Sweater Manifesto

A blog about American zeitgeist and other things.

Month: April, 2014

Most Awkward Office Visit Ever in “Mad Men” Season Seven, Episode Three

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I’ve said it before—it’s not easy being Don Draper. Especially given that the darkly handsome ad man isn’t really Don Draper to begin with.   But this episode made it particularly awkward.  

 

In “Field Trip”, the episode title ostensibly refers to Betty’s less than successful outing with son Bobby on his class field trip to a particularly bucolic part of New York. But it could just as easily refer to Don’s return to the offices of SCP, after a nocturnal visit to Roger Sterling’s bachelor pad scores Don a “get out of jail free” card from the reliably unreliable Roger.   Don makes his appearance at the office the next morning, and the reaction to him ranges from outright hostility (the increasingly unpleasant, unlikeable Peggy) to stunned stares (most everyone else).   Joan, who always thought of Don as a kindred spirit and supporter, is particularly stilted, reluctantly shooting out a right hand for a halfhearted shake, in a seeming attempt to keep Don at bay while fearing that he was about to transmit a communicable disease.  

 

When after Don has cooled his heels for enough time to run through all the creative being done under the watchful (and not particularly discerning) eye of his successor, Lou Avery, Roger finally makes his appearance.   He’s very late, half in the bag and seemingly put out that Don has actually taken him up on his offer.   But Roger rises to the occasion, amazingly enough. The irritated partners meet to decide Don’s fate, and most would just as soon see him leave while they deliberate.   That’s when Roger, in a remarkable and eloquent plea for his friend, makes a compelling case that SCP should rather want to have the still-brilliant Draper pitching for them than against them (summoning up a somewhat carnal image of Mary Wells and Don in high pitch mode dudgeon to make his point).   The partners relent- and offer Draper back into the fold, but only if he promises to be a good boy and doesn’t mind reporting to the cardigan-clad Avery.   The offer is on the table, and they wait for Don to make up his mind.   

 

And, in what passes for a moment of high drama in the most nuanced show in television history, there is a long, pregnant moment when there is total silence.   And, during that moment, I literally yelled at my TV, “don’t do it, Don!”   I had seen enough humiliation in the previous half hour to last me the rest of the series, and was rooting for Don to tell his former partners to stick and ride off into the sunset and on over to Wells Rich Greene.  

 

But Don takes the offer, setting up what should be an interesting battle of wills between he and Cardigan Man.   If Draper gets his creative mojo back and the staff is won back to his side, Lou could, as threatened, ride out the remainder of his contract selling newspapers in the office building’s lobby.  

 

The subtext of the decision to bring Don back is significant, as the partners—while protesting to the contrary—know the firm is in trouble.   It has lost its creative spark, and contrary to Jim Cutler’s absurd contention that media is the way to sell clients, it’s creative work that stirs hearts and opens checkbooks.   They know that a Don Draper, in control and on his game, can get people talking about SCP again.   On that score, Roger is thoroughly persuasive and entirely right.

 

If rejoining SCP is a way to win back the heartbroken and outraged Megan, it’s probably a losing strategy.   Don thinks that regaining his job will make him somehow more worthy of the younger woman, conveniently forgetting that the reason she made the trek to Los Angeles in the first place was to start over with Don out there. It’s really hard to buy Don’s reawakening of affection for his estranged wife, but his nocturnal phone call to her when he returns to New York was a bit of a surprise and made me think twice. I would have thought he’d have been relieved to return home a free man.

 

At this point, though, Don’s effort to resurrect his dying marriage is more about his struggle to be a good person and much less about his love for his wife.     He’s explicit about it when he protests to Megan that he’s not seeing another woman when he actually tells her, “I’ve been good.”   This is a still conflicted man trying to resurrect his sense of self-worth, and at least for the moment, he sees his flagging marriage as part of the equation.  

 

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe (and in a telling parallel to the Don-Sally storyline last episode), Betty once again takes a stab at being a caring mom, with middle child Bobby the object of her erratic affection.   Betty’s urge to parent is all about Betty- like Don, she’s on a quest for self-worth, in her case exacerbated by her seeing her formerly housebound (and terminally boring) friend Francine out in the working world as a travel agent, and enjoying it.

 

To compensate for her feelings of inadequacy (and perhaps with some remorse that her housekeeper seems to have a better handle on the kid’s homework than she does), she signs up to be a chaperone for Bobby’s field trip to a farm.   Things are going relatively well until Betty steps away at lunchtime and Bobby engages in some age-appropriate boy behavior, trading her sandwich to a little girl in return for some jellybeans.   She’s not as enthusiastic about the trade as her son, and she proceeds to spend the rest of the day in a snit, furious with the stricken boy.   By the time they get home, Bobby wishes the day had never happened, which just proves that the only thing worse than Betty ignoring her children is becoming involved with them.

 

When Betty wonders to Henry why her kids hate her, the long-suffering and ridiculously patient second husband can barely muster more than a tepid rejection of her feelings of dejection.   On the scale of “painful dark night of the soul leading to self-awareness and a more loving relationship with your kids”, Don’s arrow is pointing up, while Betty’s is down, way down.   She seemingly has no idea why her kids might have reason to dislike her, meanwhile clinging to youngest child Gene while watching TV as if the boy were her pillow.

 

Don’s bond with his kids is sporadic but palpable, as he struggles not to let his own sad, tortured childhood interfere with his being a caring, effective parent.   Betty, raised as a pampered princess, is only interested in being a parent when it reflects well on herself.     For all of Don’s transgressions, there is still love and forgiveness from his oldest child.   For Betty, there’s largely dismay, disappointment and indifference.   Henry’s sympathetic step parenting is all the more impressive in this context.  

 

We’re seeing glimmers of hope for Don as he returns to his hostile work family while trying to mend his family at home.   For Betty, however, 1969 may as well be 1960. It’s a different time, with a different culture, different fashions, and different politics, but it’s the same old Betty.   While still a beautiful woman, it’s not a pretty sight.

 

 

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller

 

 

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Hardly Working during “A Day’s Work”: Mad Men Season Seven, Episode Two

 

 

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Marking territories and engaging in office politics dominates the ironically titled “A Day’s Work”, an episode in which secretarial assignments are rearranged after fits of pique, Joan moves out of adjudicating staff disputes and into the account management hierarchy and Pete wins a Chevy dealership account in Southern California, only to find out that he’ll report to his bête noire, Bob Benson, as his reward.  

 

This is also the episode that gives us an impromptu road trip featuring Don Draper and his alienated (with good reason) daughter Sally (Chicago’s Kiernan Shipka, who continues to amaze), who finds out that Don is no longer working at the firm, after dropping in on her father at the office while in the city for a friend’s mother’s funeral, only to find the insufferable Lou Avery in his place.   Lou, demonstrating that he can be as imperious as he is charmless, blames Sally’s drop-in on erstwhile Draper secretary Dawn. Dawn’s reward for not being at her trusty post when Sally arrives is to be banished from Lou’s employ, which seems to me like a pretty good deal for her.   Of course, Lou does have some justification for feeling frustrated with Dawn, given that she continues to do secretarial chores for Don, and, unbeknownst to Lou, a bit of covert Ops work by keeping Don apprised of what’s going on at the office (although I’m not sure what Don plans to do with the intel about where Lou sits while in client meetings).  

 

Lou is far from the only petulant manager on duty at SCP on this Valentine’s Day, 1969.   Peggy is feeling the sting of being alone, not to mention becoming the butt of Stan and Ginsburg’s jokes.   After finding out that the roses she thought that Ted had given her were actually meant for her secretary, she of course does the perfectly rational thing and blames her secretary for embarrassing her- not to mention causing her to have an entirely unproductive day.   Once again, another secretary is sent packing to somewhere, anywhere, across the office.  

 

The episode gives us a shocking bit of racial insensitivity from a surprising source, Bert Cooper, who opines to Joan that having Dawn out on reception duty could be bad for business.   One would have hoped that Cooper, who seems to be guided by his own lights and after having shown little or no concern about Don Draper’s past so long ago, would be more enlightened.   Joan is outraged but compliant, leading to her accepting Jim Cutler’s suggestion that she might be more comfortable- and happier- in an office near the other “account men”.   It’s a disappointing moment for those of us who have enjoyed Robert Morse as Bert slipping in and out of the camera frame since the show’s inception, and we’d have expected this from Lou Avery and not the avuncular older man. But it probably serves to demonstrate the widening gulf between the baby boomers and the old guard, and in that it’s a reminder that we’re still in the sixth decade of the 20th century.  

 

What doesn’t happen during “A Day’s Work”, however, is very much work.   This is an episode that is a lot more concerned about who’s getting along with whom, who’s working for whom and whose personal stock is up, down or sideways.   And, for Don, we find that this particular day at work is more about eating Ritz crackers while watching the “Little Rascals” and hanging out at lunch with an old advertising contact.   Don’s ennui, which he thinks can be remedied by putting on a suit and tie, demonstrates how easily bad habits comes to those who aren’t regularly putting in a “day’s work.”

 

On the West Coast, Ted continues to be perfectly miserable and seemingly not just job locked, but chained to his desk, while Pete and his smoldering real estate agent, Bonnie Whiteside, find an altogether more exciting use for Pete’s own desk, the aphrodisiac of Pete’s winning the local Chevy account making him seemingly too appealing for the cool blonde realtor to resist.   Pete continues to enjoy the California sun, certainly a lot more than his officemate, but in the wake of finding that he is about to be drawn yet again into Bob Benson’s orbit after the partners vote to manage Chevy as one global account, reverts to form as “petulant Pete”.   Self-pity as always is very unbecoming on Pete, and is a bit of a turn-off for Bonnie, who essentially tells him to get his act together and start making his own breaks.  

 

In fact, the Chevy decision- to have Benson be the overall manager of the account, with the Chevy dealership business in LA reporting into him- is about the only work-related decision that we see in this episode, and it’s a telling one.   For one thing, it’s entirely realistic- the strategy as outlined by the ascendant Jim Cutler is to consolidate the firm’s resources and rationalize its account management structure to win more Chevy and General Motors business.   It’s the right strategy, and the partners other than Roger Sterling (who has his own animus against the oily- and unseen- Benson) see the wisdom in it.   Unfortunately, it leaves Pete in thrall to his nemesis, questioning why he’s in LA and what he’s still doing at the firm if he can feel so disrespected.  

 

The decision also represents a break between Jim and Roger, heretofore two silver foxes with very similar worldviews. Whether Cutler is sincere with Roger in their ice-cold encounter on the elevator about not making him an adversary or is just playing him to buy more time to consolidate his own power, remains to be seen.   The subtlety of Harry Hamlin’s performance as the clever and acute Cutler makes the viewer believe it could go either way.  

 

Given the office comings and goings during this eventful yet unproductive day, the Don-Sally scenes feel a bit airlifted in from another time zone, but affecting and effective nonetheless. We’ve been waiting for a full episode to see what kind of impact visiting her father’s squalid childhood home would have on Sally, and at first it doesn’t seem like much.   She’s too busy engaging in age-appropriate teenage behavior with her equally stuck-up private school friends to seem to care much about her dad. But as the road trip takes shape- with a terrific scene in a local restaurant where the exasperated albeit guilt-ridden Don finds a way to unlock Sally’s repressed affection for him ever so slightly (and believably, symbolized by the troubled girl accepting a patty melt from her dad).   What is brilliant about the scene is that we realize- as Don takes Sally through a brief yet accurate account of why he has been suspended- that this may be the one relationship in the entire series that is not based on lies, half-truths or evasions.  

 

One of the most resonant lines of the series comes when Sally asks her dad what he could have possibly said about himself that would merit a suspension. In response, he looks almost right through her and says, “nothing that you don’t already know.”   It’s a poignant moment, followed soon by yet another one, when Sally is dropped off at school and tells her dad in a purposely offhanded yet significant way, “I love you.”   This is a beautiful and hopeful grace note to end what has been a perplexing addition to the Mad Men canon.   As Blue Oyster Cult could always use more cowbell, “Mad Men” can always use more Sally.   We look forward to the twists this relationship will take as the show winds its way toward its conclusion.  

 

 

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller

Cyrano de Draper Simulates Work in Mad Men Season Seven, Episode One

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He’s Freddie Rumsen as we’ve never seen him- slicked back, focused, aggressive, talking a mile a minute while creating an indelible word picture of an ad campaign for a space-age timepiece that every businessman must have in the pre-moonwalk months of 1969.   This Freddie is a far cry from the boozy sad sack that was given his walking papers years ago by Sterling Cooper.

 

And there’s a good reason for this new souped-up Freddie: he’s not really Freddie at all.   Rather, he’s Freddie channeling his erstwhile boss, Don Draper (courtesy of another consistently masterful Joel Murray turn).   Don, still in exile from SCP and Partners, is trying to keep his creative muscles flexed while waiting for what he thinks will be the inevitable call for him to come back to the fold.   He’s using Freddie to sell his ideas- essentially playing Cyrano, as Freddie admits toward the end of the episode.   The “Roxanne” in this case is none other than protégé Peggy Olson, smitten by “Freddie’s” unexpected creative output and in a bit of a bind of her own, working for an insufferable new boss and old fogy who admits to her that he’s “immune” to her charms while rejecting virtually every good idea she pitches.

 

In between Freddie/Don pitching an Accutron watch to young professionals and Don and Freddie watching Richard Nixon pitching the country on a new presidency at the inauguration of his first term, we see how the months since Don’s departure have treated the main characters- Ted, surly, sad and in denial, coming back to New York and looking like a ghost, despite living in the California sun; Joan taking her client management prowess to the next level, schooling what looks to be a teenager who has taken over as director of marketing for a shoe client; Roger continuing to soak in some kind of New Age marinade, maintaining a 24-hour orgy in his hotel suite with kids half his age and continuing to be the most unreflective of fathers; Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton veering dangerously close to self-parody) acting like he’s about to go over the deep end due to overwork; and Pete finding his inner Angelino, dressing like a Hollywood producer, living near the La Brea tar pits and getting in touch with the late-sixties Zeitgeist (and author of the most awkward moment of the episode, when he hugs Don in an LA restaurant while the astonished Draper stands like a statue in incomprehension and surprise).

 

The first episode of the final Mad Men season is about work- who’s working too much, not enough or not at all,  and how any of these states tend to define a person, for better or worse. Don’s not working but pretending that he is, which gives him the freedom to strut in and out of wife Megan’s life (she tells him not to work all day when he comes out to LA to see her, not realizing that he’s not really working at all). It also gives him an escape route from yet again cheating on his wife, when he tells his seatmate on the plane back to New York (a nearly unrecognizable but quietly affecting Neve Campbell) that rather than accompany her back to her place so that they can console each other (she, about her deceased husband, he, about his inability to be a good husband), he tells her he has to go to work.   No work for Don- just handy excuses to leave Megan alone in LA and send a sad, albeit beautiful young widow back to her apartment without a comforter. (the latter being one of the strangest and against-type moves in the history of the Draper persona).

 

Once again, Matt Weiner does an adroit job of telling multiple stories while getting back at the end to where the show has always been, with Don and Peggy and their struggles to balance work and life and not let one overwhelm the other.   Don is trying to reconstruct his life with Megan, continuing to get real about who he is as a husband and father, and while continuing to drink—although doing it in more moderation than his young wife, whose drunkenness, clearly arising from nervousness and exhilaration at seeing her husband for the first time in months, results in the couple sleeping in separate rooms on their first night back together.

 

Soon enough, Megan and Don do consummate their rocky marriage, with a tenderness we’ve rarely seen from the older man. This is truly a different Don Draper, but played with such nuance and subtlety from perennial Emmy bridesmaid-actor Jon Hamm that we really need to watch closely to see the difference.   One clear sign of the difference in Don is his choice of eating partners- Pete in LA and Freddie in New York- and the affection he shows each man, in his own semi-aloof Draper way.   Not working has not only forced Don to assess who he is, but also who the others are who have been in his orbit for so many years.   The Cyrano act he does for Freddie is therapy for him, but also an act of kindness for the freelancer, who’s looking to camp out at SCP for more than a cup of coffee (the line of the night happens after Freddie announces to Peggy that he’s taking another cup before leaving the office. Peggy tells him that he truly puts the “free” in “freelancer”).

 

For Peggy, work is just about all that she has in her life, other than demanding renters who insist in the middle of the night that she unclog their toilets.   Without Ted, Peggy has predictably thrown herself into her work, the rewards of which become dubious when she runs into a brick wall named Lou, a major agency refugee who regales his staff with what we used to call “grandpa” jokes and is the polar opposite of the dynamic Draper, who was her kindred spirit and protector (and, admittedly, sometime antagonist) for so many years.   Stan, her constant admirer and a one-man Greek chorus on all things Peggy, tries to keep her from letting her self-righteousness and sense of pride in her work begins to get the best of her, but to no avail.   When she crumbles in a heap inside her apartment in the penultimate scene of the episode after an awkward office encounter with Ted, it’s in recognition that work is not enough and that it threatens to engulf her life.

 

Meanwhile, life is not enough for the idle Draper, who we last glimpse on his balcony, trapped in a penthouse prison, unable to plot his next move.   While the Vanilla Fudge performs its electrifying cover of “Keep Me Hanging On”, Don hangs on by a thread- to his marriage, his sobriety and his tenuous sense of self, badly tarnished by his banishment from SCP.   It is a great and satisfying set-up for the final reckoning and a worthy inaugural episode for the season.