Some kind of astronaut

Oh, hey, Internet. I was too busy Sunday night drinking gin and tonics and trying to figure out what the hell was going on to write a blog post. I was too busy Monday recovering from gin and tonics (and doing work I actually get paid for) to analyze my reactions to that dreary little double episode.

“Dreary” doesn’t usually come to mind when Hawaii is the setting. As someone who spent a beach vacation last year reading about the Battle of the Somme and the advent of modern warfare*, I appreciated Don’s heavy beach reading. My reading, though, was “for fun,” or at least, for personal enrichment, motivated by my own curiosity. Does Don read without outside motivation? We’ve seen him read for pleasure, I guess — John Le Carré, Frank O’Hara. But the last time we saw him read something this deep, it was Exodus, for Rachel. (Remember Rachel?) It shouldn’t have surprised me to discover, in the end, that the pretty doctor’s wife was behind Dante. I was surprised anyway.

I’m getting ahead of myself. I started this blog last year when all my water-cooler talkers had moved away, and I had quit my job, so I didn’t have a water cooler to hang around anyway. There were several instances in the last season when I felt a sense of urgency about writing a reflection. I didn’t feel that after the Season 6 premiere, probably because we’ve been down most of these roads before.

“The Doorway” was like a sad-off. Think it can’t get sadder? Here’s middle-aged Don Draper, tossing his cookies into an umbrella stand. Think it can’t get sadder? Here’s Roger Sterling, trying to recover from his temper tantrum (“It’s my funeral!”) to make an authentic gesture — handing his daughter a jar of water from the River Jordan — but she just wants to talk about Roger’s money, and leaves the jar on the couch when she rushes away. (Roger turns down Jane’s offer to return his mother’s ring so that he can give it to Margaret, and instead, gives her something that actually has sentimental value. After hearing her investment-opportunity pitch, I think Margaret would’ve just pawned it anyway. But is that any wonder, for a daughter whose father has been so emotionally detached all her life?) But wait! Here’s Roger, finally sobbing into a shoe-shine box. He does feel!

It gets sadder! Here’s Betty, picking her way through a fallen-in hovel to look for… oh, wait. I don’t care about this subplot. Seriously, who is this girl with the dead mother? I hate it when TV shows drop in characters whose only purpose is to be a catalyst for another character’s actions, so this diversion irritated me. On the bright side: No Glenn!

Where can Betty’s character go, realistically? I’ve read some commentary that the creepy teen-rape comments she made to Henry seemed to indicate she’s clinically unhinged. I think she’s just desperate for attention and gets her rocks off being shocking — and how many ways can a suburban housewife be shocking? Has early mid-life crisis, dyes her hair? Oh, my stars! Maybe Betty will zzzzzzzzzz.

Oh, sorry, I nodded off there.

What else? Peggy is Don 2.0; improvements include bug fixes (fewer crashes!) and less chemical dependence. I loved her phone conversation with Stan.

The men are hairier than usual. Abe’s mustache made me legitimately laugh out loud.

I didn’t talk much about Don, did I? We know what’s in his future. Or do we? He, for his part, is obsessed with his future — at least, his future beyond this world. He’s awfully young to have given up on this life already, but then, so were Lane Pryce and Adam Whitman. So many times, I’ve thought Don was reckoning with his past: When Betty found his box, when he came clean to Faye. Megan knows, too. But their knowing isn’t enough, obviously; the stink of his past follows him around like that damn Zippo lighter. Remember this Don Draper? He’s so far removed from that image as to be nearly a different person.

In any case, 1968 was one of the most fascinating years in American history. Gruesome, exhilarating, hopeful, heartbreaking. I can’t wait to see where the show takes it. Tell me what you think!

Leftover thoughts:

  • The first episode of last season saw this. Compare it to the New Year’s party at Don and Megan’s in this episode, a season later; glamorous Megan, sitting around on New Year’s with a bunch of people years older than her who are complaining about how much college costs. And her husband is sleeping with one of them! She’s not long for this lifestyle.
  • We didn’t get any Increasingly Bad Decisions of Pete Campbell in this episode. Looking forward to more of those.
  • And more Joan, please.
  • Have I mentioned I love Peggy?
  • In case I missed anything.
  • ETA: Thought that occurred to me after I wrote this post: What if all the death foreshadowing is not about Don, but about Betty? “My mother’s dead”… the cop telling her he didn’t want to have to scrape her off the highway in a shovel. I’m not sure suicide is her bag, but she certainly makes enough reckless decisions that an accident wouldn’t be unlikely, as we saw again in this episode. (You read it here first.)

*To End All Wars. It’s a great book! I like to party.

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Laws of motion

Uh, wow. So far my posts have come easily, but I have a feeling this one will be harder. Welcome to your weekly installment of WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN!?!!! After turning it over in my head for an hour before bed last night, I’m still not sure what I want to say, but I set my timer for 20 minutes, so we’ll see what happens.

Lane, obviously, is the place to start. Along with many others, I called that move awhile back, but it was still hard to watch (and surprising in its details). I am fortunate not to have had any close experiences with suicide, although I’ve interviewed a few surviving family members for news stories over the years. I think “Mad Men” told this story well: The inner turmoil that only bubbles to the surface in glimpses that can be chalked up by observers to “a bad day;” the unanswered questions. “It’s a resignation letter. Boilerplate.” What must his state of mind been, at that point? Was he trying to tell Don he was right? To torture Don? Was it simply one formality of by-the-books-except-that-once Lane Pryce? Don will draw his own conclusions.

I’m still feeling unsure about the necessity of showing the body. It had disturbing effect, that’s for sure. I thought a more powerful image, in terms of shock value, was Don reverting to his farm-boy ways and charging into that office to cut down the body. A full-on embrace of Lane was so different from the way he handled his brother’s suicide. I guess Lane’s body was a necessity to give us that image.

When I ventured onto Twitter after the show, a few messages I saw said, “That’s on Don.” Well, no, not in my opinion. Lane’s actions — his initial crime, his cover-up, his decision to take his life — those are his own, not Don’s. Don acted as a partner should, and really with more graciousness than he should have in the face of Lane’s “you took more than your share” accusations. Of course, there was irony in Lane forging the signature of “Don Draper,” a name that Dick Whitman stole in the first place, but one crime doesn’t excuse another. Should it have made Don more sympathetic? As he told Adam, Dick Whitman died a long time ago. (Feel free to disagree with me.)

In my opinion, Adam’s grievances with Don were much more legitimate than Lane’s. But again, Adam’s actions were still his own — not Don’s fault, as much as he might blame himself. Is his cutting down of the body indicative of how Lane’s suicide will affect him differently than Adam’s? Last season was so much about Don’s actions and their consequences: His stolen identity, his drinking, his recreational sex. This season has been Don’s reactions to others’ actions. We still haven’t seen enough of that, and I’m counting on a crazy-intense season finale of reactions: Peggy’s absence, Joan’s promotion, Lane’s suicide.

A few leftovers:

  • Speaking of Peggy, not a single mention this whole episode?! You owe me, Weiner.
  • Interesting dynamic between Don and Joan (and the rest of the partners, for that matter) during the opening meeting. Tell us how you feel, Don.
  • Oh, Betty. A hug! You can do it! Do Betty’s warm-fuzzies toward Sally still count if they were spurred out of her internal sense of competition with Don’s “child bride”?
  • As usual, I’m sort of “meh” on Sally and Junior Weiner’s escapades, but they did illustrate just how adrift Sally is. For all Don’s failings, his passive attitudes toward his kids might be the worst. Yes, he had a couple bad days of epic proportions, but even on his good days, Sally (and those other two) are afterthoughts to him. I’m not sure whether his offer to drive Junior Weiner home was an attempt to be more involved or simple to get the hell out of Dodge and distract himself for four hours, but I’m guessing the latter.
  • “What happened to your enlightenment?” “I guess it wore off.” Roger! I can’t quit you.

I went 10 minutes over my self-imposed time allotment, and I’m still not sure I said anything insightful. Set me straight in the comments. To my friend Michele: If DISH drops AMC, I’ll see you in your living room on Sunday night!

Moving Up

I was eating my way through Paris when last week’s episode aired, which is about as good an excuse as any to miss “Mad Men.” I finally had a chance to watch last night. What a strange, beautiful episode, and one I’ll surely be watching again soon to pick up what I missed in my jet-lag fog.

I’m trying not to read too many reviews before I write these posts, because I don’t want to be influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by others’ observations. The few headlines I’ve glimpsed have varied between “best episode ever” to anger over what some viewers perceived as an out-of-character act for Joan. (Or, if not uncharacteristic, one that happened at a time in Joan’s life when some viewers thought she wouldn’t have done such a thing.)

I can’t think of a time when she’d have been more likely to do such a thing. Of all the main characters, I don’t dislike Joan, but I’ve never been blown away by Christina Hendricks’ performance — until last night. I think it’s partly because when I was packing for Paris and doing some last-minute cleaning a week ago, I put Season 1 on the DVD player to keep me company. I hadn’t seen it in some time. Watching it again, I realized I’ve been good at retaining key plot points in my memory over these past five seasons of “Mad Men,” but not necessarily at retaining the nuances of various characters’ mannerisms. I had forgotten how much confidence Joan had in season one. At the beginning of the series, she has an intellectual understanding of the ticking time clock of aging, but not necessarily an emotional one. She sashays through the office feeling confident she is on the way up. She believes she has what it takes to get what she wants. She believes she’s on her way.

“The Other Woman,” more than any other episode, reshaped my view of Hendricks as an actor. I felt how much her confidence has been shaken. She’s feeling a gnawing insecurity after her failed marriage, and we get a glimpse of how Joan’s mother makes sure she never stops feeling it. By Season 5, she is, superficially, still Joan, but she’s only dressing the part. The way she has stopped making jokes and small talk, the way she snaps at people. She still sashays, but only because it’s expected of her.

As for not building up to Joan’s Big Decision, have these people not been watching Season 5? The feeling of being left behind that she shared with Don at the bar? “Now it’s some other lucky girl’s turn,” she told Roger during the last episode. She has placed herself in a separate category from the person she used to be, but she doesn’t know who she’s supposed to be now.

We’ve seen time and again that she is smart and savvy, most notably during the coup that made “Sterling Cooper” become “Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.” We need Joan, all the men said, and they weren’t talking about her curves. What we haven’t seen is her recognition of her own intellect. She once told young secretary Peggy to cut eye holes in a paper bag and stand naked before a mirror, to better understand her strengths and weaknesses. In some ways, Joan’s still looking in that mirror. It’s ironic that taking up the Jaguar offer is both the smartest and the cruelest thing she’s ever done for herself. She thinks she’s being smart and savvy by setting herself up for life, but in doing so, she’s affirming that she can never accomplish such a promotion without using her sexuality.

It’s easy to judge that decision through a 21st-century lens, but why wouldn’t she think that way? And I’m not just taking about “those were the times” — this show has consistently been good about making characters individuals and not stereotypes. Did I want Roger to confront Joan, to be the one to stop her? Of course. Did I think he would? Of course not. His actions, or lack of them, were consistent with the self-centered Roger he’s always been. The silence from the men who have worked closely with Joan for years must have been deafening. I wouldn’t call it desperation, but she’s in an unsettled place in her life, and people who are feeling unsettled do things they might otherwise reconsider. Could there have been anything more devastating to her already crushed self-esteem than believing all the partners were behind the Jaguar decision?

Of course, that belief traces back to one Pete Campbell. I earlier subtitled Season 5 “The Increasingly Bad Decisions of Peter Campbell.” I loathe him, but he is such a fascinating character. He almost has two separate moral compasses — a macro one, and a micro one. Campbell champions new minority accounts and is distraught over Kennedy’s assassination, seeming to have been swept up in the youthfulness and optimism of the generation. Of course, whether he really believes in civil rights or has self-serving motivations is debatable. In any case, his actions on a personal level are positively appalling. Of course, people say the same thing about Kennedy.

Last, but certainly not least, OMG PEGGY!!! (That was my articulate text-message reaction to a friend at the end of the episode.) I’m still mulling over her decision and Don’s reaction. (How beautifully acted was that scene! Wow. I could write a book about Don in this episode, but I probably should save my energy for unpacking suitcases and doing vacation laundry.) When Peggy launches her little speech, Don interrupts and says he can’t put a woman on a car account. Prescient for Peggy’s career; no matter where she goes, she’ll still be a woman in a man’s world. I get the impression she recognizes that, which speaks volumes to how unhappy she was at SCDP. But OMG PEGGY!!! (Clearly, I’m not over it.)

One more reaction, to Megan’s subplot: “Meh.” OK, it serves as one more example of Don being a day late and dollar short, and it’s a foil to Joan’s old-fashioned handling of her career. It wraps up the dark realities of these “other women” — You can have it all, but always at a price.

Agree or disagree with me in the comments!