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

September 20, 2010 |  8:48 am

Peggy-blankenship

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.

Joanpeggyfaye

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
twitter.com/MeredithBlake

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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 

 

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