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'Mad Men': Raw like sushi

August 23, 2010 | 10:08 am

SallybobbyMasturbation, motorcycles, and marches: Where do I begin?  Sometimes “Mad Men” proceeds at a glacial pace; other times, the speed of events is blistering.  Sunday night’s episode, as jam-packed as a Tokyo subway at rush hour, was most definitely an example of the latter.  

To simplify things, let’s get a little "Freshman English" and start with the obvious.  This episode is called “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” the name of a book that Don consults when trying to woo the executives at Honda.  Published in 1946, it’s an anthropological study of the contradictory nature of Japanese society.  Alas, I am on a deadline here so I haven’t read the book (yet).   But my secondary sources tell me that a major theme of “The Chrysanthemum and The Sword” is the difference between guilt cultures and shame cultures.  If you’re thinking to yourself, “Guilt and shame?  Why, that’s exactly what this episode was about!”, then congratulations, you've just fulfilled your English requirement. 

The downward spiral of guilt and shame began with Roger, who disgraces Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce with his racist outburst. Roger has never been exactly progressive when it comes to race (blackface, anyone?), but his bigotry has, until now, been just one facet of his buffoonery, not a symptom of any real antagonism. This time, it was different. Notice the immediate conversational pivot from Selma to the Honda account. Roger doesn’t have anything against black people, really; he probably doesn’t know any, either. That’s why he doesn’t particularly mind the Civil Rights Act, or the marches going on in Selma. 

RogersmokeIn contrast, Roger really, truly hates the Japanese.  This antipathy stems from the still-raw emotional trauma Roger experienced in the war; there’s nothing casual about it.  It was strange to see Roger, usually so flippant, care about something in such a visceral way. I am sure there were millions of men who felt just as Roger does, but the display of hostility was so out of character for him, I’m not sure I was convinced.  Like some other things this season (i.e. Don’s drinking), the depiction of Roger’s prejudice was a little too didactic for my taste. Still, I did love the way Pete stood up to Roger. You have to hand it to the preppy.  Pete’s attitude towards race has always been open-minded in a free-market sort of way: He doesn’t care where the money comes from.  Despite his Deerfield pedigree, Pete’s got a progressive streak, and I like it.

Last week, I talked about how this season of “Mad Men” has used comedy to balance out some very dark themes. Last night was no exception.  The show’s comedy continues to get bigger and broader.  There’s the amazing Miss Blankenship, whose ongoing difficulties with the buzzer and utter lack of tact (“Good afternoon.  Your daughter’s psychiatrist called,” she greets Don) are a source of constant amusement.  Then there was the scene in which the Honda executives joke about the “not so subtle” size of Joan’s breasts (“How does she not fall over?”).  Did anyone notice how Pete introduced Joan as “chief hostess”?  But the episode’s biggest comedic gambit was the elaborate plot to trick Don’s rival, Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) into filming a commercial.   My favorite moment was Peggy riding the bright red motorcycle around an empty studio; there was something almost poetic about the image. The trick was Don’s idea, which struck me as a little inconsistent.  Wasn’t he the one dismissing Peggy’s guerilla tactics (paying actresses to fight over a ham) just a few episodes ago? Oh, Don. So handsome!  So hypocritical!

Broad or not, let’s be thankful for the comedy, because otherwise things are a little heavy in "Mad Men." And yes, I am talking about Sally, who’s rapidly morphing into a 1965 version of a 1988 version of Drew Barrymore.  Or, to quote Betty, “You know what kinds of little girls do that?  Fast ones.” I feel a little creepy even divulging this, but I do wonder how the director handled the scene in which Sally was (implied to be) masturbating. (The director of this episode, Lesli Linka Glatter, is a woman.)  It was all done very tactfully, but still: Sally is one confused little girl, and she doesn’t have too many allies right now.  In a typically sensitive moment, Betty responds by threatening to cut off Sally’s fingers. Sally’s behavior has brought shame to the family, so she lays on the guilt.  “You don’t do those things.  You don’t do them in private and you especially don’t do them in public,” she says.  Chrysanthemum, meet sword.  

Betty gets a lot of grief for being a terrible mom, but let’s face it: Don’s pretty lame, too.  Henry was right to say that Don could have gone on a date any other night.  It appears that Don’s going through his very own guilt-shame cycle as a parent. “I don’t see them enough.  And when I do, I don’t know what to do…and when I drop them off, I feel relieved.  Then I miss them,” he tells her with uncharacteristic candor.  (Observation: Don seems to open up to people who, like him, are hiding something.)  But just because Don feels bad about his rotten parenting doesn’t absolve him of his sins.

HenryBettyThe real surprise this week was Betty and Henry’s relationship, which appears to be—dare I say it—functional.  Sure, their bond is mostly a manifestation of Betty’s considerable daddy issues.  But it could be worse, right?  Henry seems like a decent, reasonable guy, and he actually encourages Betty to do what she won’t do herself: that is, to rethink her behavior. When Betty slaps Sally, Henry “the softie” actually gets Betty to apologize for being impulsive.  In contrast, Don just yells, and probably would have done the same thing when they were married.  It’s a reminder that in addition to being not very good to Betty, Don was also not very good for Betty.

We’ve seen Betty infantilized before on “Mad Men,” (do I even need to mention her romance with Glen?) and we saw it again Sunday night, most notably in her visit with “Dr. Edna” (Patricia Bethune), Sally’s psychiatrist.   Despite Betty's misgivings about psychiatry—which are justified, given how her analyst betrayed her--she is immediately at ease in the warm, kid-friendly environment of Dr. Edna's office.  She is relaxed surrounded by dollhouses and murals of woodland creatures, and in no time at all she admits that, “I know the divorce is mostly to blame, but she’s been different ever since my father died.” Betty rarely displays such clear-eyed perspective, especially when it comes to Sally. Then without provocation, Betty begins to open up about her parents. It’s an interesting paradox: Only by reverting is Betty able to grow, however minutely.  

This episode was overflowing with the Google-able references that make watching “Mad Men” such a treat for the nerdier types.  It started with ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” of course.  There was also Don’s date with the insipid Bethany (“My hair smells like chicken”) at Benihana, which opened Manhattan in 1964. (Side note: I’m always amazed at how well the themes of each episode correspond so neatly with the cultural happenings of the time, even the less obvious ones; I wonder what comes first in the writing process? The idea or the event?  Matthew Weiner, if you’re out there, let me know!). While Don’s out on his date, Sally watches a news report about the death of James Reeb, a white minister murdered by segregationists in Selma.  On a lighter note, Pete calls the Honda meeting a “Margaret Dumont-sized disaster,” a reference to the sturdy actress who played the prim dowager roles opposite the Marx Brothers.  Finally, shrewd viewers will have noticed that Sally embarked on her voyage of discovery while watching “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, a strange choice indeed, unless Sally has a girlish crush on Robert Vaughn.   In which case: it’s okay, Sally, I used to have a thing for Miles on “Murphy Brown.”  No judgments here.

More mystifying, though, was Roger’s reference to “Dr. Lyle Evans,” whom, as far as I can ascertain, was once the supervisor of school libraries in Saskatchewan.  Not exactly someone Roger Sterling would have been aware of.  Was the “Dr. Lyle Evans” mention just a red herring?  Is Matthew Weiner planting fake clues in the show, as a reminder that "Mad Men" is, after all, just fiction? How else to explain not just the baffling reference, but Pete's follow-up question, “Who the hell is Dr. Lyle Evans?” and Joan's response.  “I have no idea.” The evidence suggests that "Mad Men" is getting meta. There was the “furniture porn” tour of the new SCDP office in the season premiere, and now this.  Maybe I’m too immersed in all things “Mad Men,” but I think the Pearl Harbor references this week may have been a very gentle nod to “From Those Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Pearl Harbor,” the memoir by ad man Jerry Della Femina that has been cited as an inspiration for the show. In any case, I hope I am wrong.  I’d like all four walls on “Mad Men” to remain firmly intact. 

A few stray thoughts:

-When Ted Chaough asked for “that kid who worked for Draper,” was anyone else hoping it would be Kinsey?  My heart skipped a beat, I tell you. 

-I figured it out: Phoebe sort of looks like the little kid from “Love, Actually.”

-I love Betty’s “angry” turtleneck.  She always seems to tell it like it is when she’s wearing it.

-Don tells Phoebe he’s going to get a “river of [doo doo]” from Betty after the haircutting incident.  Have we heard Don curse before?

-Subtitles!?!

-Do any automotive enthusiasts out there know anything about Honda’s “little car"?  Could that be the precursor to the Civic? 

What did you think?  Do you have any theories about Dr. Lyle Evans?

--Meredith Blake

twitter.com/MeredithBlake

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Photos:  Bobby (Jared Gilmore) and a pre-"Mongoloid" Sally (Kiernan Shipka) hang out at Don's pad (top); Roger does his best thousand-yard stare (middle);  Betty (January Jones) curls up with husband/father figure, Henry (Christopher Stanley).

Credits:  Mike Yarish/AMC


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