I realize it’s been over a month since the first Mad Men rewatch post, but an actual offline writing project interfered! I do have a game plan for the next few weeks to actually cover everything by the season premiere on August 16th. We will try, but I can’t promise they will all be 2,000 word epics like this one. I’m sure you will be disappointed.
In more general blog housekeeping notes, I do want to point out that my tumblr actually still gets regular updates, though most of them are just pictures of stuff I like. so like, lots of Gossip Girl and Mad Men, and occasional clips of Anderson Cooper being adorable.
Episode 4: “New Amsterdam”
This is mostly a “Pete” episode, which is always a bit of a challenge to me as a viewer since Pete’s such an unlikable but really well-drawn and well-acted character. Most of the talk about the great acting on the show focuses on the sexier or more relatable characters, but I think Vincent Kartheiser’s work throughout the show has been great. Pete’s such a shit, and Kartheiser plays him so unshrinkingly. This is also the first episode where you start to feel kind of bad for Pete, since he wants so badly to actually be considered on his own merits, but it’s not clear that he actually has any (yet), and his name is getting him through life more than he’d like. (Though it later turns out that Pete is actually a bit more perceptive about the future than, say, Don or Roger – like the Kennedy stuff, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)
The main threads of the story are about Pete trying to buy an apartment Trudy wants and at the same time working on entertaining a client from Bethlehem Steel who’s in New York to approve a campaign. Neither of these things really goes his way – his parents won’t help him with the apartment, and Don’s mad at him for not pre-selling the client on the work they’d already done. Pete and Trudy wind up getting the apartment through her parents’ largesse. The contrast between the jovial restaurant meal shared with Trudy’s parents and Pete’s cold meeting with his folks in their house, furniture already covered for their switchover to the summer house – his mother in a Christmas sweater because that’s all that wasn’t packed – is a nice contrast between Trudy’s family life and Pete’s. Meanwhile, while basically playing pimp to Mr. Bethlehem Steel (which, now that I think about it, I realize is pretty much his job, which, ew, and also, his dad has a point), Pete pitches his slogan idea that Bethlehem likes better than Don’s concept. It’s sort of sweet for Pete after his fight with Don (where he says something like “I have ideas, you know” and Don replies with “Sterling Cooper has more failed artists and intellectuals than the Third Reich!”) The only other salient point about this fight is that it’s clear that even Pete thinks the idea that he’s “good with people” is absurd. But of course, after the whole meeting debacle, Don very quietly tells him to put all his belongings in a cardboard box, and Sal tells him “You picked the wrong time to buy an apartment!”
But then! We get a first meeting with Bert Cooper, who is always the voice of harsh realities in an already cynical world. “Don’t fool yourself, there’s a Pete Campbell at every agency,” he explains, to get the entrées into the society clubs and so forth, and this makes Pete impossible to fire. Don obviously hates this, but Roger keeps the power in that relationship where it’s supposed to be by telling Pete that Don’s the one who saved his job. I like Cooper a lot as a character – I love all the quiet bits with his Japanese affectations (I don’t think anyone’s ever talked about the taking shoes off before you go to his office, but it’s such a great, telling little business you see every time we wind up there); and I love all the little Ayn Rand bits and stuff. Robert Morse’s work – beyond the novelty of having Mr. How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying on the show – brings so, so much to the show.
The episode closes with Pete and Trudy meeting the co-op board (or whatever the 1960 equivalent is) for their new building. “Wait until I tell my husband there’s a Dykeman in the building,” the woman says excitedly. Pete looks out on the city his family used to own as “Manhattan” plays: “We’ll take Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island too…”
Pete’s sort of an odd one in the show’s universe. In a way, he’s tied to the past, in that he’s obviously gotten lots of privilege from coming from the “old guard,” but he’s also one of the “kids,” and he’s often the most savvy (often in depressing ways) about the future.
This is an unsettling episode, because it’s also the one where Betty meets little Glenn Bishop. This is one strain of Mad Men that I totally still don’t get. I do understand that part of it is that Glenn’s response to her is one of uncomplicated (though slightly creepy) admiration, and Betty needs that, but seriously? A lock of her hair? I just…don’t get it. There’s a weird huskiness in her voice when she sends him up to bed after that makes me really uncomfortable and sad.
Episode 5: “5G”
So, “5G” means two things – it’s Adam Whitman’s apartment number and it’s also the sum total amount of money that Don uses to buy the disappearance of his little brother.
This is actually not my favourite episode in general, but it has some wonderful moments, and it’s obviously a major advancement of the plot, as it gives us some major information about Don’s past, which still seems like it’s going to be a big deal when you’re watching this. And it is, in terms of us finding out What Don’s Deal Is, but not actually in terms of how it affects his life. The more I think about it, the more I think all the secrecy is as much about Don needing to have a secret life as about anyone in his life caring about Don’s past. Roger’s interested, because he’s his friend, and he’s always pushing for details; Betty’s interested, because she wants to know her husband. But other than that, no one really gives a crap where he grew up besides Don.
I love that Midge calls Don’s office and gives her name as Bix Beiderbecke and Don has no idea who that is.
The part of this episode that I actually love is the part where Ken publishes a short story in the Atlantic Monthly and Roger compliments it like this: “The story itself was not much to my liking, but I think it showed an uncanny understanding of what most people like.” And everyone else in the agency – failed artists with novels or screenplays in their desk drawers – completely loses it. Especially Pete, who gets Trudy to try to sell his short story to an old boyfriend who’s in publishing. Key detail to remember for future episodes: Pete’s story is about hunting. (Trudy: “I don’t understand why the bear is talking.”)
The other part that I like a lot is Peggy freaking out when Betty shows up for the family photo and Peggy doesn’t know where Don is. In my notes, I described this as “cutesville,” and the exchange between her and Joan, where she confesses to Joan that he gets calls from this woman, and then realizes she should never have told Joan. “I’m the worst secretary in the world.”
The end of the episode is the bit where Don shows up at Adam’s apartment with a mysterious briefcase (which the shot emphasizes as he heads over there). There’s an element of sinisterness in the whole exchange as Don tells his brother that his life “moves in one direction: foreward.” But his voice softens as he tells him to make his own life, and you can read a tiny bit of hesitation and vulnerability in his voice – which, again, is a first glimpse, for someone who sets himself up as tough and modern as Don. Don’s not going to kill Adam, of course, at least not with a weapon. He does, in a way, it turns out, kill him with money. But we don’t know that yet.
Episode 6: “Babylon”
“Babylon” is epic. It’s still one of my favourite episodes, so funny and fast and heartbreaking and beautiful. I think it, along with “The Wheel,” holds many of the keys to the whole show.
So there are all these threads that start on Mother’s Day. We get a montage of a very un-commercial-like breakfast being prepared – orange juice concentrate being glopped in a pitcher, cigarettes being put out, etc, before Don falls on his back and has a flashback to young Don meeting his brother for the first time. There’s a fantastic shot where the camera pans from young Don, looking back at the stairs, to old Don. I love this moment, because it has the past and the present looking at each other, which is a really great metaphor for, you know, what is going on with the whole show.
Key Don quote that will come back to get him later, re: Betty’s inability to get over her mom’s death: “Mourning is just extended self-pity.”
So Don’s work challenge that brings up confusing thematic issues related to his personal life this week is selling Isreali tourism! So he calls Rachel, who busts him on calling her because she’s the only Jewish person he knows.
“A country. For ‘those people’ as you call us. Well, it seems very important.” “Why aren’t you there?” “My life is here… I’ll visit, but I don’t have to live there. It just, has to be. For me it’s more of an idea than a place.” “Utopia.” “Maybe. They taught us at Barnard about that word, ‘utopia’. The Greeks had two meaning for it: ‘eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’ meaning the place that cannot be.”
There are a bunch of different meanings in that distinction, some of them diegetic, some of them non-, and they all kind of layer on top of each other: personal, political, romantic (capital and small r), nostalgic.
Oh, but it doesn’t stop there! “Babylon” also has the beginning of Peggy’s ascendancy as copywriter and total advertising killer. There’s the whole scene, with the “brainstorming,” where the rest of the “girls” are all giggling and trying on lipstick and Joan is playing her role, being on display on the looked-at side of the two-way mirror, while the boys are on the other side, playing their roles, and doing the looking. She knows Roger’s there, she knows they’re all watching, she knows exactly what’s going on. The difference between her and Peggy is, Peggy knows too, but she’s not going to participate. She doesn’t want to be just another colour in a box. She’s not being calculating when she tells Freddy that, she’s not a “dog playing the piano,” she’s just not an idiot and by not pretending to be one, lucks into someone noticing. (As we see next season, this was the easy part.)
When Joan tells Peggy the news, she asks if she should go thank “them”: “No need. They wanted me to tell you. They were very specific about it. Well, you know what they say. The medium is the message.”
The next time we see Joan, Roger is giving her a depressingly symbolic caged bird. We switch back to Don, fending off accusations of being a sell-out, by Midge’s lame friend Roy: “How do you sleep at night?” “On a bed of money.” This isn’t true, Don doesn’t sell lies because he’s cynical, he sells them because he wants them to be true, but Don would never say that, because he doesn’t even know it himself probably.
The show closes with a good example of the cheap TV device of drawing parallels through musical montage – as “By The Waters of Babylon,” a folk song written especially for the show plays, we see Rachel thinking of Don (and maybe of Zion), we see Betty putting lipstick on Sally, we see Don’s eyes misting at the song for reasons we can only guess a, and we close on Joan and Roger leaving the hotel separately, a long shot emphasizing their distance. The music cuts out and we’re left with desolate car noises.