Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mad Men - A Third Season Ends

I am still reeling from the season three finale of Mad Men; rarely has a mere tee-vee show so wantonly toyed with my emotions by cutting so close to life. Here's Heather Havrilesky, and I warn my three readers that there will be spoilers aplenty from this point forward:

Even as Betty and then Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) dress Don down with their unforgiving words, he almost seems to lean into their disapproval, as if he's relieved that finally someone's going to call him to the carpet for his clumsy, caddish behavior. Maybe he realizes he's been as much of a presumptuous asshole as Conrad Hilton, who cast aside his professional and personal relationship with Don the second he was no longer useful.
True enough, but I am not sure Betty belongs in the list of chasteners (more on that presently), and the list is incomplete without Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell. Bringing Roger into the conspiracy was the first instance in which Don had to abandon pride and set right a relationship he had abused, and it was Roger who expressly alerted him to the importance of valuing relationships.

Pete insisted on hearing from Don himself why the new firm needed his talents, and again Don abandoned pride and told Pete not only the truth but what Pete wanted to hear, that Pete Campbell has a genuine talent for seeing emerging novelties that others miss.

Most poignantly, Don confessed to Peggy that he sees her as not only a talented creator but a mirror of himself, a person who has survived to experience life from both sides of a profound trauma. From a man as vain as Don -- and we have to admit his self-regard is not without justification -- this is arguably the highest compliment he can give. To her credit, Peggy perceived the truth behind the vanity in this -- that for all his flaws, Don "gets" her and genuinely appreciates her.

Betty's dressing down of Don was of another sort, as I question whether she has anything to teach. When Don angrily confronts her over the relationship with Henry Francis, she affirms that all the affluence in which he has swaddled her is not enough, and then reminds Don that she knows enough to destroy him. Learning the full story of her husband's past has gone from riveting revelation to justification for separation to grounds for blackmail in a space of a few days. Both see that she is most of the way into her next relationship with a man of mystery who is issuing declarations of devotion and promises of support. For all her evident learning and polish, if she wants anything more than to be fawningly adored, she has failed to show it -- her father's characterization of her as a house cat ("an important person with little to do") seems vindicated. Don sees that this is not a relationship to value, and it's hard to see where he's wrong in that.*

More from Havrilesky:
The flashback to his father's death seems to signal that Don is finally going to put his daddy issues aside and shake off the shadow of his real identity once and for all. Now that his fake life is crumbling around him, something resembling an authentic life seems possible at last.

Uh, no. The real-fake boundary is one Don still has no way to bridge, and I don't see Don getting any closer to moving beyond his past. Indeed, the flashbacks in this episode were triggered by the looming reality that he would soon exit his children's lives, as his own father had done, so we learn, thanks to the strong kick of a horse. Don's separation comes from a different cause, but it is arguably more painful: the scene in which Don and Betty inform their children of their impending divorce is, I can assure you, one of the more true-to-life dramatizations ever to pass through tee-vee screens. Whatever successes and excitements attend the new firm the principals have founded, the pain of Don's alienation from his children will continue, and the flashbacks will come in train.

Havrilesky is mostly right with this:
Breathtaking, really, that each character's deepest desires and drives could be satisfied without screwing up the story or turning it into a fairy tale. In particular, the difference between Peggy and Joan and what they each want was beautifully expressed in seconds: Roger, Joan and Peggy are hunched over the books at the old offices, exhausted from their scrambling attempts to bring as much with them to the new firm as they can before they're locked out, when Sterling asks, "Peggy, can you get me some coffee?" Without wavering, Peggy snaps back, "No."

Next we cut to Don informing Joan, "I'm at the Roosevelt, but I'll need you to find me an apartment."

"Furnished?" Joan asks without skipping a beat, in that tone of professional nonchalance that makes her such a star. Sure, Joan's made to be a caretaker and organizer of men's lives, but does that make her miserable? No. She absolutely glows when she's s given an opportunity to do what she does best. [emphasis mine]
Truly we see a great step forward in Peggy's assertiveness in this small scene -- as well as the two scenes before with Don -- a step that is too long in coming. But I am struck by the diminishment of Joan Holloway's abilities as "a caretaker and organizer of men's lives," and I think Havrilesky has fallen into Matthew Weiner's trap of luring viewers into thinking that Joan's beauty somehow reduces her -- that because she is a beautiful woman, she has to be "dumb," whereas Peggy is more humble in appearance and therefore visually coded as An Intelligent Woman.

What an antiquated, pre-second-wave-feminism, 1950s-1960s way to think about women!

Yes, Joan is beautiful and aware of her sex appeal (and yes, willing to leverage that), but she is also strong, intelligent, and capable. When, a few episodes before, the unfortunate British newcomer had his foot nearly severed by a riding lawnmower, Joan ran toward the grisly scene and took charge as others fainted, shrieked, or backed away. She knows what everyone does (and how well), she knows where everything is (and where it should be), and shows a tremendous talent for organization, an unfailing eye for detail, and a careful insight into the strengths, weaknesses, and stresses affecting the people around her. This is no small collection of abilities, and goes well beyond "caretaker and organizer of men's lives," though it necessarily includes that. From the first episode of season one, Joan has has risen to every challenge placed before her, and I predict her role will expand and her merits will become more apparent in the new firm to which Roger shrewdly added her.

* There is more to say about Betty Draper. Certainly she has been betrayed, lied to, and neglected; more fundamentally, as much or more than Don, she finds herself in a life she clearly never wanted. From the fact that she has not outlined a clear alternative to marriage and children in a beautiful house in the suburbs, it does not follow that she has no basis for resenting the limitations of that life -- and this is so even if she had been living out the most perfect example of that life, i.e., with a husband who didn't withhold, lie, and cheat repeatedly. She has much in common with April Wheeler from Revolutionary Road, but lacking, I think, the same degree of self-awareness and ability (willingness?) to articulate her own agony. We know how well the self-awareness served April Wheeler in the end, so this may not necessarily prove to be a bad thing.

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