Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Mad Men - It's all about the women

I watched the season premier of Mad Men yesterday afternoon, and haven't stopped thinking about it since. So I re-watched it this afternoon (it's Spring Break, and it's raining, perfect TV-watching time), to maybe sort out some of my thoughts.

The first thing that strikes me, of course, is the political protests in the opening scene. I'm sure it's no coincidence that the handwritten signs in the windows are so similar to the same signs that were places in windows during the early days of the Occupy Wall Street protests last year.

The fact that Don and Roger are laughing about the trouble the folks at Y&R got into for dropping water bombs on the black protestors is quite telling. They're not laughing because their competition is being called out for being discriminatory. They are giddy about the negative attention, but only because they're mad that Y&R stole one of their accounts, not for the actions behind the negative attention. They run an ad claiming they're an equal opportunity employer whose "windows don't open." But instead of running it in the job ads, they run it in the advertising column, with the sole intent of further humiliating their competition. This, of course, comes back to bite them in the butt.

This is not the first time Mad Men has addressed the racial issues of the day, but it is the first time we see it actually in the context of Madison Avenue. Before, it was Betty's interactions with her housekeeper Carla, self-congratulatory politically-liberal Paul Kinsey's girlfriend and their talk about going on the Freedom Rides, and the episode where Lane Pryce was infatuated with the black Playboy bunny, and... well... that's all I can think of. Frankly, I'm curious to see where they go with this. I know there are lots of folks watching, carefully, to see if they treat the subject of race relations in the 60s with the carefulness that other issues have been addressed.

Speaking of the 60s, this is the first episode that really, truly feels like I would expect the 60s to feel like. It's finally feeling like the 60s as I think of them based on my very limited knowledge of the era. The home decor is starting to look eerily familiar to what I grew up in.

Aside from this first peek at what's in store for this season in terms of character lines and cultural stories, this episode felt like it was mainly about the women.

We started out with Sally and Megan. Even if the scene was more about the new-found domesticity of Don, the attention paid to Sally's curiosity about Megan and her father is what stuck me most about this scene. She's curious about Megan in bed with her father, but she's also aware of how his relationship with Megan has turned him into a more caring and attentive father. She genuinely seem to glow when Megan compliments the gift of a shaving brush, as though getting Megan's approval of the gift was as important as her father's.

Then we have Joan and her mother. Actually, we get lots of Joan and her mother. What a great insight into Joan's character through her relationship with her mother. We see them several times throughout the episode and their relationship seems to be a volatile one, with underlying resentments and accusations. We see where Joan gets her wit and ferocity. But by the end of the episode, we also see the caring side of the relationship as well. The scene of them in the elevator is one of the sweetest scenes I've seen in a while. It speaks volumes.

Joan's fight to return to work is a very promising peek into where I hope they continue to explore the role of work as a source of identity in women's lives. Joan is Joan. She needs to be Joan in the office to feel like herself. Her worry about the stability of her job and her tears in Lane Pryce's office are the first real signs of weakness we see in Joan's tough exterior, and they not about her role as a mother or wife, but about her role as an important part of the running of the office. Her self worth is reliant on her position at work, just like many of the men. "I'm sorry, I've been like this since the baby. It's not him. I just keep thinking about what's going on here and I missed it too much." Lane puts it perfectly, "It's home, but it's not everything."

Speaking of women at work, there's lots of snark about Mrs. Draper's work, and totally inappropriate comments about her sexual life with Don. "She should have just rolled over and said, 'Don, what do you think of this?" "I'll bet she says that every morning." This is some of the mildest forms of frat boy humor in the episode, setting up the tension between Megan and everyone else in the office, but also creating extra tension for Peggy and the other women, either pitting them against Megan for attention, or putting them in the uncomfortable position of having to stand up to the boys. Only Peggy really has the guts to do so.

I'm curious to see how the interactions with Peggy and Megan go. Their relationship seems tense, but also a bit companionable.  And how much of the tension is really between Peggy and Don, and only played out with Megan? Peggy's anger about Don's uncharacteristic response to the Heinz folks who aren't impressed with her Bean Ballet idea is telling. She wanted the old Don to open fire in her defense, and say "what he usually says, 'Hey buddy, if you got such great ideas, why don't you open your own agency.' The clients are right all of a sudden? I don't recognize that man. He's kind, and patient." "And it galls you." "No, it concerns me."

At the same time, I see Megan trying to find and use her power, a lot of which lies in her sexuality. Which, of course, is what all those jokes in the office are about. Her song and dance for Don's birthday party is definitely feeding the fire of talk in the office. The scene in the kitchen with Harry and Stan, with Megan hearing what Harry is saying, was painful. How many times has something similar been played out in offices over the years? At least in this case, Harry was ashamed of himself.

What, or who, is she trying to exert her power over? The work she's doing is clearly something she wants to do and to take pride in. But she's also exerting power over Don, who is clearly unused to being in that position. She predicts that after the party, "everyone will have sex." But she and Don don't. He's mad, and sulking. The scene where she's cleaning up in her lacy underwear is clearly a power play. She's goading him. At least this time it worked.

Sure, there were interesting scenes with men, and about men, but the best were about the men in relation to the women in their lives. The men-only business scenes are just more of the same. They're still wonderful Mad Men scenes, but they pale in comparison with everything else happening -- Pete and Roger bickering, the running gag with Bert Cooper not knowing what's going on around him -- those scenes are in black in white compared to the vibrancy of the scenes with Joan, Megan, and Peggy.

Case in point, the scene on the train with Pete and the other man, Howard, isn't about work, but about their dissatisfaction with their married lives. "They don't understand." I love how this shows how little the wives understand about being a working man who needs time with his thoughts, but this lack of understanding goes both ways. Pete had just finished complaining about how Trudy is finally "getting back to herself." He goes on to say, "There was a time when she wouldn't leave the house in a robe."

Later, when Pete comes home late from work (to a house that is far too similar to Don and Betty's old home to be mere coincidence, I might add), he tries to complain to Trudy, saying, "There's no fruit to my labor." She replies with, "I guess none of this counts, an acre of land, a wife, a child." But, in his mind, "That has nothing to do with work."

The husbands don't understand the concerns and problems of the wives, and the wives don't understand the husbands' pressures at work. Each is trying to live up to some ideal set by society, which is a recipe for disaster. I really hope we see more of this discussion of gender roles and how they started to shift in the 1960s.

Also, can I just say: Peggy with the baby and Pete walking in?! Roger holding the baby?! And what's with Lane and the photo of Dolores? Do you think the guy with the wallet knows that Lane kept the photo? 

And, then, in the final scene, the juvenile ad prank on Y&R comes back around and takes a big old chomp. I can't wait until next week!

All photos from AMC's website.


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