Category Archives: TV

“Making a Murderer” and cultural touchstones

Last night, Angell and I finally got around to watching Making a Murderer. We only watched two episodes, but that’s because we started late and had to force ourselves to go to bed sometime after 1:00 this morning. Based on what I’m seeing on social media, we’re not the only ones. Making a Murderer is storytelling crack – this year’s Serial.

Here’s what I’m talking about:

Making a Murderer

Making a Murderer
MAM-meme1

I went to Google Trends to index searches for Making a Murderer against a couple other topical phenomenons, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Donald Trump. Over the past seven days, here’s how the three are trending:

It may not seem that impressive that Making a Murderer is outpacing the other two until you consider that millions of dollars have been spent marketing Star Wars and Trump, while Making a Murderer has the look and feel of a PBS Frontline piece (and I mean that as a compliment), with the same kind of marketing push.

Love them or hate them, what all three have in common are strong, well-articulated narratives, proving once again the power of good storytelling.

Like last year’s crime whodunit Serial, Making a Murderer tackles the story (as I’ve experienced it thus far, shunning anything that looks like it may spoil the rest of the series) of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin citizen who was framed for one serious crime (rape and assault) and may or may not have been framed for another (murder).

Like Serial, it’s a story told simply and compellingly, with a flat, journalistic tone that oozes respectability and has you in Avery’s corner early on. There’s not an ounce of tabloidism in this piece, making it all the more fascinating that it’s tapped into an American vein that, if my Facebook feed is any indication, crosses just about every socioeconomic boundary imaginable.

The psychology of phenomena like Making a Murderer, Serial and Star Wars are fun to study, and even more fun to participate in. Whether you are early in or late to the party, events like these cause a collective excitement that is magical in its ability to unite all kinds of people around a single story. Events like this, so unpredictable, trigger our deepest longings of community and belonging, if only to have someone to talk to about whether or not Avery is guilty. Such is the power of storytelling…and the reptile brain.

Netflix is on quite a roll. So much so that I can barely remember why I was so mad at them just a couple of years ago. Their roster of original shows is impressive and contains some of the favorite stuff I’ve watched this past year, be it movie, TV or YouTube:
House of Cards
• Narcos
• Orange is the New Black
• Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
• W/Bob and David

• A bunch of comedy specials
The Battered Bastards of Baseball
• The Fall
• Derek

• And my favorite of them all, Aziz Ansari’s Master of None

And those are just the ones I’ve seen!

If you just went off the full roster of Netflix originals, you could make the argument for the second (or are we on the third???) Golden Age of TV. Factor in HBO, Showtime, AMC and all the rest, and you have a fire hydrant of television content that comes at you so fast that it’s impossible to simply sip from, let alone keep up with.

I’m often bitching about how movies suck right now, aside from the work of a few directors I love like Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, PT Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Pixar and a few others. Are the movies really worse than they were at the beginning of 1976, or is TV that good and varied that it makes movies seem sucky?

If that’s the case, then maybe the only crime the Hollywood movie has committed is not innovating. Maybe movies are taxis or hotels to TV’s Uber and Airbnb. If so, that’s bad news for movies. Just look around.

Whatever the case, I’ll keep happily paying my ten bucks a month to stream Netflix and enjoy the gusher of entertainment that I’ll never completely consume…and reserve my expensive forays to the Cineplex for my favorite directors or one-of-a-kind events like Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

In the meantime, keep on innovating, Netflix! I’ll try to keep up. I promise.

TV Review – Mad Men episode 707: Waterloo

WARNING! This piece contains spoilers.

Mad MenEpisode 707 of Mad Men, the mid-season finale, ends with Bert Cooper serenading Don Draper from the Great Beyond. Bert dies on the night when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, a moment that, if only temporarily, erased the mindless violence and chaos that was the 1960’s and unified everyone who was able to witness the event on TV. On that Sunday night, us/them became we. How ironic it was that on a night when a temporary cease-fire was declared on human frailty, Bert Cooper, who became a surprise mediator in the final season of Mad Men, gave in to his human frailty.

It was Bert who gave Don the final hard kick in the ass that led to Don’s return to the agency. The kick came in the form of a brutally honest assessment of Don’s refusal to take responsibility for his actions. Since that moment, followed by Freddie Rumsen’s ministrations, Don has been on a redemptive path. In this week’s episode, Bert similarly assesses Roger’s position in the SC&P firmament, praising him for his talent, skill and experience, but telling Roger that he is no leader. This stinging rebuke from a man who is like a father to Roger ultimately leads to a transformation of Roger from passive victim to strategic dealmaker. Roger, at least temporarily, rises to prove Bert’s judgment wrong.

“Don, my boy!”

How sad it was to see Bert, played wonderfully by Robert Morse, go. And what a nice tribute Matthew Weiner paid the veteran stage actor by sending him off with a song and dance number that was as puzzling and eerie as it was sweet and emotional.

Mad MenDon has just assisted Roger in overturning Jim Cutler’s threat to “dismantle the agency,” and as Roger announces the death of their co-founder, Don goes back to his office to get some work done. Note that Don was on his way to Lou Avery’s office – his former office – when Bert calls out to him in an uncharacteristically friendly tone. “Don, my boy!” Don turns to see sock-footed Bert, in the flesh. Don stands in stunned silence as Bert begins “The Best Things In Life Are Free,” with altered opening lyrics:

The stars in the sky,

The moon on high

They’re great for you and me

Because they’re free…

Bert, who had just days before, declared Don a “pain in the ass” is now bestowing a counterintuitive blessing on Don by directing Don’s attention to the things beyond money and career and power that are more important…and don’t cost money.

I say counterintuitive because, like Jim Cutler, Bert was a man who lived by a capitalistic pragmatism where “Does it make me money?” seemed to be the litmus test for all things, a kind of situational ethos that could be one thing on Monday, and then a completely different thing on Tuesday. This is illustrated by Cutler’s own flip-flop on the McCann deal at the end of the episode, where he waves the white flag and follows Rogers lead – “It’s a LOT of money,” Cutler says when Roger asks if he’s serious.

And so, here is Bert, speaking from the Other Side, where he has gotten the message (we are left to presume) on what is most important in this life, and like Clarence the angel in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” comes back to point Don forward once again.

But what if that moment was something more?

Wasn’t it odd how Don and Peggy parted ways? Everyone has come upstairs to hear Roger’s announcement about Bert’s death. Peggy catches Don to tell him the good news, that Burger Chef has awarded them the business. Don gives her a big hug and tells her they saw what he saw – rare approbation from him. After a big, beaming smile, Don moves to go downstairs to his office. Peggy asks him where he’s going, and he tells her he has work to do, then leaves to meet Bert. The scene was structured and shot in such a valedictory manner that it seemed, at least from Peggy’s perspective, like it was one of those I-remember-the-last-time-we-spoke exchanges.

After Bert’s song and dance routine, Don has to sit on the edge of a secretary’s desk to gather himself. This may be a foolish notion, but I want to go on record now and ask – is Don dead, or is there simply a part of him that has passed away?

Among other things, the episode was about many of the characters being on the brink of significant change. Is Don’s significant change death, or is this a prelude to a kind of putting to rest his years as an ad man? Bert, in his altered opening to his song, declares that the moon and the stars (an Apollo 11 reference) are great “for you and me.” Why the inclusion of Don with him in death? And why are they great? And what kind of free is Bert talking about? Free as in money and cost, or free as in freed from some sort of bondage?

In one sense, Bert is free from the mortal coil that was his body, as well as his highly structured social position and attendant beliefs. Perhaps he means Don is free to pursue an authentic life that is free from the pain of his childhood, free from the lies that arose from assuming the identity of a dead man, and free, at last, to be the kind of man he’s always shown hints of being.

Regardless, Don is on a redemptive arc I pray continues in the final half of this season, which will begin next year (groan).

One small step

The Apollo 11 moon mission plays a central role in the episode, connecting not just the SC&P gang, but the entire TV watching world, a people whom Peggy described as being starved for connection.

While the moon landing as TV event certainly underscored the sense that we as humans are all connected and crave to be in community with one another, I think the moon landing also served to illustrate the contrast between cynicism and optimism.

Mad Men, in one sense, charts the path of Don Draper’s journey from career ascendancy to arrogance, ruin and, ultimately, redemption. In the pilot episode, there is an exchange between Don and Rachel Menken, where he sarcastically dismisses the popular notion of love in terms of lightning bolts and gooey emotions before going on to outline his philosophy of love, life and advertising. “The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me. To sell nylons.” Sensing Rachel’s arousal, Don adds some obnoxious swagger as he continues. “You’re born alone, and you die alone, and this world just drops a bunch of rules on you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow because…there isn’t one.”

It’s this bleak ideal that propels Don through season after season of Mad Men until the weight of the damage Don inflicts is too much for him to bear. Don has had many wake-up calls, nearly all of which were ignored. He could shrug off the pain of losing relationships by drowning it in alcohol. But when Don’s source of his identity was taken away – his persona of Don Draper, Master of the Universe – he was forced to ultimately come to grips with who he is, what he really wants, and how he is going to get it.  We get this in his speech to Ted at the end of the episode.

Mad MenThe beginnings of Don’s sea change are also evident in his call to Sally to share in the wonder of an historic event. Sally parrots the cynicism of Sean, the visiting hunk, by dismissing the moon landing as a complete waste of money when there are so many in need. Don, who may have said the same thing in years past, asks her if she really believes that. He fumbles a little with his guidance by guilting her into being optimistic for the sake of her brothers. She gets off the call as soon as she can, but Don’s words seem to sink in when she runs into geeky Neil, Sean’s little brother, out in the backyard looking at Bobby’s telescope. After an attempt at being the put-upon, seen-it-all teenager, she responds to Neil’s optimism by giving into it.

Why? Because it’s a more attractive option. We can’t help buy respond positively to authentic human behavior. To vulnerability. To be this way is to operate from a position of strength because it is so true and unassailable. To go through this world with clenched fists, like Don has, is to ultimately end up bitter and broken.

Sally and Don often serve as mirrors, and here we have a beautiful example of Sally mirroring her father by stepping out on faith and embracing optimism.

Don furthers this new attitude when he sacrifices his deep desire to win the Burger Chef business by giving Peggy the opportunity. With Bert dead, he knows the partner votes are against him and Roger, and rather than win a pyrrhic victory, he sets Peggy up to solidify her position at the agency by building her confidence and working late into the night to coach her through the pitch. The old Don would never have done this, or if he had, it would have been for the wrong reasons.

Don dealt with an attack from Cutler, the final dissolution of his marriage and a plea from Roger to win back control of the agency without getting drunk and abusing a single underling. Way to go, Don!

No man has ever come back from leave, even Napoleon

The episode is titled “Waterloo,” and would appear to refer to Cutler’s failed attempt to win control of the agency and depose Don once and for all, but Bert’s comments seem to contradict so easy an assessment.

When Napoleon launched the Waterloo campaign, he ruled for 100 days before suffering his final defeat. Perhaps what we are seeing now is Don’s 100 day return before finally being defeated once and for all. With Bert’s Napoleon reference and the final song, conspiracy theorists have much to feast on until Mad Men’s return next year.

Mad MenOne thing that should be noted is that Bert tells Roger that Don doesn’t understand the notion that a leader is loyal to his team. Historically, this is true of Don, but in the last two episodes of this half of the season we have seen Don totally contradict this judgment. At long last, Don does seem to understand that a leader must lead through selfless devotion to his team, which Don does by giving Peggy the Burger Chef pitch.

Maybe Bert was wrong on this one.

You’re just a bully and a drunk; a football player in a suit

Whatever the outcome for Don, Cutler certainly suffered a setback in the execution of his vision of the future of SC&P.

Without the knowledge and approval of the other partners, Cutler has the agency attorney draft a letter to Don, informing him of his termination for breech of contract. This letter seems prompted by Lou Avery, whose one scene this episode is a gem.

Lou visits Cutler to inform him that SC&P has lost the Commander Cigarette campaign to Leo Burnett, who has the other Philip Morris business. When Cutler shrugs off the loss with a philosophical bit of turning lemons into lemonade, Lou goes bananas, asking if Cutler is going to just wait for Don to jump into the next cigarette meeting and further humiliate him. When Lou predicts the day when he crawls out of SC&P with nothing but a damaged reputation, Cutler shoos him away by telling him he’s merely a hired hand and owed nothing. The meeting is ended with Cutler yells at Lou to get back to work, which he meekly does.

Mad MenRegardless of whether he’s merely a hired hand, Lou is part of Cutler’s team, and the letter goes out, sending Don into a blind rage (after a humorous moment with Meredith, who, like every other woman, has a crush on Don).  Don confronts Cutler by barging into his office, where Cutler is surely waiting.  Cutler confesses that he and Ted used to be intimidated by Don, and would wonder what he was up to, all shrouded in mystery.  He goes on to eviscerate Don, by telling him that, having seen behind the curtain, he’s thoroughly unimpressed, calling Don a bully and drunk; a football player in a suit.  He taunts Don, telling him the most eloquent he’s been was when he blubbered like a little girl about his impoverished childhood.  He’s hoping for a punch that will eliminate any legal leg Don may have left to stand on, but Don keeps his anger in check.

Don then marches to Roger’s office, where he opens the door and orders him out. Don then yells for Joan and Bert and Pete.

Bert enters the fray by telling Don they’ll talk to Cutler and get to the bottom of this. When Cutler strolls up, Don forces the issue by asking for a vote on whether to fire him. It’s 4-3 in Don’s favor, with Cutler, Ted (via Cutler) and Joan voting against Don.

Don wins the battle, but the war is still in the balance. Afterwards, as everyone goes to their respective office, Joan is left to tell Cutler he shouldn’t have done what he did.

Later, when Roger visits with Bert to get counsel on the Cutler situation, Bert tells Roger something important. “Whoever is in control is in charge.” Bert goes on to tell Roger that, unlike Bert, he’s no leader. Further, Bert confirms Cutler’s leadership capabilities, as well as his vision for the company. The only stopping Bert from supporting Cutler is the fact that Cutler is an outsider.

Thus informed, when Bert dies and Cutler outlines his plan to consolidate his power and oust Don, Roger swings into action with a brilliant plan. He reaches out to Jim Hobart at McCann Erickson and schedules a meeting in which he secures a verbal offer for McCann to purchase a controlling interest in SC&P that is contingent on Roger’s ability to bring Ted along. McCann’s interest is the Chevy team, which consists of Roger, Cutler, Ted and Don. Roger manages to cut Cutler out of the picture, but can’t get Hobart to budge on Ted.

Roger lays in wait for Don, upon Don’s return from the Burger Chef pitch, and it is there, in Don’s apartment, that Roger outlines the plan by which he will take control of the agency, push Cutler out, and save the jobs of all, including Don.

Don’s skepticism is understandable when he tells Roger that he doesn’t believe he can pull it off. He cites, as an example, Roger’s inability to save Don’s job. Roger appeals to a higher purpose – to their co-workers. It’s a test for both of them. Of course, the deal will make them rich, but they could just as easily have gone as a trio of creative to McCann. Instead, Roger sells Don on saving the agency once again, and building on their successes while rectifying their failures.

This hooks Don, of course, and he throws his support into Roger’s plan.

The following morning, Roger launches his sneak attack at the beginning of a meeting to plan Bert’s memorial and Don’s ouster. Ted has been flown in and looks like a husk of his former self. Cutler, upon learning of Roger’s plan, dismisses it as desperate and delusional. But when Roger quantifies the deal for the team, everyone but Cutler and Ted fall in line. And when Roger explains that the deal is contingent on Ted’s participation, Pete and Joan attack Ted’s reluctance.

Mad MenIt’s at this point that Don makes his biggest pitch in a long while. He leans in and speaks directly to Ted, explaining that he knows where Ted is. For the last year, he lived in a similar limbo state, except his was involuntary. His wake up call was met with the humiliating task of doing menial work normally reserved for wet-behind-the-ears rookies. But he did it, because he realized he desperately wanted back in. In short, he explained how he gladly humbled himself in order to win back the respect and approval of his co-workers. His friends. He closes the pitch by assuring Ted he doesn’t want to see what happens when it’s really gone.

The pitch works, of course, and with a little prodding from Roger, Ted approves of the plan to sell, followed by Cutler, who can’t resist the sweet smell of a lot of money.

It was a sweet ending that mirrored the effect of the moon landing. We know that the good will of Armstrong’s walk on the moon was short lived, and the heady feeling of the SC&P partners being multi-millionaires will likely fade like morning fog. Look for the deal to be somehow jeopardized when the show returns next spring. But while it lasts, those who always pine for a sweeter, more optimistic Mad Men should bask in the warmth of everyone’s joy.

Odds & Ends

  • Roger wasn’t the only one who swung for the fences on this episode. How about Meredith taking a swing at Don while he’s vulnerable?
  • Peggy & Julio. There are a couple of interesting echoes with this wonderful relationship. First, Julio is about the age of the child she bore and gave up for adoption. So, there’s some complicated emotional stuff going on there. Also, does this relationship remind anyone of the relationship between Betty and Glenn? Julio is being raised by a single mom, distracted by having to provide. Peggy is lonely and “starving for connection.” Just a thought.
  • Poor Harry Crane. Once again, Don gives good advice, but it’s wasted on Harry when Don tells him not to dicker with the offer. Harry dickers…and gets dicked by Roger. I loved the meeting at the end, when Harry busts in and apologizes for being late. Roger loved telling Harry the meeting was none of his bee’s wax almost as much as he loved sticking it to Cutler.
  • Don & Megan. How odd that the Draper marriage’s final curtain would be such a sideline event. But we’ve known this was coming for a long time, right? I called this at the end of season five, when Don got Megan her commercial. What lies ahead for Don in the romance department? Someone asked me if Betty might come back into the picture. Um, no.
  • Don as ventriloquist dummy. Matthew Weiner has always said that Mad Men is about, among other things, consequences. Episode 707 has Don telling Peggy that “sometimes, actions have consequences….” Finally, Don gets it.
  • Peggy did a nice job at Burger Chef, but it was no Kodak.
  • Sally goes for Neil, the geeky brother, who shares the same first name as Armstrong.
  • I love Pete’s plea to Cutler.  “That’s a very sensitive piece of horse flesh.  He doesn’t need to be rattled.”

Episode 706 ended with Don embracing and enjoying the connection he shares with Peggy and Pete (and by extension, the whole of SC&P), and in this episode, we have Bert Cooper encouraging Don to expand his horizons, like the Apollo astronauts and the millions who were with them in TV-land, and embrace all of humanity. This mini-season ends with Don on the brink of the next phase of his life and career. He has rejected the philosophy he so confidently espoused to Rachel Menken way back in 1960. The final seven episodes of Mad Men seem geared to show us how Don Draper embraces optimism in the midst of an advertising milieu which still runs on cynicism. Perhaps he’ll abandon advertising altogether. We won’t find out for sure until 2015.

TV Review – Mad Men episode 706: The Strategy

Warning! This piece contains spoilers.

Mad Men“It’s about family.”

Peggy tells this to Pete as she has dinner with him and Don at Burger Chef. She’s referring to their strategy for winning the fast food chain’s business, but she might as well be referring to the three of them. They are all sad and lonely, having failed at love. After ten years of working together, they come to realize, if only subconsciously, that they can rely on one another more than they can their respective families.

The episode is titled “The Strategy,” and while there was plenty of strategizing going on, it could just as easily been called “The Family” for how central the idea of family, both literal and metaphorical, played into the strategizing of the episode’s main players.

It’s nice to see family happiness again.

Since his bottoming out experience with Bert and Freddy, Don has humbly returned to work, determined to work himself back into the good graces of the colleagues he let down. The funny thing is, no one seems to care very much. The agency continues to bill more-and-more, and with the installation of the IBM 360, the agency seems poised to take on the top-tier agencies, like McCann Erickson.

Perhaps this has been a good thing because it’s allowed Don to simply “do the work” without the added pressure of making winning pitches. In the process, Don seems to have recaptured his joy for the business.

Don is plucked from the sidelines when Pete rolls into New York, girlfriend in tow, to finalize the Burger Chef strategy. After running into Don at the office, Pete invites Don to sit in on the dry run with Lou and Peggy. Surprised at the rare opportunity to participate in high-level decisions, even if only a spectator, Don agrees.

The look on Lou and Peggy’s face when Don follows Pete into the conference room is priceless. When Pete says he wants Don’s take, Don shrugs as if to say, “Blame him. It wasn’t my idea.” Lou shrugs off the annoyance, and Peggy goes into her nervous, jerky head-nod routine.

Peggy nails the pitch. Lou smiles for once and says, “It’s nice to see family happiness again.” Pete smiles, then turns to Don and asks what he thinks. Don, who has smoked and looked at Peggy with a pained expression the entire pitch, spits out some supportive platitudes that confirms what everyone else has said. He goes with the flow.

Later, when Lou and Pete call Peggy into Lou’s office, Pete throws her a curve ball by insisting that Don give the presentation. Regardless of their history, Pete knows what a pro Don is, and wants to give himself every opportunity to win this business and prove to home office that he is still valuable to the agency.

Peggy pushes back until she realizes Ted is on the speaker phone. Sensing she’s beat, she agrees with Pete and informs Don of the decision, which she makes her decision. This pleases Don, who, once Peggy leaves him alone, punches his fist like a young kid notching his first victory. He feels like it’s working, that he’s climbing back to the top of the mountain he created.

As happy as Don is, Peggy is just as displeased. She’s also climbing the same mountain, and wants to be king of the mountain as much as Don. She’s also nursing her grudge against Don for all the shitty things he did to her once her affair with Ted went public. She goes out of her way to childishly let Don know his ideas are bad and that she’s the boss now. Don, to his credit, endures the insults without a word of complaint.

The catalyst to the episode comes when Peggy has told Don that he’ll be making the presentation. As she leaves his office, he offhandedly tells her he’s been noodling around with the strategy and sees another way they might make a stronger pitch. This sends Peggy up into her head and out of her mind, furious at Don for “undermining” her with his better idea. This drives her back to the office, where she works all weekend to come up with a better idea. The problem is, she hasn’t got one. No matter how hard she tries, Peggy Olson can’t seem to crawl out from under the shadow of her mentor. And it’s driving her insane.

After a fruitless Saturday, where Peggy gets nowhere working alone and calls Don to remind him his idea sucked, Don shows up on Sunday to try and help come up with a better plan. This leads to the best Don/Peggy moment the show has given us since “The Suitcase.”

Don finds Peggy in Lou’s office, working and drinking. Like a petulant child, she lashes out at Don in a self-pitying way before angrily demanding he show her how he thinks. She wants him to save her, but at the same time, she wants him to show her once again how it’s done. She’s drowning in self-doubt and loneliness, and she admits in the worst way possible that she needs Don.

Don, once again in gracious New-Don mode, takes her through the process, outlining the pros and cons of the existing plan. Together, they agree the cons outweigh the pros. Finally, Don says, “Whenever I’m really unsure of an idea, I abuse the people whose help I need, and then I take a nap.” Having done just that on Friday with Stan, Peggy smiles and says, “Done.” And with that, the polar ice cap that has been Peggy’s resentment of Don begins to melt.

Later, after many drinks, they have gotten no closer to uncovering THE idea. As they brainstorm, their ideas trigger references to real life and they open up about how poorly their private lives are going.

When Peggy paints a picture of the nuclear family from the 1950’s, one where there are “people who eat dinner and smile at each other, instead of watching TV.” She asks Don if his family ever did that, and all he can say is that he doesn’t remember. Wow.

She confesses that she recently turned thirty, and that she’s tried to keep it a secret from the office. She worries she’s turned into one of those women who lie about their age.

When Don tells her he worries about a lot of things, but not about her, she asks him what he has to worry about. New-Don, having just admitted to being a worry wart, confesses he worries about not having done anything substantive with his life, and that he has no one to share his life with. Aside from that night together in “The Suitcase,” when Don celebrated Peggy’s birthday by working her very late, taking her to a Greek diner, vomiting, getting nearly beaten to death by Duck Phillips before passing out on Peggy’s lap…then receiving the phone call that Anna Draper had died as Peggy watched, this is the only time Peggy has really seen Don so naked and honest. And what’s better, he pays attention to her in a way he maybe never has before. She confesses that seeing all those moms in station wagons, while she did field research for Burger Chef, made her wonder where she’d gone wrong in her life.

At this, Peggy begins to cry. Don fishes out his handkerchief and hands it to her. Then Peggy has her first real Don Moment. “What if there was a place where you could go where there was no TV?” she asks. It could have been Don posing the question. “And you could break bread, and whoever you were sitting with was family.” After a beat, Peggy realizes what she’s done and tells Don that’s it. That’s the strategy. Family.

Mad MenMy Way” plays in the background. Don notices and stands. He reaches out and asks her to dance. Together, they dance in Lou Avery’s office. Neither says a word. Don smiles a fatherly smile. After a moment, Peggy rests her head on Don’s chest. Don’s smile turns to something deeper as he seems find a lost connection with Peggy. It’s as if they’ve each come home, dancing there in Don’s old office no longer as frienemies, but as colleagues…or is it more?

Forums will certainly be afire with speculation over what Don and Peggy’s dance means, and more specifically, what Don’s expression meant. My first thought was to remember how happy Don was when Megan worked alongside him, an equal at work and at home. The kind of family Don seems to crave, where life isn’t compartmentalized, but is seamless. Perhaps Don’s sabotaging of Peggy’s and Ted’s relationship was out of a jealousy he didn’t realize the meaning of until that dance.

Or maybe Don was glad to have his most trusted ally back.

Either way, it was a beautifully played moment that seems to herald yet another plateau in Don’s evolution. And with storm clouds gathering, it looks like Don will need all the allies he can get.

I thought you just needed summer clothes?

The one thing New-Don doesn’t seem to be able to fix is Old-Don’s marriage.

Megan surprises Don at the office when she makes a rare trip back east to retrieve her summer clothes. Though they say all the right words, it’s painfully obvious these two are about to go their separate ways.

As open as Don is with Peggy, he doesn’t seem to have told Megan much about his new working arrangements. When Megan and Peggy catch up at the office, Megan predicts that Peggy will someday make it to Don’s office. At this point, Peggy is still chapped at Don, and this remark is like salt in the wound.

Mad MenThe following morning, a Saturday, Don wakes up alone in bed. Alarmed, he sits up to see Megan out on the patio, setting the table for breakfast dressed in sexy lingerie. He rests on his elbow and takes in the scene. We have no idea what he’s thinking, but after his dance with Peggy, I can’t help but think that he was fantasizing about a life that could have been but never will be. There is sincere affection in Don’s gaze, and when he slips up behind her, he offers to take her shopping after they eat – nothing we’ve ever seen Don do before.

The marital bliss is short lived, however.

On Sunday, Don finds the apartment torn apart by Megan, who is looking for a fondue pot. When Don reminds her she was only coming back for her summer clothes, Megan tells him she misses her things. When she wonders whether she can check all the stuff on her flight back to L.A., Don offers to bring them with him on his next visit. When Megan asks exactly when that will be, alarm bells rang out. Methinks she’s having an affair.

Mad MenOn their bed, Don finds an old copy of the New York Times. It’s the November 23, 1963 edition – the day after JFK’s assassination. The paper calls back to season three of Mad Men and “The Grown Ups,” when Betty told Don she doesn’t love him anymore. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition, as “The Grown Ups” also had family issues at the center of its plot involving Don, Pete, Peggy and Roger. Mad Men often takes on the form of a novel the way Matthew Weiner and his writers layer in echoes and references like this that build on the present episode by pulling in events from years past – just as in real life.

In “The Grown Ups,” Don was on the verge of two big watershed moments – his divorce and the genesis of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the agency he birthed. This seems to be a foreshadowing not only of Megan asking for a divorce, but of another career watershed for Don that could be the cliffhanger of the mid-season finale.

You are not part of this family anymore.

Pete, who has been mostly MIA this season gets tossed into the deep end of the pool this week, with love interests from the past and present causing him grief.

First, there’s Bonnie, Pete’s California girl who strikes me as some Okie-grifter with her rough edges and obsession with deal-making and money. She’s a female version of Bob Benson. It’s too bad we’re meeting her this late in the show’s run. I’d love to see a story about her.

On the flight to New York, when Pete informs Bonnie she’s not invited out to see his daughter Tammy, Bonnie tells Pete she wants their relationship to work, but would hate for it to fail because of needless delays. She softens the threat by initiating Pete into the Mile High Club, to remind him of what he’ll be missing when he’s with the soon-to-be-ex-wife.

Mad MenRelationship-wise, things go downhill from there for Pete. When he arrives in Cos Cob, Pete is surprised to see Verna, a housekeeper/nanny, waiting for him with Tammy instead of Trudy, who has gone to the hairdresser. To make things worse, Tammy is afraid of Pete, a near stranger to her at this point. Pete rolls with the punches and has Verna help him get her in his car.

Later, when he returns home with Tammy, it’s Verna who waits to give Tammy a bath and tuck her in. When Pete asks about Trudy, Verna tells him she’s out. Pete instructs Verna to bathe Tammy, but let him tuck her in. After that, he waits for Trudy, helping himself to the beer in her refrigerator.

Pete seems to have this fantasy that Trudy still loves him and wants to get back together. He also seems to have a fantasy that HE still loves Trudy and wants to get back together with her. The delay in their divorce is not explained, but I get the sense that it’s more him than her, and this was just before the no-fault divorce was invented.

After an ugly reunion with Trudy, where Pete has the nerve to accuse her of being immoral by possibly dating another man, then accuses her of merely trying to make him jealous with this date of hers. Unable to take anymore of Pete’s nonsense, Trudy drops the hammer on Pete, telling him, “Your not part of this family anymore.”

With that, Pete smashes his beer bottle through the middle of a cake on the table, buttons his plaid sports jacket then bids Trudy goodnight.

What did he really expect? Like Don, Pete is at a crossroads in his life. His marriage is all but officially over. His career has stalled. His California girl, sick of being ignored on the trip, returns home early…on the same flight as Don’s soon-to-be-ex.

Pete is ripe for a big move. As horrible as he may be as a husband and friend, he’s good at his job, even though Jim Cutler doesn’t seem to have much use for him out in California. And unbeknownst to Pete, his nemesis Bob Benson is about to be a jump ball for the gang at SC&P, once the move to Buick is made official.

You shouldn’t be with a woman.

Joan and her family take center stage in episode 706, when Bob Benson shows up complicate things.

Bob, the darling of the XP gang at Chevy, arrives at the office on Friday morning with two Chevy executives in tow, looking for action. As he introduces them to the office, Bob makes a date with Joan to see her family.

That night, Bob is awakened in the middle of the night to come and pickup Bill Hartley, one of the executives, who has been arrested for trying to “felate an undercover cop.” Hartley’s face has been severely beaten, and we’re left to believe this has come at the hands of the arresting officers. The precinct officer, all insults and judging, says “Goodnight ladies” as the two leave the precinct.

On the cab ride home, Hartley explains that he and his wife have an arranged marriage and that in Detroit he knows how to conduct his alternative life discretely. He knows Bob will keep this matter a secret, and the two speak of their homosexuality with a familiarity that tells us its come up before.

During this ride, Bob also learns some startling news – that the XP is being moved in-house and that he will be offered a job at Buick. At any moment. Hartley tells him that Chevy loves him and that SC&P had a great audition. Good things are in store for both parties.

Mad MenAfter spending a day with Joan and her mom and son, where presents were showered on all but Joan, Bob gets Joan all to himself late at night. He explains the reason for not having a gift for Joan by presenting her with an engagement ring and a proposal for marriage. When Joan stalls, Bob presses the matter with words and a kiss, which Joan rebuffs by telling him, “You shouldn’t be with a woman.”

Bob pulls back, regroups then tells her he’s been with them in the past. He confides that he’s been offered the Buick job and that SC&P is about to momentarily lose Chevy. This sends Joan into a tailspin.

He goes on to argue that compared with her current conditions – nearing forty, husbandless, and living in a two bedroom cramped apartment with her mother and son – he is offering her more than anyone ever will. Joan’s response to this assessment, which sounded like a sentence, is visceral as she tells Bob that she would rather die alone hoping for true love than to settle for an arrangement. She tells him he should want the same for himself, but based on the life Bob has built for himself, her words fell on deaf ears.

The last we see of him, Bob receives Joan’s rejection without argument and slips off into the night…and out of her life.

Or does he? We don’t know what his role will be at Buick. If he has any influence on how Buick’s ad dollars are spent, it could be a feeding frenzy at SC&P as Pete and Joan fight for position, with both having dirt on Bob Benson.

When we grow up, we’re going to kill you and marry your wife.

We catch up with Roger in the steam room, where Jim Hobart, from McCann Erickson, chats him up about the current state of affairs.

Mad MenHobart condescendingly congratulates Roger on his “little car” – “It’s not Buick, but it’s cute” – and his fast food account. “It’s not McDonalds. It’s run by morons.” Roger trades insults with him until Hobart tells him that SC&P wants to grow up to be McCann Erickson. Roger, who always gets the best lines, fires back. “When we grow up, we’re going to kill you and marry your wife.”

That’s one way to get a family.

Hobart gets to what he wants to know by bringing up Philip Morris and how SC&P expects to win the account with Don Draper “haunting your halls.” Roger gets serious and laments that Hobart is lucky not to have Roger’s problems. When Hobart asks what if he wanted to have Roger’s problems, Sterling mistakes the comment for a hint that Hobart is looking for a job. Hobart side steps the comment and tells Roger he simply wants to enrich the lives of those he respects. Roger, unsure of what exactly is going on, cracks a parting joke, then leaves.

Hobart was referring to Don, of course, though Roger has no knowledge of the lunch encounter Don had with Hobart while meeting with Dave Wooster from Wells Rich Greene. Remember that Hobart, like the devil himself, tried to lure Don with promises of riches. Don has turned down the easy money before, but we haven’t heard the last of McCann Erickson.

From there, Roger slides into a funk that is underscored by his greeting to Cutler a little later when Cutler catches him and says, “Ah, good. You’re still here.” “That’s your opinion,” Roger says. Cutler informs Roger he’s just played a round of golf with an executive from Philip Morris and his name was brought up. Cutler hopes that Roger will help him secure the account. Roger goes from cool to cold when he tells Cutler, “Your secret plan to win the war?” Cutler, unfazed by Roger’s response, pats him on the shoulder and tells him needs to stop thinking about Don and start thinking about the agency. Roger looks at Cutler’s hand as if it held a dog turd.

From that exchange it seems that Roger knows of some underhanded plan Cutler is concocting to force Don to follow-through with his offer to resign his position if Philip Morris is signed. What’s more, Roger has said nothing to Don about this. Why? Does he fear an emotional response from Don? It doesn’t seem likely he fears for himself. The only thing Roger fears is death.

The bottom line here is that Roger has consistently proven himself to be, despite his charm, an unprincipled man. Over the years he’s sold out his family, his friends and his company, and it looks like he’s at it again until Joan’s bombshell gives him a flash of insight about Hobart’s mission in the steam room.

When Jim calls a partner’s meeting to formally announce that the XP is gone, he indicates that it was Joan who shared the news. This shocks Roger, who feels that Joan is beholden to him and should relate any and all secrets to him before anyone else. After the meeting, when she fills him in on Bob’s story, Roger thinks he knows what’s really going on. But does he? How could Hobart know about Bob Benson? Next week’s episode is titled “Waterloo.” Look for Roger to be one of the Napoleons.

Every table here is the family table.

“The Strategy” closes with a set-piece nearly as powerful as the scene with Don and Peggy dancing.

Pete sits in a booth at Burger Chef, alone. Don joins him and lights a cigarette. Pete is despondent, but not about the account. Once again, he’s all alone and feeling sorry for himself. He whines about not having a strategy, and Don shushes him and says to give Peggy a chance.

When Peggy arrives, she sits with Don and tells Pete she wants to shoot the spot in the restaurant. Pete says it’s not a home, but Peggy says it’s better. It’s a clean, well-lighted place. “It’s about family,” she says. “Every table here is the family table.”

Mad MenWhen Pete argues against the idea, he appeals to Don to talk sense to Peggy. Don paraphrases the song “My Way” by telling Pete, “She’s doing it the way she wants to do it. You want it right, or not?”  At hearing this, we see Peggy swell with pride and happiness at having been defended by Don Draper, the only man in her life whose opinion really matters. Pete considers the pushback from Don and Peggy, and accepts it because he can trust it.

Music plays, and the camera pulls back to take in the rest of the restaurant.  As it does, Pete gets ketchup on his face, and Don slyly signals it to Pete, much the way a dad might to his son.  Pete smiles and accepts a napkin from Peggy and wipes the mess from his face.  The camera continues to pull back to reveal that this trio is just one of many families happily sharing a meal together.

And there you have it. This defacto family gets together over their family table and works through their family business. An odd triangle if there ever was one, with Don as the father figure and Pete and Peggy as his kids. But wait. Peggy and Pete have had a child. And what’s going on with Don and Peggy? Are they more like Mom and Dad? At any rate, these three trust and respect one another, no matter their history and personal failings. And maybe they’ve all come to the realization that moving forward, treating each as a valued family member is the best strategy for surviving the new world order that Jim Cutler is hell bent on ushering in, where Harry Crane gets to be a partner.

TV Review – Mad Men episode 705: The Runaways

Spoiler Alert! This piece contains spoilers.
Mad MenEpisode 705 of Mad Men, “The Runaways”, was marked by a series of jolting responses by a few of the characters that seemed to come out of left field.  In each case, the character was backed into an emotional corner and felt compelled to bail on the old script.

It was a tweener episode in a tricky final season that is split into two mini-seasons. That means this first seven episode run needs to build to a kind of mini-finale, or jumping off place, to keep us on pins and needles until Mad Men comes back next year to wrap up the series.

The title of the episode is tricky at first, but when all of the definitions of “runaway” are considered, it makes more sense. In this installment of Mad Men, there is Stephanie Horton (a literal runaway), Michael Ginsberg (whose paranoia runs amok, causing him to lose his grip on reality), Betty (who snaps and gives up on the status quo), Peggy (who long ago fled her family and its trappings), Megan (who, in an act of desperation, tries to re-capture the lost passion of her marriage) and finally, Don, who learns that his penance is not appreciated and flips the script in order take control of his destiny.

Don does the work.

The first thing that stands out about this episode, “Scout’s Honor” aside, is how productive Don is. Things are almost back to normal. Almost. Lou is still in charge and Don still answers to Peggy but aside from that, his workload is increasing.

It’s good to see Don working, and there’s a sense that he is enjoying it. After Bert’s dressing down, followed by Freddie’s tough love, Don has made the necessary adjustments that allow him to show up for work every day and focus on the job at hand rather than the fact that he’s reporting to bosses with a fraction of his talent. He’s living out the Serenity Prayer.

Even when Lou loses his cool in front of the team, over his cartoon, Don puts his own feelings aside to give his rival some reasonable advice, which Lou flatly rejects. Don is back from the dead, thinking about the good of the agency for a change.

Mad MenOne interesting plot twist has to do with a call Don receives from Stephanie Horton, Anna Draper’s neice. Remember her? Back in season four, in “The Good News”, she is the one who tells Don that Anna is dying of cancer…right after he hits on her. The kicker in this bit of information is that Anna has no idea. The details were kept from her by Anna’s sister. When Don becomes angry that Anna is in the dark, Stephanie says, “Please don’t make me sorry that I told you.” Remember this bit of dialogue….

Stephanie’s call to Don is for help. She’s a pregnant, homeless hippie and needs some money and a place to stay. Don, happy to hear from her, gives her Megan’s address and tells her to go there, that he’ll be in later in the evening.

After he hangs up, Don calls Megan and tells her Stephanie’s coming and that he’ll be in later. Megan is surprised because Don isn’t supposed to visit until the following weekend. She tells Don she’s happy he’s coming and eagerly agrees to help with Stephanie.

I’m not taking management advice from Don Draper.

Speaking of Lou Avery, the tension between him and Don is nearing a breaking point. SC&P isn’t big enough for the two of them, and it’s a matter of time before Lou utters that phrase.

Mad MenThe episode begins with Stan finding a folder on the Xerox machine containing a cartoon by Lou called “Scout’s Honor.” It’s a rip off of “Beetle Bailey”, with a monkey in the Beetle Bailey role. Stan can’t help but take the folder back to his gang for them all to laugh at.

Later, when Mathis runs into Stan in the men’s room, they improvise a dirty skit featuring Lou’s Scout. Just as they finish, the toilet flushes in one of the stalls, where Lou has been taking a dump. Lou says nothing in the bathroom, but blows his stack in the creative meeting, calling his team a bunch of “flag burning snots.” He punishes the team by postponing their meeting until late in the day. Basically, he keeps them all after class. Don takes all of this in without a word. He just rolls with the punches and books a later flight to L.A.

When Don brings his finished work to Lou, dressed to leave for the night, Lou calls him out for his “rookie maneuver” and asks Don how it would look if he let him leave early. Don suggests letting everyone go. Lou asks him if that’s what he’d do, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “No, I’d let you go, Lou,” Don says, finally showing his hand. Lou shrugs off the insult and tells Don it’s too late for that and refuses to let Don leave.

This is a key moment, because Don doesn’t resort to his usual tactics. In the past, he wouldn’t have taken crap from a guy like Lou, but this time he swallows his pride and turns to leave. As he passes through the doorway, he turns and offers Lou some insight into Stan and the guys and their need to poke fun at authority, but Lou will hear none of it. He brushes the olive branch away with an insult. “I’m not taking management advice from Don Draper,” he says. With that, Don goes back to his office and let’s Megan know he won’t be in L.A. until the morning.

Later, well into the evening with Don hard at work, Lou stops by Don’s office dressed in his overcoat and hat. He smiles and tells Don that he changed his mind and can wait until Monday to see Don’s work. It’s an F-You to Don that is layered with irony, since we’ve seen Don pull maneuvers like this with Peggy and his team over the years. As soon as Lou strolls off, Don turns off his typewriter and checks his watch, but it’s too late. Just as Lou planned it.

Don doesn’t yet know it, but he has a surprise in store for Lou, later in the episode.

I don’t want you to be in a bad mood…

When Don calls Megan to tell her about Stephanie, Megan is eager to jump in and help. Why the sudden shift in attitude from Megan? The last we heard from her, she was freezing Don out, hurt with the news of his suspension from the agency and voluntary absence from her. And why the cold response from Don, when she cancels her weekend plans for him?

Megan has loved Don all along, but Don has always run hot and cold with her. It doesn’t take a licensed therapist to see that this relationship is all but over, but Megan appears to have regrouped and is fighting for their marriage, even if Don is preoccupied with rebuilding his reputation in New York.

Megan’s willingness to go along with Don’s plan takes an abrupt turn when Stephanie makes a seemingly offhanded remark during a conversation. Don is still in New York, and the two women are getting to know one another. Megan has insulted Stephanie a couple of times by referring to a need for a shower and offering to feed Stephanie outside.

This leads to a comment from Stephanie on Anna’s ring, which Megan wears, the rejection of the steak Megan has prepared for her and the clincher, saying she knows all of Don’s secrets. Megan stiffens at the remark, and nearly chases Stephanie out the door, after writing her a $1,000 check.

Between the personal rejection that comes from being an aspiring actress and the uphill battle of being in a marriage with Don Draper, Megan’s insecurities are out of control – like the proverbial runaway train.

When Don finally makes it to town, he’s sincerely disappointed to have missed Stephanie. Megan is less than truthful in her characterization of Stephanie’s sudden departure. Suddenly, Don’s reasons for being in L.A. have run out, and he’s in a rotten mood. When Megan’s friend Amy, from Delaware, flirts with Don, it seems a forgone conclusion that something will happen between the two.

Later, at the party Megan throws for her acting class at their place, Don is hit-on again by Amy, who has been emboldened by marijuana. He seems immune to her advances, but when Megan dances with one of her classmates, a bearded young rake, he seems to go from jealous to bored in a matter of seconds. Megan sees Don’s expression, which she must have taken for jealousy, and immediately leaves the young guy for her husband.

Right on cue, Harry Crane shows up with a pretty young wannabe on his arm. Don spies him and rushes to greet him, not wanting the encounter with Megan. When Harry explains that he’s helping the young girl find an agent, Don whisks him off to a nearby watering hole, leaving Harry’s young date with Megan.

Mad MenLater, when Don returns home, drunk and shaken by Harry’s big news, he rejects Megan and Amy’s invitation to get high and goes to bed. Shirtless and reeling, he is surprised when the two women sweep into the bedroom and initiate a threesome. Don seems freaked out by the unexpected turn the night has taken, but gamely goes with the flow.

The next morning, Don is the first to awaken. Megan sleeps next to him. Amy is on the far side of the bed. Don lifts his head to see that she is there and that what he remembers happening did indeed happen.

Later, when Megan finds Don in the kitchen looking for coffee, she is frustrated to find that her attempts at sparking something new and different have failed. The threesome, it turns out, was a desperate attempt to rekindle some passion in their failing marriage. Things don’t look good for these two.

I’m tired of everyone telling me to shut up. I’m not stupid. I speak Italian.

Betty and Henry share in the marital strife, this episode, when Betty decides she’s through with being a mere ornament in Henry’s life.

As Henry amps up his political ambitions, Betty’s role is to bee seen and not heard, which she’s accepted without question. But when Betty speaks her mind about national affairs at a dinner party they host, Henry rudely brushes her aside and changes the subject.

Like Megan, this response seems sudden at first, but when Betty’s past is taken into consideration, it’s easy to see how this slight could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Mad MenLater, after the party, Henry comes up to their bedroom to confront Betty. Their fight reduces Henry to sexist insults, the capstone of which is advice to Betty to confine her conversation to how much she hates getting bread crumbs in the butter. He punctuates his argument by telling her to leave the thinking to him. Nice.

It’s hard to tell where these two are going. Perhaps an unexpected visit from Sally provides a clue. When Bobby slips into her room at night, seeking comfort from the bickering, Sally assures him that the “Dynamic Duo” won’t divorce. When he tells her he has a stomach ache every day, Sally declares that she’s sneaking off in the night to hitch a ride back to school – a runaway move. But when Bobby asks to come along, she decides to stay put.

I removed the pressure…it has an outlet.

Poor Michael Ginsberg. When Peggy hired him, he showed up for work nipping at Don Draper’s heels. Talented, but a bit wacky, he settled into the role of resident crank. This season, his role has morphed to that of Cassandra of Greek mythology, a goddess blessed with the gift of prophesy, but cursed so that no one pays her any heed.

As the announcement of the computer installation took hold, it was Ginsberg who sounded the alarm, warning the other creatives that they were suddenly expendable. He’s right, of course, though not in the way he means.

One Saturday, Ginsberg works alone in his office on some ad copy. The humming of the giant computer drives him to distraction until he stuffs his ears with Kleenex. Later, when he goes to get a cup of coffee, he spies Jim Cutler and Lou in the air conditioned room that houses the computer. In yet another nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ginsberg – like HAL – tries to read the lips of the men as they converse.

This leads him to pack his things and run to Peggy’s apartment, where she’s found pouring chips into bowl as if preparing for company. Ginsberg recounts the story to her. When she asks what it means, he tells her that it obviously means Cutler and Lou are “homos.” He goes on to explain that the new computer causes men to perform unnatural acts.

As Ginsberg tells his tale, there is a knock at the door. It’s Peggy’s “date” – young Julio from upstairs. Evidently, they watch TV together. It’s a nice bit of comedy. Ginsberg begs Peggy to let him work at her place, unable to work either at the office or home. She relents.

Later, after Peggy has fallen asleep on the couch, Ginsberg sits staring at her as she regains consciousness. Julio has gone. Ginsberg expands his theory and tries to get Peggy to sleep with him to prove that he is still somewhat normal. With this, Peggy shoos Ginsberg away.

Mad MenWhen Ginsberg shows up for work on Monday morning, he shows up in Peggy’s office looking clean and refreshed. He explains that he’s realized what’s going on. He knows the computer was causing a build-up of pressure within his body and that he’s relived the pressure. Peggy says she’s glad, and Ginsberg hands her a small box containing the key to his relaxed state of mind. She opens the box and finds his bloody right nipple ensconced, like an engagement ring.

Peggy shrieks, horrified first at the sight of Ginsberg’s nipple and then at the realization that her friend and co-worker has gone mad. She collects herself, asks Ginsberg to have a seat, then leaves her office to call for help.

As Ginsberg is wheeled out of the office, bound to a stretcher, he looks back at her and screams for her to leave while she still can.

Interesting, eh?

Peggy is stuck. Having left the launch pad, headed for the stars, her career trajectory has stalled out midway, leaving her frustrated at doing work for a dolt like Lou Avery. Though she may be acting as a project leader on good assignments, she has no real future at SC&P as things stand now. Ginsberg’s parting words are likely good advice.

I’m going to make sure you’re still important.

There was a bombshell in this week’s episode, and continuing a trend for the season, it comes from Harry Crane, whose star continues to rise.

After he and Don leave the party, the settle in at a local bar. At first, Don is taciturn, but Harry breaks the ice by hinting something ominous concerning Don’s future.

Harry confesses that he’s been put in a strange position by Lou and Cutler. He tells Don that he respects him and hates that he might have to leave. Don’s attention piqued, Harry goes on to say that he wants to help find a way to keep Don employed at SC&P.

This, of course, seems like another sudden shift in attitudes, especially when recent events with the computer are factored in, but there you have it. Harry and Don go back a long way, and Harry likes Don, even though Don has never really had much use for him.

Mad Men“I’m going to make sure you’re still important,” Harry tells Don. He says it’ll take major brainpower, which will likely mean Don needs to come up with a solution. Harry goes on to say that the solution is not to get rid of Don, but to relocate him to L.A., where he can be with Megan and replace the useless Ted, whom Harry dismisses as a “broken man.”

Don presses in and asks Harry what’s going on, and Harry tells him that Lou and Cutler are putting together a deal for Commander Cigarettes, a division of Philip Morris. Harry explains that if the deal is won, Don will have to leave – a consequence of the infamous open letter he published in the New York Times, which is still causing trouble for the agency all these years later.

When Don gets agitated, Harry tries to calm Don down, saying “Don’t make me sorry I told you.” This is a weird echo of the conversation Don had with Stephanie when she told him about Anna’s cancer. What’s up with this, and why is this boomeranging back around? Is this some foreshadowing for the crowd predicting Don’s imminent death? Stephanie was in the episode for a reason, and it has something to do with death and rebirth.

The news of Anna’s cancer was a sudden shift in perspective for Don. As he visited with her that last time, she took his hand and told him she knew everything about him and loved him still. Later in the season, in “The Suitcase”, Don and Peggy have a moment. She witnessed him taking the call when he learned of Anna’s death. He broke down crying in front of her, a rare loss of composure that came on the heels of another in which he vomited in front of her before passing out in her lap. Afterwards, the two shared a tender moment before resuming the normal work rhythms.

I have to think that Stephanie’s presence in this episode is a callout to those two episodes from season four, reminding us of the connection between Don and Peggy, with many references to those two episodes. As Don rebuilds his identity, I can’t imagine him not repairing the relationship between himself and Peggy. Perhaps a common enemy like Lou will be the lightning rod of reconciliation.

Regardless, Don takes Harry’s information and gives him a heartfelt thanks.

The next we see Don, he’s calming himself at the Algonquin Hotel, where he’s about to barge in on a secret meeting between Lou, Cutler and three executives from Philip Morris.

Mad MenDon apologizes for the interruption before launching into a bold pitch that will no doubt determine his future at SC&P.

When the point man from Philip Morris reminds Don of his letter, Don acknowledges it by promising to resign should SC&P win the business. Cutler thanks Don for volunteering to save them the trouble of firing him.

Don shift gears, however, by making a pitch for him to handle the business. At first, Philip Morris is annoyed at the idea, but when Don offers up a chance for Philip Morris to “force” him to apologize, as well as capitalize on Don’s insider knowledge of Lucky Strike, it’s too much for Philip Morris to say no to. Don, sensing he’s made his point, thanks them all for their time and leaves Cutler and Lou to mop up.

Cut to the street, where Don hails a cab. Lou and Cutler join him. “You’re incredible,” Lou tells Don. It’s unclear whether Lou meant it as a compliment or insult, but Don says, “Thank you” as though it was the former. There is a swagger in Don’s step. He knows he just scored. He opens the door to a cab and Lou gets in. Cutler joins him, then looks up at Don and says, “You think this is going to save you, don’t you?” Don says nothing. He merely slams the door then whistles for the next cab, the opening chords of Waylon Jennings’s “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line” play. The first chorus goes:

“Everybody knows you’ve been steppin’ on my toes

and I’m gettin’ pretty tired of it.

You keep a’steppin’ out of line and messin’ with my mind

If you had any sense you’d quit…”

Don’s back, and with the look he flashed Lou and Cutler as he left the Algonquin, he served notice that he’s not going quietly into that dark night. With only two episodes left this year, expect a lot of fireworks.

TV Review – Mad Men episode 704: The Monolith

Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t seen episode 704 of Mad Men, be warned that this piece contains spoilers.

Mad MenEarly in episode 704 of Mad Men, titled “The Monolith”, Don arrives late to work to find that everyone has been gathered for an announcement. Jim Cutler and Harry Crane wear hard hats and are flanked by Lou and a representative from Lease Tech, who is set to install their computer. Cutler announces, with great gusto, that the computer will take the place of the creative lounge, “to let every client know we’ve entered the future!”

Late to the game and out of the loop, Don looks around the room, puzzled at what is going on at the agency he created. The place is evolving without him.

After the announcement, Roger calls Don over and lets him know they’ve purchased a computer. “It’s going to do lots of magical things, like make Harry Crane seem important,” Roger says. When Don asks about the decision, Roger merely shrugs and tells Don to take it up with Cutler, removing all doubt where the true power lies at SC&P.

As Don makes his way to his office, he passes his team, who are packing boxes and bitching about being shunted off into offices. Ginsberg is the loudest of the bunch, perhaps voicing what Don is thinking. But it’s Mathis, the low man on the totem pole, who nails it when he says offhandedly that it was the creative lounge that made SC&P unique. As the agency hurries to the future, intoxicated by the promise of the monstrous computer, they are unknowingly sacrificing their creative identity at the cost of becoming a commodity that will look like every other agency.

This week’s episode is about evolution, with a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as the agency embraces the evolution of the advertising business, Don and Roger are forced to come to terms with their place in that future. The episode gets close to being heavy handed at times, and will likely prove to be a pivotal moment in the final season of Mad Men, setting the table for their fates.

Three weeks alone in that cave and he hasn’t clubbed another ape yet.

A literal definition of monolith has to do with a large, stone monument, and in Don Draper, that’s what we have. He’s been back on the job three weeks, but hasn’t been given a single assignment. He seems to simply show up to work and hang out in his office all day, reading. He is a living monument to the origins of the agency, a primal figure, like the apes early in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Burger ChefRoger drives home the symbolism during a partner’s meeting where he, Pete, Lou, Ted and Cutler strategize on how to handle Pete’s opportunity with Burger Chef. Cutler sees a chance to bring Ted back and consolidate his power once and for all, but Ted nips that idea in the bud, suggesting Peggy for the lead. Lou, feeling threatened, seizes on the Peggy idea. Pete wants nothing to do with her and asks if Don is free to work the account. Roger supports Pete and reminds everyone that Don has “spent three weeks alone in that cave, and he hasn’t clubbed another ape yet.” It’s a direct reference to the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the apes find the first monolith – a watershed moment where apes are inspired to build tools and evolve to an eventual godlike status.

It’s interesting that in six previous seasons, Don’s biggest threat always been Don Draper, and just as he seems to get the upper hand on his demons, another unforeseen threat emerges to possibly topple him once and for all. Danger comes from without as well as from within, and while both battles are fought simultaneously, victory in one doesn’t necessarily mean victory in another.

Sure, Don is sticking around, instead of running off like Roger’s daughter Margaret/Marigold. And yes, he’s drinking less, though maybe not in this episode. But the world doesn’t care, and SC&P certainly doesn’t care. Time marches on, disguised as progress, and Don Draper has been relegated to a supporting role in a drama he inspired. He doesn’t like it. He feels like he should be doing his old job, but Jim Cutler and the rest of the partners won’t let him. For now. This leaves Don with a choice – fight back or give up.

Lou gives Peggy the lead on Burger Chef, along with a $100-a-week raise. As with Don’s return, the money comes with stipulations. The extra money is for babysitting Don Draper, who is put on the account to pacify Pete and Roger. Lou thought Don was permanently sidelined, but the Machiavellian Cutler saddles Lou with his rival, perhaps setting in motion a showdown/Lou blow-up that will necessitate a return by Ted.

Peggy’s happiness at the extra money is nearly washed by the anxiety she immediately feels over managing her former mentor. Don responds to her attempts to manage him by acting like a spoiled child and ignoring an assignment to write 25 tags by the next business day. When Don asks for a strategy, which is his way of reminding her that she is going in the wrong order or business, she uses Lou’s method of “sneaking up on a strategy” as a way to humiliate Don. That she agrees with Don doesn’t matter in this instance. She has a score to settle.

Don’s response to Peggy’s leadership is to sulk off to his office and toss a typewriter against the wall before leaving early for the day. 25 tags for Burger Chef ain’t no Jaguar.

As the racket of the construction bangs away, just outside of Don’s office, he strikes up an acquaintance with Lloyd, owner of Lease Tech. This leads Lloyd to pop into Don’s office one day to inquire about possibly doing some advertising. Don has been reading Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” which is defined as “a disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a pervers nature.” How like Don.

Mad MenDuring their conversation, Don learns he’s left IBM to go off on his own, both servicing and selling their machines. Don instinctively falls into pitch-mode and starts digging around by asking Lloyd what is unique about what Lease Tech does. It’s an echo of the comment Mathis made at the opening of the episode. Don is what’s unique about SC&P, just as Lloyd is what makes a commodity like Lease Tech (whose name is even generic) unique. Without these men, you lose the heart of each respective company. Just as Don warms Lloyd up and is ready to go in for the kill, Harry shows up to have lunch with Lloyd, thus pouring yet another bucket of cold water on Don.

Don hurries to Roger’s office, but finds him gone for the day. He pays a visit to Bert’s office and receives another humiliation.

Don’s creative juices are flowing, and, sensing an easy win, excitedly tells Bert what he’s just learned about Lease Tech. When Bert reminds Don of the stipulations of his agreement, forbidding Don from being alone with clients or improvising a sales pitch, Don graciously accepts the chiding and offers the plum up to anyone who’ll take it.

Bert promptly tears into Don, ripping him a new asshole. At first glance, this may seem a bit harsh, but when Don’s attitude towards Peggy is brought into the mix, Bert’s humbling of Don seems warranted.

Mad MenOf course, Don doesn’t see it that way and pushes back on Bert. Bert digs harder at Don. “You thought there was going to be a big creative crisis, and we’d pull you off the bench. But we’re doing just fine,” he says with a wicked smile. Don asks why he’s here, if this is the attitude of everyone. Bert throws the question back at him, emphasizing the “why.” “Because I started this agency,” Don says. This kind of reminder from Don would usually be enough for him to get his way, but Bert gets the final word on this argument by telling Don that he did indeed start this agency, “along with a dead man, whose office you now inhabit.”

Ouch.

It is a cruel statement of fact that stops Don dead in his tracks. Bert is a man who once groomed Don for great things, but now seems bent on seeing Don broken and humiliated. Remember that Don ruined an IPO that would have added to Bert’s riches immensely. He also brushed Bert aside, once the new agency was started, relegating Bert to an emeritus status and no office for a time. Don’s attitude shows that he still hasn’t totally accepted his role in the disciplinary measures that have been taken against him.

Bert’s words are interesting as well. He’s referring to Lane Pryce, of course, whose Mets pennant Don found earlier in the episode, jammed under a credenza. Bert reminds Don that Lane couldn’t hack it in this world, and seems to be predicting a similar fate for the former Golden Boy. The use of the word “inhabit” is an animal reference, further driving home Roger’s “ape” analogy/2001 symbology from earlier.

Don runs off, feeling sorry for himself, and steals a bottle of vodka from Roger’s office and locks himself in his office, where he can get drunk. Later, he calls Freddie Rumsen and asks him if the Mets are playing. The call plays like a plea for help, which Freddie is more than happy to answer. Freddie takes Don to the game, brings him safely home, and is there to serve him coffee in the morning that is as “strong and black as Jack Johnson.”

Freddie knew that when Don called, it was too late to talk sense to him, so he waited until the next morning. Freddie is a good friend to Don, and like good friends sometimes must, he gives him a dose of tough love. He asks Don what the hell he’s doing, pissing away a second chance. Don shrugs off the so-called second chance by telling him he’s merely writing 25 tags for Burger Chef.

Mad MenFreddie tries to steer Don back on the right path, but Don won’t cooperate. Finally, his frustration growing, Don tells Freddie he simply wants his job back. Freddie gives him the AA line – “How are you going to get it at the bottom of a bottle?” – but follows it up with a more personal plea, asking Don if he’s going to go the way of the dinosaur and give up and give them what they want. He challenges Don to go to his room, put on his uniform, fix bayonets and hit the parade. These old vets know what that means.

It’s a great moment, given the history of these two. Don and Roger helped Freddie preserve his honor when they had to let him go for too much drinking, and Freddie is generous is repaying the favor to his old colleague and friend. He finishes off his pep talk with a closer worthy of Don Draper – “Do the work, Don.”

That he does. He gets to work ahead of Peggy, loads up his typewriter and gets to work. Peggy, ready to make another passive-aggressive attempt at getting work from him is pleasantly surprised when Don tells her she’ll have her tags before lunch.

You talk like a friend, but you’re not.

There is a cleavage at SC&P, with Jim Cutler representing the evolution of the advertising business from a primal, gut-driven affair where dangerous men like Don Draper called the shots to a well-ordered new age, where technology rules and guys like Harry Crane are king. This evolution is also a metaphor for the sixties and how the white, male, Anglo power structure was rocked off its foundation.

Cutler has a knack for seeing spotting trends and capitalizing on them. He’s an unsentimental opportunist, with no emotional ties to the past. He wets his finger, holds it in the air and follows where the wind blows, hoping to beat the other guy to the punch.

While Matthew Weiner paints Cutler in a somewhat positive light, there is a dark shadow in Cutler’s wake where guys like Harry Crane, a negative kind of opportunist, seek refuge. It’s as though Cutler’s brand of opportunism is good ol’ Yankee ingenuity, while Harry Crane represents the conniving, mid-level bureaucrats who trail after the Jim Cutlers of the world – cynics, ready to pounce on and exploit any opportunity.

When Cutler got a complaint from a client about not having a computer, then pressed Harry on the matter and heard his story, he connected the dots and knew, without completely understanding, that SC&P had to have a computer of their own. At the beginning of the episode, as he and Harry announce the “groundbreaking” event before the whole staff, it’s at once a proud prescient moment for Cutler, as well as a smoothly executed consolidation of power. He’s the only one at the agency who can get everyone moving in the same direction.

That said, it’s no accident where the computer will live. Distrusting the wild and unpredictable ways of creative, the computer must have seemed like a dream to guys like Jim Cutler back in the 60’s. They could do the work of dozens of men, and they didn’t throw fits or come back from lunch drunk. And they made advertising seem less like the work of wizards and more like something safe and predictable.

As in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was released in 1968, the SC&P computer (an IBM 360) is like the first monolith, which helped the primitive ape-like humans learn how to manipulate their environment through the use of their minds and tools constructed by them.

The cleavage at SC&P goes like this. There’s Don and a few creatives vs. Cutler and everyone else. The creatives feel threatened by the new technology with good reason. The proponents of the computer like to talk about how it will somehow do “magical things,” as Roger said. Really, all the computer will do is make it easy to purchase attention for clients. Once engaged, someone still has to create an ad, but at that moment in history, creatives became old news. The computer was the sexy new girl that everyone wanted to get to know, even though they didn’t really understand everything it might one day do.

Don gets this, of course, but we learn that even he isn’t immune to the fear that this new machine has wrought on his staff. There is no shortcut to creativity. Computers can’t touch the heart of a human being, to the point of tears, with art. The creative work that moves people and captivates their full attention, as discounted as it may be, is the unique selling feature at SC&P…for now.

As Don sniffs out Lloyd for the first time, they have an interesting exchange. Lloyd has witnessed some sniping between Don and Harry, and in an attempt to show that he understands what’s going on, he tells Don that the computer tends to “be a metaphor for whatever is on peoples’ minds.” He goes on to tell Don that it is merely a machine made by people for people, to which Don adds that people are frightening, so why shouldn’t a computer that they unleash on their enemies. Lloyd shrugs off that argument saying that the reason people are afraid of computers is because of the infinite amount of information they contain.

Lloyd goes on to declare a godlike mastery of facts and figures. As proof, he declares that the machine can count more stars in a day than a man might in a lifetime. To this, Don draws a line in the sand, asking what man would lie on the ground, counting stars merely to think of a number, but Lloyd is good. He counters Don by saying that such a man was probably thinking about going to the moon, which was an obsession at the time.

Don might inspire consumers to want to conquer the moon…or at least drive a car that looks like it could do the job, but Lloyd’s machine will map out the way to the moon with mind-boggling efficiency.

Later, as Don and Freddie make their way out of the office to a Mets game, Don spies Lloyd working and confronts him. Don is very drunk, and walks up to Lloyd and tells him he talks like a friend, but he’s not. Lloyd is freaked out by an attack from a client who’d previously been friendly and helpful. When he tells Don he doesn’t understand what’s going on, Don tells Lloyd he knows his name. Lloyd nervously repeats his name for Don, but Don has none of it. “No,” Don says. “You go by many names, but I know who you are.” Freddie jumps in and pulls Don away, but not before Don takes one last swipe. “You don’t’ need a campaign,” he says. “You’ve got the best campaign since the beginning of time.”

Did Don call Lloyd the Devil? I think so. And in doing so, he merely echoed what the rest of his team has been thinking, especially Ginsberg. They have lost their favorite child status, having been broken up and tucked safely away in offices with doors and walls that insulate clients from their unpredictability.

The tragedy in this mad rush to embrace the computer is that no one outside of Pete and Roger seems to get the idea that brilliant creative is what got SC&P where it is and will somehow need to partner with technology to propel the agency into the future. All anyone can see is that, for the moment, everything is rosy with no end in sight.

It’s time to leave Shangri-La, baby

Finally, there’s Roger. All season long, he’s seemed more-and-more an outsider at the agency that bears his name. With the forward-thinking Jim Cutler calling the shots, Roger seems complacent, like a cow being led to the slaughter. Make no mistake, Mad Men will not be kind to Roger Sterling. He seems all-but-doomed to be a casualty of progress and the sixties.

He and his wayward daughter are monoliths for each other, in the literal sense of the term, with each serving as painful reminders of the failures of their family. Toss in Mona, and you have a hat-trick of tragic monoliths.

After the meeting where Roger feels like he’s helped Don, he gets a surprise visit from Mona, grandson Ellery and Brooks, Margaret’s sad-sack husband. Mona has drug Brooks to see Roger against his will. Margaret has abandoned the family for a hippie commune up the Hudson River in Kingston, not far from Woodstock. Hmmmm.

Mona wants Roger to go to the commune and bring her home, but Roger wants nothing to do with that, as usual. Brooks, who wants them not to meddle, is in agreement with Roger, and the matter is settled. He’ll go up and get his wife. Mona reluctantly goes along with the plan. What else can she do? Is a drunken socialite going to drive two hours north and hunt around in the woods for her errant daughter?

A couple of days later, Roger gets a message from Mona, informing him that Brooks is in jail in some small town, where he was arrested for getting in a fight. That means road trip for Roger and Mona.

The place where Margaret – or Marigold, as she’s now called – is holed up looks like something out of a “Life” magazine spread from the era. A bunch of dirty, ill-clad hippies move about the place, suspicious of Roger and Mona, who seem like the Drysdales in their city attire.

Roger plays his ace by throwing money at the problem, but his money is no good here. When Mona attempts to appeal to Margaret’s motherly instincts, Margaret throws Mona’s alcoholism in her face, which sends Mona back to New York. Alone.

Roger, always a good-time Charlie, joins in with the hippie gang, peeling potatoes and cracking wise with the resident alpha-male, who claims there are no alphas. Things appear to be going well, with father and daughter laughing and having a good time. That night, as they sleep under the stars, Margaret tells Roger she’s happy. Roger, who knows a thing or two about hippies, says he knows.

But during the night, Margaret sneaks off to be with her boyfriend of the moment, which causes Roger to look at this oasis differently come morning. He asks around for Margaret, and her friends lie about her whereabouts until she shows up with the boyfriend.

Roger informs Margaret that the charade is over, and it’s time to go back to reality, where her little boy awaits. When Margaret refuses to go, Roger picks her up and drags her off, with the hippies protesting but doing nothing.

Mad MenWhen Roger slips in the mud (a bit of Woodstock foreshadowing maybe?) and they end up covered in filth, they get to their feet and square off. He tells her he gets the attractiveness of running off to screw without consequences, but reminds her of her family. As he presses the point, Margaret lashes out at Roger, as she did to Mona, throwing his selfish disinterest back in his face, adding barbed details that must have hurt her as much remembering them as they did him as he heard their ringing indictment of his bad fathering. She pulls no punches, finally landing a knockout punch by telling Roger that she’s learned, just as he must surely have learned, that it’s rather easy to turn your back on your family. Much easier than you’d think.

Once beaten, there’s nothing for Roger to do but stumble off in search of the train back to the city. If this won’t chill him to the bone, nothing will. And I’m betting that, ultimately, it won’t.

Like Don, Roger has been given a harsh wake-up call. The sins of the past have been recounted, and like a friend says, it’s never to late to start doing the right thing. But it seems that Roger is so lost that he won’t be able to find the way back to the future. Instead, he seems destined to be left behind, a casualty of progress…and his own bad decisions.

I’ll have your tags by lunch.

As the episode draws to a close, Don arrives at work, fresh as a Daisy. Peggy gets in just after him, and as she pauses at her secretary’s desk, she pauses to observe the progress of the massive computers and their reel-to-reel tapes that are being wheeled into place. They serve as a reminder not only of what is to come but what has come before. Namely, Don.

As she screws up her courage and approaches his office, Don is literally rolling up his sleeves to get to work on the Burger Chef presentation. Before she can say anything, Don turns, undoes a cufflink and tells Peggy he’ll have her tags by lunch.

Peggy has the good sense to take Don at his word and merely says great before moving on. Watching these two work together will be something to behold as the first half of the final season of Mad Men winds down.

As the episode closes, the camera stays with Don as the Hollies’s “On A Carousel” begins. A flood of thoughts accompany the song, as we see Don just doing the work, as Freddie suggested. After all, this is still the same Don Draper who delivered the Carousel pitch for Kodak, as the song reminds us. So, we watch him work, filled with hopeful optimism. And because he may have finally been humbled, he is worthy of our cheering. It turns out, we need Don Draper to be back on top.

TV Review – Mad Men episode 703: Field Trip

Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t seen episode 703 of Mad Men, be warned that this piece contains spoilers.

Mad Men - The Field TripEpisode 703 of Mad Men, titled “Field Trip”, opens with Don in a familiar setting – alone at the movies, smoking and thinking. The movie – “Model Shop” – is set in Los Angeles and involves a love triangle between a young man who’s about to be drafted to fight in Vietnam and two women. The first woman is his girlfriend, but the relationship is on its last legs. She accuses the young man of refusing to commit to anyone or anything. The other woman, encountered by chance, works for a sordid modeling agency where she poses for erotic photographs for money she is saving to return home to France. Sound familiar?

The A.V. Club described “Model Shop” as a movie about lonely people failing to connect, and this description fittingly encapsulates much of what happens in “Field Trip.” The episode is structured as a kind of triangle, with Don being contrasted with Megan and Betty. Compared with last week’s densely compacted episode, “Field Trip” feels stripped down. But don’t be fooled. There’s a lot going on.

Don and Megan

Don returns home from the movies to get dressed for Dawn’s regularly scheduled visit, and he calls to request some office supplies before she leaves. Having taken on Joan’s old role, seemingly unbeknownst to Don, she is up to her ears in phone calls and busy work, leaving little time for her old boss. Dawn tries to beg off of her visit and arranges to have Don’s office supplies delivered via messenger. When she asks if she can put Don on hold, he hangs up on her. It’s the first of many humbling experiences Don will endure on what appears on the surface as his road to redemption.

Don returns a call to Alan Silver, Megan’s manager, who begs Don to help calm Megan down, explaining her recent erratic behavior. Being alone in a cutthroat town has taken its toll on Megan, and each rejection has her acting more and more like a crazed stalker as she tracks down directors whom she’s auditioned for in hopes of getting a second chance. In a place where perception is everything, Silver can’t represent someone who is seen as a high-maintenance nut job. Don, doing a bit of struggling himself, asks what he can possibly do. Silver says to tell Megan to relax.

Don shows up unexpectedly to buck Megan up, and at first, she’s thrilled to see him. She jokingly asks if he’s been fired, and he passes up the opportunity to level with her, opting instead to sweep her off her feet. Afterwards, as they make small talk, Don gives Megan advice about how to handle her rejection. “You can’t let it erode your confidence. You can’t get angry or desperate,” Don tells her. Those words will come echoing back at the end of the episode.

Don’s unsolicited advice causes Megan to bristle and become defensive. He attempts to personalize his advice, saying it comes from experience, but she attacks him, wanting to know why he’s never in his office when she calls. She accuses him of having yet another affair.

Mad MenCornered, Don finally confesses his “suspension” to Megan, an impulsive decision that isn’t thought through very well, as evidenced by the devastating consequences. Megan grills Don with a progression of questions that ends with her telling him to get out and go back to New York. Already feeling bad about herself, Don’s latest deceit is too much for her to bear. It’s a kneejerk response, an emotional counterpunch that is made without any forethought.  She sees the writing on the wall, and makes a decision that she may regret later.  Hold that idea because we will compare it with Don later in the episode.

Don’s response to this is to finally get off his ass and swing into action. When he gets back to New York, he meets with Dave Wooster and another guy from Wells Rich Greene, the sexy ad agency that seems like the perfect fit for Don’s talent.

An offer is presented in a sealed envelope, along with a beautiful blonde in white who presents herself, right on cue, and lets Don know where she’s staying at the hotel where the meeting takes place. The Wells Rich Greene guys deny any involvement, but it’s obvious they are pulling out all the stops to lure Don to their shop. As the woman walks off, Don turns to watch her go, obviously tempted. Wooster asks if they should have another round or if Don has someplace better to be.

Oddly, the cut away is not to the hotel room with the blonde, but to Roger’s apartment. It’s the first they’ve spoken since the Thanksgiving morning massacre. Don’s first question to Roger is how he can sleep at night. It’s a good question, given Roger’s permanently broken moral compass, but he easily side-steps Don anger by telling Don he misses him. When Don shows him the offer letter from Wells Rich Greene, Roger gives Don a backhanded compliment. “Nice offer. They’re really trying to make it look like it’s not a demotion.” It turns out that Freddy’s admonition to Don about being seen as damaged goods came too late.

One of Roger’s hippie girlfriends shows up, and before Don leaves, Roger tells him to come back to work at SC&P and they agree to meet on Monday morning.

Was Don offended by the “hard sell” attempt by Wells Rich Greene or was he offended by the offer itself – perhaps a junior position? The answer seems to lie in the call Don makes to Megan after the meeting with Roger. He tries to warm Megan up, but she won’t bite. Unfazed, he apologizes for lying to her and seems to be sincere. He finishes by telling her that he doesn’t know if he can undo the damage he’s done at SC&P (and by extension, with her), but he thinks he can fix it. He goes on to confess that he was afraid if she knew about his suspension she wouldn’t look at him the same way again, an idea she rejects coldly and truthfully. He ends the call by telling her he loves her, but she doesn’t respond.  She seems to understand, in a way he doesn’t, that their marriage is over – that he wants it to be over, but either can’t or won’t admit it.

That said, Don forges ahead, and we see him in a new light. It’s Monday morning, nine o’clock. He doesn’t want to be too early, too desperate. But he’s nervous. He’s collecting himself, preparing for the comeuppance he expects. He knows he’s going to have to eat some shit, and he is resigned to it because he seems to accept that it’s all his fault. His only mistake is to believe that once the turd has been swallowed, he’ll have his old job back.

This first person Don encounters is Lou Avery, of course, and after a brief uncomfortable silence, they shake hands. Lou asks what he’s doing there, and Don says he’s ready to get back to work. “Good for you,” Lou says coldly. Lou is pissed off and tells Shirley to find Cutler and get him on the phone. When Lou and Cutler finally talk, Lou reminds Cutler that he has a two year contract, a telling detail in terms of SC&P’s honesty in their dealings with Don last Thanksgiving.

It only gets worse from there. Joan gives Don a frosty hello before running to Bert to find out what’s going on. Bert doesn’t like that Don has shown up on their doorstep. Later, Peggy pops in long enough to tell Don that they haven’t missed him one bit.

When Don runs into Roger’s secretary, he learns that Roger isn’t in and that their meeting isn’t on Roger’s calendar. Seeing the writing on the wall, Don awkwardly says he’ll busy himself until Roger shows up and bolts for the exit. As Don is about to leave the office, probably for good, Ginsberg catches him, and as if nothing has changed, asks Don to help out with Peggy’s Chevalier Blanc ad. Don instinctively answers the call, and before long is holding court with his old team of copywriters, sans Peggy.

One-by-one the partners run into Don and are surprised and horrified at his presence in the office. Of course, Roger is nowhere to be found until just before lunch, when Don jumps him and demands an answer. That Don has stuck it out until lunch is a testament to his determination to see this thing through. Roger tells him to sit tight while he assembles the partners.

At the partner meeting, Roger is the only one who sticks up for Don.  It’s him, Cutler, Bert and Joan. Roger attacks the creative work the agency has been turning out, which prompts Cutler to defend Lou. It’s an interesting cleavage because in defending Don, Roger sides with creative, while Cutler goes with dollars and sense. It’s right brain/left brain, old school/new school, mystical/formulaic battle line, and before the series ends, one of these sides will win the day.  My money is on Cutler, but my heart is with Don and Roger.

Roger reminds them that Don a genius, but is himself reminded of the messes Don left in his wake. The others want nothing to do with him. In fact, their understanding, aside from Roger, was that the Thanksgiving “suspension” was a face-saving tactic designed to give Don time to find a new job. Cutler, who only ever seems to want the agency to be better and hates the way creatives like Don are coddled, wants to cut Don loose so they can use his salary to purchase a computer for Harry, which will make them more competitive with the bigger agencies. Roger, seeing an opening, reminds them if they fire Don, they’ll lose their non-compete, which will free him up to work for one of their rivals. Plus, they’ll have to buy back his share of the partnership. It’s a sly move, using their money motive against them. This pours some cold water on the heated attempts to rid SC&P of their “collective ex-wife”.

Mad MenWe don’t get to see how this issue is resolved until Don is summoned by Dawn to meet the partners in the conference room. The door opens and Don enters, like a Christian to the lions. Don, very business-like and stiff, thanks them for the meeting and tells them that he’s spent his day re-acquainting himself with the business. Bert gets to the point by telling Don they would like him to return to work…as long as he agrees to their stipulations. Joan pipes in and informs Don that any transgression will result in his termination, along with a re-absorption of his partnership shares to the company. The stipulations include:

  • Don isn’t allowed to be alone with any clients
  • Don must stick to a pre-approved script when meeting with clients
  • Aside from entertaining clients, there will be no drinking by Don in the office
  • Don will work out of Lane’s old office
  • Don will report to Lou

In short, it’s a one-sided offer designed to infuriate Don into walking out in disgust. No one in the room expected Don to accept the offer. It was written as a big F-You to Don, who would have never agreed to any of those stipulations in the past.  Did Roger lose, or did he see the way the wind was blowing and go along with the plan, like he did when Pete got shafted on the Chevy deal?

Once Cutler announces the final Lou-stipulation, there’s a moment of pause as Bert pushes the agreement forward for Don to sign. Don takes the agreement, looks at them all, then shrugs and says “Okay.”  In the moment before he speaks, the camera zooms in tight on Don’s face and we see his eyes as he sizes up the situation and holds his tongue.  The episode ends on this note, so we don’t get to see the shocked faces of all but maybe Roger, who must have been elated at Don’s decision.

So. Is Don really attempting to fix things? Is he sticking around to pay for and atone for the transgressions of season six and earlier? Is he really going to eat his humble pie and work himself back into the good graces of all at SC&P? Think back to his advice to Megan, at the beginning of the episode, at her response to being rejected. Just as Don told her not to get angry or desperate, he takes his own advice and sucks up his pride and makes up his mind to work his way out of the hole he’s dug for himself.  If Megan doesn’t watch it, she’ll be seen as damaged goods, just like her husband.

Don and Betty

Betty makes her season seven debut in this episode, and it’s a strange-but-fitting entrance.

Our first encounter with Betty is at lunch, where she catches up with Francine, her old neighbor from when she and Don were together. Francine works as a travel agent and brags to Betty about her new identity as a working wife/mom. Betty justifies her stay-at-home status as being old-fashioned, which Francine confirms, saying she always thinks of Betty that way.  While there’s nothing wrong with being traditional or even old fashioned, the term is applied to Betty as an indictment of her rigidness.

Betty’s contrast with Don has to do with their identities and how they each respond to change. In seven seasons, we’ve seen Betty make attempts at change, but each time, she recoils at the first sign of struggle and reverts to her old ways. Really, she’s the same person now as she was in the first season – a childlike woman with tons of pent-up frustration.

Don, likewise, has tried and failed to change his ways. In some ways, Don has regressed more than Betty, and yet, in this final season, we see him on the cusp of making profound changes in his life. As Megan attacks him, he tells her he’s been better, that there have been no women and the drinking has been reduced to a fraction of what it was. He’s struggling, but he’s moving in the right direction.

To boil it down, Don has the greater capacity for change, being a deep and complex person, while Betty is shallow and static. Don has reinvented himself once, coming out of Korea, and appears ready for another transformation, while Betty appears powerless to change and unable to conceive of anything more for herself than be a trophy wife for Henry. She doesn’t even know how to love her children properly.

That she isn’t a good mother is driven home when she uncharacteristically agrees to accompany Bobby on a field trip to the farm where his teacher, Miss Kaiser, grew up. The housekeeper seems shocked and skeptical of this decision, but says nothing.

On the bus ride to the farm, Miss Kaiser walks back to thank Betty for coming along, and when the driver hits a bump, Miss Kaiser pitches forward, nearly exposing a breast. Betty can’t help but ogle the woman after that. It’s the middle of the burn-the-bra feminist protests, and rather than seeing this young woman as asserting herself, Betty confirms her old fashioned-ness by writing Miss Kaiser off as a tramp.  Betty may look like Grace Kelly, but she acts like a sour old church lady.

Mad MenAll goes well on the field trip until Bobby thoughtlessly trades Betty’s sandwich to a classmate while Betty washes for lunch. When Betty returns and discovers what has happened, she shames Bobby badly and makes him eat the candy he traded for, even though he doesn’t want to. It’s a childish move one of his classmates might have perpetrated, and it doesn’t end there. Later that evening, as dinner is wrapping up, Henry arrives home from work to discover that Betty’s silent rage is still burning against Bobby. Betty leaves Bobby with Henry, and takes Gene to get his bath. When Henry asks Bobby what happened, Bobby only says he wishes it was yesterday. Poor kid.

Later, when Henry comes up, he asks Betty what happened. She tells him Bobby ruined a perfect day. Henry doubts this, then Betty asks if he thinks she’s a good mother. When he tells her he does, she asks why the kids don’t love her. He tries to shrug off her worry by pointing to Gene, who is nestled up asleep in her arms, but she tells him it’s only a matter of time. For what? For the boys to turn to Don, like Sally? Or for them to see that their parents aren’t perfect beings, but deeply flawed human beings who oftentimes don’t even love them.

This last point brings to mind Don’s conversation with Megan from episode 605 of last season when, on the night Martin Luther King Jr. is murdered, he confessed to faking his love for his children for many years. It’s a damning admission. “Then you see them do something, and you feel that feeling you were pretending to have, and it feels like your heart is going to explode,” he explains. This plays out even more when he takes all three kids to see the ruins of the whorehouse he grew up in. These fumbling steps towards vulnerability and authenticity are Don’s hope for the future, and we’ve seen nothing of the kind – yet – from Betty.

It is impossible to imagine Betty having the conversation with Sally that Don had last week, on the drive back to school from New York. Nobody grades on a bigger curve than kids do with their parents, and even still, Betty has a failing grade.

With time running out on this series, don’t look for her to have an epiphany any time soon. Her fate seems to be destined for tragedy – a lonely person, unable to connect with the ones she professes to love.

In closing

For years, fans of Mad Men have been hoping for a kinder, gentler Don Draper, and as it appears that Don may finally be turning the corner to that eventuality, don’t be surprised if Matthew Weiner throws us a curveball or two. I’d bet the farm that Don and Megan won’t be married when the series concludes.

And let’s pray that Lou and Don square off in a loser-leaves-town cage match.

TV Review – Mad Men episode 702: A Day’s Work

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen episode 702 of Mad Men, be warned that this article contains spoilers.

Mad MenEpisode 702, titled “A Day’s Work”, shoehorned several dovetailing storylines into its fifty-minute time slot.  Watching the episode felt like watching a grandmaster deploy his chess pieces for a swift and unexpected endgame maneuver.  Almost all of the action took place on a single working day, but it was hard to keep up.

In the midst of the chaos, there was a beautiful, slow-paced storyline with Don and Sally, but we’ll get back to them in a bit….

I’d hate to think of you as an adversary

There’s trouble brewing at Sterling Cooper & Partners, as usual, but this time, look for Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin) to be at the center of it all as he continues to cultivate a loyal team of go-getters.  When Cutler clashes with Roger over to handle Pete’s acquisition of the Southern California Chevy Dealer’s Association, it’s easy to see him as the bad guy, but once Bert pipes-up and takes sides with Cutler, the sentimentality washes away.  Jim Cutler is a bottom-line capitalist.  He wants to win.  End of story.

Mad MenSeeing Cutler in this light, one begins to worry for certain employees at SC&P.  Pete has been warning everyone since the merger that the sky was falling on the old Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce gang, and it looks like he’s kind of right.  Pete, banished to California, has been reduced to a neutered has-been, answering to his nemesis Bob Benson.  On a partners call, Pete and Ted join the meeting via a barely-working intercom.  As Pete recounts the landing of the So-Cal Chevy Dealers, the boys in New York roll their eyes and make jokes at his expense.  The only one to take his side is Roger, who will see the future by the end of the episode.  The question is, has he seen it too late to do anything about it.

Roger, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, probably never had much of a fire in his belly, but what little was there long ago burned out.  He and Cutler are peers with a redundancy that came with the merger.  This fact has not been missed by Cutler, and when Roger takes Pete’s side at the partner’s meeting, Roger ends up in Cutler’s crosshairs.  And even though Roger goes along with Cutler and tells Pete how things will be, Cutler isn’t fully satisfied.

At the end of the episode, as Roger and Cutler share an elevator at the end of a day’s work, Roger informs Cutler that he’s taken care of Pete.  Cutler gives his approval.  After a pause, Cutler tells Roger, “I’d hate to think of you as an adversary.  I’d really hate that.”  Roger’s look says it all.  Too bad for Pete, who would’ve loved to have seen that look, but would have ruined the moment with a shrill “I told you so!”

It’s not my problem

Lou Avery seems to be the embodiment of what Jim Cutler wants SC&P to be like.  If the old Sterling Cooper was Apple Computer, with Don and Roger’s freewheeling style, then the new SC&P is Microsoft, or IBM to be contextual to the 60’s.  Boring, sexless and coldly efficient.  Cutler might be where advertising made the turn from seat-of-the-pants creative wizardry to research and data driven advertising

This idea is illustrated in a throwaway moment when Roger sees Lou as he’s unlocking the door to his office one morning.  Roger tells Lou about being called a kike by a lady on the street, one of life’s absurdities that never fails to amuse the waspy Roger Sterling.  Lou, whose face is buried in the morning paper, shrugs off the joke, but points but asks Roger if he saw where Hershey signed with Ogilvy.  Lou is strictly business.  Roger is in it for the fun.

Later, when Sally shows up at SC&P, looking for Don, she walks into Lou’s office and is surprised to see him in her Dad’s spot.  This sets off a spate of door slamming and yelling that ends up with Lou repeating his favorite platitude – “It’s not my problem!”  And then brushes his and Don’s secretary Dawn off with a racist remark and has her reassigned.

It just occurred to me that you have two jobs

Last week saw Joan seizing the initiative on Butler Footwear and adding a second account to her guerilla client list, and like everything else at the agency, it was noticed by Jim Cutler.

When Cutler barges in on the tail-end of a Joan/Peggy dustup, Cutler apologizes, then observes that Joan has two jobs, something he just now noticed (uh huh).  Flattered, Joan is receptive to where he’s going with his line of thinking, which ends up in a vacant office on the second floor, where the account men sit.  In short, Joan is given a kind of promotion, even though she’s a partner.  It’s addition by subtraction.  She went from two jobs to one job, but she’s now in Cutler’s good graces.

Joan accepts the offer, of course, and in the process, promotes Dawn to head of HR.  What a day’s work for these women, who had no idea that morning what Valentine’s Day 1969 would bring.

Enjoy your flowers, boss

Mad MenPeggy and Ted moved to the edges of the drama in this week’s episode, but Peggy was good for some squirm-inducing moments with Shirley when Peggy mistook a dozen red roses that were from Shirley’s boyfriend for a gift from Ted.  When Shirley tried to set the record straight, Peggy steamrolled her with more and more misunderstanding.

Peggy compounds the mistaken identity by sending a nasty message to Ted who, according to Pete, merely answers the phone and mopes around the California office.  Later, when Shirley finally sets the record straight, Peggy compounds the mistake even more by having her trusted secretary reassigned, where she ends up working for Lou.

The women of Mad Men did a lot of heavy lifting in this episode, and what’s interesting is how the show illustrates the progress of women during this key decade.  While many victories are indeed won on the job front, the victories are costly.  None of the women in the episode – Peggy, Joan, Dawn, Shirley, and Pete’s girlfriend Bonnie – are married, not that that necessarily means anything.  We know of Peggy and Joan’s difficulty with juggling men and careers, but the men of SC&P seem to have no problems working jobs and managing their end of the family obligation.  Also, the women at SC&P, as much as they assert themselves, are still living in world that is dominated by men, as illustrated by how Dawn and Shirley are shuffled around like deckchairs on a luxury liner.  Matthew Weiner does a fine job of reminding us that no victories achieved by women were ever cheaply got, and he does it without getting preachy.

Our fortunes are in other peoples’ hands, and we have to take them

Bonnie Whiteside, Pete Campbell’s girlfriend, is another strong female character who runs laps around her male counterpart.  Like Joan is learning to do, Bonnie hunts for opportunities, then goes after them with relentless determination.

The question is, what does Bonnie see in Pete?

While Pete drinks and whines to Ted about having his So-Cal Chevy Dealers account ripped away from him, Bonnie is out showing houses, trusting in the math of being a salesman, that every “no” gets her closer to a “yes”.

Perhaps she’s attracted by Pete’s pedigree and east coast bonafides.  Perhaps, like Don, she comes from a forgettable past and would love nothing more than to trade on Pete’s.  We’ll soon find out.  Pete was put on notice by the speech she gave him when he showed up at an open house of hers, looking for sympathy.

Wanting her to end her day early so they could drown their sorrows in sex and booze, Bonnie sets Pete straight with a speech that could have come from “Glengarry Glen Ross,” which ended with her telling Pete that “our fortunes are in other peoples’ hands, and we have to take them.”

I’m just looking for love

Oh yeah.  All THAT stuff happened, and then there was this wonderful storyline about Don and working and Don and Sally.

The episode opens with Don’s alarm going off on Thursday, February 13, 1969.  Don hits the button to silence the alarm, but doesn’t immediately get up.  When he does finally get out of bed, it’s 12:34 in the afternoon.

Mad MenLuckily, Don got up in time to catch an episode of “The Little Rascals” while enjoying some Ritz crackers for…breakfast?  After that, Don got out his typewriter, but never got any work done.  As Don is marking his liquor bottles, he spies a roach crawling along the edge of a wall on the floor.  After a little research, it turns out that seeing roaches, especially in dreams, means there’s a part of the individual’s life that needs confrontation and change.  It can represent a need for renewal or cleansing.  Duh.

Later that evening, Don is seen getting dressed.  The apartment is clean and he looks as if he’s about the make the Kodak presentation all over again.  The doorbell rings.  It’s Dawn, whom Don has contracted to bring him regular updates on the activities of SC&P.  She briefs him on this-&-that, but was unable to get photocopies of the Butler Footwear work like Don requested.  Don tries to pay her, a gesture that’s seemingly been played out more than a few times, but she refuses.  Before leaving, she gives him a paper bag with Coffee Mate and Sweet and Low, having noticed on the previous visit that he was out.  It turns out Dawn is a lot like Joan – she pays attention and takes care of business without making a fuss.

When Dawn leaves, Don has little to do but take off his clothes and get back to the TV.  But the meeting, combined with the day’s activities seems to have caused a turning point in Don.

The next day, Don is at lunch with a guy named Dave Wooster, who works at Wells Rich Greene, a real-life Apple Computer-esque ad agency from the 60’s that created iconic work – a perfect place for a prima donna like Don Draper.

As Don and Dave finish a drink, Dave brings up the rumors of Don’s demise and asks if he’s looking for a job.  He doesn’t really care if the rumors are true, but even if he did, Don brushed them aside as jealousy-induced hearsay.  Don brings up his problem of having a contract with a non-compete provision, along with being a partner at SC&P.  This will no-doubt boomerang back into a future plotline involving Don’s desire to go out on his own, probably to build a little one or two man agency from the ground up.  But it’ll have to be over Jim Cutler’s dead lawyer’s body.  Having set Don up like an ex-wife, as he explains to Roger, with alimony, Cutler won’t take kindly to Don reneging on his contract, and more than that, he won’t want Don in the marketplace competing against SC&P with insider knowledge of key accounts.  This will be a big deal, maybe in episode 707.

At any rate, Don seems to be grappling towards some new direction for his life, but this is a guy who promised Roger Sterling many years ago that when he left agency, he’d leave the business as well.  For good.  That promise was made when Don was still hiding from Dick Whitman.  Perhaps Don will embrace his true self and his true talents, but with some new sense of purpose.  Maybe, but this being Matthew Weiner, who has said that Don is a stand in for American culture, don’t bet on it.

While Don gets a healthy dose of love from his buddy Dave, as well as his old suitor Jim Hobart, from McCann Erickson, Sally is playing hooky from a classmate’s mother’s funeral and loses her purse.  This sends her to Don’s office where she runs into Lou.  Sensing something bad has happened to her Dad, she goes to his apartment building, where she hasn’t been since catching him in the act of “comforting” Sylvia Rosen.

Sally catches Don in a lie while telling one of her own.  While they talk the phone rings.  It’s Dawn, calling to warn Don about Sally and Lou.  Thusly armed, Don offers to drive Sally back to school.  What else has he got to do, watch “The Beverly Hillbillies”?

This Don/Sally section of the story, intercut with other storylines, is beautifully written and acted.  It’s a deft chess game in its own right between the master manipulator and his genetic protégé – two combatants who love each other very much, but are hampered by guilt, shame and confusion.

The phases of their game are as follows: each opens with passive aggressive feints; Don, equipped with at lest one of Sally’s secret weapons, stalls for time by suggesting a long car ride; Sally refuses Don’s salvos with silent inactivity; Don prods, looking for other lies, until Sally calls takes the upper hand, bringing Don’s shame into the game; Don tries to trump her with age and authority, but Sally takes control with the moral upper hand, which Don neutralizes Don’s attempt at communication…momentarily.

Don pulls off the highway for gas and to regroup, and it is here where the episode hits its high mark.  After getting gas, he and Sally head into a restaurant where she refuses to eat.  Kiernan Shipka, who plays Sally, is a fine actress, and she nails the put-upon teenager attitude thing to perfection.  Don takes her attitude in stride, looking for an opportunity to get some real communication going.

Finally, Don comes clean with his latest lie, explaining to Sally that he has been maintaining this façade of going to work out of shame.  He goes on to explain that he was let go for saying the “wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time.”  When Sally presses for more specificity, Don says it was because he told the truth about who he is.  When Sally, in a perfectly accurate response, asks what that might be, Don tells her he said exactly what she knows – the truth.

Seeing Don vulnerable and without the Superman pose softens Sally’s resolve to punish her Dad, and she quickly makes her call and returns to find he has ordered her some food, which she digs into.  The dynamic changes, and instead of two adversaries, we see two people who love one another and care about each other discussing a problem.  Don speaks to Sally, not as a baby, but as a peer, almost.  And she soaks up the respect and love like a sponge.  As they discuss Don’s dilemma at work and why he hasn’t told Megan, Sally asks innocently why Don doesn’t just tell Megan he doesn’t want to move to California.  You can almost see the gears spinning in Don’s head as he hears those words.

It’s often said – and I believe it’s true – that the key relationship in Mad Men is the one between Don and Peggy.  Don and Sally are a close second.  Their relationship may be most valuable to viewers because sweet moments like have kept Don from seeming like a completely unredeemable monster.  In the relationship between Don and Sally, we get glimpses of the Don Draper we are all dying to root for.

Finally, the two make their way back to Sally’s school, and as she gets out of the car, she sticks her head in to tell her Daddy that she loves him and wishes him a happy Valentine’s Day.  The episode ends with Don caught up in one of his Don moments, thinking deep thoughts that will play out in an episode coming soon.

TV Review – Mad Men episode 701: Time Zones

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the 4/13/14 episode of Mad Men, be warned that this article contains spoilers.

Mad MenFinally.  Mad Men is back for one last lap around Sterling Cooper & Partners.  A whole lot of virtual ink has been spilled on what the show means and how Mad Men, like the 1960’s, is going out with a whimper instead of a bang – an interesting comment, since no one, and I mean NO ONE outside of the cast and crew, really knows how Matthew Weiner is going to land this plane.  So.  I’ll waste no time jumping into that black hole here.

Last night’s season premiere was a welcome return to a familiar world turned upside down by the events of last season’s tumult.  January 20, 1969 – Richard Nixon’s inauguration – is fast approaching.  It’s been two months since the end of season six.  Don is on paid leave.  Ted and Pete and Megan are all living in Los Angeles.  Peggy, who dreamed of sitting in Don’s chair, works instead for a manager who possesses the creative sex appeal of old winged tip oxford.

The episode, titled “Time Zones”, revolves around four storylines where time and distance loom large.  Don, who lives on the east coast, journeys west to spend a few uncomfortable days with Megan.  Ted makes the opposite journey, where Peggy is unnerved by his presence and frustrated by Lou Avery, Don’s replacement.  Joan puts herself in a position where she must buy time in order to head-off an embarrassing disaster.  And finally, Roger tries to turn back time by living his off-hours as a free-love hippie, sharing his apartment, as well as a pretty young woman, with a bunch of hippies.

It’s not a time piece.  It’s a conversation piece

The story opens, oddly, on the delightful Freddie Rumsen, who pitches an ad for Accutron watches to a blown-away Peggy.  He’s freelancing, and she can’t believe the quality of the work he’s produced.  What we learn at the end of the episode is that Don is using Freddie as a front while he’s on his paid vacation.  Peggy, who is most loyal to good work, is turned on by the ad, proving once again that she and Don are connected at the brain.

At the weekly status meeting, Peggy is just one of the many gathered in Lou’s office, where his Mr. Rogers sweater and habit of saying “Dang!” at surprising news have her and Ginsberg scratching their heads.  He’s an old fashioned administrator, the kind of guy who says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  If Don is Steve Jobs, Lou isn’t Bill Gates.  He’s Steve Balmer, a well-meaning clown who is perfectly fine with the first “good enough” idea that pops into his head and doesn’t understand why one would keep pushing for a better idea that wastes time.

When Lou tells Peggy he’s immune to her charms as she fights for Freddie’s Accutron pitch, we know it won’t be long before these two are at war.  Peggy rightly sees what guys like Lou do to a team.  When she vents on Stan, her old ally who is licking his own wounds, he pretty much tells her to give up and go with the flow.  This sends Peggy over the edge and she accuses him and everyone else at the agency of being mindless hacks who don’t have sense enough to see that there won’t be an agency if this mindset continues.

It’s like Dracula’s castle up here

Meanwhile, Don ventures to sunny California where, up until 1968, he was always renewed by the “vibrations” of the west coast.  Megan lives up in the hills in a house that Don compares to Dracula’s castle.  Despite the fact that Megan’s career seems to be going well, there is tension and it’s coming from Megan.

She gets drunk at dinner, Don’s first night in town, and uses it as an excuse to not sleep with him.  The following night, she claims to be nervous about their relationship.  She can’t or won’t put her finger on just what it is, but we know it can’t be good.

Has Don told Megan about his suspension from SC&P?  They make repeated mention of Don’s going to the office and working, though he has no work to do.  The point is driven home when Don meets with Pete and reminds Campbell that he’s in town to see Megan.  There’s no official business for him to perform.

Why hasn’t he told her?

He could be living with her full-time in California while he waits out his suspension, helping her set-up their second household, but he prefers to spend most of his time “alone” in New York.  We know he’s productive when we learn of his partnership with Freddie Rumsen, but what else is going on?  Is he there for the kids?  It’ll be interesting to see how his relationship with Sally has changed, now that she has seen his humble origins.  Does that help soften her hard line?

Mad MenLater, as Don flies back home to New York, he sits next to Neve Campbell and strikes up a conversation.  It’s vintage Don Draper, taking advantage of the slightest opening to work his magic.  But there’s a twist.  Like with Hershey, he doesn’t close.  When Campbell brings up his wife, he admits that Megan knows he’s a terrible husband and he thinks aloud, saying that he thought this time it would be different.  Is he admitting defeat, saying that no matter how he tries, he’ll always be a womanizer?  We don’t learn the answer to that in this episode, but it’s been a long simmering question, stretching back to the first season.  Every time we think Don has bottomed out, he finds new depths to sink to.

It depends on what you have to trade…

Joan is an interesting addition to this episode.  Ken calls her to his office to discuss Avon, but their meeting is preempted by a screaming fit directed as a few underlings that spills over to their meeting.  He’s stretched paper-thin and asks Joan for help.

Joan’s method of assisting Ken is to nose her way into a second account, just as she did with Avon.  She’s operating under the sometimes-it’s-better-to-beg-forgiveness-than-ask-permission mindset.  Butler Footwear has a new head of marketing, Wayne Barnes (Dan Byrd) and Joan takes a dinner meeting with Wayne, a youngster with a freshly minted MBA who’s mildly shocked to be meeting with a woman and not Ken.  Unfazed, Joan soldiers on, only to learn that Wayne intends to pull his advertising in-house – a bold move designed to impress his superiors.  Joan’s freak-out is barely detectable, and she does a good job stalling, getting a commitment from Wayne to wait a few days to make the announcement, giving Ken time to take him to dinner.

Next, Joan spends a Saturday at a local college where she’s paid a professor to give her ammunition in her next interaction with Wayne.  She wants to impress him with her business acumen, relying more on her brains and less on her boobs.  Joan has always been cagey, but this move represents something new – more outside her comfort zone.

On Monday, Joan is eager to meet with Ken, but learns from his secretary that a meeting has been scheduled with Wayne that excludes her.  She wastes little time whining and instead, makes a call to Wayne where she unleashes her battle plan…successfully.

This storyline is interesting because it is a time warp of sorts.  Back when Peggy left Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to go to work for Ted, she seemed empowered and on her way up.  Joan, by contrast, had just slept with Herb at Jaguar, trading on her sex appeal to get ahead.  She seemed trapped – having won a token partnership that was non-transferable to any other agency.

Fast-forward a couple of years and what has happened?  Peggy is back under the thumb of the men in her life: Lou is a creative bottle-neck; Ted has fled the coast but they still seem connected at the loins; without Abe, Peggy is useless at fixing things at the rundown building he insisted she buy; and then there’s Don, the father she can never please.  Or escape.

Joan, on the other hand, has had enough and refuses to be defined by her Faustian bargain.  She has flipped the script, and where Peggy meekly asks for permission from Lou and others, Joan is seizing opportunity while no one is looking.  Joan may be in hot water with Ken, but she’s happy.  She knows she has the initiative, and by also having a partnership, there’s little that can be done to her – especially if her subversion generates revenue.

The fear of an ambush

And then there’s Roger.

When we first see him, he’s passed out naked on the floor of what appears to be a flophouse, but is actually his apartment.  There are naked young bodies all around, all passed out but one – a pretty young girl who speculates that she and Roger reached a new height while they were…high.

Roger is as death-haunted as ever, and while one young woman seems to love him, another – his daughter Maraget – has also found her own spiritual enlightenment.  The two meet at the Plaza for brunch one Sunday, and Margaret informs her father that she forgives him.  It’s vague, and Roger senses a follow-up, a request for money.  He admits that he’s nervous about this meeting, echoing Megan’s nervousness about her reunion with Don.  Margaret assures Roger that there is no hidden agenda, only a new sense of what is important in this life.  When Roger asks if she’s gone back to church, Margaret tells him it’s nothing he’d understand.  Hmmm.

This is the vaguest of the storylines in the premiere episode of season seven.  Roger’s death has been speculated on for years.  Matthew Weiner surely knows this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he keeps Roger alive out of spite.  Time will surely tell.  The last we see of him is when he comes home and climbs in bed with his young lover.  Another guy is asleep on the other side of the bed.  Unfazed, Roger climbs in bed, only wanting to sleep.  The girl rolls over and snuggles with the young guy.

Odds & Ends

Mad MenOne of the most commented upon elements of last night’s episode will surely be Pete Campbell.  What in the hell has happened to him?!  He’s gone west coast and looks like a cheap knock-off version of Robert Evans – tan, gaudy and self-conscious in his use of west coast lingo.  He seems happy, but in the way that those who are in shock and about to die are happy. Like burn victims, or those with severe hypothermia.

Pete’s meeting with Don had none of the old venom and hurt feelings.  Pete was so giddy to be showing Don around town and the new offices, which are small and unimpressive.  Is he really that happy, or is it all a show?

Regardless, it was a brilliant touch to have Pete living near the La Brea Tar Pits, a natural trap that ensnared all who fell in, preserving their remains in a black, sticky tomb.  The La Brea Tar Pits are full of fossils, and Pete Campbell seems like one more victim.

Finally, there is this.  Why is Don “freelancing” with Freddie Rumsen?

Their meeting at Don’s place is interesting.  We know Don is getting paid, which takes the financial pressure away.  So what is it?  And why is Don writing ads for other, competing agencies?  Is it to get even somehow?  To stay sharp?  To gain intelligence so that when he returns he’ll look like more of a genius by knowing how to defeat his previous ads?

Freddie suggests they stop with the Cyrano impersonation and open their own agency.  Is that where Don is headed?  It seems that this ties-in with Don’s decision not to tell Megan he has been sidelined for an indefinite few months.  Could it be vengeance or is this all part of Don’s exit strategy?

At the close of the episode, Don fumbles with a broken patio door.  It’s night.  He seems drunk and sad, and when he can’t get the door to shut, he steps out onto the patio.  My first impression was that he would jump to his death.  But of course he didn’t.  Not yet, anyway.

The episode ends with Vanilla Fudge’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” which offers more clues about the nature of Don, who sits alone in the cold.

With fourteen episodes left to wrap up the business of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner will be roasted and/or celebrated each week, as the show draws to a close.  The comparisons to The Sopranos are inevitable, and while we all hope for a conclusion that is perhaps more emotionally satisfying, the best thing to do for now is to enjoy the bounty set out before us and obsess over what clues are presented each Sunday night.

I can’t wait.

 

Ricky Gervais Makes Us Laugh and Cry (but Mostly Laugh) with “Derek”

Ricky_Gervais_Is_DerekRicky Gervais has done it again with “Derek,” a tender-hearted comedy in which he plays the title character, a 49 year old autistic man who has made it his life’s work to be kind to everyone he encounters.  I didn’t really know what to expect when I found it on Netflix the other night.  I’d seen a few Tweets from Gervais, but other than that, I knew nothing.  By the end of the first episode, I was enchanted.

“Derek” is set in a tiny senior care community in England, where Derek Noakes works as a kind of aid to the residents who love him like a son.  Hannah (Kerry Godliman) is the manager of the community, an all-around saint to the residents and staff alike.  Dougie (Karl Pilkington – yes, THAT Karl Pilkington) is the caretaker and best friend and roommate of Derek.  And then there’s Kev (David Earl), an unemployed local who spends his every waking hour at the community, causing trouble and offending all.

The first season is seven episodes long, and short on plot.  Rather, the series focuses on the relationships within this tiny world, and how Derek is the hub.  Every character has many reasons to be bitter and cynical, but the show’s message is that kindness and community can and should win out over cynicism and bitterness.

Karl Pilkington, the perpetual butt of jokes by Gervais and Stephen Merchant, is given a bit of revenge here, playing a role that seems custom made for Merchant, who is off doing “Hello Ladies,” his own comedy.  And so it is that Pilkington plays the resident realist/curmudgeon/softie.  He has no illusions about his place in the world, but lives committed to the people he calls his mates.  He’s the conscience of the show, a one man Greek chorus, and if you liked him in “An Idiot Abroad,” you’ll take delight in takes on his life, his friends, and how the world works.  He’s brilliant.

As the season progressed, I found myself drawn more and more to the lunacy of Kev, a middle-aged failure who spends his days drinking cheap beer, making crude jokes, and bragging about his sexual prowess.  David Earl’s characterization of his loathsome character fleshes out what could have easily been a two-dimensional caricature and turns Kev into a fully formed character that you’ll actually come to love, despite himself.

But “Derek” turns on Gervais’s brilliant performance, which is understated and sly.  Rather than hogging up all the attention, like David Brent in “The Office,” Gervais is content to set up the humor for others and revel in the quiet moments that are so tender that they brought me to tears.

Especially touching is the relationship between Hannah and Derek.  She is Art Garfunkel to Derek’s Paul Simon, harmonizing beautifully with him, going tit-for-tat in the kindness department.  Where Derek’s kindness might be shrugged off by a cynic as not costing much, considering where he’s coming from, Hannah shows us the sometimes steep cost of being selfless.  She’s single and lonely when we first meet her, and even when she does find a boyfriend (the grandson of a resident), he takes a distant second to the community.  Kerry Godliman, a veteran of English TV, is brilliant in this role, bringing depth and humor to what could have been a flat and one-dimensional performance in lesser hands.

Gervais, who wrote and directed each episode, has structured “Derek” just like “The Office,” employing the same plotless pseudo-documentary style that allows for character commentary and direct eye contact with the camera at times. Kerry Godliman’s Hannah, like Martin Freeman’s Tim in “The Office,” makes eye rolls into soliloquies.  Even though “Derek” sometimes echoes “The Office” a little too closely (the drowsing octogenarians taking the place of droning copiers in the frequent mood shots, for example), the characters and the performances win out.

“Derek” borders on being sappy in each episode, but it’s a sin that’s more than absolved by the humor Ricky Gervais is famous for – namely humiliation.  Jokes are set-up episodes in advance, and no one comes out unscathed, but Derek gets the last laugh here, as well.  Where David Brent was clueless about being laughed at behind his back, Derek knows he’s being often laughed at and doesn’t care.  “As long as they’re laughing,” he says.  It’s worth noting that while Gervais takes a pounding for his cruel humor, each of his shows – “The Office,” “Extras,” and now “Derek” – all have a sweetness to them that is belied by the comedy of humiliation.  Rather than laughing AT the characters, humiliation is more often used by Gervais to get to the core of the person at the butt of the joke.  Humiliation, in the hands of Gervais, is character development.

Ironically, it’s Kev, in a rare and fleeting moment of introspection, who sums up his friend and the show itself.  As he laments his tendency to always take the easy way out, he thinks of Derek and how glad he is to know him.  “Derek took the best shortcut you can.  The only shortcut that’s good.  The only shortcut that works.  And that’s kindness.”

In the age of “whatever,” it’s refreshing to see a comedy that generates its laughs from our fumbling attempts at connection and goodness rather than making fun of those same impulses.  It’s also worth applauding Ricky Gervais for taking risks, rather than resting on the laurels of his past successes.  He could very easily be coasting through another season of “The Office” or “Extras,” but instead, he has challenged himself with new characters and situations, filtered through the familiar structures of his other shows.  It’s a bold career move, and I wish others would follow his example.  “Derek” is a great show that deserves a huge audience, and Ricky Gervais deserves our thanks.