I feel awkward whenever I cop to it, but it’s true, and it probably always will be: I just don’t like Peggy Olson. I like her story lines, which have offered intriguing insight into the workings of Sterling Cooper and (via this season’s representation of family) the period at large. But I also find Peggy to be a dull and unaccountably naïve character whose crises at home just don’t have much relevance to the larger issues on the horizon which the PR exec at the country club described in such loving detail.
I’m very much in the minority, though—after the initial airing of each episode, one of the first emails I get is always from my dad, pestering me for spoilers about Peggy’s fate based on what just aired. And between the two seasons, whenever I met a fellow Mad Men viewer and the subject of season two came up, the first thing they’d want to talk about was Peggy’s future at Sterling Cooper and the fate of her baby.
Peggy is a fan favorite for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that her position on the show makes speculating about her future the same thing as speculating about where the whole series is going as the timeline progresses further into the ‘60s. The ultimate proof of her popularity is the way even the loftiest discussion of the character (such as the commenteering here at THND) can quickly devolve into ”’shipping” talk about Peggy and Don (or Peggy and Pete’s) prospects as a couple.
The reason I’m saying all of this is that Maidenform is red meat for Mad Men ’shippers (Pete/Peggy ’shippers in particular), and I think it would be a pity if that eclipsed everything else I like about the episode—or if it eclipsed the single biggest development concerning Peggy, which is her realization that it’s not enough to get Don to treat her as an equal. Getting the other guys to do so—the ones who pitch ideas over cocktails while Don is at home with Betty (or off dealing with Mistress Drama)—is every bit as important, and perhaps more difficult.
Last season, the producers apparently wanted to break period and use The Decemberist’s “The Infanta” over the final scene and end credits of the early version of “Shoot” that was sent to reviewers. Presumably, they coudldn’t clear the song, since it wasn’t used in the actual episode (I mentioned it based on the screener and came off looking like a putz). This time, it appears they did clear “The Infanta,” which works even better than before now that it gives us three warrior women—Betty, Joan and Peggy—suiting up for battle in Playtex to the strains of the song, evoking an equally valid and far more energetic reading of the lyrics.
My own experience in advertising is limited, but in my years in the magazine biz, I’ve seen numerous examples of the phenomenon S-C encounter with Playtex—a “winner” emerges in a category, yet instead of sticking with a successful recipe that the public responds to, the victor opts to emulate its less-popular competition for one reason or another (often because it’s the easiest/laziest/cheapest way possible to make it seem as though you aren’t resting on your laurels). Ken’s wisecrack about both brands opening easily illustrates my problem with the character this year—he’s been reduced to nothing more than Mr. Swinging Bachelor, with no reference made to the nascent literary career that was such a promising and unexpected plot development last season. If we don’t get any forward momentum soon concerning Ken’s parallel life as a writer, I’d love some retroactive coverage—say, a revelation that his creative ambitions suffered a crippling setback between seasons, causing his talent to wither and leading him to spend more and more time chasing tail as a means of validation.
From the second the character first appeared, I’ve been longing for an in-depth look at “Duck” Phillips, and “Maidenform” left little doubt that we’re going to learn a lot more about the guy before long. Duck has thus far been played (and written) fairly straight, but here he’s a terrific source of rich comic relief. I absolutely adored all of Mark Moses’s interactions with Duck’s dog Chauncey, and and thanks to Alexander Payne’s Election, I couldn’t help hearing Ennio Morricone’s “Navajo Joe” in my head during Duck’s extended moment of frozen-faced panic after he learns his wife is heading back to the altar.
Although S-C is packed with world class drinkers, Duck is the only one yet who’s ever taken a stab at recovery, and while I’m a little disappointed that he’s fallen off the wagon before we got to hear the story of the breakdown that led to him cleaning up, it’s not worth complaining about under the circumstances: The scene in which his addiction trumps his feelings for Chauncey is, unquestionably, one of Mad Men’s funniest and most cynical scenes ever (if you’ve had much personal experience with alcoholics, it’s also painfully realistic). I think it’s not just his wife’s pending remarriage that drove Duck back to the bottle—he resumed drinking after seemingly revealing much more of himself to Don than he intended to, although Don, with characteristic distraction, didn’t appear to pick up on how vulnerable Duck had made himself.
After abusing Peggy too much for far too long, Joan finally cuts the poor girl loose, admitting that she can’t offer Peggy any advice on how the game is played from the other side. Her final admonition, about not dressing like a girl, is something that people have seemingly been telling Peggy forever and which, by the end of the episode, finally seems to stick. Except for Pete, none of the men at S-C have ever seemed to see Peggy as a sexual being, as Ken’s crass Gertrude Stein crack reminds us, and that might be for the best if she’s at all serious about her career (though Don’s Irene Dunne comment and its implicit defense of her sexuality may yet be seized upon by Don-Peggy ’shippers—to say nothing of the prospect of it launching, God help us, a wave of Peggy-Freddie ’shippers). Flaunting her sexuality with clients a little bit, though, may be something she has to live with to take part in after-hours pitch sessions. If she can do so while remaining in charge of the situation, she’s got everything to gain—after all, what guy doesn’t love a hard drinking babe who doesn’t see anything wrong with tagging along to the strip club?
The death of Pete’s father gets its first real follow-up via his brother Bud’s visit to the Park Ave apartment for a cookout and discussion of their WASPy summer plans. Andrew Campbell’s passing seems to have brought Pete and Bud closer together, or at least ensured that they get along better. I’d love to find out if there’s more to the inside joke about their mother talking about Pete all the time, but the unfortunate reality is probably simply that she actually never talks about Pete. In any event, his claim that he’s too important to S-C to take a summer vacation is weak sauce, and Bud knows it. Even without taking the fertility situation into account, Pete’s just too proud to summer with Trudy’s parents. If he eschews a vacation and spends the whole summer working, though, at least now he’s not likely to end up as a protégé of Duck’s.
As always, Pete’s faced with the issue of proving his manhood, and like untold millions of men before him, he turns to quick, anonymous sex to get the job done. Pete’s tryst with the model is creepy and disturbing, and possessed of enough psychological realism to avoid blundering into cliché. It also adds an extra layer to his moment of eye contact with Peggy at the burlesque club—he’s obviously experiencing a combination of lust and nostalgia that he doesn’t quite understand, perhaps combined with a sense of “what if…?” brought on by the recent confirmation of Trudy’s infertility. Because so much of the audience so eagerly want Pete to find out the truth, I’m hoping that when he does, Matthew Weiner borrows a page from the David Chase playbook and has the revelation come in a way that leaves the audience questioning their motives for so badly wanting it.
I’d be amazed if there was more to the Bobbie Barrett storyline after tonight, or at least if there was more than a cameo coda along the lines of Rachel Mencken’s recent appearance. The existence of her 18-year-old son and slightly-older daughter is revealed in a way that suggests she’s putting Don to a final test, and it’s one he “passes” by apparently having no problem with the kids. What Bobbie didn’t bargain on was Don’s inherent conservatism, which only makes it natural that he’d wince in response to discovering he’s got a rep as a cocksman instead of taking pride in word getting out. His “punishment” of her—which is thoroughly adolescent and completely unforgivable—is a total cliché, but in light of Don’s characterization this season, it makes sense that he’d get so worked up. Once again, Don is furious about being taken at face value and judged on one quality alone. One might argue he’s in a position to be touchier about it than usual since I get the sense he’s been beating up on himself for taking the news at face value. I’m referring, of course, to the scene at the country club where he encounters the PR man who says his firm was indirectly employed by the C.I.A. during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, and whose speech clearly makes Don feel kind of hollow when the veterans in the room are asked to rise during the Memorial Day celebration.
Subsequent to the fashion show, when Don blows his stack over the skimpy bathing suit, I’m convinced that his fit actually has nothing to do with jealousy and his discomfort with the prospect of Betty being leered at. The PR man’s revelations rattled Don by reminding him that the world is ultimately beyond his control, which is something that spooks him deeply—and the sight of Betty acting independently just happens to provide a metaphor for the situation. Don is a jaded man who travels in jaded circles, so his encounter with the publicist probably isn’t the first time he’s heard Camelot compared to Versailles. The PR man’s completely serious revelation that he’s building a bomb shelter, however, is clearly a new one for him. “Maidenform” ends just after Memorial Day, 1962, less than five months before the event that history has come to know as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Miscellaneous Notes: When I first heard that Matthew Weiner was going to have at least a year pass between seasons, my first reaction was a sigh of relief over realizing that 1963 would be skipped and we’d be spared from a Kennedy-assassination episode—if there’s one historical incident I’ve well and truly OD’d on, that’s it. What I didn’t do was sit down to think about what history we would see during seasons two and three. This week’s scene with the PR man would appear to constitute a very broad hint that one of this year’s last episodes—perhaps the climax of the season, even—will revolve around the standoff between Khrushchev, Castro and the Kennedy brothers that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in October, 1962. Similarly, Paul’s “Jackie by day/Marilyn by night” pitch likely foreshadows the show dwelling on the August 5, 1962 death of Norma Jeane Mortenson Baker to at least some degree. At the rate time is passing on the show, I doubt that’s more than three episodes away.
The firm where the PR guy at the country club says he worked and left burning behind him, Lem Jones Associates, is the company (now defunct) that was hired by the C.I.A. in real life to represent the Cuban Revolutionary Council (a sample of the propaganda distributed by Lem Jones is available online via the Google Books scan of Jon Elliston’s Psy War On Cuba. It’s kind of odd that the publicist would next land at Rogers and Cowan, a big Hollywood firm which then represented most of the Rat Pack (and which invented the Oscar campaign as we know it), but stranger things have happened.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opened at the tail end of April, 1962, so it would naturally still have been in theaters a month later when Pete and Trudy get around to seeing it. Peggy must have been thinking about cheap outer borough theaters when she said Pete had saved her fifty cents, though, since according to Box Office Mojo, the average price of a ticket in 1962 was seventy cents—and Manhattan, of course, has never been known for average prices.
Attentive viewers of the opening credits may notice the surprising addition (surprising to me, at least, since I’m shamefully behind on my TV gossip) of Marti Noxon as one of Mad Men’s producers. Noxon earned a loyab following by writing many of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s most essential episodes (including “What’s My Line”, Parts I & II, “Surprise”, “Consequences” and “The Prom” (she also basically became Buffy’s showrunner when Joss Whedon went off to do Firefly and Angel). In recent years, she’s become fairly well-traveled, holding writer-producer jobs on “Brothers & Sisters”, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice” that resulted in relatively few produced scripts. Hopefully she’ll get more of a chance to properly strut her stuff on Mad Men.
The steaks that the Campbell brothers grill up with their spouses come from yet another hallowed Upper East Side institution, the Ottomanelli Brothers butcher shop at York Ave and 82nd St., which has been in business since 1900. I’ve never gone to check the place out, something for which, as both a devoted carnivore and a Manhattan resident for almost 20 years, I have absolutely no excuse. The Ottomanellis offer free delivery within New York City and ship nationwide by FedEx, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they wound up getting a nice little spike in their business during the final weeks of barbecue season thanks to the long-ago patronage of the nonexistent Campbells.
For more recaps of Mad Men, click here.
Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth
By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.
Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcoming dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.
For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.
Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.
Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.
Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.
Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:
In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.
In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.
Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:
I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?
The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.
Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.
Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.
Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group
Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.
Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.
Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.
Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.
In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.
It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.
Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing
If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.
If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.
Will Win: First Man
Could Win: A Quiet Place
Should Win: First Man