Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mad Men - Season 4 Episode 6: "Waldorf Stories"

“My mother always said, 'Be careful what you wish for, in case you'll get it. And then people get jealous and try to take it away from you.” - Roger

It's pretty common, when talking about Mad Men, for commentators to note that the characters behave like children. I've done this myself, particularly when describing Betty, a character who has been rendered almost unbearable by her childish petulance. The characters even see this juvenile streak in each other. How many times has someone called the Creative Department "children?" "Waldorf Stories" proves to be no exception to this. Lane calls Pete out when he throws a "tantrum," but also says that "Roger Sterling is a child." Roger, Don, and a cameoing Duck also act like children before, during, and after the Clio ceremony. Based solely on their behavior, it's a wonder that these people have found so much success.

This may all sound like a point that's been hammered home with a heavy hand, but I felt that "Waldorf Stories" approached the issue from an interesting angle. It's fascinating to see the extent to which these characters are products of their upbringing, whether or not they try to pretend otherwise. Pete's pathological need to prove himself -- as well as his readiness to blame others and feel persecuted -- stems from his unresolvable desire to gain his dead, indifferent father's respect. Peggy tries to break out of the pull of her family-centered, religious upbringing, but still dresses so conservatively as to come across as a prude (at least to begin with!) to new art director Stan Rizzo. Don's upbringing has led to his crisis of identity and his ever-deepening impulse to punish himself. And Roger, as a child of privilege, has learned to use humor to deflect his very real fears of being irrelevant and replaceable. By exposing the ways these characters' presents have been shaped by their pasts, "Waldorf Stories" establishes a backwards-looking tone that nicely freshens up the "adults-as-children" angle while simultaneously reminding us how many stories there are left to tell about Don Draper and company.

Structurally, this episode has an elegant symmetry. The present-day action begins and ends with scenes involving Danny Siegel, Jane Sterling's ambitious-but-idiotic cousin, interviewing for a job with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. I should point out that Danny is played by Danny Strong, best known for his roles as Jonathan on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and as Paris Geller's long-suffering boyfriend Doyle on Gilmore Girls. Strong is an able comedic player, and his scenes get great mileage out of his diminutive height, nasal voice, and unjustified confidence. Danny's repetitive, plagiarized book provides a few very funny moments, as does Roger's reaction: "I told him to be himself... that was pretty mean, I guess!"

These Danny scenes also bookend a couple of interactions between Don and Peggy that highlight the strange nature of their relationship. In the first, Don treats Peggy with clear affection but high expectations, much like a  teacher talking to a student or a father to a daughter. You can almost imagine him adding "Missy!" to the end of some of his statements. The second scene, showing Peggy's visit to a worse-for-wear Don, reverses the situation, with Peggy treating Don like a student. Their relationship, always central to the show, has become more and more intriguing this season. Don has always lacked a mother, and Peggy doesn't seem to have a father at this point (do we know what became of him? I can't remember) so they each seem to fill a void in the other's life, outside of the normal hierarchies of the office world.

Scattered between and around these bits, "Waldorf Stories" features a handful of flashback scenes that provide us with new information about Don Draper's past and how he got involved with the old Sterling Cooper in the first place. We learn that Don met Roger while working at a fur shop, where Roger had gone to buy a present for Joan. Don, already responsible for the store's internal advertisements, tries to take advantage of his new "contact" -- even though Roger seems to want no part of it. Don won't take no for an answer, slipping his portfolio into Joan's gift box and even showing up at the Sterling Cooper offices to talk Roger into having a drink (or many, as it were) with him. It's nice to see this persistence in Don, especially in contrast to the lost, alcoholic Don we've been seeing for most of this season.

Indeed, Don may be at (or nearing) his lowest point in this episode. He attempts to do one of his patented Don Draper Pitches while drunk, and ends up stealing the one original idea ("X - The Cure for the Common Y") Danny brought to his interview. He strikes out with Faye Miller again, and his Clio-winning celebrations turn into a weekend bender that sees him losing almost two days' worth of memories, not to mention a Sunday with the kids. I don't know how much more of this Don can take before he breaks down... I just hope that someone will be there to help pull him out of the morass before he loses everything, but I have a feeling he's going to need to bottom out -- either via confirmation of Anna Draper's death or by giving up the Don Draper persona (that waitress DID call him Dick, after all...) -- before he can right the ship.

While Don languishes, we get to see Peggy's confidence continue to grow as she stands up to the repugnant Stan Rizzo (one of the show's most immediately unlikeable characters to date). He imagines himself to be a rebellious, too-cool-for-school artist, but Peggy's experience with the bohemian types she met in "The Rejected" allows her to see that, in Rizzo's case, it's all theory. Their naked brainstorming session, where Peggy stays calm and Rizzo -- or, more specifically, Little Rizzo -- doesn't, is an immediate classic. Elisabeth Moss plays this scene perfectly, with her delivery, timing, and facial expressions all hitting precisely the right notes to convey Peggy's contempt as well as her smug pleasure after calling Rizzo's bluff.

Like Roger's mother notes in the quote at the top of this post, this episode is about fighting to keep what you've earned. Don's work speaks for itself, but he's already lost his family and his sense of self, and self-appointed competitors like Ted Chaough keep trying to take him down. Pete is afraid that Lane is hiring Ken behind his back to replace him, despite his status as a partner and the increasingly good work he's doing for SCDP. In writing his book, Roger finds himself looking back to his childhood and to when he hired Don, because he's afraid that everything else he's done with his professional life has been unearned or overlooked.

But more importantly, this episode seems to be about what is inherited NOT from our parents, but from our work family. The two scenes featuring Don and Peggy feel like parent/child conversations, and it's clear that Peggy has inherited her mentor's cocky, independent streak. It seems an obvious prediction, and might be a red herring, but it's easier than ever to imagine her becoming the new Don Draper. Don, meanwhile, seems poised to inherit Roger's role as he hires the ambitious Danny despite his misgivings, just as Roger did for Don before him. And Pete's scene in the conference room with Ken shows that, as much as he's still the same old Pete, he's willing to become the head account executive that SCDP needs as long as Roger is tied up with his book and one major account. It's been said before that children become their parents, and it's looking as though that holds true even in the workplace.

Notes and Quotes:

  • I have altered the name of this section. Pray I do not alter it any further!

  • Despite going "from lubricated to morose" (as Joan puts it), Roger still has a few brilliant lines in this episode:

    • "Is that how you say it? C-H-A-O-U-G-H? Hey writers, how many extra vowels is that?"
    • "Chow-guh-guh hired an actor to impress someone. Last time I saw the General, he had a parrot on his shoulder"
    • Woman at the Clios: "Is he (Don) attached?"
      Roger: "To that glass? Absolutely."
    • "Garçon! Je m'appelle Roger. Je suis un Taxi, s'il vous plait."

  • Miss Blankenship continues to amuse me far more than she should, particularly in her interactions with Danny. "I don't work for you!" and "Your little friend is waiting."

  • Danny: "You will NOT be sorry!"
    Don: "Go away."

  • How adorable was Lane? "And on a personal note, I'd like to add that I'm quite fond of you. It pains me to hear you say otherwise."

  • I'm not sure what to make of the Roger - Joan - Don hand-holding scene at the Clios, other than that perhaps it's meant to show that the three characters are linked by Roger's fur purchase years ago. I don't think there's too much more to it: Joan still shows restraint in rejecting Roger's advances, and I can't imagine she'd go for Don in this state, so I doubt it's anything more than shared excitement.

  • "Judas Priest, are we merging with Geier?!" -- Someone needs to cut together a montage of Pete's curse words.

  • Did you notice that flashback-Roger calls Don on his lie in the same way present-Roger calls out "Colonel Alvin?" Yet another of this week's symmetries and parallels.
  • On the same topic, I liked how we got to see two stare-downs involving SCDP's young stars. Peggy stares down the "chicken-shit" Stan, and Pete stares down the returning Ken. I'd hate to be in competition with either of those two!
I'm going to wrap this up for now. I'm not sure if/when I'll get to next week's post, but I do hope I can come up with something. These posts get harder and harder each week!

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