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Mad Men Watch: Everybody Back in the Pool

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, crack open a Budweiser, open up a can of delicious Dinty Moore beef stew—or just go to the vending machine—and watch last night’s Mad Men.

Last night’s episode of Mad Men, “The Summer Man,” opened with Don Draper doing laps in a swimming pool at the New York Athletic Club, ending one of them in a hacking, coughing fit. It was a scene that, first, called to mind John Cheever’s 1964 “The Swimmer”—about a Westchester man who tries to regain past glories by swimming—a parallel the writers of the Cheeveresque Mad Men cannot have been unaware of. It also crystallized something that’s passed in the back of my mind often when watching Mad Men: how can a human actually drink, smoke and live like Don Draper yet look like Jon Hamm? In real life, would he not have yellow teeth and a spare tire to fit a pickup truck?

The coughing, at least, was a nod to a physical reality that, perhaps, Don’s drunken reaction to Anna’s death the previous episode made clear: he cannot go on living the way he’s been living.

If jumping into the pool—and, however haltingly and with difficulty—cutting back on the drink is Don’s attempt to cleanse himself physically, then taking up diary writing shows him taking a step to get right mentally. Don’s sitting down to write a diary is a little out of character, but in a good way; that is, it takes him out of his comfort zone—as he says, it makes him feel like a little girl—but that just underlines what a drastic step it is for him, how badly he realizes he needs to purge his mind and gain control of his emotions.

Really, though, Don’s actions said more than his words in this episode: he’s reining in his impulses, if for no other reason than to show himself that he’s capable of exercising control. In the office, he takes it easy on the workday lubrication. In his family life, he keeps himself in check during a tense, subtext-laden chat with Henry about literally clearing his baggage (or at least boxes) out of the garage—and again, keeps himself from the drink he badly wants after the talk—then manages a civil if brief encounter with Betty at Gene’s birthday party. And in his dating life, he seems to choose the more mature attentions of Faye over Bethany (though not to the point of refusing to let her “make him comfortable” in the back seat of a cab).

The contrast between Bethany, a pretty, canny but not exactly intellectual girl, and Faye—the woman who’s rejected Don’s attentions before and predicted he’d be remarried in a year—becomes glaring on their respective dates. Bethany asks Don if he’s a Felix or an Oscar; Faye talks seriously to him about his problems and relates an Aesop fable. And where Drunk Don sloppily came on to Faye, today’s version of Don almost demurely refuses to take her home, saying he’s not ready to go that far. Which means, in its way, that he’s ready to go farther; he seems to see her as not a conquest but a potential relationship—a sign, maybe (after his awkward encounter with Betty and Henry) that he’s ready to move on from his divorce.

Of course, you never completely move on from divorce, not in a marriage with children. But after being warned off from Gene’s birthday party by Henry, Don shows up—not, it seems, in a spirit of confrontation but in an attempt to make things work and give Gene positive memories of his father. Betty’s motivations here are cloudier, and, it seems, more complicated. She’s first infuriated by seeing Don out on a date with a pretty young thing (not unlike Betty when she first met him, perhaps); “He doesn’t get to have this family and that,” she says. This, in turn, brings up the first major rifts we’ve seen in what had looked like an almost unnaturally placid relationship with Henry. The idea of Don having so much makes her dissatisfied with what she has.

Yet by the time Don shows up to Gene’s party, she seems to have made her peace with his arrival. Because we’ve spent so much more time with Don than Betty lately, it’s harder to guess at her motivation, and it may be a few episodes before we really know where her head is at here. Has she actually decided that she “has everything,” and thus can afford to be generous? Is she engaged in a new, but more passive-aggressive and subsurface, battle with Don? Or has she decided she misses having him in the kids’ life—and maybe hers?

As Don and Betty deal with lasting changes in their post-divorce lives, the main office storyline centers on Joan and Peggy and their shifting levels of power as women in the office. Joan, accustomed to intimidating/bewitching the men around her, suddenly finds herself being mocked and disrespected by new men who are immune to her influence (and whose newer-school sexism doesn’t require them to defer to her as at least old-school sexists would).

Seeing her powers fail her with Rizzo and Joey was disconcerting. She’s like a lioness in the wild coming up a step short on her prey for the first time, the first small sign that age, time and yapping hyenas like Joey will eventually catch up with her. We know that Joan is capable of more than what she has in her life—she excelled, for instance, at the TV job that Harry blithely took from her and passed on to a man. That chance—to jump to a professional track as Peggy did—is past, and now all she has is her authority of influence (as opposed to direct power) at the office. That and Greg, the disappointing husband whose impending basic training devastates her nonetheless.

Peggy, meanwhile, having gone through the crucible of her clash, and then bonding experience, with Don, is realizing that she is actually a person of real power in the office. Which means, as Don tells her here, the sometimes uncomfortable business of using it. Her power, he advises, means nothing without action: “You want some respect? Go out there and get it for yourself.”

That Joan isn’t grateful after Peggy fires the boorish (and not, it seems, especially talented) Joey surprises her, but it shouldn’t surprise us. Joan has always seen things as something of a zero-sum game with Peggy and felt hurt by her success in the office. What’s more, she tells Peggy, in the long run her solution undermined both of them: now Joan’s authority seems weaker, while Peggy looks like “another humorless bitch.”

Peggy and Joan obviously represent two different models of femininity on the show—Peggy, trying to find a way to work as an equal in a men’s business, Joan owing her power to being able to negotiate the old men’s world (and thus, internalizing some of its sexist assumptions). It’s bound to incite arguments over who was “right” here, but what’s interesting about the scene to me is that they’re both able to be right, and wrong, in a way. Joan is very likely correct about the practical implications of Joey’s firing for both of them and in saying that she’s the one with more to lose here than Peggy (who acted without consulting her). Peggy is certainly correct that Joey’s obnoxiousness couldn’t just stand, and the jerk had it coming; even if Joan’s right about the short-term effects, there’s a principle.

Just as interesting is what’s unsaid between them. In her annoyance, Joan implies that she could gotten rid of Joey any time she wanted, which, from her efforts earlier in the episode didn’t seem to be the case. (When she complains to Don, she gets “Boys will be boys,” and her only recourse after the fellatio cartoon is her angry but probably ineffective remark about Vietnam.) Though she doesn’t want to say it, it seems pretty clear that Peggy did do something for her that she wanted (she just didn’t want Peggy to be the one to do it). Peggy, meanwhile, is offended that Joan shows no gratitude that Peggy stepped up for her. Which is true, to an extent: she confronts Joey for Joan’s sake and demands that he apologize, none of which she had to do. But she tries to discipline him without firing him, even though Don gave her the go-ahead to do it; it’s only when Joey undercuts Peggy’s authority—saying that he hates working with women because they have no sense of humor—that she lowers the boom.

Not as huge developments in “The Summer Man” as in the past few weeks, but a week after we saw Don and Peggy make a connection, Peggy is learning to enforce discipline on others, and Don is trying to enforce it on himself. It looks like Don may in fact be coming back after touching bottom. But—to mix an economic and a swimming metaphor—who’s to say he won’t experience a double dip?

Now the hail of bullets:

* I liked the idea of Don writing a diary. What I don’t like so much is having Don read to us from the diary, in a voiceover. For starters, the device undercuts one of Mad Men’s greatest strengths, which is its use of irony and understatement to show how characters word and actions often belie their real thoughts and meaning. Has anyone ever sat down to watch Mad Men and thought, “This is a good show, but it would be better if the protagonist told us exactly what he was thinking every now and then?” Besides that storytelling problem, the voice of Don the diarist is not unlike the voice of Don the adman, at least when he is (a la the Kodak Carousel) in full-on sentimental mode. What seems meant as heartfelt, then, half sounds like a pitch, and a distractingly writerly one. Which itself might have possibilities—if, say, we were led to wonder whether Don isn’t lying to his diary, us, himself—but this episode, at least, didn’t make much of that opportunity.

* Loved Don’s reaction when Peggy brought him the cartoon and said it was Joey’s work: “Narrative, forced perspective—are you sure Joey did this?”

* As we get farther into what we usually think of in pop-culture terms as “the ’60s,” it gets harder even for a show as brilliant as Mad Men to avoid overfamiliar takes. Vietnam, for instance: the references to the war work better when they come out of personal stories, like Joan wishing death on her male coworkers after bracing to say goodbye to Greg. (Which—by way of Joey’s callous “rape” insult, recalled her ugly past history with Greg as well.) On the other hand, when you have Don sit down and see Vietnam on the evening news, it looks like a thousand other images of people sitting down in the ’60s and seeing Vietnam on the evening news.

* While Don’s seeming choice of Faye over Bethany seems like a decision to make more mature choices, it should be noted that Don still has his dating tricks: he asks her out not by accident but after hearing her uncharacteristically lose her cool with a boyfriend on the phone.

* Speaking of Faye: assuming this relationship has a future, we’ve seen Don have affairs with intelligent, strong women in the past (Rachel Mencken, e.g.). Will this one necessarily end better simply because he’s not cheating on his wife with her?

* There was no music over the end credits, a kind of stunning move—it’s not as if someone had just died—until I remembered the use earlier in the episode of The Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction, which is the licensing equivalent of buying a gold-plated 747 and crashing it into a mountain of burning $100 bills.

* I don’t even want to think about the idea of a Mountain Dew cocktail. I would need a drink just to forget that drink.

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