Monday, September 13, 2010

We're flawed because we want so much more

The virtues of mad men
The Summer Man
I had a reader pop in here last spring and get very angry with me. She started at the beginning of my season one comments and started reading through. She never made it to the end because my remarks about Betty Draper really got to her. She responded with a series of angry comments, one of which was so angry and abusive that I deleted it, and then she left and never came back.

What really bothered her was my returning, again and and again, to Betty's childishness. I doubt she enjoyed last night's show much. And it's a shame really because Betty actually grew up a tiny bit last night.

The best part is that she did so because her feeling of rivalry towards Francine. Why is that good? Because people who love Betty almost always seem to hate Francine. Probably because Francine has often said the thing that triggers stupidity from Betty in the past.

Boys and girls behaving badly
This was a very good episode. It was not great—which is what the last few have been— it was merely very, very good.

The first four minutes were magnificent. I love the bit where Don sitting in the locker room at the athletic club looks over at the transistor radio another man has put down. We hear a song faintly but we don't know what it is. We can hear what sounds like static, which is perfect for the technology. Don can hear though and he steps out on the street and bang, there it is in all it's Keef playing the most distinctive riff ever in all its fuzz box glory.

I have to gloat, and it's not just a gloat but one of those gloats that deals with stupidities that only matter to boomers, but damn but I love the way Matt Weiner has dissed the Beatles and not just because I predicted he would.

As long as I'm glorying in my successful predictions. Here is what I said about Bethany after the Chrysanthemum and the Sword episode:
Assuming we get to see Bethany again, I wonder how she will respond to being ignored. She was clearly chafing at the lack of romance last night. Will she offer sex in attempt to get romance or would that be too depressingly like real life?
Exactly as predicted, one pleading for more closeness over dinner followed by one unreciprocated blowjob in the back of a  cab. Depressingly like real life? You bet—the same thing was probably played out only 17 million times last Saturday night— but there you are.

(We had the boys behaving badly too. I wonder if anyone else has noticed that the younger generation of men is actually a step down into  the sexism pit? That part is also right in terms of history. The sixties was one of the nadirs of sexism.)

Anyway, back to poor Bethany. Her big move gets her nowhere. Don quickly realizes how much better the company of adults is and he ends up having dinner with Dr. Faye Miller who doesn't indulge in such childish schemes.

It's telling that they don't have sex. It's a nice touch whereby Don lets Faye know that he takes her very seriously. As opposed to Bethany who lets Don know that he doesn't need to take her seriously.

The Pinky POV
That's an obscure reference to a Pinky and the Brain episode that only fanatics like me will get. Anyway, the playing of Satisfaction on the soundtrack is a hint that we are inside Don's brain. This episode splits neatly between scenes where we are inside Don's world view and the scenes where we are out with the children. For much of the show, these are like snapshots from different perspectives and we assume that there is a wider frame that includes all these shots but there isn't.

There are two crucial moments that show us how they don't fit together. One is when Peggy walks from the office into Don's office wanting him to do something about Joey not respecting Joan and gets some completely unexpected respect herself. The second is when Peggy and Joan are in the elevator and we realize with a jolt just how different Joan's way of seeing the world is from Don's way.

I'm going out on a limb here but I think Joan is now very dispensable. Not as dispensable as Joey but the two have something in common. And that something has to do with attitudes towards sex. Joan is more like Bethany in that she wants to be taken seriously but then starts using sex to get it. Joey's comments about Joan are way out of line but not because they aren't true.

Step back a moment and try and predict how these characters will age. Joey is not going to be a Don or a Roger. He just doesn't have the class. And what is Joan's long-term destiny? Okay, this will rub some people the wrong way but as of this moment is there any reason to believe she won't turn out like Miss Blankenship?

(And has anyone else noticed that the supposedly irredeemable "Dr. Rape", has become the strong one in that relationship? Not unrelated, the easiest prediction of all is that the panel over at Slate will have a lot of trite and immature things to say about this episode.)

How do they get babies to act?
Baby Gene pays no attention to Don. This man isn't his father. How did they get him to do that?

Anyway, rivalry is a good thing in the end. Don responds to Henry's rivalry by becoming more of a father. Betty responds to Francine's rivalry by growing up. By the way, can you imagine trying to dissect the intersecting rivalries in this episode?
  • Betty sees Bethany with Don and is jealous.
  • Bethany gives Don a gratuitous blow job in response to the imagined competition from the other women she imagines Don is seeing.
  • Betty, resenting Henry calling her on her immaturity, tells Henry a whopper of a lie about Don being the only other guy she's had.
  • Henry decides to pull a power play pushing Don further out of his house.
  • Francine comes over and reminds Betty that she and Carleton are still together inspiring her to try and prove to herself and Henry that their marriage is solid.
  • Joey shows disrespect for Joan which gets Peggy upset that she can't get these boys to act more appropriately.
  • Dr. Faye Miller walks in and immediately senses how close Don and Peggy are and she feels a rivalry that only she can see with Peggy.
  • Joey is such an immature brat that he feels rivalry towards everyone who tells him to grow up. When Peggy tells him to apologize to Joan he refuses in a  way that makes his firing the second-most richly deserved firing in the history of the show. (Pete Campbell in season one, was the most richly deserved firing.)
  • Then Don picks up the boxes that Henry has childishly put on the sidewalk and Henry is so peevish he can't even acknowledge Don.
  • The younger man, who looks at first like he might be Joey, starts to pass Don at the pool and that inspires him to push harder and then gives him the push he needs to go to little Gene's birthday.
And I could go on.

Throwing away the old boxes
The most important moment in the show is when Don is driving away from the house after picking up the boxes. Henry is cutting the lawn so driven by his rivalry that he cannot make eye contact or say good bye to Don. Don sees him and pities him, loves him even. Here is what he says:
When a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him. He has a million reasons for being anywhere. Just ask him. If you listen, he'll tell you how he got there. How he forgot where he was going. And then he woke up. If you listen he'll tell you about the time he thought he was an angel and dreamt of being perfect. and then he'll smile with wisdom, content that he realized the world isn't perfect. We're flawed because we want so much more.
That's almost Zen like; in a good way.

And then Don takes the cardboard boxes and throws them in a  dumpster. This is important because he couldn't throw the cardboard box he got from his brother. Don's secret identity is a MacGuffin. Everyone has a secret identity. The real point is not being able to throw away that box.

It still bothers him. That admission that he never finished high school and, more importantly, never wrote anything longer than 250 words are crucial admissions about that secret dick running behind him always threatening to catch him.

Back to Bethany for a moment. The bit above is prefigured by the moment earlier when Don brushes her off (to his diary, poor thing she'll never know that she, if you'll pardon the expression, "blew" it).
She's a sweet girl. And she wants me to know her but I already do. People tell you they are but we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be. 
By bye Bethany and by bye Joey. I can't say I'll miss you and I doubt anyone else will either.

Season 4 blogging begins here.

The post on the next episode will be here.

For anyone crazy enough to go even further :

Season three blogging begins here.

Season two, if you are interested, begins here.

Season one begins here.


  1. This was a good to great episode for all the reasons you cite. Betty grew up a little last night because of Francine. She might be childish but she's not stupid, and she's practical, she knows what side her bread it buttered. I think when Francine said to her "Be careful, he (Don) has nothing to lose and you have everything to lose" is when all that kicked in. And I think Betty in spite of herself takes Francine seriously knowing that she and Carlton are still together despite Carlton's having cheated on her. I couldn't figure out if Don's visit to baby Gene's birthday party was because Betty decided to invite him or because of what Dr. Faye told him at dinner essentially encouraging him to go the party, did he call Betty and say "I'm coming"?

    Joey's comments about Joan are absolutely true, and I'm sorry to see him leave. I agree that at this point Joan is on her way to becoming Mrs. Blankenship. I have a cousin many years older than I, who was Joan Holloway. My parents always thought she slept with her bosses--how could she afford a mink coat on a secretary's salary?--and she retired very comfortably to Florida never having married.

    I completely identify with Joey and Rizzo, I was them at that age. While they are probably 6 or 7 yrs older than I was in 1965, that type of irreverence and "telling it like (not as) it is" was getting to be very common among young men, we thought it was cool, and the times we lived in allowed us to put off growing up for a few more years. And they are a marked contrast to Peggy who, though only a few years older than them, comes across like an old fart.

    Which brings me to the elevator scene between Joan and Peggy. Joan is pissed that Peggy fired Joey because, as she says, it makes Joan appear to be a "meaningless secretary" and Peggy to be a "humorless bitch" and she's right. I was thinking that just as Joan seems headed in the direction of Mrs. Blankenship, Peggy seems headed in the direction of the Meryl Streep character in The Devil Wears Prada. Not a bright future for either of them.

  2. you missed the very end of Don's long quote, and perhaps the most important line: "We're ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had." I think what we see here finally from Don is that he is accepting responsibility, that he is growing up as well. He no longer wants to be the ladies man who drinks from 10am-2am, who goes after what he wants and when he gets it, he's done. I think this is the first episode where we see Don accountable for his own actions, and I think the voice-over works well at showing this. He had stability with his family and Betty, and yearned for his freedom. Now that he has his freedom, he once again yearns for that stability, staring at Henry who has displaced him. And this is clear in how he handles his date, she wants to go back to his place and he does too, but he knows that that will only corrupt the cat-and-mouse game that they have going, and that to keep his interest he must keep her at a distance. I myself empathize with Don's situation. The real key to being happy is in never quite getting what you want.

  3. Another thought occured to me. Don's birthday present to baby Gene is an Elephant, which is the symbol of the GOP. I think, following Dr. Faye's advice about gentleness being more effective than brute force, he's trying to make nice with Henry, who is high up in the Republican Party working for Rockefeller and last night being asked to manage Mayor Lindsey's nascent presidential campaign in '72. Back in 1965, everyone assumed that LBJ would be re-elected in 1968, so the next shot the Republicans would have would be '72. Nobody could have anticipated that Viet Nam would escalate, the protests, the primary challenges by McCarthy and RFK, and Johnson ultimately deciding not to run for re-election, which of course opened the door for Nixon in '68.

  4. I agree Philip, the happiness lies in the challenge of the pursuit, whether in romance or life in general. Once we've acheived our goals we have to move on to something new. I also agree that Don is finally beginning to take responsibilty for his actions, and be proactive--not just reactive--to what happens in his life. He seems to be learning from past mistakes.

  5. You're right Phillip, about that extra line. I just prefer the one before for reasons that may be just personal bias.

    I will revisit this in my second thoughts post (maybe as early as this afternoon) but I think he has mixed feelings about all this. He misses the stability of his marriage and family to be sure but I don't think he misses Betty much.

  6. I would agree, he doesn't miss Betty at all, but I think he misses coming home to a big house and a family rather than a dark apartment all alone. The freedom he desired has left him hiring prostitutes and appeasing sorority girls for appearance's sake, drowning his sorrows in the bottle. And we laugh at Betty's remark that Don is living the life after spending the past few episodes with Don the Downer. This episode had to be the game-changer, the tone had to shift, and I'm very happy with the way they did it.

  7. It just occurred to me that I forgot to thank you for looking in Philip. So thanks. I always appreciate it when anyone is kind enough to read my stuff.

  8. I agree that Don doesn't miss Betty at all, he misses coming home to a house and family. I don't think he appreciated it when he had it--at least not on that level--because then it was just part of what made "Dick Whitman whore child" respectable. Which is why he was willing to tolerate Betty; as bad as she was, she was still better than Dick Whitman thought he was worthy of. Now I think he appreciates a home and family on a totally different level.

    If anything, I think Betty misses Don. Don could never put her in her place the way Henry does because she knows his secret and would use it as leverage.