Mad Men: "The Summer Man"
A-

Mad Men: "The Summer Man"

A-

Mad Men

"The Summer Man"

Season 4, Episode 8

We’ve spent three-and-a-half seasons with the man known to most of the world as Don Draper at this point, watching him as he goes about both his public and private life. Mad Men has kept virtually no facet of Don’s existence a secret, from what goes on behind the doors of his office to how he likes to get treated in bed. Even his past seems largely filled in by this point (though there are still bits left unaccounted for). In short, we know Don as much as any audience can know a fictional character. Yet it’s still something of a shock to hear his voiceover open “The Summer Man.” After all, we’ve always been on the outside looking in.

Yet, before we get ahead of ourselves and think the show is giving us the “real” Don Draper at last, keep in mind that we’re not really hearing his thoughts. We’re hearing what he’s writing down in that new journal, the one he feel awkward about writing. Even if they’re intended for no audience but himself, those journal entries are still a representation of Don, not Don himself. He’s a man whose career involves telling people what they want to hear and selling ideas that meet needs they might not even know they have. Would he be able to stop doing that just because he’s talking to himself?

How Don writes of himself says a lot about how he sees himself. I don’t think those lonely-man echoes of film noir are an accident. Don, we know, is an inveterate moviegoer—a nod, I’d say, of the series’ Walker Percy influence but also a good habit for an ad man in search of new ideas and bubbling trends to have—and doubtlessly saw himself in some of noir’s darkness-dwelling heroes whose lives changed the moment they decided to pursue a morally dubious course.

But here he uses the noir voice to try to find a way back to the light. Don, this week at least, wants to be a better man. Or at least one with fewer hangovers “They say as soon as you have to cut down on your drinking, you have a drinking problem,” goes this week’s first words. Later, he records a desire to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro (or at least see part of Africa) and, in a telling line, “Gain a modicum of control over the way I feel.” He seems to be heading in the right direction. There’s a beer at home, the few self-conscious (and regretted) sips of whiskey at the office, the pre-date slug of Canadian Club and the wine with dinner. But Don remains, if not abstemious, at least sober for the entire episode, and he benefits from the focus. His date with Bethany isn’t the humiliation of past excursions despite her talk of being from different generations. He handles himself well when Mr. and Mrs. Henry Francis swing by the table. He lands a proper date with Dr. Miller and stops himself from pushing it further than he should. And he walks into his son’s second birthday as if he belongs there. (And, of course, he does.) This show has taken some dark turns over the years and will no doubt take more. But this is the first episode that left me thinking Don may not be doomed to a lonely end. He may write himself in the voice of a noir hero, but maybe he’s not moving inextricably into the shadows.

In a rush to deal with the episode as a whole, I’m afraid I’ve skipped over the particulars and glossed over some contradictions. Don’s gentlemanly with Dr. Miller but not above accepting a blow job in the back of a cab from a woman he’ll never take seriously. “She’s a sweet girl and she wants me to know her,” he writes. “But I already do.” It’s both a dismissive and accurate description of her self-dramatizing persona.

As for Dr. Miller, I think she holds more interest for Don than she does for me as a character. Apart from the first season, I’ve always found Don’s extramarital (and now post-marital) affairs the least compelling element of the show. Not that these subplots drag, really. But Don’s parade of women has rarely yielded many interesting characters and I don’t yet see Dr. Miller as an exception, however well Cara Buono plays her. I’ve sometimes wondered if this is by design. The show is, after all, at least partly the story of Don and Betty’s marriage, and the legal dissolution of that marriage doesn’t mean that story has ended. The other women sometimes feel like a distraction.

We were talking about blow jobs a couple of paragraphs back. Let’s return to the subject, if only long enough to address the cartoon that enrages Joan, get Joey fired by Peggy, and then leaves Peggy baffled when Joan doesn’t appreciate what she’s done. Peggy dealt with the situation appropriately by 2010 standards. And she dealt with it appropriately by the standards of Don, who doesn’t think of any employee as being too talented to eliminate if he or (less often) she becomes a problem (and who doesn’t think that highly of Joey anyway). But Joan understands the realpolitik of a 1960s office and knows that Peggy has yielded more power than she’s seized by exerting herself because, after all, “they can always draw a cartoon.”

Or maybe she’s just jealous of Peggy’s ability to deal directly with a problem she’s tried to address from other angles, speaking passive aggressively of others’ complaints to Don and Lane. She’s in a position to yell at those who offend her and, when that’s not enough, cozy up to those who can eliminate the elements that make her life miserable. But, here at least, her ways of getting things done don’t work. Joey goes, but only because he gets fired by a woman with more power than she has. The vending machine stays.

We got a taste of the old Joan fire in the two scenes that found her chewing out the copywriters and in her brittle elevator scene with Peggy. But I think Christina Hendricks’ best moment came when she was alone with Greg. Hendricks conveys the depths of Joan’s loneliness and her isolation from her co-workers, even if all Greg wants to do is console her enough to get into her pants. Joan knows this but goes along anyway. He’s awful, but he’s all she’s got.

Betty looks only a little less alone, even surrounded by friends and family and standing next to her ambitious new husband at young Gene’s birthday party at the episode’s end. When she tells him, “We have everything,” it almost sounds like a curse. At the very least, it echoes a line form Don’s journal about how “we’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had.” Sometimes everything ends up in crumpled boxes shoved in a Dumpster with all those other things that don’t really matter.

Stray observations:

• Was anyone else startled by Don’s admission to never having written more than 250 words? It makes sense, though. He deals in punchy phrases that lodge into the brain and heart and when he has to go beyond that he expresses himself verbally, not on paper.

• Before Mountain Dew became adopted its x-treme associations, it was, as this episode notes, marketed primarily as “hillbilly joy juice” (to borrow a punchy phrase that lodged itself in my brain when I read it in a New York Times article years ago.) Here’s a couple of examples of old Mountain Dew imagery: 1 (I do not who Susan Framel is), 2 (I don’t know if “It’ll tickle your innards!” sounds all that appetizing.)

• And a TV spot:

• On that subject, does anyone know any good Mountain Dew cocktail recipes?

• “Narrative. Forced perspective. Are you sure Joey did this?”

• Of course “Satisfaction” had to make an appearance at some point. Is there another song about the hollowness of the ad trade?

• Dinner at Don’s: Dinty Moore. Budweiser. Vietnam.

• Has anyone downloaded the Mad Men cocktail ap? Does anyone else think it odd, particularly in the midst of a season with so many unglamorous drinking scenes? Is Mountain Dew included as an ingredient choice? 

MONDAY MORNING ADDITIONS

• Forgot to mention the scene with Harry and Joey, which Joey mistakenly (right?) sees as a come-on. Everybody's in show business, it would seem. Also, all those Peyton Place references double as a pretty sly commentary on the ephemerality of television, don't they? In 1965, knowing what happens next was like a state secret. Now, who remembers Peyton Place?

• Did you know Ida Blankenship is also the Karate Kid's mom? I learned it from this short interview at Movieline.