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'Mad Men': Maidenform

September 1, 2008 |  6:00 am

Like many of us, the folks at TV by the Numbers have been ruminating upon the possible reasons for the ratings slide this season for "Mad Men," which kicked off with a great deal of hullabaloo. One theory discussed is that it’s hard for a newer viewer to get a sense of Don Draper’s complexity by watching a single episode than perhaps it was for other original serials with involved plots -- such as "The Wire" or "The Sopranos" –- since these shows were populated by “well-known archetypes” like gangsters, cops, criminals and so forth who bring a whole history of drama and tension with them. I’m putting words in the mouth of the author here, but it seems as if the idea is that we have been taught to expect contradictions and conflict out of these sorts of characters, allowing viewers to become immersed more easily in the show even if they’re not sure about particular plot points. On the other hand, we need to be taught (so to speak) what complexities can exist in a '60s ad man like Don Draper, whose drinking and philandering ways seem more like a stereotype than an archetype.

Don is certainly developing into a complex character, but this has occurred slowly, and major revelations hardly occur in every episode. This is something I like, as I’ve mentioned, but I tend to agree with the above point that this could make it difficult for a new viewer to be gripped by the show. And the reason for this long lead-in was that the episode this week was one of the ones that might be tough for a newer viewer –- Don’s sliding down an increasingly steep slope, but this was largely signified by three instances of his staring intently into the middle distance.

The title of the episode refers, yes, to the maker of the brassieres and competitor to Sterling Cooper’s client, Playtex. Maidenform had successfully been selling a dream of romance, you see, while Playtex merely sold lots and lots of bras because they fit well. So Sterling Cooper -– Paul Kinsey, in particular -– comes up with the idea that Playtex lets women be Jackie Kennedy by day and Marilyn Monroe by night, even though Peggy Olson (who’s supposed to be the copywriter on this client) objects. Repeatedly, she’s left out of meetings, both formal (at the office) and informal (at the bar). Ultimately, though, the client doesn’t go for the ad since they’ve made so much money based on something as utilitarian as fit. But they offer to take out the boys from Sterling Cooper for a night on the town, and that night on the town is at a topless bar (familiar territory for Matthew Weiner, formerly of "The Sopranos"). Peggy does show up there at the end –- and not in the “little girl” attire Joan Holloway derides earlier in the episode. What does this mean for Peggy’s arc, for her desire to become who she wants to be? She’s navigating new territory, not just for herself but for career women in general.

For the first time, we saw both back story and forward movement for Duck Phillips. We learned last season that he doesn’t drink; in this episode, it became clear that his drinking used to be a major problem. His ex-wife drops off his teenaged children and Irish setter for the weekend, and the kids spill the beans that this is because she’s going to get married to her boyfriend and leave the dog with him. Duck looks momentarily unsettled, but in true salesman fashion says that the boyfriend is a good man and that it’s only natural that she’s starting a new life. Later in the episode, however, he’s ready to guzzle whiskey from an empty office until the dog’s sad, glazed, probably inbred gaze keeps him from doing so. Too sappy, you say? Not to worry. Duck leads the dog through the lobby and lets him out onto the mean streets of Manhattan, striding back with purpose into the deserted office, presumably to fall off the wagon –- and hard.

In furtherance of his ongoing quest to become Don Draper, Pete Campbell avoids his imperfect home life by picking up a woman, one of the models who auditioned for the Playtex mockup ads. So what if she lives at home with her elderly mother? Pete looks at himself in the mirror in his dark apartment when he gets home, and a smile -– of satisfaction? pride? embarrassment? -– creeps out.

Now, onto Don and his three significant stares. The first takes place at a Memorial Day country-club event, where the emcee asks all veterans to stand up. As Don stands and his daughter applauds with great pride in her eyes, Don stares into the middle distance. Outside the club, he calls Bobbie –- their affair has apparently been going on for months now –- only to find that (a) she can’t make their rendezvous and (b) she has an 18-year-old son she’s never mentioned. He returns home to an empty house and stares into the middle distance while drinking milk straight from the bottle. In a nice touch, there’s a bag of Utz potato chips on top of the refrigerator. A few days later, he tells Betty that the bikini she bought at the country-club to-do makes her look “desperate” to be ogled. Really, he’s not being very nice.

Don and Bobbie do manage a couple of assignations in her hotel room, but the second one takes a nuanced turn. During the warmup to the main event, Don doesn’t want Bobbie to talk, but she won’t stop. She tells him that she’s had the “full Don Draper treatment” –- and it’s better than she expected. He wants to know what she’s talking about and with whom she’s been talking about it. She throws out a name of a woman at Random House and says that Don has a reputation. While she remains playful, Don turns severe and says, “Does it make you feel better to think that I’m like you?” Apparently, he retains some conception of himself that is at a steep angle to reality, though perhaps his stares into the middle distance suggest otherwise.

Finally, Don wakes up one morning, coughing. Betty brusquely asks him what he wants for breakfast, and it’s grapefruit -– a healthy choice, though the modern viewer might wonder whether it will affect his medication. While he’s in the bathroom shaving, Sally comes in and sits on the toilet lid. Don stares at himself in the mirror, the shaving cream forming a white beard along his jaw. He doesn’t look good. (Though, as an aside, how does he remain so fit? No one seems to exercise.) Perhaps he looks like his father. He tells Sally to leave him alone, and he sits upon the toilet lid and stares into the middle distance.

So here we are, more than a third of the way through Season 2. Don seems poised for one or more crisis -– health-related, employment-related, family-related. Betty seems poised to have an affair. What will push each of them over the edge? Where will we be at the end of the season?

-- Sarah Rogers