Monday, October 5, 2009

What's In a Name?

Mad Men: Souvenir
Season 3, Episode 8

I like the meanings behind episode titles (needless to say its one of the things I enjoy about shows written by Joss Whedon), but I'm especially fond of it this week. We can have a great trip, but all that's left in the end are memories and trinkets. The timing, placing the episode in August, gives everyone an excuse to take a break from the daily working grind at Sterling Cooper. In fact, the office is barely seen at all before Pete spends a weekend home along and Don and Betty jet off to visit a hotel in Rome for Connie Hilton.

In a way, this isn't an episode I'd expect to enjoy too much. Pete and Betty have always been two of my least favorite characters and numerous character I enjoy Peggy, Paul, Harry and Cooper are unseen or only seen briefly there to say adios to Pete. But at this point I know even an episode of "Mad Men" that's not sitting in my wheelhouse is at least going to be well executed.

The big theme this week is pretending and slipping identities is the norm. I don't think I've ever found January Jones as attractive as when Betty was flirting with two men at an outdoor restaurant, running along in perfect Italian and then pretending not to know Don. It's an incredible change of scenery for them, both literally and figuratively. As someone who has been bashing this sham of a marriage almost nonstop since the pilot, its been easy to forget how well this couple can look together. To borrow Betty's idea of every kiss being a shadow of a couple's first, I think this is what she and Don were like when they first met. Both can not only look attractive, but be flirty and adventurous and sensual with one another. Don obviously finds it especially endearing, since he's the show's resident expert on dropping one life for another. While Betty is turned on by something exotic and new, I think Don is much more attracted to seeing how well Betty can fulfill the deception. Either way, this is a rare highpoint for the Drapers.

But don't get too happy. Back in their suburban reality/nightmare, things are as rough as ever. Don still considers his wife as little more than scenery. I loved how Don used Betty's call list as just another piece of scrap paper. It sums up how he treats her often - she's handy, like a napkin when he has a new idea to jot down.

And if nothing else, this Betty-centric episode reminds us that for all his whining and near escape attempts, Don isn't the only person trapped in this marriage. Betty might act like a shrew more than a little, but she's still this beautiful, intelligent woman that her daughter idolizes (even if they don't understand one another like Sally and Don do) and more than a few men find attractive. But just as she responded to the near collapse of her marriage last season with a one night stand before letting Don come back, Betty once again flirts with something more (kissing Henry after the council meeting) before reverting to her depressing marriage. She certainly possesses a lack of self-deception when they return and Betty is the one to admit it was nothing more than a trip and everything that is wrong is still there. Morbidly depressing words from an annoying downer killing Don's high? Yes. The truth? Also yes.

In the other main story, Pete spends the weekend home alone with Trudy out of town. Either he's playing at being a kid (I literally laughed out loud seeing him eating cereal and giggling at a kid's show) or playing the hero (helping a neighbor's nanny replace a damaged dress), Pete continues to falter every time he is denied utter acceptance. From Don at work or Trudy at home, Pete has never been able to differentiate his own self-worth from the opinions of others. The most painful part of the episode was watching him force himself on the nanny, Gudrun. Just a week after defending him to Billy as someone who had matured so much since the first season, it was disappointing to watch. And we know its coming, from the moment we see Pete's disappointed face when her thanks over the replacement dress isn't as special and glowing as he wanted. Sure enough, a bit of booze later and he's back at her door, being the juvenile prick he was back in the first episode.

In another one of our Life sure was different back then Moments, the neighbor comes by and reprimands Pete - Not because Pete sexually assaulted the woman, but because of the trouble he'd have finding a new nanny that his wife would get along with. The stand out scene of the week where I think how different it would go a generation or two later.

These episodes are so thick I normally leave a bit of discussion out, but I'd kick myself if I didn't mention the cheer I let out when seeing the manager assisting Pete at the department store turned out to be Joan. Keeping with the theme of the week, she plays and pretends to be a happy housewife just filling her time while her lovely husband starts on a new career path. We remember how desperate and sad her fallen expectations and loser husband have left her. But even now she's the consummate professional at any task and hardly dropping a hint of anything being out of sorts until after Pete leaves. And of course Joan solved his problem in no time flat... she is Joan after all.

Finally, I wanted to apologize for this review being a couple days late. I'd say it will never happen again, but that would be foolish on my part as we enter the playoffs.

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