Monday, August 23, 2010

Mad Men: Episode 4:5

One time, I read an article or an interview or some such thing with a person who used to make up stories for Batman. (Maybe it was actually commentary on a DVD. I don't know, and it doesn't matter.) Anyway, he said that everyone loves stories about the Riddler, and that he liked doing stories about the Riddler, but the problem is that you have to come up with all these riddles, and that makes the stories very difficult to write. So he did very few stories about the Riddler.

I have long thought that Matt Weiner has the same type of problem with respect to Mad Men. Everyone wants to see episodes in which Don is being an advertising genius -- "The Wheel" is the episode that made Mad Men famous, and will always be remembered as the best episode the show ever had. But good advertising stories are very hard to write, because you have to come up with the advertising. It's much easier to do another story about Don's involvement with some quasi-bohemian who doesn't really understand him. So we (the viewers) never get as many advertising stories as we want. And I think Weiner must hoard his advertising story ideas carefully -- I know I would.

Anyway, tonight was one of the few times this season where we got to see Don do that voodoo that he does so well. After week after week in which we saw Don pass out, get shot down by women, hang out with prostitutes, and so forth, we finally got to see him do his thing. And it was wonderful. I believe that the cloak-and-dagger scenes in which Don tricked his rival into violating Honda's rules will go down as some of the most popular scenes in the history of the show. And they were great -- Joan flirting with the photographer, Don awkwardly pushing the motorcycle into Joan's office, Peggy riding around and around on an empty sound stage -- these capture our favorite characters at their best.

Let me make a few additional observations. First, I have always liked how the show illustrates Don's creative process. He almost never does anything productive in the office, and he rarely announces his ideas on the spur of the moment. In the office Don is a ruthless editor -- constantly shooting down everyone else's ideas and only rarely putting forward any of his own. To create, Don has to get away from the office -- he needs night, and quiet, and he often turns to a book of some kind. Then, and usually only then, does his mind build up instead of tearing down. When I saw him reading The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, I knew he would come up with something.

Second, I liked the villain of this piece. The scene in his office -- and especially the part where Smitty (I think that's his name) tried to explain Don, only to admit that Don is simply a genius -- was just perfect. I wish they would do more of this sort of thing -- letting us see SterlingCooperDraperPryce through the eyes of others. I would particularly like to see, for example, how some of the really big firms see our heroes. But I like the idea of a rival to Don -- someone who can spur him on to new challenges. I hope we have not seen the last of CGC.

Third, I was glad that Pete stood up to Roger. I think that Pete is the sort of person who always, deep down, believed he was going to be a failure. His parents were failures, I think his brother is a failure, and Pete is too sensitive to the zeitgeist not to realize that the old WASPs, and everything they stood for, are doomed. For the first three seasons of the show, I have always assumed that Pete himself was doomed -- that all his whining and carping was simply fending off the inevitable. But Pete is starting to get better at his job, and he is starting to see that he could really be good at it. Plus, the new baby has shifted his relationship with Trudy's family -- they need him now, and he knows it. I hope that the show will allow Pete to continue to develop in this direction -- not everyone has to be more and more unhappy.

Fourth, I want to defend Roger -- at least in part. He is the only conservative on the show, and one of the few true conservatives to appear on any good TV show, and I think the stand he took in this episode was actually quite noble. His position was that certain principles -- such as honor, duty, and country -- are worth losing money over. Now that's a great position, and one that should play a bigger role in our national life. And I think Pete's totally wrong about Roger wanting to block other clients so that he can remain important. Roger's been wanting to retire for some time, he hates dealing with Lee Garner, and he's mainly doing what he's doing out of loyalty and friendship. But Roger is too sensitive not to realize that none of his partners share his ideals. Cooper is a Randroid, Campbell hates his own family, Draper has no family and no interest in the past, and Pryce has the soul of an adding machine. Only Roger really loves the old ways of doing things. So it would be pointless for him to appeal to the better angels of their nature -- they have no such angels. He thought Joanie would be the only one to understand, and he was right. But I have to admit that Roger was wrong on one key point. It wasn't left-wing hippies who taught Western man that forgiveness is a higher virtue than loyalty. It was Jesus Christ.

I don't have much to say about the Betty/Sally story, for the simple reason that I have followed Don's example and have lost interest in both of them. I am sorry that we won't see more of the pretty nurse with the Southern accent -- there aren't enough good Southern accents on TV. I did think it was interesting that Betty sent Carla to take Sally to the psychiatrist. Carla is the only person in that house about whom I want more information. And why hasn't Don kicked them all out of the house already?

Finally, I have suspected for some time that the public opinion woman -- I think her name is Faye -- would be Don's love interest for this year. She is exactly the type of woman that he likes -- beautiful, stylish, intelligent, and emotionally vulnerable. It's not enough for Don that a respectable woman merely sleeps with him -- he can find prostitutes for that. He wants to make these girls fall in love with him, and therefore he is always looking for someone who is somewhat fragile. I have always found this to be Don's least attractive trait -- convincing women to love you when you can't love them back is the emotional equivalent of pulling wings off of flies -- and it has left devastation behind him. Therefore I was hoping that Faye would escape. But apparently her sentence has already been written, and she is on a road with no turning. Oh, well. At least we know that her arc will end badly, and that it will end this year. As Don said to Henry in the first episode of this year, "we all think this is temporary."

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