Monday, March 10, 2008

Mad Men redux: Trapped in the closet

(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 "Mad Men" episode eight coming up just as soon as I find a piece of chalk...

Poor Salvatore. Poor damn Salvatore.

There was simultaneously a lot going on in this episode (more Dick Whitman backstory, lots of character work) and not very much (what there was of the plot ended at the 15 minute mark), and I want to write about it all, but I really feel the need to start with Salvatore because... damn. I actually had to pause my review screener for a moment to shake some dust out of my eye, you know?

Just as episode four added major shadings to the previously two-dimensional Pete, so does episode eight transform Salvatore from chronological inside joke -- he's a big fat queen and nobody gets it! -- into a fully-realized, tragic character. And in a completely unexpected way, at that.

I had assumed that the storyline would end one of two ways: Salvatore completely misreads the guy, who turns out to be straight and none too happy at another man making a pass at him; or the guy is gay but too afraid to do anything with Salvatore the accomplished homosexual. I never for a second would have thought it would be the other way around, because Salvatore has been written (and played by Bryan Batt) with so much confidence and energy and life force that I just assumed he had some kind of rich sex life in whatever underground gay scene New York had at the time. The notion that he's too afraid to act on his feelings, that he's a 40-year-old (gay) virgin, never even occurred to me, and yet when Salvatore revealed that he wouldn't know what to do in bed, then ran off altogether, well... like I said, dust. As with the Pete episode, it completely changes the way I view a lot of his prior behavior without in any way contradicting it. Who would have thought that Salvatore might genuinely feel more comfortable flirting with the pretty phone operator (who apparently replaced Mel from "Conchords") than the handsome cosmetics salesman, if only because he knows the former will never go anywhere? Just a superb scene, and a character I'm really going to have my eye on in the future.

Meanwhile, Don smokes enough primo kush to give us an extended flashback to his childhood. If nothing else, this episode should put the "Don is a closeted Jew" theory to bed once and for all, unless you want to assume that the mother who made him a "whore child" was Jewish. (Given how seriously Christian Dick's stepmom was, by the way, "whore child" could mean anything from his mom being an actual whore to his dad knocking up his mistress to his dad knocking up some random girl before he even got married. Obviously, far more onions to peel here.)

The hobo (played by Paul "Father Phil" Schulze from Matt Weiner's old show), meanwhile, turns out to be an enormously influential figure in Don's life, far more than the old man from whom he only inherited his looks and smoking habit. The notion of being a traveling man, able to just walk away from a bad situation, has stuck with him. Don walked away from being Dick Whitman (and, more recently, from his own half-brother), walked away from his farm life and into first the military, then the hobo's hometown of New York. Throughout this series, when Dick's closely-guarded emotions come to a boil, his response is to flee, whether driving away from his daughter's birthday party or trying to fly Midge to Paris so he won't have to think about the validity of Mr. Cooper's Ayn Rand lecture. The episode's last shot asserts this again; Don's office is his ultimate retreat, a place that bears the mark of another man (and/or marks him as a liar like his father), and a place where he can get away from it all... at least until Pete or Roger or Kenny barges in to tell an off-color joke Don will be required to laugh at.

So is Don done with Midge? We've already established that he'll pay people off to get them out of his life, and that he's uncomfortable with her bohemian world, and that he suspects Rachel Menken is out there waiting for him. (Dumping Midge would also make Rachel more amenable; as I wrote a few weeks ago, I think she could deal with being The Other Woman, but not The Other Other Woman.)

The third of this week's storylines (if you can call any of them that) was its weakest, with Pete and Peggy hooking up again. After I said I was puzzled by Peggy's reaction to Pete's hunting fantasy last week, a bunch of you chimed in to say she was clearly turned on by it. I went back, watched again and could see what you were saying, even as I was repulsed by Pete's monologue. The problem, I think, is that Peggy, more than any character who's not Don, is written in a way that leaves the big motivational burden on the actor -- she's complicated and slightly mysterious, and there's no one she can deliver explanatory monologues to -- and I don't know that Elisabeth Moss is as up to that challenge as Jon Hamm clearly is. I know there's a way to reconcile Peggy's independent streak with her attraction to the oiliest, most juvenile man at Sterling/Cooper (smart women, foolish choices and all that), but I don't think Moss is bridging the gap between those two sides of her.

I also don't know how much she's being helped by Vincent Kartheiser, who often seems like he's trying too hard to disappear into this character from another era. He's very mannered, particularly in the way he talks, and while some of that can be written off as Pete the character trying too hard to assert himself as a man in front of people who don't respect him, I don't think that all of it can. So when you put these two actors in a scene together, it can be an uphill battle. Hopefully, Pete sniping that he doesn't like to see Peggy "like this" -- i.e. happy, successful and assertive -- may be enough to make her realize what a childish putz he is and move on, if only so we don't have to see this pairing of actors going forward.

On the plus side, we got to see Peggy's lipstick ad campaign work -- with some blunt force salesmanship from Don, in my second favorite scene of the episode after Salvatore's dinner -- without the predictable, "Melrose Place"-style twists where Pete or Joan sabotage her, take credit for her work, etc., etc. And the other two-thirds of the episode were superb. Even when nothing happens, everything is happening.

What did everybody else think?


Alan Sepinwall said...

Forgot to link to this last week, but AMC's "Mad Men" site put in a plug for this blog.

Anonymous said...

I think Sal is such a great character, and I was really impressed with the sensitivity with which the actor played him in this episode. Bravo.

Another strong episode.

ant said...

I have to say, I was so impressed with how this show laid out the stakes of Salvatore having sex with that guy. The early reference to McCarthy--don't sign up for bowling--is a nice reminder that more suspected homosexuals were purged from the federal government than suspected Communists during the Cold War. Damn, someone did their homework. And then they kept it complex by juxtaposing the potential consequences with Salvatore's emotional fears. This show rocks. Thanks for reposting the reviews!