I think I have a new favorite character on Mad Men.
No it's not Paul The New Bohemian, with his poseur beard, antique booze glass, black girlfriend and fashionably run-down apartment in Montclair, New Jersey. And it's certainly not Joan, who takes a double dig at Paul's new girl by saying to her, "When Paul I and were together, the last thing I would've taken him for was open-minded." (Later, when Paul asks Joan what she said to his girl, Joan cattily asks, "Describe her to me?")
It's not Peggy either, though I was glad to finally find out what became of her baby. Through the machinations of the State Of New York–details elided, but surely forthcoming eventually–Peggy's baby is being raised by her parents and sister in what appears to be Long Island. And while Peggy is still trying to present herself as an independent woman by telling her folks that she's stopped going to church–and by turning aside would-be suitors with lines like, "I'm in the persuasion business, and frankly your presentation disappointed me."–there's something telling about the way Peggy appears in two separate scenes in tonight's episode schlepping a vacuum cleaner around. Last episode, her peers at Sterling-Cooper were trying to make her into fetch-and-carry girl, and tonight she's either toting a vacuum or having children shoved into her arms. I mentioned last season that Peggy's baby could almost be seen as a metaphor rather than a plot twist: it's the physical manifestation of the person she's trying like heck not to be. In this episode, that seems more true than ever.
And what of the man who's probably the father of that baby? Ah, well he's the man who's become by favorite character on the show. Last week I was amused by the sight of Pete Campbell eating chocolates and watching kiddie shows, regressing to childhood after having his manhood challenged every day by his boss, his wife and his father. Well, the "Flight 1" of tonight's episode refers to an American Airlines crash that kills over a hundred people, including Pete's father. Before he gets the news about his dad, Pete is right there with his fellows in the office, cracking sick jokes about plane crashes. (Hey, these guys don't get to be copywriters unless they can think on their feet.) Afterward, he stumbles into Don's office, unsure what he should say or how he should feel.
I imagine that as the season goes on, we'll get more about what the death of Pete's father will mean to Pete and to his family–especially given that, according to Pete's brother, the old man left behind a trail of debt to belie his aristocratic airs. Tonight though was all about how one acknowledges a genuine emotion like grief–or however you'd describe Pete's reaction to the tragedy–amid the aloof, contrived give-and-take that comprises the Sterling-Cooper work environment. The first time Pete enters Don's office to talk about it, Don sends him home, in a way that's half-caring, half-"I can't be your confidant because frankly you creep me out." The second time Pete tries to talk to Don, Don is irritated about something else, so he barks and Pete flees.
You know, Mad Men is not a workplace comedy. These characters have relationships–close relationships in some cases–but no matter how much Duck tries to play up the "we're a family here" angle with Pete when he wants Pete to team up with him on a pitch, they're really not a family. As Joan says after Paul gets even with her by Xeroxing and posting her driver's license–and circling her actual birthdate–the employees at Sterling-Cooper should be expected to leave their personal business at home. This is a place of business–and a cynical one. Even when Roger Sterling sees the whole city going nuts for the return of John Glenn, he cracks a joke about how he wishes peope would throw a parade for him after "driving around the block a few times."
So where does that leave poor Pete, who can be so conniving one moment and so naïve the next? When he realizes that no one wants to hear him talk about how he hasn't "even cried yet," he decides that the least he can do is exploit the general vibe of sympathy. So he joins with Duck on pitching to American Airlines, and uses his recent loss as a hook when he meets the client for the first time. That's how things get done. Be an asset, not a liability–no matter how inhuman it makes you look. If Peggy's baby is a metaphor for the woman she doesn't want to be, then it could also be a metaphor for the man Pete already is, even though he doesn't know it. His wife may not be aware, but Pete is potent.
Which brings us to Don Draper, who appears to be living through a comeuppance of sorts. Last week he was idealizing family life and griping about whippersnappers; this week his insistence that Sterling-Cooper can't go after American Airlines because they need to be loyal to their existing Mohawk Airlines account falls on deaf ears. Meanwhile, back on the home front, he's continuing to live in obeisance to Betty, who's forcing him into bridge parties and griping publicly that he doesn't take a firm enough hand with their kids. When bridge guest Francine notes that all the books say children tend to test their parents' limits, Betty snaps, pointedly, "I don't need a book to know what little boys do." Clearly, Don is serving penance for past misdeeds, such that when a sexy waitress makes a pass at him, he sighs, "Not tonight." (Although he didn't say "not ever"…so perhaps there's life in the old boy yet.)
Don ultimately meets with his friend from Mohawk and tells him the bad news, and it doesn't take long for both men to abandon any pretense that they were ever friends in the first place. (Again: Not a workplace comedy. Not "a family.") Instead, the Mohawk rep recalls how Don once convinced him that rather than going after a bigger airline, Sterling-Cooper was going to make Mohawk into a bigger airline. Even though the Mohawk guy doesn't know how Don fought to keep the account, and even though he doesn't know that Don's a fraud in so many more significant ways, he still looks Don in the eye and says, ruefully, "You fooled me."
And here's the thing: Mohawk's not around anymore. So if Don't basing his self-image on sticking with companies like Mohawk, well…frankly, I'm starting to worry about Don.
-Even though I took a few digs at Mad Men's persistent flaws last week, I was still surprised to read some complaints–both in our comment section and in other critics' reviews–that the show moves too slow. Maybe it's because I'm in that place Matthew Weiner claims to be in, where just "living in this world" is enough, but to me the action of this show isn't in the big plot movements but in the small character moments. If anything, when the show gets too plotty, I start to get nervous.
-Speaking of small character moments, how sweet was it see the Draper daughter mixing drinks for the grown-ups, and then both kids listening to the bridge game on the stairs when they were supposed to be in bed? The best part of the latter scene: When Betty catches her son by the candy dish, we can faintly hear the daughter already running up the stairs, fleeing the scene of the crime before she gets noticed.
-Why is Francine's husband so fat all of a sudden? Are we going to find out that he's pregnant too?
-Here's a classic insensitive copywriter moment, ripped from real life: A journalist friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) had a reputation for coming up with the cleverest, quippiest, puninest headlines for even the most banal news items. Once while I was in the newsroom, someone shouted that they needed a headline for a story about a little kid who died when his mother left him in a hot car. Without skipping a beat, my friend shouted back, "Tot roast!"
-Do you think we will we get as far as the Cuban Missile Crisis this season? How about the Kennedy assassination?
-Here's a Time magazine article from 1962 about the actual American Airlines crash, if you're interested.
I think I have a new favorite character on Mad Men.