Sweater Manifesto

A blog about American zeitgeist and other things.

Month: April, 2015

The Forecast for Don: Bleak and Getting Bleaker in Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Ten

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“Mad Men” has always been marinated in the past—the raw wounds of nostalgia, betrayal and the cumulative lives of each character living ghostlike alongside the present. So, it’s no surprise that it’s main character, Don Draper, has such difficulty finding something to say about the future.

That’s what he’s tasked with doing by Roger Sterling, one character who lives totally in the present and who is being asked to address the future at a McCann Erickson management meeting in the Bahamas.   Don spends most of the episode trying to borrow future visions from his coworkers and ultimately his sardonic daughter, Sally.   When asked what she wants to do in the future, she demonstrates that she’s a Draper by answering “to have dinner”.   Of course that rejoinder happens after she has been sitting for too long at a restaurant, while having to watch one of her teenage friends flirt with her father.   Don’s response to the youngster is just ambiguous enough to recall for the troubled younger Draper her father’s flagrant indiscretions.

In fact, the future is such a conundrum for both Don and Betty Draper, because the past is always staring them in the face.   In Betty’s case, it’s in the form of the lean, mean (and still strangely creepy) Glen Bishop (Marten Weiner, still in need of acting lessons), who saunters back into her life only to announce that he’s joining the army.   The furious Sally (the remarkable Kiernan Shipka), considering his decision a betrayal, storms away from him as she contemplates the termination of perhaps the most durable relationship of her young life.

January Jones as Betty may do her best work in this episode, as her moments alone with Glen betray a jumble of emotions, as she copes with her own sadness and sense of foreboding for the young man (not to mention a moment of terror as she contemplates the possibility that he enlisted as a means of impressing her). At the same time, she evinces a vague attraction to him that is certainly a shade more than maternal.   When she raises Glen’s hand to her cheek prior to his leaving for the last time, you literally don’t know what she’s contemplating or where the scene is leading. It’s a tender, nuanced and a bit cringe-inducing moment from a main character that has been pushed largely to the side, and it demonstrates that while Don and Betty’s relationship is long over, they still have more in common than meets the eye.

Most of the rest of the episode involves Don taking abuse from all quarters, as this entire semi-season could be rebranded “Piling On…with Don Draper.”   He turns Peggy’s request for a performance evaluation (one that Ted can’t bring himself to give) into an annoying, bantering duel about what she wants out of life.   When Don challenges her aspirations, she storms out, telling him that she’s hoping to be in a position one day to “s-t on all of your dreams” (the irony here is that he has none).   Don’s moral authority has eroded to such an extreme degree that he’s even taking abuse from the young copywriter who is arguably the most obnoxious character in the show’s entire run. That scene is a foreshadowing of the later encounter between Don and Sally, when Sally expresses her justifiable contempt for both of her parents, and Don’s only rejoinder is to remind her that he’s her father (and that she’s more like him than she’s willing to admit).   Cold comfort for Sally, who has seen enough strange parental behavior in her short time on earth to merit a do-over.

Even Don’s realtor gets in on the act, telling him what a challenge she’s going to have in trying to sell his apartment, given the palpable aura of sadness and failure in each room.   When someone can walk into the Draper abode and actually feel the bad vibration of a failed relationship, you know the owner is headed for trouble (and perhaps a low-ball offer).   And that’s the problem with Don’s contemplation of the future—he has to live off the visions of others, because for him, the future is just more of the same.

At the end of the last show, he’s faced with the desolation of a cleaned-out home.     In this one, he’s literally locked out of that home and his past life by the realtor, who against all odds has found a buyer.   He’s again on the outside looking around, trying to figure out his next move, with no place to go, and no one left to talk to about what the future holds.   It’s a haunting scene.   You kind of expect at the end of the next episode he’ll be out on the street, looking up at the building.   And, then ultimately, out of the frame altogether.

One person with potentially a more hopeful future is Joan, who finds more than she bargained for during a business trip to Los Angeles, where we are a bit surprised to find that our favorite cartoon strip creator, Lou Avery, still has a job.   Joan finds perhaps the one person in the entire cast who has a firm idea of what he wants out of the future—a West Coast real estate mogul (played by the durable Bruce Greenwood) with a penchant for bad looking leisure suits (was there any other kind?) who envisions a life of travel and recreation and is looking for someone who shares his vision.   When Joanie admits she’s got a son, it’s too much to absorb and he drives her away from him. By the end of the episode, he’s reconsidering, and we’re left to wonder whether he’ll stay or Joan will chase him away.   The answer to that, of course, is in the future.

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller

Editor’s Note: The most disappointing and underwritten role of this truncated season is that of Ted Chaough, who has come back from the West Coast essentially a shadow of his former self.   He was heartsick for Peggy and ready to leave the ad business, and now all he wants in his future is a large pharmaceutical account.     Who is this guy?   And will there be any closing of the loop between he and Peggy, other than his refusal to do her performance evaluation?   The only thing that stands out about Ted in these episodes is his mustache, as well as his strange passivity in Don’s presence.   There’s got to be more to Ted than this after all this time.     Kevin Rahm does what he can with the character, but he’s not getting much to work with.

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The Lives of Others Dominate Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Nine

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It doesn’t seem so long ago that Don Draper was the central character and driving force behind everything that happened on “Mad Men.”   While Jon Hamm as Draper still soaks up the most camera time in this final season, the Draper character has become a strange cameo player who passes through the lives of others.

He’s almost an accidental tourist who has come back to survey the wreckage he has wrought on those lives, in this case most particularly and painfully with his second wife Megan, who left a promising soap opera career in New York for a life with the damaged Draper in Los Angeles that never happens.   In the ironically titled “New Business” (really more about old and unfinished business than anything new), Don is seeking redemption through a relationship with the waitress Diana, a damaged amalgam of every brunette that Don has tried to love, which is doomed to extinction like all the others.   Diana has a secret that is as tragic and buried as the former Dick Whitman, and when she reveals it, Don first tries to comfort her and be there for her, as if this latest attempt at salvation will be the one that sticks.   But in an odd and poignant scene (with the fine Elizabeth Reaser as Diana), Draper passively gives up the ghost and passes out of her life, as he has with others so many times before.

As in “Severance”, Don again plays voyeur, as we see him ruefully viewing the road not taken in the Francis family tableau at the beginning of the episode, and later experiencing the rage, contempt and hurt of his second estranged wife as they seek an ending to their marriage.     Money can’t buy love, but a million dollar check (made out to Megan by her wayward soon-to-be ex-husband) seems to have a palliative effect.   Don is out of excuses for his behavior and doesn’t even have the heart to defend himself against Megan.     Her observation of him as an aging, boozy creep goes unanswered, other than by halfhearted “I’m sorry”.   In between, Don has a glimpse of Sylvia and Dr. Rosen, still together, with her clearly contemptuous of Don and him blissfully ignorant of what when on right under his nose and in his bed.

These are all women—Betty, Megan and Sylvia—whose lives have been breached by the inconstant Draper, with the common denominator being that they’re all better off without him. And, in a visceral way, he knows that. Which is perhaps why after desperately seeking Diana, he gives up on her without a fight. He knows at the end, he’ll betray and disappoint her, adding to the ache of the old wound she carries.   So the relationship (at least seemingly) ends, with a whimper and not a bang.

The episode ends with some heavy symbolism—Don, having been cleaned out of Diana’s life, comes home to find his own bachelor pad cleaned out as well, through the machinations of the furious Marie (Julia Ormond, again in great form), who steals everything with the exception of the kitchen sink in revenge for her daughter’s blasted life.   She’s aided and abetted in this bit of thievery by the ever-malleable Roger, who trades the money she needs to pay off the movers for a last tango in Don’s crib his French Canadien amour.   The last shot is of a surprised but resigned Draper, surveying not wreckage but desolation as he wanders through the empty canyon of his once furnished home.

The episode also features a curious side plot involving Peggy and Stan, and a bi-sexual poseur/con artist photographer (played by the seldom-seen Mimi Rogers, never better, by a long shot) who comes into their lives looking to triangulate them.   This is part of the Continuing Education of Peggy Olson, as Peggy begins as an admirer of the older woman, ultimately disillusioned by the woman’s manipulative behavior.   The Stan/Peggy relationship continues to be multilayered and complex, with Stan being one of the series’ marginal characters that has been given 3D treatment as the show has evolved.     These are two mature adults with complicated feelings about each other, both professional and personal, and the Rogers character is there as a catalyst to draw them out further.   It will be interesting to see where their arc ends.

Harlan R. Teller

Editor”s note: Is any one besides me interested to see how Betty Francis’ patients fare under her ministrations?   While it may be true that people like to talk to her, it’s a bit of a stretch to go from there to assuming she’ll be a good therapist.   Betty’s intention to go for a Master’s in psychology recalls her own time on the couch with the taciturn and sexist therapist from the first season.   Still, it strikes me that saying that you want to be a therapist because people like talking to you is a bit like wanting to go into public relations because you like people, or enjoy going to lunch.   Betty’s quick banter with Don is a brief light interlude in a series that is heading for its own heart of darkness.

Is That All There Is? Money Can’t Buy Love in “Mad Men”, Season Seven, Episode Eight

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The first of the last seven episodes of Mad Men begins with a beautiful woman in a mink, looking like veteran ad man Don Draper is seducing her. In reality, she’s auditioning for a Wilkinson razor blade commercial, and Draper is coaxing a performance out of her while his rapt co-workers look on.   The episode ends with Draper, jolted out of his sex and alcohol-fueled torpor, sitting quietly and solemnly at the counter of a diner that looks like it’s right out of a dystopian Edward Hopper painting.

The contrast couldn’t be more telling—our protagonists, flush with McCann Erickson cash, can buy whatever they want, but love and contentment is still elusive.   Draper obviously didn’t take to heart Bert Cooper’s final song and dance, to the tune of “The Best Things in Life are Free”.   When it comes to Bert’s advice, Don’s not buying.   Which is what seemingly leads Don to double down on his libertine lifestyle, even employing a Richard Diamond-style receptionist to take messages for him, largely from beautiful women bearing red wine bottles in the middle of the night (one of which leaks in a blood-like pool all over Draper’s bedroom rug).

It’s a sad group, strangely disconnected from each other and increasingly bored with the business and their lives.   Other than the sex- and alcohol-medicated Draper, perhaps the saddest case is Joan Holloway, now a full-fledged client services professional and really good at it.   However, she still at the core is wracked by doubt about how she made partner and became a millionaire, and her insecurities are revived by three boorish McCann bozos that spend much of a meeting with her making innuendos about her physical presence (an over-the-top scene whose lack of subtlety in its presentation of an almost cartoonish chauvinism was one of the episode’s false notes).   Joan’s form of self-medication is to go on a clothes buying binge at the department store she once worked at, and even that stung, as the sales person remembered her and thought she’d appreciate a price break.

The emotional core of this disturbing and somewhat uneven contribution to the Mad Men oeuvre is the death of Rachel Menken Katz, the department store heiress who was perhaps the one woman in Don’s life other than Anna that he may have truly loved.   He has his assistant reach out to her to help a client, and finds out that she left the department store awhile back and shortly thereafter passed away.   Don’s reaction to the news—sorrow, longing, regret, befuddlement—harkens back to the series’ legendary scene in the first season, when Don uses the emotion of nostalgia (a “dull ache”) to sell Kodak execs on his approach to marketing Carousel projectors.  (It’s no surprise that the best promo for this season featured Don’s voice over from this iconic performance).

Rachel comes to Don in a dream, in much the same way that Anna comes to him, both already dead and reaching out to the emotionally damaged Draper.   (Rule of thumb for Mad Men—if Don dreams about a woman, hopefully her life insurance has been paid up).     Rachel comes to Don as another ingénue, auditioning for the Wilkinson commercial in a chinchilla that slides suggestively down her shoulder.   (Kudos to Matt Weiner for having the beguiling Maggie Siff reprise her role as Rachel in a breathtaking two-minute star turn).

Don attends the shiva to pay his respects, and confronts Rachel’s sister (the estimable Rebecca Creskoff), who is clearly not happy that he showed up, having years ago tried to talk Rachel out of seeing him.   It’s a heartbreaking scene that emphasizes the otherness of the rootless Draper.   He has no past, no family and no ties to anything that would provide a sense of community.   He’s even rejected as a kaddish participant since he’s not Jewish and he just fades away.

Don’s ennui and Joan’s discontent is mirrored by the other SCP principals—Pete, wearing pinstripes again after coming back East, complaining to Ken Cosgrove about how ephemeral the ad business is; Roger wearing a ridiculous white mustache that makes him look ten years older while trying to act twenty years younger; Ted, back from the West Coast, after gaining a mustache and evidently losing his family, a seeming shadow of the hotly competitive dynamo he used to be.   This is not a fun group.   You’re thinking that at some point they might all sing in unison the haunting refrain from the Peggy Lee song that frames the episode, “is that all there is?”

The only real winner of the night was Ken, who is axed from McCann by a vengeful senior manager, only to come back to the office as a client, having been hired as ad manager at Dow Chemical in the wake of his father-in-law’s retirement.   (One of those scenes that rings most true and demonstrates that Weiner has had some real help from some agency veterans—Roger and Pete are more alarmed about Ken keeping them on as his agency than they are about the prospect of his firing them.)   It’s Ken’s story line that gives the show its name, “Severance”, but there seems to be a severing of relationships across the Mad Men landscape. And, there’s a further severing of the past, in the wake of Rachel Menken’s untimely and tragic death.

Maybe Peggy gets to share honors with Ken, as she has a great first date with the brother-in-law of one of the copywriters, keeping her ego in check at dinner during a potentially awkward moment, and ending up with a drunken vow that the two will head off to Paris together the week after next.   Perhaps Peggy’s story will turn out to be a happy one, after all, but I wouldn’t count on it.

The question of the night: who is the mysterious waitress (a compelling Elizabeth Reaser) who starts out the episode with a ninety dollar tip from Roger and ends up behind the building having sex with Draper during her cigarette break? She looks familiar to him—perhaps someone from his hardscrabble past.   Or a reminder of the brunettes he has had affairs with—the freewheeling Midge, the smart, self-possessed Rachel, the warm and earthy Suzanne Farrell.   Or perhaps she’s an intimation of his mortality—someone who’s come into his life to either end his life or turn it around. Whoever she is, she’s not saying.

And so we watch on.     The nostalgia builds. I already have that dull ache that Draper so memorably conjured.   Six episodes to go.

Harlan R. Teller