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Mad Men Recap: Season 1, Episode 8, “The Hobo Code”

Matthew Weiner seems to draw inspiration from films and literary works that are actual products of the Eisenhower/Kennedy era.

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Mad Men Recap: Season 1, Episode 8, “The Hobo Code”
Photo: AMC

Although I name-checked Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven in my initial review of Mad Men in Time Out New York, I’ve never really though of it as a major influence on the series—by and large, Matthew Weiner seems to draw much more inspiration from films and literary works that are actual products of the Eisenhower/Kennedy era and not from period pieces created after the fact. But with “The Hobo Code”—the most polished and, to my mind, the most moving episode of Mad Men yet—it’s impossible to deny Haynes’ influence on Weiner. I don’t say so simply because the episode concerns a closeted gay man (Sterling Cooper art director Salvatore Romano, brilliantly portrayed by Bryan Batt) but because of its heartbreaking depiction of self-deception and thwarted desire on several fronts.

“The Hobo Code” also evokes Far from Heaven in terms of visual texture—light, shadow and color are used very deliberately, and the camera angles make the episode feel much more like a film than a TV show (and Mad Men is already much more cinematic to begin with than most small-screen dramas). All of that is only appropriate given the theme of visual cues and unspoken language that pervades the episode.

I expect the revelations about Don’s past to command the most fan attention—yet, as intriguing as they were, I was much more fascinated by the story of the triangle between Salvatore, the visiting client, Elliott (Paul Keeley) and Lois Sadler (Crista Flanagan), the new Sterling Cooper switchboard operator who falls for the closeted art director. Lois is a woman unlike any we’ve seen on the series thus far—like Joan, she’s proactive and prone to somewhat duplicitous behavior, but her motives and MO are entirely different. Instead of using her sexuality to get what she want, she’s like a Jane Austen heroine—incredibly smart, and simultaneously assertive (she’s one of the only women we’ve met on the show who actually pursues what she wants rather than letting it come to her) and neurotic. She’s so taken with the message she gets from one set of symbols (the way Salvatore’s flamboyance overlaps with the stereotype of a sophisticated continental romeo) that she ignores clues to his sexuality. Joan’s remark to the operators about the way she reads signals—“You have voices, I have other things”—underscores the extent to which Lois’ attraction is driven entirely by her (mis)interpretation of signals gleaned from eavesdropping on conversations between Salvatore and his mother.

Salvatore, meanwhile, knows exactly what’s going on with her—the “Oh shit, what am I going to do now?” look on his face as he hangs up the phone after speaking with her is one of the few moments of complete, brutal honesty in the episode. Still, he succumbs to self-deception just as completely as Lois does—he obviously received Elliot’s coded message (“When I mentioned the renovation, I didn’t know if you heard me,” the client says), otherwise he wouldn’t have gone to the hotel bar at all. But his evident surprise when Elliot explicitly tries to seduce him proves that he certainly didn’t expect things to go that far. The big question about Salvatore up until now has been whether his heterosexual façade is being maintained solely for the benefit of those at Sterling Cooper or if it’s an act of self-deception as well; now, it’s very clear that the truth is the latter.

“You’re loud but you’re shy,” Elliot tells Salvatore as they finish their meal, which is a massively insightful reading of the art director’s personality. Salvatore’s bitchiness at work (“You don’t need money to dress better than you do, Wayne”) is practically a neon sign announcing his sexual orientation, but at the same time he mutes the message by dropping bogus signals that he’s straight—signals that, occasionally, make a meta-reference to the theme of coded messages (“The salesman pushed this tie on me for 20 minutes, but I would have bought it right away if I knew it worked,” he tells his subordinates Wayne and Marty). Batt, Flanagan and Keeley are all breathtakingly good, and I sincerely hope we haven’t seen the last of Lois.

While the aesthetics of the episode invoke Haynes’ recreation of the world according to Douglas Sirk, the surprisingly graphic Pete-Peggy sex scene were a notable exception—although the subject matter of Far from Heaven would have been off limits in the 1950s, the way it was presented never violated the content rules of the time. There coupling was remarkable for number of reasons—the contrast between the raw carnality of the act and the intimacy of their whispered exchange after she leaves the office was just insanely sexy, and the encounter set up two moments of magnificent creepiness: The moment where Pete dissects Peggy with his eyes from across the room at P.J. Clarke’s and, even better, the scene where he finally shows some backbone in front of Trudy as they converse on the same couch upon which he ravaged Peggy hours earlier. Pete and Peggy’s story is less concerned with the theme of unspoken signals than Salvatore and Don’s are, but the motif is still present—Peggy’s “mark your man” ad copy for Belle Jolie centers on a sort of code, and while she doesn’t mark Pete, he leaves his sign on her via the torn collar which Don is quick to notice.

Finally, we come to Don’s story, which gives us an insane amount of stuff to chew on. We first see Don when he’s summoned to a solo meeting with Bert Cooper, something that has him spooked until he’s handed the bonus check. The scene between them is incredibly fascinating: Much as Salvatore’s efforts to maintain his façade nonetheless result in coded signals he unwittingly transmits to Elliot, the behavior required to keep the Don Draper persona going yields signals that Cooper detects and which leads him to believe that he and Don are kindred spirits. When Cooper is able to detect that Don is lying about his familiarity with Atlas Shrugged, he explains what he means in words that almost sound like he’s talking down to a child. “It’s strength—we act different. Unsentimental about all the people who depend on our hard work.”

There are strong parallels between the Don/Cooper scene and the dynamite flashback involving young Dick Whitman’s encounter with a hobo played by Paul Schulze (a/k/a Father Phil from The Sopranos and Ryan Chappelle from 24). Both Cooper and the hobo consider themselves superior to the rest of the world because they follow a self-centered philosophy, and both offer to teach Don the secret wisdom that elevates them (as they see it) above the rest of the human pack. It seems pretty likely that the effects of Don’s encounter with the hobo will be explored further in the weeks to come; the effects of Don’s conversation with Cooper, on the other hand, are immediately evident. Don may have not had the time to start reading Atlas Shrugged before the meeting with the Belle Jolie clients, but he was obviously empowered by the faith Cooper showed in him. With his amazing “I’m not here to tell you about Jesus…” speech (a monologue worthy of David Mamet), Don wins the Belle Jolie account through sheer manly swagger, which is how he likewise puts Midge’s bohemian friends in their place.

The blond beatnik in the fez is presented as a lightweight poseur version of the hobo—he talks the talk vis-à-vis his separation from society, but his wounded reaction to Don’s declaration that “the universe is indifferent” shows us that he can’t walk the walk. It’s hard to tell how much Don does (or doesn’t) share Cooper’s sense of superiority over humanity at large, but he sure as hell feels superior to Midge’s friends—the smug putdown he delivers before breezing undisturbed past the cops, armored by his suit (”You can’t”) is as scathing as they come. As we see in the followng scene with his son, though, Don was deeply rattled by the memories that flooded his mind at Midge’s apartment—when he tells Bobby to ask him anything and promises to tell the truth, he’s clearly seeking absolution. Bobby’s response, unintentionally, shuts down Don as swiftly and mercilessly as Don shut down the beatnik. Don’s lies are a burden he can’t easily shrug off, and the last shot of the episode reminds us that the door of his office bears the same coded message that the hobo carved into the gatepost of the Whitman farm: A dishonest man lives here.

For more recaps of Mad Men, click here.

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Watch: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Gets Teaser Trailer

When it rains, it pours.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

When it rains, it pours. Four days after Quentin Tarantino once more laid into John Ford in a piece written for his Beverly Cinema website that saw the filmmaker referring to Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as Tie a Yellow Ribbon, and two days after Columbia Pictures released poster art for QT’s ninth feature that wasn’t exactly of the highest order, the studio has released a teaser for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film was announced early last year, with Tarantino describing it as “a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, at the height of hippy Hollywood.”

Set on the eve of the Manson family murders, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tells the story of TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they try to get involved in the film industry. The film also stars Margot Robbie (as Sharon Tate), Al Pacino, the late Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, and Bruce Dern in a part originally intended for the late Burt Reynolds.

See the teaser below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Scf8nIJCvs4

Columbia Pictures will release Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on July 26.

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Watch the Stranger Things 3 Trailer, and to the Tune of Mötley Crüe and the Who

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence.

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Stranger Things 3
Photo: Netflix

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence. On Friday, Jeff Tremaine’s The Dirt, a biopic about Mötley Crüe’s rise to fame, drops on Netflix. Today, the streaming service has released the trailer for the third season of Stranger Things. The clip opens with the strains of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home,” all the better to underline that the peace and quiet that returned to the fictional rural town of Hawkins, Indiana at the end of the show’s second season is just waiting to be upset again.

Little is known about the plot of the new season, and the trailer keeps things pretty vague, though the Duffer Brothers have suggested that the storyline will take place a year after the events of the last season—duh, we know when “Home Sweet Home” came out—and focus on the main characters’ puberty pangs. That said, according to Reddit sleuths who’ve obsessed over such details as the nuances of the new season’s poster art, it looks like Max and company are going to have to contend with demon rats no doubt released from the Upside Down.

See below for the new season’s trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEG3bmU_WaI

Stranger Things 3 premieres globally on July 4.

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Who Killed My Father Is Heartbreaking but Prone to Pat Sociological Analysis

Édouard Louis’s latest is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts.

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Who Killed My Father

Author Édouard Louis’s father has been an important figure in each of his previous works, even when he’s never seen or mostly at the periphery (as in The History of Violence). With his latest, Who Killed My Father, Louis finally turns to directly examining his most important, damaged relationship. Both in his previous books and interviews, Louis has repeatedly acknowledged this broken relationship, largely stemming from the author’s open homosexuality. Alongside this, Louis’s prior works have circled around a number of themes to which he returns here: the French political and working classes, the small-town prejudices that surrounded his upbringing and drove a closeted homosexual boy to escape to more cosmopolitan Paris, and the role of state power in producing social and physical illness.

With Who Killed My Father, Louis invites inevitable comparisons to Abdellah Taïa, another talented French writer who’s also gay and largely estranged from his place of origin, and also primarily an autobiographical novelist. Like Louis, Taïa incorporates his complicated relationship with a parent into several of his books. Taïa also connects that relationship, his writing, and his experience with the society he left behind in Morocco and the one he found in France. But what distinguishes his writing in, for example, Infidels or Salvation Army from that of Édouard Louis in Who Killed My Father is a strong sense of meaning. Taïa incorporates his relationship with his mother, M’Barka, to convey something more meaningful and developed.

Louis begins down this same road before clumsily inserting a political tract at the end of Who Killed My Father that doesn’t knit as effortlessly with parts one and two. The book situates Louis’s relationship with his father front and center as compared to his previous work. It’s clear that he’s exposing the painfulness of their relationship for the purpose of speaking about political power and its physical and social toll on those who don’t possess it, but Who Killed My Father stumbles in conveying its message adequately.

Louis’s account of his father’s suffering and violence toward those around him is both painful and sharp. Who Killed My Father is strongest when Louis is demonstrating his father’s most private acts of kindness, as when the father gives Louis a copy of Titanic for his birthday after trying to convince him to ask for a more “masculine” gift. After Louis realizes that his carefully planned tribute to the pop band Aqua at a family dinner has embarrassed his father, the man reassures Louis that “it’s nothing.” In the book’s first and strongest part, Louis expounds not only on the relationship with his father, but also excavates what might have made his father the man he grew up with. At one point, he recounts finding a photograph of his father in women’s clothes—undoubtedly some adolescent joke, but also inconceivable from the man who insisted to his son that men should never act like girls.

Regrettably, part one ends with a trite conclusion that says everything and nothing at the same time. In part two, the story attempts to braid together all the malignant threads of Louis’s family narrative. Louis recalls igniting a violent outburst between his father and older brother as a result of his mother shaming him for acting too much like a girl (“faggot” is what some others in the neighborhood more precisely call him). The insinuation hurts and angers him so much that he betrays his mother’s confidence on another family secret, setting loose a new wave of violence. Part two is short and important to moving Who Killed My Father toward some wider evaluation of the questions Louis begins the book with, but it ultimately fails to find its footing by pivoting in part three to an unearned polemic against the political classes.

Who Killed My Father is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate (except in brief moments of tenderness) through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts, but the book at its weakest when trying to ham-handedly force this narrative into some broad theorizing about power and society and structural violence. Part one aligned beautifully with a narrative of meaning more comparable to Taïa at his best. Unfortunately, the story quickly falls apart when Jacques Chirac is indicted for destroying Louis’s father’s body through changes in health care coverage. It’s not that the questions Louis ends with aren’t necessary and important ones; it’s that there’s so little threading the narrative together into anything cohesive. What was the point of the first two-thirds of the book? His father was cruel, occasionally loving, but never mind because the state is killing him? The life of the poor is one of abject powerlessness against an unremittingly powerful and callous “ruling class”?

Louis deserves credit for the attempt to tie it all together into some grander commentary on the political class and its ambivalence, but the conclusion is simultaneously glib and condescending. Perhaps Louis didn’t intend it, but the book’s conclusion drains away responsibility for the cruelty and bigotry of those like his father, and patronizes them as with a quick How could we expect any better of the noble, working poor? Is it the state’s or the ruling class’s subjugation of his father’s body that’s somehow also responsible for his inability to sympathize with gays or immigrants? Of course, the poor are subjugated by the rich and Louis has written more meaningfully about the implications of that relationship elsewhere. But in Who Killed My Father, he inadvertently demonstrates that the answer isn’t to sanctify them any more than it is to demonize them.

Édouard Louis’s Who Killed My Father is now available from New Directions.

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