Monday, April 2, 2012

Here Comes Your 19th Nervous Breakdown: Don Draper Almost Meets the '60s

"When is everything gonna get back to normal?" Roger's end of episode sentiment, confronting his professional failings and Don's personal fears, pretty well tied up tonight's episode of Mad Men. SCDP's hiring a Black receptionist and a Jewish copywriter in the span of two episodes, Pete's muscling out Roger for Mohawk (and really going out of his way to stick it to Roger publicly), and Betty and Don are confronting issues of life, death, and child rearing as a divorced couple. There's perhaps no more cliche way to indicate that the '60s are creeping in than to write the times they are a-changin', and since this episode centers partially on an unseen Mick, Keith, and especially Brian Jones, I'll instead say: just call me Lucifer, cuz I'm in need of some restraint. That doesn't apply here, but I've always liked that lyric.

Let's get this out of the way: I didn't particularly like tonight's episode. I thought everything in the plot came together too easily, and where last week I relished the chance to "hang out" with the characters in lieu of plot advancements, this week's episode didn't offer the same joys (no conversation even approached the comedy of Bert Cooper talking politics). I don't need Roger to deliver the line that defines the episode, and it felt like this episode wanted to hit me over the head with the significance of everything that was happening. It also lacked some of the visual panache that Mad Men uses so well, almost as filmic punctuation. Maybe they've gone to this trope one too many times, but pulling back on Betty as she received the news about her tumor to show her alone, once again a little girl cast adrift amidst a life of opulence felt stale (props to whomever found the house for the Francis residence. It's friggin' awesome).

I'm happy that the writers didn't saddle Betty with cancer because it would have felt too soap opera-ish, but I'll actually complain that this week almost nothing happened. Pete got Mohawk back, but that was a foregone conclusion from last week's episode. Don and Megan continue to fight but also have a surprisingly communicative and compassionate relationship. Peggy is tasked with hiring a new (male) copywriter, and she does so with aplomb, selecting Michael Ginsberg, a fast talking Jew whom she either can't stand or wants to jump immediately. I pointed out in my last recap that I love when Mad Men does office politics, especially regarding Peggy and gender, but that storyline felt forced and more than a little obvious. Peggy was given the power to find someone and hire them (well, him, because it had to be a man), this need arising precisely because no company would be comfortable with a woman writer. When the interviewee thinks she's a secretary (probably not a wise move) and then continues to act condescendingly, the show was incessant that the viewer understand the gender subtext. Peggy bristles and for good reason she doesn't want to hire Ginsberg but is forced to because Roger insists, and so she brings him back to meet with Don.

Crucially, said applicant tones down his abrasiveness, praising Don in his interview and getting himself the job. And that dovetails quite nicely to tonight's other pet theme: re-branding. This functions on a lot of levels, from Heinz asking Don to re-appropriate the Stones to Don et al's attempts to remain relevant even in this new generation. We even get a subtle nod to it, as Peggy throws aside a rewritten Volkswagen ad from the pile of portfolio submissions (and come on, you can do better than toilet paper).

I thought the choice of a Rolling Stones concert to show the clash of old-world ad men, who think anyone will sell out for a price, and pseudo-nihilistic sexually liberated groupies was deliberate. We've heard the Stones on Mad Men before, but last time it signified something different. Last season, to the insistent hook of "Satisfaction," the ever chameleonic Don was once again reinventing himself, a man thoroughly of his time. In tonight's episode, however, Don is just trying to keep up. He doesn't fit in, but unlike with other counter culture folks (think season 1 bohemians), Don no longer has all the answers.

Instead, he goes to his usual ask-direct-questions-and-look-exceedingly-handsome approach in trying to apprise what's on the mind of your average Stones groupie, and he looks more and more out of place. Tipping the doorman alone won't get him access to whatever he wants anymore. He's growing older, but this Don is still trying to cut it in the newer generation. He's traded in his wife for a newer, younger, slimmer (ZING!) model and even has something approaching a real emotional relationship with her (though I was not surprised to see him treat her like a child with regards to mothering his kids). Don the man with all the answers failed. He's re-branding, but for once it's unclear if he's got it at anymore.

Don's still doing better than Harry or Roger. Harry, for all his fly plaid suit wearing and joint puffing desperation to be cool and show off to young girls who don't even know who Charlton Heston is, will never be Don, and Don's repeated abject dismissal of him was priceless. Harry's not so much a relic of a past age as a middle-of-the-road guy who doesn't have what it takes to make it in the business world (and seriously, don't sign not-the-Stones, idiot). He won't be cool, no matter how hard he tries. Roger, on the other hand, can't be relevant. He seems utterly incapable of doing anything other than drinking and occasionally complaining. And quipping. These characters are intractable, and they're about to be left behind by whatever's coming. Don the shapeshifter might cut it, though.

Ultimately, tonight's episode felt like a one-off. Not much happened, although Betty got fat, had an ultimately benign health scare, and enjoyed the hell out of an ice cream sundae. The show still managed to squeeze an awful lot into an hour of television, but it wasn't the Mad Men that I'm used to, and I too wanna know when everything can get back to normal.

P.S. Thanks for the Jew, Mr. Weiner, but BRING BACK KINSEY!

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