Mad Men episode 107: “Red in the Face”

Don and Roger play a drawn out game of manly one-upmanship. Betty dukes it out with Helen Bishop. Meanwhile, Peggy gets to work on writing copy for Belle Jolie, after Freddy says that her coming up with the “basket of kisses” line was like watching a dog play piano.

A season of Mad Men follows something of a template. The first episode of the season is devoted to catching up with the characters, and seeing where they all are with the passage of time, and setting up some of the storylines and plot arcs we’ll follow this year. Then the show will glide along at a slow pace, often eschewing plot, and having a couple of episodes that take the focus of off Don or Peggy. In the middle of the season, usually episode 7, something big and/or very entertaining will happen. The show will then drift for a bit, catching up briefly on a few of the arcs. The penultimate episode is usually where all the plot threads come together, and something major happens, leaving the final episode of the season to tie together any loose ends, put a cherry on top, and wrap up everything in a nice bow (or, in narrative terms, denouement). The first episode 7, “Red in the Face,” is indeed one of those special episodes, a Mexican standoff between two good friends and co-workers who are also hyper-masculine.

The bulk of the episode revolves around the frenemy rivalry between Don and Roger. Roger may be Don’s only true friend, but he’s also Don’s boss which complicates things. They often find themselves unintentionally competing with each other because of that masculinity that is hard-coded into their separate strands of DNA.

Roger wants to spend the weekend with Joan, as Mona and Margaret (his wife and daughter, respectively) will be out of town. Joan needs more notice, and has made plans with her roommate, Carol. Feeling like a little kid let loose in the big city with money in his pocket but nothing to do, Roger begs Don to go for “one drink” at the Oak Room’s bar.

One drink turns into a few. Roger and Don make eyes at two young ladies, who must barely be 18 (the legal drinking age in New York at the time). When Don gets up from the bar, both girls watch Don, leaving Roger feeling old and inferior to his younger, movie-star-handsome friend. But with nowhere to go and nothing to do, Roger invites himself to dinner at the Draper household. As Don, Betty and Roger eat and get more drunk, Roger becomes Mr. Suave and charms Betty. When Don has to go out to the garage to get more liquor, Roger makes his move: he tries to grab Betty close and kiss her. Although Betty rebuffs him, upon Don’s return, there’s an awkwardness in the air.

Roger leaves, and Don tears into Betty for being so receptive to Roger’s flirting. Don parrots a line he heard from earlier in the episode, when he called Dr. Wayne to check in on the psychiatry sessions: “I feel like I’m living with a little girl.”

Don punishes Betty for being an attentive host and maybe showing just a bit too much interest in Roger’s stories. But he also plans on doling out revenge on Roger. After Roger stops by Don’s office and tells a pretty hilarious story about driving home drunk one night, and walking into the wrong home, his apology falls flat when he makes the stiff analogy “sometimes we’ve all parked in the wrong garage.” Don’s not pleased and puts his plan in motion.

After bribing Hollis the elevator operator to pretend like the elevator’s out once he sees Don and Roger return, the two ad men go out for a way-more-than-two martini lunch. Don is smooth and charming here, letting Roger lead the way to overindulgence in both alcohol, seafood and sweets. They return to the office just in time to meet the Nixon campaign folks–if the elevator was working like it was supposed to. Instead, they have to take the stairs all the way to the 23rd floor. Roger seems like he might have a heart attack at several points along the way, so the younger and fitter Don rushes ahead. When Roger shows up in the office a few minutes after Don, it doesn’t take long until he vomits up that excessive lunch. In the battle of manliness, score one for Don.

The theme of masculinity plays out in a smaller storyline in this episode. In a classic moment that has been memed to death since 2007, Pete shows his office colleagues the duplicate chip-and-dip he received as a wedding present: “it’s practically four of something.” When trying to return it at Bonwit Teller, he tries to flirt up the customer service lady, who is having none of his “charms.” He eventually arranges for a store credit exchange on the chip-and-dip, but is distressed to see the lady in customer service reciprocate the flirting of Matherton, a college acquaintance of Pete.

Pete’s shot down trying to be a smooth ladies’ man, but still walks out with a symbol of masculinity: a .22 rifle. He proudly proclaims to his officemates that it was “the same price as a chip-and-dip.” But his masculinity is stripped from him again when Trudy won’t let a gun in the house, and berates him (in a shrill off-camera voice) for returning a gift from her family, despite the newlyweds receiving two of the same item.

The smallest storyline of the episode has the biggest ramifications for the rest of the season (and continues a storyline that will recur all the way up until the end). When grocery shopping, Betty runs into Helen Bishop, who confronts Betty about her giving Glen a lock of her hair when she had babysit him. Helen asks what kind of woman Betty is, and all Betty can do is give Helen a good slap across the face, leave her grocery cart mid-aisle and leave.

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Although Betty’s friend and neighbor Francine Hanson comforts Betty by letting her know the rest of the neighborhood ladies are on her side, this is a turning point in the long, strange, and oddly poignant relationship between Betty and Glen.

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Mad Men episode 106: “Babylon”

Mad Men unveils its first great episode, a noodling hour of mood and texture, notably lacking in plot. Don finds himself in exile from Rachel, and doesn’t find any relief from Midge. Peggy participates in a focus group and makes her first tentative step towards a career in creative by coming up with the line “basket of kisses.”

I’ve often referred to “Babylon” as Mad Men’s first truly great episode. When newcomers are having a hard time getting into the series, I always recommend they watch the first six episodes, until the end of “Babylon.” If they’re not hooked then, they probably never will be.

Interestingly, Netflix released a study about a year ago that showed which episodes of various TV series led to viewers going on a binge-watch–basically, looking at viewing habits and seeing at which point the viewer binges on many episodes in a row. My recommendation was validated, as “Babylon” was the episode that finally hooked Netflix viewers, starting their Mad Men binge in earnest.

What’s most interesting about “Babylon” and its status as an early great episode is the fact that it is mostly devoid of plot. Before I discuss that, let me get some semantics out of the way. “Story” and “plot” are often used interchangeably when discussing film and television, but there is a difference. The story is what happens, and the plot is how it happens. Plot is the collection of the turning points in the story that lead from one movement in the narrative to the next. For example, one could say the story of the first Star Wars movie concludes with Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star. But the plot includes important points that add weight to the story: Han and Chewbacca had to leave before the attack on the Death Star, because they had collected their reward money and needed to return to Tatooine and pay off their debt to Jabba. When Luke was in trouble in his trench run on the Death Star, he was saved when Han and Chewbacca return in the Millennium Falcon and knock Darth Vader out of the way. These are the points of the story (“plot points”) that add depth, drama, excitement, sadness, etc., to the story.

So “Babylon” definitely has a story, but is very short on plot. There’s no rising arc, no tension between protagonist and antagonist, or other conventional plot devices. It floats by on mood alone, and it’s a captivating mood. It’s easy to say that nothing really happens in “Babylon,” and plot-wise (both in this episode and in the over-arching plot of Season 1), that may be true. It’s easy to see why this episode delineates the Mad Men fans from those who just aren’t into it.

After the previous episode’s reveal about Don’s true identity, we get the series’ first “Dick Whitman flashback.” After getting up early to cook Betty a Mother’s Day breakfast, Don slips on a toy on his way up the stairs and takes a nasty tumble. He slips into a memory of Adam Whitman’s birth. We see Don’s stepmother Abigail proudly cradling her newborn son, and we see Uncle Mack who reminds young Dick that he and Adam share the same father. If Mack is his uncle, but he shares the same father with Adam, then who is their father? Don’s past is not clear at this point, not even to us, the omniscient viewer.

Don’s bungled attempt at a Mother’s Day breakfast-in-bed is appreciated by Betty, but she can’t resist slipping into being sad about her own mother, who has died but a few months ago. Don encourages Betty to snap out of it, calling mourning “extended self-pity.” Don should look in the mirror, because inside he’s also wallowing in his longing for what he can’t have: Rachel Menken.

When the Israeli Tourism Board comes in for a pitch from Sterling Cooper, Don uses the Jewish connection to arrange for a lunch meeting with Rachel. It’s supposedly a business lunch, and he needs her “expertise.” She reluctantly accepts his invitation. When she finds out why he needed to see her so badly, she’s dubious. “I’m the only Jew you know in New York?”

Don tries to loosen up this lunch meeting, hoping Rachel will have a drink. She has coffee instead. He reaches out to hold her hand, but she resists. When she sees where all this is headed, she leaves early and says the lunch better not show up on Menken’s bill from Sterling Cooper. But before leaving, she does give Don an important point to think about. Israel needs to exist, as a place for Jewish people to just be themselves, after years of persecution. Don misses her main point and compares Israel to a Shangri-La or a utopia, which leads Rachel to explain what she learned about utopia in college. The Greeks had two different words for utopia, which alternately translates to the “good place” and the “place that can never be.” This seems to be the perfect analogy for Don and Rachel’s relationship.

So Don goes running back into the arms of Midge. He rushes her as soon as he walks through her door, picking her up in preparation for what one would imagine would be a vigorous round of sex. However, it’s coitus interruptus as Midge’s friend Roy comes knocking on the door not long after Don did. Roy wants Midge to come see their friend Ian perform at an underground nightclub; Midge convinces Don to come along by promising to wear a short skirt and nothing else underneath.

Once at the club, Don and Roy begin to bicker. Roy is a beatnik/early hippie starting a “theater of the people” that he’s trying to recruit Midge into. Roy is shocked that Don works on Madison Avenue, that he’s a “huckster” who helped “create the religion of mass consumption.” Don fires back that Roy should get a real job, and also questions Roy’s masculinity by saying he spent more time on his hair this morning than Midge did. Between that and the lame musical and spoken-word performances on display, Don’s had enough and wants to leave. But Midge convinces him to stay for the reason they came, Ian the musician. Ian and a musical partner give a performance of the traditional song “By the Water of Babylon,” which seems to move Don. His mind is filled with thoughts of Rachel; the song’s lyrics about the plight of the Jewish people and their earlier conversation strike a chord with him. The song seems to describe the detachment he feels from his everyday life.

The episode closes with a montage over the performance of the song: Rachel works late at the store; Betty shows Sally how to put on makeup; Roger and Joan leave a hotel where they’ve been carrying on an affair. As the music ends, we see Joan and Roger far apart on the street, the only sounds over the closing credits being the street noises of a relatively quiet night in Manhattan, and the action of Roger’s Zippo lighter opening, striking a flame to light his cigarette and then closing. It’s all moody, ambient, and incredibly affecting. We the audience feel what Don was feeling while the song played.

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In addition to the reveal of Roger and Joan’s ongoing affair, the other main storyline in the episode concerns Peggy. Belle Jolie would like the Sterling Cooper secretaries to give their opinion on their line of lipsticks. Although there’s many colors, and all the secretaries are excited to take some time off of work and play with makeup, Peggy doesn’t get the color she wanted and stares at the other secretaries in derision. When asked why she didn’t participate by Freddy Rumsen from the creative department, Peggy says she didn’t get her color, and that no one wants to be “one of a hundred colors in a box.” As she offers Freddy the wastebasket with the tissues that have remains of the lipstick, she tells him “here’s your basket of kisses.” Freddy recognizes a creative mind, and a new journey for Peggy has begun.

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Mad Men episode 105: “5G”

Don gets a visit from his long lost half-brother, who finally reveals just who Dick Whitman is. Peggy learns more about Don’s lunchtime activities than she wants to know, and reveals more than a good secretary should. Meanwhile, the Sterling Cooper team makes a “private” pitch to a banking client.

With “Who is Don Draper?” established as one of the key themes of Mad Men, the show surprisingly gives an answer in only its fifth episode. It’s the most superficial answer, not digging into Don’s psyche, but it’s still a big reveal, especially for so early into the show’s run: Don is not Don at all, but Dick Whitman, the name we first heard a couple of episodes ago on the commuter train.

Don has won an Advertising Age award, which leads to a photo on the front page of that publication. Don’s (half) brother, Adam Whitman, is a janitor in a Manhattan office building and finds a discarded copy of the issue with Don’s photo. This leads Adam to track down Don (or Dick, as he knows him) at Sterling Cooper. Don initially tries to deny Adam’s claim that he is actually Dick, but even the steely Don is rattled upon seeing his past life intersect with his present life when Adam shows up at the office. He agrees to meet Adam for lunch.

The Don/Adam lunch is naturally the centerpiece of the episode. In just a few minutes at a diner, we learn a lot about Don’s past. He was born Dick Whitman. He shares the same father with Adam, but we learn that Adam’s mother, Abigail, is not Don’s biological mother and that “she never let [Don] forget it.” There’s also a mention of Uncle Mack, who is established as a father figure to both Don and Adam with just a few lines of dialogue. Adam mentions that when Abigail and Mack came to pick up Dick’s casket from the train that has delivered the dead soldier’s body from the Korean War, he actually saw his brother. In an early display of Mad Men’s literary brilliance, key events in the timeline are established with great economy. We’ll see a lot of these events play out in extended flashbacks, and they impressively match up very well to the conversation between Don and Adam.

In yet another display of brilliant writing, even though Adam’s appearance and the lunch is the centerpiece of the episode, it’s not really the central theme of the hour. Privacy and secrets actually the primary concern, and they pop up everywhere. Don and the creatives are looking for a new angle for a pitch to a banking client. They come up with the “private account,” for the working man who wants to keep a separate bank account other than the home account, with statements sent to the man’s workplace. When Paul Kinsey first pitches the idea, Don’s bristles at the word “private,” leading Paul to come up with “executive account” instead. When the client comes in for the pitch, he likes it, because many men have already asked for such an arrangement, and this will now give the bank a way to make it official and charge a fee for it. Interestingly though, he doesn’t like “executive” and steers the conversation back to “private.” Perhaps remembering Don’s earlier thoughts on the matter, Paul throws out the combination “executive private account.”

Calling the idea “private” rubbed Don the wrong way, because he’s obviously keeping way too much of his life private, and it’s causing him great anxiety. We don’t learn quite yet just how bad the repercussions could be if Don’s identity switch were made public, but just for reasons of keeping his new life–with the great job, wife and kids–secure, he must keep his past private.

Of course, Don’s got a lot of other things he’s keeping private, including his ongoing affair with Midge. He may be pining for Rachel Menken, but how can he resist when Midge calls him in the middle of the day, asking for him to come over, pull her hair and ravage her? He can’t resist. By not hanging up the phone quick enough, Peggy finds out more about Don’s private life than she wished she had. This sets up a great comedy-of-manners scene later in the episode, when Betty shows up with the kids at the office, to meet Don for a scheduled family portrait. Don’s not in, and Peggy starts to freak out because she thinks Don’s with Midge. Ironically, Don is not with Midge–he’s tending to other private secrets at the lunch with Adam.

Peggy’s having a near-nervous breakdown trying to entertain Mrs. Draper and the kids until Don shows up. She’d likely be nervous regardless, but thinking that Don’s out of the office having sex with his mistress is making it worse. Peggy steps out briefly to ask Joan for advice on how to handle the situation, which ultimately makes things worse. Joan’s advice is how Peggy would handle the situation anyway, and Peggy has revealed Don’s secret to Joan when she didn’t need to. An extra bit of comedy comes from Joan calling Don’s office while Peggy is struggling to make small talk with Betty. Peggy’s about to have a heart attack, and Joan’s having a blast by making things worse with her little phone call.

Don eventually shows up and uses the common excuse of “being at the printer’s”, and Peggy’s finally able to exhale. But the weight of maintaining his privacy is taking its toll on Don. Unlocking his desk drawer, Don pulls out $5,000 in cash (or 5G’s worth of cash, in more informal speak). He goes to visit Adam in his pay-by-the-week hotel/apartment (room 5G). He tells Adam to take the money and go away, to California or somewhere far away from Don’s new life.

Betty later asks about buying a summer home, and Don says no for this year, as they’re not too flush with cash right now. He says it’s nothing to worry about, but of course he can’t tell the real reason why: he’s just given his brother $5G of cash to go away forever.

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Mad Men episode 104: “New Amsterdam”

In only its fourth episode, Mad Men shows that it’s not afraid to devote the bulk of the hour to a character other than Don. While this Pete-centric episode is no “Signal 30,” it’s still an excellent signpost on the way to the show finding its footing. While my Reddit post reproduced below focuses on the Pete aspects of the story, we shouldn’t forget that a major event in Mad Men history happens here also: Betty babysits Glen Bishop. Creepy Glen arrives fully-formed, walking in on Betty while she’s taking a leak, and later asking for a lock of her hair as a keepsake. This odd pairing of a woman with the mind of a child, and a child with the mind of a budding serial killer, begins a subplot that will play out in bits and pieces for the rest of the show’s run.

“New Amsterdam” is a Pete Campbell-focused episode of Mad Men. It’s notable as being the first episode in which the show makes someone else other than Don the central figure for an hour, something the show would do often with its deep bench of an ensemble cast. I imagine viewers new to the show, who may already be struggling with how Mad Men is more like a novel than a TV drama, wondering why Don is mostly sidelined in this episode, and asking “Where is this all headed? Anywhere?” It’s actually quite daring, especially as the previous episode left off at a point where we’d expect to see some of the fallout from Don’s actions at Sally’s birthday party.

On the other hand, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that Mad Men would have better Pete-centric episodes later on. One in particular, Season 5’s “Signal 30,” is one of the show’s greatest episodes. But that’s not to say there’s not a lot to love here.

If nothing else, “New Amsterdam” puts to rest Pete’s ambitions of one day being a creative director. For those of us who’ve seen the whole show, it’s always jarring going back to the beginning and hearing Pete say in the pilot to Don, “I’m not going to pretend I don’t want your job.” The Pete we come to know is a salesman, not a creative type, and he grows into his job really well. Pete’s primary competition in the sales department, Ken Cosgrove, is no slouch himself (and the show would later make a lot good use of the Pete vs. Ken dynamic), but he approaches the job a lot differently than Pete does. Ken’s easy-going, friendly, and comes across as a sales guy who would be a pleasure to work with. Pete, on the other hand, is a master of the hard sell, using flattery, negotiations, or any other tool in his shed to close a deal. It’s hard to imagine that he would even want to be in creative at all, much less be the boss of creative types, who can be difficult to manage.

But, as it turns out, Pete has ideas, and he wants Don and Roger to know that. When he tries to undermine Don in a pitch meeting with Bethlehem Steel, Don’s annoyed and tells Pete as much, and expects it to end there. Persistent Pete isn’t ready to give up though. During dinner (with drinks and prostitutes) he pitches his idea, which Bethlehem Steel happens to like more than anything they heard in the earlier pitch meeting. That’s enough to send Don over the edge. Pete violated a couple of fundamental rules of the business–pitching copy in a bar and, as a salesman, pitching copy at all. Don tells Pete to get a cardboard box and pack his things, as he’s fired.

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But sage Bert Cooper sees a bigger picture of the advertising business, and Sterling Cooper’s place both within the industry and in New York. He makes an analogy to a luxury watch: in the intricate mesh of levers and gears, a Pete Campbell is needed. Sure, Pete’s made a mistake, but he’s young and mistakes are good learning material. And Sterling Cooper needs what Pete can provide–a foot in the door to certain parts of the Big Apple’s upper-crust society. Bert tells Don that no, this isn’t Pete’s last day.

Roger helps Don save face by barging into Pete’s office and saying that the young salesman gets to stay, despite everybody wanting him gone, but that Don reconsidered, and thinks Pete’s worth a second chance. This is a happy ending for Pete, but he’s still been dressed down. He won’t forget the rules he’s learned. (He’ll even throw a fit over Joan breaking the “fundamental rules” in Season 6 when it comes to Avon.)

But Pete would probably would prefer that dressing-down to what’s going on in his personal life. His new bride, Trudy, wants an apartment that would cost 10 years worth of Pete’s salary; the down payment is one whole year’s worth of salary. He tries to leave it at that, but Trudy’s not giving up that easy. She’ll ask her parents for the money if need be. For a man like Pete in 1960, the thought is utterly emasculating. So he feels out his parents for a loan on the down payment, but there’s no love here. Pete’s mom and dad don’t even try to cover up the fact that they’d gladly help out his brother, Bud, before they gave him any money. His dad trashes the profession of advertising, while his mother generally makes him feel unloved.

In the end, Trudy does ask her parents for the money, above Pete’s objections. The episode closes with Pete and Trudy in their new apartment, which her parents probably bought for them outright, and Pete staring out the window, while Trudy tells stories of Pete’s impressive New York family lineage. The Dyckmans (his mother’s side of the family) and the Campbells together owned a huge chunk of Manhattan at one time, back when it was known as New Amsterdam, but things are different now. Pete’s family doesn’t really have any money now–Bert had earlier related how they had given up their wealth for pennies on the dollar during the stock market crash of 1929, rather than riding it out. Pete certainly didn’t have the money to even put up a down payment for this apartment. Despite outward appearances, he doesn’t have a great job; he’s not respected for his talents or ambition. He’s being kept around for the familial connections that Trudy tells their new neighbors about. And, considering his pre-wedding tryst with Peggy, does he even really love his wife? Pete’s life may look good on paper, or to outsiders, but it’s all a facade.

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Mad Men episode 103: “The Marriage of Figaro”

Sterling Cooper has won the Menken’s department store account. The team comes up with a great plan, but lose credibility in Rachel Menken’s eyes when she realizes that no one from the firm has even been to her store, a wrong that Don is happy to right. After getting the tour of the store, Don goes in for a kiss from Rachel––then tells her he’s married. Rachel won’t be “the other woman.” Sterling Cooper can keep the account, but she doesn’t want to deal with Don, fearing they won’t be able to resist each other. Dejected, Don spends a weekend in his suburban home, and pulls a “magnificent bastard” stunt during Sally’s birthday party by disappearing after going to pick up the cake.

It’s been my long-held belief that Mad Men’s sixth episode, Babylon, is its first truly great episode. For newcomers that are having a hard time getting into the show’s glacial pace, sometimes devoid of traditional plot, I tell them to hang in there until finishing that sixth episode. If they aren’t hooked by then, the show will probably never click for them. But episode three, The Marriage of Figaro, approaches the greatness of Babylon. It’s certainly the first episode that lets us into the characters’ lives without exposition; we know these people and their place in 1960 life now. With all the table-setting done, Matthew Weiner and company are ready to set the characters free and see where they land.

The previous episode established that “who is Don Draper?” will be one of the key themes of the series, and The Marriage of Figaro starts off by immediately complicating that question. Riding the train to work, an old Army buddy approaches Don but calls him “Dick Whitman” instead. This is the first time that name is mentioned in the series, and Don’s interaction with the man from his military past gives us a few clues. First, “Don Draper” may not be his name at all; at the very least, he was known by another name during his time in the military. Second, we see he has no problem coming up with lies to sidestep the issue, right on the spot. He quickly comes up with a phony career when asked where he’s working. He seems relieved when the old acquiantance says he works for IBM in upstate New York, and he realizes he won’t be running into him all the time in Manhattan.

While last episode showed that Betty was not fulfilled with having every part of, The American Dream, The Marriage of Figaro makes the case that Don is not happy with it either. The title comes from an opera, playing on the radio during the birthday party for Sally that takes up a large part of the episode. The opera’s story concerns a young man who marries and seems to have it all too, but fights his unhappiness by continuing to chase women. Don’s unhappiness with the sterility and insularity of suburbia leads him to do the same. In the previous two episodes, we’ve seen him spend a considerable amount of time with mistress Midge, and trying hard to flirt with a mostly unimpressed Rachel Menken. But Rachel admitted that Don charmed her at the end of the pilot episode, and here she lets her guard down even further.

Sterling Cooper has won the Menken’s department store account, despite Don’s boorish behavior in the first hour of the show. When it becomes clear that no one from the firm has even visited the store while drafting the Menken’s campaign, Don is the first to volunteer to right that wrong. Rachel gives him a tour of the store, opening up to Don with personal details along the way. After revealing that her mother died while giving birth to her, Rachel talks of a loneliness growing up that has led to her passion to make something of herself and the department store. We’ll come to find out that Don has plenty in common with Rachel, and he’ll reveal some of that to her in future episodes, but for now, he drops conversation and goes straight for a kiss.

Afterwards, Don realizes he has to tell Rachel one important thing about himself: he’s married. She feels the passion for Don that he feels for her, but she won’t play “the other woman.” Sterling Cooper can keep the account, but she doesn’t want to deal with Don directly.

This leaves Don back with his “perfect life” back at home. Waking up on a Saturday that will see the neighborhood coming over to celebrate Sally’s birthday, Don goes outside to construct one of Sally’s gifts, a playhouse. His shed refrigerator is stocked with cans of beer, and he’s close to downing a 12-pack before he gets the playhouse put together. And this is before the guests arrive, and the mixed drinks start.

After a few more drinks, the titular opera on the radio, Don takes a hard look at his life around him through a home movie camera. He sees one bland, homogenized couple after another in his house. The one outlier, divorcee Helen Bishop, is the subject of ridicule and mockery when the married ladies are alone in Betty’s kitchen. Helen represents a threat to their status quo, not only by being a divorcee, but by being an independent woman who walks the neighborhood with nowhere to go, just because she likes walking. The “hen house” of Betty and her friends probably imagine the walking is just so she can shake her hips and advertise herself as an available woman. Their contempt for Helen is barely veiled. When Betty sees her alone with Don, the two of them enjoying a cigarette together outside, Betty’s had enough. She sends Don to pick up the birthday cake from the bakery.

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Don, will you quit talking to that slut and go pick up the cake?

Don, too, has had enough. Maybe he’s too drunk to keep driving, or the thought of going back to that suburban nightmare of a birthday party is too much of a buzzkill. Either way, he doesn’t come back in time with the cake. He sits in his car, dreaming of Rachel, and what can’t be.

In the end, Don saves the day with Sally by coming home with a dog, Polly, as a final birthday present. Sally has forgiven Don for not coming back with the cake, but Betty’s pain is beyond words. She literally doesn’t know what to say to Don as she leaves him, the kids, and the new dog in the living room and heads to bed.

Roll the closing credits, and…welcome to the world of Mad Men, where beautiful, wealthy, and healthy people have it all, but are still suffering from an awful existential malady.

 

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Mad Men episode 102: “Ladies Room”

Don and Betty go out to dinner with Roger and Mona. Don deflects questions about his past both at the dinner, and later at home with Betty. Betty’s shaky hands lead to a low-speed car wreck in a neighbor’s yard, and the medical consensus is that she needs psychiatric help. Don is aghast, since he has provided her with everything a woman could possibly want (except, you know, a husband who is open, honest, and faithful). This causes Don to ponder “what do women want?” Roger provides a most Roger-like answer: “who cares?” Don buys Betty more expensive swag, but she’s still anxiety-ridden, so she starts seeing psychiatrist Dr. Arnold Wayne.  We’re introduced to Sterling Cooper co-owner, elderly eccentric Bert Cooper, who pushes Roger and Don to pursue the Nixon presidential campaign as a client. Don’s mistress, Midge, provides an answer to “what women want?”, but it’s only an answer suitable for Don’s deodorant campaign: “Any excuse to get closer.” Meanwhile, Don tries to find out specifically what more his wife could want by calling Dr. Wayne at night to get the scoop on Betty’s first session on the shrink’s couch.

“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” the pilot episode of Mad Men, was a quick and snappy affair, full of walking-and-talking scenes of expository dialogue around the Sterling Cooper office, straight out of beloved shows that debuted in the ’90s, like ER and The West Wing. As I mentioned in my post on that episode’s thread, the pilot was more energetic and straightforward than the show would ever be. With “Ladies Room,” the show settled into the slow, methodical pace with existential overtones that it would come to be known for. It’s quite a shift, as the hour unfolds at a leisurely pace, mostly concerned with the inner workings of Betty’s mind.

Perhaps the biggest signifier of the shift in tone is this episode’s walk-and-talk scene. Rather than a bustling office, with many people coming and going as in the previous episode, this time around we see Paul give Peggy a tour of a mostly-empty office at lunchtime. The feel is completely different, even though the scene still exists for the purpose of exposition–Paul’s explaining the inner workings of Sterling Cooper to Peggy (and us, the viewers).

Something’s bothering Betty in the back of her mind, and whatever it may be, it’s manifesting in the form of shaky, numb hands. It’s anxiety manifesting in a physical form. We learn that Betty has been to doctors for this problem before, and she and Don have mostly chose to ignore the problem. The previous doctor visits confirmed there is nothing physically wrong with Betty, and the couple initially chose to take this as a sign the problem would resolve itself, rather than face the alternative: Betty may need a psychiatrist.

It’s here that Mad Men reveals one of its strengths–this show’s not just a surface exploration of 1960s culture, like so many that came before it. It’s going to delve into what life was really like back then, and part of that is psychiatry had a major stigma at the time. You didn’t need a shrink unless you were insane, or majorly unhappy. Don tries to convince Betty she simply can’t be unhappy, given the life he has provided for her, which can be neatly summed up as The American Dream. The man of the house makes a lot of money in the city, they have the house in the suburbs, with two cars, and a boy and a girl. Since that’s not enough to shake Betty out of “the blues,” Don buys her jewelry and tells to look around at “all this,” The American Dream she is living.

But something is causing great anxiety in Betty’s mind that can’t be overcome with possessions and material wealth, and it’s that she doesn’t really know her husband at all. In the most obvious sign of that trouble, Betty rhetorically asks a sleeping Don who he is, and who is inside there?

“Who is Don Draper?” will turn out to be one of the key themes of the show, perhaps the biggest one. Don’s journey to find that out for himself will take all seven seasons and 92 episodes. But for now, he’s a cipher to everyone. The episode begins with Don and Betty out to dinner with Roger and Mona. As Roger gets more and more drunk, he reveals more about his personal life (including the admission that his daughter, Margaret, had to see a shrink, something Roger half-denies later when sober). But when pressed, Don will only say of his past that he was a baby in a basket, like Moses. We’ll come to find out just how literally true that was, when a later season flashbacks to Don’s birth, but for now he says that to deflect questions of his past and his true identity. Betty later tries to get more out of him, asking him if he had a nanny growing up. It takes a lot of prodding for Betty to get an “of course not” out of Don.

Unable to confront his past or his true self, Don wants everyone to focus on his current self, and the possessions he has that should validate him as a success now, leaving questions about how he got here irrelevant in his mind.

As it turns out, everything is a possession to Don. Mistress Midge is his possession. He demands to know when she got her television, as he knows it must have been from another man, and that’s not acceptable to him. Even Betty turns out to be a possession, as he shows no shame in calling up the shrink, Dr. Wayne, that he eventually allowed Betty to see, so that he can get a download on all her personal thoughts. And, in sticking with the verisimilitude of the times, Dr. Wayne has no problem violating Betty’s confidence and filling Don in on everything.

This is our true welcome to the world of Mad Men. Whereas the pilot episode may have gave the impression of a “James Bond in an advertising agency,” we see here for the first time that Mad Men is actually going to go way deeper than standard television fare.

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Mad Men episode 101: “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”

I realize that Mad Men pretty much gave birth to online TV recap culture as we know it, and the last thing the world needs is another blogger reviewing the show. However, I’m making posts on each episode at the Mad Men subreddit‘s rewatch, so I figured I’d post them here. I’ll also add some extra thoughts here that aren’t a good fit for a Reddit post.

In the premiere episode of Mad Men, 20-year-old secretarial school graduate and native Brooklynite Peggy Olson starts work at the Sterling Cooper advertising agency on Madison Avenue in March 1960. We’re introduced to her boss, and series central figure, Don Draper, along with the core of the show’s unforgettable cast of characters: quippy Silver Fox co-owner Roger Sterling; queen bee office manager Joan Holloway, closeted art director Salvatore Romano, obnoxious young executive Pete Campbell, and his entourage, including media buyer Harry Crane, and accounts-man-on-the-prowl Ken Cosgrove. Joan gives Peggy an orientation, which includes a lunch-time visit to a gynecologist who will prescribe the then-new birth control pill for Peggy. Don frets over coming up with a campaign that will help Lucky Strike hit back at the latest government health claims against cigarettes, pulling out an iconic catchphrase at the last minute. Peggy takes some of Joan’s advice a bit too far and makes a failed pass at her boss, but gladly welcomes a drunken Pete into her home late at night, after his bachelor party. Oral contraceptives protect you from getting pregnant right away, don’t they?

With the hindsight of having seen an entire series, pilot episodes often appear very different than the rest of the show. This is partly because the creators, writers and director have to exaggerate some of the show’s qualities to get the attention of viewers and network execs, and partly due to logistics–the pilot is often filmed well in advance of the rest of the first season, before the show gets picked up with a series order. Sometimes, sets are different than what we come to know, and there’s even different actors in some roles.

“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” is not as foreign as some pilots, but it still can be jarring to fans who’ve seen the entire run of Mad Men. Nearly all characterizations are a bit exaggerated (only Roger seems 100% like the character we’d come to know). Certainly, Don’s sexism and nihilism is ratcheted up a notch. Overall, the “slow burn” style Mad Men would come to be known for is not in place in this episode, although the show abruptly switches gears to its more restrained style in only the second episode, “Ladies Room.” Fortunately, no actors were replaced; Matt Weiner’s real-life mom in the photograph on Pete’s desk as “Trudy Vogel” (soon to be Trudy Campbell, played by Alison Brie) is the only character inconsistency. (Actually that’s not technically true: the Sally and Bobby we see at the end of the episode aren’t the same actors who would play them in the very next episode, but we don’t get a very good look at the sleeping kids anyway.)

Most of the differences in tone and style can be chalked up to this episode being written at least five years before it was shot (Weiner had been working on it in fits and starts longer than that); it being shot a year before the rest of the Season 1 episodes; and it being the only episode of this famously New York-centric show to actually be shot in NYC. “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” was filmed during the break between the two parts of the final season of The Sopranos, with a crew made up largely of that show’s excellent band of technicians. Weiner had acquired a plum job as a writer and executive producer on The Sopranos, thanks to the script for “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” which had been developing a reputation in Hollywood for some time as the best unproduced television pilot. Other than Weiner, the most essential Sopranos veteran working on this pilot was director Alan Taylor. Taylor directed Sopranos episodes throughout the entirety of the show’s run, but became more of a regular director at the same time Weiner joined the show.

Historically, The Sopranos connection is important. “Made In America,” the famously ambiguous Sopranos finale, first aired on June 10, 2007; “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” premiered less than six weeks later on July 19. (Incidentally, July 19, 2007, was a Thursday! Although Mad Men is remembered as a Sunday night show, like a lot of prestige TV, it actually toiled as a mid-week show early on.) As the first great show of “The Second Golden Age of Television” was wrapping up, its second was waiting in the wings. Retroactively, we can see that there were actually many other great shows in this canon that debuted in between The Sopranos and Mad Men, but none captured the public’s imagination at a level like these two shows, raising the profile of television over the movies for the first time since TV’s first golden age.

What’s most intriguing about Mad Men’s cultural impact is that it even made an impact, considering its low viewership. Whereas The Sopranos could regularly pull in 13 million-plus viewers per episode–a nice chunk for television of any kind, but absolutely amazing for a show airing on premium cable–“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” premiered to a paltry 1.1 million viewers. Even at its peak popularity, the Nielsen ratings for Mad Men would only hit around 3.3 million viewers. One to three million viewers per episode is typical for a TV show with a cult following, but is unheard of for a show that made such a ripple in popular culture. All throughout 2007, Mad Men became the new show to talk about around the water cooler, untold number of bloggers basically invented online recap culture writing about it, while its immaculate Janie Bryant-detailed costumes brought the fashion of the Kennedy years back in vogue. And mixed drinks, primarily Don’s preferred rye Old Fashioned, saw a huge spike in popularity.

Which brings me back around to the content of this pilot episode. Although it can stick out like a sore thumb in comparison to the more muted, slow-paced, introspective episodes that were to come, it did its job as a pilot. It sold the AMC executives on the show, and it also sold a modest, but steady, viewership. Perhaps most importantly, it began the run of the first season which would cement the “prestige TV” concept; Mad Men’s first season would become the first basic cable show to win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series, a feat it would repeat in Seasons 2 through 4. (Its four wins place it in a tie for most wins in this category.)

One final bit of trivia: Although Mad Men is often remembered as the first original show on AMC, the former American Movie Classics, that’s not the case. AMC had a handful of movie-focused documentary shows under its belt already, and a game show hosted by Match Game legend Gene Rayburn, The Movie Masters. Mad Men wasn’t even AMC’s first scripted series; that “honor” goes to the largely forgotten 1996-1998 sitcom Remember WENN. A more promising dramedy, The Lot, premiered in 1999, and limped along for two seasons, hurt by the early departure of its star, Linda Cardellini, who left for the opportunity to star in a broadcast network show, Freaks and Geeks. Incidentally, Cardellini would be back on AMC for a pivotal role in Mad Men’s sixth season.

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