'Mad Men' Mondays: 'The Summer Man'

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BOOKS AND ARTS SEPTEMBER 13, 2010

'Mad Men' Mondays: 'The Summer Man'

This is the new column in TNR’s weekly series of "Mad Men" episode recaps. Caution: It contains spoilers. Click here for last week's review.

Except for the lamentable absence of Roger Sterling, "The Summer Man" was one of just two true ensemble episodes this season (the debut was the other). Characters that are usually locked into their own narrative boxes broke free and roamed through one another's territory; the show even managed to integrate Don and Betty's worlds, previously as rigidly demarcated as North and South Korea. The script's unifying thread came by way of The Rolling Stones, whose 1965 hit "Satisfaction" blasted during a narrated montage (borderline Scorsesean in its restless energy) that ranked among "Mad Men"s most aggressively cinematic passages. Mick Jagger can't get what he wants, and neither can any of Matthew Weiner's characters. The choice of music was awfully on-the-nose, as was the synchronization of lyrics to images, such as when Don Draper lit a smoke to "the same cigarettes as me" or checked out a couple of cute young women to "I can't get no girlie action." But Keith Richards's guitar riff is so propulsive, and the song's lyrics so durably bitter and yearning, that it wove its voodoo spell all the same. And it primed us for an episode about characters grasping after respect or dignity and falling short.

Don started writing about himself as a dual exercise in self-knowledge and self-discipline. He goes on a date with Bethany (whose chipper blankness I find increasingly tedious) which concludes with her giving him a Hollywood hello in the backseat of a cab. Don concedes in voiceover (a first for the show) that his courtship of Bethany was borne of curiosity and simple horniness, and after dropping her off at the Barbizon, he looks up at the windows and imagines all the other young women in the building pleasuring themselves to sleep. I'm not sure how to take Don's prose, by the way; given his taciturn demeanor, I expected a more circumspect Hemingway quality, but he sounded more like a prematurely cynical undergraduate who just discovered Norman Mailer. (In the defense of co-writers Lisa Albert, Janet Leahy, and Matthew Weiner, I don't think we're supposed to be impressed by Don's literary skills, given that he laments that he didn't finish high school and has never written more than 250 words at one time.)

I previously wrote that I didn't think Don had reached rock-bottom yet, but based on his behavior in this episode—his regimen of exercise and journal writing, and his pointed avoidance of booze—I might have been wrong about that. Maybe the one-two punch of Don's lost weekend and the death of Anna Draper (in Don's words, the only person who really knew him) sobered him up. Or maybe there was another incident that happened offscreen. This might sound farfetched until you think about Matthew Weiner's favorite device here and as a writer-producer on "The Sopranos"—the narrative ellipsis. He's part of a contingent of cable TV storytellers that's not afraid to let significant action occur offscreen, and to show people, relationships and social circumstances having changed without feeling that he has to pinpoint the exact moment when the change occurred.

Don and Betty's stories intertwine when she and Henry run into Don on his date with Bethany. Betty and Henry were having dinner with a representative for Congressman (and future New York mayor) John Lindsay about the possibility of Henry managing Lindsay's 1972 presidential campaign. This wasn't the time or place for Betty's usual narcissistic melodrama, but she either didn't recognize this or couldn't control herself, so she stared obsessively at Don and Bethany, then bolted from their table and wept in a bathroom stall. Henry and Betty's exchange in the car on the way home highlighted the maturity gap that separates them. When Henry griped that there were certain times when people had to just put a lid on their feelings and observe the rules of decorum, Betty snapped, "You're a saint." "I'm an adult," he retorted. But this assertion was partly belied by his subsequent behavior—intentionally running his car into a stack of Don's belongings in the family's garage, then phoning Don at the office and demanding that he show up on the Saturday before his youngest son's birthday party to clean out his stuff. (Henry somewhat gratuitously reminded Don not to show up at the party:  a great example of "Mad Men" characters paying their misery forward by enduring humiliation at the hands of a character they can't really lash out at, then displacing their anger onto someone that can't fight back.)

For all the show's oblique fascination with African Americans' struggle for civil rights (a phenomenon that's portrayed as just another vaguely unsettling thing on TV, rather like the still-new deployment of Vietnam combat troops glimpsed in the newscast that Don noted in his journal) the fourth season has directed most of its political attention to another civil rights struggle: feminism. The Sterling-Draper-Cooper-Pryce office is a burgeoning civil war drawn along gender lines: The men are the smug, decadent ruling class, and the women (especially the younger ones) are insurgents. There was, however, one brief moment of detente: Don and Dr. Faye Miller's first date, which culminated in a romantic kiss. Faye's arms'-length fascination with Don has been one of the season's more intriguing subplots. She knows Don is trouble yet recognizes him as a kindred spirit, and with each passing week she warms to him a bit more. She's a completely autonomous professional woman—when I look at her, I see Peggy circa 1975—but there are also suggestions that she's sort of a female answer to Don, someone who's remade her identity for strategic reasons and closely guards her true self. Between her phone booth tirade at her ex (ending with, "Go shit in the ocean!") and her coded but not-remotely-coy description of her mob-connected father, "a handsome, two-bit gangster," she's another character running from her past and trying to remake herself on her own terms. (Have you noticed that the more Faye talks to Don, the more outer-borough her accent becomes?)

The episode's most colorful and tense subplot was the clash between Joan and Joey, a pig who projects his hatred of his domineering mother onto Joan. "What do you do here besides walking around looking like you're trying to get raped?" he demands, a particularly cruel barb given that Joan's then-fiance raped her in the office in Season Two, and also a sign that Joan's powers of persuasion and intimidation, so effective on the likes of Paul and Pete, don't work so well on a younger generation of men. When Joey cruelly slurs Joan in a crude cartoon, it brought the gender wars into the open. I had reservations about the sequence of events; while expertly shot, cut, and acted, there were times when it felt too much like a hypothetical anecdote in a booklet about what to do if you're harassed in the workplace. But the ultimate resolution of the plot blunted potential charges of didacticism. It was agonizing watching Joan struggle to deal with Joey's swinishness with cutting remarks that barely scratched his thick skin, and when Peggy stepped in and fired Joey, I wanted to stand up and cheer. But the subsequent scene between Joan and Peggy in the elevator muddied the dramatic water in a good way (Joan telling Peggy that her action reinforced the idea that Joan was just a "meaningless secretary" and that Peggy was "a humorless bitch").  Peggy was morally right but tactically clumsy, and once the adrenaline rush of female empowerment wore off, you could see Joan's point—that perhaps it was better to handle the situation with a private caning than a public hanging. This was the hour's starkest example of characters failing to get satisfaction—and when I type the word "satisfaction," I'm not just thinking of happiness or material success, but another definition: justice. Every kind of satisfaction proved elusive here—except at very end, when Don crashed little Gene's birthday party, and Betty set aside her resentment, handed the boy to his father, then rejoined her new husband and flashed an unexpectedly peaceful smile.

Matt Zoller Seitz is a contributor to Salon and the founder of Slant's “The House Next Door,” where he has written extensively about “The Sopranos” and other series.

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posted in: books and arts, new york, south korea, anna draper, betty, don draper, faye miller, henry, janet leahy, joan, joey, john lindsay, keith richards, lisa albert, matthew weiner, mick jagger, norman mailer, roger sterling, mad men, the sopranos, the rolling stones

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