Monday, August 31, 2009

Mad Men - "My Old Kentucky Home" (3x03)

I didn’t have a chance to write about the first two episodes of Mad Men’s third season, but I’ve been watching and enjoying so far. I don’t think the show has matched any of the sublime stuff from the end of season two, but this week’s episode takes a big step forward, decentralizing the narrative and lending huge gravity to small moments and actions that transpire between the characters. Little explicit narrative progress is made, but so much happens.

Mad Men’s entire narrative structure draws heavily on the work that Weiner was doing with David Chase on the last few seasons of The Sopranos, with its intense exploration of personal angst and the characters’ struggle to maintain and carve out their identities in an ever shifting world. Mad Men has always teased our knowledge of impending social change, right from Don’s confrontation with Midge’s beatnik group in the first season. We know that they will ascend in the culture, while Don’s colleagues will fall, but this season intensifies that impending shift, bringing in more elements of the 60s counterculture, and showing people like Roger for the dinosaurs that they are.

That’s made most explicit in this episode’s black face musical number, where Roger looks like someone out of the 1800s, and most of his guests look on admiringly. They’re performing the same ritual their parents performed, and the disdain shown for anyone outside of their social circle disturbs Don, who spends the entire party drifting through pointless social ritual, except for his conversation with Connie.

The scene with Connie is interesting, it begins with Don seeking an “old fashioned,” the perfect drink for these people. I got the impression he thought Connie was the bartender, so he’s performing the expected ritual, talking to a servant like Roger would. But, he soon finds out that Connie is playing a role as much as him, both of them have risen in society, but neither feels like they really belong inside the party. Don’s story about his days as a valet is one of the rare times we’ve seen him open up about his past, because this is one of the rare times he’s encountered someone in the same kind of situation as him. Roger, Pete and Betty are naturals in this environment, but the others are all performing an adopted persona and hoping that nothing will give away their past.

Peggy has consistently been equated with Don, never more so than this year where we see her asserting her power to get what she wants, without regard to the social expectation for how women are supposed to behave. The highlight of last week’s episode was her acting out the role of the 14 year old in a 25 year old’s body that the guys so loved in Ann Margaret’s “Bye Bye Birdie” performance. Everyone has a certain role they’re supposed to play in the social contract. So, Sal plays the role of the heterosexual man, desiring Ann Margaret because that what he’s supposed to do. Men must assert their power and dominance over women by having exclusive control of the glance, something that the staging of the Bye Bye Birdie scene emphasizes. There’s nothing else to look at there, just her, so we’re forced to gaze at her. At this point, the office is constructed with the women in the role of visual object for the men to enjoy while doing their work.

Peggy sees this, but she also sees that there’s power in female sexuality. Joan can control the men through her flirty demeanor better than Peggy can in her de-sexualized persona. So, she uses Joan’s jokes and goes out to the bar to play the role of the helpless secretary, looking for a man who wants her. She jokes about hating her boss, drawing on aspects of her own life to build the “character.” She’s essentially playing a cross of Joan and herself. But, she can’t help but slip in her accomplishments, she’s proud of working in Manhattan and shows up the guy by talking about working while he’s still a student. When they do go back to his apartment, she uses him for what she wants, then walks out, just like Don would.

This week, she finds herself again at the forefront of things. Paul and Smitty decide to get high to “help their work,” but of course, wind up just sitting around eating and talking about pointless stuff. Peggy actually is inspired, and winds up reaching the same kind of zen higher state that Don reached during his time in California.

I think that drug scenes, like this one, are really interesting in a reality based context, where there are actual consequences to what they do. Anything that puts your characters in a different state of mind, and reveals new facets of them is interesting as a writer, and in this case, we see Peggy first pass through the classic pot stage of sitting there doing nothing, then ascend to a state where everyone around her seems to be a representation of her psychological demons. Paul and Smitty are the co-workers who have no respect for her, and look down on her from their ivory tower, the key moment being the juxtaposition of their attempts to impress her with their college degrees, while she considers it even more impressive to have the same job despite graduating from a secretarial school.

She tells them, in the episode’s most sublimely chilling moment that she’s in a really good place right now, then walks out to confront Olive, a secretary stand in for the family that’s trying to hold her back. Olive doesn’t want her doing anything crazy, anything un lady like, but Peggy tells her that she’s in control, she’s living the life she wants and is going down the exact path she wants. Having confronted the two major forces trying to hold her down, she gets lost in her thoughts and, like Don, sets out to channel a perfect ad campaign down onto her Dictaphone.

And, elsewhere we get a great spotlight storyline for one of the show’s most interesting characters, Sally Draper. Don’s daughter, who was likely the victim of some in utero drug and alcohol abuse, already has a lot of issues, and clearly fears being abandoned by her father. Last season, we saw how Don sculpted her into a submissive echo of Bobby Barrett, and this year she’s becoming a “little lesbian,” breaking Don’s luggage to stop him from leaving home.

In this episode, she steals her grandfather’s five dollars, for no apparent reason, then spends the rest of the episode in absolute fear of being discovered for her crime. It’s a really intense set of scenes because Gene is such a wild card. His dementia means that he could do anything, and left alone with Don and Betty, he’s very dangerous. Sally pulls a scam to give the money back, and in the end, it seems clear that Gene knows what happened, but decides to forgive her and let it go.

But, what is it that drives Sally to the theft? Perhaps she has already been so damaged that she wants to test her boundaries even more. She couldn’t get away with this theft, but maybe the next thing she tries will go unnoticed. She’s a really complex character, and it’s one of the most surprising things the writers have pulled off, giving her all these layers.

So, this episode was great, and brings together a lot of the disparate elements from the season so far. Though the show is ostensibly about an ad agency, it’s the internal politics of the agency that interest me least. But, seeing Don or Peggy in these unfamiliar situations is extremely interesting. And, as always, the cinematography was gorgeous, be it the way Betty is framed in the shadows at the end to suggest that she may actually be embracing her crush, or the epic shot of Peggy walking down the empty Sterling Cooper office, passing in and out of harsh overhead lights.