count on anything making sense?

But onward. To Pete’s awkward meeting with Lane, who breaks the news that he has lost the race to be head of accounts (because while Pete makes clients feel they’re needs are being met, while Cosgrove makes them feel like they haven’t any needs, whatever that means) then congratulates him on taking the news so well.

The world is hurtling through space. Margaret Sterling, her wedding a day away, is infuriated to be lunched, gifted, and advised by her dad’s extremely young 2nd wife, Jane. Margaret bursts into tears and threatens to cancel her wedding, prompting Mona to call Roger, who orders Jane to back the hell off. Jane, in her role as the mature step-mom, locks herself into the bathroom.

Meanwhile, President Kennedy is headed to a pre-campaign visit to Dallas.

Duck, cover and follow the jump. . . .Oh yes. It’s November 21, 1963. Then it’s the next day, the 22nd, and give or take the office temps, such a normal morning at Sterling, Cooper. Pete feels sorry for himself. Peggy scampers off to entertain Duck in a nearby hotel. Don complains bitterly because Lane won’t let him hire a new art dept chief to take Sal’s place. “Bert still has a say in this,” he grumbles, storming out of the Brit’s HQ to take it up directly with Cooper. And not even guessing that the Brits are keeping costs low specifically to enhance their bottom line in hopes of dumping the firm on whichever buyer will enhance THEIR bottom line.

Then there’s a newsflash from Dallas. And you know what that means.

Confusion. Grief. Tears. Everywhere. The adults rendered into children. Peggy’s housemate has her friends over to write notes to Jackie (the Manhattan working girl’s life revealed as elementary school). Margaret Sterling’s wedding thrown to chaos. Hardly anyone shows, so the rigidly detailed seating plan seems absurd. “Everyone grab your plate and sit wherever you want!” Roger proclaims. Meanwhile: No waiters, and also no cake.

Then there’s Don and Betty Draper. Their world’s chief illusion fell to ashes last week. And so they’re careening through empty space, too.

Don is a shadow of himself – sad-eyed, cowed, yearning. Betty, the blonde puppet wife to end all blonde puppet wives, is done with that role. Turns out her husband didn’t really exist in the first place. She’s lost, but also infuriated. And desperate to have her world restored. Henry must be the man of her dreams – he’s even more of an established, establishment man than Don. He could ride with Rockefeller all the way into the White House. Betty won’t be the next Jackie, but she’d be awfully close. And he’s already proposing marriage.

Only, what does the future hold for moderate, east coast Republicans?

The future, it seems, is entirely up for grabs. And maybe, just maybe, a shock like this will move it in an interesting direction. Don’s already rousing himself to tend young Gene in the middle of the night. When Carla rushes in and hears from Betty that the president is, in fact, dead, she bursts into tears, grabs a cigarette from her employer and sits next to her to watch and cry.

There’s been a change in the weather. The times have changed. Next week brings the climax of “Mad Men’s third season. And after that, the part of the ’60s that isn’t a holdover from the ’50s.

"Mad Men" #11: I'm Looking Through You

The Draper kids, all gussied up in their dime store finery for Halloween, get to the heart of the matter without knowing it: Bobby is a hobo. Sally is a gypsy. Just like dad and mom? Metaphors are in the eye of he beholder, I guess. Right until the cheery neighbor (love that v-neck mohair sweater, btw) gives a cheery hello to the parents and zooms right into the narrative ether:

“And who are you supposed to be?

Dude.

With the end of season 3 a scant two episodes away, “Mad Men” knows exactly what it is – a show about honestly, identity and the American desperation to revise the meaning of both.

So to be as brief as possible (busy morning coming up here at pac central): Betty finally busts Don for his drawer full of secrets; while Sterling, Cooper attempts to create a new identity for the dog food company whose second-gen owner (a former serious flame of Roger’s) desperately does not want re-identified. Meanwhile Joan’s wonderfully blond, handsome loser husband Dr. Greg realizes he can’t be a psychiatrist after all, given his own father’s nervous breakdown back in the day. Given a flower vase wake-up call from his wife (always works best when delivered by surprise, to the back of the head) he makes lemonade by impulsively signing up with the U.S. Army, which will not only give him the surgical training he yearns for, but barely ask anything in return (Oh, maybe a brief visit to some off-shore region, e.g. West Germany or that Vietnam place. . . ). Roger makes a serious statement about the New Him by resisting the affections of his ex, the dog food heir, and experimenting with fidelity.

Follow the jump to unlock the desk. . .

Everyone’s gotta be something, but only some people seem to know what that is. And what seems increasingly true is that the people who know themselves the best, in these days before the JFK assassination, will inherit the earth. So to speak.

Notice that astonishing sequence in the Drapers’ bedroom, when Don is finally made to confess his past to Betty. Or actually, think back to the scene’s start in the kitchen, as Betty finally makes clear she knows exactly what’s what and who’s not whom: The complete collapse of Don’s authority (he drops his cigarette, for god’s sake, and slurps his drink). It’s a beautifully understated sequence (and grist for Jon Hamm’s next Emmy, I’d reckon), all silence and shadows. But there he is, the luxury dog food revealed as horse flesh, the completely unbranded product. Betty wonders how she can love him when she doesn’t know who he is.

“I don’t know who you are,” Betty says, coolly.

“Yes, you do,” Don whispers, absolutely sure this is true, but still with more than a note of desperation in his voice. And finally the ad man is made to admit the real truth: that labels run exactly that deep, that the headwaters of identity always run true; that beneath all the flash and sizzle, it’s only the contents of the can that matters.

Betty isn’t convinced. And Don knows this. And in that moment everything between them changes. The keys to their shared life – to his desk, to his soul – have just changed hands.

Half-hearted critique of another "Mad Men" critique; and something completely different

I opened up this post-grad-level analysis of our favorite TV show thinking I was going to dislike it intensely (I’d followed a link about how the show feeds on its audience’s smug sense of superiority vis-a-vis the show’s characters) and rip it accordingly. Then I actually read the story and realized I had to back away from righteous indignation, right into something more gray-area-ish and complicated, which was particularly unsettling at 6:30 am PDT, with less than a cup of coffee in the tank and a lingering hangover from last night’s edition of too many cookies.

Schwarz makes some good points about the micro-merits and flaws within “Mad Men”‘s narrative. Some thought-provoking riffs on the predictable noble-ness of the African-American characters. And some assertions I don’t buy at all, particularly regarding some of the more outlandish early ’60s-style behaviors (corporal punishment! smoking! drinking! anti-Semitism!) the characters indulge in with such casual brio.

The author is exactly my age, which is both cool (I have a soft spot for 46-year-olds) and dismaying (At first glance at his photo I thought, ‘oh, he’s old.’) And while he’s far more involved in the intricacies of early Camelot fashion and style (did you even NOTICE how an office girl’s hair-do would devolve throughout the week? Or anything to do with clasp purses?) I can’t get behind this idea that I/we watch the show in part so we can feel superior to the characters and their archaic ways and means.

follow the jump back through the mists of time. . .

Some outlandish things just…were. For instance, check out the elegant, moody black-and-white snaps my dad took of my mom circa early March 1963, when she’s lounging in bed, just extremely pregnant with Yours Truly, watching TV or something, and just so casually and light-enhancingly, smoking a cigarette! With a baby onboard! Her not-quite-born-but-destined-to-be-a-fervent-non-smoker son, a/k/a me! Which seems ridiculous and awful, except for that either the Surgeon Gen’l hadn’t noted the connection between pre-natal smoking and your eventually-grown child’s life of angst and misery it surely would cause, or else Americans hadn’t quite internalized it yet.

Another outlandish-but-true ’60s memory: This one in 1968 or so, when I’m in pre-school. (The LIttle School in Seatle, for anyone keeping track). It’s nap-time. I’m on my electric blue blanket, clutching a teddy bear in the darkness with my little friends snoozing around me. And my lovely Miss Farrell-style teacher, given a quiet moment to herself…lights a cigarette! In the classroom! With her sleeping toddlers at her feet!

These things really happened. I have photographic evidence of the one, and a very vivid, undying memory of the latter. Neither of which make me feel smug or anything, but simply….impressed. At how the wheel turns. And how in 40 years time the stuff I do so casually with or to my kids (forcing them to take valium when they get on my nerves; ordering them to go out and cut down a switch so’s I can give them a good whupping, etc.) will seem absurd and stone-cold-obviously wrong.

It’s also important to note that “Mad Men,” as opposed to the ’70s smirkfest “Swingtown,” which debuted the same summer as “MM,” only on CBS, has real respect and sympathy for its characters, no matter how archaic they may be. “Swingtown” played like cultural slapstick, the better to allow us to gain prurient thrills from its wife-swapping swinger story, while simultaneously feeling superior to their ridiculous hair and moustaches (in 1976 every man was Harry Reems), horrid casseroles and pop culture that consisted entirely of every bad tv show and pop song you can remember from the mid-70s. That show sucked. And not in a good way, either.

PYTHON, ON THE OTHER HAND

Doesn’t suck. And as documented in IFC’s new six-part history, which comes with plenty of clips from MPFC and others (I didn’t know about Spike Milligan’s late ’60s series, which presaged the Pythons with eerie exactitude) reminds me how brilliant those original shows were. And are. The Beatles themselves (talk about timeless) were quick to realize that their collaborative spirit had settled on the Python crew. They were right, again. And just as the Beatles remasters serve as joyful reminders that the world was right about the Beatles all along, the IFC documentary performs the same service for the Pythons.

Lemon curry?

"Mad Men" episode 10: Going Down in History

My literal achilles – the right one, for anyone keeping score – has been screwed up for like half a dozen years. Credit 29 years of compulsive running; more directly, a bone spur in the right ankle, which rubs; and its owner’s unwillingness to face facts; get the thing fixed; etc.

And so, as Homer asserted, we all have a fatal weakness. I have several, actually. Don Draper and friends, too. But before we talk about the Mad Men, let’s talk about the principal mad man – the show’s creator, chief exec, genius and I’d be willing to wager any damn thing, its chief weirdo/tormentor of staff/ruiner of backstage persons’ lives. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Matt Weiner.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the guy’s work. I’ve met him several times, in the course of media coverage in L.A., and have been repeatedly charmed by his warmth, kindness, openness, humanity and his ability/willingness to seemingly recognize me, ask after my well-being with what seems to be real sincerity, and seem like a truly wonderful, great guy.

To meet him as a reporter/writer/critic, to talk plot points and writing, is to sort of love the guy. He’s smart and nice and obviously a bit of a screwball. Plus also a significant part of latter-day “Sopranos” episodes, and the creator of “Mad Men.”

Would i want to work for him? Hell to the yeah! And would I almost certainly come to regret that decision, in spades? Oh, my god, yes.

We’re getting to the show, I swear. But first let’s shuffle through the memory cards and recall the many times Weiner referred publicly to “Mad Men” as “my show.” He has a huge staff, as all tv shows, must, and several acclaimed writers. Some of whom started as MH’s literal assistants, fetching coffee and the like, only to be cultivated into real writers and then real Emmy nominees/winners/etc. And yet whatever they’ve done, acccording the lovely MW, is in service of HIS show.

His characters. His stories. His world.

And he has a point. He invented “Mad Men.” He almost certainly steers every significant aspect of its unfolding story. And so all props to MW. Or most props, anyway. But the fact is, the staffers write and write, they come up with dialogue and beats and moments and invest their own creativity/brilliance/words/ideas into the mix. And yet, our good friend Matt continues with: MY show.

Which reminds me of the custodian/sage Paul stumbles upon in the middle of the night at Sterling, Cooper: A fellow named Achilles. Who you may remember as Homer’s vision of human weakness.

Follow the jump for actual “Mad Men” deconstruction. . .

Now let me draw your attention to the latest backstage dramas in “Mad Men,” a/k/a the recent (ongoing?) diaspora of assistants-turned-writers-turned-Emmy-noms/winners. They’re leaving the show in (mini) droves these days. And not saying why, for now. But you can sense what might be going on in Matt’s self-described world of me.

So back to the show. Where in episode 10 our main man Don Draper was engaging in monkey-business-as-usual with Miss Farrell; bonding with her eplieptic little brother in his quest to build himself a new life/existence somewhere beyond the shadow of his neurological problems; driving the creative staff of Sterling, Cooper to greater glories; and being roundly celebrated for the same, without knowing that his (increasingly unappealing wife, Betsy) has secretly discovered (tho she only kind of gets) his secret past.

Meanwhile, the past and/or ingrained flaws, is/are catching up with almost everyone: With Paul, who gets too drunk to write down his midnight brainstorm regarding the Western Union account (talk about the past!); with Roger, whose aging mom conufses his new wife with his daughter, and is astonished to hear that ex-wife Mona knows that he’s married someone else; with Bert, who isn’t eager to celebrate his firm’s 40th anniversary, given what it says about his own age and mortality; and with both Don and Betty, who separately/secretly have reasons to panic when a mystery caller hangs up on Sally without saying a word; and most obviously for Don Draper himself, who revels in the acclaim lorded upon him (by a seriously play-acting Roger Sterling, his former BFF-turned-target of his disaffection) for the many heroics of his pretend life.

Ah, Western Union. Have you ever been so metaphorical? “You can’t frame a phone call,” Don declares, simultaneously coming up with a perfect ad slogan for a 19th century product while also foreshadowing the world of trouble about to open upon himself. “The faintest ink is better than the best memory,” Paul had said, by way of woe-turned-unwitting-inspiration.

Our man Matt Weiner got plenty of ink from the New York Times Magazine last year, just before “Mad Men”‘s second season opened. The cover story about him described a briliant, yet neurotic and sometimes impossible to be around writer/producer who, it seemed, was actively driving his family and employees bonkers. At a TV industry affair a week or two later I asked him how he felt about the profile. Still in the thrall of his charm and intelligence I expected him to wax at least partly chagrined – to say something about it being part of the story, not the whole thing; that the writer had done a fine job, but maybe didn’t have space to include the part where he’s loving and supportive and kind to children, pets and employees. Instead, he sort of shrugged, and smiled. “I asked my wife what she thought,” he said of the quietly scathing profile. “And she said, ‘Well, that’s you!”

Not written in faint ink, either.

"Mad Men" #9: "When I Say I Want the Moon, I Expect the Moon."

Conrad Hilton not only dreams of the moon, he wants it delivered to him, posthaste, with crackers. And should you fall short there’s no time for apologies, let alone talk of a simple misunderstanding and a promise that said moon will be delivered most ricki-tick, by lunchtime, along with Athens, Tokyo, Rome and the rest of the world. Because he’s an American on the march, and as such cannot accept anything like a boundary, even if it’s temporary: “America,”  he already explained, “is wherever we want to go next.”

Which is a kind of nice idea, if you’re into the good old manifest destiny. But what if the rest of the world-slash-galaxy doesn’t want to BE America? Do Conrad Hilton’s desires trump everyone, and thing, else?

Clearly. Because he’s got the money, and thus the power. And does that mean anything to people like you?

Yes it does. So wonder this episode of “Mad Men,” packed with trenchant, even withering observations about the American culture, may have been the darkest hour in the series’ history.

Follow the jump for more….So it’s the late summer of 1963. School’s back in session, the skies are bursting open and Betty is too smitten with Gov. Rockefeller’s aide Henry Francis to even wrap her brain around Sally’s simple request for a new pencil holder. Did she even LOOK at young Bobby, let alone speak to him? Yikes.

Meanwhile, Hilton is playing good dad/bad dad to Don. Calling at all hours of the night, demanding new ad campaigns or, simply, company. He’s a lonely guy, beneath his King Midas exterior, and this only accelerates his appetites. He NEEDS, is the thing, and despite having a passel of ungrateful, unfulfilling kids of his own (all raised too rich to truly get it) he now turns to Don as both his advertising expert and substitute child. “You’re my angel,” he says. And yet it’s hard to imagine that Don is earning his wings just now.

Indeed, he’s just doing his own version of what Hilton (and Betty, and Henry, and surprisingly pansexual Lee Garner, Jr. of Lucky Strike fame, and everyone else in sight, is doing: taking what he wants, when he wants it.

America, you’ll recall, is wherever we want to go next.

And so Garner first forces a reluctant Pete to smoke (koff, koff). Which is just good ol’ boy play, as opposed to when he puts the moves on Sal, and when frustrated (“I’m a married man!” Sal protests, though they both know that’s only part of his story) he calls Harry (the junior-est exec at his disposal) and orders him to fire his reluctant target. Hilton goes ballistic when his midnight musing about putting a Hilton Hotel on the moon isn’t reflected in the international ad campain he ordered Don to turn around double-quick. Don focuses his expansionit ambitions on mysterious young Miss Farrell, who he finds jogging (!) in the pre-dawn hours.

Everyone wants what they wants, and are ready, willing and eager to flex whatever power they have to get it. Henry and Betty flirt, then kiss, then collaborate on fundraiser for Gov. Rockefeller’s presidential campaign (a doomed prospect if ever there was one, but that’s how they do it in Ossining). Garner storms out of Sterling, Cooper when he sees the (temporarily) extant Sal. The whole brouhaha moves into Don’s office, who fires Sal on the spot. Lucky Strike, he reasons, could turn out Sterling Cooper’s lights. “You’ll be fine,” he assures Sal, minus much in the way of true feeling, let alone sympathy.

And just because this is America, the real nastiness washes down eventually to the African-Americans, here represented by the long-suffering Draper domestic Carla. Who we see watching the memorial service for the four little black girls blown up in an African-American church destroyed by white segregationists. At first Betty notes the woman’s grief, and offers her a day off. (reparations, you see) Carla nods this off, which emboldens the lovely Mrs. Draper to widen her view to the civil rights movement as a whole. Yes, the murders were truly awful, she acknowledges. And yet so much trouble for everyone to deal with! “Maybe,” she concludes, “this just isn’t the right time” for civil rights.

Carla’s face goes stony. She’s heard this before. Justice and equality, it turns out, are not high on America’s where-to-go-next list.