Mad Men: “The Beautiful Girls”
Posted by therebelprince on September 21, 2010
What a difference 67 years make. Like its thematic predecessor, The Sopranos, before it, Mad Men has evolved from a first season which gave us a beautiful and absorbing look at an era into a meditation on self-deception, the loss of a so-called Golden Age, and change – personal or otherwise. This week’s episode, “The Beautiful Girls” continues the almost-unbroken winning streak of Mad Men’s fourth season. (The only setback was last week’s, “The Summer Man” which – while characteristically well-acted and produced – chose to eschew the series’ trademark subtlety in favour of… something else entirely.)
But on to “The Beautiful Girls”. As the title suggests, we focus tonight on four of the show’s five women – Peggy, Joan, Faye and Sally – with a brief but memorable detour via one Ida Blankenship.
Randee Heller – best known to me as Jodie’s one-time lesbian roommate on Soap – gave a great comic turn as Don’s overbearing secretary, although I was never quite sure if she was on the same show as everyone else. She died as she lived: ridiculous, obnoxious and yet strangely heartfelt underneath. Whenever Miss Blankenship appeared, I may have been pulled out of the mise-en-scène a little, but I was never let down by what she had to say or how she said it. As old people are wont to do, Blankenship had lost her ability to self-censor, meaning she could avoid the rigorous code of social convention and simmering tension that so often defines the SDCP offices. Perhaps Matthew Weiner and co never used the old broad as well as they should, but – as we’ll discuss below – this isn’t network television. We shouldn’t have expected her to get in some potshot to Joan about not giving up, or to remind Don, with a speech and some backing music, that he doesn’t want to end up alone. I hope one day to learn exactly why Weiner thought she would fit into his world, but you know what? I don’t regret it.
But on to the more pertinent focus of Mad Men this week: one Sally Draper: future sociopath? future Betty? Gods forbid, future Don?
I’ve long been a passionate defender of Betty Francis nee Draper. Her abortive process of self-awareness was my favourite storyline of season one, and even as I’ve been frustrated as she regresses with every turn, I’ve supported her right to do so. Like all of the other women on the show – and indeed most of the men (I’m looking at you, Peter Campbell) – Betty is on the cusp of two worlds. The sense of tradition, the sense of ‘rightness’ she feels about being a mother and a wife, has always conflicted with her own enjoyment of being able to speak Italian and have everything she wants to herself. Like most of us, Betty was taught as a child what she should aim for; what she should fix on as her dreams. And while the world has opened up for her and allowed her to make the change, it’s not as easy as it looks. That crippling sense of doubt and that nasty voice lurking inside: they demand attention. Betty ‘knows’ she needs to be a wife, to be a mother, to be perfect and self-sacrificing. So why then, she must ask herself, is it so damn hard?
And thus the torch is passed. Sally has become creepily adult this season, and in every one of her scenes with Don this week, I couldn’t help gaping in horror. I think this girl is still salvageable, but with parents like these, who needs anemones? It’s the trial faced by so many “broken-home” children: the parent who has the time to take you in must enforce the rules and be the cruel one; the single, bachelor-pad-living parent is the one you want.
Unfortunately, in Sally’s case her mother is quite possibly the coldest fish to ever break the surface, and her father is – to put it bluntly – a horrible man. Aware of this, and wishing he could change, sure; but horrible nonetheless.
Sally has been forced into maturity by parents who – through their own shattered childhoods and their conflicting desires – never quite understood how to teach their children. And yet she’s still a child: pouring rum on French toast, and falling to pieces at the end of a stay with her father. (And what a scene: Kiernan Shipka has been such a find. Like the Weeds producers, I’m sure Matthew Weiner is immensely grateful for this stroke of luck!)
Will Sally fall apart further? Undoubtedly. I was relieved to see Betty’s reaction to the masturbation incident a few weeks ago: it was real and period-appropriate, but she wasn’t puritanical. Betty is no stranger to lust, and undoubtedly her own ‘blossoming’ was a major life moment, so I’m hoping that the series will redeem Betty a little by allowing her to commiserate with her daughter.
But onward and upward. The show continues to brilliantly explore the disconnect between one’s personal tradition and one’s reality with the rest of the cast: Peggy Olsen particularly. I was saddened when – after the wonderful, culture-shaking reaction of himself and Trudy to the Kennedy assassination – Pete maintained his lack of self-awareness this year. He was headed for a break toward trendiness and absorbing the zeitgeist. Instead, he had the Clearasil account, Don came knocking at his door, and suddenly he got everything he thought he wanted. Back to square one.
By the same notion, I’ve been surprised to see Peggy constantly flirt with, but then reject, these modern ways. But isn’t this so much more real? People don’t change overnight, not unless they’re trying to reinvent themselves as with young Don Draper or the once-perfect wife Joan Harris. Life isn’t like a ghastly Nicolas Cage movie where the scrooge suddenly decides that yes, he does want a wife and three children and a house in the suburbs! Peggy probably will awaken, and it’s probable that Trudy and Pete will actually make great parents. But for now, the world outside is a challenging and contradictory place, and if it doesn’t match with your moral compass, who’s at fault? Surely not yourself and the way you were raised. Oh, no. It’s been 67 years since Ida Blankenship was born in a barn. In the freaking Victorian era. The times they are a’changin’.
I apologise for going on a bit, but I am always fascinated by this series. I’m sorry for people who can’t understand the joy of Mad Men (not that I assume any of them are reading this) because in its grand subtlety lies a power greater than that of a thousand True Bloods. Don’t get me wrong, True Blood is glorious fun but… this is Mad Men! Don’s diary habit is a great example for me: the diary has only appeared very recently, highlighted – unfortunately – in last week’s less than perfect “The Summer Man”. In most television dramas, this habit would have begun with an episode in which an old mentor with a diary habit (or possibly Ida herself?) returned to Don’s life, mentioned what they were missing, and pointed out how close he was to a meaningless existence. At episode’s end, to uplifting music, Don would take out his own diary and hammer away. Or alternatively, we could go with the writing for a few episodes and then gain an important flashback in which that information was conveyed.
Instead, we’re left to infer for ourselves that this is Don’s attempt at introspection. He knows that he’s falling apart, and he needs some way to come to terms with himself. Betty has left self-awareness on her doorstep; Peggy is hesitantly flirting with it (in the form of her cute lesbian admirer); and Joan has found the truth, but is stuck in a life where she can’t do anything with it, either personally or professionally. Amazingly, Roger Sterling is the most self-aware person at SCDP – Faye is, too, but she’s not a full-timer – and it’s led him to back alley sex and a helluva lot of whiskey. Maybe self-awareness ain’t so great after all.
* Robert Morse always earns his paycheck, but I’m sure the man must wander home some nights and ask himself when he’ll get something greater to do. That fancy opening credit is going to waste.
* I really like Faye, and she’s exactly what Don needs. But every time he meets someone right – Rachel Mencken was the first – she threatens too much of his world view. He’s really trying to change here, for his own sake more than Faye’s, but I think in the end she’s going to be spit out the Draper conveyor belt like all those who came before.
* I should clarify I find Don a fascinating character. I think he’s horrible only in a sense he can’t really control: his conflict sense of purpose, and his inability to truly process the feelings of those around him.
* Having said that, while I don’t believe the series is sexist in the least, I certainly can’t say the same for many casual viewers. The number of twentysomething males I know who think Don Draper is such a man for the amount of poontang he taps. It’s like watching The Wire just to see who’s going to take drugs this week; kind of loses the point.
* And how great was Peggy’s debate with Abe (Abe?) at the club? Of course comparing the two equal rights movements is like comparing apples and oranges, but within the corporate confines of SCDP, is there any difference between the secretaries and the elevator boys?