Thursday, July 26, 2007

Mad Men: Ambivalent women

Once again, apologies for posting this by mistake last night. I had either forgotten what day it was, what day "Mad Men" airs, or both. This may be the last blog post for a few days (except maybe the "Simpsons" movie review) as I attempt to reassemble my wits in the comfort of my own home.

Anyway, spoilers for "Mad Men" episode two coming up just as soon as I buy a new child safety seat for the car...

After devoting much of the pilot to the title characters, episode two of "Mad Men" is for the ladies -- mostly.

Betty Draper, kept off camera for most of last week to serve the pilot's not-so-shocking twist ending, gets to play screentime catch-up. We learn that she's suffering from some kind of condition where her hands freeze up at inopportune moments. (I don't know enough about medical history to understand whether Betty's condition is really psychosomatic, as her doctor suggests, or simply something a doctor in 1960 wouldn't be able to diagnose.) She's out of sorts, depressed about the recent death of her mother, crushed by her role as homemaker but not understanding that there could be an alternative, frustrated that Don is just as big a mystery to her as he is to everyone else. When they lie in bed together, she looks at him and whispers, "Who's in there?" It's not apparent yet whether she suspects Don is sleeping around, but she's thrown by the news that a divorcee has moved into the neighborhood. As claustrophobic and terrifying she may find her life, being a single mom in 1960 Westchester sounds infinitely more terrifying.

It's really scary to see how constrained Betty's life is, how much control of it is placed -- by her ignorance and by the standards of the time -- in the hands of Don. He's the one who pushes her to see a therapist, and he's also the one who can then call up the therapist to find out what Betty talked about in her session. January Jones has a look that works really well with the style of the time (in present-day movies, I don't usually notice her, but she has this vaguely Grace Kelly quality when you put her in the dress and the hair and the makeup), and I'm glad she's portrayed as more than just the ball and chain that Don escapes from with work and with Midge.

And speaking of our resident beatnik floozy, we find that she's not just Don's mistress, but rather a free love type who sleeps around, an arrangement that has its pluses and minuses for both of them. Don doesn't have to feel completely guilty that he goes back to Betty the next day because he knows Midge has other guys, but he also can't help getting upset when evidence of those guys -- say, Midge's new TV set (on which her favorite show is the same as Don's kids') -- stares him right in the face. And Midge doesn't have to feel like a kept woman who's breaking up a marriage, but she still can't stand to hear about Betty. When Don says, "I can't decide if you have everything, or nothing," she tells him, "For the moment, nothing is everything." On some shows, that line would sound like psychobabble masquerading as profound insights, but the small details of how these characters are written and played gives it real meaning.

With Pete off on his honeymoon (an excuse to sketch in the other young guys at the agency), Peggy gets a bit closer to Paul, one of the copywriters on Don's team. Paul is set up to be everything that Pete and his cronies aren't -- well-read, semi-enlightened (he at least sees the value in women copywriters for certain types of jobs), not as blatant in his advances -- but in the end he's revealed to be just another horny guy trying to get with the new girl, and Peggy is only able to fend him off by hinting at her involvement with Pete. (Paul assumes the man she's talking about is Don, and in one of my favorite lines of the episode, says, "Do you belong to someone else? Shit. I don't even like to sit in Don's chair.")

I'm just very taken with this show, and if I wasn't so burnt-out from being at press tour for two weeks (see the latest iteration of my Bon Scott/Alex O'Loughlin problem), I'd attempt to elaborate more about what it continues to well. Instead, it's on to our friends the bullet points:
  • Yes, People Really Lived This Way moments of the week: the Draper kids drive without child seats, or even seat belts, and are completely unharmed in Betty's fender bender, and the daughter runs around the house with a dry cleaning bag over her head and Betty's only concern is that her dress might get ruined without the bag on it.
  • John Slattery has just nailed the arrogance and indifference of a guy like Roger. Again, an exchange like the "What do women want?" "Who cares?" bit between Don and Roger could have come across as being written in italics, but Slattery makes Roger's attitude seem like the natural thing.
  • Robert Morse! How perfect is that? They cast Robert Morse -- star of the original version of "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying" -- as Mr. Cooper, head of the agency.
What did everybody else think?


R.A. Porter said...

Please forgive me my love of musical theater and bad meta-jokes:

I suppose Mr. Cooper must be one of Midge's men. 'Cause "suddenly there is music in the sound of [her] name", Rosemarie DeWitt. That, and he knows that a secretary is not a toy.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure most of Betty's problems stem from the pre-Freidan conditions of family life at that time, but it seems like Betty is also a victim of the Madonna/Whore complex. Herhusband is having hot sweaty with the mistress and five minutes and done with her. That is one unsatisfied woman.
I like how she is played as young, naive, open but with some flashes of intelligence, full of potential with no outlet, not some sour harridan-to-be.

Anonymous said...

I felt like there were too many moments that were supposed to be shocking, but weren't, much like the (obvious) "twist ending" of the premiere that the critics were supposed to keep secret. I counted three: Paul seems like a nice guy but in the end just wants to get into Peggy's pants; Don and Betty argue about Betty going to therapy, with Don taking the negative, but she ends up going anyway; Don calling the psychiatrist and getting the low-down on his wife's condition. Only the last of these moments was really played up, I thought, but none of them is really surprising if you've been paying attention to the show. It would have been more surprising, frankly, if any of these things hadn't occurred.

I think the performances are quite good -- Slattery, Gladis, and Jones do some fine work -- but this episode felt like a stylish exercise to me. Lots of fun if you enjoy the period details, but not as substantial as it initially appears.


Tosy And Cosh said...

r.a.: The real question is: Does he believe in himself?

R.A. Porter said...

LOL! By the way Tosy, thanks for the great Sweeney stuff for Friday!

Jon88 said...

Can't the production company give the closed captioner a copy of the script to work from, instead of making the poor transcriber work by ear and by guess? (Or were people in 1960 living in fear of the bum?)

Nicole said...

Sometimes it seems like this show is trying too hard. This week it was the "look how much it sucks to be a woman" show. It's not realistic that all the women accepted their objectification even way back in the 1960s. At least Peggy seems to question it a bit, but unless she is 12 she is unbearably naive for a city girl. Maybe I have a problem with the era, but sometimes it seems more 1860 than 1960 and I wanted to throw things at the television for the proprietary attitudes of the men in all aspects.

When Don called the psychiatrist I thought more of the breach of confidentiality than of the shocking behaviour. As an adult, I would think Betty would have the right to confidentiality.

In any case, I am hoping she goes all "crazy" feminist soon, because it's either that or suicide based on how she's been set up.

I wasn't around in the 1960s, but my parents were kids/teens then, and they laugh at this June Cleaver stuff that is consistently portrayed in the movies and television because both their mothers were nothing like her or Betty, and yet they weren't the revolutionary feminists either. Maybe it's because they weren't the wives of ad executives, but the "housewife trapped in domesticity" has been done before and in a more realistic way.

I also noted that after this episode, there wasn't a female name to be seen in the credits until we got to casting... clearly things have changed so much.

Tiny rant aside, this show is definitely worth watching, but more for the individual characters than for the tiresome broad strokes about society they are trying to paint.

Anonymous said...

In the opening credits there are two women producers and three women writers. Also, Costume designer etc.

I guess you didn't see the way cool opening titles!

Isabel said...

My husband and I just started watching this show for the first time last night. We only made it through the first 2 episodes before it was time for bed. And we LOVED it. LOVED it.

Since I'm a little too young to have been born in the 60's, I'm fascinated to think that life was really like that. I mean, really...was it that bad?!

Unknown said...

"Was it really that bad?" you ask. Let me tell you that at least in the work place- YES IT WAS.

I, like Peggy, was promoted in an all male office, in an all male field. The men had playboy magazines all over the office and gave me a key to the men's room- not a joke, this was a put down.

When women came into the office to be interviewed for clerical positions, as they would walk toward the managers office in the front, their backs would be to all the men. The men would hold up signs like "dog" or "great tits" that could be seen by the manager.

And, this wasn't 1964. It was 1972.

In 1964, most office could fire women once they were pregnant, married or not. If there was an office affair that ended, the woman had to go (not much has changed here). Women could be groped, propositioned, even sexually molested at work and there was little or nothing that management would do to protect them.
This went on well into the 80's and even 90's.

In my career, I've left 2 jobs due to sexual harassment. I've had my bra strap snapped, my skirt "lifted", my job put on the line if I didn't put out, I've had to listen to revolting jokes, foul mouthed language (no, I'm not a prude but I hate hearing women called c#$nts), and I've been sexually assaulted.

I was fired in 1986 for not acquiescing to a manager. Thankfully by then times had changed somewhat and I sued and won. However, in the higher echelons of corporate America, not much has changed.

Behind closed doors, it's still the good old boy network and women are still objects of ridicule. Things are changing but not fast enough- I left the corporate world and opened my own business.

If you are wondering, I am married and don't hate men. I just hate men in power who think with their dicks.