Monday, August 23, 2010

Mad Men - Season 4 Episode 5: "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword"

Quick Programming Note: I apologize for not posting more last week; as some of you know, I'm moving this week and have had a ton of preparations to make. Also: next week's Mad Men post might be a bit late. My sister is getting married on Sunday, so I MIGHT be a little busy. Also, after next week, I'll have no fixed address, so posting might become more sporadic. But I'll try to keep things going smoothly here and will (hopefully) get next week's recap up by Tuesday.

"Why does everybody need to talk about everything?" - Don Draper

This week's episode, "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword," takes its title from a 1946 book by Ruth Benedict, referenced several times throughout the episode. Chrysanthemum is a popular, influential, and (some would say) deeply flawed anthropological study, commissioned during WWII as an attempt to understand Japanese society (thanks, Wikipedia!). From my (admittedly scant) research, the most important theme to emerge from the book is its characterization of "guilt cultures," like the US and Europe, versus "shame cultures," such as Japan. This theme also winds its way into this week's episode, which focuses on how we deal with guilt, shame, multiculturalism, and competition.

Let's start with Sally Draper this week. Sally is getting older, obviously, and her age hasn't brought any clarity to her understanding of her family's situation. She's desperate to impress her absent father, and jealous of his dates. She acts out a little bit in order to get his attention, butchering her hair because, based on babysitter Nurse Phoebe's style, she thinks Don likes short hair now. And it's no wonder Sally's desperate for affection: she's got to have the most inattentive parents around. It seems Betty still prefers lounging languidly to taking care of the kids, and pays Sally attention only to yell at her or occasionally smack her across the face. Don is kind to her -- when he can be bothered to put his life on hold long enough to spend time with her. And Henry Francis, who seems to be the most fit parent of the three, defends and understands her, but is a natural appeaser -- he's been indulging Betty's impulsiveness as long as they've been together -- and is too passive and afraid of Betty to show his concern in front of Sally.

All of this leaves poor Sally alone to navigate the cloudy waters of her emotions. We've already known her to be a little precocious: last season, she aggressively pursued her first kiss with a playmate, while this season she's been getting misguided "birds and bees" advice from creepy neighbor Glen Bishop. So I guess it's not surprising that she'd start to, almost unconsciously, explore her awakening sexuality. It's just a shame her first completely innocent, fully-clothed masturbation experiment took place in front of a sleeping friend at a sleepover. Her friend's mother blows the event out of proportion, and Betty can only perpetuate her own hard-coded sexual guilt and shame, punishing Sally instead of talking to her about her feelings.

In the end, they decide to send Sally to a child psychiatrist four(!) days a week, a decision that Don doesn't entirely agree with but which is probably correct. It's a bit of an overreaction to this one event, and even Henry Francis (who suggested the idea) says he's "not so sure that something's wrong with her," but there's little doubt that it'd do Sally some good to have someone pay attention to her and listen without judgment. Betty certainly can't; her feelings about Sally are entirely self-absorbed. When Betty asks Henry "What's wrong with her?" it's not out of concern for her child, but rather out of her own selfish fears about the family's reputation. She still seems to think that family life should be perfect and care-free, which is why I found her fawning smile upon seeing the dollhouse family at the psychiatrist's office so funny: Betty has never advanced past a child's conception of a housewife's milieu.

It's a bit funny, too, how quickly the psychiatrist picks up on Betty's continued immaturity and guilt-driven hang-ups, saying "It sounds to me like it wouldn't be bad for you to talk to someone." I, for one, hope that their once-monthly sessions can help break Betty out of her rut; her whole "overgrown, petulant child in a woman's body" thing is getting a bit played out by now. Though I do understand the social criticism implicit in her stunted emotions, it makes for frustrating TV when a character keeps falling into the same traps (see also: Draper, Don). She tells Henry that she went to a psychiatrist because she was "bored" last time, and that boredom stemmed from having what she THEN thought was a "perfect" family life. She's just not mature enough to grasp that "perfect" is always boring. Or perhaps she's forgotten her own advice to Bobby last season: "Only boring people get bored." At any rate, even Henry is starting to see that she can't blame everything on Don, as much as she might like.

Thinking about Sally's (and Betty's) predicament, my first response is to be thankful that our ideas about women's sexuality have changed so much in the last forty-five years. Feminism, science, and good, old-fashioned common sense have moved issues like these out of the realm of private discussion and into the public sphere. But then I think about how stigmatized sex -- and specifically women's sexuality -- still is, both in some parts of the US and around the world. Having been raised as a Catholic, I am no stranger to the way guilt and sex continue to be melded together, even in relatively-progressive New England. We've made progress on some issues, but the old ways are still too strong. This episode reminds us that there's a lot of work to do.

The rest of the episode deals with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce's attempts to secure the Honda account, and the mess of emotions that this brings out in the firm's partners. Don, being dogged in the papers by competitor Ted Chaough of CGC (who picked up both the resigned Clearasil and the departed Jai Alai accounts), wants to prove his continued relevance and superiority in the field. Plus, he's excited about the creative opportunities a forward-thinking, modern company like Honda presents -- perhaps because of his ever-increasing fears of becoming old and outdated. Bert is interested from a business perspective, and also because it gives him a chance to put his Japanophilic tendencies to good use and actually contribute for a change. Lane, focused as ever on numbers, wants more diversity in the firm's billings. Pete, who created this opportunity, wants to further his ambition and (as ever) prove his worth by becoming an essential part of the company. And Roger wants nothing to do with the account, due to his lingering WWII anger and fears of irrelevance once Lucky Strike no longer accounts for the majority of their business. Roger nearly torpedoes their chances with an angry outburst of offensive jokes, because humor is his shield and his weapon, but Don conceives of a brilliant stratagem to save the account.

It was good to see Don and the rest of SCDP focused and working. The scenes during the Honda execs' visit to SCDP are particularly entertaining, most notably when one of them says of the buxom Joan, "How does she not fall over?" And I love how Joan's mastery extends even to other cultures, as she circumvents the faux pas of bringing the Japanese to Benihana. Far better, though, were the scenes Don, Joey, Joan, and Peggy staged to trick CGC into thinking they were shooting a commercial. That sequence felt as close to a creative, old-school Mad Men moment as we've had all season. I loved the shot of a motorcycle-riding Peggy, going in circles on an empty soundstage, and Joan was pitch-perfect in tricking the director to spill his guts to Chaough.

Still, I was more interested in how this episode demonstrated that, in some ways, Don would fit in very well in a shame culture. Don learned in this season's first episode that reputation matters at least as much as what you do, and he's begun applying that concept a bit better, as we see in his interaction with the NY Times reporter who calls seeking a quote about Chaough. Shame cultures are very concerned with one's reputation and not suffering any slight to it. Don's non-chalant, on-the-record dismissal of Chaough ("I never heard of him.") belies the serious fear Don has of being supplanted as the top dog in the ad world. In this light, Don's masterful manipulation of the Honda execs' fear makes sense; he knew they couldn't live with the shame of breaking their own rules because he couldn't live with doing the same when he slept with Allison.

Shame cultures also enforce a degree of privacy about personal matters, which is a perfect fit for our Mr. Draper. He says the line I quoted at the top of this entry in conversation with Dr. Faye Miller, whose "What We Want vs. What is Expected of Us" dynamic continues to be the most important running theme this season. Despite his misgivings, Don is uncharacteristically forthcoming with Dr. Miller, telling her a good amount about the Sally situation as well as his own ambivalent feelings towards his kids. I've been kind of hoping that these two would get together this season, and it seems as though their paths may well be headed that way. I don't know whether that would be good for Dr. Miller (she doesn't deserve a serial cheater like Don), but I do think being with a smart, challenging, non-childish woman might do Don a world of good. Besides, Faye's almost as deceptive as Don himself, leaning on her experience as a psychologist to exploit the assumptions of others. She explains that her faux wedding ring, saying "It's just a stop sign. I walk into a lot of offices and it's helped me avoid a lot of distracting conversations." Don's follow-up "But you told me" makes it clear that perhaps she's willing to be distracted by Don, in spite of her apparent dismissals.

It's my hope that this episode serves as a turning point for the characters and the season as a whole. So far, we've had a lot of build-up -- Don's depression, Betty's impulsiveness, Sally's alienated rebellion, etc. -- but after five episodes, I think these ingredients need to start simmering soon if the season's ever going to get cooking. Having Don get fired up about a work project was a good start; he certainly came across as less pathetic this week, and perhaps the burgeoning Faye Miller story will further fix his problems. But, from a story perspective, the writers really need to start finding more ways to get these characters out of their ruts, and I'm a little worried that they've created too many threads to weave back together in a satisfying way over the season. Time will tell, I suppose.

Random Thoughts

  • It was nice to see Smitty again this week, even if he is working for the competition at CGC.
    • Chaough's line "Why don't you go work for your boyfriend?" was a bit telling. Smitty's sexuality, especially given his partnership with Kurt, has always been unclear. Does Chaough know this? Is Kurt at CGC as well?
  • Did you pick up on that throwaway line from Miss Blankenship about no-one answering the phone in California? I hope that doesn't signify a bad turn for Anna Draper.
  • I chuckled at Miss Blankenship's calling Pete "Mr. Peters."
  • Speaking of Blankenship, her idiosyncracies and dated ways make me think she really can't last as Don's "girl." The last thing he wants is to seem old-fashioned.
  • Most of this week's Rogerisms were a little more off-color than usual, governed as they were by his painful memories from WWII...
    • (regarding Secor Laxiatives finally making a commercial): "How'd you ease them into it? Heh, must have had to loosen them up first!"
    • "I'm sorry, I didn't know this meeting was happening. But then again, I know how some people love surprises"
    • "I have to warn you: they won't know it's over until you drop the big one. Twice."
    • Don: "You don't get to kill this account."
      Roger: "Well, you know how they are. Maybe it'll kill itself."
    • "Have a drink; it'll make me look younger."
  • I also liked how Pete expressed his anger: "Christ on a cracker, where do you get off?"
  • Sally was watching The Man From U.N.C.L.E. when she started playing with herself. I wonder if she'd feel differently about Illya Kuryakin if she knew he'd get old and turn into Ducky from NCIS...
  • Betty, regarding Sally's actions: "Do you know what kind of little girls do that? Fast ones!" Man, guilt and shame are hard to shake off!
  • How funny was that scene where half of SCDP stood around watching a drinking bird toy? I also liked the subsequent exchange between Joey and Don: "I still wonder what makes you work!"
  • Interesting that Don's big gamble pushed Lane's buttons. It seems like the partners are in a very unstable situation, with each one antagonizing another. I don't know how long this agency will last in its current arrangement... the pressure has got to push SOMEONE out.
  • Funny tongue-in-cheek choice of closing music in "I Enjoy Being a Girl." With lyrics like "When I get a brand new hair cut..." it's easy to guess which character enjoys being a girl (or would, if society would let her!)
That's a wrap for now. Like I said, I'll try and get next week's guide up as soon as I can, but I can't make any promises from here on out until I find a place to settle. Maybe some farmer, kinder than old Archie Whitman, will take this hobo in for a while...

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