April 6th, 2012
This week we’re out in force. We’ve now got Illogical Volume added to the roster of mighty discussonaughts (‘Tremble before our discourse!’) So, yeah, they’re definitely a cast iron weekly thing now, these Mad Men posts.
Amypoodle: Although I haven’t checked, I think I can safely guarantee that over at Basket of Kisses there’s a debate genteely raging wrt whether or not this episode was fattist.
Illogical Volume: “Don’t you want to get back into that incredible closet of yours.” – American tv shows do love to fat up their pretty people, huh? It’s everywhere, from Monica’s fatsuit in Friends (“lol, remember when she was too fat to be in this TV show”) to Fat Lee Adama’s temporary command of Battlestar Galactica, in which fatness is a sign of weakness, something to be overcome on the road back to becoming a proper character.
Betty’s fat period is probably closer to the latter than the former, but we’ll see how it plays from here. Mad Men is a more nuanced sort of show, so – hopes, I still have them! To be honest, I found it hard to focus on that element of this episode because of the way it blurred into the “I found a lump” plot. It was almost too much drama for one episode (which is also very Betty somehow, plus it really amplified the sense that she’s frozen in her new life, that the skills she’s been told to value might not be much use to her if her body won’t oblige), you know?
Still, Betty’s… it’s hard not to empathise with her current situation. Plus while “I found a lump” stories are easy to overdo, they’re also scary stories to which we can all relate, sadly. And then you get to “your mother is obese” and “it’s good to be put through the ringer to find out I’m just fat” and it’s… ooft, the lady, she deals with horrible situations in some horrible ways. It was fashionable to slate January Jones’ performance in Sex-Men: First Class last year, but she was pretty great here, I thought. Her face conveyed just the right mix of blank terror and blank huffiness in pretty much every scene she was in.
Ad Mindless: Has everyone noticed that Betty actually lives in a castle now?
Illogical Volume: Ha, yeah! The scenes in Betty’s “castle” were lit as though everything was being seen through a particularly dull filter, which is was a neat visual representation of one aspect of the show. You spend so much time watching the characters in Mad Men try so hard to be what they’re supposed to be in order to get what they’re supposed to want that it can be quite crushing to see them living the dream, unable to escape it.
Shades of Dirk Deppey on Moore and Campbell’s From Hell: “It’s impossible to imagine anyone living a fulfilling life in such a landscape…”
Amypoodle: What I found interesting about Betty’s story was the way it threw the haters such a curveball, her perrenial hardness vanishing under doughy flesh. I mean, it really literalised it, didn’t it, the weight gain? That we’re now dealing with someone soft, vulnerable, someone we can care about and can pity again. It was very clever. But the tensions are still there. I’m torn really, because there’s a new poster over at BoK who’s arrived with a shedload of theories about the show and who’s currently pushing the idea that Betty suffers from NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder), and some of her arguments are quite good. Now I know that for some readers this probably reads as the new Betty is a BITCH! and that when it comes to MM grand unifying theories should always be viewed with suspicion, but I think there’s room for Betty to be at least on the spectrum. I don’t think she’s an acute case (quite apart from the oft quoted quiet breakdown during the separation talk at the end of season 3, there’s the odd head rub, loving glance, and warm, motherly ‘Go and play’ directed toward her children that suggests they’re more than just proxies), but she does seem unhealthily concerned with how her family appears and she’s unable to make a mental and emotional break with childhood - when the whole world does appear to emanate from oneself. And inspite of her apparently revived relatability there’s nothing in Tea Leaves to directly contradict this. We don’t see a single conversation about how her death would effect the kids, for instance. Even her dream, complete with bowed family dressed in old world mouring gear, has a comedic self indulgence about it. And let’s not forget, this episode began with Betty unable to leave the house because of body-shame, and closes with her in apparently exactly the same mental and emotional space. There’s even the suggestion that she would prefer being terminally ill to being a bit fat. Remember her clanger ages ago where she said it might be better for Sally to be dead than permanently scarred? We’re in the same territory here. And I know I said that stuff about the children not being proxies earlier, but the scene at the end of the episode where she and Sally are eating knickerbocker glories is easy to read as Betty giving herself permission to eat via her daughter.
Anyway, moving on a bit, as I said earlier I just know there must be an online debate raging about whether or not Tea Leaves was fattist. It’s such an abrupt change and Betty’s so abject throughout so much of the episode that we can’t help but feel her physical situation is somehow wrong, that it’s symptomatic of profound boredom, etc. Saying that, though, as is so often with MM I don’t feel the camera really cares, that it’s only the people in its crosshairs with an emotional investment. I don’t know.
Botswana Beast: I do think the key is how broken, in need of salvage, Betty’s relationship with Sally is; it’s in the dream (“I’m sorry…”), it’s at the end sequence – watching the first four episodes (where she is nice, relatively kind beside her friends, sympathetic and brittle) again, I obviously didn’t feel this animus. It built up *because* of her – to me anyway – because she was occasionally frighteningly agggressive to her daughter.
Amypoodle: Oh me too. I want to make clear that even if she does suffer from NPD, I still feel very sorry for her. It’s a condition often inherited from an overbearing, shaming parent and from what little we know of Betty’s childhood, she had a really shit time. Also, she’s stuck out there on that ledge all on her own this ep, and that’s always affecting.
The way Sally puts up Betty’s chair like it’s the end of school – that’s death through a child’s eyes right there. Yeah, the dream indicates Betty knows where the real problems lie.
Just to say, I do think there’s a tendency to pathologise Betty that isn’t there with, say, Don. There’s a presumption that Men just do what they do because they do it. I want to add here that I absolutely do not find Don’s behaviour any more acceptable than Betty’s. Both of them take out their inadequacies on their children. I often wonder if the lack of love Don experienced as a child is what fuels all that chasing.
Illogical Volume: Total Agreemence. It’s strange, because while you come in with Don, and while his talent and charm are impressed upon you from the start, I don’t really think the show is weighted in such a way as to hide his more toxic attributes. And yet, people (including me, probably) do seem to focus on this less. Gender damage or charisma-induced blindness: U DECIDE!
Botswana Beast: True dat, it’s much the same as with Walt and Skyler in Breaking Bad – a TV show, if you like it, you will readily (I will, anyway) identify with the protagonist, no matter how destructive their behaviours, and may even wish for them to further said.
Ad Mindless: I find the urge to pathologise Betty disturbing too. Much of the cast would probably benefit from an hour or ten with a psychologist.
Amypoodle: Or with their child’s psychologist!
Did anyone notice Henry’s ref to a ‘Romney’ this episode? When he says he doesn’t want (I presume it’s) his boss, the mayor, ‘next door to him’, etc. Could he be referring to Mitt’s Dad, George Romney? The wiki says that even though he went for the presidency in ’68 he was an ineffectual campaigner – meaning unpopular. A little dig at the current candidate, perhaps?
One thing I was talking to Ad about at the weekend is how Peggy seems to be getting a bit of a lukewarm reception this season. Obviously it’s early doors, but I’ve read a few of posts over at BoK that were quite critical of her and my g/f who doesn’t know the show seems, well, not exactly underwhelmed by her, but she hasn’t gushed in the way you’d usually expect. As I was saying to Ad, I think this might be because, like Betty, she’s finally achieved the goals the audience desired for her and in some respects she’s now just a regular copywriter instead of a plucky underdog struggling for success in a man’s world. I mean, clearly she is still struggling – there’s loads of unbroken ground – but not conspicuously so. A new viewer, as I’ve seen, will probably form very different opinions about her to those of us who’ve followed her trajectory from season one. Now that Peggy’s arrived, just as now that Betty’s found her anger, will we like her? As Ad says, Peggy will always be held to a higher moral standard than many of the men around her, but is that fair? How much of that is the product of watching her engaged in a righteous battle as opposed to being a righteous person in and of herself? I think there’s a middle ground here.
Botswana Beast: It is George Romney, yeah.
Peggy is mostly about keeping her head above water so far, I think; there’s probably something to the dynamic of her and Ginsberg presenting themselves before the patriarchal, Gentile figures of Don, Sterling, but one suspects patriarchy still outs above all.
Illogical Volume: Peggy’s new status quo plays nicely beside the stories Don and Betty are now inhabiting. I’m only capable of speaking from the perspective of someone who’s been watching all along, but I’m enjoying the “and then what?” aspect of this series so far. There’s something quite distressing about the realisation that time just keeps moving on even after you’ve achieved your, uh, happy ending, and if Peggy’s treading water as the Bottie Beast says then that makes for a nice contrast with Don’s hazy drift and the total submergence of Betty.
Ad Mindless: Frankly, if what Amy says is true about the fan reaction to Peggy this season, I’m genuinely surprised. I mean, where did people think she’d be at? Last time we saw her she was getting on with the job. This season? Oh look, she’s still getting on with the job. That’s what she does. Like Amy says, a lot of the (old) substantial battle have been fought and, if not won, precisely, gone in her favour. No-brainer alert! Peggy’s arc this season will no doubt revolve around her relationship with the hot new copywriter.
Betty’s got in touch with her anger?
Amypoodle: Well, you were one of the first to crow (quite rightly) about the Tiger Beatdown piece which was all about Betty getting in touch with her anger and why fans shouldn’t complain when they get what they want. Betty, admittedly, doesn’t seem so angry now, but there was plenty of rage last season. The living doll of season one was long gone.
Anyway, you wait and see, Peggy will garner much more criticism this season. I’m willing to place no money at all on it.
Ad Mindless: That’s what I mean, right now it’s debateable where Betty’s at – she doesn’t seem particularly angry to me, but there still are strong skeins of something I once would have point blank interpreted as her childishness. Everything’s been very complicated by her new castlebound, Don-less life. Betty’s difficult to figure out, but I agree that she seemed disappointed, or something approaching disappointed that she wasn’t dying. Dying people do get rather a lot of attention, fat people not so much, or at least not the kind that Betty values. I don’t know, I’m just noodling around here…
Amypoodle: Well this is it, I don’t think Betty actually wants to be dead, just that invisibility is more desirable to her than the (over) visibility she’s currently contending with. She’d like to be a beautiful memory, sort of thing. The humdrumness of being a little larger is too much for her. It’s the skeleton in paradise, isn’t it? She’s got what her mother wanted for her, she’s become the princess in the castle, but nobody ever told her the princess was bored stiff and overweight.
Ill-Vol, can I just say I like what you had to say about Betty being hemmed in by her house – the oaken dullity of it all. Sometimes I wonder if she and Don aren’t that different afterall and that she’s only landed where she has because it’s expected of her, not because she wants it. She clearly doesn’t want it, does she? The fairytale isn’t making her happy. There was that delicious contrast this episode between Betty’s fretful night in her palace and Don and Harry’s trip to the Stones’ concert, the way Don gets to keep playing the teenager while Betty wrestles with the very adult concerns of mortality, etc. It was nice the way things didn’t play out as I thought they would. At the beginning part of me expected Don to jump the girl and wind up shitfaced on some tour bus, but we got the exact opposite - questions, mini-lectures, a man who feels far too old and too distant from this sort of thing to enjoy it at all. So that was nice. But the fact remains that he *does* still get to go to these sorts of things, that his life is still very interesting no matter how he feels about it, and Betty’s isn’t. All she’s got to look forward to is another dinner with the Mayor and the next bag of Fritos. That castle may as well have been erected on top of her.
Also, thoughts on the theme of Age?
Illogical Volume: Mad Men vs yoof is always a slightly awkward proposition and I’m never sure how much that’s deliberate (as a mirror for the characters’ awkwardness) or if it’s just that the show is less sure of itself when it strays from its natural habitat.
The Stones concert here seemed like a more successful attempt at this, possibly because you get to chose who you want to laugh at more. Don’s awkward mix of flirtation, fatherly concern and businesslike curiosity actually ends up seeming kind’ve endearing compared to the shambling tragedy of “hip” Harry.
“Those young girls are so much fun” – aye, sure Harry, sure! Go tell it to your wife.
Age felt like the unifying theme of this episode, eh? It’s there in Betty’s mortal panic, in Don’s reactions to Megan’s reactions to Betty’s mortal panic, in the focus on “the kids” in Betty’s house and at the Stones concert, and in the office politics, which really are top notch this week, lots to talk about there
Ad Mindless: Oh for sure, or at least the passing of time. On top of everything you’ve mentioned we had a fortune-teller, Betty being told that she’s middle-aged, Roger on the outs (more than ever), a plucky young upstart copywriter. It even stretched as far as Don’s new secretary, Dawn, whose skin colour and name both imply a new day.
As Sean Collins has pointed out, Roger’s cry of “when are things going to get back to normal?” is maybe a little redundant, but I’m hopeful that it does go beyond mere tautology into something approaching a statement of intent: the answer the showrunners want us to reach being “never”. Betty’s brush with cancer remins us that when things change they sometimes change irrevocably.
Roger will never be useful or wanted around the office again, Don and Betty will never get back together, being black or a woman won’t be the same impediment it once was. Perhaps Betty’s new found weight problem will be treated similarly. She’ll no doubt slim down if only because January Jones will want to lose weight after the baby and probably doesn’t fancy being stuck in a fatsuit, but that doesn’t mean that putting on weight won’t impact the character in some substantial ways.
I’m not sure that I agree that Mad men is awkward when it comes to yoof. Can you give examples?
Illogical Volume: Hmmm, yeah, it’s possible that I should have chosen my terms more carefully there.
Also: it’s maybe worth comparing Peggy’s experiences out in the world with Don’s here, I feel like it would either confirm or further undermine my already shaky point.
Ad Mindless: I know what you mean re the juxtaposition between culture and counter-culture, and young and old, but Mad Men loves to rinse meaning and resonance out of everything. There’s definitely something striking about the sorts of scenes you’re talking about, but is that maybe just because youth meets age is inherently compelling and often awkward?Mad Men is to some extent charting the rise of the teenager, which I suppose would also contribute towards these scenes having a particular kind of force, but what was especially nice to see is how the show doesn’t idolise the kids. The girl in this episode struck me as awkward and silly, but not entirely naive – as a person, albeit one still trying to find her proper shape.
Illogical Volume: You’re right to note that the girl at the Stones concert seemed to be an end into herself, rather than a sign of the times, and that’s probably another reason why I found this to be a fairly succesful culture shock scene.
I think that youth vs. age is always going to be an awkward conflict, yeah, but like I said I’m never entirely sure how much this awkwardness is thematic and how much it’s just a little squirmy.
From Sean C’s blog:
Something about Don in a public, dressed-down setting makes him seem menacing. Visually, he’s so different from the Rolling Stones fans at the concert it’s like he’s dangerous.
That’s a good point – you can add “quietly menacing” to “parental”, “flirty”, “out-of-place” and “coldly curious” to the description of how Don looked at the Stones concert. And again, contrast with Harry, trying to look like he belongs there and succeeding in looking only like he’s trying a bit too hard.
Ad Mindless: I like how Mad Men tries to dramatise youth and age, actually, because it’s a big deal for people, like myself, who have lived through the various cultural constructions of the late 20th century – teenager, young adult / student – that have come to define early adulthood, and come out the other side, avec children and spouses and mortgages and Real Jobs. In my experience you get to a point where you feel your past slipping away, and you start to suspect that in some sense it never existed, i.e. it never really was quite as cool, or as interesting or as intense or as important, or as real as it seemed that it should have been. There is no 18, there’s just people. Cultural and situtational gaps exist, but maturity is in some ways a moveable feast (see Pete’s assault on Roger. A Step forward or a step back? Depends how you look at it), and people don’t necessarily learn. Is Harry any less awkward and silly than the girl Don ends up talking to? They both want to hang with the Stones, they both want to smoke grass, they’re both trying to be cool (one’s just better at it / culturally facilitated). Don gets to pretend that getting older doesn’t mean anything to him because his history is a hazardous place, 50% fictional, 50% too painful and awkward to deal with, but then we get a scene where he refuses to get out of bed and go meet Megan’s hip young friends.
It could be argued that Harry’s attempts to ape youth put him in his very own category of cringeworthiness, but then isn’t that the point? Isn’t everyone trying to ape youth, even youngsters, at least to some extent? Aren’t teenagers the original try-hards?
Illogical Volume: Oh absolutely, everyone is trying too hard to be young/cool/professional/funny – it’s another one of the grand themes of Mad Men, isn’t it? Harry is only more mockable because he just doesn’t wear it well.
Amypoodle: One of the common misunderstandings about the show is that it consists of a string of historical *events* – suits, assassinations, youth movements - around which the action revolves, and that’s the hook, when as any real fan knows the truth is the exact opposite. All this stuff is happening out there, but it only intrudes when its especially meaningful. We don’t get gratuitous drama played out in the shadow of the grassy knoll and we don’t get to meet the Stones. This is the Sixties as they happened to (hyperrealised) normal people. And this is why Don’s ‘No. We’re worried about you.’ was just gold. Matt Weiner, I think, takes pride in presenting the decade from an unfamiliar vantage point, one that isn’t caught up in the tropes of the conventional 60′s narrative. In this world we’re allowed to seriously consider the other reality, where student rhetoric can be as hollow and poisonous as that of the redfaced bigots barking at them from the other side of the picket line. Actually, scratch that, Don – and the show – aren’t even interested in these oppositional games. This isn’t a commentary on the decade at all. This is a man getting older and fretting about his kids. This line’s really where it’s at – a really good example of why Mad Men’s not *about* the 60′s, but about life.
I don’t know if you guys are aware of this, but Weiner defined one of the core themes of the season as ‘every man for himself’. Roger’s ‘When’s everything going to get back to normal?’ line cuts to the heart of this. It’s strange, because even though 4 documented the birth pains of a new agency and in a very real sense represented a total scene shift, everything in season 5 feels much more at sea. Perhaps this is because in 4 we were focused on everyone sorting their shit out and it distracted us from the truth: things were never going to go back to the way they were. Sterling Cooper as it was is no more. SCDP is never going to be the boozy frat house its predecessor was. Roger can’t just mooch around missing meetings with a martini in hand and a perpetual one liner teetering on his tongue and expect to survive. This is about social change, etc., and we can talk about these things, but at its core this season is just about change period and the giddying truth that you can never go home again. There’s the comforting feeling that this is forever when you’re curled up with your wife and kids in front of the telly, or when you’re off fucking your millionth beautiful secretary, but now the divorce is through, the house is sold and all that’s done. Even Bert’s lacking an inner sanctum. There’s no place for anyone to rest their heads. Why? Because as the tumour makes clear – there never was. You can’t just reside in the horizon in perpetuity. That image of Betty and Henry on deckchairs in the twilight orbited by Sally and Bobby fizzing, like their sparklers, with energy and youth really got to me. It was just too loaded. Because the light’s already failing and in not so long Henry and Betty will be gone and those fiery little satellites will have to make their own way through the dark, and eventually their heat will burn out too. This episode wasn’t about the hospital bedside drama of a woman with cancer, but the sudden awareness of the proximity of irrevocable change – how it’s always immanent, and how we, even shored up in our castles, can never escape it. Roger faced this truth down a couple of seasons ago and, inspite of a brief dalliance on the Damascene road, went with the It’s Toasted solution: he decided to ignore it, distracting himself with a pretty young wife and the warm hit of another whisky. His exchange with Don vis a vis their respective approaches to death – ‘I’m done with all that.’ ‘I can’t be.’ (or thereabouts, I can’t be bothered to check what Don said – sue me!) really draws a line in the sand between the two of them. It’s why Don will survive this turmoil and why the good money’s on Roger eventually being shown the door.
Illogical Volume: Getting back to the them of office politics, can we just take a minute to appreciate the supreme executive cock-slap that Pete “Bitchface” Campbell handed out to Roger in this episode? The way he let the old boy strut around feeling like the big man just so he could spring out of and slap that throbbing member down… well played Pete, I didn’t know you had it in you.
When you hire disrespectful pricks because they remind you of yourself, how surprised can you be when they disrespect you and act like pricks? (The same goes triple for dating them, as Peggy really ought to have learned by now.) Both Roger and Peggy operate under the faulty belief that the hierarchy can be controlled. Roger, because of his ignorance, nepotism, and privilege, believes he will always be around, and Peggy, because of her (feminist) belief in meritocracy, thinks the best will surely rise to the top. But being king of the mountain just means you’re now in a position for someone to knock you off. What is cool is then doomed to become uncool and dated, spurring counter-movements before eventually reemerging as the buffed-smooth surfaces of nostalgia: edited to omit the anxiety of failure, forgetting solo albums and bad haircuts and comeback tours. Nobody can take 1966 away from Mick, but he can also never go back.
Peggy’s current role in both the show and the office is very interesting, isn’t it? I think - not in an evil way – but I think I’m going to enjoy watching her trying to work out to conduct and look out for herself in her new “solid” (but maybe not that solid, eh Roger?) position.
Illogical Volume: Haha, okay, here’s a question – is Pete’s performance in this episode a step forward or a step back?
I mean, it’s a snippy little move, but it’s also far better executed than, for example, his attempt to take Don down at the end of the first season.
Ad Mindless: Pete? It’s probably, on balance and in a very narrow way, a step forward.
Illogical Volume: Her double-punning name aside, how do you all feel about Dawn’s role in this episode? Part of me liked the way she’s just there now, the radical nature of her position SCDP only flagged up by clumsy jokes by a couple of the usual suspects, but as Molly Lambert has already pointed out, it’s hard not to notice how little time here she gets compared to Michael “it makes the company look more modern” Ginsberg.
Loved Peggy’s awkward response to everyone praising her for hiring Michael (“good work”, etc) and that she’s still worried that she’s fucked up when it’s possible that she should be more worried about having done well.
Ad Mindless: I think it’s safe to assume that when Roger says “other agencies have got one” in relation to Michael’s status as a jewish creative, he’s giving us a bit of expository detail about the rise of the jewish ad man, so I suspect fealty to history in conjunction with the way Mad Men prioritises management and creative over the secretarial pool probably account for Dawn’s small role versus Michael’s prominent one. Michael gets more time not because he’s Weiner’s preferred minority, but because he’s a jewish ad man just when jewish ad men were on the rise. Which doesn’t exactly excuse the show, but at least it’s a consistent with what’s gone before and therefore doesn’t risk upsetting the verisimilitude.
I’m hoping we’ll see more of Dawn further down the line, but I won’t be suprised if we don’t.
Amypoodle: Speaking of the token jewish staffer, I think he’s going to be anything but. As is always the case with Mad Men, it was brilliant to see all the possible motivations converge when Peggy originally turned down Michael Ginsberg. Because that thing about Don not putting up with his behaviour is obviously true, but then so’s the fact that Peggy can see this guy is talented, has boundless energy, probably comes from the bottom like her and will do whatever it takes to succeed, and therefore sees him as real competition, especially given that she’s only just achieved her success and she’s hyper-aware of the precariousness of her position. It’s great how it can be two things simultaneously, just as it’s great how Don can be really upset about Betty, but also very uncomfortable around Megan’s friends and that both things probably feed into his reluctance to go with her to Fire Island (further to that, there’s also the fact that not only does all this youth make Don feel threatened generally, but he’s also just spent an evening around a truck load of young people and is in all likelihood feeling even more justified in, what is in the final analysis, an emotionally led decision). It really is one of the great strengths of the show, the way these things are never clear cut. We’re given just enough to form an impression of character, but enough is withheld so that we feel like we’re dealing with people – because in reality other human beings are always just that little bit opaque.
Anyway, I found Michael’s final scene quite touching. He’s the new Peggy, isn’t he? Or at least in that moment he was. It remains to be seen if his jewishness will be a problem for him. He’s got a dick, talent and ambition, and maybe that’s all that counts.