by E.C. Fish on April 18, 2013

Mad Men logomadmen_fullbodyAfter a two-hour premiere episode last week that was all over the place both geographically and thematically, this week’s installment of Mad Men returns to its overarching themes of business and serial adultery, which in this episode seem more alike than different. As I mentioned last week, 1968 has joined the show in earnest, with references to Vietnam (which dominates the radio news reports heard playing in the background of the dinner conversation between Don and the Rosens, and even postpones the Carson show, to Pete’s dismay), North Korea’s capture of the USS Pueblo, and Hair (“it’s just filled with profanity, marijuana smoking, and simulated sexual acts . . . and a few songs”).

For folks watching in far-off 2013, this can be a bit confusing — for instance, if we’re in the Swinging Sixties, why so much furtive sex? When we think of the ’60s, we tend to think of the counterculture, at the expense of considering the culture it was countering; at the time, that counterculture experience was the exception rather than the rule. In the era of Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the three top-rated television programs were The Andy Griffith Show, The Lucy Show, and Gomer Pyle, USMC. Things that may seem anachronistic here are actually depictions of what made the counterculture necessary in the first place, and the hypocrisy and complacency that inspired such rebellion are on ample display this week.

PETE –THE WAGES OF SMARM: I inadvertently omitted a section from the final draft of last week’s recap, which dealt with Pete’s few lines in the premiere:


This week, the million little embarrassments we’ve seen Pete rack up over the last five years reach critical mass, leaving him in such a diminished state by the end that one could almost feel sorry for the guy if he wasn’t such a . . . y’know . . . smarmy prick.

Seeing Pete spring a major life-leak wasn’t as much fun as I thought it would be — not nearly so much fun as watching Lane punch him out in the partners’ meeting, for example — but the experience of taking an inventory of his illusions as he loses them defines Pete so sharply that it provides new context for some of what has gone before. Watching him lose makes one realize what a loser he’s always been.

Episode 3 opens with Pete (played by Vincent Kartheiser) flirting with two of the neighborhood wives at a house party he is hosting with wife Trudy (played by Alison Brie). He offers theater tickets — the Hair line above is his, and speaking of hairlines, his is visibly receding — along with an implied invitation to visit him in the city. When one of the two, Brenda, takes him up on his offer, we at last get to see his place in the city; this long-sought symbol of his freedom turns out to be a  sad dump, sparsely furnished and stocked with peanuts, cheese crackers, and lots and lots of booze. Brenda, however, isn’t hungry and had a drink on the train. She is there for Pete, poor woman, and proposes little games of codes and symbols (one ring on the phone; her car parked in the driveway so he’ll know she’s thinking of him) to make their affair a romantic adventure.

What she gets instead is a post-coital bum’s rush from Pete and a violent encounter with her husband when she is found out. Beaten and bleeding, she flees to the Campbells’, where she finds a solicitous Trudy (who puts a steak on her eye and drives her to a hotel) and a surly Pete (who hisses implications that this is all her fault and offers to call her a cab).

The next morning in the kitchen, Trudy dismisses Pete’s little-boy denials and proceeds to gut him with a few choice sentences. Pete’s place in the city — which he had taken a perverse pride out of talking her into — was something she’d let him have, with a tacit understanding of what he’d be getting up to there (“I thought there was some dignity in granting permission”), and he had abused the privilege by pissing in the kitchen. Henceforth, she informs him, he is to come to the house only when invited and should consider the fifty-mile radius around it a nookie-free zone, or she will destroy him.

She largely already has. Pete seems to have staked a great deal of his manhood on playing head of the household at home and cock of the walk everywhere else, but Trudy effectively cuts it off with a cold, dull spoon and hands it to him. That the great con he thought he was playing on the universe was something that Trudy allowed and indulged, and that he is not now and has never been in charge of any of it, hits Pete where it hurts: it spoils his fun. What ought to be the more devastating fact — that he is cheating on his wife and she doesn’t give a shit — of course never occurs to him.

For all his pretenses to confident cocksmanship, Pete has always been a bit hapless. His dalliances have most often left him with nothing (like his brief assignation with Peggy) or less than nothing (as with Beth, played by Alexis Bledel, whose every memory of Pete and their affair of last season is erased through the magic of electroconvulsive therapy), but he has made his own luck and has largely deserved his fate. Being a smarmy prick isn’t a tragic flaw — it’s just bad behavior.

OH, SYLVIA? HOW DO YOU CALL YOUR LOVERBOY?: A lot of the reaction to last week’s premiere centered on the revelation that Don is back to his cheating ways after a season of apparent marital bliss, but for a certain kind of TV fan, the reaction was, “Of course Don is having an affair with Sylvia Rosen — she’s played by Linda Cardellini!” As with last year’s turn by Alexis Bledel, the series seems to be showing a preference for casting actresses who first made their mark in much-loved juvenile roles, and who have now reached an age where cultural shallowness and ageism can begin to play hell with an actress’s career. Providing interesting, high-profile roles for actresses of “a certain age” seems like a nice change from the usual showbiz practice of casting actresses obviously too young for the part in such roles — but since Mad Men usually casts them as bits of tail, maybe not so much. It would be nice to see actresses of Bledel’s and Cardellini’s caliber come into the show as characters who didn’t have to get prone to justify their presence.

To Cardellini’s and Matt Weiner’s credit, Sylvia is allowed to get vertical for some very interesting moments. She is, for instance, treated to the Don Draper philosophy of adulterous compartmentalization: “This didn’t happen. Just in here,” he says, tapping his head. In a long commiseration with Megan over Megan’s miscarriage, Sylvia shows some interesting and sure-to-prove-troublesome vestiges of Catholic morality, and in a double date between the Drapers and the Rosens — which Megan’s illness and Arnold’s emergency call turns into a Don-and-Sylvia dinner for two — some genuine moral qualms over their affair (she’s apparently a lousy compartmentalizer). Don is dismissive of this, saying, “You want to feel shitty right up to the point where I take your dress off.” Which, of course, he later does. It is largely to Cardellini’s credit that I actually wonder how she feels about that.

DON DRAPER — WHORESON DOG: Don’s day starts in the elevator of his building, which stops on Arnold and Sylvia Rosen’s floor; the Rosens argue briefly about money before Arnold joins Don in the elevator. Claiming to have forgotten his cigarettes (“You’ve got to stop that nonsense,” says Dr. Rosen), Don heads back up after Arnold gets off in the lobby. Cigarettes have nothing to do with it, of course — Don is going back to the Rosens’ floor for something else addictive and bad for him. He knocks on Sylvia’s door, she answers, and . . . flashback: a young Don and his mother arrive at his aunt’s whorehouse, where they will be living following the death of his father.

Whether this is meant to be reflective of Don’s actual thoughts on seeing Sylvia or is just a narrative device meant for us, it sets the stage for some dandy dime-store psychoanalysis and establishes prostitution as a theme. That his formative years were spent in an atmosphere wherein illicit sex was the family business and women were commodities goes some way to explaining the adult Don, for whom illicitness and sex go hand in hand, and money — directly or indirectly — provides him the means to seek both. The point is driven home (with a thump if not a THUD!) when Don ends his tryst with Sylvia by handing her a wad of bills.

Prostitution threads through every story line in the episode. Joan — who owes her partnership in the firm to an illicit tryst with Herb, a Jersey-stereotype Jaguar salesman — is driven to drink when Herb returns for a meeting and broadly hints that he wants some more. We’ve already seen how Pete (who pimped Joan to Herb in the first place) offers trinkets to lure suburban wives to his hallowed place in the city. And whoring definitely defines the business situations we see at the agency this week: unruly client Herb forces the firm into an uncomfortable position, while the Heinz Baked Beans guy from last season makes the agency “dance with those that brung ’em” rather than seeking the more lucrative ketchup business (“the Coca-Cola of condiments,” according to Ken). Peggy, informed of the Heinz situation by Stan, is ordered by new boss Ted to set aside the finer sentiments of friendship and loyalty for the good of the business (that is, the money). Every encounter in the episode is informed by this theme. Everybody wants something — usually something untoward — and everybody, in one way or another, pays for it. The episode ends with Don collapsing outside his doorway to the tune of “Just A Gigolo.” (THUD!)


While he seems to have given up the garden-trowel technique of last week’s episode, Matthew Weiner is still painting with a remarkably broad brush here, smearing the hour with large globs of symbolism and narrative device. I hope he will tease these smears out into some finer lines in the rest of the season.

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E. C. Fish is the editor and publisher of  The Spleen.

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