19
Sep
2010
Mad Men: Season 4, Episode 9
The Beautiful Girls
Jordan
I went into tonight's episode of Mad Men without knowing the title of the episode, a very rare occurrence for me. When I found out near the episode's end that it was called "The Beautiful Girls," I though it might be a tad too precise. Yet in a way, its also perfect, as tonight's episode did give us an in-depth look at most of the show's major female characters, and did so in a way that made it into a study in the differences between them, but also an examination of what it means to be a woman in 1965, regardless of your age. For sake of organization, I want to analyze this episode through the lens of each "beautiful girl," and there's an easy bookend in the episode's oldest and youngest characters.

Ida Blankenship has been a fairly controversial character among fans of the show. I have often heard her referred to as one dimensional comic relief, and I think that's a fair criticism.Even her death was made into a joke tonight, and it made for an inspired sight gag as Pete and the ladies tried to dispose of her in the background of Don's pitch to Filmore. Yet I maintain that there was more to Blankenship than just a few jokes every week. For one thing, she served as a constant reminder: to Don, of what he did to Alison; to Roger of his distant youth; to Bert as a stalwart from yesteryear; and even to Joan as a sort of cautionary tale. And her death is treated with a beautiful dignity. Roger is especially stricken, in part because someone he once slept with is dead, but more importantly because it reminds him of his own mortality, and gets him worried that he will die in his office (a worry that may prove true by the end of the series, I fear). Bert truly gives her the most moving send off, waxing nostalgic as he says ,"She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She's an astronaut." The world changed legions during Blankenship's life, as it is changing almost too quickly for most of the show's characters. I for one will miss the character, and I was glad the show gave her a touching send off.

The simple tragedy of Blankenship's life, as Bert puts it, is less that she died in the office (which hits Roger the hardest), but more that she died, as she lived, answering phones for the people she worked for. Blankenship lived through an era that didn't give her many choices, but that era is quickly changing (though not quickly enough). Dr. Faye Miller has had choices, or so she claims. As she fights with Don near the episode's end, she points out that she has chosen not to have children, because work has been more important to her and because she is not good with them (and she is comically awkward with Sally, saying things like, "Hey Sally. Its me, Faye. Remember me from yesterday?"). She is emphatic that she has made her life the way it is, and enjoys it that way. But I am not entirely convinced that a woman at her level, during the time period she came up in, really did have the choices she claims. I appreciate that Faye, an existentialist like Don, wants to think that her life is her own to make and that her choices have guided her more than anything else. Yet society has likely played a large hand in the fact that her professional successes have ensured she remains single and childless (not that these are not valid life choices, I'm just not sure Faye really had the options she claims to have had).

While Faye seems to think she got where she is because of the choices she has made, Peggy is more interested in the limitations that have been placed on her. When Joyce sets her up on a blind date who immediately begins to wax political on civil rights, Peggy is quick to point out that "Most of the things Negroes can't do, I can't do either" to which her date chukles and responds, "Alright Peggy, we'll have a civil right's march for women!" Peggy is struggling to break barriers herself, and is as a result not as interested in the barrier breaking going on in the Civil Rights movement (especially not when its being preached to her by a misogynist, even if Abe did seem like more of an incedental offender than an outright sexist). She has spent most of the series focused on what it means to be a woman, struggling with the work-life balance, fighting off harassment and discrimination, and simply trying to figure out who she is outside of who society tells her she should be. Near the end of the episode, Joyce likens men to a vegetable soup in need of a pot and asks, "Who wants to be a pot? Who the hell says we're not soup?" She's absolutely right in a sense, but Peggy doesn't necessarily see the interaction between the sexes in such a black and white way. What Peggy wants, even if she doesn't realize it quite yet, is a partnership between equals. She is working towards that in her professional life with Don, but has yet to connect this career revelation to her personal life.

Peggy does begin to struggle with the moral implications of her work more tonight, thanks in no small part to Abe's creepiness. Early in the episode he asks her, "Would you have done a campaign for Goldwater?" and she immediately responds "My God that would have been spectacular!" A shocked Abe asks, "Did you vote for him?" and Peggy just as quickly reponds, "Of course not." She sees no problem with working for someone she might not personally agree with--an ad is an ad, and a high profile ad campaign is all the better for business. Yet Abe opens her eyes a bit to the potential damage a great ad for a less than great client could do. Don rationalizes, "Our job is to make men like Filmore Auto, not to make Filmore auto like negroes" and that seems right in line with where Peggy started the episode. By its end though, she's suggesting Harry Belafonte as a jingle singing candidate and pointing out that boycotts aren't good for business. Abe may have been creepy, sexist, and way too much of a hippy for Peggy, but he did make some good points, and those will probably stick with her for a while.

On the Joan front (and front is almost to apt a phrase considering Greg's current situation), her husband has been sent off to Vietnam, and Roger is making more direct advances than ever. He gets her a manicure and a massage, and even takes her out to dinner at an old favorite of theirs, where Joan points out, "The clientele is older than I remember" and Roger quips, "But not us." Roger is having trouble getting his autobiography published, probably in no small part because its excruciatingly uneventful, but it has got him thinking about the best times in his life, and all of them, it seems, involved Joan. And when the two get mugged, they react by quickly jumping into each others arms and getting it on in an alleyway. This seems a perfectly appropriate response considering the death and fear of mortality that pervades their current lives (Greg at war, Roger afraid he will soon die, Blankenship dying, and then a mugging that certainly puts the though of mortality into both of their minds), and is also, of course, a cause for celebration in my eyes. Roger and Joan have something special together. They may be married to other people, and they may even love those other people (though I somehow doubt it), but in some way, these two are deeply connected in a way that transcends their alleyway indiscretion. They are vitally important to one another's lives, and clearly care deeply for one another. Put simply, Roger and Joan are soulmates.

And now we come to Sally. Or, as I really should call her with every mention, poor, poor Sally. She runs away from home and travels by herself into the city to be with Don. She misses him desperately, and his initially cold reaction broke my heart (I have a huge soft spot for Sally, and she always tends to break my heart more than anything else on the show, due in no small part to the masterful performance by Kiernan Shipka. Get that girl an Emmy already!). As I've said before and will likely say again, its clear that all Sally needs is a parent who will just sit down and spend time with her, and watching Don shove her off on Faye (who is not at all prepared for, or happy with, the job) was near tragic. Yet the two do get some quality time, ordering a pizza together and spending a morning in the city. Sally makes it clear that she wants to live with Don, and that she hates it at her mother's (and who wouldn't prefer Don to Betty? He may be absent and a little aloof, but at least he cares about his children as more than just trophies or little dolls to be positioned in his perfect life) and while I knew that Don wouldn't relent this week, I will admit to quietly pleading that Sally be allowed to stay with Don. Living with Betty is doing lasting psychological harm to the girl, and even her one day with Don seemed to improve her immensely, so much so that She screams, tries, and even attempts to flee rather than return to Betty. Sally's fall as she runs is a moment of true tragedy; to most of the onlooking women (and it was a little on the nose to have the entire cast of women looking on, and then following Sally out to reception so that we could get a shot of all of the office women with Betty. What was less on the nose was the fact that Sally was positioned in between them, showing Betty on one end of the spectrum and the women of SCDP on the other, with Sally in the middle, still growing up and finding out what type of woman she will be) it is a small embarassment for a little girl to fall. Yet we know that Sally realizes, in that moment she lies prostrate on the floor, that her escape plan has failed and that she will be forced to go back to that house and live with Betty once again. Sally, like every woman this week, is getting a bit of a raw deal out of life, but there is hope that she will have a chance for something more.

The final shot, which places Peggy in between Faye and Joan in an elevator, is to my eye as meaningful as the shot placing Sally between Betty and the rest of the women. Faye is a woman who has chosen her career and her independence. Joan is a woman who has made career sacrifices to fit into the old fashioned mode of a career woman, staying low on the totem pole so that she can be married (And hopefully have a kid, though with Greg in Vietnam that seems less likely). And Peggy, between them, is a woman who still isn't sure exactly which side of that spectrum she wants to fall on. "The Beautiful Girls" is a masterful examination of the women of Mad Men a study in contrast and a look at the strictures and freedoms that defined femininity in the mid 1960's. In short, its another great episode from the best show on television.

Grade: A-

Notes:

-I wanted to give this episode an "A," but decided that parts were perhaps a bit on the nose. Still, though, this is an excellent episode of televison.

-"Is it broken?" "The lamp?"

-"You want to leave me here? You sure?" "I'm taking everything interesting with me."

-"Its a business of sadists and masochists, and you know which one you are." Wise words, Blankenship.

-"Men never know what's going on." "I offered you money, and I said thank you." A nice glimpse at a woman outside the scope of the show, and another example of Don not understanding that money does not solve every problem.

-"I would have my secretary do it, but she's dead."
Tags: Mad Men
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