Monday, March 03, 2008

Mad Men redux: Stair master

(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 latest "Mad Men" coming up just as soon as I fill up my chip 'n dip...

"You know who else doesn't wear a hat? Elvis. That's what we're dealing with." -Pete Campbell
"Remind me to stop hiring young people!" -Bertram Cooper

Black is white, up is down, and Pete is absolutely right in a conversation where Mr. Cooper couldn't be more wrong. Though Pete's his usual overcompensating putz of a self the rest of the episode (we'll get back to his target practice foreplay in a bit), he's the only man in the Nixon brainstorming session who actually recognizes the threat John F. Kennedy poses -- not just to Nixon's presidential ambitions, but to the status quo that the men of Sterling-Cooper are dedicated to maintaining. Cooper and Roger see Kennedy's hatless-ness as a deficit; Pete recognizes the newness of it, and the fact that the country seems ready to embrace something new.

"Mad Men" takes place at the dawn of JFK's New Frontier, the tipping point when the culture (both high and pop) began being driven by young people. As Andrew Johnston wrote while discussing the Paul subplot in episode two, "the Mad Men era is one of the last times in American social history when younger men strived to appear older rather than vice versa." Of course Sterling and Cooper see Nixon as their dream candidate; they're on the losing side of history and don't even realize it. (Don's not immune to this, either, as evidenced by the deodorant campaign from a few episodes back where he dismissed all of Paul's space-age ideas as something that would scare housewives.)

While the Pete/Cooper exchange is just a small part of episode seven, "Red in the Face," the tension between the generations is a key part of the friction between Don and Roger. Roger, put out when his wife, daughter and mistress all go away on the same weekend, comes home for dinner at the Draper house and when Don's not looking, he makes a pass at Betty as he feels is his right as the senior man. (Note how dismissive he is when he says, "Oh, his war" when Betty mentions Don's service in Korea.) At first, Don -- his head still stuck on a conversation where Betty's shrink claimed she had the emotional make-up of a little girl -- puts the blame on Betty, but when Roger is a bit too effusive in his apology the next day, Don figures out what really happened and begins plotting his revenge, which is built entirely on him being younger and in better shape than Roger. (Note that he never really apologizes to Betty, though.) He bribes the building elevator operator to fake an out of service situation, then takes Roger out for a lunch overflowing with martinis, oysters and cheesecake -- the sort of thing he can just barely handle, but which he knows will cause Roger all sorts of discomfort when they have to climb 23 flights of stairs. Roger ends up projectile vomiting in front of the Nixon people, and I have to wonder how much of Don's glee at the end is about humiliating Roger and how much is about the prospect of not having to work for Nixon.

While Don is busy getting revenge, Pete and Betty are each suffering mini-meltdowns. Pete has to exchange a duplicate wedding gift and it's such an emasculating ordeal that he decides to use the store credit to buy a .22 caliber rifle to overcompensate for his feelings of penile inadequacy. This only leads to more hen-pecking from his wife, and so Pete takes the gun to the office again and creeps out Peggy by revealing a long, detailed fantasy about being an old-school hunter-gatherer in the woods. (What are we to make, though, of Peggy's trip to the lunch cart immediately after? I have a harder time reading Elisabeth Moss than anyone else in the cast.)

Betty, meanwhile, runs into Helen the divorcee at the market, and the snipped lock of hair from episode four comes back to bite her. "He is nine years old," Helen complains. "What is wrong with you?" -- which prompts Betty to slap her across the face (not as hard as the dad slapped the kid at the birthday party, but still) and storm out of the store without any of her groceries.

So here's my question for the peanut gallery: how accurate, if at all, is the shrink's assessment of Betty? We're supposed to view him as an aloof, sexist figure since he reveals everything about the sessions to Don, but at the same time, something is definitely wrong in Betty's head. Giving Helen's son the lock of hair was a poor choice, and slapping Helen was an incredibly childish response.

Another strong episode. What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

What are we to make, though, of Peggy's trip to the lunch cart immediately after?

I took that as her way of sublimating sexual desire.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I took that as her way of sublimating sexual desire.

Yeah, you've got that right. As you'll note when you see next week's re-posted review, I was too blinded by my disgust with Pete to realize just how turned on Peggy was by that speech.

Anonymous said...

Are we sure there were two chip and dips? I thought there may have just been one.

Anonymous said...

There was just one chip and dip, Pete lied because he wanted the 22.00 or whatever it was for himself. Remember, he only makes 75.00 a week, and that is a lot of money for little Petey. He is such a swine, I love watching him make a complete ass out of himself.

Anonymous said...

I have to make special note of the art direction in the supermarket scene. There was almost a hyperreality to the scene: the colors so vibrant, almost too much so; the graphics on the signage; the pop art design of Helen's dress juxtaposed with Betty's sleek monotone outfit; even the gesture of the slap was stylized. It was as if a magazine ad had come to life. Just brilliant.

Anonymous said...

I am afraid to comment since I watched the whole series when it originally aired, and I don't want to inadvertently slip up and reveal a spoiler. So I'll just say that I can't wait for this show to start airing again (season two) this summer.

re: art direction: Yes, yes, yes!

Anonymous said...

I also thought that there was just one chip and dip, and that the whole "we received two" line was an excuse that Pete was using. I read it as an effort (futile as it turns out) to assert authority over his wife.

Random note - but the "down the gun barrel" perspective had me once again thinking of director David Lynch. I enjoy how this show mixes the feeling of technicolor dreamland nostalgia with really twisted brutality.

Byron Hauck said...

Did anybody else find it interesting that what Pete describes as a fantasy many other men at the time would expect/demand as reality? Pete may be wistful for the good-ole-days, but he seems more aware than anyone that the world is moving on.