Monday, April 21, 2014

In Which I Review Mad Men (7x2)

They say communication is the key to a good relationship; therefore, it should come as no surprise that, when examining the various personal and interoffice relationships of the characters on Mad Men, there is a serious lack of communication. And that's part of the delicious irony of Mad Men--these people's jobs center on being able to communicate the wants and desires of the public at large to the public themselves. But ask them to communicate with each other or their significant others and, quite literally, the land line breaks down and it's nothing but static. It's Valentine's Day 1969, and instead of being a love fest (as the more cliche depictions of the late 1960s would have it), it's a disaster-- until the very end. This weeks' episode, "A Day's Work," was less dreary than last weeks premiere and replete not only with development in the personal lives our favorite ad men (and women) but also with some hard hitting social issues like latent racism.

Don Draper's life is a mess. While his alarm clock may be set to get him up at the appropriate work hour, he ends up sleeping until past noon. This siesta is followed by a rigorous day of eating in front of the TV in his bathrobe. Unwanted, unloved, diseased Dick Whitman sits alone in his apartment, that is looking a little worse for wear, oblivious to the world around him. It is only as night gets into full swing does he magically transform into the slick and smooth Don Draper we know and somewhat love. With a suit and tie, as if he has been in it all day, Don meets Dawn at the door and his plucky young secretary proceeds to give him a run down of office politics. (Side note: but start keeping track of how many doorway conversations they have on Mad Men. It's becoming more and more frequent each passing season.) Don is indebted to Dawn for her help and even offers to pay her, something Dawn is uncomfortable with, as it feels wrong. But all women are whores to Dick Whitman and she's done all this work so surely she gets a little something-something. This is how Don has managed to stay in touch with his business over the past few months. He was "let go" in November, right before Thanksgiving, and now it's Valentines Day. Is he missed? I think some of the partners do miss him--Roger for one and Peggy was definitely channeling her inner Donald Draper this week (we'll get to her.)

But let's go back to Dawn. Dawn has been a woefully under developed character since her appearance in season five. When she first appeared as Don's new secretary, I figured she would be our examination of the working black woman in the 1960s. For the first few seasons of Mad Men, our stock black character were the occasional working man who literally blended into the background (an intentional writing choice) and the Draper children's nanny, Carla. Carla was often a shadow figure in the background; Betty was a WASP housewife who passed off her children to another so that she might partake in more appropriate WASP activities, like horseback riding and meeting other women for luncheons. Carla was rarely given a voice of her own, but rather her experiences were shown through the causal racism of her employers. In season three, for example, Betty hosts a party where she and her fellow WASP Republican friends discuss the situation "down South" and how appalling it is that African-American's rights are being trampled upon; all the while, Carla stands in the background, taking coats of guests and being treated as an object rather than an actual person. Racism, in the mind of Betty Draper and her friends, happens in other parts of America. Not in the more modern and accepting North. Which is an utter crock and the point Weiner is trying to drive with his almost erasure of an entire race in his TV show. The Civil Rights movement happens on the edges of the main characters lives and instead of the big grand moments about which your average student is educated on in the school room, the gulf between white and black is given in smaller moments: Carla being dismissed without even being allowed to say goodbye to the Draper children; Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech happening in the background of one of Don Draper's assignations with a early-form hippie school teacher.
All of this was supposed to change when Dawn came on the scene; she was the new type of African-American woman who, like the white women of Peggy and Joan, managed to step outside of the house and into the workforce. But instead, she was relegated to a more minor role, placed in the background as a woman who kept her head down, had little to say in her own defense and was expected to simply be a credit to her race instead of embracing what was happening outside of the office in the every day lives of African-Americans. Why am I going on about this? Because this episode, an episode full of miscommunications, finally managed to discover black people. I don't mean that in the sense that they haven't dealt with the black situation of the 1960s--as I already pointed out, the show has. But the writers haven't done an acceptable job (says the privileged 1980s born heterosexual white girl, so yes, I do recognize the irony of me trying to give voice to a person of color on an internet blog) of letting Dawn and others like her speak. The episode in which Martin Luther King Jr died somehow focused more on the white response to African-Americans than the actual Africa-American response. We're still trapped in a white man's world. So finally, with the help of totally-awesome-short-skirt-wearing Shirley, Dawn got to speak. First, she stands up to Don and tires to reject his money and secondly, she'll stand up to Lou Avery and his treatment of her when he is caught in an unexpected situation.

I am getting slightly ahead of myself but I wanted to sketch the basic racial overview of Mad Men since a third of this episode is dedicated to that. So, pray, forgive me while I jump around the plot of this episode and stay with Dawn a bit longer. Back in the office, the next day, Dawn and Shirley (Peggy's secretary) are having office chit chat in the break room. I think this is a first on Mad Men--two non white people having an honest conversation about the white people around them. Shirley is the late 1960s African-American woman we've been expecting to see. Her clothes are shorter, she's sporting an afro, and her she's got some bite. A slightly comical (turned not so comical later) incident with roses and her boss Peggy and Shirley is feisty about her treatment. I love their opening comments, calling each other by the others name--to all the white people in the office, they are the same: just the black girls doing the typing. Dawn tells Shirley she can't get upset over Peggy's faux pas involving the roses that are rightfully Shirley's. "Just keep pretending. It's your job." Peggy may have misunderstood the roses on Shirley's desk but it's a sign of the kind of latent racism that Peggy has demonstrated before that occasionally comes out at unexpected times. Peggy automatically assumed that those roses were for her on Valentine's Day--because why would the black secretary be getting them, right? Shirley has a ring on her finger; she is obviously involved with someone but, to Peggy, it is inconceivable that the black secretary could possibly get roses on Valentine's Day. African-American's were expected to just take this sort of casual racism in the workplace if they wanted to keep their job and keep their position, as Dawn is about to find out.

Dawn's advice to just keep pretending fails her when Sally Draper shows up looking for Don and meets Lou instead. When Dawn is out shopping (for Lou's wife!), Sally learns her father's big secret: Don is no longer working (we'll get back to this). Lou, suddenly finding himself in an uncomfortable situation, lashes out at Dawn for not being around at that critical moment. When Lou brings in Joan, he says, "I know you can't fire her..." meaning "she's black and so we can't dismiss her in order to save face," and Dawn decides to stop pretending because "I can obviously say whatever I want." She tells Lou that this isn't her fault and she shouldn't be punished, but she will be. It's still the white man's world. And what about Shirley? Her awkward situation with Peggy also comes to a head when Peggy tries to throw out the roses that do belong to Shirley. When Shirley tries to explain that they are her roses, Peggy (who is drunk and smoking because she is Don's mirror and this is exactly what Don would do--has done--when he is reminded of a bad relationship) goes off and accuses Shirley of embarrassing her on purpose, which of course isn't the case. Miscommunication. But Peggy has the power in the relationship and manages to get Shirley moved to Lou's desk and off of hers. Like disposable objects, Shirley and Dawn are moved at the whim of the white men and women. But in a twist of deliciousness that only Mad Men would do (and really, only Joan Holloway would do), when Joan gets bumped upstairs (yay girl!), she puts Dawn in charge of personnel. So, Dawn may have been shoved down the ranks because of Lou, but she gets elevated because of Joan. Yes, it's a problem that it happened because of others, but I really hope they stick with Dawn as the new head of personnel and we see just how capable she is. Quick side note but GET A GRIP, PEGGY.

Okay. I spent a lot of time on Dawn. Let's move on to...well, Don. Coming home from something that was supposed to resemble a business meeting but was really a desperate attempt at a human connection ("I'm just looking for love" was a pithy joke except that it's essentially the entire thesis of Don Draper's life), Don finds his only daughter sitting in his apartment. I have to wonder how many times Don and Sally have seen each other since Sally caught Don in fligrante dilecto. My guess is minimal. And even though Don has told Sally the truth about himself, she has once again caught him in a lie--when she questions where Don was, he lies and says he was at work, something Sally knows to be a lie. The look on Sally's face was utter disgust. Here is this man, standing before her, lying over and over and over.

Don offers to take Sally back to school and they have a blow up in the car. Don asks why Sally let him lie to her and Sally just flat out speaks her mind (you go girl) : "it's more embarrassing to catch you in a lie than for you to be lying." It's hard for Sally to come to Don's apartment--what if she ran into Sylvia? How horrible would that be for poor Sally? Don lets the full weight of Sally's words hit and the confirmation that he is unlovable rests on him. Don and Sally's relationship has always been the real love story of Don's life. Betty didn't love him once she found out the truth, and this was years after a quick whirlwind romance and a marriage of neglect; Meghan realized that Don wouldn't change and fled to California where they are now having super awkward trysts; the partners of his company (that he helped found!) learned of his past and dismissed him. For Don, nobody can love him because there is something fundamentally wrong with him. He sees himself as diseased and sick on the inside. And in the car, the only love in Don's life that really matters, rejects him. Trying to find a way to mourn the end of this relationship, Don tries once more to reach human contact through food.

At another diner scene (a mirror image of the lunch Don was having but with a more palatable outcome), Don forces Sally to sit with him while he eats. When Sally gets antsy about getting back to school, Don finally tells all--he didn't want anyone to know he was dismissed because he was ashamed and he was dismissed for not behaving himself. Don Draper of season one would rather die on the spot than admit he was ever ashamed. So, wow!  This seems to soften Sally a little bit; she is, after all, her father's daughter. She understands that Don is many people because in her own words "I'm so many people." Betty tries to force Sally to be her mini-me (but she is too much like Don for that); her friends try to force her to be like them, cool and hip and unaffected by death (but Sally has had too much pain in her life for that); Sally tries to be a grown up but she is constantly finding herself back in childhood (notice how they still haven't aged Sally's wardrobe? Knee socks and everything). The rest of the conversation puts them back on equal footing. They are partners in crime but Sally will now call
Don on his crap--Don says that he wants Meghan to move back to NYC to work on the marriage and Sally just says "how?" Basically, "come on, Dad. That's bull and you know it."
Finally Don and Sally reach the school and Sally, jumping out of the car, turns back to Don and says, "Happy Valentine's Day. I love you." I almost cried. Don's face (Jon Hamm is a gift to the acting world) was perfect. It hit him like a ton of bricks. Someone out there loves him. And not just someone, but SALLY loves him.
The person who would have more justification than anyone to hate him and reject him because of the sickness in his soul, loves him. Don has a hard time with honest euphoria, but he was so happy. Do you have time to change your life? That's the running theme of the season--over the next (now) 11 episodes, can Donald Draper/Dick Whitman pull himself up by his bootstraps and get over his emotional mountain of crap and save his life? I have said it before and I'll say it again: Don won't make it to 1970. But maybe, just maybe, he'll be able to die with the knowledge that at least one person loves him. And maybe that's enough.

Miscellaneous Notes on A Day's Work

--There was so much jam packed into this episode. And I couldn't possibly do it all justice and not make this blog a small tome. Like I predicted, Pete isn't as happy as he pretended to be last episode. He's still spiteful and ambitious; still a New Yorker. And he hasn't found his Betty Draper like he thought he had with Bonnie Whiteside--she's a shark, ruthless and thrives on it. I like her. But I bet Pete is having second thoughts. A note on Bonnie's outfit in her final scene--yellow (which is Peggy's power color); floral (which is Joan's thing); short and sassy (like Trudy); blonde bob (like Betty) Pick a woman, Pete.

--Roger and Jim showdown. Two old white men with their own ideas of how to run a company. Let the women handle it; they clearly know what they're doing.

--When will Don go back to work? They can't keep him out of the office forever.

--Where on earth is Betty Francis?

--Don is the collective ex-wife who still receives alimony. Nice.

--"Just keep cashing the checks. You're going to die someday."

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