Mad Men: Season Five, Episode 4
The question that gnaws at the people of Mad Men this week, in the wake of the Richard Speck killings they all find themselves in equal parts intrigued and unsettled by, is what they, and those around them, are truly capable of. To some extent, that means confronting the darker part of their personalities, struggling with their inner demons and coming to terms with what they discover. For others, it means finally coming to terms with who someone in their life is, and what that means for the future.
Most prominent among this latter group is Joan, who deals with Greg's homecoming this week. It goes about as well as could be expected. Greg has never been a particularly well drawn character--first he was just that terrible rapist Joan was marrying, then he became the terrible rapist/awful doctor she was married to, before finally transforming into the terrible rapist/awful doctor/likely victim of the Vietnam War who could be shunted off to the side while we all wait for him to die, preferably in a fittingly cowardly fashion. His return tonight works in a lot of ways, and is a bit confusing for a few others. That Greg would be willing, even eager, to return to Vietnam makes sense. He is powerful there, a respected doctor whose skills are needed and who is actually saving lives. He has left behind a career that was sinking fast and a wife whose resentment for him grew daily.
The early scenes of Greg's return--when Joan almost seems happy to see him, and when he takes to his son like any new father would--work very well too. It makes sense that, after a year apart, both would want to put the problems in their relationship behind them, hoping that the other had changed in the interim and that things would be better from here on out. That things fall apart, and quickly, isn't surprising either. Change is a difficult, slippery thing, and if Mad Men wants to remind us of one thing this week, its that simply saying you've changed, even if you hope its true, is not enough.
From the beginning, Greg has had all the makings of a sociopath--on the surface, he seems like a nice, successful young man, but in private, he reveals himself to be something of a monster. If there is one problem with how all this plays out, its mostly in the way it subverts expectations (which is, of course, a totally Mad Men thing to do) about Kevin, the new baby. We know, as Joan does, that Kevin is Roger's baby, but neither Greg nor Roger is definitively aware of this fact (and in fact, I assume both remain ignorant on this point, as on oh so many others). This tension is at least partially dispersed tonight. We won't have to worry about some sort of '60s-era custody battle about how Joan is an unfit mother because she works, because Greg is heading back to war, and Roger is so distracted by his growing irrelevance, he isn't likely to do the math on Kevin's age any time soon.
At first, Peggy seems to be in the former category, realizing how far Roger has sunk, but she quickly proves herself to be the latter. I don't think she learns anything about herself in her shakedown of Roger--this is pretty much standard fare for her at this point--though later, as she drinks with Dawn back at her place, she starts to wonder if she "acts too much like a man," if she has given up something vital about herself to get to where she is. In that context, the fact that her shakedown of Roger doesn't faze her at all takes on a new light. Peggy thinks of herself, on a day-to-day basis as more like Dawn than like Don, but that isn't really true. In order to get to where she is, Peggy sacrificed a lot about herself--in some ways, making herself more "like a man," (though I think that's a problematic way to look at it, I also think it makes sense that she would see it in that light), in others just becoming more distanced from the outside perspective she used to have--and that is starting to take a toll on her. Peggy Olsen isn't a crusader. She is someone who fought her way inside not to change the system but to better herself. She never looked at herself as a "symbol," or as a crusader in the women's rights movement. That doesn't change much about how important she has been in terms of moving things forward, but when Peggy got through the door, she closed it behind her.
That means its hard for her to connect with Dawn. Peggy thinks there is an obvious connection between the two; after all, she used to be the only one like her around. But Dawn isn't looking to climb any ladders, she just wants to be accepted in her current position. Simply getting the job she has is enough of a hurdle, and now she just wants to do it well. The distance between the two is never more stark than in that moment--Peggy is an insider, Dawn an outsider. Peggy tries to play the moment off, but its clear to both of them they aren't on the same side of this fight. Dawn has to fight against an inherent suspicion thrown her way for surface level reasons in ways that Peggy never really did. Yes, Peggy fights gender discrimination ALL THE TIME, but when she shakes Roger down for the money, its a colleague exerting leverage. If Dawn had done the same (which, based on what we know of her character, she never would), she would have been reinforcing Roger's stereotypes (let's not forget he was performing in black face a few seasons back without batting an eye).
One of the things Mad Men has in common with Matt Weiner's last writing job, The Sopranos, is its tendency to be fairly surface-level in its dream sequences. This hurts Don's storyline a bit, but its preferable to the whole "Don strangling a girl" portion of the episode being played straight (I'm thinking here, for Sopranos fans, of that show's season one episode "Isabella," which tries to play a clearly fictional element straight) and ultimately I think it got the point of the plot line across better than a more subtle take on the same would have managed. Don is sick, and runs into a former lover on the elevator. At first, this is the standard "new girl has trouble with guy's sordid past" storyline, but it quickly becomes more of a meditation on Don's own views on his past. Don really wants to make it work with Megan, but he knows all too well what he is capable of, and what's more, what he is openly willing to do. Much of season three was given over to Don hiding his infidelity under the bed like he hid the body of his lover in the dream. Don confronted what he is capable of, and came out the other side far less secure in his new marriage. Megan, on the other hand, seems sated for the moment, confident enough that she doesn't have to worry about Don. How long it takes before he shakes that confidence, though, is an open question.
Finally, there is little Sally Draper, who all too often works to tie the show's disparate storylines together. The commercial for the game Mystery Date might be a tad obvious, but I loved it all the same. The game (if I am recalling correctly from being told about it by pop culture...namely the Tim Allen movie The Santa Clause...yeah, I'm pretty young) is about deciding which seemingly attractive stranger to let into your house. In an episode with the Speck murders (in which a seemingly attractive man did some transparently despicable things when invited inside) hanging over the proceedings and with each character confronting the monster lurking within them, placing this children's game and the grisly murders play around in the same headspace gives another layer to things, and makes the theme of the episode more cohesive because of it.
Don hides the "body" under his bed, but as we learned earlier in the episode, hiding under the bed is how Speck's ninth potential victim managed to survive. And sleeping hidden under the couch is the only way Sally Draper feels safe after reading about the monster that lurked in the city of Chicago in the guise of a man. What is under our beds is, for better or worse, still there, and putting it out of sight does not mean it can necessarily stay out of our minds. Nothing stays hidden under the bed forever, and when the dark side of these characters comes out again, they will truly have to contend with what they are in the cold light of day.
-"I have a cold, but you make me feel better."-Don, being a good dad.
-"I was divorced." "And now you're not."
-"In my heart, I'm on the verge of throwing you in front of a cab."
-"And Don, no smoking."-Megan, as Don takes a drag off a cigarette. Try as he might, he is more accustomed to deception than honesty.
-"Hey, Trotsky, you're in advertising."
-"Y'all drink a lot."
-"I've got my orders, you've got yours."
-"It was a mistake." "A mistake you love making."
-"I'm glad the army makes you feel like a man, because I'm sick of trying to do it."
Tags: Mad Men