Monday, August 16, 2010

Mad Men - Season 4 Episode 4: The Rejected

"You can't tell how people are going to behave based on how they have behaved!" - Don

At one point in "The Rejected," after a focus group for Ponds Cold Cream devolves into tears, Freddy Rumsen asks, "How the hell did this get so sad so fast?" We can ask the same question about this season of Mad Men, and about this episode in particular. What was once -- on the surface, at least -- a show about a philandering family man and his too-cool-for-school colleagues has taken a very sad, very introspective turn.

In some ways, age and the changing times have caught up with Don Draper and company. They keep having to shift strategies for the Lucky Strike account as tobacco's health risks become increasingly apparent, and the formerly easy-going, hard-drinking lifestyle is taking more and more of a toll on Don's well-being. Meanwhile, new approaches, like Dr. Faye Miller's more psychology-oriented focus groups, are challenging their older methods. Throw in some messy personal lives, and it's a tough time to be at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. It makes one miss the early, easy camaraderie when the young guns like Pete, Harry, Ken, and Paul all sat around and cracked wise -- but those days are long gone.

Given this episode's title, it's no surprise that it's such a sad outing: Rejection is the common thread uniting this week's disparate storylines. The tension from Don's rejection of Allison and refusal to acknowledge their affair finally reaches its breaking point. Pete is forced to "reject" his father-in-law's Clearasil account when a conflict arises with the more profitable Cheesebrough-Ponds account. Peggy befriends Joyce, a photo editor from Life Magazine, after striking up a conversation over a letter of rejection Joyce bears for her friend's nude photography. Finally, by the episode's end, Don comes to reject Dr. Miller's findings, justifying himself with the quote I pulled at the top of this post. But my feeling is that it's Don, Pete, and Peggy themselves who are the titular "rejected" ones, but more on that as we go along. For now, let's look at how these three characters act in ways that may or may not have been predicted by their previous behavior.

Let's talk about Don and Allison first. Their awkwardness over the last two episodes has been nigh unbearable, so I'm a little glad that this whole thing has been resolved, even if it happens in such a depressing way. After once again getting the cold shoulder from Don, Allison has a breakdown during the Ponds Cold Cream focus group when the emotional discussion hits too close to home. Peggy ironically blames herself for putting Allison in the room, when Don can't even bring himself to admit his mistake. Eventually, Allison decides to leave SCDP, but Don continues to play it cool, going so far as to ask her to write herself a recommendation letter for him to sign. Appalled at his inability to accept responsibility or even take that small amount of personal interest in their situation, she throws his cigarette dispenser through some artwork and storms off, leaving Don shocked while the whole office looks on. It's a heavy scene, and we get the feeling that it was inevitable -- that Don and Allison were both powerless to do anything different. Still, I appreciate the brief moment of levity when, post-confrontation, Peggy climbs her desk to peek into Don's office through the high windows.

Don's descent into utter depression continues. He stays drinking at the office well after business hours, only noticing the time when he's startled by the cleaner buffing the floor. Then, at home, he starts to write a letter to Allison, getting as far as "Dear Allison, I want you to know I'm very sorry. Right now my life is very..." before he loses heart and "rejects" the letter. Don, the master wordsmith and creative genius, can't even find the words to describe what his life has become.

Peggy takes an interesting journey tonight with Joyce and her hipster, Warhol-loving friends. I'm not entirely sure what attracts Peggy to Joyce. It might be her artistic nature and confidence; when receptionist Megan says of Joyce, "She's kind of pretentious," Peggy smiles in admiration and says "I know." It's pretty clear that Joyce is attracted to Peggy for somewhat different reasons: Either she's a lesbian, or she's meant to represent the bohemian attitude towards love that would, in later years, lead to the "free love" movement. She also seems to find Peggy intriguing, unlike her artist friends, who react with incredulity or hostility when they learn that Peggy works in advertising and does nothing creative on the side.

And, while Peggy's ideas for the Ponds account are clearly more in line with Don's, there's some indication that she's still struggling with the idea of marriage and love. She plays idly with Dr. Miller's wedding ring during the focus group, trying it on and prompting a raised eyebrow from Don. She rejects Joyce's advances with aplomb, saying "I have a boyfriend," but kisses Joyce's friend Abe during the police raid. This whole scene reminds me of Don's time with Midge and her beatnik friends back in Season One, with Peggy in Don's place.

The parallels between Don and Peggy are getting hard to ignore: She's fabricated a life with Mark, burying -- though not too well, as we'll see -- her past affair with Pete and the child she bore. Her kiss with Abe may be innocent enough, but it might also be the start of a more Draper-esque infidelity. Certainly, she doesn't feel too much for Mark, perhaps staying with him because she's expected to. Parts of her clearly long to have a creative, artistic, and free life. It will be interesting to watch this develop.

Meanwhile, Pete's story gives us our first significant time with him this season. We see that not much has really changed, there. He's still very career-driven and competitive, mocking Harry's continued "friendship" with Ken Cosgrove as nothing more than Harry "always looking for a job," and attempting to one-up Ken's engagement with his own impending fatherhood. And, he can't accept certain parts of his job; he's still unwilling to deal with the negative side of account management and still quick to feel left out or slighted.

Pete's story also demonstrates another of the overarching themes of this week's episode: the dangers of mixing the personal with the professional. Pete has a hard time telling Tom, his father-in-law, about having to resign the account. Later -- after getting the idea from Ken's lunchtime diatribe about his failure to spin Mountain Dew into the acquisition of the larger Pepsi account -- Pete successfully talks Tom into bringing in the whole Vicks line to replace (and surpass) Clearasil's billings, spending all of his pregnancy-earned capital to do so. Perhaps he's finally going to grow up?

But this isn't the only place where the personal/professional divide causes trouble for Pete. His lingering lukewarm interactions with Peggy are exacerbated, here, by the news of Trudy's pregnancy. Peggy finds out about this through a card making the office rounds, not from Pete himself. When Peggy congratulates him, Pete mistakenly assumes she's referring to the Vicks account, but then they pass a few awkward pleasantries (though neither of them seems to know whether either is being sincere). Remember, they've "rejected" each other a couple of times, now. I've never personally believed their continued feelings for one another (such as they are) since their believable hook-ups in Season One, but I admit the two characters have their similarities: Pete bangs his head against the wall when he's frustrated, and Peggy headdesks after their awkward congratulation scene. But the slo-mo scene near the episode's end, where they catch each other's eye and flash enigmatic smiles, certainly got me thinking about how far Peggy has come and how little Pete has changed (until now, perhaps?) since they hooked up.

And what about that final scene, where Don watches the old couple across the hall who keep their personal lives so private, they won't even talk about pears in the hallway? I think that this scene kind of puts the rest of Don's story into perspective. Don has "rejected" his true, Dick Whitman-self, but when Betty left him, she "rejected" the Don Draper persona, leaving Don unmoored and uncertain. This episode showed people dealing with rejection in different ways: Pete stopped being afraid of Tom's rejection and made a strong, and intelligent, play. Peggy dealt with Pete's rejection by leaving that version of herself behind and, in turn, rejecting him back, though it's still unclear where this will lead her. And Don? Don has handled rejection worse than anyone else. He watches the elderly couple because he knows that they represent something he's lost, possibly forever. He has lost respect for both of his identities, and in losing Betty -- and, soon, Anna -- he has no-one left to grow old with. Maybe he doesn't respect Faye Miller's ideas, but she almost certainly had him pegged: He needs a new "better half," even if he doesn't know why, before he loses himself entirely. I wonder who it will be.

***UPDATE 10:52 PM 08/16/2010***

Thinking about it a bit more, and spurred on a bit by Noel Murray's take at the AV Club, I have to revise my take on that last scene a bit. I still think Don needs to find someone new in order to know how to define himself, but I'm less comfortable now reading the scene as a look at what Don will miss. He's not interested in growing old with anyone; he's simply afraid of growing old! I think this is why he rejects Dr. Miller's advice, advice that favors "old-fashioned" Freddy Rumsen's approach. Don's fear of aging has been established slowly over the last four episodes (further back, if I were to look more closely): He's too old to hold as much booze as he used to. Stephanie plays an old fashioned song and he asks if it's because she thinks he's old. He's losing his touch with women, getting "rejected" multiple times this season. That last scene is like something out of the inside of Don's head: he's afraid he will become those elderly folks, if he hasn't already.

Also, I'm kicking myself for not including a bit about Peggy's chat with Allison, where Peggy takes umbrage both at Allison's characterization of Don, and at her suggestion that Peggy had experienced the same thing. When Peggy said "Your problem is not my problem," I immediately felt like I'd heard that line before, perhaps from Joan to Peggy or one of the crying steno pool girls. I tried to dig for that line or something like it, but failed and totally forgot to write anything about that conversation. So, as Pete might say, mea culpa.


Random Thoughts:

  • John Slattery directed this episode, and it was nice to have a little bit more Roger in in front of the camera as well. I'd missed the Rogerisms last week.
    • To Pete, upset at being left off of the Lucky Strike call: "Be happy; I saved you an ass-ache."
    • To Lee Garner, Jr., via phone: "For that price, a boat should have a motor. What? (laughing) One of those, too!" - I can only guess what Garner might have suggested...
    • "And remind me to remind Caroline to tell Lane that Lucky Strike noticed that they're being billed for all the work we do for everybody else at this agency... You know what? I don't want that on paper."
    • To Don, regarding Bert Cooper's working from home: "D'ya know, he works without pants?"
  • Speaking of Bert, I don't know what the heck he was doing in the reception area, eating an apple in the background of Peggy and Joyce's scene, but it certainly made me laugh out loud. Is he losing it a bit?
  • Randee Heller, who played Don's new "girl" Miss Blankenship, was famous for playing one of the first lesbian characters on American TV (Alice from Soap). Interesting that she shows up in the same episode as Joyce, the first Mad Men character with lesbian tendencies since Joan's old roommate.
  • Oh, and I laughed at every single thing Miss Blankenship said. Not sure what that says about me...
  • And, regarding guest stars with prominent prior roles, I have a hard time seeing Tom as anyone other than Clarissa's father from Clarissa Explains It All. Ah, Nickelodeon in the 90's... gotta love it.
  • Harry's reference to "one of those striped Jean Seberg shirts" made my inner cinephile smile, though I also dug his Honeymooners reference regarding his bus-driving father-in-law.
  • Watching Ken's conversation with Pete, it amazed me how much better he is at appearing earnest in spite of meaning the opposite of what he says. Pete always tries too hard.
  • And speaking of Ken, try as I might, I couldn't catch the name of the agency he moved to after leaving the abhorrent McCann. Any ideas?
  • Caroline, about herself and Joan not being in the Ponds focus group: "We're old and we're married; they don't want us!" Did you see that look Joan shot her way? Yikes!
  • Don's cold "Glad to see you're feeling better" upon finding a red-eyed Allison in his office was probably the meanest line in a bleak episode.
  • AAAH! What was up with Bearhead Man at Joyce's friend's party? Yikes!
  • Peggy: "I have a boyfriend."
    Joyce: "He doesn't own your vagina!"
    Peggy: "No, but he's renting it!"
  • Stoned Peggy: "This film is more interesting than I thought... it's RHYTHMIC!"
  • Dr. Fay(e) Miller gives Don the "You're the client" line that we've seen our SCDP friends use so often when justifying a client's bad decisions. I wonder if Don's rejection of her findings will prove to be an equally bad decision.
Well, that post was a whole lot harder to cobble together than I expected. I hope it still makes sense, and I apologize for its length and for the greater-than-normal number of random thoughts, as well as for my delay in getting it posted. We'll see you back here next week for "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword;" I wonder what THAT could mean...

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