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'Mad Men' recap: The science of wet blanketry

September 13, 2010 |  8:56 am

Dondraperswimming

I’m going to begin this week by saying something controversial: The only thing sadder than a drunk Don Draper is a healthy, well-adjusted one.

Since last we saw him, our hero has taken up some new habits. In what appears to be a self-directed rehab program, he’s now swimming laps, drinking watery domestic beer instead of Canadian Club, and writing in a journal. On the plus side, healthy new Don has regained some of his lost mojo -- Faye could barely contain herself in the cab after their date -- but on the downside, he’s now abstaining from sex.  The appeal of “Mad Men” has always been the naughty behavior of its characters. The last thing we want any of them to do is take up yoga, quit eating red meat or be celibate -- least of all, Don.

Coming after last week’s near-perfect episode, "The Summer Man" was destined to disappoint, and it did. Let’s start with the elephant in the room: The diary. The episode opens with Don writing in his journal, and we hear his thoughts in voiceover. It was a big leap for “Mad Men,” in that the show rarely uses such subjective storytelling devices. If we do go inside a character’s head, it’s for a flashback or a dream sequence; not a zoom-in on a tumbler of rye, from Don’s perspective, when he’s lucid and sober. The voiceover thing was forced, unnecessary, and -- sorry, Matthew Weiner -- I couldn’t decide if it reminded me more of "Doogie Howser, M.D.," "Magnum P.I." or "The Wonder Years." Please, let's keep Don's emotions deeply repressed, as they should be.

I might have overlooked the whole diary thing, if only my cliché radar hadn’t gone off a few other moments Sunday night. As Don leaves the New York Athletic Club, we hear him waxing lyrically about the arrival of summer while the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” plays. Such an obvious music cue was, again, a digression for a show that generally opts for B-sides and more obscure hits of the era. Don’t get me wrong. I love me some Stones, I really do, but it all comes down to storytelling. The soundtrack should add a layer of emotional complexity to the story -- like the wonderfully bittersweet Simon and Garfunkel song that played at the end of last week’s episode -- and not do the writer’s work for him. Imagine if “Respect” played right after Peggy fired Joey, and you have the same effect. 

A slightly less egregious cliché was the shot of Don sinking underwater, which is long-established cinematic shorthand for “this character is in some kind of emotional distress.”  See also: "The Graduate," "Rushmore," and, um, “Old School." That puts Don in some good company, I suppose, but it’s still a played-out device. “Mad Men,” I say these things because I love you and I want the best for you. Consider this my tough-love speech. Got it?

Gripes aside, this episode did have its bright spots. Betty’s run-in with Don and Bethany was spectacularly awkward, and it’s clear that she’s not over her ex-husband. For Betty, disgust is easy; jealousy, on the other hand, practically makes her short-circuit. Always the model of emotional maturity, Betty is angered because Don’s on a date with someone younger than she is -- though I have to say, this time I can’t really blame her for being peeved. (Side note: When Betty tells Francine about the encounter with Bethany, all I could think was what insanely jealous people did in these situations before the Internet, because we all know Betty would have Google-stalked Bethany if she had the chance.) After Betty’s outburst, Henry suspects that his wife still harbors feelings for her ex -- and given the way Betty eyeballs Don at the end of the episode, I have a feeling Henry’s right. Henry’s pretty emotionally evolved, but the way he ignores the subject of Don the morning after their fight makes me wonder if these two are going to make it. 

Another bright spot is the ongoing ideological turf war between Peggy and Joan. Peggy is a budding feminist, whether she’d admit to it or not; meanwhile Joan represents the endgame of pre-feminist gender politics, where a woman’s only choice is to be “a meaningless secretary or a humorless bitch.”  She’s learned to work the system, but it’s one that’s becoming obsolete, and Joan’s the casualty of these changing fault lines. More than anyone at the agency, she understands the machinations of power -- how to get it and how to exploit it. 

The one thing she doesn’t have is Peggy’s job. While Peggy’s dreaming up campaigns for Mountain Dew, Joan is saddled with (literally) two-bit issues such as the malfunctioning vending machine. Joan might, for all intents and purposes, run the office, but at the end of the day, her concerns are incredibly myopic. Marriage has failed to make her happy, which exacerbates her dissatisfaction in the workplace. Rather than seeking out new responsibilities, she clings ever more ferociously to the ones she already has. As a result, my beloved Joan is turning into something of a school marm, saying things like “I really think this vending machine is a troublemaker” and -- what’s worse -- meaning them. This is at least the second time Peggy and Joan have come to blows over office machinery. “Mad Men” really shines when it focuses on how mundane issues such as lost candy rolls can have take on such outsize importance. The one thing I can’t decide, though, is who’s right -- Don or Joan? Don tells Peggy to fire Joey, because: “You do not want me involved in this or people will think you’re a tattletale." I rooted for Peggy -- especially after Joey's sexist response -- but the plan backfires and, as Joan puts it: “No matter how powerful we get around here, they can still just draw a cartoon.” I’d hardly turn to Don or Joan for advice in my personal life, but they’re both pretty savvy when it comes to office politics. Joan lashed out unfairly, but ultimately, I think she may have been right on this one. Peggy may just be mastering the "science of wet blanketry," as Stan suggests. Peggy may go on to win all the CLIOs in the world, but she’ll always be desperate for Joan’s approval; if only that were enough for Joan.   

What did you think, Show Trackers?  Was this episode a bit of a dud after last week’s triumph? Do you approve of Making Healthy Choices Don?  Speaking of which, do you think there’s a future in store for him and Faye?  I’m not sold.

Stray thoughts:

-- Henry secures Rockefeller’s support for John Lindsay, a Republican congressman who would be elected mayor of New York in 1965, would later switch to the Democratic party, and whom conventional wisdom would blame for New York City’s decline in the late 1960s and '70s.  There’s a lot of talk about wanting to see their city's incipient decay. Joan gets mad over a few beer bottles left around the office; how’s she going to deal with the sanitation strike of 1968? Now that, I’d like to know.

-- What’s up with Harry’s crush on Joey? And was that a portrait of Jed Clampett on Harry’s side table? While we’re on the subject of furniture, isn’t Harry’s office decorated like an old lady’s drawing room?

-- We haven’t seen baby Gene -- or should I say toddler Gene? -- since the second episode of this season. Much to my disappointment, he looks perfectly normal, but I still think he might have been hiding a forked tail under that baby blue outfit.

-- I love hungover Betty, who made an appearance this week, almost as much as angry-turtleneck-wearing Betty.           

-- On the subject of clothes, who noticed the zippy summer plaid jacket Don wore on his date with Faye? Quite a change from his usual somber grays. And I would kill a sexist copywriter or two for the frilly, aqua-blue dress Joan wears when she tells off the boys. 

-- Meredith Blake
twitter.com/MeredithBlake

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Photo: Don Draper takes a dip.  Credit: Mike Yarish / AMC 

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