Mad Men: Flight 1 (S02E02)

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I’m reviewing all the episodes of Mad Men before the last seven episodes premiere in the Spring of 2015. If you want to see an overview of the episodes I’ve written about so far, click HERE

At first glance, “Flight 1” strikes me as one of those rare Mad Men episodes that work better as building blocks for future episodes and seasons than as stand-alone units. This was probably due to the fact that, when it ended, I couldn’t really find a clear thematic through-line between episode’s plot-lines. After sitting on it for a while, though, it has grown in my estimation to the point that I would call it one of the best episodes of the show. Well, that might be a stretch considering how many brilliant episodes the show has produced (I consider it, after all, my favorite show of all-time), but there is no doubt that “Flight 1” is a pretty impressive piece of television. This is not an episode “wasted” on setting stuff up for later in the season -something that happens more often than you’d expect in this contemporary age of serial cable dramas- it uses the obligatory set-up as a moment to show character in the best possible way.

Or maybe I like it, because there is a very healthy amount of Pete in the episode. I said it when I wrote about season’s one “New Amsterdam“, but despite being one of the most unlikable characters on the show, Pete Campbell is probably the most fascinating. Time is only making my love for Pete stronger, and I had forgotten that “Flight 1” had some of the most valuable moments for the character. The title of the episode refers to the crash of an American Airlines plane over Jamaica bay. Two of the episode’s story-lines are closely connected to the tragedy. First, head-of-accounts Duck Phillips informs the upper staff of Sterling Cooper that he has it on good authority that the crash will open up an opportunity for the agency to snatch American Airlines as a client. Sterling and Cooper are pretty much on board with this plan, but Don is very much against it, since the agency already has regional Mohawk Airlines as a client, and Don would have to let Mohawk go based only on the possibility of eventually, maybe, getting American.

The other plot-point relating to American Airlines’ Flight One is that Pete’s father was on the plane, which means he is now dead. Mad Men is not afraid of turning characters into villains, jerks, or both if it sees it necessary, but it has always been wise to never let Pete, who is one of the show’s main characters, ever fully go to the dark side. Presenting him with a tragedy of this magnitude, especially one that is so intrinsically tied to what we know about his inner life, seems to me like a fantastic move on Matthew Weiner’s part (as well as Lisa Albert, who co-wrote the episode with Weiner). The fact that Pete came from a wealthy aristocratic family, and the fact that his dad had nothing but contempt for his work as an ad-man, were introduced to us as two of his biggest motivations for being so insecure and obsessed with success as he is. The death of that disapproving father seems… complex, to say the least.

The first gift that this plot-line delivers is a pretty fantastic scene between Don and Pete. A scene that, knowing where their relationship stands seven seasons later, feels like one of the show’s most crucial moments. Anyway, it comes right after Pete learns about his father. He is completely unaware of what to do, or even how to feel, and the first thing he does is go into Don’s office. It’s an incredibly telling move. In the first season Pete was pretty clearly established as Don’s enemy. Very early in the season, Don rejected him as a protégé, and one of the last confrontations was between those two, as Pete tried to blackmail Don into giving him a promotion. Now, season two takes place more than a year later, but it’s still a little puzzling that Pete still seeks comfort and guidance in Don Draper. He, like a lot of us, has bought into the Don Draper mystique.

Don’s advice to Pete, though, seem pretty half-assed and not at all sincere. I can’t decide if Don just wants him out of his office, or if he is truly trying to help, but there is no question that he is not saying what he wants to say, but more what he thinks people would say when he tells Pete to go home to his family. “Is that what you would do?” asks Pete, who clearly sees the incongruence in what Don is saying. Don is a salesman, so he does a pretty decent job of convincing Pete that he means what he is saying. He closes with an authoritative “There’s life and there’s work”, but knowing Don as we do, we know this is all a bunch of baloney. However, the big punch of this story comes later, when Pete tries to get some more advice from Don, only this time, Don is incredibly stressed after being told that he has to let Mohawk go immediately so that the agency can pursue American Airlines, and he barks at Pete before the guy even say a word.

What happens next? In one of the slimiest and darkest moments for the show so far, Pete decides to join Duck Phillips in the pitch for American Airlines, exploiting the death of his father as a way to gain a new client. Don has lost an ally, one that he has rejected in the past, but that has -despite his many, many flaws- proved to be smarter and stronger than one would expect. I would go as far as to say that Pete is a brilliant man -he thinks of the future, he has great ideas, but he is also a man trapped between two worlds. He is not rough-and-tumble Don Draper, the ideal self-made man; and neither is he the little prince heir to the Dykeman family (we learn, in an earlier scene, that his father had actually lost all his fortune before he died). He has a clear goal. He wants to be something, but all signs in his life point at him being something else.

Which brings us beautifully into Peggy, who also gets a story-line this episode; one that connects beautifully into Pete’s. Like Pete, Peggy is a woman trapped between two worlds. She also wants to be something that the world doesn’t want her to be. At this point, she has already taken the first important steps into being a successful professional -we see her be incredibly confident as she makes out and then rejects a guy at Kinsey’s party. But when she goes home to visit her mother and sister, she is in a position where she has absolutely no power. Her mother is desperate trying to get her to go to church. “I’m capable of making my own decisions” says Peggy, to which her sister responds with a “Really? The State of New York didn’t think so. The Doctors didn’t think so…” hinting at the sad destiny of Peggy’s child. The episode ends with Peggy sitting at church, holding her sister’s baby, who won’t stop crying, and as we watch her sit there, not knowing what to do, we realize that Pete and her are like two sides of the same coin. They are different in just enough ways that it doesn’t matter if they are essentially the same, they just will never meet each other on the same side.

Also in this Episode:
We visit Kinsey’s party, where Joan meets Kinsey’s girlfriend Sheila, who happens to be black. There is no doubt that Joan is incredibly rude to Sheila, but she is into something when she calls Kinsey on the fact that he is going out with her just so people know how “interesting” he is. I mean, Paul Kinsey is the kind of person who is happy with his neighborhood because “we got silent movies… with organ”. He is the original ’60s hipster. We know because they are all drinking out of mason jars at his party. I wouldn’t be surprised if he wanted to date a black woman “before it was cool”.

Random Thoughts:

  • I somehow forgot to mention this in the last review, but one of the big character changes this season is that Sal is now married! Seems like he is still unwilling to come to terms with his homosexuality, but hey, I don’t blame him. He is a man in the early sixties. That has to be rough.
  • The plane crash in this episode actually happened. One of the many historical events the show will make mention of this season.
  • “Your father called you salt and pepper” I don’t know whether or not I want to see Pete and his brother dancing to “Push It”
  • Carlton, the husband of the Draper’s neighbor Francine, has gained some weight, and thus continues Mad Men‘s long relationship with horribly distracting fat-suits.
  • I love that we hear Sally’s footsteps when Betty catches Bobby trying to sneak in to grab some candy.
  • Pete says he and his father used to argue about facts all the time. I guess that was more common in the age before Wikipedia, and still, I still see it happen in many places, including my family.
  • “We have an airline. What kind of company are we going to be?” “The kind where everyone has a summer house?”
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