Monday, September 13, 2010

Mad Men - Season 4 Episode 8: "The Summer Man"

Before I get started with this week's recap, I just want to apologize for turning this site into a Mad Men-themed blog of late. As I've said before, I'm in the midst of a difficult and uncertain relocation period, and while I've certainly had to cut down on my movie and TV watching, there's also just not enough energy left most days to take notes and write up those things I do get around to watching.

Hopefully, I'll figure something out soon enough and get back to posting with a bit more diversity, here. Until then, well, I'm honoring the commitment I made to myself and writing about each episode of Mad Men this season. Anything beyond that is just gravy.

"And then he'll smile with wisdom, content that he realized that the world isn't perfect. We're flawed because we want so much more. We're ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had." - Don

I'm glad I didn't expect Mad Men to top last week's emotionally-powerful "The Suitcase," because if I had, I'd probably have ended up disappointed in this week's outing. But if "The Suitcase" was the turning point for Sad Don Draper, "The Summer Man" brings us his first tentative outing back in the driver's seat of his life. As he says in the diary/memoir he's started, he wants to "gain a modicum of control" over his feelings. He's cut down on the boozing (though there are signs that this is proving harder than he thought), instead channeling his masochism into swimming regularly: "Its an effort to get in the water, but when you do, you're weightless and you don't even sweat. And, in the end, you're wrung out." Well, if he's going to continue punishing himself, at least he's chosen a healthy way to do it, for once.

While all of that could just be set-up for a later, even more catastrophic crash, I'd like to believe that Don is serious about turning his life around. Perhaps his seemingly-improved love life will provide the necessary encouragement, there, though I don't think that his date with Bethany -- Betty sighting and blow job aside -- has given him what he wants. "She wants me to know her," he writes, "but I already do. People tell you who they are, but we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be." For Don, a man whose entire adult life has been spent pretending to be someone else, it seems that playing to other people's expectations is the key to not being caught. But maybe, after opening up to Peggy last week, Don is getting a little tired of other people's expectations.

Of course, we can't talk about this season's "what we want/what's expected of us" dichotomy without talking about the character who introduced it, Dr. Faye Miller. Don asks her out once more, explaining that it "just felt like the timing was right." Of course, in reality, he had just overheard her having a huge fight with a presumed paramour, so his timing -- and Faye's acceptance -- aren't wholly to do with providence. But the two share a sweet date on a Lady and the Tramp-esque restaurant patio, and it's pretty clear that, in spite of their differences, they understand each other pretty well. Don even manages to surprise her by wanting only to walk her to her door, saying "Because that's as far as I can go right now, and I'm not ready to say good night." Her reply ("That's not what I expected") and their continued smooching seem to indicate that Don's decision to stop playing to expectation might serve him very well here.

I know Dr. Miller has been the "smart money" choice for who Don will end up with, though with Mad Men, it's never smart to count your chickens (or non-severed toes) before they've hatched. Still, I'd be pretty happy for them to end up together. Faye's smart, career-minded, and tough, everything that Betty wasn't. And judging by her candy shop-owning father, she's not the sort of person who'd reject the "real" Don Draper the way Betty did... so we'll see.

Speaking of Betty, this episode gives us a bit more time with her, as well. When Betty and Henry accidentally end up at the same restaurant where Don has taken Bethany, Betty freaks out, gets drunk, and becomes even more petulant than usual (I know; I didn't think it was possible, either!) The writers have really gone out of their way to make Betty seem even more unlikeable than sad-sack Don. Whether her subsequent confession to Henry that Don "was the only man [she'd] ever been with" was meant to justify her horrid behavior is an open question. I think it takes some of the edge off, but it's not as though she behaved SO MUCH better before she faced the betrayal of Don's philandering and double life. She tells Francine that Don's sadness is "an act," and that he's really "living the life," showing her inability to understand that this situation hasn't exactly been easy for Don, either. Thankfully, Francine's admonition that "Don has nothing to lose and you have everything" seems to give her a bit of peace when Don turns up -- unwanted but not entirely unexpected -- at Gene's birthday party. Still, it's kind of pathetic that this acceptance comes only when she frames herself as the winner who has "everything," rather than another person just navigating through the mess of life. I don't mean to minimize what Don did to her, but after nearly two years, she really ought to have found better coping strategies!

In non-Draper matters, the rest of this episode deals with the growing tension between Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce's manchild population and "the big Ragu," Joan Harris. Joan, already upset about Greg's now-imminent departure for Basic Training, gets no respect from Joey, Stan, et al., and it's finally taking its toll. However, being a woman in the 60's workplace, she doesn't have a way to handle the situation. She deals with it by taking Joey aside for a talking-to, making insinuations about "complaints" to Don and Lane, and eventually blowing up on the whole crew. It's well-deserved, given the things that Joey says -- for instance, "What do you do around here besides walking around like you're trying to get raped?" -- but Joan either can't take things further, or won't for fear of upsetting the office's gender politics.

Peggy, a witness to Joan's Vietnam-themed blow-up, decides to take matters into her own hands, using an inappropriate cartoon to get Don's permission to fire Joey. Joan, however, sees through this act, believing that Peggy did it to prop up her own power rather than out of any sort of female solidarity. And she sees the situation clearly, as well, saying "all you've done is prove to them that I'm a meaningless secretary, and you're another humorless bitch." Peggy may have thought she was doing the right thing -- and probably has, on the whole -- but at the cost of shoring up the stereotypes Joan has tried to transcend. The way Joan's role at work and her gender continue to conflict, I'm wondering what she'll do once Greg has gone to war.

The thread that ties all of this week's stories together is found in the quote from Don's diary that I pulled to lead off this entry. These characters all share in that same bourgeois dilemma: they want something more than just contentment, more than what is expected of them, yet can't escape the pull of a past that seems safer and simpler in retrospect. This is true for Peggy and Joan to a lesser extent. Peggy's ambition leads her to act as though on Joan's behalf, but she may have damaged her relationship with Joan in the process, and she continues to learn that climbing the ladder has a cost. And Joan's ambitions have gained her a husband, who she's losing to a war, and a position of power at work, which has isolated her even further than ever.

For Betty and Don, it's about the extent to which they've moved past the mock perfection of their marriage. Betty thinks Don is "living the life," when he's really never been satisfied (as the Rolling Stones song on the soundtrack might suggest). Betty, on the other hand, is finding that life with Henry isn't exactly perfect, and the look on her face as she watches Don holding Gene -- as well as her teenager-like overreaction earlier in the episode -- shows that even she might sometimes wish for what she once had (or thought she had, at least). But by taking care of himself and making an effort to climb out of his funk, Don is at least trying to be content with what he has. The same could be said about Betty's unexpected acceptance of Don's presence at Gene's party, even if it comes from a childish place. I can only hope that these characters continue to pursue contentment rather than perfection, though something tells me it's not too likely.

Notes and Quotes

  • Vietnam continues to haunt the periphery of the season, showing up in this episode as Don watches TV ("I hope it's not another Korea"), and in both Joan's conversation with Greg and her malediction to the Creative Dept. crew. I'm gonna have to dig through the history books to see which major 'Nam-centered event might provide this season's endcap.
  • No Rogerisms this week, as I don't think we even SAW Roger in this episode.
  • Very little of our friend Pete Campbell, as well, though his overly-serious "What is going on out here? I was in the midst of an extremely important telephone call!" and non-plussed "When did we get a vending machine?" were among the episode's funnier moments.
  • Speaking of humor, Miss Blankenship continues to amuse me way more than she should:
    • "It was a nightmare. The ether, and the blindness, and then I got the goggles."
    • (regarding Gene's birthday) "Did you want me to buy him or her a gift?
  • Don's line regarding the post-surgery Miss B also made me laugh: "Can you tell Ray Charles to come in here and clean this up?"
  • I liked the noirish undertones of Don's diary narration. Still, I hope the Powers That Be keep this as an occasional device, as it'd be easy to overuse.
  • Was there any explanation for Danny's absence? Is he a part-timer? I hope he wasn't fired!
  • Peggy: "You need three ingredients for a cocktail. Vodka and Mountain Dew is an emergency."
That's all for this week. We'll see you again next week, probably a little earlier on Monday, but no guarantees! I definitely enjoy trying to piece things together week-by-week. I hope you enjoy it, too!

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