Monday, August 04, 2008

Mad Men: 'Flight 1' (2x02)

This week’s Mad Men was full of bubbling under the surface emotion, characters unable to deal with the troubles facing them, and unwilling to talk to their families about the problems afflicting them. Notably, pretty much no one on the show ever says what they’re really feeling to someone else, they’re all in the ‘business of persuasion,’ and part of that business is projecting an image of success. To open up to someone emotionally is to expose a potential weakness, and that’s not going to fly in office politics or family life.

I’m not alone in comparing the show to The Sopranos, and I think it’s interesting, in light of an episode like this, to consider the role of violence in The Sopranos as a cathartic element. Tony can go through all kinds of personal problems, and we see that come out in him physically attacking someone. Think of the whole ‘Pie-o-My’ drama leading up to Tony beating Ralphie to death. The Sopranos featured the same gnawing under the surface dissatisfaction, but gave us those occasional outbursts of violent release. Here, outside of the generic environment of the gangster show, there is no easy emotional outlet. It’s closer to real life in that sense, most of the time you don’t do violent things, you suffer in silence, and only in moments of extreme stress do we see characters let down their emotional guard.

The series’ signature moment so far is in the first season finale. After Don’s brilliant, emotional pitch for the Kodak Carousel, we’re led to believe he’s finally come to appreciate his family. Looking at those photos, he understands how much Betty and the kids mean to him and goes home to tell them that. Only, they’re all gone, and the season ends with him sitting there alone. That is the emotional climax of the season, a man sitting alone in an empty house, but in the context of the world Weiner has built, it really works.

This episode is all unspoken issues for the characters. The most striking scene was Don sitting in the Japanese restaurant alone, reflecting on what the Mohawk rep told him. Don likes to believe that his pitches are more than just sales talk, that they have some real meaning. But, the Mohawk rep sees him as just a smooth talking guy, doing whatever it takes to make a sale. He assumes that Don is feeding him a line when he says that it’s not his fault, we know he’s not, but this guy just sees Don as part of the game. And, Don sits there wondering if he’s so wrong. He makes these impassioned pitches, but Sterling Cooper just uses him for its own ends.

That corporate parasitism is made clear in the scene with Pete and the American Airlines rep. Pete is asked to use the death of his father to get the contract, and he doesn’t want to do it. But, abandoned by Don, he goes along with it, and moves one step further ahead in the company. The whole death of the father storyline is notable for what it doesn’t do. We’re teased with Pete’s impending cry, but never actually get it. Instead, he goes through a curious lack of mourning, and winds up using the death to move one step ahead in the company.

When I looked back at the first season, I felt like the whole “Mystery of Dick Whitman” plot was a bit out of place. Did the series need these overarching questions to drive it? Wasn’t the day to day narrative enough? And, it seemed kind of implausible that Don could so successfully take on this other identity. But, watching this episode, it becomes clearer why that plot exists. Much of the series is about characters putting on personas, everyone’s trying to be someone different, trying to keep their secrets away from the surface. They’re trying to buy into the American dream, and gradually finding out that dream is just something cooked up advertising.

We see that theme with Joan, who doesn’t want anyone to know her actual age. She puts on this front of total confidence, but is quite troubled by Paul’s new girlfriend. She likes to think that no man can ever get over her, and isn’t sure how to deal with him. Having her birthday known to the office makes it harder to keep up the illusion she’s trying to project.

The episode’s strangest scenes were Peggy’s trip back home. She tries to always project this image of herself as a successful career woman, who can control men and get what she wants. But, when she goes back home, she finds not only her working class roots, but also her child, a physical record of her own self delusion and lack of control. There’s still a lot to be revealed about what exactly happened to her, but she apparently had some kind of mental breakdown, and had to undergo mandatory psychological intervention. The reveal of the kid was really well done, as was the final scene with her holding a screaming child in the church, a visual summation of what’s up with her. She’s trying to maintain this front of cool, but her past mistakes won’t stay quiet.

On top of this, we get the funny scenes with Don and Betty’s kids. While the bartending scenes are the obvious gaffes, what stands out even more is the enormous distance both Betty and Don have from their children. The kids are just props in their perfect American life, you never get the sense that they actually love them. Notably, Don is the one taking point with the kids now, Betty is clearly still holding the power after almost discovering his affair last year. They both are apparently agreeing not to talk about it, using the other couple as a surrogate way to discuss their own situation.

The first episode back was solid, but this one had me fully back in the swing of the show, full of complexities and unspoken subtext. It’s a brilliantly layered episode, and sets up for some even more interesting developments down the line.

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