Mad Men: Nixon vs. Kennedy (S01E12)

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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. 

We have reached the last few episodes of Mad Men’s first season. Two episodes that were, the time I first saw them, the deciding factor in making up my mind about what I thought of the show. “Nixon vs. Kennedy”, and the season finale “The Wheel”, feature some of the series’ most defining moments. It’s simply that the plot-lines planted throughout the season finally come to a boil in a couple of episodes that set the tone not only for what the show’s M.O. will be going forward, but for how the audience should expect when engaging with the show in the future.

Two of the season’s most important story-lines reach their peak in “Nixon vs. Kennedy”, and they also find pretty much all the resolution they will have until next season. The first of these, and probably the one that seemed most important and daring at the time, comes in the last few minutes of the episodes, during Don’s flashbacks to his days as a soldier in Korea. This is the definitive moment in which the myth of that idealized version of masculinity that is Don Draper is finally shattered for good. Throughout this season, the show had slowly revealed snippets about Don’s past, each more telling than the one that came before. First, by introducing us to Adam, and Don’s previous identity as Dick Whitman, we were introduced to the darkness of the character’s past. Then, the flashback in “The Hobo Code” painted a backstory that seemed more tragic than heartless. But it is finally in “Nixon vs. Kennedy” where the tragedy of Don’s past takes full shape, as we are presented not only with an incredibly sad and traumatic story, but one that turns Don Draper, the handsome epitome of cool, into an incredibly pathetic figure.

One of the effects that the last couple episodes of this season had on me the first time I saw them was that I finally had to recognize that, not only was this a great show, it might actually be kind of genius. The thing that did it in this episode was the way the show decided to juxtapose the big reveal about Don’s backstory with the story-line it had crafted for Pete Campbell, a character that had, from the very first episode, been positioned as the complete opposite of Don. Don is handsome, he is strong, he is brilliant. Pete is a weasel, he cheats, he is petty, entitled, and, worst of all, a huge jerk. We have bared witness to the fact that Pete can have wonderful ideas this season, but almost every episode in which we gained a little sympathy for him (most notably “New Amsterdam“), was surrounded by moments in which he acted like a complete asshole (be it to Peggy, his wife, or his secretary). Pete’s story-line wraps very neatly, as he gets to perform the ultimate despicable act, as he reveals Don’s true identity to Bert Cooper, only to discover that Cooper doesn’t really give a shit about who Don might have been in the past. “A man is whatever room he is in”, he says, “and right now Don is in this room.”

However, the true genius of positioning Pete at the center of this episode is that, even if he is being a dirty weasel, he is acting out of fear, and it’s in this very episode that we are confronted with the reality that Don is, in fact, a coward. When Pete first comes into his office and reveals his office, is to use the information he has acquired to blackmail Don into giving him the newly open position of Head of Accounts. Don’s reaction to this? He shows up at Rachel Menken’s office, and tries to convince her to run away with him, and in one of the character’s best moments, Rachel picks up pretty quickly what is going on with Don. “You don’t want to run away with me. You just want to run away”, says Rachel, “You’re a coward.” That’s our first sign that Don might be weaker than we thought, but then… then comes the flashback. We find out that not only was Don incredibly scared as a soldier, it was because of how afraid he was that he accidentally set the original Don Draper on fire, and that it was out of fear of having to keep fighting that he switched tags with him, making the Army believe that it was Dick Whitman that had died.

Don has done some pretty despicable things this season. He is definitely not a role model, but no matter what horrible thing he was doing, we had been kind of rooting for him, and most importantly, kind of admiring him. A part of us wanted to be him. Meanwhile, we disliked Pete from the start. Pete, too, wants to be Don, but he is so desperate to be him that he falls flat on his face. We can see through him, and through every stupid thing he does in order to feel masculine and powerful. We despise Pete Campbell, and yet, in this episode we discover that the winner and the loser have much more in common than we thought. Are Pete and Don two sides of the same coin? This season very clearly positioned them as enemies, but as Bert Cooper says to Don when he suggest he doesn’t fire Pete, “one never knows how loyalty is born.” Mad Men is simply fantastic when it comes to wrapping up its seasons, and if you thought this was good, just wait and see what happens in the next episode…

Also in this Episode:
Somehow I wrote the whole review without mentioning that the episode is set, as the title suggests, on the day of the 1960 Presidential election. This setting, of course, resonates with the fight between Don and Pete, and the idea of winners and losers that I just talked about in the last paragraph. It also lets us spend some time with the show’s supporting characters as they have an election party at the office. The most important development of the party is probably that Harry Crane cheats on his wife and feels pretty bad about it.

Random Thoughts

  • Ok, so I just lied in the above paragraph. The most important thing that happens at the election party is obviously the fact that we are introduced to Death is My Client: a play in one act by Paul Kinsey.
  • This is kind of a spoiler, but I’m pretty sure this is the last time we see Rachel Menken on the show. I always liked the character, and was surprised revisiting the show to find out she wasn’t in as much of the season as I remembered. I don’t know how to feel about her last appearance on the show. On the one hand, her last scene seems to be in service of Don’s arc more than it feels like a proper goodbye to such a memorable character. On the other, the scene is fantastic, and her last line to Don incredibly appropriate.
  • This episode is also notable for introducing us to Duck Phillips, who ends up getting the position of Head of Accounts, and who will play a big role next season.
  • I wonder what was going through Joan and Sal’s mind while they were sharing that kiss.
  • This show’s been on for sevens seasons, and Robert Morse never really has gotten much to do as Bert Cooper. This is one of the rare episodes in which he actually plays a relatively big part, and he also gets to be at the center of a fantastic scene.
  • That moment in which the momentum of the heated fight between Don and Pete has to be stopped for them to take off their shoes so they can enter Cooper’s office has to rank somewhere high on the list of Mad Men’s most awesome moments.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Under the Skin (2013)

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I am so glad with this week’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot decision. If it weren’t for t Nathaniel, who hosts the series over at The Film Experience, picking Under the Skin this week, I may have never realized there was a big bump in my initial experience with the film. I was a big admirer of the film when I watched it in theaters back in April, but if you read my initial review, you will find the following sentence: “Sometime towards the end, the camera adopts a weird color filter that doesn’t seem to add much to the film, but that reveals itself as an awesome decision with the last, wonderful, images of the movie.” Because of the experimental and unique nature the movies’ visuals, I assumed that this “weird” color filter was part of the aesthetic director Jonathan Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin were going for. It wasn’t until I watched the film on DVD a couple days ago that I realized this whole “color filter” nonsense was, in fact, a projection mistake.

With the intention of not looking like an idiot who didn’t recognize something had gone wrong during my screening, let me please explain what happened. Whatever the mistake was on the projection, the result was that the movie acquired a pink hue, as if it had been filmed, like I said, with a color filter. You could also see some weird water markings on the screen. The mistake, curiously enough, happened at a pretty convenient moment, precisely at the turing point when Scarlet Johansson’s character goes from “being the predator” to “becoming the prey.” The change in the movie’s color hue would make some sort of sense, echoing the character’s realization that she is in danger or something like that, but like I said in my review, it didn’t seem to add much to the movie, so it makes complete sense that it isn’t actually a part of it.

**Before I go on to tell you what my favorite shot of Under the Skin is, let me point out that my pick might be considered a spoiler, so either stop reading now, or continue if you have already seen the film and/or you don’t care about being spoiled**

The other thing I mention in that quote from my review is how this whole color thing pays off in the final moments of the film. Having now seen the movie as it was intended, let me tell you that the moment is equally effective. Ever since I saw it for the first time, I’ve come to regard Under the Skin as somewhat of a feminist movie where even a great threat to humanity becomes prey to men’s desires just because it takes the form of a woman. What ends up happening to Scarlett Johansson’s character is, to me, the most gut-wrenching moment in a movie that is filled with unsettling filmmaking. And the way it is photographed, with the vibrant fire against the woods and the fallen snow, a splash of color in what is basically a black-and-white background, makes it even more violent.

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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.

Summer of ’92: Tea and Hot Chocolate

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Welcome back to Summer of 92, the summer series in which I take a look at the movies released in 1992, also known as the year I was born. If you want an overview of what I’ve covered so far, you can click HERE. Otherwise, keep reading. 

Now let’s talk about literary adaptations of period costume dramas, a genre that I’ve always been interested in. The reason why is not entirely clear to me, except for two very personal theories. The first, is that one of my biggest obsessions in the years when I was becoming a film fan (and one that continues today, although not as obsessively) was the Academy Awards aka the Oscars, and as you might know, period literary adaptations are one of Oscar’s favorite genres. The other is that, also back when I was a young film lover, few phrases made me angrier than when someone said “the book is better than the movie.” As someone who considers film to be the most fascinating of life’s art-forms, and someone who has a hard time finding enjoyment in reading fiction books, I’ve always been a proponent of film adaptations being reinterpretations of re-imaginings than adaptation per se. The further a movie skews from the book it’s based on, the more interesting I’m going to be in watching it. That is also why I’ve always found the Harry Potter movies to be incredibly mediocre. More of a translation of the books they’re based on than a product of actual cinema. But Harry Potter isn’t today’s topic, and has little to do with either of the movies that I’ll be writing about, except in the fact that it shares a country of origin, and a couple cast members, with Howards End. 

Now, Howards End is the product of a cinematic collaboration that could be described as a genre of its own: Indian producer Ismail Merchant, British director James Ivory, and German screenwriter Ruth Prawler Jhabvala. In the early nineties, the peak of the collaborators’ popularity, Merchant-Ivory became a shorthand for a very specific type of movies: literary adaptations, mostly of english novels, that featured outstanding acting and top-notch production values; a type of movie that young cinephiles, including yours truly, would describe as “boring.” The fact that these movies operate on a genre that is, almost by definition, unexciting to young straight men, has hurt their legacy in a landscape dominated by IMDb user-ratings and comic book adaptations. Those who were critical of Merchant-Ivory’s cinema, at least those who were smarter than my younger self, complained about these movies in the exact way I complain about Harry Potter, describing them as well-acted translations of well-respected stories that lack any kind of urgency or reason for having been adapted to the screen. The other development that has hurt Merchant-Ivory’s reputation tremendously, is the fact that their success sparked a wave of lesser imitators, and that virtually all literary adaptations or similar period pieces are now produced in the image of their work. However, any right thinking person would recognize that there is an ocean of difference in quality between Finding Neverland and Howards End. 

I haven’t read the material Howards End is based on -the eponymous novel by E.M. Forster- so I don’t know if there any major differences or traces of a personal interpretation of the material in the movie. What I do know is that James Ivory could be a fantastic director when he wanted to, and that he did an outstanding job directing Howards End. Without indulging in any kind of stylistic departure that would have distances Howards End from what people traditionally think of as a Merchant-Ivory movie, his shooting is in service of the movies and the characters in a way that exposes the weakness of its imitators. Consider, for example, how, unlike many contemporary directors, he isn’t afraid of staging conversations featuring more than one character in the frame instead of a dull shot/reverse-shot setting. If he does feature a shot/reverse-shot conversation in the movie, it’s because the cutting has thematic significance, as in a key moment where the characters played by Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson find out their values stand in opposition to each other’s. For the most part, characters share the screen, and interact with each other in configurations that take into account both the width and the depth of the frame.

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Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson are part of a mismatched marriage in ‘Howards End’.

Very few of the visuals, of course, call attention to themselves. The most important goal of the filmmakers was, without a doubt, to highlight the power of the story that was being told. Since it was so important, let me talk a little bit about it. The film is mostly concerned with the relationship between two families: the Wilcoxes, which are rather wealthy, and the Schlegels, who are upper middle class. Now, the Wilcox patriarch is the deeply traditional Henry (Anthony Hopkins). The most important Schlegels in the movie, on the other hand, are a pair of orphaned sisters, Margaret (Emma Thompson) and Helen (Helan Bonham Carter), who have a fairly liberal sense of thinking, expressed in their extroverted personalities and the fact that they are interested in women’s suffrage. The movie opens in one of the Wilcoxes’s properties, Howards End, with an embarrassing incident involving Helen and the Wilcoxes. We then jump in time to the Wilcoxes moving across from the Schelgel girls’ London apartment. That’s when Margaret and Henry’s wife Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) bond and develop a tight friendship. The relationship between Margaret and Ruth is one of the most important elements of Howards End. This is a perfect example of Ivory understanding precisely where the heart of his movie lied, and working in its favor. The actresses’ work is fantastic, with Emma Thompson being as delightful as only she can be, and Vanessa Redgrave playing a character that is pretty much the political antithesis of herself as an incredibly fragile and delicate human being.

If I’m being completely honest, the fact remains that Howards End is a little too literary a movie. It might be a product of the time and circumstances it was made in, but like many literary adaptations, it is not entirely confident to let its themes be expressed solely through images. It feels the need to also express them through words, but these moments are actually relatively few and far between, and most of the movie unfolds with remarkable elegance. There is, for example, the key moment in which Margaret finally visits Howards End, and even though a housekeeper remarks how she looks like Mrs. Wilcox, we have already made the connection thanks to the way she is filmed when she enters the house’s garden. The scene is a callback of the opening sequence, in which we see Ruth Wilcox walking around the gardens of Howards End, and yet, the scene featuring Margaret is shot from the reverse angle as Ruth’s, and under completely different lighting. It doesn’t recall the previous scene through imitation, but by complementing it. It doesn’t work as a mirror, but as a puzzle piece you didn’t know was missing.

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Vanessa Redgrave and Emma Thompson walk along ‘Howards End’.

Not all moments in Howards End are as elegant as that one -in fact, an important development late in the movie features some uncharacteristically overdramatic and narratively cheap slow-motion- but there is no denying that its best moments show a level of craftsmanship that isn’t regularly featured in movies that fit so well into a pre-established genre mold as Howards End does. So many of its imitators were content with building pretty sets and pointing the camera at their actors, but there is an actual vision being served in Howards End. What’s more, beneath its flawlessly pretty exterior, Howards End is a much more visceral, even angry, movie that you would have expect considering its English upper class setting. One of the most important themes of Howards End is the hypocrisy of those in power, especially against the poor, and against women. I didn’t really talk about the subplot that focuses on Helena Bonham Carter’s character, or on Samuel West’s Leonard Bast, but the way these two characters reflect on the relationship between Maragaret and Henry Wilcox is essential to the movie’s message. The movie’s elegance actually works to reveal how easily and casually the privileged can impose cruelty on the weak. The fact that Howards End’s screaming heart is trapped beneath a seemingly decent and quiet movie echoes the situation of its characters, and its message, which is sadly as relevant today as it was back then.

But before this turns into a never-ending rave of Howards End, let me remind you that this series is dedicated to double features, and that the other movie I saw this week was Alfonso Arau’s Like Water for Chocolate (Como agua para chocolate), another literary adaptation -this time of a novel that I have actually read- but one that shows many of the weaknesses and mistakes that tend to be committed by unsuccessful adaptations. The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Mexican author Laura Esquivel. The novel fits in the very Latin American genre of stories about ancestors featuring lots of magic realism elements. Now, if you know about Latin American literature, then you probably know that particular brand of magic realism is incredibly difficult to translate correctly to the big screen (see: The House of the Spirits or Love in the Time of Cholera). Many times I heard that Like Water for Chocolate was the rare magic realism novel that made for a good adaptation. Having now seen the film on its entirety for the first time, I have to say that whoever said that was wrong.

I knew there were going to be some problems with the movie as soon as the credits started rolling and revealed that the movie’s screenplay had been written by Esquivel herself. Now, there are some literary authors who can effortlessly transition to writing for film, but I think it’s fair to say that it isn’t a good idea to have a writer adapt his or her own novel to the screen, especially if you want the adaptation to be more than a way to try to put the novel on the screen. It’s pretty obvious that film and prose are two different mediums, whose strengths lie on different elements, and if there was going to be a successful adaptation of Like Water for Chocolate, it would’ve required a group of filmmakers willing to ditch the novel’s structure, and come up with a film equivalent. You see, the novel is built almost like a cookbook, in which each recipe reveals part of the story of the narrator’s great aunt Tita, who had the unfortunate fate of being the youngest of her sisters, and thus, was prohibited of marrying in order to care for her mother until her death. Sadly, the filmmakers weren’t willing to make too many changes (those are the fears that come when you are adapting a largely beloved novel).

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Poor Tita and evil Mamá Elena in ‘Like Water for Chocolate’

The movie isn’t structured like a cookbook, but we can find its first mistake in the fact that it retains the narrator. Now, I am mostly against narrators in movies, but they can be used well. The narrator of Like Water for Chocolate is a horrible idea because she ends up quoting large chunks of Esquivel’s prose to explain everything that is going on, and forgetting how “show don’t tell” is one of the most effective mantas when making a movie. Rare is the scene in Like Water for Chocolate in which we can see what the characters are feelings instead of listening to the narrator explaining it to us. All in all it seems like the biggest problem with the movie was Esquivel’s unfamiliarity with the inner workings of the cinematic medium. You can tell by the dialogue (if you are a spanish speaker), which I assume was lifted largely from the book (my memory of it is hazy), because it is filled with the kind of phrasing that works on the page, but sounds ridiculous when said aloud by an actor. Similarly, one-dimensional characters that work because of the anecdotal nature of the novel’s narrator, which makes them feel like ideas more than actual human beings, fail horribly when they have the real face and body of a human actor. This is what happens to Mamá Elena, Tita’s mother, who is basically  cardboard villain whose only purpose is to be bad to Tita.

The most memorable moments of the novel are those in which the magical realism comes into play. There is a particularly cute scene in which a heartbroken Tita’s tears fall into the batter of her sister’s wedding cake, which makes everyone who eats the cake at the wedding start crying incessantly. These kinds of moments are ruined in the film by a number of factors. First, because they lose the ambiguity magical realism features on the page. Second, because the freaking narrator won’t stop quoting from Esquivel’s novel. Listen, those are good parts of the book, but if I wanted to hear those pretty words, I would read it again, not watch the movie. What’s more, the filmmaking does absolutely nothing to curve the material’s limitations. As a matter of fact, some of the magical realism sequences are filmed in such an uneventful way that you wouldn’t know anything was happening if the narrator weren’t telling us so. This is an especially fatal blow during the few attempts that are made to humanize the Mamá Elena character, which barely hint at what might have made her such an joyless woman.

To close out, I just want to say that there is no reason why Like Water for Chocolate couldn’t have made a good movie. In fact, I believe an interesting movie can be made out of any novel (it just depends on the level of changes you do to the adaptation). The biggest flaw of this one, is that the movie sticks to close to the source material, sometimes literally translating it into the screen, instead of letting magical images speak for themselves. Case in point, my favorite part of the movie is the fact that Tita has an incredibly long blanket. Why she has it, or why it is so long is never explained. It is just there. It just happens in the way that magical realism just happens when you read it in a book. That’s the matter-of-factness that this adaptation needed, and that the filmmakers couldn’t give it.

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Tita, and her ridiculously long blanket, ride into the sunset in ‘Like Water for Chocolate’.

Next Week’s Double Feature: Nothing! Well, not exactly. Next week will be time to talk about the television of 1992, and the week after that we’ll be discussing The Crying Game and Malcolm X. 

Mad Men: Long Weekend (S01E10)

Mad Men Long WeekendA 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. 

There’s this thing that everybody does when they’re small and play with Legos, or other type of toy that allows you to build stuff as if you were a little engineer. At one moment or another, almost every child will build a tower. They will try to make it as tall as possible, and then, after spending hours creating this tower, they won’t really hesitate to tear it down. The same goes for sand castles. We spend the whole afternoon at the beach building them, and then we all get up and destroy it by stomping on it. Why do we do this? Why is our impulse to destroy as powerful as our impulse to create? And what does it have to do with this episode of Mad Men?

Well, let me start by pointing out how this episode is very much interested on the idea of being a “self-made man.” I think the phrase is first mentioned in the episode when Don and the other guys at Sterling Cooper are comparing the television spots of the Nixon and Kennedy campaigns. Kennedy’s is by far superior. It is an actual commercial, while Nixon’s is a couple of minutes of an old guy standing in a room telling you about his politics. People at Sterling Cooper are getting worried of how close the election is getting. Don comes up with an angle for Nixon to regain the lead: focusing on the fact that he is a self-made man. “[When I look at] Kennedy, I see a silver spoon. Nixon, I see myself” he says. Another self-made man in the episode is Abraham Menken, father of Rachel, who started out with a tiny business and turned it into a huge department store, and is hesitant of turning his store into something that would be good for business out of fear of losing the history of what he built.

On the other side of the equation, we have men who aren’t trying to preserve anything, but rather trying to escape. We are introduced to Betty’s recently widowed father Gene, who has found a new companion in a woman whom Sally calls “Aunt Gloria.” Betty, of course, is worried about what people are going to say about her father going out with another woman so soon after the passing of his wife. But of course Gene doesn’t want to spend the rest of his days sadly thinking about his deceased wife, he wants to move on to the next page. Similarly, Roger Sterling, seems to want nothing more than to escape from his marriage. We’ve seen him having affairs or trying to hook up with different women many times this season, and this episode is no difference, as he takes advantage of his wife being away, to use Don as his wingman and charm a set of twenty-year-old twins that came into the office for an audition.

The twist, of course, comes when Roger has a heart attack while having to have sex with one of the twins. As the paramedics take him out of the office, he calls out the name of the young girl he was about to bang. Don, in turn, slaps him in the face and boldly tells him: “Mona. Your wife’s name is Mona.” When Roger wakes up from his heart-attack, he finds his wife and daughter waiting for him, and can’t help but start sobbing like a baby. He doesn’t want to lose the thing he was trying to escape from. The heart-attack, however, doesn’t have the same effect on Don. Actually, Don’s reaction is quite the opposite, instead of running back to his wife (who incidentally is away on the beach with her dad), he shows up at Rachel Menken’s doorstep.

Don is a self-made man, and as such, he likes to be in control. A self-made man tempts fate, he ignores whatever circumstances he is born into, he fights against life, he defies destiny, and he comes out becoming whatever it is that he wants to be. He is the master of his own fate, and yet, no matter how powerful the man, life is always stronger. No matter who you are, no matter how hard you’ve worked, you can’t stop people from not caring about your old department store, you can’t keep a young Kennedy from stealing your election, you just can’t know when you’ll have a heart attack. This futility scares Don beyond belief. What is the point of all of what he’s built, if it can be taken from him at any given moment? The question, of course, is why he is driven, of all people, to Rachel Menken?

Well, Abraham Menken might have been the man who created the store, but his daughter has had to fight as hard as him. Rachel, being a woman in the professional world, is a self-made man. “You know everything about me”, Don says to her. “No I don’t”, she responds, but in Don’s mind, they are the same. She is the one that would understand how difficult it has been for him to have come such a long way; from being the son of a prostitute, to becoming Don Draper. If there is a weakness to this episode, it’s that it builds up to what is essentially Don delivering what is essentially a big exposition dump about his past. It’s not the most elegant form of storytelling, but it works relatively well from a character perspective, especially when you consider all I’ve written about in this review, and how Rachel would be just the person Don would tell all this stuff to.

Also in this Episode:
This is a pretty good episode for Joan, and one that shows her at her most sympathetic yet. Her plot-line starts when her roommate Carol tells her she’s been fired. Joan decides to cheer her up with a night out on the town, but as the two women are dressing up, Carol can’t help but confess that she is in love with Joan. Carol’s story is kind of heartbreaking, even more so than Sal’s similar story a couple weeks ago, especially after Joan and her come back to the apartment with a couple of guys, and she has sex with one of them even though we can see in her face that she is absolutely broken down and heartbroken about the fact that Joan didn’t share her feelings. But anyway, what we really care about here is Joan, who also gets a very heartbreaking moment. Early in the episode we see her discussing with Roger, who wants to spend the weekend with her. Joan compares herself to Shirley MacLaine’s character in The Apartment, as far as how badly she’s been treated. And after Roger has his heart attack, and  she is summoned in the middle in the night to send out telegrams to the company’s clients, none other than Bert Cooper tells her to not sell herself short when it comes to love. “Don’t waste your youth on old age” he tells her, revealing that he knows about her relationship with Roger, and in a not-so-subtle, but beautifully bittersweet moment, the last shot of the scene features Joan pressing the button in the elevator, calling back to the fact that Shirley MacLaine’s character in The Apartment is an elevator operator.

Random Thoughts:

  • This might be of interest to absolutely no one, but the Nixon/Kennedy ads shown in the episode make a fascinating parallel to the 2006 Peruvian Presidential Election. One candidate, Ollanta Humala, had a spot as fantastic and catchy as Kennedy’s, while the other, ex-president Alan Garcia’s spot, was essentially the same as Nixon’s: him in a room talking about his politics. Weirdly enough, history didn’t repeat itself, as Humala’s supposedly radical, socialist politics scared voters away, and Garcia won the election. Four years later, Humala ran again, and he is now president of Peru.
  • Ken’s pickup line about cows is one of the most bizarre and disgusting things I’ve ever heard.
  • Spoilers. We are introduced to grandpa Gene, who will play a role later in the show’s run, especially regarding Betty and Sally’s story-lines in season three.
  • Spoilers. Pete: “How’s he doing?”. Don: “Not great”. Is this exchange planting the seed for Pete’s single greatest moment?