Tuesday, May 13, 2014

In Which I Review Mad Men (7x5)

Sometimes, I watch an episode of Mad Men and can't quite figure out what is happening. Granted, it's a rare occurrence but this week's episode "The Runaways" is such an event. Typically, after I finish an episode, I have a page of notes with basic plot details, but also themes that are extending across the entire program, mixed in with character observations and the occasional costume note. This isn't to say that I have nothing to add to the discourse of this episode, but rather I found "The Runaways" to be a fractured and disjointed hour of television. There were too many story lines, some of which seem to have no place in the episode (like Betty's party) except to serve as a contrast to other, more important events. Contrast is important, of course, but I didn't need to see the conservative goings-on of the country elite vs the liberal festivities of the Californians to understand that we're looking at culture vs counterculture. That theme has been replete in Mad Men for a few seasons now. I suppose if we were to lock down a theme for this episode it would be that when people find themselves disjointed and out of place, they naturally become who we always knew they would be. None of the reactions from out characters this week, when they find themselves on the outside and looking in, were all that surprising. They acted to the best of their ability, each according to their own gifts and talents and psyche. But if Mad Men is essentially the story that people never change, then this episode was really about emphasizing that thesis and driving it home. 

Alright, let's start with Don Draper. So far, Don appears to be playing by the rules; last week he got some very sound advice about doing the work and since then, he's keeping his head down, pitching ideas instead of hearing them, and trying to "be one of the team" instead of the leader. When Lou tells Don that Don has to stay late and work, instead of flying out to California, Don manages to suppress his inner Draper and just do the work. Of course, I wouldn't exactly be adverse to seeing Lou get punched in the face--he has got to go! There is a very specific reason why Don wants to fly out to California that has nothing to do with his bi-monthly meetings with Megan in an effort to "fix" their marriage. Remember that California has always been a type of paradise for Don; it's a land where he can shed his skin as Don Draper and be Dick Whitman; it's a land associated with sunshine as opposed to night, fresh air, as opposed to city smog. And, most importantly, it's a land associated with Anna. Anna Draper's ghost hovered (metaphorically) all over this episode. She was there lurking in corners, her presence both a good thing and a bad thing, depending on who you are.

A few seasons ago, we met Stephanie, Anna's young (and much more sexualized) doppelganger. Stephanie, like Anna, knew all about Don and, like Anna, loved Dick over Don. In fact, when they speak on the phone, Stephanie calls him Dick to both her and his great relief and comfort. There is no pretense of Don Draper standing between them; he's Dick Whitman and like Anna, she loves him for that. Stephanie is calling because she has found herself pregnant and alone and hungry. Time for Savior Don to swoop in! This is something Don loves to do; he loves to play hero, to pretend that he can fix the troubles of the world (specifically with women) with enough love and affection and (sometimes) money. We saw this last year with Sylvia when he got her son out of serving in Vietnam and we've seen this with Joan and Peggy in previous seasons. Dick, the unloved and unwanted little boy who never received any sort of saving, puts on his cape and declares himself protector of womankind. It's a flaw, but because it comes from a noble, and indeed a wounded nobility at that, place, I accept it and even to an extent love it about Don. Don's solution is to send Stephanie to Megan's house and he'll fly out later that day to see her and take care of her.

Megan never knew Anna Draper but she has been in the background of their marriage for awhile now; Don and Megan fell in love in California, a place directly associated with Anna, Megan wears Anna's ring on her finger, and like Anna, Megan knew about Don's secrets. Unlike Betty, Megan didn't much care about the Don/Dick dichotomy, but unlike Anna, Megan loves Don Draper more than Dick Whitman. Though, perhaps that's an unfair assessment as she's never really seen Dick. Don has kept that part of himself locked up behind a steel plated wall, even though he's been open to her about who he is. And that's why Anna (and now Stephanie) is so unique; she's only ever seen Dick, Don's true self. So when Stephanie shows up at Megan's, their interactions are strained and strange; they are trying to relate to each other via a man, but it's a different man for both of them. Megan's trying to play mother to Stephanie but Megan isn't exactly mother material (much to Don's ongoing quiet chagrin). Don's kids are enough for Megan, and besides she's much more concerned with her career as an actress. By the way, strike number one for Megan and Don--Don care so little for his wife's chosen profession that he doesn't even tell Stephanie what Megan does, something Megan leans when she greets Stephanie at the door. The tension between the two continues to mount (though they are both unwaveringly polite) until the conversation turns to the father of Stephanie's baby.

Megan casually jokes that she won't tell Don about the father-to-be and Stephanie says, "oh I know all of his secrets." It's a giant (unintentional) slap in the face to Megan. After all, the last time we saw Megan, she learned that Don has been keeping quite a large secret from her. This is to say nothing of the fact that Stephanie is serving as a reminder to both Don and Meghan of what they would like from each other and themselves. On the one hand, Stephanie is pregnant, just like Don subconsciously wishes Megan would be; but on the other hand, Stephanie is the embodiment of counterculture, down to the hippie band around her head and baby sired by a wandering troubadour; she has a type of freedom and liberalism that Megan wishes she had. The ring around Megan's finger, a focal point of conversation throughout this scene, traps Megan into being a good-girl, even if she's pretending that she can be as wild and liberal as others her age. Megan's solution to the now even more awkward intruder in her kitchen is, funny enough, exactly what Don would do: throw some money at it. Don has a habit of using money to get what he wants (the man has prostitution issues, what do you expect). We see him constantly giving women money in an effort to either get something from them (gives Dawn money for information from the office, gives Sally a quarter to call her friends but it's really a plea to talk to him) or to make them shut up (throwing money directly in Peggy's face a few seasons back). Megan can't kick Stephanie out of her house, but what she can do is whip out her checkbook and write a check for one thousand dollars. Easy peasy. Oh, Megan. You want so hard to be counterculture and yet you flash your well-to-do culture around. To make matters worse, when Don does arrive in California and finds Stephanie gone, Megan shrugs it off with "I really tried to get her to stay." The Drapers put on a good show--as the Drapers always have, even if the wife is a new one--but their marriage is so shaky and rocky that not even a drug induced three-way can help them.

One of the subplots of this episode is the party Megan is throwing for her friends--at least that's what it was until Don came out and his pregnant "niece" came-a-callin'. Now, Megan is doing everything she can to get Don's attention, to be his focus. Let's talk costume for a minute. Meghan's dress is a bold geometric loud print. The rest of the party-goers are in neutral colors--you're awash in a sea of blues, creams, browns, ect (which is odd given that costume designer Janie Bryant's thesis for how Californian's dress is bright oranges and yellows) but that's to serve as a contrast to Megan's purple print. You're supposed to be watching Megan, and indeed the audience is. But who isn't watching Megan? Don. He stands outside, away from the party and barely notices when Megan begins her sexy dance with another man. The last time Megan did a sexy dance was Don's birthday--and she had his attention then. He was solely and totally focused on her in that moment, but in this one, he's a world away. One more note on costuming. With couples, Janie Bryant like to dress people who "go together" alike--so husband and wife will either sport the same color palate or the same sort of design. Don and Megan couldn't be further apart if they tried: she's in purple and white geometric; he's in black and conservative plaid. Miles apart while in the same room. Megan's solution is a three way with her new housemate Amy and Don. Was this weird? Well, yes, of course, but it's also not. She tried to throw money at their problem and it didn't work; she tried to offer him drugs and music at a party and it didn't work; might as well use sex because she knows that will work with Don. I stated at the outset that this episode focuses on everyone becoming who we always knew they would be. Megan, our current Mrs. Draper, is becoming exactly who we though: petty and petulant Mrs Draper of yesteryear (Betty). The big difference, though, is that Megan is the grown up counterculture version of Betty. Betty is a spoiled and petted child but Megan is the rebellious teenager who thinks sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll can save her. If she doesn't get out of this marriage to Don before long, she's going to wind up jus as shrewish and whiny as Betty, which is what we suspected. When Megan gets upset, she lashes out: she throws a plate of spaghetti, she flees to California (which is the rough equivalent of running to your room and slamming the door). I find none of her actions overly shocking, but then again, you're not supposed to.

And all of this leads to Don acting exactly as we expected. The man who interrupts a business brunch, sits down, and proceeds to pitch the hell out of himself and his company...that was Don Draper. Hell, that was almost Season One Don Draper (note how they brought up saving Lucky Strike, which was the very first major pitch we ever saw from Don). Don walks into a place he knows he is not supposed to be, with people who frankly don't want him there, and becomes the central focus on the entire meeting. By the time that meeting is done, Jim and Lou are cut down to tiny shreds of themselves and the cigarette men are so impressed they are almost salivating. That was Don Draper, folks. He acted exactly as we would expect him to. So can we say Don is back? Well, yes, but only in so far as I don't think he ever really left. He was cut down a bit, beaten up and bruised, but Don Draper never really "left." And now, he's just who he has always been. Which makes me think that we're straight back onto "death before 1970" road. Last week had me a little worried that my theory is all wrong, but this week I think it's still perfectly legitimate. Don is Don. And nothing will change him. It'll be interesting to see where we go from here; will Don be back in his office and Lou out the door? It doesn't matter what Don did in the past, he is the superior ad man. Lou is a doddering fool who would rather draw comics of a dog named Scout and wear grandfather-esque cardigans than be a take-charge Creative Director. I suspect that the first half of this season will end with Lou breaking his contract and Don back in his office, ready to be who always has been.

Let's move back to New York and check in with Peggy and Michael Ginzeberg. The new computer, last week's monolith, has been installed and is up and running, much to everyone's delight/sheer hatred. Michael, who has always been a little close to the edge, can't stand it. Let's talk about Michael a little. There's no nice way to put it, but Ginzberg was presented as having some sort of psychosis, be it schizophrenia or other. With each passing season, the writers and costume designers make him increasingly more paranoid and bizarre. His clothes never match, he gets louder and more off kilter, and this week was the culmination of all that. You see, the computer is the enemy. It hums, it's watching everyone. Now, to us in the 21st century, we recognize that the computer is just a machine and we love them. But to schizophrenic Ginzberg, the computer is an invader that only heightens his mania: "it came for us." This isn't the first time Ginzberg has talked about alien invasion. The first time, he gives Peggy his life story as being from another world and left with Jewish parents in a concentration camp; this example seemed more metaphorical at the time but as we got to know him, I had to wonder if that wasn't really his believed reality, constructed out of trauma to the point where he accepts it as true. Then, in the very recent past, Ginzberg was found on this office floor, rocking back and forth, muttering about transmission waves being beamed into his head. Invasion equals psychosis, in other words. So when the computer literally takes over the office, it feels like an invasion and begins to put pressure on Ginzberg who already subconsciously reacts to any sort of invasion of triggering his psychosis. Add to this that he finds Lou and Cutler engaged in a secret clandestine meeting inside the computer room and the invasions/enemy metaphor drives Ginzberg over the edge.

When the humming and the conspiracies and the invasion get to be too much, Ginzberg packs up and heads to Peggy's, where he becomes the invader. This scene was supposed to set you on edge, especially when Peggy wakes up and finds Ginzberg starting at her. Turns out, he thinks the computers are turning everyone into homosexuals and he must mate with Peggy in order to cure him. The invading force is turning him into someone else, another sign of his eventual psychotic break. If he can find some sort of relief from the pressure to conform and become another person, then he'll be back to being okay. And this leads us to one of Mad Men's more bizarre and shocking moments. When Michael enters Peggy's office he says, "can't you tell? I am myself again." The fear of change coupled with the pervasive invasion lead to this moment: nipple in a box. I'll say this for Mad Men, I never saw this one coming. By removing a piece of himself, Ginzberg managed to be himself again, only this time his self-mutilation was out there for the world to see. It makes me wonder if he has ever self harmed before, trying to get back to being a calmer version of himself. And poor Peggy. She knows that his life is now over; he'll be carried off to the ward where he'll be mistreated and mishandled and potentially misdiagnosed. We're still a ways away from understanding and sympathy for the mentally ill in the 1960s, and this is probably the last we'll see of Ginzberg. However, this whole situation does cause Peggy to see the computer in a newer light: it's the enemy.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Runaways

--I didn't touch on Betty's role this week because frankly, I've talked about Betty once this season and once is plenty. But I suppose a few observations can be noted here. Betty's failed party is a contrast to Megan's party. Both don't exactly go according to plan, but they are contrasting each other in what sort of party they are. Betty's is so conservative I half expected her to be serving apple pie. And even Betty's costume for this party reflects that: demur, pink, floral, trendy but somehow still stuck in the 1950s. As the world gets more liberal around her, Betty will plant heels and become part of the neoconservative movement that springs up in response. Not only is Megan contrasting Betty, but so is Sally who arrives home, broken nose and all. As Betty gets more conservative, Sally will get more liberal. Sally might miss some of the counterculture experiences (like sex and drugs) because of her still young age, but she's not going to miss the effects of counterculture, namely liberalism and feminism. Sally will be the girl who burns her bras in protest, while Betty will be the woman who scoffs at the young generation as a bunch of uniformed and ignorant hippies. Betty wants her daughter to be exactly like her ("It was a perfect nose, and I gave it to you!") but that's never going to happen.

--Some really great acting from Elisabeth Moss and Jon Hamm this week.

--Please fire Lou

--Not enough Joan in this episode.

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