The virtues of mad men
Six Months Leave
I'm sorry but no one like Don Draper in 1962 would have opened the door of their hotel room wearing just boxer shorts.
That aside, there is a nice parallel between the dead Marilyn Monroe that Don reads about in his newspaper in the hotel where he is staying and the bedraggled Betty who gets out of bed in her nightie. Ever so slowly we are starting to say goodbye to the culture that the show has gloried in up until now.
One key moment in this episode occurs when Betty turns on the radio long enough to hear the announcer quote Marylin saying that it is unfair to criticize stars and that stars are what is right with the movie business. Now that is telling if you've been reading the on-line commentary and blogs about this show. Critics and pundits defend Betty (no one loves her). They see her as a victim and a vindication of the Friedan thesis.
Everyone else dislikes her. Visit the discussion groups and you'll see that no other character is so widely abused and disdained as Betty. No matter our sex, race or religion, we are united in our dislike of Betty Draper. The writers know this and they were already plotting her demise when they wrote this episode.
There was a scene last episode when she appeared without make up and that carries through this episode (I suspect she is actually made up to look like she's not made up but the effects is what we see not the reality). And here we get some nice retroactive context. A couple of shows ago, we thought of Joan as the Marilyn type, now we see it is Betty who represents the false image of womanhood that has to go.
In any case, we see de-glamourized Betty actually doing housework. But not actually raising her children. She's not much good at that. She is better at relating to objects than people.
The distinction that will become so important in Season 3 between the people who are grown ups and the ones who act like children starts to be drawn here. One thing you have to say about Weiner, is that he is always laying the groundwork for future developments. "Grown up" doesn't mean morally perfect here. And we should remember that the 1960s was increasingly, as the season opener reminds us, the era of youth.
In this episode, a couple of icons disappear. There is Marylin. Marylin is one of those people, foreshadowing JFK here, whose achievements objectively considered are not nearly as impressive as the mythology around them would have us think. Both are all about image rather than actual achievement. And historically speaking, the show is about to enter an era where image trumped substance.
How do you play this to someone in their 20s or early 30s? Remember that, for them, people who morn dead icons are like those pathetic idiots who went around wailing after the death of Princess Diana. For them, the grown ups are the people who get on with life and don't engage in self-indulgent hysterics. How do you sell them on the virtues of a decade that made self-indulgent wallowing in the death of a minor president into a cult religion?
Surprisingly, Weiner plays a nice game of bait and switch. He teases us with Marilyn but instead gives us Freddy Rumsen, about as unglamorous an icon you could imagine. And instead of mythologizing Freddy, he gently moves him off stage paying due to him and his era. I won't say anything about it here because the show itself handles it so well. Buy the episode and watch the scenes where Don and Roger take Freddy out for a final night on the town. It's as rich and beautiful a performance as this show is capable of, absolutely full of humanity like a Louis Armstrong trumpet solo.
There is also another retrospective twist here. When JFK is shot in the penultimate show of Season three, the characters will again divide into grown ups and children, Joan will be one of the grown ups then. Here she is still a child. I'm pretty sure that is not the way the writers had originally planned it. I think she was meant to be the one who got phased out. But everyone loves Joan and no one loves Betty, so plans were changed.
And there is a minor joy. Jimmy Barrett is, as I noted before, a decidedly Seinfeldian character and there is a lovely moment when Don punches him in the face. Rogers says he doesn't know why Don did it but a lot of people will tank him. And we do. The only way it could have been betterw as if they had cast Jerry Seinfeld himself in the part.
He could have been a legend
The other key moment is when Peggy chews out Pete for ratting on Freddy. She says he could have been a legend. And perhaps he could have.
Marylin did become a legend in a way that is all too typical of the 1960s. In the same way that Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix later would . The joke in the 1980s was to say that dying was the best career move they ever made. Except, of course, that they died. Freddy get's to live.
And also except of course that they were all pathetic washed up addicts when they died. The legend hides that.
Leaving the past behind
Weiner has said that the first season was a complete idea. He put everything into it because he had no idea if there would be a second season. Now that he has one, he has to expand his scope to include the sweep of history. It's not enough to present costume drama now. he has to show us why the very attractive culture he showed us in Season one withered away.
That carries immense risks for the show's writers. Most importantly because the people who actually watch the show love the culture and style of this era. And an era that had lots of style is about to be replaced by an era that had none.
Equally troubling is the values. I'm not sure the writers grasp this one fully. The critics and pundits come from a generation that still saw the 1960s as a time of great liberation. They are looking for a show that will justify the 1960s. That will, as someone else put it, show why the 1960s had to happen. And that is going to be a lot harder than it sounds.
But most people who watch his show are ten to twenty years younger than the critics and pundits. They grew up sneering at oldsters sitting in front of PBS documentaries about the summer of love or the nine-millionth Peter, Paul and Mary Special. To them, the 1960s is just history. It's got nothing to do with them. They, correctly, admire the style and flash of the early 1960s are not going to be conned into believing that protest songs, long hair, Nehru jackets and jeans were a step up.
Season 2 blogging begins here.
The next episode blog will be here .
(Season one begins here if you are interested.)