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'Mad Men' recap: 'I would have my secretary do it, but she’s dead'


I’d like to begin this week’s recap with a moment of silence in remembrance of our dear, departed friend, Ida Blankenship (1898-1965).  She is in a better place now, a place free of confusing, new-fangled intercoms, yet full of crossword puzzles and freshly sharpened pencils. May she rest in peace.

Now, back to the task at hand.  I have a question for you Show Trackers:  Is “Mad Men” the most feminist show on television? 

As I’ve mentioned before, the overarching theme of Season 4 has been the rise of the women at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.  It's no coincidence that the female ascendancy has coincided with utter disarray among their male colleagues -- most notably, with Don's descent into alcoholism.  This episode -- called "The Beautiful Girls" -- showed us just how gross this disparity has become.

Peggy’s nascent feminism was codified this week through her debate with would-be paramour Abe (Charlie Hofheimer).  You get the sense that Peggy’s feminism is, at least in part, a defensive stance.  She doesn’t want to believe that she’s supporting racism, so she counters with the specious argument that hey, she’s a victim, too.  Abe’s casual dismissal of her plight — he basically thinks the idea of a “civil rights march for women” is absurd — is infuriating and hypocritical, but when it comes to picking sides, he’s probably right. As he puts it, “They’re not shooting women to keep them from voting,” though, of course, it’s a false dichotomy to begin with. Funny that in 2008, we’d have the exact same fights over Obama and Clinton.  In any case, it’s probably a testament to the historical verisimilitude of “Mad Men” that the Civil Rights movement only seeps into "Mad Men" via newspapers and television, but that feminism plays out before our eyes -- that there isn't, in fact, a black copywriter at SCDP, even though Peggy thinks there could be.


I have to wonder how far Peggy's bubbling radicalism will go; will she tune in and drop out? Though she’s annoyed by Abe, she's also intrigued: He is, as Joyce puts it, “interesting soup.”  Peggy tells Abe that she’s “not a political person,” but you get the sense that Peggy’s trying to convince herself more than anyone else. I have a feeling that this is not the last we’ll hear about Abe’s “Nuremberg on Madison Avenue.”  I might just be paranoid, but could the manifesto cost Peggy her job?  Matthew Weiner is ruthless about dispensing with characters for the sake of the story (see the photo at the top of the page for evidence), but would he dare get rid of Peggy? I was reassured by the episode’s ending, in which Peggy gets in an elevator with Joan and Faye — the women of the corporate world — and not Joyce, who represents the counterculture.  Though chances are, I was reading into it all a bit too much.

If Peggy’s the budding feminist warrior, then Faye is the true pioneer.  She’s a doctor, she’s single, and she doesn’t have any children and -- guess what -- she likes it that way.  As Faye tells Don, “I love children, but I chose to be where I am.  I don’t view it as a failure.” Faye’s brief interactions with Sally were almost unbearably awkward, but it shows you just how far we haven’t come that I was inclined to judge Faye for her lack of touch with children. The same might be said for Betty, who, as we all know by now, is a rotten mother -- a fact which everyone from January Jones to New York Magazine likes to belabor.

But Don is a god-awful parent, too. When Sally acts out emotionally — cutting her hair or showing up at his office unannounced — Don's knee-jerk reaction is selfish, not sympathetic.  His concern is how much Betty will yell at him, not how much pain his daughter is in.  Don and Sally do have a bond, and that's why I wish he would fight for her, just a bit. Sally's already learning hard lessons about the limits of female devotion.  No matter how many slices of rum-soaked french toast she makes for her dad, that doesn't mean he'll rescue her.  My feeling is, if Don wanted to spend more time with Sally, he could. She asks to live with him, and the only excuse Don can conjure is, "But where will you go to school?"  By literally yanking Sally out the door, and forcing her to go back to a mother who doesn't want her around, Don exacerbates her already-deep psychic wounds.   

It’s heartbreaking that the only compassion anyone shows to Sally comes from Megan, a virtual stranger. I’m still not totally sure how to interpret Megan’s role in this episode, but there was something especially touching about the empathy she displayed.  While everyone else -- men and women alike -- stood around, agape at Sally’s outburst, Megan embraces her.  “I fall all the time,” she tells her.   It’s probably not true -- Megan strikes me as someone who never even has dirt under her nails, never mind wiping out on a hard linoleum floor -- but somehow it’s the exact right thing to say. Peggy might be the creative genius, and Joan the managerial one, but Megan is the only truly kind person on the show.   

While all manner of feminine virtues were on display this week, masculinity was under siege.   SCDP’s campaign for Fillmore Auto Parts is built on this exact idea: Men can makes themselves feel useful — can tap into the “mechanic” inside of them -- with a trip to Fillmore.  Of course, it’s a gambit aimed at emasculated white-collar men who "don't know how to hunt or swing a hammer or fix their cars."  Many of these men, it’s clear, aren't so hot at their office jobs, either.  Roger is too lazy to sign documents with his full signature, while Bert Cooper sits around doing crossword puzzles in the lobby.  When Miss Blankenship dies, it’s Joan who has to step in to write the obituary and deal with the body.  And when Roger and Joan are mugged, Roger hands over his watch, wallet and wedding ring -- as well as Joan’s -- without blinking.  Granted, it was the right thing to do under the circumstances, but still.  Point being, these men are unable to fulfill their stereotypical roles as providers, protectors, or leaders in moments of crisis. 

Even Miss Blankenship’s untimely demise advanced the episode’s feminist themes. Some critics have suggested that Miss Blankenship was too over-the-top, too broad and shtick-y a character for a nuanced show like “Mad Men.”  I happen to disagree, and feel that her character has brought much-needed levity to a season that's been pretty heavy, thematically-speaking. No doubt that these same critics scoffed at this episode, which for about three minutes, veered into “Weekend at Bernie’s” territory. 

Yet the farcical elements were tempered by the real poignancy of Miss Blankenship’s passing.  She’s virtually alone in the world, and though she was not married, her life was defined by servitude to men.  As Roger tells Joan, “She died as she lived: surrounded by the people she answered phones for." Replace “men” with “people” and he has it exactly right.  It’s telling, too, that Roger and Bert -- the in-house representatives of the Old Boy Network -- are the most visibly upset by Miss Blankenship’s death.  While the younger generation is back to telling jokes before the body is even cold, Roger and Bert are distraught.  Inept as she was, Miss Blankenship also embodied a kind of blind (no pun intended) loyalty that they’ll likely never encounter again. She represents the ultimate danger of "being a pot."

Stray thoughts:

-- Yellow was the color of the evening.  Nearly all the “beautiful girls” -- Sally, Faye and Megan -- wore yellow dresses. 

-- Don thought about writing in his diary, then put it away.  I cheered a little.   

-- “I would have my secretary do it, but she’s dead,” was clearly the line of the night, but this episode had some other gems.  I loved when Harry protests the use of his hand-knit afghan as a shroud: “My mother made that!”  Or when Cooper, working on his crossword, tells Miss Blankenship he needs a three-letter word for a non-flying bird that begins with an “l,” and she squawks back, “The hell it does."

-- Roger tells Joan, “I don’t want to die in this office,” and his already lackadaisical work ethic has all but disintegrated this season; do I smell a retirement in the air?

-- As a rule, I do not find muggings to be an aphrodisiac, but I guess this episode proves that we all have our own turn-ons.

-- I would like to point out that the prediction I made last week  about New York’s decline in the '60s -- and, specifically, Joan walking through piles of garbage -- has come true, about three years earlier than I expected.  

-- Anyone know what the great closing music was?

-- Meredith Blake


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Photos: Top, Ida Blankenship (Randee Heller) goes softly into the dark night; Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) joins fellow "beautiful girls" Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Faye (Cara Buono) in the elevator.  Credit: Mike Yarish / AMC 


Comments () | Archives (17)

Having gone through the experience of my parents divorcing, Sally refusal to leave her father was gut-wrenching to watch. As was her little smile when she was rewarded for running away from home with a trip to the Zoo...... Brought all the pain from that period of my life right back to the forefront of my mind.

There is nothing worse than sharing your home with a total stranger your mother is now married to. What Henry represents to Sally's experience can't be put into words...nothing you feel or dislike as a step child is acknowledged by your parent. You start to feel like they picked this other person over you.

I always hated the Betty Draper character and her being married to Henry Francis makes her scenes even more draining. Betty can't start a new life because the evidence of her past is always there, right in front of her, now defiantly acting out for all the world to see.

As much as I enjoyed them and their secret affair before, last night's sequence with Joan and Roger seemed forced.....Am I alone in thinking that?

Someone please tell me why Cooper doesn't have an office of his own? Thanks.

My unanswered question is "Why were they walking in that neighborhood?.I thought the way they got rid of Miss Blakenship was genious.No executive would have a secretary like her unless they started out together and he kept her for old times sake.I was also pleasently surprised at Don showing a soft side towards his daughter.

Is this show the most feminist on television? Interesting question. Possibly. It certain showcases a fine female ensemble cast, and some of the best writing on the tube.

As for bad parenting, I'd say Betty takes first prize, Don is an also-ran, and as for Faye, she's utterly inexperienced - though one would think she had a child psychology course somewhere along the way.

This episode had a hard act to follow - two, to be exact. And it managed to give us more humor (and great lines) - much of it around Blankenship's (timely?) demise.

As for Roger and Joan and their post-mugging magical moment, one does wonder what may grow from that encounter. . .

Your stray thoughts were right in keeping with my own - golden yellow indeed (and goes so well with all those blondes!) - and might one say that little Sally is exhibiting some character traits and body language not unlike her mother's?

Getting back to the colors - not only was (sunny) yellow predominant, but solids in red, purple, green, and orange (as well as the yellows) offered visual reinforcement of the vitality and substance of Mad Men's increasingly self-aware women.

Wasn't it Megan that left in the other elevator, not Joyce?

I can't help but wonder what January Jones has been doing this season with all that extra time on her hands. Not that I miss Betty and, alas, it's safe to assume Matthew Weiner did not include her in his list of the "Beautiful Girls." I found this episode a bit clunky, random acts of high drama that tested the mettle of ad agency employees and found the men sorely lacking, something we already knew. The only female I felt exhibited a true sense of empowerment was poor little Sally but when push came to shove (or slip and fall in her case), she caved like a house of cards. (I'm angry, too, that MW killed off Ida Blankenship. He's taking this God thing a little too seriously).

We're in 1966 now, not 65, right? The muggings were just starting, and NY was on it's way to the toilet. Good episode. Time seems to be moving fast, though. Once the summer of love (1967) dawns and the super-cool 60s disappears forever, I'll have to switch off. I don't ever want to see Don in wide polyester, sideburns, and a white-fro.

bitter gay mark - it WAS mentioned!

i just don't understand how straight people in tv and movies have such easy public sex fully dressed - does that really happen?

@Steve: it is August 1965. They seem to be moving ahead approximately two months with each episode.

@Erica: they were walking in that neighborhood because Roger wanted to enjoy the evening, something about fresh air? He made a comment right before Joan said how badly the neighborhood had detoriated since they were last there. Blankenship had worked for Sterling-Cooper for a long, long time, so they didn't just hire a senile old women from a temp pool for that gig.

Other than the "my secretary is dead line," I loved when Roger told Joan about the massage/manicure, "I rubbed you the wrong way, so I thought I'd rub you the right way."

To BItter Gay Mark: THis is the second time I am responding to you dissing the other after a recap and both times you didn't read what the other wrote close enough. Meredith most definitely mentions JOan and Roger hooking up when she mentions- I don't know about you but I never thought of muggings as an aphrodisiac..... Bitter Gay Mark, in case you don't know how to read, that's a reference to their hook up.

Are you someone who used to write these recaps and lost? because that's the idea I get from your comments. People who read blogs and harass the writers need to get a life

Anyways- now for what I really wanted to say- I think that DOn's not the best parent in the world, but in last night's episode, I saw some desire on his part to be a good parent, but he's been slacking so long he doesn't know what to do. I wouldn't be surprised if by the end of the season something happens that causes him to fight for the kids. I think Betty sees herself in Sally and that's why she has such hatred towards her in some of the recent eps. She probably also hates the fact that Sally is still loving her Dad. I also get the feeling that some of the decisions Don make would be different if it weren't for him trying to keep Betty off his back. LAst night when Sally left his office being dragged out- I was worried at first that Betty was going to see her kicking and screaming and be a major bitch blaming it on Don, not realizing that Sally was screaming about having to see her mother

Not yet specifically mentioned but alluded to was the line "I don't have much child psychology." That was one of the lines that stood out to me. The cult of psychobabble was gaining ground rapidly after WWII, and including one of its Cultic Priestesses as a character is a good move for this show.
The line showed full well that these practitioners are maladjusts that take to this "science" of conflicting theories and manipulable statistics to figure themselves out without having to admit to their off-kilter personalities to anyone else. They seek to be revered as The Wise Among Us and to be sought out for consultation in matters properly addressed by the counsel-seeker's clergy.
They do, however, serve appropriately when not dealing with values-based issues. An ad agency may be an acceptable outlet for them. Displays, slogans, colors, patterns, shapes & etc aren't necessarily a values-based topic, so Psychobabblists' best guesses may not be damaging to families, persons, groups or such if they're closely monitored and supervised. You don't, however, want to trust them with their situational ethics, relative morals, "how does that make you feel", or other asinine tactics that keep their pockets lined with your hard-earned money.
Psychobabble's Cultic Priests made great headway after the War, and gullible Americans bought their bill of goods hook, line, and sinker. Isn't American society in great shape since becoming conditioned to accept the quackery of these fools who are wise in their own eyes?

I also liked what ended up being one of Ida's last lines- said to Peggy after Don came in and kind of blew Peggy off- "It's the business of Sadists and Masochists. You know which one you are."


Getting rid of Peggy, Pete, Joan or Betty would be like getting rid of the Sopranos getting rid of Christopher. While the show does make allowances for how much Roger, for example, and now Sally, become fan favorites, it would be a Christopher-level plot development to get rid of Peggy.

Roger went for Jane because because Joan had just become engaged to Dr. McRapist. He couldn't have her and in a fit of impulsiveness and pique went for the pretty young thing, which always was his thing anyway.

The way I understood the hook-up scene was how a near-death experience affected Joan.

I don't think there's any question that Joan has always had feelings for Roger and vice versa. I think she gave up on the relationship because it was clearly stagnating and she felt she was at the age to get married (remember the girls laughing at her age posted up on the bulletin board in the breakroom).

When she and Roger were mugged, Joan genuinely feared for her life. And after nearly being shot, I think she embraced the moment and her feelings for Roger again. I'm assuming that she didn't like the idea of the two of them dying without her expressing how she really felt about him. She had been pretty cold to him beforehand.

"It’s heartbreaking that the only compassion anyone shows to Sally comes from Megan, a virtual stranger. I’m still not totally sure how to interpret Megan’s role in this episode, but there was something especially touching about the empathy she displayed. While everyone else -- men and women alike -- stood around, agape at Sally’s outburst, Megan embraces her. “I fall all the time,” she tells her. It’s probably not true -- Megan strikes me as someone who never even has dirt under her nails, never mind wiping out on a hard linoleum floor -- but somehow it’s the exact right thing to say. Peggy might be the creative genius, and Joan the managerial one, but Megan is the only truly kind person on the show."

And 4 episodes later, we now know how important Megan is to the story! She was there, in the background, being quietly competent and compassionate throughout the season, but this episode brought her to the foreground in a way we viewers couldn't help but notice -- and neither could Don. To those who've since commented that Megan must have a secret Macchievellian streak, I suggest going back to the scene where she sits down at the reception desk after Betty and Sally haved departed and Don has thanked her. There is genuine concern and sadness on her face, which she quickly replaces with her professional competent cheerfulness when Joyce shows up.


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