Mad Men Watch: Weekend Update

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Why is this Mad Men Watch being posted on the weekend? Three reasons. Because I had to think through my initial disappointment and confusion about season 4, episode 4: “The Rejected.” (Indeed, my first impulse after watching the show was to check out Jim Poniewozik’s blog for his usual insights, then realized that Jim’s on vacation, and I’m the one who agreed to play substitute teacher.) Because I watched the episode a couple more times, to get clarity. And because I have a day job.

After the elegant simplicity and symmetry of the Aug. 8 episode, with just three settings and three pairs of characters, this week’s seemed one of bricklaying for the rest of the season: setting up business rivalries and erotic tensions — often one and the same at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. By now, the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner (who wrote the episode with Keith Huff), has earned the right to think of each season as one book in an epic series of novels. Individual chapters need not be satisfying as discrete units; they have other priorities to consider. And on third look, “The Rejected,” directed by co-star and cool dude John Slattery (apparently his first work ever behind the camera), offered plenty to munch on.

The first three installments took place near holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve of 1964. Now we’re in late Feb. ’65 (there’s an allusion to Malcolm X’s killing, which occurred on Feb. 21), and seasonal anxiety has given way to various forms and degrees of frustration, anger and, in one case, celebration tinged with sadness. There’s also the pre-spring budding of possibilities. Whereas last week’s episode was about couples — Don and his “wife” Anna, Joan and her husband Greg, Don and Lane — this one is about couples who get bent into trios.

Don and Allison (plus Faye)

Has this boss-secretary tryst been an affair, or just a one-night Christmas Eve stand followed by meaningful glances on her part and dismissive gruffness, possibly tempered with guilt, on his? Two months later, Alison (Alexa Alemanni, with the perfect ’50s face and demeanor of the girl who came in second in the Prom Queen vote) watches her boss light one cigarette with another, and run through a bottle of scotch as if it were Mountain Dew. “Why is this empty?” he demands, and she whispers, “Because you drank it all.” Her noble Romeo has degenerated into a nicotine rummy. Just before Christmas, Don hadn’t minded when Allison opened an obviously personal letter from his daughter; now, when he places a photo he just received from Anna on his desk, and Allison asks, “Is that the letter from California?”, he javelins her with a none-of-your-damn-business stare and hisses, “Yessss.” (It shows Weiner’s confidence in his viewers that he expects them to pick up on motifs planted weeks before.)

Dr. Faye has organized an in-house research probe to grill the younger “girls” on the staff about cold cream, and it quickly balloons into a sorority-night truth-or-dare session. When another secretary, Dorothy, blurts out, “I feel as if I gave him everything and I got nothing,” Allison breaks into sobs and bolts from the conference room to Don’s office. She tells him she wants to leave and asks him to compose a letter of recommendation. He tells her to write up her own and he’ll sign it — and that cracks the egg. Furious that the great copywriter, the man who creates honeyed lies for a living, can’t take the time to put generous thoughts about Allison to paper, she picks up a gold paperweight and hurls it against the wall, smashing some of his framed photos and awards. Her kiss-off line: “I don’t say this easily, but you’re not a good person!” Allison stalks out. Don needs another drink. Much later in the episode, a sodden Dan starts typing an apology note to Allison, then stops, gets up and collapses on his dingy apartment couch.

If any Vegas sports book is laying odds on Mad Men plot wrinkles this season, a sure bet would be that Don and Faye (Cara Buono, who played Christopher’s wife Kelli on The Sopranos) are destined to tangle horizontally. At the moment, though, this classy, Martha Hyer-ish  blond with the Ph.D. in Hidden Persuasion just gets on his nerves — both because her “science” threatens his advertising “art,” and because, as the best-looking woman near his pay level, she sets up an obvious sexual challenge he may not be eager to rise to. Leave it to Don to one-up Faye and assuage his own guilt with a single barrage: he blame her for Allison’s breakdown, No, it’s not his fault that he ruined his secretary’s life; it’s Faye’s, because her line of questioning about women’s self-esteem problems made Allison fully calibrate her own misery.

Peggy and Joyce (plus Abe)

Lately, Peggy has been scoring big at SCDP. While Faye gets shot down for saying her research indicates that the way to sell Pond’s Cold Cream is to tell women it will attract a husband (“Hello, 1925,” Don says sarcastically; “I’m not gonna do that”), Peggy gets plaudits with her pitch: “Pond’s is the only cold cream that allows me to stare at myself in the mirror for 20 minutes and feel good and not vain.” But whom is Peggy’s channeling here? In her life to date, she hasn’t spent five minutes admiring herself in a mirror. Sure, Faye may want women to feel miserable about themselves, and sell cold cream as a lifeline to marriage; but why is it more advanced to appeal to a woman’s idle narcissism? Don loves Peggy’s idea — is he thinking of his ex-wife, the beautiful, underused Betty, back at the home he’s abandoned, and which she now lives in with her new husband?

In the elevator of the Time + Life Building that now houses the SCDP offices, Peggy notices the word REJECTED on a folder carried by a Life photo researcher, Joyce Ramsey (Zosia Mamet, the daughter of playwright David Mamet and actress Lindsay Crouse). The L word is unspoken but redolent, as Joyce shows Peggy photos of nude women that a Life editor nixed. Soon the spiky Joyce has dropped by SCDP to ogle the lovelies and invite Peggy to an “I don’t know what to call it” — they were called “happenings” — downtown.

At the party, Peggy signals her squareness in a half-dozen ways, glances a Bruce Conner-style avant-garde film (“I’m Catholic” she says; “I don’t think I’m supposed to like it”) and shares a toke but not a smooch with the avid Joyce. (Peggy: “I have a boyfriend.” Joyce: “He doesn’t own your vagina.” Peggy: “No, but he’s renting it.”) She registers neither shock at Joyce’s advances nor interest in them. When the joint is raided, she finds refuge with writer Abe in a closet, possibly the one Joyce emerged from years before. “I feel like I should kiss you,” Abe says, and Peggy has what may be the first unobligated kiss of her life. (More on See a gallery of the top 10 things we miss about the Mad Men era)

Pete and Trudy (plus Peggy)

Pete had bad news for his father-in-law Tom Vogel: SCDP has to dump the Clearasil account, which he got through Tom, because of a conflict with the larger Pond’s account. But Tom is busting to get Pete’s reaction to becoming a father. Oops: Trudy hadn’t told Peter she’s pregnant. Tom apologizes for the indiscretion; Pete later uses it, and his imminent status as a father, to squeeze Tom for the whole Vicks account: cough drops, VapoRub, the works. The son-of-a-bitch.

I love the bewilderment and wonder that play on Vincent Kartheiser’s face in this scene and the next, with Trudy. Kartheiser has been playing weasels for so long —and Pete is a character who dwells in dishonesty no less deeply than Don — that, even when his character is supposed to feel joy, the actor looks stricken. I hope that Trudy really is pregnant, that Pete’s the father and that they’ll have a son. Given the cast of Kartheiser’s features, and Peter’s perennially sulky demeanor, it’ll be Daily Show Resident Expert John Hodgman. Couldn’t the two be separated-at-birth lookalikes?

Word gets around the office; Lane (Jared Harris) has a typically warm, if clumsy, moment of congratulation. And eventually Peggy stops by to say, “I just wanted to let you know how happy I am for you – both.” In the episode’s penultimate scene, she holds her gaze on Pete before she enters an elevator. For those who haven’t memorized the canonical text, in the first season Pete more or less assaulted Peggy, impregnating her with a child she gave to her sister to raise. The child would be four now, but Mad Men has offered almost no hints that Peggy’s motherhood has been crucial to her the last couple of seasons. Soap operas often plant a child in the plot and send it off, for retrieval years later. Here the shared parentage is used to an awkward, poignant glance.

And now, a six-shooter’s worth of bullets:

  • At the downtown party, Peggy meets the photographer of the nudes Joyce had shown her. She hopes he’ll be interested in working for SCDP. “Art? In advertising?” he asks contemptuously. “Why would anyone do that after Warhol?” It’s 1965, and Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup cans have helped canonize Pop Art in the museums. But Warhol began as a illustrator for shoe ads, and his artistic vision embraced mass reproduction, hucksterism — American commerce. At this moment I wanted Harris to materialize as Warhol (he played the artist in the 1995 film I Shot Andy Warhol) and set the record straight. “Art is advertising. And advertising is art.”
  • Joyce, I figure, will be back. Parallel to her pursuit of Peggy she was practically drooling over the new reception secretary: tall, pretty, smiley Megan. She’s played by Jessica Paré, a Liv Tyler type who, a decade ago, was pegged as the next pan-Canadian movie star (in Stardom and Lost and Delirious). At the moment, both characters are clichés; but if the plot opens out as the season progresses, instead of folding in, they could ripen into interesting supporting players.
  • What’s with Don’s new haircut? It’s way too short and not at all attractive. Instead of the Mad Ave. Hugh Hefner, he looks as if he just got out of the Army — back when he was Dick Whitman.
  • The SCDP offices have glass partitions at the top of each wall, and after Allison tosses the paperweight Don’s way, Peggy, in the office next door, is seen peering through the partition. Would the cautious Peggy really do this? And why is her office next to Don’s? Wouldn’t his be adjacent to those of the other partners?
  • Even in a bricklaying episode like this one, the masonry is elegant. The secretaries who come in to be grilled by Faye are outfitted in dresses as perfectly coordinated (red, blue, beige) as any in the cocktail party of a Ross Hunter movie. Director Slattery also arranges a nice rhyming couplet of office misery. First Pete, after being told he has to dump the Clearasil account, presses his head softly against an office column. Then Peggy, when she hears that Pete’s wife is pregnant, quietly bangs her head three times against a light table — the kind that a Life photo researcher would use.
  • With Allison gone, Don gets a new secretary: the Selma Diamond-like Miss Blankenship. She could be kin to the couple in the episode’s very last scene:, in the corridor of Don’s building, as he fumbles for keys to get into his room. They’re an antiquated couple, the husband repeatedly badgering, “Did you get pears?”, the wife finally answering, “We’ll discuss it inside.” At the end of life, as at the beginning, we want only to eat. And watching the twosome is Don, his own appetites, for now, frustrated and unfed.

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