All words: Alan Zilberman and Peter Mergenthaler
Good morning, and welcome to BYT’s weekly MAD MEN hangover! In lieu of a traditional recap, I instead offer a somewhat edited, highly spirited debate between myself and a fellow TV junkie. Joining me is Pete, my old roommate who helped jumpstart my obsession with serialized TV dramas. Without further ado, let’s get into what’s new at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce!
Alan: I have my bourbon on the rocks – let’s do this! One year later, what did you think of the season three finale?
Pete: Hold on. The first thing we should do, I think, is lower readers’ expectations. This is our first one of these, and when we were discussing format a moment ago, we agreed that parts of this would “come pretty naturally.” So let’s hope that’s true. Anyway, I’ve brought my punctuation and my capital letters, and I’m ready to roll.
Alan: You and I have been hilariously discussing pop culture mintuae for the better part of a decade, so I like to think well touch on salient points easily.
Pete: Roger that. So, about the season three finale. I’m still struck by how different that episode feels from the rest of the show. It seems like the creative powers that be have exorcised some of Mad Men’s fundamental demons and are eager to move on to something more accessible. Or different, at the very least.
Alan: The major shift, I think, is how the massaging of egos is reversed. Whereas Don and the other higher-ups treat underlings like shit, in this episode they’re forced to grovel (within reason, of course). I do agree Weiner and his writers are trimming the fat but keeping the skeleton.
Pete: Right. But I mean, JFK, dunzo. Comeuppance for Don’s secret origins and adultery, dunzo. The big things we’d been waiting for the show to address seem to have been addressed, and now everyone’s trying to have some fun. There was a lot of winking and grinning and upbeat lounge music as they went about recruiting folks for the new agency, and that feels totally uncharacteristic for the show. At the same time, it was really, really fun to watch.
Alan: The last line is spoken shortly after the sad, empathetic conversation between Don and Betty. The respect they still have (or pretend to have) for each other coupled with Don’s complex facial expression upon looking at his colleagues, I think there’s a melancholy element beneath the loungy excitement of something new.
Pete: Yeah, but it feels valedictory in a way. Like, after you take a huge exam and you realize you didn’t do as poorly as you thought you might have. Speaking of Don and Betty, what do you think this season holds for them as a dissolved couple? What does the show do with Betty, given that pretty much everyone in TV land thinks she’s awful?
Alan: I’m almost certain Betty won’t find happiness with Henry Francis. Sally is at a point where rebellion is natural, so I think she’ll be the lightning rod for the new family. Also, I’ll be curious to see how the Henry’s career is a factor.
Pete: I’m so not curious. When they show her and Henry flying to Reno, I assumed that was Mad Men’s way of sending her to guest-star status, and I was happy about it. But she’s all over the promotional material for this season, so who knows. I think you loathe her even more than I do, though. I should note that I think January Jones is fabulous in the part.
Alan: She’s as complex as the best characters on the show, and I understand why she makes her choices. That being said, I never feel sympathy for her. I’m glad they don’t pull any punches, and make her seem selfish and cruel. Of course, someone with a different perspective could see Don as the monster.
Pete: Totally agreed.
Alan: OK. The show is starting!
Pete: Seeya in an hour.
Alan: So what did you think?
Pete: I think Don basically fired old crusty Mad Men at the end of the episode, and now we have the new hotness.
Alan: How do you mean?
Pete: Where the workplace drama was concerned, the first three seasons seemed to riff on the same monster-of-the-week storyline every time. Old dinosaur companies being dragged kicking and screaming into the modern-day marketplace. I think it’s clear that the show won’t be doing that anymore. Or at least not as often.
Alan: On that level, I certainly agree, which is interesting given the reticence the others have for such an approach. It’s worth considering Peggy’s publicity stunt alongside Don’s frustration, as there are ethics to Don’s embrace of modernity.
Pete: Sure, and as a former print reporter, I found that whole thread revolting. Credible, but revolting. PR is the gold-lined trashcan for reporters who take themselves seriously. All but the most noble of us know we’ll end up doing it at some point, but in the meantime, we still think it’s gross. So it was easy to line up with Don on that one. Still, he’s been frustrated with tard clients since the first episode.
Alan: True, Don’s frustrations have been a mainstay of the show. In this episode, the parallels between his personal and professional life are interesting.
Pete: Dude likes it rough.
Alan: Well, yeah. His attraction to Bobbie Barrett pointed us in this direction, but if anything, his love of rough stuff adds an interesting sexual element to his frustration with Betty. When Don said “Everyone around you is bad, and you’re better,” perhaps his indignation also relates to their bedroom behavior.
Pete: One can only imagine. And holy shit, the Betty stuff this week was more agonizing than I could have possibly imagined.
Alan: I totally called it regarding Sally. Her dinner table battle of wills was fascinating, especially given Betty’s standing in the Francis family. As for their love scene in the garage, there was a moment where Betty clearly disapproved. There are already uncomfortable comprises that strain at their relationship.
Pete: It’s hard to see what they liked about each other in the first place, aside from Betty being a piece of ass. They don’t appear to be faring any better a year later.
Alan: The irony is Betty and Don behaved the way they were taught during their courtship, and emotional honesty only comes after resentment and betrayal. On moral grounds, Don wins in this episode – his frustration may be personal, but he can say it’s about the kids first. Betty just sees their conflict as a vendetta.
Pete: She’s also so off-base on the living quarters situation that even Henry tells her so. So she’s crashing at the Draper pad, as is Henry. Living in Don’s “dirt,” as Henry’s mother puts it. That’s got to be uncomfortable, but Betty’s totally okay with it. Is that part of the vendetta, or is she just giving up in terms of finding her way as a person? I don’t believe for a second that she’s actually concerned about uprooting Bobby and Sally. She’s the worst mother ever, and that’s the last thing that would occur to her.
Alan: As an aside, I think she’s a poor mother, but it’s hard to determine how much of that is cultural. Parents then had different values. Regarding what motivates Betty, I think it’s purely personal. She wants to WIN.
Pete: Well, she’s failing. The peeks at Don’s bachelor life didn’t look that bad. What do you think of his date with Jane’s friend?
Alan: I think this the clearest differentiation between the early and middle sixties. Don was surprised by her, and she’s forthright in a way that even Rosemary DeWitt the bohemian may have found uncomfortable. I must admit, however, I was sad to see the teacher out of the picture.
Pete: Yeah, I miss Rosemary DeWitt. Mrs. Whatsherface. But I wouldn’t mistake Don’s surprise with the new girl for appreciation or anything like that. She was blithely earnest in a way that seemed more calculated than sincere.
Alan: Oh, I certainly wouldn’t call it appreciation. He wanted to get laid that night.
Pete: He’s looking for a slampig, and she’s auditioning him.
Alan: Ok, perhaps we should wrap this up. Let’s talk about Don’s approach to the two interviews. Don has always been reluctant to discuss his personal life. His candor for the second interview is interesting, as he’s always been cagey. Like Peggy, he’s trying to adapt and shape his new agency.
Pete: Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I think the interviews got to the structural conflict of the entire show. Do you make it about these people, or do you make it about the bigger questions and the workplace storyline and all of that? “Who is Don Draper?” vs. “Who cares about me?”
Alan: That conflict has been where the show has excelled. Don is an egoist, sure, but who can blame him? We’re just as bad, and nowhere near as good-looking.
Pete: It’s one of those things that goes without saying but shouldn’t. Jon Hamm is just absurdly good-looking. Oh, the Sterling one-liners were exceptional.
Pete: “They’re so cheap, they couldn’t afford a whole reporter.” With regard to the one-legged guy from Ad Age. A Korean War vet, no less.
Alan: How many martinis would you give this episode out of a four-martini lunch?
Pete: Four, happily. The show’s talking to me now, or maybe I finally feel smart enough to appreciate it as something digestible.
Alan: I’d give it three and a half. They’ve opened character exploration, but I’m curious to see whether they’ll follow through. OK. Until next week!
Pete: Affirmative. Hopefully with more rotating hallway fights!