Monday, September 29, 2008

Mad Men: Six Month Leave

"Six Month Leave" seemed to me like a pause to take a breath after the dynamic past two episodes, "A Night to Remember" and "The Golden Violin." But it's not only a release of tension; it's also gathering up the energy to set us up for some more powerful developments in the lives of the characters.

(photo courtesy of

For example, after all the recent focus on the women, we have a boy's night out that reveals how the men at Sterling Cooper react to the loss or threatened loss of what defines them as men. First, loss of a job. Freddy Rumson is being let go in the nicest possible way because he has crossed the line when it comes to liquor consumption. Roger and Don send Freddy off in a haze of booze and illegal gambling. Freddy's own sense of loss--"what will I be without my job?" he asks--isn't taken seriously by either men. A sense of impending doom seems to engulf Freddy as a taxicab takes him home, possibly to a long suicide of alcoholism.

Then there's the discussion of Don's personal situation, living apart from his family. Roger claims he's been where Don is now, and all it takes is "the grand gesture"--I assume, a tearful apology, a false promise, some nice jewelry or a trip--to get back in Betty's good graces. Don's admission of no sadness but relief instead, could be either real or macho posturing, but it seems to floor Roger. It's as if Don has opened up the possibility that one doesn't have to stay married at all, and as we know about Roger, he can't tolerate the comfort and familiarity of marriage. He's all about the chase. So Roger stupidly uses Don's early morning ramblings to justify leaving Mona for Jane. Jane! of all people! Foolish man, invigorated by the chase and novelty-- he is only setting himself up for a series of marriages to pretty young things who will suck him dry.

We are given some historical context to set the date (August 1962)in people's reactions to Marilyn Monroe's death: The teariest women are those who see their looks as a major asset. Jane snivels about never taking pills and gets sympathy from other secretaries. Joan, more reflective and closer to Monroe in age, takes a moment to lie down in Roger's office. She sees Monroe as a victim of men's fantasies and exploitation, eventually discarded by them when they were bored. During this scene with Roger, I thought of the "Happy Birthday Mr. President" footage--Monroe is almost scary in her ghostliness and breathless, catatonic state. Think of the flurry of books and documentaries about the rumors of a Kennedy conspiracy to kill her before she talked and stage it like a suicide--is Joan prescient in her statement about the world destroying Monroe?

I also vividly recall Peggy's clear-eyed assessment of Pete after hearing about Freddy being let go. When he explains to her that this is how business is done and how people advance, you can see her thinking, "yes, that's true." But when he lays his hand on her shoulder just a touch too long, you can see the revulsion flicker across her face. It's like she is thinking "One time that would have turned me on, but now it feels disgusting." Elisabeth Moss is a very thoughtful actress; you have a sense of a real intelligence behind those eyes, even when she (as Peggy) is trying to hide her thoughts and feelings.

Back on the home front, a depressed Betty sets up her horsey friend Sara Beth and the young guy Arthur at lunch: I see that as spiteful payback for Sara Beth going on about her devoted albeit boring husband, her sexy dreams of Arthur, and how Betty is so lucky because Don is so perfect. The setup also allows Betty not to divulge her own tenuous marital situation during a friendly lunch. I loved how mechanically she moves about the kitchen as Sally and Bobby make cookies, and how she takes the phone off the hook without any hesitation so her friends can't find out why she hasn't shown up. There's something evil and also pathetic about setting Sara Beth and Arthur up for a possible affair; it's cruel to put them in a scenario in which they will make the wrong choice, but it also shows how she can't get at the person she wants to hurt most: Don. So she's given up on kicking Bobby and now she's manipulating other people into punishing situations instead.

Finally, there's the encounter between Don and Betty when he brings the kids back home. He asks her repeatedly what she wants and she won't tell him. I don't know whose side I'm on at this point. On the one hand, I want Betty to drop the passive-aggressive approach and tell Don how things will be from now on. On the other, I know--and I think Betty knows, hence the refusal to say what she wants--that Don isn't asking because he really cares about what Betty wants. He just wants a set of instructions to follow so he can keep his facade of the perfect family life intact. If Betty were to tell him, "I'll take you back on these conditions: home every night by 6pm, a babysitter every Friday so we can go to the movies, free 24-hour access to your desk, and you in nothing but briefs doing yardwork every Saturday," he would accept it, because he could follow the directions without any real emotional commitment. But Betty won't give him such an easy way back home.

So let's take our deep breath, and see what happens when this show exhales on this thread, shall we?

1 comment:

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