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Mad Men Watch: Double Your Displeasure

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this, slip some Dr. Scholl’s in your shoes and watch Mad Men.

How disgusting is Roger Sterling? And how sad is Roger Sterling? And how scared is Roger Sterling? And how human is Roger Sterling? If, as I said about an earlier episode of Mad Men, the mark of a great show is that it understands all its secondary characters well enough that it can construct an episode around any of them, with enough depth that you might think they were the protagonists, then it may be time to nominate Mad Men for greatness.

Maybe the creepiest, and yet in retrospect, most perfectly sensible, aspect of Roger’s near-fatal assignation with the twins, was that he’s not just cheating on his wife. He’s cheating on his daughter. As he leaned against his half-dressed conquest and complained about his strained relationship with his daughter–more or less his date’s age–it became clearer that that missing connection is one of the things he’s trying to recapture, one corrupt drink of youth at a time. The heart attack was perfectlly timed thematically, linking his tryst with all those oysters and Beef Wellington, the desserts and the bottomless drinks: he’s been trying to consume his way to happiness.

How funny, by the way, to see Don in the role of wingman here, rejecting his twin’s advances just as confidently and arrogantly as he pursues his other affairs: that dismissive, chuckling, “No,” when the girl asks if he has any gum. Don’s more interested now in the woman who owns the gum, and the rest of the store as well, and we see just how interested as he opens up, post-coitally, to Rachel Mencken more than he apparently has to Betty in their entire marriage. Why? Maybe, as he says, because she lost her mother as well, but it seems also because he believes she’s one woman who gets his grim view of the universe. Yet she also has the strength to challenge his rationalizations–”This is all there is”–at least briefly. (I’m enjoying Old Man Mencken more and more, by the way: “This place reminds me of a czarist ministry. No matter what the decision, you don’t feel it was yours.”)

Maybe it’s pat psychology, but now that we have Don’s story spelled out–prostitute mother dead at childbirth, passed on from his dead father at age 10 to live with his resentful stepmother and her new husband–it does make sense that he should be constantly trying on new women and seeking out new homes. To add on a little more pat psychology: how about that visit from Betty’s dad? When she began having her nervous episodes at the start of the series, it seemed that they were all about Don, but maybe we need to look back a generation. It looks like her mother’s death, and her father”s taking up with “my friend, Gloria” (“She’s a real sport!”), may have made her all the more anxious about being a replaceable woman.

As for the Joan-and-Carol storyline, it was nicely played (especially Joan’s unflappable response to Carol’s confession of love: “You’ve had a hard day. Let’s go out and try to forget about it, OK?”). I’ll be curious to see if Carol’s story goes somewhere further, or if it’s just another way of chipping away at Joan’s competent facade. Another impressive thing about this episode was that nearly every storyline was about the difficulties of the women of 1960–anxiety, exploitation, being taken seriously in the workplace, sexual closeting–but without the occasional elbow-in-the-ribs obvious of “The Ladies Room” episode earlier in the season. (Another blink-and-you’d-miss-it touch was Joan”s assumption that Carol was upset because she must be pregnant–”Are you late again?”)

Oh, also: the Nixon storyline. It makes perfect sense that Don would sincerely see himself (or at least, imagine voters seeing themselves) more in Nixon than in Kennedy: the self-made man as opposed to the silver-spoon aristocrat. But it also reflects on his situation as an executive at behind-the-times agency Sterling Cooper, since the Nixon of 1960 came to be the symbol of the old-school politician who didn’t realize the future was overtaking him.

Obviously, that’s not the Nixon we first think of today: we think of the Nixon who learned his lesson, embraced modern advertising in 1968, and then was brought down by his deceptions. In other words, he was ultimately destroyed by his success. Every cue in this show is telling old-school breadwinner Don Draper that he’s headed for trouble, in part because of the forces of historical change, in part because of his character. Will he listen? As he says dismissively about Nixon’s feeble attempt at a campaign ad: “Message received. And forgotten.”

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