Mad Men has always been a tightly packed show, and though meticulously paced and often spartan in plot, its greatest challenge is usually avoiding becoming muddled and weighed down by its many interwoven thematic threads. For example, this week’s episode, “The Summer Man” (written by Lisa Albert, Janet Leahy, and Matthew Weiner, and directed by Phil Abraham), digs up so many ideas it’s hard to imagine an hour-long television show finding room for them. From sexual politics in the office to issues of fatherhood, identity, and reinvention, to alcoholism and competition, to perspective and the role of the audience, there is a lot going on. With the added oddity of Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) narration, the episode feels jarring at times, especially coming on the heels of last week’s brilliantly focused “The Suitcase.”
But when Mad Men starts throwing around ideas, my first impulse is to start digging into what they say, rather than how well they work. Perhaps at this point Mad Men has earned that benefit of the doubt, or maybe this is my weakness as a viewer, but either way “The Summer Man” is an episode that’s more enjoyable to talk about than it is to watch.
Gender politics, of course, plays a role in every episode of Mad Men, but the explicit emphasis on them this week is quite directly (and humorously) announced by Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) during an early scene. She comments that she “feels like Margaret Mead” while standing around watching chauvinist art directors Joey (Matt Long) and Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) spar with a malfunctioning vending machine (a “bandit,” they call it). A comparison of Mead’s study of sexuality in “primitive” cultures to watching Joey and Stan ridiculously hoist and slam the machine is certainly apt, and it largely establishes the audience’s role for much of episode, as we watch many of the characters play out base gender roles.
Not surprisingly, Joey’s macho antics turn noxious in a hurry, as he quite relentlessly torments and sexually harasses Joan (Christina Hendricks). From the beginning of the season, Joey has seemed like a bit of an asshole, but he’s also seemed largely innocuous, while Stan entered the scene as a loud, obnoxious pig who was thankfully put in his place by Peggy. Yet it came as no shock to me that Stan’s bluster is a whole lot of hot air while smarmy Joey turns out to be the more insidious of the two. After being reprimanded, Joey accuses Joan of walking around the office as if she were “trying to get raped,” and calls her a “Shanghai madam,” suggesting not only that Joan is a glorified prostitute that slept her way into power, but also that the women of the office are effectively a stable of Joan’s whores. The man is a scumbag.
Joey also clearly has some personal issues, as his hatred of Joan seemingly stems from his own animosity toward his mother, who he says was the “Joan” of her office (he even makes an entirely uncomfortable reference to his mother’s breasts). He’s threatened by female authority, and offended by the notion of a woman using her sexuality for professional advantage. (Of course, it doesn’t occur to him that his own put-on machismo is every bit the play on gender roles that Joan accentuating her femininity is.)
Joan’s revenge is swift and merciless, as she delivers a cold-hearted speech to Joey and Stan about their inevitable deployment to Vietnam and how they “won’t be dying for [her]” because she never liked them. The irony is that she uses their obnoxious, masculine hubris to debase the ultimate masculine idea: dying on a distant battlefield in defense of the women and children back home.
Peggy, however, doesn’t see this as sufficient revenge, and with Don’s blessing she steps in to fire Joey and make an example of him. It’s a triumphant moment, except that Joan resents Peggy for it, saying, “All you’ve done is prove to them that I’m a meaningless secretary, and you’re a humorless bitch.” In a way Joan is right, just as she probably is in her claim that she could have had Joey removed on her own terms, by having one dinner with the owner of Sugarberry Hams (the primary account Joey works on). Peggy’s methods do reinforce the traditional gender dichotomy of the office: Sure, Peggy has power, but her use of it comes across as traditionally masculine, serving only to devalue the role of traditional femininity in the office. Yet Peggy’s also right: Why should she worry about Stan’s chauvinist reaction to her doing her job and wielding power, and wouldn’t Joan’s strategy also play into Joey’s assumptions about women in the workplace? The two approaches can both seem right and wrong, depending on perspective, and together Joan and Peggy represent two sides of the difficulties professional women faced when assuming power in their careers.
The gender roles continue as Don decides to make another, much more serious pursuit of Faye (Cara Buono) after seeing her split messily from her boyfriend over the phone, and sexual competitiveness begins to play a large role in his love life. Don’s current girlfriend, Bethany (Anna Camp), and his ex-wife, Betty (January Jones), are both thrown for a loop after encountering one another, prompting Betty to ruin her new husband Henry’s (Christopher Stanley) business meeting and Bethany to step up her sexual pursuit of Don.
The episode draws many parallels between different characters, and different approaches and perspectives. Joan and Peggy are an obvious example, as are Bethany and Betty, and Bethany and Faye (who compete for Don in parallel taxi scenes). And of course there are literal parallels in the episode as well: the lanes in which Don swims at the local athletic club. In one of the final scenes, we see Don swimming at a comfortable pace, and in the lane next to him another swimmer approaches from behind. The swimmer makes up ground on Don quickly, and soon seems to be overtaking him. But then Don begins to speed up, and the two men pull back to even, before Don narrowly beats him to the wall. Don is clearly exhausted from the effort, while the other swimmer simply shoots a glance in Don’s direction, but it doesn’t matter; the mere existence of another swimmer drove Don to increase his pace.
It’s a subtle hint at one of the episode’s major themes: that we base so much of ourselves on comparisons to those around us. Comparing ourselves to each other in terms of gender and sexual competition are simply two of the more obvious ways to do so. Yet oddly, the episode itself, framed by the rare use of narration, puts us inside the head of Don as he battles alcoholism and attempts to rebuild his identity. And so Mad Men gives us another dichotomy: the interiority of Don’s narration contrasted against the ideas of exteriority the episode’s parallels represent.
This dichotomy tells us about the kind of identity crisis Don has to solve, and has a lot to say about the split-identity that we all carry with us: the sense of self that we feel within, that brings with it its entire history at all times (“When a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him,” narrates Don), and the self we see reflected back as us through the eyes of other people.
Early in the episode Don states in narration that Gene was “conceived in a moment of desperation, and born into a mess.” In this respect, Gene represents everything that has gone wrong in Don’s life. As his role of family man disintegrated, he not only lost his relationship with his son, but he was also emasculated by being stripped of his status as father; as Don tells Faye, Gene will probably see Henry as his father.
And yet Faye convinces Don to attend Gene’s second birthday party by telling him, “All [Gene] knows of the world is what you show him.” She tells him this to convince him that he has the opportunity to put the past behind him and be a father to Gene, but the line has a lot in common with an earlier, seemingly more cynical line that Don narrates in response to Bethany’s desire to get to know him, “People tell you who they are but we ignore it; we want them to be who we want them to be.” Gene represents an idealized blank slate; his yet-to-be-formed perspective will be entirely new. But Don’s relationship with Gene, in this sense, is an exaggerated example of every new relationship: People will always see each other from their own perspective, and so with everyone we meet, and everyone we get to know, we become reinvented. Our identity is fractured among all of the people in our lives, and we must somehow reconcile this with our own, permanent sense of self.
Gene was born into a mess, and represents all of Don’s mistakes that he’ll carry with him forever, yet he also gives rise to a new Don Draper—the Don Draper that will exist only for Gene. Don is faced equally by both permanence and newness. At one point he narrates that he wishes he could fall asleep one night and wake up as the person he wishes to become. Yet he knows this is impossible, and he knows that achieving the things we wish for does not bring with it the sense of reinvention we desire, saying, “We’re ruined, because we get these things, and wish for what we had.” We will never be able to get away from ourselves to become something new and better, we will always be ourselves and carry our past and our regrets with us.
But still Don yearns to reinvent himself, and to do so he draws into himself, beginning to write and examine himself introspectively, as represented by the narration. But his journey of reinvention can’t happen through solitary introspection, which is something he knows too well. For all the roles and identities he’s had in his life, the farm kid named Dick, who he used to be, will haunt him forever. Yet in the eyes of others, he has transformed many times over. Recreation is both in impossible and essential, and neither of these contradictory facts is more real or true than the other.
This is partly why Mad Men is always so reluctant to give us any sort of concrete notion of who its characters are. It’s not just that characters are multifaceted constructed identities that are impossible to pin down, it’s that identities can only be constructed for an outside perspective. At the same time that it draws us inside Don’s mind through the use of narration, Mad Men reminds us that we can never truly know who Don Draper is at his core. Like 1960s America, we can only know Don Draper from our own perspective. Francine sees Don picking up his kids and thinks of him as a “sad man,” while Betty believes him to be “living the life,” dating young, beautiful women. Much likes last season’s “The Color Blue,” “The Summer Man” ends from Betty’s perspective, as she watches Don play with baby Gene. That perspective of Don, as Faye says, is all Gene knows of the world, and at that moment it almost seems like it’s all Betty knows too.
Don’s road back to regain some “modicum of control” over himself likely depends on his ability to accept the fragmented nature of his identity. He can never singularly be anything other than what he is, but what he is means something entirely different to every person. Don’s ability to take advantage of this fact is what makes him such a great ad man; he has the natural ability to reflect back at people the person they want him to be. In the past we’ve seen this largely in terms of Don lying to people and selling them fabrications, but now we see it in terms of him becoming a father to Gene.
This is still a fabrication, of course. Gene is still the baby that was conceived in a moment of desperation and born into a mess, and that is something Don will always carry with him; it’s part of his life that he “brings with him” every time he enters a room, as part of his internal self. But Don’s sense of self has nothing to do with the man he is from Gene’s perspective, or even the man he is from the audience’s perspective. He is who we want him to be, as is everyone, according to Mad Men. And while many may find that thought to be distressing, it’s the only thing that allows Don Draper, and Dick Whitman before him, to reinvent himself.
• Like Joan last week, Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) makes a short but hilarious appearance. Kartheiser does such a great job playing Pete as a more serious and professional sort than Stan or Joey, but still managing to play the character largely as a child. “When did we get a vending machine?”
• In case anyone is interested, check out the John Lindsay cover of Life that Henry Francis mentions. Oddly, it makes no mention of a Presidential run. • When discussing The Odd Couple (which was first staged on Broadway in mid 1965) with Bethany, Don admits to being more of a Felix than an Oscar. I’m not sure about the neurotic clean-freak part, but Felix is a divorced Manhattan writer with two kids and an ex-wife named Frances.
• Bethany lives in the Barbizon, an iconic hotel for women only, intended as a safe haven for professional women establishing themselves in a male-dominated society.
• Between Don’s narration and Blankenship’s, “The ether, and the blindness, and then I got the goggles,” so much of this episode came across as beat poetry or something.
• Lord, I hate Greg.
Luke De Smet is a freelance writer based out of San Diego, who spent way too much time obsessing about movies and television while growing up in rural northern Alberta, Canada. He’s currently attempting to avoid movies and television long enough to take up surfing, but is failing, miserably. You can follow him on Twitter.