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Monday, August 23, 2010

"Mad Men" Season 4, Episode 5

This is not going to end well.
  • This is not going to end well.
As a title, Mad Men has always been a bit misleading, or ironically suggestive, or however you want to put it—taking place, as it does, in a time when everyone represses their emotions and keeps a straight face no matter the audience—colleagues, clients, family, neighbors, lovers. As the seasons progress, everyone on the show becomes, if not more comfortable with their feelings, at least less guarded—a progression predicated on the characters’ changing times, of course, but also on the conventions of TV drama: Don can’t remain a handsome cipher and Betty his clueless, smiling trophy if we’re going to spend week after week after week getting to know them.

Knowing all of that, however, it’s still hard to reconcile this week’s episode, in which everyone on Mad Men gets really, really mad.

Don is mad! The tension begins, predictably enough, with Miss Blankenship sending Don bouncing around his office like a pinball, trying to catch a phone call. But things quickly escalate: Don stifles his annoyance with buzzing rival Ted, then lets neighbor-babysitter Phoebe for leaving Sally unattended in the bathroom, where she cuts her own hair: “Do you know the river of shit I’m going to get from her mother?”

Betty is mad! The first thing we see her do is slap holy hell out of Sally, for the insolent crime of cutting her hair, and then says she only regrets it “because it doesn’t do anything.” She wants Don dead! She wants to know what whore was watching her daughter! She wants to know why any girl wouldn’t want long golden locks like she has! She does apologize to Sally (off-screen), but not before calling Henry “soft” for suggesting she let Sally know she’s loved, and allowing her to go to a sleepover.

Roger is mad! Campbell has caught the attention of Honda, a huge account, but the silver-haired WWII vet furiously nixes the idea, losing his cool in every single scene he’s in: it’s all yellow-this, Jap-that, and drop-the-big-one-twice besides. We’ve seen Roger’s veteran issues surface in the past, as well as his enormous capacity for racial insensitivity—recall his stirring blackface serenade in front of several hundred close friends—but we’ve also seen him bend over backwards, frontwards and sideways for clients. Am I the only one who finds it hard to buy his “Sayonara” carpet-bombing act in the middle of the client meeting?

Still, it sets up that great confrontation in Roger’s office, with Campbell misdiagnosing Roger’s PTSD-fueled ugliness as a personal attack against Campbell (naturally).

That this all ends at the psychiatrist’s office is no accident. Even Don gets a chance to vent his feelings— to his preferred talking-board, a pretty blonde. Luckily, this one’s a doctor, who decides to reveal a few secrets of her own. It’s a jarring exchange: once again, Don wonders dismissively, “Why does everybody need to talk about everything?” and Dr. Miller tells him people feel better after they do. And then a funny thing happens: Don begins revealing the intimate details of his home-life—but only after Dr. Miller reveals that she’s single. Whether or not he believes that he’s still putting the moves Dr. Miller, he’s definitely “talking about everything,” and he definitely feels better afterward.

Betty’s encounter with the child psychiatrist is a neat reversal of her previous work, in season one, with the stony Dr. Wayne. Perhaps too neat: “Call me Dr. Edna, that’s what the kids do.” You’ll recall, of course, Dr. Wayne’s diagnosis—that Betty has “the emotions of a child.”

For me, this episode felt pat. Everything ties up too neatly—the Honda subplot, Sally’s acting out, even Roger’s insane anger, seemingly dispelled by a few sympathetic but stern words from Joan. We still have Don and Betty’s enormous animosity to keep us hooked—I think their phone conversation, heated as it was, revealed enough bemusement and common ground to hint at a possible reconciliation—but this episode didn’t have the dangling ends or emotional dynamism to hint at the larger, more complex moral universe that keeps Mad Men so addictive. This week, it was just a mad, mad, mad, mad world.

In addition to smokers and cold-sufferers:

— No luck on that call to California. Good.

— It’s all about Campbell: “They’re businessmen and you insulted them to their face! I’m expecting a child!” (Echoes of Max Fisher: “I wrote a hit play!”)

—Ted’s mad too: “Out! And give me twenty different words for pimples!”

— Oh, Don: “She was masturbating Don, in front of a friend. Does that seem normal to you?” “Really? Boy or girl?”

— Interesting to note that Betty claims she “mostly outgrew” her own masturbatory phase.

— Still don’t believe 1965 is a brave new age? Consider the drinky-bird.

— Could someone please make me a screensaver of Peggy riding around on that red motorcycle? Thanks.

— I kind of want Miss Blankenship to walk in on every scene.

— “It’s a cantaloupe!”

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