Outside of the season premiere, it often seems like every episode of Mad Men this year has been greeted by deeply divided critical reactions. Don's sojourn to California was poignant and moving. No, it was the first bad episode of the series! Last week's Peggy and Pete dual storyline was lively and funny and one of the best the show has ever done. No, it was boring and stupid! With the caveat that I honestly think everyone who writes about Mad Men would rather be watching Mad Men than just about anything else on the air this summer, no matter how we feel the episodes match up to our memories of the prior seasons, it seems like this season is shaping up to be the first season where Mad Men deeply splits fans and critics right down the middle. And yet, none of us are objecting to the same things. Some of us wonder just what the show's building to with this whole "Don Draper is lost" plotline and worry that it's not going to say anything meaningful about the character when it's all said and done. Some of us find Sally Draper plotlines interminable. And some of us think Betty Francis is slowly turning into Livia Soprano.
I worried I was wrong with that piece when I posted it a couple of weeks ago, but while I still think there's time to pull out some pretty incredible stuff with Betty this season, the first half of "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword" made me worry that I was even more right than I knew. I don't ask that the show make Betty likable, but I do ask that it make her at least somewhat human, and throughout the first half of this episode, when she was just trying to avoid being a mother to Sally and get back to having newlywed sex with Henry, she was like a bad, shrieking stereotype of a terrible mother from every tale of '60s suburban repression ever. The scene where Don brought Sally home and revealed her self-mutilated hair was one of the least subtly written of the series. Here, Don was the hero, and Betty was just a terrible, shrieking woman, still trying to use her ex-husband's bad behavior as an excuse for doing whatever the fuck she wants. "You didn't have to hit her," Don says, and Betty replies, "You're right BECAUSE IT DOESN'T DO ANYTHING," like she's in an over-the-top independent film.
In general, much of the first half of "Sword" pushed a little too hard at the thin line that separates Mad Men from cliched tales of the '60s. The series has mostly avoided cliche in the past because it was set in a period of the '60s that was relatively unexploited. Everything prior to the JFK assassination was like a natural evolution of the '50s. But now, we're knee deep in what we think of as the '60s, with civil rights battles and evolving standards of creativity and a youth movement that's slowly beginning to shake the legs of the table society stands on. The best thing about Mad Men's second and third seasons were their restraint, their ability to back away from the sorts of "Hey, remember when kids used to play with plastic bags?" moments that occasionally hurt season one episodes. Season four, though it's fun and feisty, suffers from a bad case of the subtext on sleeve from time to time.
Take, for instance, the Honda businessmen that the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce crew meets with. There's nothing inherently wrong with the characters themselves, who mostly wander around the office and say funny things about the office and staff that we're privy to thanks to the captions. The idea of business making strange bedfellows between Americans and those they might not have wanted to be in business with even five years earlier is also a compelling one, and dropping Roger Sterling into the middle of all of this is just as potent an idea. He, after all, is the only character who fought in World War II, and he surely has some residual anger toward the Japanese. But the scene where Roger comes into the meeting with the Honda businessmen and angrily insults the businessmen about dropping the big one and such again toes the line of what the show can do without losing the advantages of subtlety. The character arc of Roger has always been that he's a man the world is shuffling out before his time, less adaptable than even Bert Cooper, but lucky enough to have people who do the adapting for him around him. As good as the scene following the meeting was - the one where Roger nearly has a fistfight with Pete - that meeting scene was painful without really telling us anything we didn't already know. It's a restatement of who Roger is that we didn't need.
So, yeah, I was ready to write this one off as my Mad Men episode I just didn't like, but after that first half, the episode really starts to give itself room to breathe. With Roger having all but destroyed any chances SCDP has at landing the Honda account, the story now falls to Don having to figure out a way to make sure their chief competition - an ad firm we've never heard of before where Smitty from the old Sterling-Cooper has landed - doesn't land the account and catch up to SCDP. The thing to get Don his power back is almost certainly a cunningly executed business caper, carried out with the help of his closest confidants and all of the strategy he can muster. The episode actually seems to be building to Don improbably winning the Honda account all by himself, and that might have been too much. But the old restraint returns, and we end up with a scene where Honda stays with their current agency but still found Don to be the best of the runners-up. And he gets the bonus of cutting the other guys off at the knees and potentially bankrupting them. Not bad for a guy who looked like a has-been a couple weeks ago.
Oh, also, Sally started masturbating.
This is one of the weirdest, most uncomfortable plots Mad Men has ever attempted, not because it's unrealistic - I believe Sally, within the context of the show, would be around the right age to start sexually experimenting - but because it's constantly reminding us of the fact that, well, Kiernan Shipka, awesome as she is, is just enough younger (mentally, if not physically - both girls are the same age) than the character she plays to create an uneasy tension between what the story requires of her and what we actually want to see. This means that the scene where she discovers herself is shot in such a way as to completely suggest just what she's doing (while she watches The Man from UNCLE with a friend!) but also subtle enough that the show seems to feel it needs to have every other character say some variation on, "Did you know Sally was playing with herself?" throughout the rest of the episode. Again, it's just telling us something we already know - Sally is messed up, and her relationship with her mother is similarly messed up - and it's doing so in a weird, skin-crawly way.
And yet, Mad Men pulls this one out, too. We, in the audience, know that Betty is, to put it charitably, just as much of a mess as Sally. She's placed just as much of herself behind an increasingly hard shell of perfection that she seems to value above all else. We know that if she ever got into serious therapy, she could probably fuel several seasons' worth of plotlines just with the revelations from those meetings. We know that the only person she can truly be honest with is Don - notice how he's the only one she can say the word "masturbating" to, even if it's in spite - and the fact that they can be honest with each other is, disturbingly, part of the reason for why she no longer has any interest in him. Betty is only interested in the world insofar as it conforms to her dreams of the life she's always wanted, and all of the pieces in it can be replaced as easy as can be if one of them simply doesn't conform. Except her kids, of course, and that may be why she takes out so much of her anger on them. The scene where Betty sits with the psychiatrist and gives away more of her story than she probably wants to, then gazes longingly at a dollhouse, is one of the best Betty scenes in a long while, suggesting (again, through restraint) so much about a woman who lost herself a long time ago and has no idea where to even begin looking for herself again.
I have a friend who whines every time Mad Men will wander away from storylines loosely connected to the audience and toward more domestic storylines, and while I like seeing things like Don and Betty's marriage disintegrate, I can also sort of see where he's coming from. The show often feels centerless when the office isn't at its center. The best move of season four so far has been reorienting the office's prominence in the show's cosmos, but this has also had the weird effect of having Betty constantly feel like a character who's now on a spinoff but keeps coming back to visit the parent show to remind us the spinoff exists, like when Rhoda and Phyllis stopped by in the Mary Tyler Moore finale. But the show is able to make her feel vital every time it ties her in to the theme of what's going on. Here, it did this, but just barely, as her facade started to break, ever so slightly.
This was an episode full of people talking past each other. You had, of course, the obvious example of the Honda businessmen making their demands for ad agencies to pitch to them and doing so through a labyrinthine process that Pete had to figure out with the help of Bert (who's some kind of guru). You had Don and Betty sniping at each other about their daughter, without ever really talking about what's obviously her most serious problem. Don constructs an entire false reality for his adversaries to believe in, the better to trick them into doing something surprisingly foolish, then enlists many of his underlings to help him perpetuate the fraud. Sally's completely unable to tell anyone what she's thinking because she lacks the language and, instead, tries to engage Phoebe in talk about what sex entails, cuts her hair short by herself, and masturbates on a couch. But, in some ways, this is the theme of Mad Men: We're all of us putting up facade after facade, presenting images and advertising ourselves as people we're not.
By now, the constant restatement of this theme should feel tired. The fact that it doesn't is testament to Mad Men's skill but also to the fact that it's able to pull out scenes where someone lets just enough of the truth slip to leave themselves vulnerable before the mask goes up again. Mad Men turns these moments into currency, the moments of passion and grace that keep us tuning in week after week. The first half of "Sword" is a mess because it doesn't know how to deploy these moments with the show's typical restraint, but the second half reins back in all of the messy emotions, even as the truth stays out there, throbbing. Faye lets slip the truth about her marital status to Don, and the both of them realize what she's just done. Betty tells the therapist just enough about herself to realize that she needs to rapidly put everything back into line or risk losing everything she's built. Joan and Roger talk just frankly enough about his experience in World War II to make his behavior feel understandable, if not exactly excusable. Betty sits and looks at that dollhouse for a long, long time, and it's likely supposed to stand in for her aborted childhood. But it could stand in for the careful, always polite lives the other characters find themselves in. The show balances these lives against the storm we know is coming, and now, the rumblings are closer than ever.
- Thoughts on Miss Blankenship? I was willing to give her a chance, but she feels like a character from a terrible joke, and they just keep making the same "She doesn't understand anything!" type gags with her. Bring back Allison!
- I am assured by people that Nora Zehetner's accent as Phoebe is atrocious. I have no opinion on this matter.
- Henry Francis is the most useless person ever.
- Peggy Olson is pretty much my dream woman in this episode. She zips around an empty room on a motorcycle! She gets excited about a drinking bird! She always seems slightly uncomfortable, even as she knows she's the best person ever! I want a Peggy Olson action figure.
- Pete, meanwhile, continues to be reliably hilarious and simultaneously the vision of the future. He's just younger and hungrier than Roger, and that's inevitably going to lead to conflict. This is one of the best slow-boiling conflicts on the show right now.
- I liked the little glimpse into the other ad office in this episode, and it was nice to see a guy who is so clearly not Don but is also making hay while Don Draper is adrift. And wasn't his pitch for the motorcycle ad something that actually ended up becoming an ad in the '80s? Or am I misremembering that?
- In a way, all of Don's interactions with women this season have started to feel like Ted's early dates on How I Met Your Mother. Faye's suggestion that Don would end up with another wife soon enough in the Christmas episode was clearly the show letting us know where it's going, and at this point, we're just waiting to see if it's Bethany, Phoebe, Allison, some other secretary, or - odds-on favorite - Faye herself (who increasingly is dressed and shot to look just like Betty).
- Actually, Faye's employment situation remains utterly bizarre to me. Just how long is she on retainer to SCDP?
- That's all for Mad Men guest writers. Keith will be back next week to let you know how wrong we all were.
- "You look like a Mongoloid!" Ah, the smooth ways and polite manners of Bobby Draper.
- "Now, if you don't mind, I have to get some gifts wrapped and get these chrysanthemums out of the building. Apparently, they symbolize death."
- "She was masturbating, Don. In front of a friend."