Monday, February 04, 2008

Mad Men redux: Slappy birthday

(Note: Because AMC is rerunning the first season of "Mad Men" every Sunday at midnight, and because a lot of people missed the show the first time around, I'm reposting my blog reviews for each episode the morning after. These are written as they were back in the summer/early fall; if I feel differently about anything in retrospect, I'll mention it in the comments. Also, while comments from both newbies and people who watched the first time are welcome, if you've seen these episodes before, please be vague about events in later episodes so as not to spoil things for the newcomers.)

Spoilers for the third episode of "Mad Men" 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?

14 comments:

Adam P. said...

Off topic but:

Have you heard this yet? Thoughts?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Adam, I'll get excited about an Arrested Development movie the day filming actually begins, and not before. It's just so far-fetched, and I've seen many similar scenarios fall apart long before even the contract stage, so I won't get my hopes up.

jana said...

Alan,

About the pregnant lady smoking...my mom is 60, so she was a prenant lady a little after this time, but she's a smoker. While she was pregnant with my brother and me in 66-67 and 68-69, she gave up cigarettes for...wait for it...CIGARS!

Kate said...

Thanks for reposting these--I could search for the Mad Men tags, but this makes it so much easier.

I don't think the pregnant lady smoking (or drinking, for that matter) is a purposeful sledgehammer--in that it's so far from the norm now that it feels that way. And that's why I keep watching Mad Men. It makes me uncomfortable and I'm not sure who to find sympathetic, but it seems like such an authentic portrayal of a recent past. It's almost like seeing an on screen version of Friedan's THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE.

In this episode, the divorcee is a harbinger of things to come--a woman willing to leave a cheating husband, but so far from the reality of the women of the neighborhood, whose husbands make jokes about letting them die with their lawyers . . .

Byron said...

My mom smoked while she was pregnant with me.

I was born in 1985.

quipu said...

A very interesting episode, although I think the half devoted to the birthday party was stronger than the work scenes.

As a child who grew up in a family that weren't averse to dealing out spankings, I really related to the slapping scene. I particularly liked how the scene was depicted without the same amount of sensationalism as in other shows when a child is hit. Here the shock value is derived not from the act itself, but rather who is doing it.

I also enjoyed the scene of Rachael with her guard dogs, telling Don about how the dogs were her best friends due to the absence of her father, and the point being called back to when Don returns after going AWOL, with a brand new dog for his daughter.

Slowly, but surely, I'm being drawn deeper into this world.

Allison said...

Something I didn't catch the first time I watched this episode--at the birthday party, when the kids are playing house, you can hear a couple of them say:

"You dented the car!"
"You're sleeping on the couch!"
"I don't like your tone!"

That cracked me up. I'm noticing how funny this series can be on the second viewing.

Dan Jardine said...

My mom smoked AND drank while pregnant with me. Didn't affect me none. My mom smoked and drkn whle pgnt wth me didt affc menone.

Dan Jardine said...

Oh, and this is a great series. Really great. Talk about capturing a time and place, Mad Men pretty much writes the book on period authenticity. Awesome, unflinching work by these folks.

Kathy said...

I was born in 1963 and my mom smoked while she was pregnant. We saw the movie "JFK" together and I was shocked during the trial scenes because everyone was smoking in the courtroom - judge, jury, lawayers. And that looked insane to me. I mentioned it to her and she said "Everyone smoked everywhere back then". (In an "ah, the good old days" tone - she's still a smoker).

So I agree that seeing pregnant women smoking and seeing people smoking in restaurants and offices is jarring to our 2008 sensibilities, but I don't think it's sledgehammer-y, I think that's just the way things were back then.

I think that is also the same case with Don's parenting in this episode. In today's involved, co-parenting dad world, a dad disappearing with the cake would be a huge deal. In that world, not so much, especially in the Draper house. Don runs the house much like he runs the office, it's rare we get to see the soft side of him with Betty. And really, isn't the cake thing a drop in the bucket in terms of being a bad dad/husband when you consider that he's a serial cheater?

Matter-Eater Lad said...

A thought on the dog: Might Don be trying to nudge his daughter in the direction of growing up to be more like Rachel?

Donny said...

I don't think the dog had that much significance. I think it was merely his way of brining light to the Rachel situation all while attempting to "make up" for not bringing the cake home to his daughter.

I'm really liking this show. Thanks for re-posting Alan. I just watched the first three episodes in the last 2 days and am looking forward to the rest. How many episodes did they make in this first season?

CarolMR said...

I just read that Chris Allport, who played Pete Campbell's father on MAD MEN, was killed in an avalanche a couple of weeks ago.

special k said...

Coming extremely late to the party, as I just watched this ep last night... but the moment I found really compelling was when Dan was filming with the camera, and he filmed that one couple (the only one that seems to really be in love) share a stolen kiss in the hallway. Dan's face said it all... this husband actually LOVES his wife, and wants her. He seemed confused and jealous all at once. Priceless.