Mad Men: Signal 30
Mad Men landed like a pop culture bomb (even if it’s never achieved a massive audience) in part because it provided a much-needed unromanticized look at a world yet to be changed by social changes like feminism, offering a view of women’s lives under a patriarchal, consumerist, highly conformist culture. Less obviously, it hasn’t shied away from taking an unflinching look at men’s lives in the same culture. Men get all the perqs in this world, but the show has wisely posited that they’re just as stuck in their roles and can just as easily buckle under the pressure of trying to be what everyone says they’re supposed to be. Just one week (in real-world time; two in story time) after an examination of violence against women in a patriarchal culture, the show (somewhat cheekily) offered an examination of violence against men in that same culture. In the patriarchy, women get marginalized and objectified and men get emasculated.
The theme of emasculation played out again and again this episode in ways important and trivial: Megan sitting at Don’s desk (again); Megan driving the car; Trudy running roughshod over Don’s attempt at smoothness (after Megan refused to call her to cancel); Lane’s humiliation, first by Pete’s cruel commentary and then by Joan’s rejection; Ken having his dreams ripped away by Roger (to no avail); Roger being reduced to “Professor Emeritus of Accounts,” and finally, Pete, who was so emasculated this episode, so beat down by a world that won’t let him be king even though the title was promised to him from birth, that he looked like he’d been pulled from the wreckage of those car crashes he was laughing at at the start of the episode.
There was a secondary – and quite related – theme of people not knowing their roles and sticking to them. Lane should stick to the business and financial end of the company and let the account men handle the acquiring of new accounts. Ken should just be happy with his job and stop trying to reach for more. Pete should be happy with his life in the suburbs and stop trying to … well, be Don Draper by blowing it up through selfishness and an inability to be happy. There’s a price to be paid when you step out of line in a conformist society. The world would be so much easier if everyone turned the bolts they’re programmed to turn, like the robot in Ken’s story.
And like last week’s story, the threat of violence big and small hangs over the proceedings. Small: Pete’s bloodied face and humiliation. Big: Charles Whitman’s (not “Whitmore” as Dick Whitman sheepishly reminded the room) killing spree in Texas. There’s an overwhelming sense that the machinery of society isn’t working the way it’s supposed to and the result is death far away and a growing uneasiness at home. Time is speeding up, and for the first time, Pete no longer looks like the forward-thinking young executive who first saw the value of the African-American market or predicted that Kennedy’s appeal to young voters was similar to Elvis’s. Getting everything he ever wanted out of life has forced him into a cranky early middle age – or at least, that’s how he felt when he realized the high school girl he was obsessing over never even considered him as a romantic or sexual possibility in her life. “He’s just Pete,” she tells “Handsome” Hansom, who sits there in his tight sweater, showing off his muscles and chatting amiably about the possibility of going off to war.
Don tries to give Pete some heartfelt advice about not screwing up what he has, but as Pete notes, he makes a particularly poor advocate for such a sentiment. Is Don really happy? That seems to be the major question hanging over this season. Certainly, by all outward appearances, he’s a changed man, but if there’s one across-the-board truism about the lives of these characters, it’s that outward appearances are often a lie. And speaking of lies, what’s the deal with Don telling that whorehouse madam that he “grew up in a place like this?” His birth mother was a prostitute, but as far as we’ve been told, he grew up on a farm. Either there’s something about Don’s childhood we’ve yet to see, or he casually dropped a meaningless lie into the conversation. It’s notable, but we’re not really sure why.
Also notable is his drunken plea to Megan to “make a baby,” something she rebuffs quite quickly and easily; just as easily as when she tells him that if he wants to cancel on the Campbells’ dinner party, then he’d have to do it himself. This is behavior unlike that of any woman Don’s ever been with, and surprisingly, he seems to love it. Then again, he loves getting slapped and yelled at during sex. Is it really possible that Don is the happiest and most content person in this world? The mind boggles at the thought.
And if we’re grading people on a happiness scale, then Ken’s probably not too far behind Don. Granted, if he was truly happy with his lot in life he wouldn’t keep turning to his writing, but Ken’s made it perfectly clear that his work life will always come second to, in his words, “my actual life.” Pete was, of course, a shithead for tattling to Roger about Ken’s writing success, and Roger was, of course, quite adamant about Ken dropping his writing because his own writing career never materialized, but was Roger really all that wrong? Sure, he has no right to tell Ken what to do during his off-time, but Ken admitted to Peggy that he turned dinner meetings into one drink so he could get home to write. He really is blowing off a big part of his job in order to pursue this dream. But like the robot in his story, he does what they tell him to do and retires the career of “Ben Hargrove.” Quite unlike the robot in his story, he’s able to create a solution for himself. Enter: “Dave Algonquin,” who, like all writers, steals liberally from the people around him, taking the name Algonquin, the character’s name, Coe, and the references to Beethoven – all mentioned at the Campbells’ dinner party, to craft a thinly veiled slap against Pete, acidly and quite accurately summing up his life:
”There were phrases of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that still made Coe cry. He always thought it had to do with the circumstances of the composition itself. He imagined Beethoven, deaf and soul sick, his heart broken, scribbling furiously while Death stood in the doorway, clipping his nails. Still, Coe thought, it might’ve been living in the country that was making him cry. It was killing him with its silence and loneliness, making everything ordinary too beautiful to bear.”
We haven’t done bullet points in a while, but since this was such an oddly disjointed episode by design, our thoughts this morning are equally as disjointed.
- How cute was it when Joan quickly waved Peggy into her office during the fight?
- “Chewing gum on his pubis” will definitely go down as a classic.
- “If I had found her first,” Don says of Megan, “I might not have thrown it all away.” We’re not so sure about that, Don. The marriage failing wasn’t Betty’s fault.
- Then again, Megan really does know how to play him like a fiddle, doesn’t she?
- And what’s this deal about a pact between Ken and Peggy? If Peggy is serious about following Ken if he leaves the company, what does that say about her relationship with Don at this point?
- The writing this season has been at times a little more on-point than we’re used to with this show and that was certainly the case during the scene with Pete and the prostitute. He said no to the wife role-play, no to the virgin role-play, and yes to the worshipping role-play.
- And let’s just come right out and say it: Watching Pete get bloodied was one of the most satisfying moments of the series. He’s made some strides over the years, but he was as nasty as he’s ever been this episode and never deserved a beatdown more than now.
- Joan looked delicious with Lane, but it didn’t escape our notice that she’s still wearing her wedding and engagement rings. We doubt she’s told the office about the state of her life.
And finally, if you didn’t catch it last week, Tom sat in on the “Ryan & Ryan” podcast with Mo Ryan and Ryan McGee last week to discuss the ins and outs of “Mystery Date,” (not to mention Game of Thrones) and you can listen to his not-so dulcet tones here.
[Photo Credit: amctv.com]