Monday, April 07, 2008

Mad Men redux: Election night is party night!

(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 "Nixon vs. Kennedy," the penultimate episode of "Mad Men" season one, coming up just as soon as I direct a one-act play...

"Mr. Campbell, who cares?"

Hah! Hah! Hah! Yes! Hah!

If that wasn't my exact reaction to Bert Cooper's reaction to the Dick Whitman news, it's only because I'm not sure where the "Yes!" went.

It's not that I was surprised by that response. After Pete walked off with The Box at the end of last week's episode, I talked it over with a bunch of "Mad Men"-worshipping critics, and we came up with several scenarios for how this might play out: 1)Pete resists the urge to use this knowledge, either out of fear or one final attempt to get Don to like him; 2)Pete simply doesn't understand the contents of The Box; 3)Pete successfully blackmails Don into getting his support for the head of Accounts job; or 4)Pete takes the info to Cooper, and Cooper -- Ayn Rand-loving, every man for himself, up by your bootstraps Bert Cooper -- says, well, "Who cares?" (Or something like it.)

So it wasn't shock that made me so overjoyed by the response, but rather Matt Weiner staying true to the spirit and themes of the show, not only with Cooper's response, but how both Don and Pete behaved throughout the story. Cooper believes in Rand's theories of rational self-interest, but also in the power of advertising, of creating the reality your customer wants to be sold. Who cares who Don Draper used to be if he can sell cigarettes and make Cooper money? If anything, Don's reinvention, if Cooper knew all the details of it (which we finally do; more below), would only raise his opinion of his creative director.

When Pete tries to play bully -- the only trick he knows -- with the info contained in The Box, Don resorts to the most important trick he knows, the one the hobo taught him. He wants out, wants to grab Rachel Menken and go anywhere but where he's about to be revealed for the fraud he's always been. But lucky for him (and those of us who get to witness the glorious smackdown), Rachel wants no part of that. She finally sees Don for who he is and the image she's sold herself on, calls him a coward and tells him to leave. In a series in which characters are too often willing to be prisoners in their own lives, Rachel takes control of hers and kicks Don to the curb. That, coupled with Peggy's speech about how following the rules gets you nowhere in a world where bad people have all the advantages -- culminating in the same "It's not fair" line that Don used when discussing the election results with Cooper -- leads Don to finally, however briefly, make a stand for something other than himself. He knows that he's probably going to lose in a scenario where Pete rats him out to Cooper, but he also knows that Pete's going to lose, too -- Cooper's not the type to value rats -- and if he has to sacrifice himself to prevent Pete's advancement, so be it.

And Pete, who is as clueless about self-sacrifice as he is about his own limitations (I loved Don's non-answer to the question about what Duck could offer that Pete couldn't; it reminded me of the old Louis Armstrong line, "If you gotta ask, you'll never know"), isn't smart enough to avoid the mutually-assured destruction scenario. Don keeps his job, and he doesn't even need to take up Cooper on the offer to fire Pete, because he knows how much power he now holds over the little weasel -- and how little respect Cooper now has for Pete.

And yet, as I was noting in this morning's column, Don's really only an admirable soul when you hold him next to someone like Pete (or Paul, or Ken). Though the flashback to how Dick Whitman wound up assuming Don Draper's identity (after accidentally starting the fire that killed Draper) didn't make him look too much the heel, the final flashback to Dick-turned-Don on the train, watching his family and ignoring the cries from young Adam, showed just how destructive Don's selfish impulses can be. Sure, he's out of that place, but he strands Adam there, knowing he's been abandoned by his brother. It's a scene made many times more affecting by our knowledge of how Don would treat Adam years later, and what that would lead Adam to do. You see that little boy, and all he wants is to see his big brother again, and it's devastating. In that moment, I had only one thought in my head: Goddamn you, Don Draper. I know your childhood sucked, but think about someone else just once, okay?

While the Don/Dick/Pete situation was the heart of the episode, a surprising -- and rewarding -- amount of time was spent on the junior staff's election night debauchery. I clocked that segment -- from when Don leaves the office on Tuesday to when Peggy arrives on Wednesday -- as close to 15 minutes, which is an eternity in TV time, even with the brief interludes at the Draper and Campbell households. Yet it didn't feel long. Like the other "Mad Men" episodes that focus on after-hours (say, "Marriage of Figaro" or "The Hobo Code"), there was a hypnotic, voyeuristic quality to these scenes, as if any plot developments (Harry sleeping with Pete's secretary Hildy) or character revelations (Paul once scored with Joan, but she spurned him because he bragged about it to the other chipmunks) are less important than the simple act of being with these people. It's like Weiner says: when this show is really working, it's less a drama than some kind of time machine. That sounds pretentious as hell until you get a look at that water cooler full of creme de menthe or see everyone sitting politely to watch Salvatore and Joan perform Paul's stupid play.

God, I love this show.

Some other thoughts on "Nixon Vs. Kennedy":
  • Lead director Alan Taylor was in charge of the series' most cinematic episode to date. The fluid camerawork throughout the office party was a wonder to behold and the push-in on Don after Pete made his initial threat (pictured above) showed just how right Taylor was when he insisted to Weiner that the dominant image of the opening credits should be the back of Jon Hamm's head. (As Weiner put it, Taylor said to him, "Have you seen the back of this man's head? Have you seen what that is, what presence that is? Who is this person, this mystery?")
  • The flashback with young Adam solved the chronology confusion from "5G" -- this was the moment he talked about when he said he was 8 years old when he saw Don in his uniform -- but that also means that someone in charge of casting thought Jay Paulson could pass for 18, which he couldn't. Win some, lose some.
  • A cliche of black and white romantic movies was the moment where the plain Jane heroine would take off her dowdy spectacles and get the "Why, without your glasses on, you're beautiful!" reaction from the hero. I'm not saying Rich Sommer, who plays Harry, is a matinee idol without his glasses, but it was stunning how different he looked (or how different Sommer carried himself) in the morning-after sequence with Hildy. Harry's gotten the least screen time of the chipmunks, previously established as the nerdy married guy who lives vicariously through the adventures of guys like Paul and Ken. Now he's gone and bedded Hildy -- whose rejection of every one of Pete's clumsy advances fuels Pete's hatred of her -- and you can see what an awful mistake he realizes it was.
  • Getting back to Paul's roman a clef, "Death Is My Client" (in which he couldn't even be bothered to come up for another name for the off-stage Ken Cosgrove character, so much does he resent Ken's literary success), did you catch that whopper of a kiss Salvatore laid on Joan, not to mention Salvatore's beaming expression after? Sadly, it looks like he's decided to give heterosexuality a go (or at least to continue with his self-denial). Which interpretation of Joan's reaction do you favor: that she finally realized he's gay, that she always suspected and was surprised he kissed her so well, or that she was simply turned on by it?
  • I spent a lot of time in today's column praising Jon Hamm, but I feel like I can't leave unmentioned the stunned look on Don's face as he walks out of Cooper's office after getting off scot-free. What a performance by this guy.
  • Great work by the make-up (or prop) team on the real Draper's corpse. And yet crispy-fried Don Draper grossed me out less than Pete warning Peggy to be nice to him.
  • Did anyone else catch that the black elevator operator and janitor who got fired after Peggy complained about her stolen blouse and cash (which were no doubt swiped by a white S/C employee) were likely the same two who were there the morning of Peggy and Pete's assignation on his office couch?
What did everyone else think?


Anonymous said...

The first time I watched the scene, I got the impression that Joan had figured out that Sal was gay. The 2nd time I watched it, I got the impression that Joan though he was a surprisingly good kisser (for a gay guy). I'm not sure if I was influenced by your original post planting that idea in my head though.

Anonymous said...

The scene with Adam racing after the train and his brother is one of the most heartbreaking scenes I have ever watched. Don truly is a selfish, selfish man.

It took me a few episodes to completely get into the show, but I am loving it now. I would rank it up there with Dexter as the most addictive shows on TV right now.

Anonymous said...

This was such a fantastic episode. I can barely stand it, waiting for season 2 to start.

Adam - Word.

As for Joan's reaction after Sal's kiss, I keep vacillating between interpretations. Hopefully there will be some plot in season 2 involving these two rich characters together somehow. I can see where they could be allies. A beard setup between these two could be mutually beneficial. Just food for thought.

Dan Jameson said...

I took Joan's reaction simply as her being turned on. Though she's presumably kissed many, many men, I doubt she can tell a "gay" kisser.

FANTASTIC episode and fantastic show all around. I'm so glad I started watching. Thanks, Alan, for re-posting your reviews. It forces me to watch the episodes earlier in the I can't stand the thought of the review sitting on your blog without me being able to read it.

Anonymous said...

Alan (or others): Has anyone read or heard Weiner's take/approach to his act outs? (Commerical breaks.) They seem so arbitrarily inserted into the episodes, it made me wonder if all of these were written intially for HBO or Showtime, and then cut up haphazardly for pay tv use.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Tuck, I've never heard Weiner talk about it. And, to be honest, as someone who watched the season on screeners, one or two weeks at a time, I couldn't even tell you where some of the act breaks were. (I've been recording these repeats lately, and may have to take a look.) I wouldn't be surprised at all to learn that Weiner just wrote the script and let the act breaks fall where they may, but it's not like he has no experience working in commercially-interrupted TV. Before "Sopranos," he wrote for several network sitcoms.

Anonymous said...

'Kay. Thanks, Alan. Upon further reflection it may be that I have been so ingrained with traditional cliffhanger network act outs, esp. like those on Lost, CSI, etc., that Mad Men's much more genial act outs feel "off."

Anonymous said...

It could also be that newbie AMC, without the years of experience of the big networks, could just be a little artless about their does often feel like a scene is cut into a split second or so early...