Welcome to the Convo, where ACG Blog contributors get together for discussion and analysis. Today’s topic is last night’s episode of “Mad Men,” “The Summer Man.”
“You need three ingredients for a cocktail. Vodka and Mountain Dew is an emergency.”
Those soon-to-be-immortal lines — solid advice for college freshmen — were spoken by Peggy. It came amidst one of the three plots, all exploring self-empowerment.
First, Don. On a date with Bethany van Blowjob he runs into no other than Henry and Betty Francis. Awkward! Betty almost pukes at the encounter, although it might have something to do with the Scotch-and-cigarettes. “Don’t you want to be close with anyone?” she asks him, referring to his lax attention. She’s right; he does, but not with someone who talks about how he’s from a different generation. Yikes! He realizes he’s no different from Henry “Has A Daughter Her Age” Francis, just 15 years younger.
Don slyly hits up Dr. Faye for a date (after not-so-surreptitiously listening to her break up with “David”). There, he admits that he’s not welcome at baby Gene’s birthday party the next day, that “he thinks that other man is his father.” She tells him that he can and should present the reality to Gene that he wishes. Perhaps most indicative of Don truly trying to change, he fends off Faye’s advances (has he met a woman who didn’t throw herself at him?). Apparently he didn’t have the same taxi driver as on his date with Bethany; this one probably sighed in relief when the infamous Don Draper stopped with a little smooching.
Don brazenly shows up uninvited and spends at least a few happy seconds with his son, whom he openly admits during the narrative punctuates the action with poignant observations and beatnik-level contempt. Is it a journal, a way for him to keep track of his rise from rock bottom? Is he writing a letter to someone (the deceased Anna; Betty; Sally)? Is he writing a memoir, to be released a week after Roger’s? If so, how will he top the ball-less Cooper bomb?
Betty, whose search for empowerment collides with Don’s at the end, is upset by seeing Don and Betty 2.0 out on a date. She spirals quickly, shaking her way into a stall and dropping her purse on the way. Fortunately, she gets to bitch to Francine (Anne Dudek and her four lines stealing the scene, of course) about how Don shouldn’t be allowed to have that swinging bachelor life and his family. I guess she forgot that he doesn’t seem to see the kids that much anyway. But one glimpse of her shirtless and surprisingly fit hubby coming in from lawn mowing helps her realize: she has everything, and Don has nothing. You keep rationalizing, Betty; that last shot showed deep down you’re unhappy.
Meanwhile, back at the SCDP office, Joan and Peggy deal with the sophomoric antics of Joey, Stan and Nameless Creative Guy, who continue making lewd jokes (“There was this guy whose balls were so big…”) and sketching cartoons of Joan and Lane K-I-S-S-I-N-G. The Joan vs. The Boys fight hinted at last week exploded last night. Pete comes galloping out, but quickly proves useless; initially upset by the noise, he instead asks when the office had acquired a vending machine.
It was so satisfying to see Peggy take charge and fire Joey. “You want some respect?” Don asked her. “Go out there and get it for yourself.” I was so satisfied with Peggy’s self-empowerment Joan’s spot-on pronouncement really blindsided me. The worst part is Joan is right; by firing Joey Peggy only demonstrated that Joan is essentially a powerless secretary and that Peggy herself is the office bitch (something the art director claimed a few episodes back).
It’s a bumpy road to gender equality. Can Peggy display power without being a bitch? That’s a double standard; any man in a similar position would be lauded for grabbing what he wants. Can Joan regain her dignity without running to a man?
What else? Nice Margaret Mead reference, Pegs. Oh, and Harry Crane’s office is kicking. Truly spectacular. Why is it better than Don’s or Roger’s? Does he entertain big-wig TV execs? Who cares, I just want to lounge in there with some Ella Fitzgerald and a nice cigar.
And Dr. Rapist is about to ship out to Vietnam. Why did it take so long for him to make it to basic? And why has he been so sweet a husband this season? Are they setting Joan up for tragedy with a capital T?
From the offset, it’s pretty clear that this episode is going to be about the rebirth of Don Draper. In the first shot, we see Don in a swimming pool lap lane, fighting his way across and moving in the opposite direction from every swimmer around him. Yes, he’s beginning the process of rebirth (heyyyy water imagery!), but it’s going to be a struggle. At the end of the lane he begins coughing fitfully — he’s really out of shape. And his smoking and alcoholism certainly aren’t helping.
While he’s nowhere near ready to give up the smoking (And he shouldn’t! Seriously, what would “Mad Men” be without the constant haze?), he is beginning to admit that he has an alcohol problem, and start (at least thinking about) doing something about it. In his apartment, he’s stopped storing his liquor in a prominent location, putting it instead behind a shelf, in the shadows of the space. And when he surreptitiously removes the bottle from the dark corner, he does so knowing that his action is wrong — destructive even. But, for the moment, he can’t help himself. He feels adrift.
About midway through the episode, Don is back in the pool, taking another crack at the lane. He stops swimming, sinking into the water seemingly endlessly. Despite the depressing visual, the implication here is a hopeful one: The pool has a bottom that Don will eventually reach, at which point he will have the means and the will to push himself back to the top and carry on, stronger for his struggle.
And helping him with that will be Faye, the psychologist at SCDP that Don’s wanted to tap since the beginning of the season. She’s rebuffed him time and again, but something is different this time, and it’s not just that she’s no longer attached. The Don Draper who finally gets a date with the good doctor is a more respectful man, both of Faye, and of himself. After their date, he has the chance to sleep with her, which the old Don would’ve jumped at. Instead, he opts to take things slow and really try to build something with her.
The end of the episode finds Don swimming again, this time alongside another pool-goer. He’s not giving up and sinking, and he’s not clawing his way through the water, struggling to go against the flow of the other swimmers. This time, Don is keeping pace.
I think Faye could be very good for Don. She’s his intellectual and experiential equal. She has insight into the kind of man he was, as well as the man he’s becoming. She can help him work through his regrets and avoid making new ones (He went to Gene’s birthday party!). The closest he’s come to a relationship like this in the past was when he dated Rachel Menken in season one; only back then, he simply wasn’t ready for it. This time, “it just felt like the timing was right.” As he tells Sarah Newlin (or whatever the hell her name is on this show), he does want to be really close with someone, possibly for the first time in his life.
On a final note, and without commenting too much on the whole Joan/Peggy/women in the workforce situation, I just want to say thanks to all the ballsy, real-life Joans and Peggys who went through this harassment and power struggle shit so I don’t have to. Because I’d be the one crying in the bathroom every day. Trust.
Vanessa Van Landingham
About mid-way through last night’s episode, I started thinking of the lines to that James Brown classic, “It’s a Man’s, Man’s World”: “This is a man’s world, but it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl. He’s lost in the wilderness, he’s lost in bitterness.”
Don has seemed so lost without a woman in his life, but he seems to finally be getting the hang of it. He’s enjoying the wide expanse of his bed, stretching out like a skydiver.
The episode opened with something we’ve never really seen before: a reflective Don, journaling. Could he have been inspired by “Sterling’s Gold?” I’m thinking not, but it set the tone for what I felt was a very satisfying episode. When I first fell in love with Don, lo those three years ago, I loved him for all the wrong reasons: He was like a Kennedy man — an insanely flawed, insanely handsome lady’s man who never met a drink he didn’t love. But in recent weeks, I’ve been disgusted by him — he’s this awful lady’s man who drinks all the time. It couldn’t have been clearer than the moment when, choking and panting after a morning’s swim, Don tried to collect himself as the opening chords of “Satisfaction” rumbled to the forefront. Don is going to be that old guy who doesn’t know the world changed, and I’m always nervous for the moment he won’t be cooler than cool.
But Don surprised me this week. He looked inside, and he seems to be doing a systematic cleanse. He’s literally baptizing himself every morning with a swim — “It’s weightless and you don’t even sweat,” he told the foxy Dr. — and looked at his glasses of liquor like they tasted as bad as they smelled. He’s still got his flaws, including a hopeless weakness for Hitchcockian blondes, but he’s working on them. I think he knows he doesn’t want to be Roger and mistakenly wed a dope like Bethany (who I happen to hate) and I was happy when Dr. Foxy accepted his invitation for a date. I’m not lobbying for Don to take a wife, but if he does, she seems to be a great match, the looks of Betty with the smarts of a Joan or Peggy.
Speaking of Joan and Peggy, wow, those gals broke my heart. Joan, like Don, seems to be quickly becoming a symbol of a bygone era. She’s balancing her seemingly superficial duties at work (candy machine complaint mistress) with her very real, very devastating home life fraught with inevitable horror. Is there anyone out there who thinks Mr. Joan is gonna survive Vietnam? Even if he does, we know he’s gonna be a mess of a mess. Within the span of a year, Joan suddenly went from every man’s object of desire to the Mommy of the Office, and it was sad to see the way Joey treated her (especially because I liked Joey up until tonight). I loved/cringed when she delivered her devastating blow: “I can’t wait until next year, when all of you are in Vietnam. … Remember you’re not dying for me, because I never liked you.” I want Joanie to reach her true potential; she truly should have had Harry’s job.
Betty also seemed to wrestle with her role as Mrs. Henry Francis, when she so clearly still identifies as Mrs. Don Draper. How devastating was her trip to the bathroom and her sad little swipe at her underarms? I was struck by how well January Jones nailed the same facial expression Sally Draper makes when she’s disappointed; she treats Henry like a father and acts like a child. But she seemed to act her age, behaving with grace, when Don showed up to see baby Gene.
And how about Don’s relationship with Gene? There was a moment when I thought Don must feel, in some part, that baby Gene is a lot like him. Born of a moment of desperation, then tossed into a tumultuous time, only to be raised by a different father than his own? Sounds familiar.
A final thought: I couldn’t help but feel for Betty at the end of the episode. Don is taking his first steps toward becoming the man she wanted him to be: sober, punctual, thoughtful, introspective and courtly. I felt her anger; it is the unfair reality that he would have never started down this path if she didn’t give him the wake-up call he needed.