Mad Men: Indian Summer (S01E11)

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A small reminder: I’m making my way through all of Mad Men before the last episodes premiere next spring. The plan is to do two episodes a week, with reviews going up Mondays and Wednesdays, but the schedule might vary a little bit. 

I think “Indian Summer” is my least favorite episode of Mad Men‘s first season. A lot of the things that happen in “Indian Summer” move the plot of the show forward, and the episode is one of the few episodes this season that bothers to very clearly bridge earlier events with things that will happen in the last couple episodes, but it also feels very much like a transitional chapter. One that features notable developments for the series, but one that feels much more serialized and like part of a bigger whole than a thing in and on itself. One of the things that I love about television is that episodes can feel in and on themselves as fantastic pieces of story-telling. Sure, the best shows are those that manage to gain a whole other level of interpretation when viewed as a whole, but there is something to be said for being able to watch a random episode of a television show, and still being able to get something valuable out of it. This is all to say that I don’t think I would get something very valuable out of “Indian Summer” if it were the first episode of the show I had ever watched. It is a well-oiled cog in the Mad Men machinery, but not one that is worth much when looked at on its own.

So, let’s start by mentioning the most important stuff that happens on the episode. The guys over at Lucky Strike, which seems to be one of Sterling Cooper’s most valuable clients, are a little worried about the future of the agency after Roger’s heart attack. That is why Bert Cooper has come up with the idea to have Roger come back to the office -even though his medical condition is not optimal- to show Lee Gardner Sr. (president of Lucky Strike played by John Cullum), that he is alive and kicking, and that there’s nothing to worry about. Logically, what ends up happening is that Roger has a second heart attack precisely during the meeting that was supposed to assure the clients. The most important result of this backfiring plan, at least for the immediate future, is that Don is made partner, not in small part out of fear that Roger might be in a much grimmer situation than expected. The other big development of the episode, the one with which the episode opens, is the suicide of Adam Whitman. Before Adam takes his life, though, he mails a package to Don. A package that, in an unfortunate turn of events, and before Don even knows about its existence, ends up in the hands of Pete Campbell.

That is pretty much the cliffhanger with which the episode leaves us. Don in a power position, very happily accepting his new partnership, and the ominous threat of Pete Campbell taking the mysterious package home. Right now, let me indulge in some minor spoilers and say that the show finds more than worthy payoffs to these developments in what remains of the season (and in later seasons too). But it doesn’t feel, at least to me, like they make for a truly compelling hour of television, especially when paired with the episode’s other sub-plots. What I do take from this episode, though, is the scene between Roger and Joan, when the former comes back to the office, and the latter is given the task of making him up in order to hide his pale post-heart-attack complexion. The reunion of these two is one of the most emotional moments of the season, and a fantastic moment of acting thanks to John Slattery and Christina Hendricks, two of the show’s strongest performers. Joan knows that it’s useless to try to pursue a relationship with Roger, and when he tells her that, despite all that’s happened to him, he doesn’t regret having been with her… It’s the kind of moment classic melodramas are made of, just wrapped in the kind of elegant subtle acting that makes Mad Men such a well-crafted show.

Anyway, back to the episode, the other two big plot-lines of the episode revolve around two of its female characters. Betty continues to feel more and more like a teenager in grown-women’s clothing as she flirts with making Don jealous, and fantasizes about a handsome air-conditioner salesman. Meanwhile, Peggy gets yet another assignment as a copywriter, this time coming up with a campaign for a product that is supposed to help women lose weight by delivering electric vibrations to their bodies. Both of these story-lines feature a risqué, and somewhat comedic, tone that doesn’t feel completely at home on this show. Seeing Betty lean against the washing machine in order to feel its “vibrations”, and Peggy putting on the “Rejuvenator” and discovering that it is, essentially, a vibrator, are two of my least favorite moments on the show. Not because I’m a prude or anything like that, but because they feel silly and juvenile in a show that is otherwise been very mature about how to treat its characters and their sexuality. Thankfully, this is just a misstep, and we shouldn’t worry going forward, for some of the show’s best episodes are just around the corner!

Random Thoughts

  • Is Mad Men‘s biggest weakness, perhaps, its use of fat suits? Peggy’s weight-gain is a rather important part of season one, but Elisabeth Moss looks pretty horrible buried under all that fake-looking makeup. A similar thing would, of course, also happen to January Jones later in the show’s run.
  • This episode also goes back to those “crazy sixties” lines from early in the show when Peggy says that “smoking is practically mandatory at our office”, although this line, obviously, also serves to point out how important a client Lucky Strike is to Sterling Cooper.
  • A Freddy Rumsen and Ken Cosgrove fight? I would have never imagined such a thing considering these are some of the most reasonable and likable characters of future seasons.
  • I kind of love that the first thing Bert says to Don after he makes him partner is that he is going to introduce him to Ayn Rand.
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