By Andrew Johnston
For a variety of reasons, not the least of which was my shock and grief over the suicide of David Foster Wallace, Mad Men Mondays just didn't happen two weeks ago. When Matt Seitz suggested recapping "A Night to Remember" and "Six Months' Leave" together in one column, I realized that the two flow together relatively seamlessly in a way very few Mad Men episodes do: Betty's depression in "Six Months' Leave" follows her long-simmering anger over Don's affair, which erupted earlier and further crystallized when she threw out Don after seeing one of Jimmy Barrett's Utz commercials during a rerun of Make Room For Daddy. On top of all this, the hour contrasts Betty, who is depressed about something immediate and personal, against the Sterling Cooper women mourning the death of Marilyn Monroe. The episodes' presentation of the challenges faced by American women in 1962 invites a tandem consideration.
Ironically, I watched "Six Months' Leave" for the second time the night before I learned of Wallace's death. The contrast between the fictional reactions to Monroe's demise and the fresh reactions to Wallace's passing was fascinating. I've always been one of those who think that people who say American pop culture is more fragmented than ever are just exaggerating--but while almost everyone in my circle of friends was affected by Wallace's death to some degree, upon hard reflection I realized that his passing really probably had an impact on only a few hundred thousand people in the U.S., while Monroe's death united millions, perhaps more, in grief. Although women were more deeply affected by it, her passing was a blow to men, too, Roger and Don's hard-shell reactions nothwithstanding. (It would have been nice to get a glimpse of Sal's response.) And it's not every day that a news story would lead to Don, Peggy and the elevator operator speaking freely with each other. If Mad Men sticks to schedule, the timeline will sail right by the Kennedy assassination; lacking an opportunity to present one of the few 20th century events shocking enough to unite the whole country, the creative staff may have settled on Monroe's death as the next best thing (and it also creates the intriguing historical argument that Monroe's death, even as a simple suicide, was the herald of all that would follow in the '60s, as each successive death of a politician or rock star was seen as evidence of a giant conspiracy whose motives were too complex for mere mortals to understand).
Fancy sociological BS aside, though, in many respects the divergent responses to Monroe's death are a perfect metaphor for the gulf between men and women on Mad Men. When Betty makes it to the riding club halfway through the episode, it starts to seem as if she's escaped her squalor (Betty doesn't need Carla or even Don to keep the house clean, but when she decides to let go, she doesn't fuck around). It's soon apparent that her true motive was to let Sarah Beth have lunch alone with Arthur. Consciously or not, Betty just closed off her safest avenue for a revenge-affair with which to torture Don. Still, as we learned in the season-opening "For Those Who Think Young," Betty has other avenues for expressing her sexuality.
"Night"'s title, of course, evokes that of Walter Lord's 1955 nonfiction book about the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic, which leads one to expect a much bigger crisis than Betty's embarrassment at the dinner party (I'm inclined to think that, per Don, it's the drunken antics of Mrs. Colson that the guests are more likely to remember than anything). The title might have been a better fit for "Leave," where it could have applied to either the death of Marilyn Monroe or Don and Roger's night out with Freddie, which ends disastrously for two of the three of them.
We never got to see how Don and Betty patched things up after "The Wheel" (or how long it took them to do so), but the opening scene of "Night", in which Betty exerts herself riding like never before, makes it clear that she's building up a strong head of steam and is ready to blow. She returns from the ride before Don has even woken, and we're soon treated to another example of the domestic laziness that always drives Betty bananas. (Don doesn't seem to mind breaking out the tools on Sally's behalf, as in "Marriage of Figaro", but whenever Betty asks him to do something, his first response is always, "Why can't we call a repairman?") This time, however, Betty's frustrated response is further evidence that her knowledge of Don's affair has turned her into a ticking bomb.
Betty's passive-aggressive insistence on perfection--we get a doozy of an example when she destroys that chair--comes to an end after she searches Don's desk for evidence to prove Jimmy's allegations of the Don-Bobbie affair (at first, I thought she'd find something Dick Whitman-related instead) and then completely falls apart after she gets her annoyance about the Heineken gambit off her chest and throws Don out, creating the circumstances necessary for the house to slide into chaos. Neatness, as we've always seen, is a point of pride for Betty, but all of us, at some point, arrive at a place where we just don't have the strength.
If I had written this recap on schedule, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to look at Paramount's amazing new Blu-ray discs of the Godfather films (using the same restoration being shown at Film Forum as its source material), and thereby wouldn't be in a position to compare Don and Betty's final conversations to some of the great (if somewhat overly hysterical, thanks to Diane Keaton's acting) shouting matches between Michael Corleone and Kay Adams. Because we know Don and Betty will presumably get back together (it's too early for a permanent split if the series is aiming for a long run), nothing in the scene at the end of "Night" has the chilling force of the door being shut in Kay's face after she sees a parade of soldiers kissing his hand, proving the falsehood of his answer a moment earlier when he let her ask one question--only one--about the family business, which he pledges to answer honestly.
Using similar terms and language, Don baits Betty into asking him about the affair with Bobbie, which he promptly denies. He's as convincing a liar as ever, but Betty doesn't buy it for a second. After this, the terms of the confrontation change--now, Betty is Kay at the end of Godfather II, telling Michael that if he doesn't really put his money where mouth as far as Corleone legitimacy goes, he'll be looking at a lonely life indeed. Despite having strayed, the Don Draper of Season Two really does seem intent on being a better man, but he's still screwed up enough to think he can achieve this by hiding information from Betty. As rough a spot as their relationship is in at the end of "Leave", you can't deny that his relationships with Sally and Bobby have strengthened significantly this season—a fact that should have some interesting effects on the separation-in-progress.
Once Don's Betty-targeting marketing technique was in play, he was thereafter a victim of bad luck: The dinner party seems coincidental--I don't think Don needed Duck as a witness to prove the trick worked, and he never seemed completely comfortable having Duck there. Duck's presence was pretty clearly requested by Roger, who, within the context of the business world, is star-struck by Crab's gig with Rogers & Cowan and eager to form an alliance between SC and the public relations giant. The gambit may have succeeded because of how well Don knows Betty; the flipside of that--even though she's forever complaining about his inscrutability and refusal to discuss his past--is that she knows Don pretty darn well, too. Under the circumstances, the poor guy didn't stand a chance
Peggy's continued rise at Sterling Cooper may seem like no more than fallout from the heart-rending story of Freddie Rumsen's departure from the agency that drives "Six Months' Leave," but in fact it's the reverse of Joan's plot line in "A Night to Remember." Peggy ascends into Freddie Rumsen's job because, despite his drinking, he was a clear-eyed judge of talent who saw the wisdom of giving her a break long ago. In "Night," Joan proves ideally suited to the requirements of Harry's new TV department via her skill as a pitchwoman and her knack for insight into soap opera-caliber TV; third on the list of assets are her looks, to which clients are as vulnerable as anyone else. Yet it's important to note that the clients, having no prior impression of Joan, soak in her skills alongside the va-va-voom factor; for the lads at SC who are used to seeing Joan flaunt her body daily, her looks would seem to cancel out any possibility of talent.
Because Peggy has always had a touch of the librarian to her, clients have generally been inclined to look at her work first and pay attention to her sex appeal second. In the case of Father Gill, even if he was attracted to Peggy (an issue that's open for debate), he couldn't do anything about it (at least not with having to, oh, throw his entire life down the toilet for a woman who clearly has no interest in him). Because of this, Peggy is pretty offended--and rightly so--when the little old ladies running the CYO dance don't realize that they're in the clients' role here, and fail to show due respect for her job. Petty takes a shot at reminding Father Gill of her authority by bringing the padre to the office so he can see her in action. Unbeknownst to her, Gill has a second agenda--getting Peggy to come clean about secretly being a single mother. He brings with him enough bait to catch half the fish in the North Atlantic, but she doesn't take any of it.
Peggy's rise from the steno pool to senior writer in just over two years is the kind of feat that would earn a male ad man the label "prodigy." But as far as the men of SC are concerned, poor Peggy's accomplishments will (for the time being, anyway) come with an asterisk attached. To Pete, she only made it so far because of the patronage of Freddie. To Don, her success is entirely his responsibility, a means of saying "Fuck you!" to Pete and Duck after they "ambushed" Don in Roger's office, making it impossible for him to mount a coordinated defense of Freddie.
Freddie Rumsen's story line is, to my mind, one of the most tragic and heart-rending the series has given us. Part of is is because I really love Freddie as a character--until Duck came along, he was the only guy at SC who really seemed like an "old advertising hand." Roger has never looked at the industry from anything but an ivy-tower perspective, and most of his gnomic insights into the field sound like they were cribbed from a book, and while Bert Cooper's knowledge of the field is deep and nuanced, he plays the game at an Olympian level nobody else at SC can access. Freddie is the only one who seemed like an industry lifer—a trench veteran who entered the field with natural instincts that sharpened over the years; a man inclined to party with junior execs half his age not because everyone his cohort has cleaned up or died, but because he has a true zeal for the business that other old-timers lost long ago.
Freddie's story is long overdue vis-à-vis the depiction of alcoholism on Mad Men: It's the first time the show has argued that there are alcoholics and there are alcoholics. There are those who can keep a bottle in their office and celebrate a win the way, say, Don or Ken might, and there are those incapable of getting out of bed without taking a drink, and who use alcohol as a means of pushing the rest of the world away from them. If you're unfortunate enough to have had much experience with that kind of alcoholic, Freddie's last night on the town is truly painful to watch: At one level, like Peggy, you might think that in light of all the forgiveness that gets thrown around SC, Freddie deserves another chance. On the other hand, though, it's fairly indisputable that it's just a matter of time until the Freddie-style alcoholic pisses himself again (or does something worse) as part of a long, slow slide into self-destruction.
Clearly, Freddie's final scene with Don and Roger faintly hints that, lacking any direction in life without his job, he might take his own life. I'd much rather see him dry out and land at another agency, but one of the problems when one develops an affection for this kind of alcoholic is that one tends to root for unlikely or improbable outcomes when the dry facts make the likeliest outcome all too evident. I'm told that there's an AA saying to the effect of "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results." The statement is equally relevant to alcoholics and to people who care for them.
It's fascinating how easily the drinkers jumped to the conclusion that it only made sense for Duck, as a (supposed) teetotaler, to bear a serious animus toward Freddie. People today don't often jump to the automatic conclusion that everybody who doesn't smoke weed has an ipso facto hatred of stoners or that all vegans have it in for carnivores. Mad Men takes place just three decades after the end of prohibition, meaning Roger, Duck and Freddie were all adults (perhaps albeit just barely) when the 21st amendment was ratified, making it possible for them to drink (legally) for the first time in their lives). Is it possible that kneejerk anti-alcoholism, or anti-teetotalerism among social drinkers as well as addicts, were more common when America's greatest failed social experiment was still part of living memory?
Equally interesting (in a way much more specific to how the season is playing out) was the revelation of Pete's particular contempt for alcoholics like Freddie, who he sneeringly refers to as "those people." We haven't gotten many details about the late Andrew Campbell's drinking habits (other than the mere fact that he was a WASP, which brings with it baggage and preconceptions galore), but it's obvious that at some point Pete was severely traumatized by a full-on, binge-drinking, pants-pissing, can't-stand-up-for-falling-down alcoholic, and that had a huge negative influence on the development of his personality and worldview. We've only seen Duck slide off the wagon once thus far, but if he continues to drink, and if his drinking gains momentum, whatever respect and regard Pete might have for him would turn to ash the moment Pete caught wind of it.
After Don and Roger bid Freddie adieu, they go out for a nightcap, and Don gives Roger a pep talk which doubles as an explanation of his desire to improve himself. Roger, unfortunately, misunderstands Don, and, in a bombshell move, he tells his wife Mona that he wants a divorce. Roger suggested the possibility of running off together to Joan more than once in Season One, but he never seemed too serious about it. His general attitude--extending to his wife and daughter as well as his mistresses--is that if you pay another man to handle your women problems, everything will take care of itself. After slowly backsliding toward his S1 level of decadence, Roger has reached escape velocity from his own life and making a mistake he's sure to regret (and for which Bert Cooper is sure to crucify him) given the importance his profession places on appearances.
The episode ends on a note of slight unclarity: Whom, exactly, is Roger dumping Mona for? If it's Jane, then things between them must have gotten much more serious off-camera than we realized; having the relationship reach that level without much to tip the audience off feels like a bit of a cheat, given the way Mad Men has tended to dole out info to the audience. If it's Joan for whom he's getting a divorce, the move is clearly intended to take her by surprise as much as Mona or anyone else. If Joan won't accept his flirtatious entreaties to get back together, Roger thinks, I may as well break out my nuclear option while I still have the time. The facts will be revealed (or cleared up) soon enough; in the meantime, I expect a lot of interesting discussion from fans arguing both sides.
Miscellaneous Notes: TV shows set in New York have a long history of giving out bogus addresses for the buildings characters live in, but that's been happening less and less of late, probably because HDTV makes it a lot easier to toss in "easter eggs" that viewers can actually pick up on (and because obsessive TV nerds just love looking that stuff up on the Internet). 30 Rock in particular has been jammed full of actual NYC addresses used in contexts where writers would once break out the geographical equivalent of a "555" phone number. The point? Any serious 30 Rock fan knows that Liz Lemon's address is 160 Riverside Dr., a very nice-looking building which has its entrance on W. 88th St. Freddie Rumsen, we learn tonight, lives at 152 Riverside, which is just around the corner, between 87th and 88th. Freddie's building doesn't look quite as nice as Liz's—at least not today—but being on the avenue itself gives him a better shot at a nice view. I bet Liz's building is already part of one Upper West Side walking tour or another; the inclusion (or not) of Freddie's will make for a pretty interesting index to the "market penetration" (as it were) of Mad Men.
Since my footnotes have come to seem a little repetitive of late when discussing historical facts ("Weiner and the researchers got this right...", "Weiner & co. got that right..."), I'm going to take a different tack and remind them that historical accuracy shouldn't come at the expense of continuity, as "Six Months' Leave" takes what seemed like a timeline that was pretty meticulously developed over the course of S1 and then smashes it it pieces.
I'm referring, of course, to the reference to Freddie having known Roger's father. It was fairly definitively established in the first season that Sterling Sr. perished in World War I, after he'd co-founded the agency and sired Roger but before the agency had become much of a success. For Freddie to have realistically worked at SC while Sterling Sr. was there, he'd need to have been born circa 1897 (making him a 20-year-old newbie in 1917, just before Sterling's enlistment) and 65 years old in "Six Months' Leave". Joel Murray is 45 in real life, and I doubt I could accept Freddie as being any older than 52 or so without major cosmetic makeup being brought into play. The Signal Corps position that Roger says Freddie held would be believable for someone in their mid-late 30s, the age Freddie would have been during WWII if born in 1897, but it leaves unanswered the question of why Freddie wouldn't have enlisted (or been drafted) for WWI at an age when he was a much more appropriate candidate for military service. The issue of how Roger, who was in the Navy in the Pacific, would have known Freddie in the war if the latter was in the Army and in Europe may seem like another bumble, but it can be easily fanwanked by Freddie being a prewar employee of SC. Some people may not have a problem with any of this, but having Freddie be 60+ is something I can't easily swallow.
On a lighter note, via a New York Times blog which in turn linked to a blog run by one of my best friend's closest college pals which in turn linked to a Flickr collection, I found this incredible collection of Mad Men-themed illustrations on Flickr by a woman who uses the alias "Dyna Moe". Apparently Rich Somer came across Dyna's unrelated art last year and commissioned her to do the Christmas card he planned to give other cast members. The experience turned her into a Mad Man fanatic, and she now illustrates each episode with an image conveniently sized to serve as computer desktop wallpaper (some have also been resized for use as iPhone wallpapers). The illustrations (another of which opens this week's notes section, above) are just cooler than hell, and I can't urge you strongly enough to check them out.
Finally, allow me to extend my congratulations to Matthew Weiner and his crackerjack cast and crew for their stunning success at the Emmys last week. Sure, it sucks that none of the acting nominees won, but as John Slattery's knowing and gracious nod to richly deserving winner Zeljko Ivanek--both of whom have spent years in the trenches--reminds us, individual recognition often tastes sweeter the longer one has been working for it. The basic cable drama explosion has been a godsend for actors like Slattery and Ivanek, brilliant guys who work mostly on the stage or on East Coast-based TV shows and have been semi-anonymously racking up Tony nominations, Ben Brantley raves and Drama Desk awards over the years. This year, it was just Ivanek's turn (his terrific work in John Adams and In Bruges didn't hurt things either). Slattery and Hamm are sure to be recognized by the academy in the future; this year, the awards Mad Men received--Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series and the big magilla itself, Outstanding Drama Series,are the ones the show needed to win to establish itself. As one of the few first-year shows in history to successfully grab the brass ring, it seems almost certain now that Matthew Weiner will have the freedom to do what he wants with the show and its overall direction. Based on Aaron Staton's beard at the ceremony, I assume S2 has officially wrapped; when production begins on the third season, I'm hopeful that it'll do so with a new sense of confidence that takes this brilliant series even further into the stratosphere than ever.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.