Sunday, August 29, 2010

Mad Men: Season Four, Episode Six

The usual: spoilers spoil Mad Men Season Four Episode Six

The Greeks call it hubris; Don Draper calls it getting drunk. And if it was never quite clear to the unlucky afflicted of that condition in the plays, so too is it not quite clear to Don what he’s got: he’s an alcoholic and a cocky one. The end of the episode finds Don working off a lost weekend by hiring a joke of a copywriter who only got an interview because he’s Roger Sterling’s cousin by marriage and who only got a job thereafter because Don drunkenly stole one of his lines in a hubristic, drunken slurring together of various pitches to Life cereal.

Does Don appreciate that things aren’t quite right? It’s hard to tell, particularly in a clever framing device for the episode—showing Don as he just started out, trying to break into the business by convincing Roger to hire him. It’s a framing device that (obviously) demonstrates the contrast between Don, eager applicant and Roger Sterling’s joke of a cousin-by-law (though one suspects that this kid won’t have anything near the same aptitude as Draper), and, less so, demonstrates just what a good actor Jon Hamm is: he’s forced to act in three different modes during the episode—imperious Don, drunken Don, elated Don (by winning the Clio) and eager Don—and he nails all three, particularly the last one, which is a new trick for him. And if the drunken haze that obliterates his memory of his lost weekend (while getting him into this entire trouble in the first place) is one kind of forgetting, the episode demonstrates the forgetting that rules Draper’s life—it seems he’s so wrapped up in the costume he’s created for himself (the mysterious genius/alpha male) that he’s forgotten he was once someone very different. If the old rap on Don was that he lacked empathy for others (a curious quality for an advertiser, someone who uses empathy for, ah, less than honorable ends in practice), the new one must be this: Don lacks empathy with himself—he increasingly doesn’t know who he is or what he was in this crazy world of ours.

***

Respect—there’s a surprising thing that unites Don and Peggy (come to think of it, Pete too, in his clumsy Michael Corleone imitation with Ken Cosgrove. Lane Price thinks Pete’s a pragmatist, but a true pragmatist knows respect is a tool like any other), though Don seems to be trying his best to exasperate Peggy into…some eruption, you’d think? At any rate, both are vaguely-to-truly Midwestern in background and certainly outside the WASP elite mainstream.

But while they want respect, their success and reactions to getting it are starkly different. Don secretly craves respect while acting like an asshole most of the time (on purpose, you’d imagine at least half of the time); see his genuine elation at winning the Clio. He’s done it—what, exactly? It’s a vaguely Buddhist, or, hell, Greek lesson that awaits him: respect doesn’t mean much if the rest of your life isn’t straightened out. But Don’s protected—while he thinks of himself secretly as some lowly outsider, everyone else sees him only as the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. So while Don wants respect and finds it’s not everything that it’s supposed to be, Peggy wants respect and can never quite get it, no matter what. She thought part of the credit for Don’s Clio was hers? Well, tough luck: it’s Don’s ship to steer. She thinks maybe the jerk art director should be a bit more civil and civilized? Tough luck: she has to adapt to him because he’s got the status. If Don demonstrates the risks of being rewarded, Peggy demonstrates the risks of going unrewarded: your desires are constantly thwarted and you’re only seen as a tool for others to manipulate for theirs. Duck Phillips getting drunk—he’s gone well down that rabbit hole; is he a preview for Don? (you’d imagine only a little bit—but just a little bit; the show is premised around the idea of Don Draper, conflicted genius, Gatsby of advertising in the fifties)—is an uncomfortable reminder for the audience of one of the few characters that seemed to like Peggy for Peggy, though it was never quite clear why Duck wanted Peggy so much. And if that’s the most wanting you can get out of your life, something is seriously wrong.

***

A note on the writing: a superbly paced episode that somehow combined the drive of a late-season barnburner with the luxuriating in detail of a Raymond Carver short story. One of their best episodes, I thought, and it’s a credit to the show that they keep on finding ways of keeping themselves fresh and not falling into a rut.

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