“Red In The Face” (season 1, episode 7; originally aired 8/30/2007)
In which Donald Draper will have his revenge
(Available on Netflix.)
There’s a type of character moment that Mad Men does as well as or better than any TV show I can think of. That moment is where a character does something utterly unexpected and out of the blue, but as soon as it happens and the more you think about it, the more it makes sense for everything they’ve experienced up until that point. It’s the kind of thing that gets harder and harder to do the older a show gets, but six seasons in, Mad Men still reels off at least one of these per episode, which is why the show continues to be one of my favorites on TV. Yet the more I think about it, “Red In The Face” is the episode where this storytelling technique first really solidifies for the show. Now that we’re seven episodes into the series, we know the characters and scenarios well enough to really cut loose and see what happens when they’re put through their paces. And “Red In The Face” definitely puts them through their paces.
Take, for instance, a moment that could get buried underneath the more prominent stories in the episode. Peggy comes into Pete’s office, and the conversation eventually turns to his new rifle, how he wants to be a hunter and bring home game for his woman to cook up. More than anything, Pete wants to be that ultra-masculine provider, the guy that might sit at the center of the story he almost had placed in Boys’ Life magazine, out stalking the wild bear in the middle of the woods. As the monologue gets wilder and wilder, less and less like the frustrated Pete Campbell we know and love, we half expect Peggy to run screaming in terror from the room. Instead, however, she says, “I think that would be wonderful,” then leaves the room to go to the lunch cart and purchase a ham sandwich and cherry Danish. Something about all of this has at once aroused her and made her very hungry.
It’s weird, audacious character writing, and the show doesn’t bother underlining any of it. What the hell is going on? Clearly, Peggy’s feelings for Pete haven’t wholly subsided, and maybe his for her haven’t either, underneath all the bluster. But what’s up with the sandwich and the Danish? And why does his assertion of his masculine dominance seem to excite her so much, particularly when we know that Peggy isn’t the traditionally feminine waif that we might have expected her to be in the pilot? Throughout its first season, Mad Men is constantly asserting that these characters are not the mere symbols we might expect in other shows about the ‘60s, with Peggy comfortably slotting into a standard “woman in the workplace” arc or Betty playing up the “bored housewife” storyline. To be sure, both characters largely conform to those storylines so far, but Mad Men has always been able to find the very real, very human, very weird behavior that drives them through those storylines. It never feels predictable, or like the characters are supposed to stand in for some particular moment or movement in society that’s happening in the time period.
These moments crop up throughout “Red In The Face,” which is perhaps most famous for being the only episode of television I can think of where someone has their revenge via making someone else climb 23 flights of stairs. The seventh episode of each season of Mad Men (or the seventh episode to air in seasons five and six, where two-hour premieres were technically two separate episodes produced) is one where the series often feels free to take flight and try something more experimental with its characters and storylines. “Red In The Face” isn’t so wildly different from the other episodes this season, but it definitely has moments when it feels like it’s wandered off the beaten path in search of some other, rarer treasure. Think, for instance, of that long scene early in the episode—one of my favorites in the series—where Roger, bumming a meal off the Drapers, just sits and talks with Don and Betty, sharing his wartime experiences and bits of received military wisdom from World War I. Mad Men is always a series that has luxuriated in clever conversation, but here, it doesn’t ramp up the cleverness so much, instead trusting that we’ll be interested in these people’s histories and what they have to say to each other when they’re not playing a game of witty one-upmanship.
Of course, this being Roger, we know where his mind will go, and he all too predictably tries to make a pass at Betty when the two find themselves alone in the kitchen while Don goes to get another bottle of vodka for the little trio. She resists, and Don’s return keeps anything from happening, but once Don is back, it’s clear that the atmosphere has changed in some palpable way. Don’s not one to let well enough alone, so he keeps tugging at that change, trying to see what it looks like when he can pull it back down into view, trying to sample the new charge in the air. And he quickly becomes aware of what’s happened. First, he berates Betty, telling her he sometimes feels like he’s living with a small child. But his revenge on Roger will have to be more subtle and thoughtful. The man is his boss, after all.
The two big themes swirling around the center of “Red In The Face” are masculinity—as we can already see from Pete’s story—and aging, particularly when it comes to women passing 30 and men slowly losing their vitality. Don knows how acutely aware Roger is of his aging, and he’s got a good five to 10 years on his friend. So he centers that revenge on showing how he’s the cock of the walk, the guy who’s still got it when Roger has already begun his inevitable decay. It’s a great flipside of the way that Roger talks about how there’s a “light” that goes out in women once they slide past 30. Men might not be judged as harshly as women whose looks are supposedly starting to fade, but they’re still judged for how well they can hold up in “battle,” and Don more than shows up Roger in this department.
And look at the look on Roger’s face when Don asks him if he’s okay at episode’s end, after he’s thrown up all over the floor in front of the guys from the Nixon campaign. Roger wants to blame Don, but he also knows just how easy it would be for Don to deflect that blame and point out how ridiculous Roger would sound in that moment. Roger realizes he’s been outsmarted but also realizes there’s essentially nothing he can do about it. It’s something that Don Draper is eminently capable of, and making it even better is the way that he can sell that moment with his winning smile. Don swoops in to save the day, and Roger throws up oysters on the floor. Everything’s about image, and Don’s always the master manipulator of the surface.
Of course, the presence of the Nixon vs. Kennedy presidential campaign (which has been referred to previously in this season but hasn’t gotten as much play as it does here) suggests another way the episode is about vitality versus presumed experience. Mad Men is always fond of using famous moments from the Kennedy White House and playing them out via its own characters, and you don’t have to squint that hard to read all of this as the famous televised debate between Nixon and Kennedy that supposedly swung the election. (That election was so close that just about everything you can think of supposedly swung it, but hang with me here.) You have the young, handsome man making sure the game is on his playing field. You have the older, more “experienced” man who blunders right into a situation that favors the younger man. And you have the horrifying conclusion, where the older man—who’s not that much older—makes everyone physically uncomfortable just by his mere presence. Even the name of the episode hearkens back to how Nixon looked sweaty and nervous on TV that night, while Kennedy looked assured and pleased with himself. We already know that Kennedy’s narrow election will signify the youthful wave that slips across the U.S. in the ‘60s; here’s Mad Men pointing the way toward that wave without really mentioning it.
Because the Don and Roger plot is such a huge part of “Red In The Face,” I often forget just how many other things are going on in this episode, but there are a ton of classic Mad Men moments in here, like Betty slapping Helen at the grocery store or Pete trying to return his chip ‘n’ dip and realizing that he just doesn’t have the alpha male qualities he’d love to have. (There’s also that lonely shot of him holding the gun while Trudy berates him for returning a wedding gift from her aunt in favor of his rifle, Pete utterly emasculated while clutching something that’s meant to be a symbol of masculine power. It’s one of the shots I return to most often when thinking of Pete Campbell.) What makes “Red In The Face” such a great episode is that it ties all of this—even Peggy’s ham sandwich order—back into one of those two main themes and sometimes both at the same time. There’s a great moment in the dinner scene where Betty talks about the year she suddenly realized she was thin and beautiful, and we get a real sense that she’s stuck in that moment, to some degree. At one time, she wasn’t pretty, and then she was, and that was that. If men are looking at her, then she’s earning her keep.
Yet we can also see in the way that she seems to viciously hate Helen (after being drawn to her for a few episodes) just how much Betty understands on some level that her life is empty. When she slaps Helen in the grocery store, on a story level, she’s just striking back at someone who’s basically accused her of being creepy (for handing over that lock of hair to Glen). But she’s also striking back against all of the things she isn’t—independent and ambitious and driven by something other than a quest to look as good as possible. When Betty seethes that she “hates” Kennedy in her afternoon meeting with Francine, she, too, is striking back against the new, even if the character isn’t consciously aware of this. The new frontiers that will open up in the ‘60s will also mark significant changes for women, and Betty will have to learn to navigate a world where she doesn’t yet understand that her power can lie in something other than how good she looks in a dress.
I’ve often said in these reviews that I like Mad Men least when it’s being over-obvious with its symbolism and themes. In a way, “Red In The Face” falls into that trap throughout. It’s always obvious what the episode is trying to talk about, and there are a handful of “Look! It’s the ‘60s!” moments, like the pregnant Francine having that sip of wine. But the episode is so good because there’s also a sense of the show slowly figuring out all it can do, pulling all of its pieces together in a way that makes all of them reflect off of each other in new and interesting ways. And if nothing else, it has those incredible character moments, when you might expect the show to go in one direction and it, instead, heads off over the hills, hoping you’ll catch up. Whether that moment comes from Peggy ordering a sandwich or Pete purchasing a gun or Don coming up with a revenge against his boss that will underscore just how many more cards he holds than Roger without ever being traceable back to him, it’s a moment that strikes suddenly and unexpectedly (like Betty slapping Helen). In a character-driven show like Mad Men, you always want to have the sense that the writers understand these people far better than you ever will. In “Red In The Face,” I get the sense for the first time that Matt Weiner and his team know so much about these people that we will never be able to plumb all of their depths, even with seven seasons in which to go exploring.
- “Red In The Face” gives script credit to Bridget Bedard, while Tim Hunter is the episode’s director. Bedard would later write on Men Of A Certain Age, which is a wonderful show you should watch now.
- The Pete storyline is made even better by the fact that the old friend who talks to him at the department store customer service counter is Teddy Sears from Masters Of Sex, one of the foremost shows to follow in Mad Men’s footsteps (and another show that’s often good at the unexpected character moment).
- For as sleazy as Pete can be, the show somehow maintains a certain level of empathy for him because he’ll never be everything he would prefer to be. Instead, he’s the butt of everyone’s jokes, even Bert Cooper’s.
- Mad Men is a show that often makes conspicuous consumption seem attractive, but there’s no sense of that in the scenes where Don and Roger swill martinis and eat oysters. It looks like some weird level of hell where the devil serves lunch.
- One of the show’s more persistent ideas—what’s truth and what was dreamed up by some ad agency?—resurfaces in the scene where Don and Roger discuss the true origins of lighting three cigarettes with the same match. Is it a bit of World War I trench wisdom? Or something a match company cooked up to sell more matches? Or both?
- One of the things I love most about that Peggy moment I talked about in the second paragraph is the way that she comes back to her desk and mills around a little bit. She’s so excited by what just happened, and she’s not sure how to feed that excitement.
- Bert Cooper’s biggest complaint about JFK might be that he doesn’t wear a hat. And it’s hard to disagree with him.
Spoiling Cooper (if you haven’t seen the run of the series so far, skip this section):
- Of course that scene also underlines something that becomes more and more obvious throughout the series: Pete Campbell is very often right, in irritating fashion. He senses on some level that the youth movement is going to change America, but he doesn’t yet have the courage of his convictions. In later seasons, he will basically invent targeting specific demographics and reveal himself to have relatively modern attitudes on race relations for the era. Also, his desire to be an alpha male and cheat on his wife will have many disastrous consequences. Let’s watch!
- Another famous example of the show aping the Kennedy administration: the way that the famous “Guy loses a foot” scene in “Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency” subtly calls to Kennedy’s assassination.
- It’s hard not to look at how fresh-faced Don looks in this episode and think back to just how run down and groggy he seems throughout season six, particularly in the season finale.
Next week: We’re back on the weekly schedule for the duration, as we head into Don’s past with “The Hobo Code,” another classic episode of the series.