The Sopranos finale, 10 years later

Yesterday marked the tenth anniversary of the first airing of the final episode of The Sopranos, “Made in America.” The episode’s final scene, with its infamous cut-to-black during a scene in a diner that had built up much tension, has become an iconic part of American pop culture and still inspires debate to this day.

I thought I’d take a break from writing about Mad Men to honor The Sopranos on this anniversary. I consider it a fact that there would have been no Mad Men without The Sopranos. You can argue this in a philosophical way: The Sopranos was the first show of “The Second Golden Age of Television” and paved the way for the prestige cable dramas that followed, Mad Men included. But you can also make the case from a more pragmatic standpoint. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner had some television writing jobs before he joined The Sopranos for its final 34 episodes as a writer and executive producer, but it was Mad Men that got him that job––Sopranos creator David Chase read Weiner’s pilot script for Mad Men and immediately hired Weiner. Although HBO (in)famously passed on the opportunity to make Mad Men, I find it unlikely Weiner would have gotten it made anywhere if it weren’t for the boost his career received by working on The Sopranos. One can also make comparisons between the two shows for days, the most obvious of which is how the two shows structured their 13-episode seasons, and how those seasons were like books that make up a giant Great American Novel.

Now, on to “Made in America” and that final scene itself…

I don’t think Tony was killed after the events we see on screen. Although the theory espoused by the Master of Sopranos blog is very convincing, and features a great analysis of not only that final scene but the 86 hours of clues that led up to it, it’s not what I take from the scene.

The most important parts of the scene, to me, are the song “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey, and A.J.’s line about remembering the times that were good. Tony at first thinks his son is being sarcastic, but A.J. reminds him that he said it once. Tony doesn’t seem to remember that (“it’s true, I guess”), but he actually did say it in the first season’s finale. The quote was also brought up by Meadow Soprano in the Season 3 finale, who thought that mom Carmela had said it. Carmela corrects her and says that her dad was the one who actually said it.

It’s a reminder that Tony desperately needs at this moment. He’s ostensibly “won” the war that had broken out between his North Jersey crime family and the Lupertazzi family from New York. Both Tony and Lupertazzi acting boss Phil Leotardo had went into hiding at the end of the previous episode. Thanks to a tip from FBI agent Dwight Harris, Tony is able to track down Phil to a gas station where he’s been making payphone calls. Phil gets popped, putting an end to the war.

Yet, Tony is extremely paranoid. Every ring of the bell at the diner, as each new customer enters, sets off his radar. He surveys the rest of the diner, especially a customer at the counter in a Members Only jacket, with suspicion. This is Tony’s life as we’ve known him since the first episode––anxious, never able to relax. He would do well to listen to his own advice about focusing on the times that are good, and to the song: don’t stop believing.

The abrupt cut to 10 seconds of black that closes out the series must mean that Tony died, right? It had to mean something, right?

I think it does mean something important to the story, something ingrained in the show as much as Tony’s much-referenced quote about remembering the good times. Only it comes from the show’s original antagonist, and the original source of Tony’s anxiety: his mother Livia. Her often-espoused philosophy about life is “it’s all a big nothing.”

As The Sopranos slid into its final run, it was clear that Tony not only hadn’t heeded his own advice, he hadn’t listened to anyone else either. He spent seven years in therapy and learned very little, unwilling to examine his self. Although Tony has won yet again, and his family is safe and intact, he can’t stop and enjoy it.

This is the way Tony’s life will continue. Despite his victories, it’s all a big nothing.

Once I get around to the Mad Men finale, 84 episodes or so from now, we’ll see that Chase’s protege, Matthew Weiner, finished his show on an equally cynical final tone.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Mad Men episode 108: “The Hobo Code”

Peggy and Pete reunite, early in the morning at the Sterling Cooper offices. Sal receives a come-on from a fellow closeted homosexual, but balks at taking it farther than dinner and drinks. Don receives a large bonus check from Bert, which gives him the idea to whisk Midge away to Paris on a moment’s notice. Instead, Don smokes pot with Midge’s beatnik friends and has a flashback to a formative moment in his youth.

“The Hobo Code” may not be a universally loved episode of Mad Men, but it’s an important one, both for the same reason: the first extended flashbacks to young Dick Whitman. The peeks into young Don’s life as Dick have probably received the most criticism of this mostly critic-proof show, but I think most complaints don’t hold up. The biggest complaint is that the show spends too much time on the flashbacks, but a YouTube compilation posted a couple of years ago puts rest to that theory. Collecting every Dick Whitman flashback over the show’s 92 hours, the video totals up to 39 minutes. And in such little time, there’s much to be learned about Don’s psychological makeup, which why I think this episode in particular is so important.

In the flashbacks, we’re transported back to the Whitman farm during the Great Depression: young Dick, his father Archibald, and his step-mother Abigail. A nameless hobo shows up one day and asks if there is any work in exchange for food and a night’s rest. While Archie is initially hesitant, Abigail welcomes him in, although she clearly doesn’t like the hobo much herself. When the hobo says Dick reminds him of a younger version of himself, Abigail says she’s not surprised. Her contempt for Dick is barely veiled.

Later that evening, when the hobo is sleeping in the barn and Dick brings him instructions to say his prayers before saying goodnight, Dick initially takes pity on the hobo for not having a home. The hobo responds with a wandering man’s philosophy: every day is a new adventure, unbound from the mainstream world’s pressures of maintaining a family, a mortgage and other material possessions. The hobo makes Dick an “honorary” by showing him the hobo code, a series of drawings that show visiting hobos what to expect as they stop at a home–good food, a mean dog, a dishonest man, etc.

After Archie denies the hobo his promised quarter for a day’s work, Dick looks for any existing hobo codes near their mailbox, and finds one for a dishonest man. Dick looks at his father differently, probably for the first time.

Also noteworthy is that the hobo referred to Abigail as Dick’s mom. Dick corrects him, asking “Haven’t you heard? I’m a whore-child.” Don’s parentage is becoming a little more clear now.

It’s impossible to over-emphasize the importance of this encounter on young Dick’s mind. The grown-up Don will show time and again that he will run when things get tough, and will tend to glamorize life on the run.

The rest of the episode features small interludes catching us up on dangling plot threads. Peggy arrives early to work on her copy for Belle Jolie; Joan made it clear that Peggy’s writing should not interfere with her secretarial duties. Pete also arrives early that day, which leads to the second sexual encounter between Peggy and Pete.

Elliot, a representative of Belle Jolie, stops by the office and invites Sal to come by and see the architecture of the hotel he’s staying at. Elliot is sure that Sal will understand this as another kind of code, a closeted gay invitation for drinks, dinner and a night in Elliot’s hotel room. Sal is not ready to face his true feelings, and freaks out at Elliot’s very mild come-ons. Back at the office, Sal over-compensates by reciprocating the flirting of the newest Sterling Cooper switchboard operator, Lois Sadler.

Bert gives Don an unexpected $2,500 bonus check (about $20,000 in today’s money). Bert recognizes something in Don he sees in himself: a strong, business-minded man who will succeed due to his inherent self-interest. Bert gives Don the check, tells him to say thank you, and to spend a couple of bucks of that check on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I can buy Bert as a Randian, but Don’s not so much objectivist as hedonist.

Don goes straight to Midge’s apartment, telling her to pack her bags for an impromptu Paris trip. Midge demurs, saying she’s got plans. Her theater buddy, Roy, is there, along with several of his friends–beatniks and early hippies. The big “plans” are to stay in, smoke pot and listen to Miles Davis.

These are the best scenes of the episode, as Don is exposed to the alternating euphoria and menace of a marijuana high. After going to the bathroom and initiating the flashbacks described above, he comes out and takes a picture of Midge and Roy together. He senses they are in love. Roy says love is “bourgeois” which leads to more insults of Don and his career, and Don sparring back. When Roy accuses Don of being part of the establishment that is holding people down, Don responds with one of his best quotes: “I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent.”

This shuts up Roy and his friends, and Don gives an ultimatum to Midge–go to Paris now or he’s walking out. Midge says she can’t, so Don endorses the check, stuffs it into Midge’s bra, and starts to walk out. Roy tells Don “you can’t leave,” due to police being in the apartment building to check out a neighbor of Midge’s who abuses his wife. Don comes back to Roy with another great line: “No, you can’t.” Roy and his friends had taunted Don for his “square” appearance, but in the end, he was able to indulge in the same vices at the same party, but his appearance allows him to walk out and say hello to the police as he leaves.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Mad Men episode 107: “Red in the Face”

Don and Roger play a drawn out game of manly one-upmanship. Betty dukes it out with Helen Bishop. Meanwhile, Peggy gets to work on writing copy for Belle Jolie, after Freddy says that her coming up with the “basket of kisses” line was like watching a dog play piano.

A season of Mad Men follows something of a template. The first episode of the season is devoted to catching up with the characters, and seeing where they all are with the passage of time, and setting up some of the storylines and plot arcs we’ll follow this year. Then the show will glide along at a slow pace, often eschewing plot, and having a couple of episodes that take the focus of off Don or Peggy. In the middle of the season, usually episode 7, something big and/or very entertaining will happen. The show will then drift for a bit, catching up briefly on a few of the arcs. The penultimate episode is usually where all the plot threads come together, and something major happens, leaving the final episode of the season to tie together any loose ends, put a cherry on top, and wrap up everything in a nice bow (or, in narrative terms, denouement). The first episode 7, “Red in the Face,” is indeed one of those special episodes, a Mexican standoff between two good friends and co-workers who are also hyper-masculine.

The bulk of the episode revolves around the frenemy rivalry between Don and Roger. Roger may be Don’s only true friend, but he’s also Don’s boss which complicates things. They often find themselves unintentionally competing with each other because of that masculinity that is hard-coded into their separate strands of DNA.

Roger wants to spend the weekend with Joan, as Mona and Margaret (his wife and daughter, respectively) will be out of town. Joan needs more notice, and has made plans with her roommate, Carol. Feeling like a little kid let loose in the big city with money in his pocket but nothing to do, Roger begs Don to go for “one drink” at the Oak Room’s bar.

One drink turns into a few. Roger and Don make eyes at two young ladies, who must barely be 18 (the legal drinking age in New York at the time). When Don gets up from the bar, both girls watch Don, leaving Roger feeling old and inferior to his younger, movie-star-handsome friend. But with nowhere to go and nothing to do, Roger invites himself to dinner at the Draper household. As Don, Betty and Roger eat and get more drunk, Roger becomes Mr. Suave and charms Betty. When Don has to go out to the garage to get more liquor, Roger makes his move: he tries to grab Betty close and kiss her. Although Betty rebuffs him, upon Don’s return, there’s an awkwardness in the air.

Roger leaves, and Don tears into Betty for being so receptive to Roger’s flirting. Don parrots a line he heard from earlier in the episode, when he called Dr. Wayne to check in on the psychiatry sessions: “I feel like I’m living with a little girl.”

Don punishes Betty for being an attentive host and maybe showing just a bit too much interest in Roger’s stories. But he also plans on doling out revenge on Roger. After Roger stops by Don’s office and tells a pretty hilarious story about driving home drunk one night, and walking into the wrong home, his apology falls flat when he makes the stiff analogy “sometimes we’ve all parked in the wrong garage.” Don’s not pleased and puts his plan in motion.

After bribing Hollis the elevator operator to pretend like the elevator’s out once he sees Don and Roger return, the two ad men go out for a way-more-than-two martini lunch. Don is smooth and charming here, letting Roger lead the way to overindulgence in both alcohol, seafood and sweets. They return to the office just in time to meet the Nixon campaign folks–if the elevator was working like it was supposed to. Instead, they have to take the stairs all the way to the 23rd floor. Roger seems like he might have a heart attack at several points along the way, so the younger and fitter Don rushes ahead. When Roger shows up in the office a few minutes after Don, it doesn’t take long until he vomits up that excessive lunch. In the battle of manliness, score one for Don.

The theme of masculinity plays out in a smaller storyline in this episode. In a classic moment that has been memed to death since 2007, Pete shows his office colleagues the duplicate chip-and-dip he received as a wedding present: “it’s practically four of something.” When trying to return it at Bonwit Teller, he tries to flirt up the customer service lady, who is having none of his “charms.” He eventually arranges for a store credit exchange on the chip-and-dip, but is distressed to see the lady in customer service reciprocate the flirting of Matherton, a college acquaintance of Pete.

Pete’s shot down trying to be a smooth ladies’ man, but still walks out with a symbol of masculinity: a .22 rifle. He proudly proclaims to his officemates that it was “the same price as a chip-and-dip.” But his masculinity is stripped from him again when Trudy won’t let a gun in the house, and berates him (in a shrill off-camera voice) for returning a gift from her family, despite the newlyweds receiving two of the same item.

The smallest storyline of the episode has the biggest ramifications for the rest of the season (and continues a storyline that will recur all the way up until the end). When grocery shopping, Betty runs into Helen Bishop, who confronts Betty about her giving Glen a lock of her hair when she had babysit him. Helen asks what kind of woman Betty is, and all Betty can do is give Helen a good slap across the face, leave her grocery cart mid-aisle and leave.

Helen_betty_red_in_the_face

Although Betty’s friend and neighbor Francine Hanson comforts Betty by letting her know the rest of the neighborhood ladies are on her side, this is a turning point in the long, strange, and oddly poignant relationship between Betty and Glen.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mad Men episode 106: “Babylon”

Mad Men unveils its first great episode, a noodling hour of mood and texture, notably lacking in plot. Don finds himself in exile from Rachel, and doesn’t find any relief from Midge. Peggy participates in a focus group and makes her first tentative step towards a career in creative by coming up with the line “basket of kisses.”

I’ve often referred to “Babylon” as Mad Men’s first truly great episode. When newcomers are having a hard time getting into the series, I always recommend they watch the first six episodes, until the end of “Babylon.” If they’re not hooked then, they probably never will be.

Interestingly, Netflix released a study about a year ago that showed which episodes of various TV series led to viewers going on a binge-watch–basically, looking at viewing habits and seeing at which point the viewer binges on many episodes in a row. My recommendation was validated, as “Babylon” was the episode that finally hooked Netflix viewers, starting their Mad Men binge in earnest.

What’s most interesting about “Babylon” and its status as an early great episode is the fact that it is mostly devoid of plot. Before I discuss that, let me get some semantics out of the way. “Story” and “plot” are often used interchangeably when discussing film and television, but there is a difference. The story is what happens, and the plot is how it happens. Plot is the collection of the turning points in the story that lead from one movement in the narrative to the next. For example, one could say the story of the first Star Wars movie concludes with Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star. But the plot includes important points that add weight to the story: Han and Chewbacca had to leave before the attack on the Death Star, because they had collected their reward money and needed to return to Tatooine and pay off their debt to Jabba. When Luke was in trouble in his trench run on the Death Star, he was saved when Han and Chewbacca return in the Millennium Falcon and knock Darth Vader out of the way. These are the points of the story (“plot points”) that add depth, drama, excitement, sadness, etc., to the story.

So “Babylon” definitely has a story, but is very short on plot. There’s no rising arc, no tension between protagonist and antagonist, or other conventional plot devices. It floats by on mood alone, and it’s a captivating mood. It’s easy to say that nothing really happens in “Babylon,” and plot-wise (both in this episode and in the over-arching plot of Season 1), that may be true. It’s easy to see why this episode delineates the Mad Men fans from those who just aren’t into it.

After the previous episode’s reveal about Don’s true identity, we get the series’ first “Dick Whitman flashback.” After getting up early to cook Betty a Mother’s Day breakfast, Don slips on a toy on his way up the stairs and takes a nasty tumble. He slips into a memory of Adam Whitman’s birth. We see Don’s stepmother Abigail proudly cradling her newborn son, and we see Uncle Mack who reminds young Dick that he and Adam share the same father. If Mack is his uncle, but he shares the same father with Adam, then who is their father? Don’s past is not clear at this point, not even to us, the omniscient viewer.

Don’s bungled attempt at a Mother’s Day breakfast-in-bed is appreciated by Betty, but she can’t resist slipping into being sad about her own mother, who has died but a few months ago. Don encourages Betty to snap out of it, calling mourning “extended self-pity.” Don should look in the mirror, because inside he’s also wallowing in his longing for what he can’t have: Rachel Menken.

When the Israeli Tourism Board comes in for a pitch from Sterling Cooper, Don uses the Jewish connection to arrange for a lunch meeting with Rachel. It’s supposedly a business lunch, and he needs her “expertise.” She reluctantly accepts his invitation. When she finds out why he needed to see her so badly, she’s dubious. “I’m the only Jew you know in New York?”

Don tries to loosen up this lunch meeting, hoping Rachel will have a drink. She has coffee instead. He reaches out to hold her hand, but she resists. When she sees where all this is headed, she leaves early and says the lunch better not show up on Menken’s bill from Sterling Cooper. But before leaving, she does give Don an important point to think about. Israel needs to exist, as a place for Jewish people to just be themselves, after years of persecution. Don misses her main point and compares Israel to a Shangri-La or a utopia, which leads Rachel to explain what she learned about utopia in college. The Greeks had two different words for utopia, which alternately translates to the “good place” and the “place that can never be.” This seems to be the perfect analogy for Don and Rachel’s relationship.

So Don goes running back into the arms of Midge. He rushes her as soon as he walks through her door, picking her up in preparation for what one would imagine would be a vigorous round of sex. However, it’s coitus interruptus as Midge’s friend Roy comes knocking on the door not long after Don did. Roy wants Midge to come see their friend Ian perform at an underground nightclub; Midge convinces Don to come along by promising to wear a short skirt and nothing else underneath.

Once at the club, Don and Roy begin to bicker. Roy is a beatnik/early hippie starting a “theater of the people” that he’s trying to recruit Midge into. Roy is shocked that Don works on Madison Avenue, that he’s a “huckster” who helped “create the religion of mass consumption.” Don fires back that Roy should get a real job, and also questions Roy’s masculinity by saying he spent more time on his hair this morning than Midge did. Between that and the lame musical and spoken-word performances on display, Don’s had enough and wants to leave. But Midge convinces him to stay for the reason they came, Ian the musician. Ian and a musical partner give a performance of the traditional song “By the Water of Babylon,” which seems to move Don. His mind is filled with thoughts of Rachel; the song’s lyrics about the plight of the Jewish people and their earlier conversation strike a chord with him. The song seems to describe the detachment he feels from his everyday life.

The episode closes with a montage over the performance of the song: Rachel works late at the store; Betty shows Sally how to put on makeup; Roger and Joan leave a hotel where they’ve been carrying on an affair. As the music ends, we see Joan and Roger far apart on the street, the only sounds over the closing credits being the street noises of a relatively quiet night in Manhattan, and the action of Roger’s Zippo lighter opening, striking a flame to light his cigarette and then closing. It’s all moody, ambient, and incredibly affecting. We the audience feel what Don was feeling while the song played.

Babylon_joan_and_roger

In addition to the reveal of Roger and Joan’s ongoing affair, the other main storyline in the episode concerns Peggy. Belle Jolie would like the Sterling Cooper secretaries to give their opinion on their line of lipsticks. Although there’s many colors, and all the secretaries are excited to take some time off of work and play with makeup, Peggy doesn’t get the color she wanted and stares at the other secretaries in derision. When asked why she didn’t participate by Freddy Rumsen from the creative department, Peggy says she didn’t get her color, and that no one wants to be “one of a hundred colors in a box.” As she offers Freddy the wastebasket with the tissues that have remains of the lipstick, she tells him “here’s your basket of kisses.” Freddy recognizes a creative mind, and a new journey for Peggy has begun.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Mad Men episode 105: “5G”

Don gets a visit from his long lost half-brother, who finally reveals just who Dick Whitman is. Peggy learns more about Don’s lunchtime activities than she wants to know, and reveals more than a good secretary should. Meanwhile, the Sterling Cooper team makes a “private” pitch to a banking client.

With “Who is Don Draper?” established as one of the key themes of Mad Men, the show surprisingly gives an answer in only its fifth episode. It’s the most superficial answer, not digging into Don’s psyche, but it’s still a big reveal, especially for so early into the show’s run: Don is not Don at all, but Dick Whitman, the name we first heard a couple of episodes ago on the commuter train.

Don has won an Advertising Age award, which leads to a photo on the front page of that publication. Don’s (half) brother, Adam Whitman, is a janitor in a Manhattan office building and finds a discarded copy of the issue with Don’s photo. This leads Adam to track down Don (or Dick, as he knows him) at Sterling Cooper. Don initially tries to deny Adam’s claim that he is actually Dick, but even the steely Don is rattled upon seeing his past life intersect with his present life when Adam shows up at the office. He agrees to meet Adam for lunch.

The Don/Adam lunch is naturally the centerpiece of the episode. In just a few minutes at a diner, we learn a lot about Don’s past. He was born Dick Whitman. He shares the same father with Adam, but we learn that Adam’s mother, Abigail, is not Don’s biological mother and that “she never let [Don] forget it.” There’s also a mention of Uncle Mack, who is established as a father figure to both Don and Adam with just a few lines of dialogue. Adam mentions that when Abigail and Mack came to pick up Dick’s casket from the train that has delivered the dead soldier’s body from the Korean War, he actually saw his brother. In an early display of Mad Men’s literary brilliance, key events in the timeline are established with great economy. We’ll see a lot of these events play out in extended flashbacks, and they impressively match up very well to the conversation between Don and Adam.

In yet another display of brilliant writing, even though Adam’s appearance and the lunch is the centerpiece of the episode, it’s not really the central theme of the hour. Privacy and secrets actually the primary concern, and they pop up everywhere. Don and the creatives are looking for a new angle for a pitch to a banking client. They come up with the “private account,” for the working man who wants to keep a separate bank account other than the home account, with statements sent to the man’s workplace. When Paul Kinsey first pitches the idea, Don’s bristles at the word “private,” leading Paul to come up with “executive account” instead. When the client comes in for the pitch, he likes it, because many men have already asked for such an arrangement, and this will now give the bank a way to make it official and charge a fee for it. Interestingly though, he doesn’t like “executive” and steers the conversation back to “private.” Perhaps remembering Don’s earlier thoughts on the matter, Paul throws out the combination “executive private account.”

Calling the idea “private” rubbed Don the wrong way, because he’s obviously keeping way too much of his life private, and it’s causing him great anxiety. We don’t learn quite yet just how bad the repercussions could be if Don’s identity switch were made public, but just for reasons of keeping his new life–with the great job, wife and kids–secure, he must keep his past private.

Of course, Don’s got a lot of other things he’s keeping private, including his ongoing affair with Midge. He may be pining for Rachel Menken, but how can he resist when Midge calls him in the middle of the day, asking for him to come over, pull her hair and ravage her? He can’t resist. By not hanging up the phone quick enough, Peggy finds out more about Don’s private life than she wished she had. This sets up a great comedy-of-manners scene later in the episode, when Betty shows up with the kids at the office, to meet Don for a scheduled family portrait. Don’s not in, and Peggy starts to freak out because she thinks Don’s with Midge. Ironically, Don is not with Midge–he’s tending to other private secrets at the lunch with Adam.

Peggy’s having a near-nervous breakdown trying to entertain Mrs. Draper and the kids until Don shows up. She’d likely be nervous regardless, but thinking that Don’s out of the office having sex with his mistress is making it worse. Peggy steps out briefly to ask Joan for advice on how to handle the situation, which ultimately makes things worse. Joan’s advice is how Peggy would handle the situation anyway, and Peggy has revealed Don’s secret to Joan when she didn’t need to. An extra bit of comedy comes from Joan calling Don’s office while Peggy is struggling to make small talk with Betty. Peggy’s about to have a heart attack, and Joan’s having a blast by making things worse with her little phone call.

Don eventually shows up and uses the common excuse of “being at the printer’s”, and Peggy’s finally able to exhale. But the weight of maintaining his privacy is taking its toll on Don. Unlocking his desk drawer, Don pulls out $5,000 in cash (or 5G’s worth of cash, in more informal speak). He goes to visit Adam in his pay-by-the-week hotel/apartment (room 5G). He tells Adam to take the money and go away, to California or somewhere far away from Don’s new life.

Betty later asks about buying a summer home, and Don says no for this year, as they’re not too flush with cash right now. He says it’s nothing to worry about, but of course he can’t tell the real reason why: he’s just given his brother $5G of cash to go away forever.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Mad Men episode 104: “New Amsterdam”

In only its fourth episode, Mad Men shows that it’s not afraid to devote the bulk of the hour to a character other than Don. While this Pete-centric episode is no “Signal 30,” it’s still an excellent signpost on the way to the show finding its footing. While my Reddit post reproduced below focuses on the Pete aspects of the story, we shouldn’t forget that a major event in Mad Men history happens here also: Betty babysits Glen Bishop. Creepy Glen arrives fully-formed, walking in on Betty while she’s taking a leak, and later asking for a lock of her hair as a keepsake. This odd pairing of a woman with the mind of a child, and a child with the mind of a budding serial killer, begins a subplot that will play out in bits and pieces for the rest of the show’s run.

“New Amsterdam” is a Pete Campbell-focused episode of Mad Men. It’s notable as being the first episode in which the show makes someone else other than Don the central figure for an hour, something the show would do often with its deep bench of an ensemble cast. I imagine viewers new to the show, who may already be struggling with how Mad Men is more like a novel than a TV drama, wondering why Don is mostly sidelined in this episode, and asking “Where is this all headed? Anywhere?” It’s actually quite daring, especially as the previous episode left off at a point where we’d expect to see some of the fallout from Don’s actions at Sally’s birthday party.

On the other hand, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that Mad Men would have better Pete-centric episodes later on. One in particular, Season 5’s “Signal 30,” is one of the show’s greatest episodes. But that’s not to say there’s not a lot to love here.

If nothing else, “New Amsterdam” puts to rest Pete’s ambitions of one day being a creative director. For those of us who’ve seen the whole show, it’s always jarring going back to the beginning and hearing Pete say in the pilot to Don, “I’m not going to pretend I don’t want your job.” The Pete we come to know is a salesman, not a creative type, and he grows into his job really well. Pete’s primary competition in the sales department, Ken Cosgrove, is no slouch himself (and the show would later make a lot good use of the Pete vs. Ken dynamic), but he approaches the job a lot differently than Pete does. Ken’s easy-going, friendly, and comes across as a sales guy who would be a pleasure to work with. Pete, on the other hand, is a master of the hard sell, using flattery, negotiations, or any other tool in his shed to close a deal. It’s hard to imagine that he would even want to be in creative at all, much less be the boss of creative types, who can be difficult to manage.

But, as it turns out, Pete has ideas, and he wants Don and Roger to know that. When he tries to undermine Don in a pitch meeting with Bethlehem Steel, Don’s annoyed and tells Pete as much, and expects it to end there. Persistent Pete isn’t ready to give up though. During dinner (with drinks and prostitutes) he pitches his idea, which Bethlehem Steel happens to like more than anything they heard in the earlier pitch meeting. That’s enough to send Don over the edge. Pete violated a couple of fundamental rules of the business–pitching copy in a bar and, as a salesman, pitching copy at all. Don tells Pete to get a cardboard box and pack his things, as he’s fired.

pete_new_amsterdam

But sage Bert Cooper sees a bigger picture of the advertising business, and Sterling Cooper’s place both within the industry and in New York. He makes an analogy to a luxury watch: in the intricate mesh of levers and gears, a Pete Campbell is needed. Sure, Pete’s made a mistake, but he’s young and mistakes are good learning material. And Sterling Cooper needs what Pete can provide–a foot in the door to certain parts of the Big Apple’s upper-crust society. Bert tells Don that no, this isn’t Pete’s last day.

Roger helps Don save face by barging into Pete’s office and saying that the young salesman gets to stay, despite everybody wanting him gone, but that Don reconsidered, and thinks Pete’s worth a second chance. This is a happy ending for Pete, but he’s still been dressed down. He won’t forget the rules he’s learned. (He’ll even throw a fit over Joan breaking the “fundamental rules” in Season 6 when it comes to Avon.)

But Pete would probably would prefer that dressing-down to what’s going on in his personal life. His new bride, Trudy, wants an apartment that would cost 10 years worth of Pete’s salary; the down payment is one whole year’s worth of salary. He tries to leave it at that, but Trudy’s not giving up that easy. She’ll ask her parents for the money if need be. For a man like Pete in 1960, the thought is utterly emasculating. So he feels out his parents for a loan on the down payment, but there’s no love here. Pete’s mom and dad don’t even try to cover up the fact that they’d gladly help out his brother, Bud, before they gave him any money. His dad trashes the profession of advertising, while his mother generally makes him feel unloved.

In the end, Trudy does ask her parents for the money, above Pete’s objections. The episode closes with Pete and Trudy in their new apartment, which her parents probably bought for them outright, and Pete staring out the window, while Trudy tells stories of Pete’s impressive New York family lineage. The Dyckmans (his mother’s side of the family) and the Campbells together owned a huge chunk of Manhattan at one time, back when it was known as New Amsterdam, but things are different now. Pete’s family doesn’t really have any money now–Bert had earlier related how they had given up their wealth for pennies on the dollar during the stock market crash of 1929, rather than riding it out. Pete certainly didn’t have the money to even put up a down payment for this apartment. Despite outward appearances, he doesn’t have a great job; he’s not respected for his talents or ambition. He’s being kept around for the familial connections that Trudy tells their new neighbors about. And, considering his pre-wedding tryst with Peggy, does he even really love his wife? Pete’s life may look good on paper, or to outsiders, but it’s all a facade.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Mad Men episode 103: “The Marriage of Figaro”

Sterling Cooper has won the Menken’s department store account. The team comes up with a great plan, but lose credibility in Rachel Menken’s eyes when she realizes that no one from the firm has even been to her store, a wrong that Don is happy to right. After getting the tour of the store, Don goes in for a kiss from Rachel––then tells her he’s married. Rachel won’t be “the other woman.” Sterling Cooper can keep the account, but she doesn’t want to deal with Don, fearing they won’t be able to resist each other. Dejected, Don spends a weekend in his suburban home, and pulls a “magnificent bastard” stunt during Sally’s birthday party by disappearing after going to pick up the cake.

It’s been my long-held belief that Mad Men’s sixth episode, Babylon, is its first truly great episode. For newcomers that are having a hard time getting into the show’s glacial pace, sometimes devoid of traditional plot, I tell them to hang in there until finishing that sixth episode. If they aren’t hooked by then, the show will probably never click for them. But episode three, The Marriage of Figaro, approaches the greatness of Babylon. It’s certainly the first episode that lets us into the characters’ lives without exposition; we know these people and their place in 1960 life now. With all the table-setting done, Matthew Weiner and company are ready to set the characters free and see where they land.

The previous episode established that “who is Don Draper?” will be one of the key themes of the series, and The Marriage of Figaro starts off by immediately complicating that question. Riding the train to work, an old Army buddy approaches Don but calls him “Dick Whitman” instead. This is the first time that name is mentioned in the series, and Don’s interaction with the man from his military past gives us a few clues. First, “Don Draper” may not be his name at all; at the very least, he was known by another name during his time in the military. Second, we see he has no problem coming up with lies to sidestep the issue, right on the spot. He quickly comes up with a phony career when asked where he’s working. He seems relieved when the old acquiantance says he works for IBM in upstate New York, and he realizes he won’t be running into him all the time in Manhattan.

While last episode showed that Betty was not fulfilled with having every part of, The American Dream, The Marriage of Figaro makes the case that Don is not happy with it either. The title comes from an opera, playing on the radio during the birthday party for Sally that takes up a large part of the episode. The opera’s story concerns a young man who marries and seems to have it all too, but fights his unhappiness by continuing to chase women. Don’s unhappiness with the sterility and insularity of suburbia leads him to do the same. In the previous two episodes, we’ve seen him spend a considerable amount of time with mistress Midge, and trying hard to flirt with a mostly unimpressed Rachel Menken. But Rachel admitted that Don charmed her at the end of the pilot episode, and here she lets her guard down even further.

Sterling Cooper has won the Menken’s department store account, despite Don’s boorish behavior in the first hour of the show. When it becomes clear that no one from the firm has even visited the store while drafting the Menken’s campaign, Don is the first to volunteer to right that wrong. Rachel gives him a tour of the store, opening up to Don with personal details along the way. After revealing that her mother died while giving birth to her, Rachel talks of a loneliness growing up that has led to her passion to make something of herself and the department store. We’ll come to find out that Don has plenty in common with Rachel, and he’ll reveal some of that to her in future episodes, but for now, he drops conversation and goes straight for a kiss.

Afterwards, Don realizes he has to tell Rachel one important thing about himself: he’s married. She feels the passion for Don that he feels for her, but she won’t play “the other woman.” Sterling Cooper can keep the account, but she doesn’t want to deal with Don directly.

This leaves Don back with his “perfect life” back at home. Waking up on a Saturday that will see the neighborhood coming over to celebrate Sally’s birthday, Don goes outside to construct one of Sally’s gifts, a playhouse. His shed refrigerator is stocked with cans of beer, and he’s close to downing a 12-pack before he gets the playhouse put together. And this is before the guests arrive, and the mixed drinks start.

After a few more drinks, the titular opera on the radio, Don takes a hard look at his life around him through a home movie camera. He sees one bland, homogenized couple after another in his house. The one outlier, divorcee Helen Bishop, is the subject of ridicule and mockery when the married ladies are alone in Betty’s kitchen. Helen represents a threat to their status quo, not only by being a divorcee, but by being an independent woman who walks the neighborhood with nowhere to go, just because she likes walking. The “hen house” of Betty and her friends probably imagine the walking is just so she can shake her hips and advertise herself as an available woman. Their contempt for Helen is barely veiled. When Betty sees her alone with Don, the two of them enjoying a cigarette together outside, Betty’s had enough. She sends Don to pick up the birthday cake from the bakery.

madmen_don_helen

Don, will you quit talking to that slut and go pick up the cake?

Don, too, has had enough. Maybe he’s too drunk to keep driving, or the thought of going back to that suburban nightmare of a birthday party is too much of a buzzkill. Either way, he doesn’t come back in time with the cake. He sits in his car, dreaming of Rachel, and what can’t be.

In the end, Don saves the day with Sally by coming home with a dog, Polly, as a final birthday present. Sally has forgiven Don for not coming back with the cake, but Betty’s pain is beyond words. She literally doesn’t know what to say to Don as she leaves him, the kids, and the new dog in the living room and heads to bed.

Roll the closing credits, and…welcome to the world of Mad Men, where beautiful, wealthy, and healthy people have it all, but are still suffering from an awful existential malady.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment