A review of last night’s “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as I climb Mt. Kilimanjaro…
“People tell you who they are, but we ignore it, because we want them to be who we want them to be.” -Don
Time and again in “The Summer Man,” characters make mistakes based on who they want other people to be versus who they are. And the only man clearly seeing the people around him is Don, making an effort to be (mostly) sober and open to possibilities after the long night’s journey into day he spent with Peggy in “The Suitcase.”
Betty needs Don to be the villain in her life to justify the way she still feels miserable even after kicking him to the curb and replacing him with the more doting Henry. Joey needs Joan to be a clone of his mother, and for Peggy to be another humorless bitch, to justify the way he behaves around both. And Peggy needs Joan to be someone she can rescue, when we know that outside of one night that the episode alludes to, Joan can damn well take care of herself.
There’s this running idea throughout the hour of people who appear to have everything but actually have nothing. Obviously, Betty sees Don as a winner when we know (and Francine can tell) how utterly lost he’s been since the divorce. This is an episode in which Don slowly begins to reclaim his mojo, telling himself, “I want to wake up. I don’t want to be that man.” He starts the episode unable to swim a lap without coughing, and ends it outracing the younger guy next to him for half a lap, and in between has a pair of mostly successful dates with both Bethany and Dr. Faye. And yet the only time he seems truly happy (and that includes what Bethany does in the back of the cab) is when he’s holding Gene in his arms at the birthday party (and after Betty has happily brought the boy to his daddy without the usual drama that comes between them).
We’re used to the idea of Joan as the uber-woman, but what does she really have? She finally got her own office, but it doubles as a viewing room, and as a shortcut from one end of SCDP to the other. She’s used to ruling through a combination of fear and sex appeal, but there’s a new generation of men like Joey who aren’t attracted to or scared of her. (And the sexual revolution has given them an excuse to be even bigger pigs in a way than, say, Paul and Ken were back in 1960.) With Greg preparing to go off to basic training, he comforts her with the idea that she can spend more time with her friends at work, but of course there’s no such thing for our Joan. (And our hopes that Peggy’s actions might finally tear down the wall between them are dashed when Joan explains the real implications of what Peggy did.) Joey wounds Joan by suggesting that she walks around the office “like you’re trying to get raped,” and where’s the only place she can go for comfort? Her apartment, containing the soon-to-depart husband who once raped her at her work.(*)
(*) There aren’t many storytelling accidents on “Mad Men,” and I can’t imagine that Lisa Albert, Janet Leahy and Matthew Weiner chose the rape insult, leading into a Joan/Greg scene, without wanting us to draw a line from one to the other, and then to compare that night on the floor of Don’s office to Greg more tenderly and convincingly asking Joan to have sex with him when she’s not in the mood. He’s a self-involved putz, and I’ll never get that image of Joan’s glassy-eyed stare out of my head when I watch scenes with him, but Greg is sadly all Joan has, and he’s leaving.
Peggy respects Joan, and has always wanted Joan to like her, and in telling off and then firing Joey, she’s doing what she thinks is right, but clearly also something that she thinks might please Joan. But here’s a rare instance where having a male mentor in Don(**) backfires. Yes, she gets rid of Joey, but does it in a way that only confirms the sexist assumptions of guys like him and Stan, and that further marginalizes Joan. Had she gone to Joan instead of Don (or gone to both), Joan would have shut it down. It’s interesting, though, to see how Joan carries herself while she explains her reasoning in the elevator, because I do think Joan has come to both like and respect Peggy, even if their approaches and goals are different. The season one version of that lecture would have been cruel; here it was blunt but polite, and Joan’s not insincere when she wishes Peggy a good weekend. Even though Peggy’s star has risen, and even though Joan has come to appreciate what it is Peggy wants, there are still aspects of this world that she will always understand better than Peggy, and here she shares a bit of that wisdom without losing her temper the way she did with the boys earlier in the show.
(**) And though they didn’t interact much in this episode, it was nice to see Don continuing to be on good terms with Peggy, rather than retreating after revealing so much of himself to her.
So Peggy’s power move backfires to an extent, and Henry’s own move with the lawnmower and the boxes – a sweaty, obvious piece of theater designed to make it clear to Don whose home this is now, regardless of whose name is on the deed – doesn’t quite work out, because Faye convinces Don to go the party, and because Francine’s words have convinced Betty to stop hating Don so much. (Because Betty’s an overgrown child, she needs to feel like she’s won before she can let go of a grudge, and Francine makes her realize that she has.) If Betty still can’t see Don as exactly the man he is, she’s close enough to the real picture to let a father enjoy some time with his son (and vice versa) on his birthday. (And as she watches him play with Gene, does the expression on her face suggest Henry was right to worry she still loves the guy on some level?)
“The Summer Man” is an episode I expect I’m going to need to revisit a time or 20 before I decide how I ultimately feel about some of its stylistic departures from the “Mad Men” norm – not just Don’s film noir voiceover narration from his sobriety journal entries, but other moments like the use of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on the soundtrack in mid-episode, or the camera showing Don’s world suddenly feeling very far away after he has a drink in the office.
Part of the core of Don, and his allure is a character, is how he tries to keep himself as a closed book. That quality makes moments of candor with Rachel Menken, or Anna, or Peggy, stand out more, but it also means we often have to wait long periods before Don will admit to anyone how he’s feeling. In this episode, Don isn’t exactly living a solitary or monastic existence – he’s going to work, going on dates, even drinking in moderation (and seemingly doing okay so long as he avoids doing it at work) – but he’s being introspective and trying to change without resorting to therapy or AA or special lunches with Peggy, or any other circumstance where he’d be talking about his feelings throughout the hour. (He does talk to Faye about the Gene situation, and it’s notable that we don’t need the voiceover for those last few scenes.) So I can see the value in letting us into Don’s head at this crucial juncture in his life – and, in the drinking at work scene, showing us the world from his perspective – but it was such a deviation from the show’s usual style that it was distracting and/or clunky at times.
(On the plus side, I appreciated that the voiceover brought up the parallel between Don and Gene – “conceived in a moment of desperation and born into a mess” – without having to underline it.)
But however the show chose to convey it, I’m pleased to see Don making this effort, and starting to pull himself out of the pit he was in for most of the season’s first half. And now there are interesting possibilities for him. The recharging of his batteries neatly coincides with Dr. Faye loudly breaking up with her boyfriend (a more profane sequel to last week’s argument between Peggy and Mark in the same phone booth), and now he has both Bethany and Faye available and interested. Bethany would be another mistake like Betty: a pretty trophy with whom Don has nothing in common and no way to feel comfortable. (They’re even similar physical types with similar names.) Faye, on the other hand? There’s something there: an honesty and a connection akin to what we saw with Midge or Rachel or Sally’s cuckoo-bananas teacher.
When we first met Dr. Faye, she promised Don he’d be remarried within a year. If she’s right, and that new wife is Bethany, then Don hasn’t necessarily learned anything, and will go back to repeating his old mistakes. But if Faye’s right and she’s the new wife? Well, then we have a Don who may have finally realized how to not be that man – having accepted who he is rather than trying to transform himself into who he wants to be.
Some other thoughts:
• Take a character from the mid-’60s undergoing an identity crisis and put him into a swimming pool, and you’re automatically going to evoke “The Graduate,” but there was also a sense of “The Swimmer,” a John Cheever short story from this period (adapted a few years later into a Burt Lancaster film) about a man who seems to have it all but is gradually revealed to have lost his job, his family, home, etc.
• As Don exited the gym to the strains for “Satisfaction,” of course they played the anti-commercialism verse about the man on TV in the white shirt who doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as Mick. And when the song continued as a more confident Don entered the SCDP offices, I was reminded a bit of DeNiro’s entrance in “Mean Streets,” scored to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
• Still not entirely on board the Blankenship, but I’m getting used to her, much as Don is, and here I got a kick out of Don referring to her as “Ray Charles” to Peggy, and then to Stan casually wearing her special cataract sunglasses around the office.
• Joey assumes Harry is hitting on him with the “Peyton Place” offer – again, a character trying to get the world to fit his preconceptions of it – but we know Harry enough to understand this is just part of his continued campaign to seem impressive to everyone through all his TV connections. (See also the signed Buddy Ebsen picture next to the couch in his office.)
• Pete’s barely in this one as we focus on a pair of Ken clients in Mountain Dew and Fillmore Auto Parts, but he does have one very funny moment where, after getting upset about the racket Joey and Stan were creating, he pauses to ask, “When did we get a vending machine?”
• Speaking of Mountain Dew, “The Simpsons” episode where Homer’s car is illegally parked at the World Trade Center – specifically, this scene – has forever ruined that drink for me. (Though I now have an odd craving for khav kalash…) Also, Peggy’s suggested name of Rocket Fuel for Joey’s cocktail of course made me think of this wonderful “NewsRadio” subplot.
• Henry’s hope of riding John Lindsay to the White House in ’72 won’t work out any better than Nelson Rockefeller’s did in ’64. (And by that point, Lindsay will have left the Republican Party to become a Democrat, while Rocky will a few years later be appointed Gerald Ford’s vice-president.)
• Note that Henry is, in fact, paying rent to Don on the house on Bullet Park Road. And Betty’s comment about where Henry was living before suggests that her new husband is at times just as capable of keeping secrets as her old one.
• Don’s estimate on the length of the Aesop fable was off by at least a few lines, it would seem.
• I figured from the tone of voice Anne Dudek gave me in this interview that we were going to see Francine again, but it’s always a pleasure. And her line about Betty’s bad luck with hostessing, while a bit odd in that context, was a funny callback to the various party disasters we’ve seen at the Draper home (Don bailing on Sally’s birthday, the Heineken party, etc.).
• At one point, Joey refers to Joan as “The Big Ragu,” a nickname I’ve only ever heard of in the context of “Laverne & Shirley,” where it was Shirley’s ex-boyfriend Carmine’s nickname. Though that show was set in this period, it aired more than a decade later. Google hasn’t been helpful; did the phrase exist in the ’60s?
• Also, say this for Joey: he’s a smug, sexist ass, but he also is on to something when he zings Stan for loving Peggy.
• When Betty tells Henry that Don was the only man she’d ever been with, all I could think of was Captain Awesome sitting at home going, “Hey, what about me?”
• Is Sally so low-key in greeting Don at the party because she’s getting older, or because she’s learned by now the folly of seeming noticeably happy about her father while in the presence of her mother?
Finally, I thank all of you for sticking by the commenting rules (no spoilers, be polite to others, etc.) established on the old blog (where you can find my reviews of the previous seasons), and for your patience as HitFix has tried to squash the bug that made it look like people’s comments were disappearing. As I mentioned in Friday’s post, it appears the problem wasn’t that comments vanished, but that they began to appear in random order, with many of them duplicated. The web designers think they’ve fixed all of that, but if you make a comment on this post and then can’t find it later, please let me know (you can shoot me an e-mail at the address below), and they’ll resume the search. I recognize that it’s been frustrating, and it has been for me, too, and hopefully it’s fixed.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org