Thursday, July 22, 2010

I love testosterone; it's like gasoline

The virtues of mad men
Shut the door. Have a seat.
I think a lot of people who watch this show, especially the critics, tell themselves two kinds of lies in the name of being correct.

They pretend to like Salvatore Romano and Betty Draper when they actually dislike them and they hide just how much they like Don Draper and Roger Sterling. This show is only at its best when the latter two are together. They walk on the set and everybody is hip deep in testosterone. Testosterone is good. 

Both men and women know this even if they pretend otherwise. Anyway, this episode—the best Mad Men episode ever—is awash with testosterone. It's full of manly men solving problems in a manly way. In fact, I'd advise you to skip reading this, go to iTunes, buy the episode and watch it again instead. If Howard Hawks had written and directed an episode it just might have been a smidge better but otherwise this is as good as television can get. Brideshead Revisited is still the best TV show ever but that is only because every episode of it was brilliant and Mad Men only managed to be this good occasionally.

Part of the thrill is that we haven't seen this sort of manliness on screen since, well, since the early 1960s.  Nowadays people are liable to think manly means being brutal.

Don decides not to be one of them
Anyway, it starts with a bang as Conrad Hilton gives Don some very good advice:
You know, I got everything I have on my own. It's made me immune to those who complain and cry because they can't. I didn't take you for one of them Don. Are you?
Don decides not to be one of them. Don is also a self-made man and decides to be true not to Dick Whitman but to Don Draper. He doesn't need Betty to be Don Draper and in this episode we see him move beyond her.

And where does he turn for strength? To his past as always. It is by making and remaking his own mythology that Don faces difficulties.  I noted earlier this season that Don was now creating his past instead of simply remembering it. Several of the "flashbacks" this season were to events he could not have witnessed such as the night of his conception. They have all also tended to focus on his father instead of on Abigail. And as we watch him flashback to the failure his father was, we see him make a curious decision: he decides to be the man his father wanted to be. He sets out to be a strong, independent, individualist, laconic man of action.

That, as I say, is a guilty pleasure. We aren't supposed to admire the sorts of characters that Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck and John Wayne played anymore but here he is in all his glory, the great American hero. And I don't care who hates me for saying so but I love it. Here is how he puts it to Bert when he asks him why he cares:
Because I'm sick and tired of being battered around like a ping pong ball. Who the hell is in charge?A bunch of accountants trying to make a dollar into a dollar ten? I want to work. I want to build something of my own. How can you not understand that? You did it yourself forty years ago.
And then it's Death of a Salesman in reverse. The scene in Roger's office where they talk him into coming along is so good I couldn't even begin to do it justice. Go to iTunes and buy the episode and watch it. You don't get to see television this good every day.

The key line in the scene, the key line in the whole show is when Don admits he can't do what Roger does and Roger sums up what he is missing to be a good account man  (and you can leave the "account" in that out and it applies even better):
You're not good at relationships because you don't value them.
Don acknowledges this and we see him slowly putting the lesson into action as the episode goes on.

Then Betty comes back on board for a bit. The crucial moment is when she and Henry Francis visit a divorce attorney. The attorney asks Betty what sort of terms she wants and Henry convinces her that she needs nothing because he will provide all. Watch it for the acting. Betty's face as we see her accepting this is priceless. It's the face of a kid accepting candy not an adult wondering why a strange man is suddenly offering her gifts. Later in the episode Don will call Betty a whore but she is worse than that. A whore at least has enough self awareness to realize what she is.

And then the thing comes back to life the second Don has Bert, Roger and Lane to his office. The moment when Don says, "So we're negotiating now," is worth the price of admission all by itself. Testosterone, Vroom, vroom. Love it. It's just one beautiful scene after another. There is a classic guy scene in the bar with Roger where Don finds out about Henry Francis. Then there is wonderfully cathartic scene where Don tells Betty what she is and he is right on every point.

It's not an accident that Don tells Peggy the following when trying to win her over:
Because there are people out there who buy things. People like you and me. And something happened. Something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves. Is gone. And nobody understands that. But you do. And that is very valuable.
He isn't talking about the JFK assassination. He is talking about loss and how we can grow by letting go of that person we cannot be anymore. Really, that is what it all boils down to. If you get that, you get Mad Men. If you don't, you don't. It's a show about dealing with loss and adversity by becoming a better person. Don Draper in his very imperfect way embodies all the virtues needed to do that better than any other person on the show except for Roger Sterling.

He lies and she lies
There is a particularly important moment amongst the slow bits and one that Betty defenders need to pay close attention to. Don and Betty sit down to tell their kids that Don is moving out. They sit down with the best of intentions and then immediately start lying. Don lies first. He responds to the children saying that things will never be the same by insisting that they will be the same. Sally calls him on it.

Let's stop an analyze this for a second. Why is Don lying? Because he is in denial mode. He is trying to protect his children and probably himself from the brutal facts.

Now comes Betty's turn to lie. Sally, smart kid Sally, figures out what has really happened and accuses her mother of making Don leave. And Betty lies to her. As always Betty lies to hide the truth about her character or, to be more precise, her lack of character.

One thing for certain, Sally is going to grow up to hate her mother and rightfully so.

Looking back
If we remember the episode "Six Months Leave" from season two, there was a great line when Don and Roger are in the bar after Don has punched out Jimmy Barrett. Don describes it as "a real Archibald Whitman" manœuvre". Well, here we see that corrected a bit. There followed a magnificent moment in that magnificent episode where Roger tries to talk Don into sticking with his marriage and Don unknowingly convinces Roger to give up on his.

Now Don finally has the courage to realize that he should just let Betty go. Everything he said to her when he confronted her about Henry Francis was true but it isn't enough to realize this. When you get let a bad woman go you also have to let go of the fight because keeping that passion alive just keeps the relationship alive.

The crucial scene here is when Trudy walks into the new office of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and Don watches what a real loving wife looks like. And that convinces him to let Betty go.

The final scene is a gem. Shot in the dark to save money as Mad Men exteriors often are (easier to hide the non period details), we see Don get out of a cab with his suitcases and walk across to the new apartment Joan has found him.

If they had any real courage, they would have ended the series right there. They'll never be able to get it that right again.


  1. I agree, this was the best episode of the series so far. And that Brideshead Revisited was the best TV series ever. I also agree that we can reinvent our past, the older I get the more I find myself doing it. That creates a conundrum for me that I can only resolve by knowing that it has enabled me to grow, but I don't understand why.

    I agree that Sally will grow up hating her mother, and what you say about the lies, Don and Roger, Henry and Betty, and especially Trudy, she is the model loving wife. I can't disagree with anything here, you have this episode down pat.

  2. "Who the hell is in charge? A bunch of accountants trying to make a dollar into a dollar ten?"

    He was right, and that was only the beginning, that's the way all of business operates today.

  3. I hope you can open this, its about Mad Men from today's WSJ online. Very good article.