Mad Men: “Long Weekend”
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Mad Men: “Long Weekend”

“Long Weekend” (season 1, episode 10; originally aired 9/27/2007)

In which I’m looking through you

(Available on Netflix.)

At numerous times in “Long Weekend,” characters refer to being able to see through another person. Roger points out that the skin of Eleanor, one half of a pair of identical twins whom he’s sleeping with, is translucent, which means “see through.” Don says that after Roger’s heart attack, you could look right through his skin. And he later tells Rachel that she, surely, can see right through him, to the core of who he really is. But he also derisively refers to people looking right through him, in a less complimentary sense. The ability to gaze so deeply into someone that you catch some glimpse of their essential self is one that lies at the very heart of Mad Men, which is about people who hope to manipulate the inner self into buying shit, after all. But here, that hope is more about the dream that we can ever really know someone else as well as ourselves, the wish for a connection so deep and abiding that someone else will know the truth of who we are without our having to say it.

“Long Weekend” is one of Mad Men’s clunkier episodes, lurching around a bit and never finding another gear. It also concludes on a bunch of exposition, information that’s necessary if we ever want to truly understand Don Draper and information that’s notable for the fact that he’s giving it to Rachel instead of his wife, but it’s also decidedly not the sort of thing that provides the kind of perfect closing moment that the last several episodes had. It’s as if the last few episodes were more about character development and fleshing out the show’s world, while “Long Weekend” realizes it needs to get some of the plot gears moving again, to carry the season forward toward its climactic moments (which should hopefully be clear, now, as Election Day 1960). Mad Men has never been poor at plotting, but it’s not as good at it as some of the other things it does so well, and there’s a definite sense in “Long Weekend” of some stuff that’s been set aside grinding back into gear.

It’s also entirely possible I’m just saying this because of the long break I took between “Babylon” and “Red In The Face.” For one thing, I don’t believe Rachel has appeared at all in the past three episodes, which is a fairly long gap for someone who’s as important to the first season of this show as Rachel seems to be, but it’s a gap that’s exacerbated by taking some time off between those two episodes. It’s also, frankly, exacerbated by how the show doesn’t seem to need her as much as it perhaps initially thought. When the season began, Rachel seemed like the kind of smart, confident woman who might challenge Don on some of his retrograde attitudes or draw him out just a little bit or something like that. Instead, the show has done a good enough job of both of those things itself that it didn’t really need Rachel around, except as the woman who finally gets to see Don Draper with his surface all scuffed up. The first season does so much less work developing Rachel than any other regular character (and a fair number of the recurring ones) that it seems almost as if she needed to be around solely to hear Don’s long monologue about his origins. She’s more interesting than that, but when it comes time for her and Don to finally hook up, the weight of that relationship is almost solely on him.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of other good stuff in “Long Weekend” to make up for how disjointed the episode feels at times. For starters, we’ve got Joan’s roommate, Carol, joining Sal in the “people having a hard time talking about being homosexual in 1960” boat. The scene where Carol confesses her love for Joan to her roommate’s face is perhaps the best in the episode, both for how completely it creates a deep connection between the audience and this character we’ve never met before and for how it reveals that Joan’s chief strength—her ability to maneuver through anything with a surface of complete calm—can also be her weakness. The way that she lets Carol down is perhaps gentler than a lot of women would have at that time, but it’s no less devastating. Joan seems to simply pretend the whole thing didn’t happen, as if they’ll both agree to forget about it. And Carol might think she’s okay with that after a while, but it’s clear from the way she treats the bachelor she brings back to the apartment as a supporting player in the Joan Holloway Show that that’s just never how it’s going to work. Mad Men, even at its smallest level, is about people lying to themselves.

Yet Joan is lying to herself as well. Back in “Babylon,” she seemed almost to be completely okay with the notion of her thing with Roger having a built-in expiration date. Indeed, she seemed far less into it than he was. But here, even after rebuffing Roger’s offer to spend the weekend together as close to a real couple as they’ll ever be (even if his wife and daughter keep coming up), she’s less calm and collected than she seems. The news of Roger’s heart attack clearly rattles her, and just a bit of her perfect, placid façade comes crumbling down as tears leak out of her eyes while she helps Bert compose the telegram to assure clients that business will continue as usual. The series often uses its female characters as thematic foils to Don himself, and Joan is perhaps the foil who best represents the surface of pure, American perfection that Don appears to represent. Joan, too, has the perfect surface, and not just in terms of her appearance. She’s beautiful, yes, but she also seems to be unflappable. In both the scene with Carol and the scene back at the office after hours, “Long Weekend” gives us our biggest indication that this is simply not the case. Joan is holding back oceans of emotion in favor of seeming detached, just like Don. For both of them, this may ultimately prove detrimental.

Where “Babylon” ended with the slightly over-obvious shot of Joan and Roger, waiting for separate cars, Joan holding a caged bird almost as if she herself realized it was a metaphor, Joan’s story in “Long Weekend” ends in roughly the same place but doesn’t call attention to itself as readily. Early in the episode, Joan and Roger spar about The Apartment. Roger finds it unrealistic that there would be a white elevator operator—much less a female one. Joan found Shirley MacLaine’s character in the film deeply sad, passed around among the men in her office “like a plate of canapés.” As with so many other moments like this on Mad Men, Joan doesn’t seem to realize she’s speaking of herself as readily as the person she thinks she’s talking about. But this is clear by episode’s end. After Bert tells Joan her romantic partner is beneath her, Joan first believes he’s talking about the professor she hooked up with earlier. No, Bert says, he doesn’t want her to waste her youth on age. As the two get in the elevator to head down, Bert asks her to push the button for the lobby, and the connection between Joan and the movie character is clear: Both have wasted some part of themselves on men who, fundamentally, don’t love them, because they’re hoping for something better out of it and simply not finding it. And from the look on Joan’s face, she gets this just as well. (For all her unflappability, Joan is by far the most self-aware character on the show.)

The Roger material in the episode is also good. Roger’s arc all season has been about his fear of aging, his desire, on some level, to freeze in place and not have to worry about getting older. That’s never going to be the case, but Roger, like so many of us who keep indulging in self-destructive habits long after our bodies have tired of them, continues to act as if he doesn’t know that. Don may not be too excited to head down to the shore to spend the long weekend with his family (as well as Betty’s father and his new girlfriend, Gloria), but he seems almost eager to get to them after Roger unveils his latest scheme: hooking up with two of the twins who’ve been called in for an audition for double-sided aluminum. (I love how Roger doesn’t even know if that’s who’s being cast. He just knows that Freddie Rumsen is not particularly creative and figures that’s where his mind will go. And he’s right!) The twins, Mirabelle and Eleanor, are so, so young, and they’re not exactly exquisite beauties. All of this gives the evening an air of desperation, one that only deepens when everybody else seems to want to head home but Roger insists the party keep going.

One of the clever tricks of this first season is that the series sets up Don as not a particularly good man but also shows plenty of other men who just fall short of him in certain ways. Roger is not above exploiting his position as one of the head honchos of Sterling Cooper to essentially coerce a 20-year-old into bed with him, whereas Don will share a kiss or two but seems more anxious to just get out of there. (The implication is that Don might be a womanizer, but he’s seeking something more than just a one-night stand, much of the time. It’s an implication the episode only hammers further home by sending him to Rachel’s door.) Similarly, the various office underlings who hit on the twins just aren’t as good at it as we know Don would be, just as we see so many scenes where someone like Pete or Paul tries to pitch an idea and it just falls flat. Don is not a great person, and he has so many failings. But he’s better at just about everything than just about every other guy in the office, and that creates an interesting dynamic that largely helps the show steer clear of many of the pitfalls for character identification on other antihero shows.

But there’s also the simple fact that Don is old enough to have the experience Pete and company don’t have, while also being young enough to not be contemplating his own imminent mortality like Roger or Bert might be. When Roger has the heart attack, it’s treated less as a shock than as something that was probably always going to happen. (It’s one of the few times that the “Hey, it’s 1960!” moment isn’t cloying, as Roger talks about all of the butter and cream he’s eaten in his life, just like the doctor ordered.) Roger Sterling’s aching ticker is a ticking time bomb, and in the moment when he’s terrified of his own death, he clings to the things that actually matter—or maybe the things he thinks he’s supposed to cling to. Though he calls out for Mirabelle initially, Don slaps him to remind him his wife’s name is Mona, and by the time Mona and Margaret show up at the hospital, Roger’s tears of relief and regret seem genuine. Mad Men ultimately takes place across most of the decade of the ‘60s, and aging becomes one of its most important themes in later seasons. But it’s in Roger that we get our first real glimpse of it, our first real sense that the maxim “boys will be boys” ultimately has a void as an all-purpose warranty.

So “Long Weekend,” maybe, isn’t the most elegant episode of Mad Men, but it’s still filled with the little flourishes that make the show so much fun to watch. Honestly, the greatest misstep of “Long Weekend” is that its greatest flaws are so inextricably tied up in being a first-season show and, thus, occasionally having to do things like drop big heaps of exposition at the audience’s feet. The series had so successfully settled into a groove from “New Amsterdam” on that it becomes easy enough to forget we’re only just getting to know these people. Thus, “Long Weekend” isn’t a particularly great episode of Mad Men, but it’s an important one. It clarifies Don Draper. It lays out some of the series’ greatest themes as starkly as the show ever would. And it boils down, ultimately, to the way that you can tell someone everything about yourself, but they still might not ever really know you.

Stray observations:

  • Joan gets the professor into her bedroom by asking him to come and change a light fixture for her. Super smooth.
  • I do really like the way this episode captures the feeling of coming up on a long weekend at work or school, the way that nobody really wants to do anything and how that feeling only increases as quitting time comes closer and closer.
  • The Nixon and Kennedy storyline gets a bit of a jolt, too, as the gang at Sterling Cooper just isn’t sure how to come back at Kennedy in the wake of his latest catchy ad, which “looks like a Maypo ad.” (The Nixon ad shown just after it is hilariously stodgy.) The episode ends with Kennedy taking a howitzer to Nixon’s balls, instead of the reverse, as Roger insisted the company must do. At every turn, younger men are outpacing older ones.
  • It’s part of everyone’s job at Sterling Cooper to keep up with television—both the shows and the commercials. Can I work at Sterling Cooper?
  • Peggy asks Pete if he’s going to be nice to her, or if he’s going to be cruel, and it’s amusing how taken aback and confused Pete is by this question. He sees himself as just the greatest guy around! Then again, don’t we all?
  • Nothing good happens after closing time when you come back to the office and find Bert Cooper sitting alone in the dark.
  • I love how much personality Mad Men gives even its minor characters. Look at the professor and the guy he just happened to meet at the bar. There’s a whole story about masculine jockeying there, told in just a handful of words.

Spoiling Cooper (do not read if you haven’t seen the rest of the series):

  • Heart attacks become an important motif to the show, particularly in the latest season, which opens with the image from the perspective of a doorman lying on the ground, looking up at those trying to save him after he’s suffered a heart attack. Seasons five and six are also particularly absorbed with Don’s obsession with (and possible wish for) death.
  • This is the first appearance of Grandpa Gene, who will become an important character in Betty’s journey, particularly in season three. (I realize I barely touched on Betty in this piece. I will rectify this soon!)
  • It’s interesting to see Roger and Joan portrayed as a bad idea when the show seems to have bought into the idea of them as a viable couple in later seasons. Hell, they have a kid together!

Next week: Everything heats up, because it’s “Indian Summer.”

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