Monday, August 9, 2010

Mad Men - Season 4 Episode 3: The Good News

"Nobody knows what's wrong with themselves. I mean, everyone else can see it right away." - Stephanie

Happy New Year, and welcome to 1965! This week, we break open our new calendars and find a Mad Men episode jam-packed with thematic importance. "The Good News" continues to develop this season's stories, applying pressure to a select few situations while an astonishing number of main characters sit on the sidelines. This episode is all about Don, Joan, and Lane -- who finally gets to do more than tut at the others and fret about money. The other characters barely enter into the picture, and some (like Roger and Pete) don't even get lines. And while this is a deep and quoteworthy episode (even with no Rogerisms), not much actually HAPPENS. For that reason, a straightforward recap would be ill-suited, so I'll just talk a bit about Don and Joan, and then touch on Lane, whose story overlaps with the other two.

Don's story finds him about to take a standard single-guy trip to the resort town of Acapulco, and this vacation couldn't come too soon, judging by the lingering awkwardness between Don and Allison. They both seem to have returned to "normal" on the surface, though it's clear they're standing on shaky ground. But before Don's actual vacation, he schedules a 24-hr stopover in LA for some "R&R" with his OTHER "ex," Anna Draper, where, with no secrets, he can take a vacation from being Don Draper. "Dick" visits with Anna and Stephanie, her young, Berklee-student niece. Together, in spite of Anna's broken leg (blamed on a kitchen accident), the three hang out, get high, and dance into the evening.

Being Dick gives Don the freedom to speak candidly, something we haven't seen him do since the divorce. Anna and he discuss what happened with Betty, with Don admitting that he "could tell the minute she saw who I really was, she never wanted to look at me again," confirming our suspicions that he considers himself a fake, but also -- more importantly -- reinforcing his secret fear that everything he has is only kept afloat by his lie. Even with all of his success, Don just can't forgive himself for his origins and believes that no-one else will, either.

Once again, Anna proves to be a match for Don's wit, and a perceptive listener to boot. She says, "I'm sorry she [Betty] broke your heart," seeing the sad truth about Don's divorce while everyone back in New York still thinks of it as a minor (and well-deserved) inconvenience for him. Anna alone understands how "self-made" Don really is; she's seen him rise from being a mediocre salesman. When she says, "I'm so damned proud of you," she's trying to reprogram Don's fears of exposure. Indeed, she sets herself up as the anti-Betty, saying "I know everything about you, and I still love you." Their relationship defies labels; they share a (mostly) platonic bond and genuinely love and care for each other, which makes the revelation of Anna's cancer all the more devastating. More on that later.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Joan is dealing with Greg's upcoming departure for basic training and inevitable deployment to Vietnam. It's all very grim business: she's gone off of the pill in the hopes of starting a family before he leaves, with the heavy subtext being that he will likely die, so they'll never get another chance. If that's not enough for poor Joanie to deal with, she's also struggling to adapt to her role at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. She's got more legitimate authority and power than she ever had at the old company, yet because of her gender she's still not accepted for what she is: the most important non-partner in the firm.

Her simmering resentment over this problem boils over when a more-irritated-than-normal Lane refuses to grant her additional time-off to spend during her husband's putative final vacation before deployment. Lane insists he needs her help, yet still treats her like a subservient woman, saying "Don't go and cry about it!" Lane's irritation gets a bit of context later, but for now it seems mean-spirited at best and misogynistic at worst. And at home, Greg pushes Joan's buttons in the same way, assuming Joan's job consists of filing papers. Her terse reply, "I don't do that anymore, I have other people do that," again highlights her frustrations at not being recognized. Joan has moved beyond the "traditional" role of a woman in the workplace, though not in the same way as Peggy -- check out Jen's recap from last week for more about this dynamic. Joan is in the hinterland between being "one of the boys" and "a helpless, stupid little girl," and it's probably a tougher place than anywhere to be.

But Joan is not without her own prejudices. When she gives herself a deep cut, she seems determined to go to the hospital rather than letting her doctor husband fix it himself. She has no confidence in Greg's skills, likely due to his failure to become a proper surgeon, and she realizes just how little faith she has in him via a brilliantly-acted moment. Greg's surprisingly good bedside manner causes Joan to go from standoffish, to a flash of Anna Draper-esque pride at Greg's skills, and then immediately to tears at knowing exactly what she'll lose when he's gone. This is BY FAR the most sympathetic scene we've ever had from the typically-mopey Greg. It doesn't make up for that rape scene two years back, but at least we get a hint that there's SOME good in him.

I'd like to jump back to the line I quoted at the start. As we've discussed, this show has always been about the contrast between appearance and reality. Last week, we saw the division between what we want and what is expected of us, but this week we're focused on the internal troubles we hide from ourselves and, in some cases, from others. Anna doesn't know what's really the matter with her (despite hints that maybe, on some level, she does), and Stephanie ropes Don into the conspiracy to hide it from her, but this seems to be the only case where other people REALLY know what's wrong with anyone. Like I said before, no-one back at SCDP really gets what's wrong with Don. The same applies to Joan and, to a lesser extent, Lane. Perhaps it's Stephanie's immaturity that prevents her from seeing it, but most people on Mad Men know, far better than anyone else, what's wrong with themselves.

Instead, this episode seems to be about the fragile bubbles we create for ourselves and others to live in, sheltered from harsh reality. Talking about her UFO sighting, Anna says "I started thinking of everything I was sure was true, and how flimsy it all might be," which is extra-tough for Don to hear. Don's whole identity is tied up in such a bubble of untruth, and when he can't bring himself to tell Anna about her cancer and break the bubble she's living in, it's utterly heartbreaking. Their parting scenes -- both the first, where Don shores up plans to bring the kids to visit her even though he suspects she won't live that long, and the second, when they actually say goodbye -- were two of the most painful moments ever on this show. You can tell it kills Don to lie to the one person he never HAD to lie to; for myself, I really don't know whether I think Don did the right thing in preserving her bubble of presumed ignorance.

Greg tries to create a similar bubble, acting as though he might not end up in Vietnam, but Joan can't share in his optimism. Still, he knows the truth: when he stitches up her cut, he says "I can't fix anything else, but I can fix this," sentiments that could probably double for Don's thoughts as he paints over the mold on Anna's wall. That metaphor is not lost on us: you can put a pretty coat of paint on a stain, but the stain's still there below.

There's also a performative streak to this bubble-building, and a few of the interactions in today's episode feed back into the "what's expected of us" discussion from last week (which Don quotes again this week). Don and Allison's interactions seem more like people playing the roles of a boss and a secretary, not the more complicated reality. Peggy's sole scene has her playing up to Joan and complimenting her marriage, which she knows is usually a good way to Joan's heart, in the hopes of securing an early exit from work. Even Joan is not immune; she plays up her sexuality ("Breast... or Thigh?") when buttering up Lane to get time off.

And what about Lane? Well, Lane attempts to deflect questions about his personal life as a way of denying his marriage's likely end, but he doesn't have to create too much of a bubble: nobody really notices his problems; they only speak to him kindly (as Joan does earlier) when they want something. Lane still feels like an outsider, like one of the pack of boys he describes in his anecdote, following the cool kids around but never becoming one of them. When Don skips Acapulco and finds Lane at work instead of with his family in London, both men hide their real reasons: Don "didn't feel like" going (an understatement at best) and Lane has "too much to do," a sad lie. But while Don has practice at guarding his personal life, Lane opens up completely about his insecurities, his ruined marriage, and his love of Gamera and American beef as the two men drunkenly bond (in some of the funniest scenes the show has produced to date).

At the end of the episode, we're left wondering how the three central characters have changed. After a night living la vida Draper (booze, movies, and call girls), Lane shows up late to a meeting. Is he just imitating Don -- who looks concerned -- or setting himself up for a crash (like the cool guy from his anecdote)? As for Don, it seems like he's actually worse off. The pained looks he wears both lying on his bed and in the meeting would indicate his slide isn't over. And Joan? It's hard to tell if she's built a bubble for herself, but I loved seeing her at the head of the table in that last scene. Even if no-one else appreciates it, as ever, she knows her place.

Random Thoughts:

  • No credited guest stars this episode, despite great work and important scenes for Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton) and Greg Harris (Sam Page). The rules of TV credit allocation puzzle me.
  • How fantastic was the whole "Don and Lane's Drunk Night On The Town" sequence? Some highlights:
    • Lane, with an earnest grin: "I have a sandwich in the refrigerator; it's... very large!"
    • The transition from their discussion of the "young lovers" of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to the shot of Gamera flying around and wrecking things: PRICELESS.
    • Regarding their fellow cinema-goers:
      Don: "You know what's going on here, don't you? Hand jobs."
      Lane: "Is that right?? What percentage, do you think?"
    • I can't even attempt to transcribe Lane's mock-Japanese shout at the shushing lady, but it definitely cracked me up.
    • Lane, with a steak on his crotch: "I got a big Texas belt buckle! YEEEE-HAAWW!"
    • Don, after one of the call girls applauds his "manly" apartment: "It came this way. I think Norman Mailer shot a deer over there."
  • The episode's title refers both to Don not wanting any more bad news after learning of Anna's cancer, and to Stephanie's story about her roommate's nervous breakdown and discovery of Jesus. I enjoyed Don's reaction to that story, insisting there's nothing worse than THAT "good news."
  • Changing Times Alert: Did you catch the sly references to the era's increasing poltical unrest (via protests at Berkeley) and to the rise of California surf music? And I liked hearing Rudy Jensen described as "the next Bob Dylan," an epithet STILL getting trotted out today. Perhaps the times, they haven't a-changed SO much.
  • I got a kick out of that shot of Joan pulling the pencils out of the creative office ceiling. It spoke so much to the whole "creative division is full of children" thing.
  • Speaking of Joan, I LOVE how she thinks: "I figured since we missed it [New Years] here, we could celebrate it in Hawaii." It's a shame that Greg is so ill-suited to appreciate those touches.
  • I appreciate the irony of Lane calling himself "the incorruptible exception" to Joan's charms, but later sleeping with a call girl the moment he accepts his marriage's end.
  • Was anyone else fearing for Lane's life through this episode? His agitation, sadness, and loneliness had me worried; I half thought Don would find him dead in the office. And that rapidly-boiling percolator during the morning scene at Don's apartment only raised the tension. I hope I'm wrong.
Sorry for my expansiveness this week. There was so much happening between the lines in this one, I was afraid to leave anything out. Perhaps next week's "The Rejected" will leave me with less to think about (and fewer pages of notes!)

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