Friday, August 03, 2007

Mad Men: Slappy birthday

The morning column link: a mailbag belatedly talking about the Emmys (and the TCA Awards), the future prospects of David Milch's shows, and the amount of smoking on "Mad Men."

And speaking of which, spoilers for the third episode of that show coming up just as soon as I read up on smoking during pregnancy...

"Draper? Who knows anything about that guy? Nobody's ever lifted that rock. He could be Batman for all we know." -Harry

Who the hell is Don Draper? Or is he even Don Draper? That, to me, is the central question -- and the most involving element -- of "Mad Men." Who is this chiseled Cary Grant type who seemingly has it all and yet doesn't feel at home anywhere? Why does he have this June Cleaver doormat wife and yet is drawn to strong-willed, independent adult women like Midge and Rachel? And what's this "Dick Whitman" business?

There are a couple of ways to read Don's encounter on the train: 1)The other guy made a mistake, and Don just played along to get out of the encounter as quickly and painlessly as possible; or 2)Don really was Dick Whitman once upon a time, and changed his identity for reasons we'll learn later. If it's the former, the scene's a comment on how Don often feels like he's living someone else's life; if it's the latter, what's the big secret? (My friend Rich Heldenfels thinks Don's a Jew trying to pass for WASP, which also explains his attraction to Rachel, a Jewish woman who doesn't want to pass but wants to be able to run her business as if she was a blue-blood.) While his face doesn't give anything away at the time (Don rarely gives anything away, which is a credit to Jon Hamm's performance, as another actor might just come off as blank), he's testier than usual when he gets to work, which could be read either as him being freaked out at having been spotted by someone from his Dick Whitman days or just him feeling threatened by the popularity of the Volkswagen "Lemon" ad.

Episode three had a very different structure from the first two, the first half largely occurring at work, the second half entirely devoted to Don's weekend at home and the birthday party. He seems in command in both worlds yet fits into neither. He's unprepared for the popularity of the ironic "Lemon" campaign, can't resist treating Pete like crap even when Pete's playing nice, then ruins things with Rachel by kissing her and finding out she's not as eager as Midge to be a mistress.

Still, it's a fast-paced existence, and life slows to a crawl up in Ossining. The scenes have a more languid, dream-like quality, as Don drifts from one mundane activity to another. I don't think Don hates Betty or the kids, but for reasons he either doesn't understand or can't articulate, he's on the outside of the family looking in, even before Betty makes him get behind the viewfinder of their movie camera. Him not coming back with the cake is the kind of move that could scar his daughter (though she seemed just fine with the dog), yet I can see why he couldn't get out of the car.

The party sequence was filled with those moments that some people find sledgehammer subtle and others just consider authentic period detail: the pregnant lady with the cigarette, the one husband scamming on Helen the divorcee, the dad who slaps another man's kid for spilling his drink (followed by the kid's own father forcing his son to apologize). I understand both sides of this argument. Like I mentioned in the mailbag column, I know pregnant women smoked at the time, but it's such a shocking image now that I can see how for some people, the scene becomes entirely about the pregnant lady. It's a really fine line to walk; I think Weiner and company are succeeding so far, but I recognize why others disagree.

What did everybody else think?

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

This episode was my least favorite so far. I don't find Don's home life as interesting as his work life and there seemed to be very little plot movement.

Also, maybe it's the late timeslot or simply because it's summer and I'm less inclined to sit in front of a tv, but a lot of the small details and moments of the show are being completely lost on me. That's obviously my loss, but I wonder if other people are experiencing the same thing.

Eric said...

I haven't seen last night's episode, but how old is Don? Has that been established? Has it been stated whether his War service was WWII or Korea? If it's Korea, then he's only been in the Ad game for 6-7 years. If it's WWII, then he's pushing 40, which seems a little old.

Anyway, I think he was either OSS or CIA, whichever was appropriate for his time in the service. From my conspiracy theorist days, I seem to remember that lot's of those guys wound up on Madison Ave.

rcobeen said...

I am halfway enjoying this show, but posting about it right after a "Freaks and Geeks" rundown brought into focus what troubles me about "Mad Men" and other current shows. The misanthropy is overwhelming, which I see as a byproduct of the success of "The Sopranos." However, you better be working at David Chase's level in order to create a lasting TV show that displays this level of distaste for human nature. If not, it will all go sour incredibly quickly.

While it's not fair to compare "Mad Men" to "Freaks and Geeks", a completely different type of show, I'll compare it to the only series I think is better than "Freaks and Geeks": "The Wire." Think of the dimensions shown by the characters, even within the first three episodes. All the characters and situations were treated with an awareness that it often the systems that we function within that bring people down, that allow or force people to fall over, all too often, on the wrong side of the moral fence we all sit on (I would argue that "Freaks and Geeks", in its more goodhearted way, does the same thing). While it is early in the series, "Mad Men" exhibits no nuances of this type, which it needs to keep viewers engaged.

Anonymous said...

I think Don's a 38-ish WWII vet (he's clearly more mature than the guys he supervises) with a secret past--he may be passing for WASP, he may have done something he's not proud of in the war (atrocity, mistress, love child, etc.). He may have assumed a dead comrade's identity.

I love the dichotomy they are setting up between beautiful suburban WASP- land with the "perfect" blonde wife and kids, and Don's strong attraction to both the dark bohemian mistress and the retail heiress. I think he admires both of those women for their ability to live freely outside the norms of the day--Don is trapped in the norms, and it's killing him.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Weiner said that Don's in his early-mid '30s and that he fought in Korea, not WWII. Roger (a WWII vet), Don (Korea) and Pete (young and un battle tested) are supposed to represent three different worldviews.

Anonymous said...

Don a Korean War vet--so is that supposed to indicate that the guy Don met on the train really had the wrong person--did the guy-on-train mention a European location that would have indicated WWII-era service?

There was an inaccuracy in last night's dialog when one of the women mentioned going to Boca on her honeymoon (and seeing "lots of people with big noses" or words to that effect). Early 60s Florida resort honeymoon would have been Miami Beach.

That's the kind of mistake that pulls you right out of the story, they might consider looping for the DVDs. (I'm kidding, but only just...)

drake leLane said...

I think Draper's irritation at the Volkswagen ad has a lot to do with fear. Bernbach's work represented a collaboration between Art Direction and Copy, and that means Draper is soon going to have to change his way of thinking entirely to keep his job as a creative director. This is the point in the 60's where advertising changed from being a copy-driven one to an art-directed one, and creative directors who were copywriters had to adapt or get pushed out.

Jon Delfin said...

Closed captioning highlight of the week: Brimmare. You know, one of the Seven Sister colleges.

ooda said...

This was probably my favorite episode so far, mainly due to the family interaction, which I always find fun. I loved the bitching by the wives about the divorcee, "still hasn't unpacked her iron", and the loss of reason they saw when she explained things that seem normal now, "but where are you walking?".

From the start, the biggest thing was the improvement in the portrayal of Peggy that was had at the start of this episode. Actually, it's not really an improvement in portrayal, as that's always been good, but she really did seem a lot stronger and sure of herself this time round.

I loved seeing Don just unwind into a typical guy, somewhat, at home. The beer drinking and the like seemed a lot more casual than we usually see of him. What got me about the pregnant woman was that she was both smoking and drinking relatively hard liquor.

But you knew Don had to do something to reassert his presence, as it almost felt demeaning to have a man of his stature just ordered to go get the cake. That said, it did provide for some fun when the wife tried to cut the Sara Lee while still in the tin.

The jew in disguise thing I never even thought of, but damn, that makes the whole thing a hell of a lot more interesting (not just that, but that there is this level of mystery that I didn't even comprehend).

Beckylooo said...

I feel drawn and quartered by this show. When the period moments are born out of moving characters/plot forward, I'm intrigued by them (Don talking to his wife's shrink). When they're there for shock value or to be clever, I'm pulled out of the moment and annoyed by them (dry cleaning bag, table side ceasar salad, slap happy dads). They've yet to find the balance.

I am still baffled by Peggy. I'm all but positive there was a scene cut from the pilot that would have made the choice to have her sleep with Pete feel supported.

Overall, as a woman, this show is just tough to watch. Not sure how long I can hang in there.

Anonymous said...

Pregnant women smoked and drank in the 60's and it wasn't a big deal back then. The ones who are upset about it being portrayed in the show are measuring historical behavior by current standards. I applaud the writers for being true to the era even if it is offensive for some people to watch.

As for Dan Draper, I think maybe he just went along with the man on the train because it was easier than having to explain that he wasn't Dick Whitman.

Don is not likeable but in some small way I feel sorry for him. He is living the american sham and by outside appearances should be thrilled but he really is miserable. I agree with the writer on here who said that Midge and Rachel represent the freedom that he doesn't have.

The show is starting to grow on me. I just hope the writers continue to develop the characters in a way that allows the viewers to understand them a bit better.

Anonymous said...

I loved the pilot but found the last two episodes disappointing. We get it. Everyone smoked. All the time. We get it. Women were treated like shit. All the time. We get it. There was ennui living the American dream. We get it. There was anti-semitism. We were more naive. WE GET IT.

Subtle touches are great when added to a compelling story, not in lieu of one.

And the featurettes following the show where the creators explain their genius add a level of pretense to the series that it really doesn't need.

Maybe it will pay off in a big way down the line. I hope so. The pilot was so good it's worth giving MAD MEN the benefit of the doubt. But something better happen soon. Because this show is really starting to become the Emperor's New Grey Flannel Suit.

Anonymous said...

Where are the teenagers?

Were they banned from the script bible, just so no royalties would need to be paid to rock n roll artists? To purge the scene of Negro influence? To focus on what it meant to be adults? To push back the concept of the late 50s as teenager land?

Or, is it for the reason to let the adults act like kids -- Don's affairs, their drinking, smoking, sexing, all without a thought to what it would do to their families? Sure, we see Don's kids, but they are afterthoughts, just as their parents saw them.

R.A. Porter said...

Frankly, I wasn't shocked by the tableside caesar salad: I was jealous. The good old days, before food nazis got in the way of flavor.

Anyway, I don't think Don Draper's passing, but I do think he's a borrowed ladder. I've got this feeling that dirt-poor Dick Whitman came back and took the place of his young, well-off dead LT after Korea. It makes the scene in the pilot with the Purple Heart mean something; before it just seemed out of place.

Drake Lelane makes a great point about the VW ads being the start of "collaboration between Art Direction and Copy" in advertising. I didn't know that, but it ads a nice spin to the meeting when he tells Salvatore to stick to the artwork. The subtext of that dig went right past me.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Dick Whitman, don't think it was a mistake. If you take a look at Yahoo TV's Mad Men page, there's a cast list, and sure enough, down in the middle of the page, there's a cast credit for a "YOUNG DICK WHITMAN." Now, whether that's Don Draper or not is another question!!!

http://tv.yahoo.com/show/39828/castcrew

http://tv.yahoo.com/brandon-killham/contributor/2195566

Steve Pick said...

I think rcobeen is on to something when he or she refers to the lack of nuance. I find this series to be intriguing, but the intrigue is still primarily because of the concept, and not so much because of the execution. Aside from the Dick Whitman mystery, there hasn't been a whole lot of actual story going on - it's just been one long sequence of "And, can you believe they did this back then?" after another.

It seems clear to me that this series is created by people who have studied up on the era being represented, but who didn't live through it or anything close to it. Yeah, I turned 2 in 1960, so I'm speaking more from my memories of the tail end of that social milieu. But, life wasn't just the things done differently - life is more about the things which are done the same.

In other words, people could feel oppressed by the suburban lifestyle without playing it up in every thing they did. In the meantime, they actually laughed and interacted with each other in ways which did more than just establish that pregnant women smoked and drank, or that men treated women as a completely different species.

Anonymous said...

>It seems clear to me that this series is created by people who have studied up on the era being represented, but who didn't live through it or anything close to it.

Also they don't know how to pronounce Waltham. (I'm guessing the writer did, but no one the set did)
A tiny thing, but annoying.

What is this about the salad? I heard it... ordered perhaps, but don't remember seeing it.

Pam (lived in Waltham for 2 years)

Anonymous said...

having been 1 year old in 1960... the sets and clothing and all are fascinating and somewhat nostalgic of.. a few years later when I was old enough to still remember (have you see the ugliness that is the Prudential Tower in Boston?)

The only thing the show reminds me of -- specifically -- is Bewitched. Repeatedly. (not that the two are anything alike, but the male lead has the same occupation) Oh and possibly the Dick Van Dyke show. (It's something about the walls... I keep envisioning Sally, Buddy and Rob)
Okay so I haven't watched 60's TV in years (and those people rarely smoked - whereas if you watch some 80's movies (St Elmo's Fire) it's everywhere (although no one's pregnant).
Since even watching people smoke grosses me out (always has, like, since I was 6) I don't watch a lot of those movies. I'm watching this for the 60's "feel" so I'm... what was that phrase?... hanging in there.

I think it's funny that now many people think of this time as The Good Old Days, before the world went to hell. And not all of those people are WASP males.

I haven't looked it up yet - is this a limited series or do we think we will get to some of the life changing events of the 60's some day? (still trying to remember which ones, specifically, I have in mind)

Anonymous said...

re: wars
My father, who in 1960 would have been ...33/34 was a WWII vet, but only by dint of his having lied about his age at 15 to run away from home and join the navy.
My childhood was more Wonder Year-ish, with a terrorist father.

One weird thing I remember from my parents' photo albums is that all the guys seemed to be named after colors: Pinky, Whitey, and Blacky.

My family wasn't as well-off as the Drapers. We were just barely middle class, living in a one bathroom house in a suburb where the other side of town seemed to have 14 room houses, and my father worked two jobs to do that - but my mother was home with us till I was 19. We didn't have a movie camera - we had a reel to reel tape recorder (alas, I've misplaced those tapes of me when I was little, and the first half hour was taped over with an episode of I Love Lucy). We didn't have color TV till I was 15. (and we lived near Boston, rather than NYC, which put a whole different spin on things, I think. Or maybe it's just the Madison Avenue aspect and other parts of NYC would be different)

I miss Peggy when she's not featured. She is, of course, the character I'm most relating to.

Cutting the Sara Lee cake - was it still frozen, or was Betty having the hand thing, again? I think I would prefer that it be physiological in origin, rather than psychological. They could point up how women's ailments were (and still are) often ascribed to hysteria rather than actual disease.

Pam, yet again (whose 60's nostalgia hit her hard the year the Red Sox won the World Series, finally, against the team which beat us in 1967 - and I don't even care about baseball, but we watched it *in school*).

Anonymous said...

I agree with those who say this show is about as subtle as Ethel Merman. I've checked with older friends and relatives, and they say it rings false in many ways, especially in going overboard with the angst and misogyny. It reminds me of "Troy," which tried to graft 21st century attitudes about war onto people who never thought that way.

And, I wonder about these writers who keep bashing on suburbia. I'm quite certain that people enjoyed it there then and enjoy it there now. They may not be urban hipsters, but the kids I knew who grew up in cul-de-sac land (I didn't, I grew up in a small town) thought it was the best childhood ever.

Weiner just seems out to attack women, families, men and the "American dream" as he sees it. It doesn't leave much to love.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Having lived through the era, I can attest that everyone smoked all the time. It looks like overkill but it isn't. And my ob-gyn advised me that quitting smoking when I was pregnant was a bad idea since it might make me nervous. The better idea would be to take diet pills so I didn't gain too much weight. The reason is seems like overkill, I think, is because it is relying too heavily on things we now know are bad. It needs to put them aside now that such things are established and move forward with the plot.