‘Mad Men’ – ‘The Beautiful Girls’: Blankenship down

Senior Television Writer
09.20.10 384 Comments

A review of last night’s “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as I’m a competitive fly fisherman…

“Men never know what’s going on.” -Vivian Winters

My friend Phil has a theory that “Mad Men” is secretly a ’60s memoir written by Peggy Olson. He doesn’t mean that in a literal sense – the show obviously spends most of its time on Don, and also on things other characters are up to that Peggy wouldn’t know about – but that its view of the period is very much a feminist one. The picture is sharpest when dealing with issues the women went through, with Peggy so far as the only female regular who’s been able to turn the times to her advantage.

That theory feels especially spot-on in an episode like “The Beautiful Girls,” which shows how Peggy, Joan, Dr. Faye and even Sally have to live in a world ruled by men who, as the stranger who brings Sally to SCDP puts it, don’t understand their lives nearly as much as they think they do.

The woman to suffer the episode’s worst fate is Ida Blankenship, the former Queen of Perversions, who dies at her desk, first triggering a hilarious farce sequence where Joan has to keep the body away from the Fillmore people, and then more heartfelt emotion as her one-time boss Bert and one-time lover Roger cope with her loss. Roger jokes that she died the way she lived, answering someone else’s phones, but as with most of Roger’s quips, there’s some sad truth to it. In a moment of poetic inspiration, Cooper points out that Ida was born in a barn in the 19th century and died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper: “She was an astronaut.” But there were no actual female astronauts in 1965 America, and a life of answering phones and following the orders of men like Bert and Don was the highest job Ida could aspire to.

Before they whacked her, Matthew Weiner and Dahvi Waller at least gave the Blankenship a few wise one-liners, including one playing off of Roger’s nickname for her, when she tells Peggy, “It’s a business of sadists and masochists, and you know which one you are.” Later, she astutely says of Faye, “She’s pushy, that one. Guess that’s what it takes.” That kind of pushiness likely wouldn’t have gone over back in Ida’s day, and now she’ll never get to see where it will one day take women like Faye and Peggy.

But that’s in the future for these women, where the present is pretty lousy.

Peggy has a second evening with activist reporter Abe Drexler. When she interrupts his harangue about civil rights to point out the many ways in which she’s discriminated against, and he reacts no better than Stan Rizzo would, she bails. And Abe’s big plan to make amends doesn’t involve paying any attention to what Peggy said, but instead has him writing a condescending screed in which he forgives her for her role as a congregant in the corporate religion of America. (He treats her as a little girl who knows not what she does, and not the very savvy woman she is.) Peggy does care about civil rights, at least enough to raise it in a meeting with Don and Ken and Stan, but she’s growing past the point where she’ll let herself be with a man who doesn’t understand her and treats her badly as a result.

Joan continues to struggle with Greg’s absence, particularly with the confirmation that he’s going to Vietnam straight ouf of basic training – all of it from a life-altering decision Greg made without consulting her. Miss Blankenship’s shocking death – and her recognition of Roger’s melancholy over her death – convinces Joan to finally take her ex-lover up on his constant dinner offers, and after they’re mugged in the decaying neighborhood where they used to dine 5 or 10 years earlier, Joan’s adrenaline gets the better of her and she has sex with Roger in a dark alley. She admits to Roger the morning after that she doesn’t regret it, but that she wants to go back to honoring her marriage, even if it’s to an oblivious, absent jerk like Greg. Greg told her last week that she could talk to her friends while he was gone, and she cried, and here we’re reminded that the closest thing Joan has to a friend in that place is Roger. Even if they went five years without fooling around, and even if he’s a selfish, immature pig, he still knows her better than anyone else does.

Dr. Faye has settled into a comfy relationship with Don – so comfortable that he has no problem leaving her alone in his apartment (though, of course, he doesn’t have as much to hide as he used to) – that becomes very uncomfortable when Sally turns up at the office moments before Ida dies and Don needs Faye, of all people, to keep an eye on his daughter for the afternoon. And it gets even more uncomfortable the next day when he recruits Faye to quiet Sally’s not-unreasonable anger over having to go back to live with Betty. Faye has, like Peggy, chosen career over motherhood, and she’s awkward and overly-formal around Sally, constantly (and loudly) re-introducing herself, unsure what to say next. Women in this time period were made to feel like failures for not having kids, and/or not being good with them. (Hell, women today are.) Even though Don insists that it doesn’t matter and that he only enlisted Faye’s help because of the extreme circumstances, she still ends the day feeling awful. (But not before getting a look at the former Mrs. Draper.)

And then there’s Sally. Poor, poor Sally.

Sally’s at an even greater disadvantage. She’s female, and a child. Everyone gets to order her around, make her keep living with a woman she hates and who so clearly dislikes her. She runs away to see her father in the city and tries to convince him to let her stay (she even makes him rum-flavored french toast!), but she doesn’t understand two things.

The first is that Betty Francis would never in a million years suffer the stigma of other people knowing that her ex-husband was raising her daughter. It doesn’t matter how much animosity the two have for each other; Betty would fight any attempt tooth and nail and make both Sally and Don miserable in the process, and she’d win, because in 1965, no judge is taking custody away from the remarried mother in the suburban house and giving it to the single dad in the Village apartment. And the second is that Don, as we’ve seen in the past, and as he admitted to Faye a few episodes back, has never been comfortable taking care of his kids on his own, even though he wants to be. He knows how bad Sally has it with Betty, wants to protect her, but it’s not in him to be the hands-on dad Sally needs. When she asks him to let her stay, and even offers to earn her keep by taking care of her little brothers, Don can’t say yes. So he goes out to write in his sobriety journal and realizes he has nothing to write. What can you say about a little girl caught between two parents who don’t really want to be raising her?

Don at least gives Sally a morning to remember in the city, but then she has an afternoon she – and everyone who witnesses it – would like to forget, as she pitches a fit when Don tries to make her go back with Betty. Faye only makes things worse, and Sally draws the attention of (the female) half of the office, when she screams and runs out of Don’s office and does a faceplant in the hall. Megan the receptionist tries to comfort her by insisting “It’s all going to be alright,” but Sally has been through too much over the last few years to have any response but this sad, knowing one:

“No, it’s not.”

(Kiernan Shipka in that moment? Fantastic. Considering that the show cast her when she was 7 or 8 and didn’t have to do much more than say, “Hi, Daddy!,” they really hit the mother lode with her. Wow.)

So Sally has no choice but to go back with her mother, and everyone goes home feeling shaken by what they saw. Peggy’s lesbian friend Joyce, who came into the office after, and who (in her personal life, at least) doesn’t have to serve the whims of clueless men, seems carefree as she goes down in one elevator. Joan, Faye, and Peggy – who are having lousy stretches with the men in their lives, who watched helplessly as Sally tumbled, and who we know have all made choices in the past to avoid motherhood – ride together in another elevator, all feeling dazed about what they saw, and about the lives they’re leading.

A long stretch of episodes this season ended with a door closing. Those doors all seemed to be about how Don’s present-day life was closing himself off to the world, and that device seemed to come to an end when Don told Peggy to leave the door open at the end of “The Suitcase.” But two weeks later, we have another closed door, this time on these three women. We know there’s still a world of possibility out there for at least two of them (Joan’s kinda stuck by her choices, and by her reluctance to look forward the way Peggy has), but after the events of this episode, it’s easy to see all three of them feeling like a door is shutting between them and what they want.

Some other thoughts:

• Another SCDP woman becomes oddly prominent in this episode, as Megan saves the day on numerous occasions: covering for Don when people ask why Sally’s there, pitching in to help with Blankenship’s body and then filling in on Don’s desk, comforting Sally, etc. Are we seeing the birth of the next generation of Joan, or something else? There’s a sense that Megan is really worried for Don, and while we saw in the focus group episode that she’s empathetic in general, this seemed… more. Not the husband-chasing of Jane, but also not just the uber-competence of Joan. The writers eventually gave Matt Long a lot to do last week; might we be preparing for an expanded role for one of our other “Jack & Bobby” alums in Jessica Pare?

• We’ve wondered why Cooper is so often seen aimlessly wandering the halls of the new building, and now we know: the space is so small – and he is, frankly, so irrelevant – that he doesn’t have an office of his own.

• There was, understandably, a lot of debate last week about whether Peggy or Joan had the right idea in dealing with Joey, and many of those on Team Peggy said that by firing Joey directly, Peggy had now gained a measure of power and respect in the office that might put some of the frat boy antics to bed. But we see that her relationship with Stan is entirely unchanged, and he’s still mocking her to her face, in front of both Joyce and Ken.

• We’ve seen Joan looking less glam at home, but have we seen her in glasses before? Or is this just another little sign that she’s getting older?

• Because of budgetary issues, I’m used to episodes not featuring certain members of the supporting cast, but it felt very strange to have Vincent Kartheiser spend two episodes in a row doing so little. I’m not sure he even had any dialogue in this one, though he was of course helpful in Operation Hide the Blankenship.

• And speaking of that sequence, two laugh-out-loud moments within it: Peggy is surprised to find Sally in Don’s office, orders her not to leave the room, and Sally barks out, “I know!”; and an off-camera Harry whines, “My mother made that!”

• Best I can tell from my friend Google, the rum bottle Sally mistakes for Mrs. Butterworth is Rum Jumbie.

• Glad to have Joyce back, and to see how comfortable she and Peggy are with each other. Joyce made her move, Peggy declined, and now she’s perfectly happy to set Peggy up with straight guys, and Peggy in turn is comfortable enough with Joyce that she’s amused when Joyce licks her face to shut Stan up.

As always, let me remind you of the commenting rules, ported in from the old site (where you can find my reviews of seasons 1-3), which include being respectful of other commenters (you can disagree, but you can’t insult) and the No Spoilers rule, which includes the previews for next week, stories or pictures you’ve seen in other publications, rumors you’ve read on message boards, etc.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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