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'Mad Men' review: Don takes a dip

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The advantage of Mad Men as a period piece is that it forces us to consider the way people thought and behaved a generation ago; we can’t go into the show assuming that if some copywriter comes up with a good idea, the boss will exclaim, “Awesome!” and there’ll be high-fives all around. (Aside from the fact that the culture hadn’t yet degenerated into jock democracy, everyone’s cigarettes and highball glasses would smash together.) The disadvantage of Mad Men as a period piece is that every time someone does something that seems odd or unexpected, viewers are tempted to say, “Oh, well, I guess that’s just how they would have reacted in those days.”

If we’re learning one thing about Mad Men in this apparently nonstop superlative season, it’s that the latter, “Oh, well” reaction is not an option — or just plain lazy, on the part of the viewer. Thus, just because Don Draper swam a lot last night and cut back on the booze, he hadn’t “hit bottom” or reached an existential low point or was being used as a visual quotation from the John Cheever short story “The Swimmer.” (For one thing, the protagonist in Cheever’s 1960s story swam in a succession of his neighbors’ pools, covering some territory, rather than confining himself to one in a gym.)

The immediate distinction of this week’s Mad Men, entitled “The Summer Man,” was in what we heard. Running throughout the hour was Don’s voiceover of some journal entries he was writing. For what purpose? To clear his head, the mental equivalent of taking a dip in chlorinated water? To set down some notes for a better-than-Roger autobiography? To make a stab at some sort of long-form narrative? (He mentioned rarely ever writing more than 250 words at a time, which makes sense for an ad man, whose job is to be pithy.)

I don’t think this was anything so banal as Don’s effort at “self-help” or taking an inner inventory. I also liked the way his voiceover/writing revealed that Don isn’t a particularly good or original writer — again, these aren’t qualities that would hobble the writer of ad copy, for whom the common, even banal, touch is actually an advantage. Instead, these unmediated thoughts Don was setting down were pretty much what he was consciously presenting them as being: A way of ordering his thoughts, to impose an order on his life, and his place in it as a man besieged by change.

After the voiceover, the other departure from usual Mad Men style was playing the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” as soundtrack music. It started out as “found” music heard naturally in a scene — coming out of someone’s tinny portable radio making noise on the bench beside Don. But then it was free-floating, louder, when Don hit the street. There was no grand message here. (“Ooooh, get it: Don can’t get no satisfaction!”) Instead, we understood that at this time, in this moment, “Satisfaction” was in the air, all around, a soundtrack in people’s lives in a way pop music had never been before, even if that soundtrack didn’t sync with the life it was invading.

“The Summer Man” ended up being as much about women as men. Joan has become a symbol of control and power (instead of a war-ship with a curvy girl carved into its prow, this is a curvy girl encased by a war-ship’s protective shell and forward momentum), and this was a week to make that symbol more human. She absorbed the rude shock of vulgarity leveled at her by the men led by the callow wiseguy Joey. The crass manner in which they spoke of Joan and depicted her in Joey’s porny drawing was only a slight exaggeration of the way Christina Hendricks has been portrayed in the contemporary media as Our Pop Culture Plush-Doll Of The Moment.

In showing the various results of what we’d now call workplace harassment, Mad Men deployed its most effective dramatic device: As it’s been doing all season, the series shows us why people do certain things, and then how those decisions are misinterpreted, or reinterpreted, by those around them. Thus, after Don practically orders Peggy to fire Joey, Peggy does so both knowing she’s doing the proper thing and overcoming her own reticence about being a woman in charge. Matt Long’s acting here with Elizabeth Moss, and earlier with Hendricks, was terrific, as was the spin Matthew Weiner and his co-writers put on Joan’s character as seen through the eyes of Joey. To him, she’s not a drool-inducing bombshell, but an over-stuffed harlot who reminds him of his mother. And while Joan had let down her guard at home, sobbing at the memory of Joey’s cruel taunt about her wanting to be a rape object, she fell into the arms of her rapist — excuse me, her husband — in genuine need of comfort. A comfort she would later deny Peggy in the elevator, robbing the young copywriter of any satisfaction in having solved the Joey problem by insisting that Peggy was acting out of self-interest as much as sisterhood-is-powerful concern.

Don-the-summer-man was also used as a conduit for fine scenes with women. His dates with Faye Miller and Bethany drew out qualities in their characters we hadn’t seen before. Don, in consciously dialing down his reflexively controlling manner, became more appealing to both women. Bethany was revealed as more sensitive than we may have thought to the ways women compete for attention from men — her under-played shock at seeing Betty for the first time, beholding the woman who was once  Mrs. Don Draper, was summed in a single, inflected word: “Her?” As in, “You were once in love with that hard, brittle woman?” Similarly, Faye came more fully alive than ever when it was clear that Don wasn’t taking her out just to put the moves on her. And Betty — well, if her longing look across the crowded room at Don happily hoisting the birthday-child was a tad melodramatic, Mad Men and January Jones had really earned that moment: It was, like the rest of this episode, poignant without any mush, any soggy sentimentality, or any cruel irony.

What did you think of Mad Men this week?

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