Monday, July 8, 2013

Mad Men S1E3 - "It's Hard to Get Caught in a Lie"

Rachel Menken realizes that none of the bullshit artists at Sterling Cooper have even set foot in Menken's Department Store, nor did they ever intend to. Don Draper makes it clear that he will rectify that immediately, telling her, as he walks her to the elevator, that the firm's failure to do so wasn't about lying; it was simply "ineptitude with insufficient cover." She appreciates that. "Something about the way you talk always restores my confidence," she says. "I have a deep voice," he says. Ironically, that's the truth.

Pete Campbell, just back from his honeymoon, notices that Don is doing more than just making Sterling Cooper's new client feel more comfortable about working with the firm. For her part, Rachel notices that Don's cuff link has fallen off, a sure sign that he doesn't come from a world where such things were taught to him at an early age. For his part, Don's making Rachel feel like a person by admitting to what's really going on in advertising. They are at a client meeting, but they are more interested in each other as people. Pete sees it all, and wonders what he's missing out on, even as he has to tell Peggy Olson that their night together, which will have consequences throughout the season, was just one night. How do you talk to women when you're married? 

For Don it's done by not telling the truth. If we weren't sure that Don has the gifts of the gods, we know it when he makes the visit to Menken's Department Store as promised. It culminates with Rachel taking him up to the store's roof - a place that she reveals has been a special refuge for her all her lonely life, as the child of both a father whose only passion was his business and a mother who died giving birth to her. (Are we supposed to see an irony in a Jewish store keeping German shepherds in cages on the roof?) She ends her story with an expectant look at Don, a look that some men don't read correctly and some men choose to ignore out of fear. But old Don knows exactly what to do.

"What is this?" he asks. 

She looks at him. Is he calling her out on making a pass at him? 

Nope. "Don't try to convince me you've ever been unloved." And then he plants one. Boom. 

What's Don doing? Don is doing what he will do for the next few years; he's wandering through the avenues of life where people discover that they love another, an experience that runs entirely counter to the world of his childhood, where all he learned were the different degrees to which he was unloved. He knows the look of someone who's already been loved.

Then I suppose Don has to reveal to her that he's married because she is a client, and he does, right after he kisses her, right after Rachel looks overwhelmed by him. 

"What do you do," she asks, disappointed, "just kiss women all the time? Women you aren't married to?" 

"Of course not," he says. And with that, we've caught him in a lie, even if Rachel doesn't know it.


It's Sally Draper's birthday party, and it's amazing to see Sally as she was in 1960, or the actress Kiernan Shipka as she was in 2006. I always loved the way Mad Men portrayed small children as their parents' cocktail waiters and waitresses (though I've had problems with the kinds of things it's asked its child actors to do). Don is happy to assemble Sally's backyard playhouse so long as she gets him another beer from the garage. Sally is a bopping, happy little person, eager to please, so far off from the eventual teenager who will accidentally witness both Roger Sterling getting blown by Don's second mother-in-law and her father making the time with an upstairs neighbor. But then it's still 1960. Lady Chatterly's Lover is the best sex guide available to women in the office. The new neighbor Helen Bishop is a source of fascination for Betty and the other women on the block because she's a divorced mother of two. 

Don assembles the little playhouse in the backyard, looking somewhat bewildered by how a complete home is built. When he goes up for a shower before company arrives for the party, their neighbor and friend Francine asks Don if he'd like company. She asks it in front of Betty. It's still a joke, but it's not. It's not as if people needed the Sexual Revolution to joke about sex.

The party starts. There's plenty of booze in the punch. Pregnant Francine is "so thirsty right now." When I first watched this party, I thought Mad Men was going to begin exploring how the culture of swinging and cheating went mainstream, but I see now that the show had more important things on its mind. In this episode the party reveals that swinging was just the manifestation of one too many lame, drunken jokes among unhappy people who never got permission to go anywhere they wanted in life. The culture of fractured family life is the resulting universe to come.

The Volkswagen that single mom Helen Bishop arrived in is the car of the future, just as the messages of "Lemon" and "Think Small" are the new vanguard in advertising, and the guys at Sterling Cooper don't yet get it. The crude little husbands at Sally's party don't see that, either. Nobody understands the strange freedom in the small Volkswagen. It's a car for individuals, not large families of the postwar boom. To some people, it's just a car for circus midgets, while to others, it's still a Nazi car. 

VW owner Helen tells the women at the party that sometimes she just goes for walks around the neighborhood to clear her head.

"But where?" Francine asks. Where do you go?

"Anywhere," Helen answers.

Meanwhile, through six seasons we can now recognize the blurred numbness that Don wears after countless drinks at Sally's party. Still, he recognizes the expressions of barely disguised malice of the husbands, the "boys," as he calls them, whose wives are alternately fascinated and repulsed by Helen in the kitchen, and so he drinks some more. I suppose that Don probably first recognized those same expressions on horny men who came in and out of the whorehouse in which he grew up, but then did Matt Weiner see that far ahead in his character?

Say cheese.
For the moment, Don sees it all through the 8mm camera he uses to film the party for Betty's sake. Kids dressed as Cowboys and Indians stroll through; the one boy who didn't make the cut in the cure for polio moves past on crutches, dressed an an Indian, of course. The guffawing husbands come to some composure when they realize they are on film. But then Don sees one couple standing alone, not knowing that they're being filmed, truly in love, and it disturbs him. The image of the children playing Cowboys and Indians on the lawn outside are no different from the people playing games within, but true love is something that jars him when he sees it. 

"We got it all, huh?" Francine's husband asks Don, admiring his house.

"Yep," Don says. "This is it."

What does "it" all mean to him, the natural-born outsider, still looking in? "It" means nothing. So he drinks some more. Betty has to remind him to go get the birthday cake again, so he goes. But he doesn't come back until the party is long over. He temporarily disappears, one of his many, many vanishing acts to come.


At the beginning of the episode, Don is on the train to work. Suddenly he's reunited with a guy on business with IBM in Armonk, a guy from his old infantry in Korea who calls him "Dick Whitman," a name that, at this point, we've never heard before. We sense Don has, though. What's going on?

"Draper?" Harry asks, when Pete asks jealously about him. "Nobody's ever lifted up that rock. He could be Batman for all we know." 

By the end of the episode, we are left with an image that will become all-too familiar - Don alone, in his car at night, staring off into the distance, smoking. The box containing his daughter's untouched birthday cake is next to him on the bench seat; he's contemplating what we presume are the conflicts created out of his fractured life. We don't yet know how deep they run, but we at least know that the rock is weighted heavily with whatever he's thinking. 

But now, with hindsight, there's something else. We see he's sitting at the local railroad station, the lights blinking at the crossroads. A train is coming. He rests, waiting. The train roars past, its lights reflected in the windows of his car. Perhaps Don is considering another crossroads in his life. Or maybe it's something else, something that we'll take for granted by the end of the sixth season. All he would have to do is roll the car onto the tracks, and it would all end so quickly.

But he doesn't. Instead, we see him back at house again, still blurry with drink. Sally wipes away the whiskey kiss he gives her when he finally gets back too late, and he puts his head back. Betty still isn't ready to confront him about "who's really in there." Things can stay as they are for the moment.

1 comment:

  1. I'm really enjoying this. I think I'm going to have to stop reading, though, and go back and actually start to re-watch each episode.

    I started to re-watch The Sopranos after Gandolfini's death, and it's amazing how much stuff I missed or overlooked. I think someone should do this for all the great shows of recent years. Like returning to a great novel, these shows warrant a proper revisiting and analysis every few years.

    Thank you for taking the time to do this. I hope you're able to see it through up till the final season. I wrote reviews of Breaking Bad last year, so I know how daunting writing about TV, with all its storylines and characters, can be. Good luck!

    One complaint. When are you going to start writing about Roger? Just kidding, of course, but he's my favorite character, so I can't wait to read your thoughts on his development over the seasons.

    P. Edmonds