Monday, September 14, 2009

And Off We Go

Mad Men: The Fog
Season 3, Episode 5

One of the more universal complaints or concerns about the third season of Mad Men has been the slow burn approach to the first four episodes compared to the last two years. I've never really understood that complaint since the first season mystery about Dick Whitman didn't really develop until the fifth episode "5G", when we meet Adam. Honestly, I have found this season's slow approach a nice chance to highlight the punchline that Roger Sterling has become (How will it get worse than singing in black face in "Old Kentucky Home"? Because you know it will.) and the expectation of the birth of Betty and Don's third child.

But the waiting game is officially over as Don and Betty's story leaps forward and the continued difficulties in integrating the new British management at Sterling Cooper highlight the largest episode of the year in turns of scope.

The real gift of Mad Men is the gift of hindsight.. of knowing where things are heading. And it isn't just dates like Roger's daughter having a wedding the day after Kennedy will be assassinated. The conversation between Pete and Hollis (one of many Yankees fans I find I am able to like without reserve) about televisions is a humorous stand-out given the perspective of the 21st century. The actor who plays the largely thankless role of elevator operator Hollis, La Monde Byrd, is always terrific in what he can say without speaking. How he feels excluded from the idea of the Pete's typical American Dream (outside of watching baseball) and how from our perspective we know that can change, that's one of the little moments that make the show for me. Scenes like that, which in the course of the overall episode (with far bigger scenes involving Peggy and Don, Duck's return and the long sequences involving Don and Peggy at the hospital for the birth of Gene Ver. 2.0) are really rather small and insignificant still bring so much to the table. It's a credit to Matthew Weiner and his writing staff. This tiny scene in the elevator is probably my favorite moment and I couldn't call it one of the five most substantive sequences in the episode.

The majority of the episode is spent at the hospital. Right away we get another of the little cultural quirks the show is so good at pointing out. The idea that the father's job is done when he gets the mother into the building is cute given every birth scene we've watching in every television show and movie over the course of my lifetime. Heck, John Travolta was there for Mickey's birth and he was just the cab driver. But it kind of works here, letting Don share the waiting room with a prison guard and first time dad and Betty going through the birth alone. Don's scenes highlight how, despite recent efforts, he can't make this life mean as much to him as it did before he had achieved it. The idea he had when he was Dick Whitman of this life has worked out so superbly for him professionally, but so hollowly from a personal standpoint. He just isn't the man who can be that involved in his family as the prison guard is. He can't honestly believe in rededicating himself to his family because of this child's birth as the guard does. But for now he continues to make his half-hearted efforts. If the show does last until 1970 as producers have mentioned, I can't imagine Don and Betty still together. But perhaps that is another truth of the time period we'll see. They will both allow themselves to be trapped and miserable for the sake of a mental image of family life.

Back in the advertising world, I have to credit Duck in his little talent poaching mission (even if he makes the enormous misjudgment of having the meeting with both and slighting Pete in the process). Besides Don, there's no one in creative more worth having than Peggy, both in terms of current talent level and in how her forward thinking attitude will make her even more valuable as the rest of the world catches up throughout the 1960s and 70s. And while Pete has his numerous flaws and is often more antiquated than Peggy (see the hilarious Charleston dance sequence from two weeks ago), his pursuit of directing ads towards African Americans is well ahead of the rest of his peers. Of course, as his conversation with Hollis highlights, he isn't invested in social change (like Paul would be), it's just a matter of money to be made. But still, it's a progressive leap of thought that we don't see often at Sterling Cooper from anyone besides Don and Peggy.

Speaking of Peggy, her conversation with Don, while well-written and excellently performed by both Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss, isn't as excellent as Don's hospital bedside visit to Peggy that we viewed in flashback last season. For now, it's tough watching my two favorite characters at odds. Their mentor-student relationship was always special, both in terms of mutual respect (including how Don never gave her an inch that she didn't earn) and the fact that it was valuable enough for Don to never make it anything beyond platonic. But this conversation, with Peggy requesting a well-deserved raise that Don cannot get her due to the penny-pinching British overlords, does more for Don in a thematic sense. Peggy so values achieving what Don has (and not in the malicious way Pete had in previous seasons), while he finds his life so unfulfilled. Structurally, it is all a bit more important to Peggy, considering she is getting offers from outside of Sterling Cooper.

And that has been the cruel realization for Don this season. His trip to California last year and Betty throwing him out has spurned him to try and make a better go of it with his family. So he has thus far avoided the clear mutual interest between himself and Sally's teacher, Suzanne Farrell. And the real tragedy of it is that Don and Betty can't be happy together without one of them massively changing. Women like Rachel Menken, Suzanne and (in a professional sense) Peggy all relate to him in a way that Betty or (in a professional sense) Joan never could. Part of the appeal of Don isn't how well he fits in the current setting, but how open and progressive he comes off (be it his views of raising children, the abilities of women in the workforce or relative indifference to race). He accepts the world he has to work in, but we know through hindsight that people like Don and Peggy and their worldview will last long after the Bettys and Rogers are left in the rear-view mirror in the coming decade.

While I've ignored her thus far and just inferred she doesn't deserve her husband, I really don't have anything against Betty... honest. Especially not January Jones' wonderful performance, which is once again stellar in her ability to convey such sadness in almost all things. But she is ultimately the weak girl that her parent's raised her to become. She has her husband and children and too much of her life has always been about maintaining that dream and lifestyle. Don isn't as much her partner as a means to an end. And the great tragedy of her situation is how trapped and dependent it has made her. Despite the big kick out last year, Don's coming and going in the family is almost entirely his own decision. When he wants to leave, he can. When he wants to return, Betty will eventually let him. While Bobby and Gene have been significantly non-entities beyond their figurative value, I honestly think half the time Don is staying for Sally, not Betty.

A random note before wrapping things up, it was nice to see Yeardley "Lisa Simpson" Smith as a nurse at the hospital and she never came off as being nearly as annoying as Lisa is. Well done!

Final score: B+

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