Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mad Men - Season 4 Episode 9: "The Beautiful Girls"

"Men never know what's going on." - Vivian Winters

For a show that often gets tarred with the "But nothing HAPPENED..." brush, Mad Men sure knows how to fill our an episode when it has to. Following, as it has, the wanderings of an unmoored Don Draper, this season hasn't always felt focused. But over the last few weeks, I've felt as though the season has hit its stride and started putting the various subplots and storylines to good use. And, seeing how "The Beautiful Girls" centers largely on the women of the Mad Men world, I thought the quote above was an appropriate one to lead off my review of this busy episode.

So what's all the action this week? Well, sadly, my favorite new character, Miss Blankenship, is no longer with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, as she's now running the office in heaven. As Roger puts it, "She died like she lived: surrounded by the people she answered phones for." Most weeks, that would be enough action for Mad Men, but this episode also brings us a mugging, a Joan/Roger reunion, a runaway Sally, and a whole lot of political/social commentary -- some just a little too on the nose -- to make for a productive hour.

As I alluded to above, this episode is about all of those "girls," the women of Mad Men and the roles they fit into in the changing 60's. Because the times, they ARE a changing, especially for women. Even a morose Bert Cooper notices this when he attempts to write a eulogy for our dearly-departed "Queen of Perversions": "She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the thirty-seventh floor of a skyscraper. She was an astronaut." And our main female characters are all finding paths through these changes. It's not reading on TOO figurative a level, I think, to suggest that the death of Ida Blankenship, a lifelong secretary, is in some way symbolic of the death of a certain image of a "career" woman ahead of the changes women's lib will bring.

Going back to the season's central theme -- the conflict between what we want and what's expected of us -- I think that this episode can be viewed as an examination of the expectations the world places on women, and how this conflicts with what these women want in relationships, families, and work. Joan, for instance, clearly loves her husband. But the world (and, to a degree, Joan herself) expects that he should be enough for her, even after he ships off to Vietnam. Joan has her own desires, and while she wants to stay faithful, being mugged causes her desires to spill forth, resulting in some open-air sexytimes with Roger. Dr. Miller, meanwhile, is a successful career women, but still has to defend her choice not to have kids, saying "I don't view it as a failure." She struggles with the expectations she faces, and the assumption that she should automatically be good with kids and subservient in a relationship just because of her gender. And Peggy, who has benefited from the changing times, deals with the expectation that she, and women as a whole, should be satisfied with their progress. She is committed to proving herself at work, thereby shattering notions of what women should want out of their careers.

And what about Sally Draper? Where does she fit in? She's a bit too young to benefit from the advances and semi-independence this show's women have achieved, but has been left ill-prepared to handle the present by her unfortunate childhood. I thought Kiernan Shipka's performance was excellent. She does a great job, on the whole, avoiding the excesses of child actor-dom while managing to chillingly and realistically LOSE HER SHIT during Sally's late-episode tantrums at SCDP. Sally is a fascinating character, and I really hope that her sad, lonely life doesn't take TOO tragic a turn any time soon, because it will be interesting to watch Matthew Weiner & Co's take on a young female's journey through the '60s.

Anyway, I'm going to put an end to this a bit early this week, leaving out the Notes and Quotes section. I'm finding it very hard to write in my present circumstances, as you can probably tell by this post's late date. I will try to do a better job next week (which SHOULD be a calmer week than this one), but honestly, I can't make any promises.

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