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Mad Men Recap: Season 2, Episode 6, “Maidenform”

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.

Mad Men, Maidenform
Photo: AMC

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.

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