“Indian Summer” (season 1, episode 11; originally aired 10/4/2007)
In which it’s not the sound; it’s the vibration
(Available on Netflix.)
I did some grousing last week about how Mad Men is great at a lot of things, but plotting is rarely among them. And yet the end of “Indian Summer” rather gives the lie to that notion, featuring one of the show’s most skillfully plotted scenes. Don Draper, having been made partner, gives Peggy the raise she asked for, now that she’s copywriting. He also tells her to take the rest of the afternoon off, just like he is. With the two of them gone, Pete, stung that he has to win Don’s favor to get the Head of Account Services job he so desires, sneaks his way into Don’s office to get a feel for what it must be like to be the man. A mailboy enters the room with a package for “Mr. Draper.” Because Peggy and Don aren’t there, neither can stop the package from falling into Pete’s hands. And because Pete has it, he could very easily end Don Draper’s career. What’s in that package? We don’t know just yet, but it came from Adam Whitman, so that can only mean it will have some sort of tie to Don’s former identity.
The truth about Don Draper has been burbling away under the surface this season. The show has been more interested in using it to inform the character’s actions than create some sort of plot where Don has to stay two steps ahead of someone who knows the truth about his identity. That’s been an effective choice, but it also would have stretched the “truth” about Don to its breaking point if he carried his secret forward into season after season. Therefore, somebody other than Rachel has to learn about his secret past, and the best character to learn it—because it creates the most possibility for story disruption—is Mr. Peter Campbell, whose alternation between jealousy and hero worship for Don creates the most potential for huge conflict, heading into the season’s final two episodes. It’s the perfect conflict between self-made man and the man who would be self-made but just doesn’t have the stuff, two American archetypes that the season has thoroughly interrogated, drawn together by one fateful package delivery.
What I like about the ending of “Indian Summer” isn’t just how it ties together all of the threads from the episode prior—Peggy’s skill with both writing copy and making presentations, Roger’s heart attack, Don’s promotion, Pete’s desperate desire for his own promotion—but also how it incorporates a scene that it plants at the start of the episode, before making you forget all about it. His package to Don successfully pulled together, Adam Whitman hangs himself in his little mess of an apartment. Making a development like this the first scene of an episode, then leaving it on the back burner for a while, is a trick Mad Men often pulls (actually, a lot of serialized dramas do, and Mad Men learned it from The Sopranos). It’s the kind of thing that could feel very cheap if used poorly—and has at other times on this show and on other shows—but here, it initially seems so incidental that it’s easy enough to shelve it away as something that might come up much later. To have it come up when it does is just about perfect.
It also underlines one of the themes of “Indian Summer,” which is about the way that the advertising game in general and Don Draper in particular change and influence those around them. Some of these changes are good. Would we really want to see the Peggy who sat and looked, doe-eyed, at her date as he talked about trucking, instead of the woman we get, who’s a little irritating in how much she talks about her job, sure, but is obviously just that into it? But many of the changes are destructive. Roger is called back into the office before he’s ready because the Lucky Strike people need to be assured he’s still alive and kicking. He promptly suffers another heart attack, and Mona personally lays the blame at the feet of Bert Cooper. (Her enmity here suggests an ongoing feud with Cooper that might have made for a fun storyline in future seasons.) This is only the most obvious example of advertising changing—or outright destroying—people, but moments where people are warped by the industry run throughout the season and especially here, where everything being in flux sends characters into overdrive.
But this is ultimately all about Don, as with so many things on the show, and that means that we spend a fair amount of “Indian Summer” focusing on the two characters who’ve been most hurt by him this season: his wife and his brother. In particular, this is a Betty episode in focus. Though her storyline isn’t perhaps the most insightful ever—Betty has erotic feelings about an air conditioner salesman, and then fantasizes about him while leaning against her vibrating drier—it’s still a look at how Don has casually wrecked her chance at becoming the person she might have become by keeping her sealed off in a little hermetic bubble, where even letting a salesman in to talk about his wares is grounds for him to give her a stern, paternal lecture. And then there’s Adam, whose hopes of reuniting with his big brother were dashed and left him even more despondent, alone with himself and his memories of a life that seemed further away than ever. His suicide works not because we know so much about him, but because we don’t.
“Indian Summer” also returns to one of the show’s most interesting considerations, with a lengthy subplot that looks at how the men of this world perceive women, via the device of a weight-loss implement that turns out to actually be something closer to a vibrator. (The scene where Peggy tries to tell Don this is marvelous for how the two of them communicate this idea without talking about it. Matt Weiner has said in numerous interviews that one of the things he’s looking at with this show is how America became more crass as time went on. This is definitely an example of how the buttoned-down 1960 would give way to a more open world just a few years later.) It’s telling how the episode shifts from the men in the pitch meeting talking about women as if they’re children who lack impulse control—otherwise, they wouldn’t have problems with their weight—to the later scene where they learn why, say, Freddie’s wife really likes the machine, and Freddie is so insulted by even the slightest intimation that his wife might not be sexually satisfied by him that things nearly come to blows. The women of this world are seen as children, until they’re seen as extensions of their men, meant to prop them up. At no time are they seen as human beings in their own right.
This is even true of Peggy, who has a very good day in the episode. Yet when she gives her presentation to the others and they seem more or less pleased with it, conversation very quickly turns to the wife of a colleague named Mitch, how her breasts were spilling out of her bikini top at a company party, how she’s “hot to trot.” The sequence is filmed in an overly stylized manner by Tim Hunter, which keeps it from having the power it might, turning all of the men in the room into literal leering ghouls, when it might have worked better to simply hold on Elisabeth Moss’ obviously disturbed face for longer than Hunter chooses to. But it’s no matter. The damage has been done. Peggy might be smart and creative enough to deserve a seat at that table, but her gender will always set her apart from the others there, unavoidably, unless she does something about it.
That something, in the advice of Don, is to act like a man. When Peggy comes to him about getting her own desk and is obviously dancing around the question of a raise (which amounts to 15 percent, or $5 per week more), Don tells her not to work her way around what she wants but, rather, to come right out and demand it. One of the fun throughlines of Mad Men to follow is that of Don and Peggy’s relationship, as he becomes an unlikely mentor to her. But notice how his advice to her all season long has more or less been to just make herself more like Don Draper. Now, granted, in Peggy, he might have found an unlikely subject to mold into a proto-Draper (recall that scene in the ladies room in episode two), but Don’s answer to just about everything is to be more like Don. That makes sense for a man who’s essentially performed a role of what he believes to be the “right” way to live life for so long that it’s become his reality. But does it make sense for everybody around him?
What I struggle to incorporate just a bit here is Betty’s sojourn with the rickety drier. On the one hand, it ties in to the meetings about the Electrosizer/Rejuvenator, as it once again shows how these men have trouble conceiving of the women in their lives as having sexual desires or needs, or even the idea of these women getting actual sexual pleasure from anything. It also pulls in some of the material about how Don is hurting Betty without even really knowing it. On the other hand, there’s very little to this, other than setting out a signpost for where the show might go in the future. Parts of Betty are turning on—perhaps because she’s so bored, perhaps because of her therapy—but they’re parts that she doesn’t dare acknowledge to herself. Betty Draper, at this point, is one of TV’s most interesting examinations of self-denial. But on a show where everybody else is giving in to hedonism, it can be difficult to pull her into the other storylines swirling around the show’s center. I’ve really liked most of the Betty storylines this season, but this one could have been tied in to everything else much better.
Throughout this episode, people keep almost blaming the unseasonably warm October of the episode title for their actions, as if all of that heat is causing them to ever so slightly break from whom they’re supposed to be. To a degree, Mad Men is a show about people constantly struggling with the people they thought they were versus the people they actually are, and that filters through, at least a little bit, in “Indian Summer.” Roger thinks he’s strong enough to go back into the office, but, no, he’s not in any way, shape, or form. Pete thinks he should be made Head of Account Services, but he’s too much himself for Don to immediately think of him for the job. And Betty has very strict ideas of the person she should be, ideas that are frequently undercut by such things as feeling lust for an attractive man or longing for a career of her own. The real versions of all of these people are struggling to emerge from under the shells they’ve constructed to go atop them.
It’s fitting, then, that the final act of the season would hinge on two characters who are constantly reinventing themselves: the man who built a literal new identity for himself and the woman he’s taken under his wing who’s relatively unapologetic about spending a whole date talking about her work. Don and Peggy aren’t just the protagonists of the series because they’re first-billed; they’re the protagonists of the series because on some fundamental level, they best embody the show’s ideas about what it means to reinvent oneself. As we’ve seen, Don has tried to create this perfect American male to cover up the boy he grew up as, but he can never really let go of the part of him that was formed in his childhood surrounded by people who didn’t love him. Yet Peggy is already traveling the opposite path, going from a buttoned-down woman who took a job as a secretary because she might eventually find a husband that way to someone who is increasingly emboldened and delighted by her work. Don lost his central self years ago—and his closest connection to it just hung himself in his apartment. Peggy is finding hers. As we head into the first season’s final two episodes, those paths are headed toward collisions with others.
- For some reason, I had transposed Roger’s soliloquy to Joan about how he was glad he got to “roam those hillsides” to last week’s episode, then was disappointed when it didn’t show up there. So I was delighted to remember he was in one more episode this season (he was contractually obligated to Desperate Housewives, which is why he doesn’t appear in more), which featured that dialogue. Also, the greatest compliment ever: “You are by far the finest piece of ass I’ve ever had, and I don’t care who knows it!”
- Mad Men was never a show that popped in bad impressions of contemporary famous people, but I would have let my aversion to that slide if Bert really had taken Don to meet Ayn Rand in this episode. I think that would have been a hoot and a half.
- Peggy’s look of shock when she realizes what the weight-loss machine actually does is a nice moment for Elisabeth Moss. A lot of actresses would have overplayed that moment.
- It’s always fun to see John Cullum pop up on my TV set. The pilot of this series was filmed in New York, and I wonder if Cullum wouldn’t have been more of a regular presence in season one if the series had continued filming there. You may now share your favorite Holling Vincoeur moments.
- Kids being told to sit back from the TV so their eyes don’t burn out is one of those bits of parenting advice that still held true when I was growing up. Does anybody still believe in this?
- Francine has had her baby. I always love the subtle little power plays between Francine and Betty in their scenes. The two like each other, but some part of Francine also kind of can’t stand Betty.
- This week’s Nixon mention: The debates have happened, and Roger is not happy with how they went. “The arrogance of that campaign!”
Spoiling Cooper (do not read if you haven’t seen the whole series):
- I actually don’t have a ton of stuff to spoil here this week, because so much of it is setup for the next couple of episodes. I am looking forward to “Mr. Campbell, who cares?” next week, because it’s such a great deflation of the tension this episode and the next set up.
- Adam’s next appearance will be in the season five finale, in which he is not exactly subtle about the state of his brother’s soul.
- I get that Maggie Siff didn’t exactly fit into the cast long-term, but I liked Rachel and wouldn’t have minded having her around for a few more seasons. That said, in episodes like this one, it’s easy to see why she was so easy to write out.
Next week: It all comes down to this: “Nixon Vs. Kennedy.”