August 17, 2009

Mad Men Monday: Episode 3.1 "Out of Town"

For season three of Mad Men, "Change" seems to be the watchword, but I think a better word might be "Upheaval." Change is too positive, it's too nice. Change makes me think of "new" and "forward" and "frontiers" -- it can be a frightening word, but that fear is often tempered by anticipation and promise. The world is changing: that is both an unsettling and an exhilarating thought.

It's the old adage: "Change can be good." But for my money, the change I feel coming for the guys and gals at Sterling Cooper does not look good. The changes coming, the ones that seem to be edging closer the further we move into the 60s, are not full of promise and forward momentum and the dawn of a new age. The changes coming are going to shatter things; the changes coming are going to destroy institutions. Some people say, let those institutions burn, but I'm not willing to jump onto the youth rebellion, or start banging my drum for the impending revolution just yet. What's coming over the horizon is a devolution. Adulthood will be shattered. The Hollywood studios will crumble. Fashion will tumble into oblivion. Don Draper will eventually meet the 1970s and that's too depressing a thought for words.

So, I greet the first episode of season three with a boulder in my stomach because I know the theme of the season is CHANGE and I just can't get excited about it. I'm worried. Not that life hasn't been hell for pretty much every character on the show these first two seasons, but with 1963, with the impending assassinations, marches, protests, ideologies, etc., I can only feel that things are going to get worse. I'm a retro head. I want to go back to the 1950s (or even better, the 1940s, or even better, the 1930s). I don't want my world shaken and destroyed and turned over on its head. So I'm nervous for Don and Betty and Joan and Pete and Peggy (and Sal and Ken and the boys too), but I'm also nervous for me, because I don't want this show I love to turn into yet another 1960s watch-as-we-change-the-world-and-destroy-it-arent-the-hippies-so-great-woot!-radicals lovefest. I used to be a hippie.... when I was 16. Now I'm older and I want to go have a cocktail with Ken Cosgrove in some swank night club. The last thing I want is to hear the glories of The Feminine Mystique shoved in my face.

So anyway, the episode.

I think the theme is birth/rebirth/new life, and all the fears and anxieties and needs associated with birth. We open with Don warming milk in the middle of the night to help Betty fall asleep and we see him have flashbacks/memories/imaginings of the night he was born. We find out later, it's his birthday.

I don't think it's a coincidence that one of the first images we see is of pregnant women: Don's stepmother after a miscarriage/stillbirth; Don's real mother, a prostitute who dies during pregnancy; and finally, Betty, still pregnant, unable to sleep, on the cusp of birth and all the anxieties and possibilities inherent in the image of a pregnant woman. What's going to happen? Don seems to be thinking. What's going to come from this birth? Is it death? Is it life? Is it both?

When things switch to Sterling Cooper we find the office in the midst of some "birthing pangs" as well. Since the British have bought the company, changes have been made, people have been fired, things are not as they once were. Sterling Cooper has been reborn as this hybrid British-American company and it's not just "business as usual" -- things are changing and everybody seems to be scrambling to deal with the change. Peggy's is no-nonsense, throwing herself into work. Joan is pretty much fed up with her role at the office and can't wait to leave (guess she hasn't married Doctor Rapist yet, but it looks like the wedding is still on -- CORRECTION! I guess Joan and Peggy were talking about Joan's WEDDING RING, so yeah, she has married Doctor Rapist. Bleh.). Harry suddenly has more power as the power of television makes its mark on American culture. Ken and Pete are pitted against each other in the steel caged death match for sole position as Head of Accounts.

It's all part of the master plan of Droll British Stiff Upper Lip Glasses Man (my new favorite character of the new season -- he's just so.... so.... BRITISH! I kind of love him, especially the way his glasses slouch down the end of his nose, even though it looks like he's being set up as a kind of antagonist for the season seeing as he's pretty much in charge of finances at Sterling Coop and is in contact with the big bosses in London). Mister Stiff Upper Lip gives the Head of Accounts position to both Pete and Ken, but really, what Stiffy wants is for one of the guys to prove himself worthy of the position and become the one and only top dog. Pete is pouty and annoyed that he has to play this game; Ken simply refuses to play it -- he's happy just to have the position and the increased responsibilities that come with it (even though he's only got half of the accounts, with Pete handling the other half).

I have to say, I'm excited about this story development. It will give both characters something to do in the office that's actually work related (and not sex related, heh) and it will give both characters a chance to have more screen time (I hope!).

There's also a birth of sorts happening in the out of town trip Don and Sal take to Baltimore to meet with the London Fog executives: The birth of Sal's sexual awakening (aw, Sal, I love you!). A hotel bell hop comes on to Sal! And Sal lets him! And they make out! The bell hop (who is rather forward about the whole thing too, I must say) even starts to get into Sal's pants but then BAM! the fire alarm goes off and everyone rushes out of the hotel (but not before Don sees Sal with his pants down and the bell hop in the room.... awkward!).

It's as if, just as Sal is about to be reborn (I'm thinking this is his first overt homosexual encounter, btw), just as he's about to emerge out of his false identity into his new, true identity, catastrophe strikes, danger and destruction occur, the hotel catches on fire. This is what I mean about the difference between change and upheaval. Change can be both positive and negative, both scary and exciting. But upheaval? Upheaval is terrifying; it's dangerous; it's often violent (or at least it carries the threat of violence). Upheaval is an interruption (an eruption). And frankly, I'm terrified of the interruption/eruption that is about to occur in the lives of all the Mad Men characters I love.

(Massive Side note: Don, meanwhile, is getting it on in the hotel with a bimbo stewardess, so his "rebirth" is the rebirth back into the sex addict/serial philanderer; Don's rebirth isn't into something new but something old. I don't think it's a coincidence that it's his birthday and that he's been thinking about his life, his mother's death, his mother's life as a prostitute, Don's need for intimacy, even if it's a shallow one-night stand with a stupid flight attendant. His line to the stewardess about chances -- "I've been married a long time. You get plenty of chances." -- is such a summation of the Don Draper character and of, frankly, the American spirit of optimism. "You get plenty of chances" -- that's the world of Don Draper, who throughout his life has chance after chance to reinvent himself, to make mistakes, to screw up and be forgiven, to have a second/third/fourth/fifth chance. It's sadly naive in its way, as naive and optimistic as Scarlett O'Hara at the end of Gone with the Wind. She confesses her love to Rhett, she apologizes, says she's so, so sorry, she wants to start over, but Rhett's not buying it -- "You're like a child. You think by saying you're sorry all the past can be erased" -- but in the end, Scarlett still doesn't believe Rhett's rejection of her, she still thinks she can get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day. This is Don's mindset completely (and lucky for him, Betty's no Rhett Butler, she always takes him back, it seems). Tomorrow is another day. You get plenty of chances. You can never be reborn too many times.)

I loved the last scene of the episode too. Don and Betty are at home in their bedroom, Sally comes in and apologizes for breaking Don's suitcase. When she confesses, she explains that she broke the suitcase because she didn't want her father to leave (remember when Don just up and left the world behind and spent many weeks off in California and nobody knew where he was? yeah, well, who can blame his eight year old daughter for having abandonment issues?!). Don promises that no matter where he goes, he'll always come back. She's his little girl. But I wonder, will Don always be able to come back? It's a beautiful sentiment, a touching scene of affection, but I'm scared, I'm worried about what this season has in store for the characters and for me, the audience.

When Sally finds the stewardess's pin in Don's things, she thinks it's a gift he got her from his trip. Don's face is devastating; he knows he's been caught in another deceit, but he has to let the lie continue or else ruin his life with his family all over again. Betty and Sally are oblivious, they are happy. Sally wants to know about the day she was born. Don begins the story, lost in both his memories of Sally's birth as well as the memories of his own birth (and, possibly, in his night with the stewardess, in his many and continuing lies, in his seemingly endless attempts at another chance to make things right, in the fact that he can continue to keep coming home despite all the missteps and mistakes). He starts to tell the story: It was night time and Betty had gone into labor, Don had just gotten home from work. It was raining (and remember the words to the London Fog guys: "There will be fat years and there will be lean years. But it always rains.")

It was raining and that's all Don can say as he drifts off completely into his own head. There will be bad times, there will be good times, but it always rains -- birth, life, continuation, these things never change, through the good and the bad, life goes on. New life is on the horizon and it's beautiful and it's terrifying.

Random thoughts:
Loved the line from Bert Cooper: "I don't care. London Fog is a great name." So true! It is a great name and who cares if there's no such thing as London fog, the name is better than the reality (and isn't this the essence of advertising, the essence of STORY even -- the fiction is better than the reality). All Americans are dreamers, while the Brits are stone cold realists, heh.

Loved that Peggy called the new British secretary guy "Moneypenny." I think I will call him that from now on in these write ups! (what is the character's real name anyway? Mr Hooper? Jon Hooper? I dunno, but I'm calling him Moneypenny!)

Hated the slutty stewardess (and her dim witted stewardess friend). I'm glad Don didn't sleep with her; she wasn't worth it.

Pete's dance in his office after he got the promotion to head of accounts? ADORABLE. I love Pete so much! I love happy, silly Pete so, so much!!!! More silly Pete dances please!

Did my eyes deceive me or is there a new actor playing Bobby Draper??? I wonder why they switched?

That's all I got for now. Till next week!


  1. Gosh, your review is so much more coherent than mine. Also, sadder.

    Now I'm older and I want to go have a cocktail with Ken Cosgrove in some swank night club.

    Me too! I think I'm kind of in love with Ken. And Pete too actually. So, yeah, I'm really liking that story line at the moment.

    Droll British Stiff Upper Lip Glasses Man is awesome! I recognized him from Fringe, and I love his Britishness. I too wonder if they're setting him up as an antagonist however.

    I read an interview with Matthew Weiner yesterday who confirmed that Joan married Doctor Rapist :(

    Your review is so ridiculously good. I agree with everything you wrote about Don and change and the birth theme. Especially this:

    It was raining and that's all Don can say as he drifts off completely into his own head. There will be bad times, there will be good times, but it always rains -- birth, life, continuation, these things never change, through the good and the bad, life goes on. New life is on the horizon and it's beautiful and it's terrifying.

    So true, and so beautiful.

    I really loved this episode a lot. Can't wait to watch more!

  2. Thanks for the comment. :)
    Boooooo on Joan marrying Dr Rapist McAsshole!

    Show needs lots o' Pete this season.... because I love him!