The Great Mad Men Re-Watch, Part 2: A Basket of Kisses
Having gotten our feet wet last week with Mad Men's first three episodes, we can now move into darker, meatier territory. Don and Pete’s escalating battle heats up, as does Joan and Roger’s affair. Betty continues her journey toward disillusionment and subsequent icequeendom, nudged along by a perverted little boy next door. Don's mysterious past begins to reveal itself. And Peggy, awesome Peggy, gets her first big break. Let’s see where Matthew Weiner and company take us as we return to the Great Mad Men Re-Watch!
Note: If you're watching for the first time, be wary of spoilers from later in the series!
Season 1, Episode 4: “New Amsterdam”
The episode begins at the offices, where the guys are listening to a record by Bob Newhart, a hot new comic who draws comparisons to Lenny Bruce (“But funny,” Paul notes). The scene is a great example of what Mad Men does so well that its imitators, like Pan Am, could not: organically weave in cultural references that remind us of where we are in American history without yanking us out of the narrative.
We meet Mrs. Pete Campbell soon after, played by Community’s Alison Brie, who pops by to surprise Pete for lunch. Pete isn’t thrilled at the prospect but relents, and there’s a fantastically charged exchange between a charming Don, Peggy (who doesn’t yet know she’s pregnant with Pete’s child), and newlyweds Pete and Trudy. Later, Pete and Trudy scout a home in Manhattan that Trudy is optimistic they can get for $30,000; Pete reminds her he makes $75 a week, but Trudy implies they’ll find the help somewhere. Brie’s Trudy brings another fascinating female into the mix: She wears a bright smile and has a refined social ease, like a layer of hard shellac on the surface. But she’s more intuitive than she lets on.
Betty, squirreled away in the suburbs, is more naive. She’s surprised to learn that Helen, the divorcee next door, has left her husband because of his philandering ways in the city. Don walks in on the conversation, having just had a tense run-in with Rachel at the Sterling Cooper offices—Rachel had declined his invite to lunch—and practically growls acknowledgement of the pair. A sunny, “Honey, I’m home!” it’s not, but it doesn’t seem to bother Betty, who explains that Don needs his alone-time when he gets home from work. Watching her in these early scenes, I’m struck by just how sweet and agreeable Betty once was, before her whole world came crumbling down around her.
I love the scene at Pete’s blue-blood parents’ house, where he tosses down a tumbler of booze and endures their withering contempt. I particularly love the sheet-covered furniture and his father’s wardrobe—a rumpled yellow blazer and plaid shorts, as if he had just wandered in from a Hamptons tennis club. It speaks volumes about where Pete learned to be such a condescending dick, not to mention developed his vicious drive to succeed. (I say this lovingly; Pete quickly became one of my favorite characters.) Both of those aspects of his personality come to play in a tense conference stand-off with Don, after a steel client dismisses a proposed campaign. “I have good ideas,” Pete pushes back after Don tells him to leave the ideas to him. “In fact I used to carry around a notebook and a pen just to keep track! … And then I come to this place and you people tell me that I’m ‘good with people.’ Which is strange, because I’ve never heard that before.” Watching it again, I think that was the scene where I first began to love Pete; it takes balls to talk to Don Draper like that.
Another thing I love about Mad Men is its willingness to go there, and by "there" I mean "to dark and weirder places." That notion rears its head when Glen, Helen’s son (who will last until the end of Season 4, unlike Bobby Draper, who's been replaced twice), opens the bathroom door and creepily watches Betty on the toilet, refusing to shut the door after her repeated demands. Later, as she confronts him about it, he asks her for a piece of her hair—and Betty cuts one off and gives it to him. EEEEK. Yeah, we went in thinking Glen is the disturbed one, but this scene is one giant red flag regarding Betty’s sense of judgment, particularly where children are concerned.
Another amazing moment: Pete, ashen-faced, storming back to his office and kicking the guys out. What came moments before? Don telling him, “I need you to go get a cardboard box and put your things in it. K?” after the steel client chose Pete’s copy over Don’s. The firing is overruled later, by Bert, but Roger, genius that he is, spins it to Pete as if it were Don’s mercy that spared him. The episode ends with Pete staring out at the New York skyline from the window of his new home, as “I’ll Take Manhattan” plays us out. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and no one knows it better than Pete.
Our first glimpse of JFK comes in a campaign brochure handed to Betty by Helen, who is working on his campaign.
Pete’s mother’s name is Dorothy Dykeman.
Bert’s Japanese-themed office requires that all visitors remove their shoes.
Crackling good dialogue, and the Don vs. Pete rivalry plays out so smartly, so gradually.
Season 1, Episode 5: “5G”
Two feathers in the cap of Sterling Cooper execs drive the other men crazy with jealousy. One is Don, who wins an advertising award and gets his face in Advertising Age. The other is Ken, who gets his short story published in the Atlantic Monthly. It’s called “Tapping a Maple on a Cold Vermont Morning,” which is just about the most perfect East Coast magazine short story title imaginable. It sounds perfectly awful. Paul, who fancies himself the intellect of the office, is particularly miffed. That one plot development produces a lot of comic fodder, as Paul later relays a racist personal anecdote that would have made an excellent short story, and Pete writes his own, terrible short story—one that stars a talking bear that's so bad, not even Trudy can pretend to like it.
The show takes a huge dramatic turn in Episode 5, as Don’s past walks right up and slaps him in the face. And this time he can’t run, because his long-lost brother, Adam, has spotted him in the news and tracked him down at the Sterling Cooper office. They meet at a diner and the mystery of Don’s past begins to reveal itself. And yet I found myself dreading the encounter as it approached, mainly because the Dick Whitman storyline has always been my one obstacle to completely and utterly embracing my Mad Men love. It’s silly, because I do love the show unconditionally, but Don impersonating a dead man was always a leap I was reluctant to take, particularly where every other detail of this show was so grounded and polished and well-observed. How do you feel about it?
Just as the men grapple regularly with infidelity (and lose to it), so do the women, as we learn in the scene where Trudy is propositioned by Charlie Fiddich, her former fiance who works in publishing. Pete, meanwhile, pushes her to get his story published. Blindly ambitious Pete could care less what might come from their encounter. She declines Charlie’s advances, but wins Pete his dream of seeing his work published—except it’s In Boys Life magazine. Wanh-wah. After Pete throws a tantrum about how the story is New Yorker-worthy, Trudy asks: “Why would you do it? Why would you put me in that position?” Because Pete is a scoundrel, Trudy, and doesn’t love you. He makes Jeff Winger look like positively menschy by comparison.
Fidelity and secret-keeping tie directly into the boys’ ad campaign this week, in which they pitch Liberty Capitol Savings on “executive private accounts” for their gentlemen customers. Just the thing to wine and dine your mistresses in the city! And the theme continues into Joan’s shameless manipulation of Peggy, who doesn’t know what to do with her knowledge that Don is carrying on careless affairs during his lunch hour. In her constant needling of Peggy throughout the episode, Joan, brazen vixen that she is, has a line of dialogue about Don that I still find shockingly funny: “I’ve always wondered why he’s always ignored me. Probably because he’s so good looking he can go outside the office for whatever he wants. Most of the guys in here can’t.” Just how many mediocre-looking office drones has Joan satisfied in service of her higher calling? Terrifying.
The Kenneth/Paul and Joan/Peggy material is completely delightful, but some of Pete’s storyline feels a little forced upon subsequent viewing.
Season 1, Episode 6: “Babylon”
I hope you like flashbacks, because this is the episode in which Mad Men starts trading in them, after a tumble on the stairs sends us down a concussional rabbit hole into Don's—I mean Dick’s—bowl-headed past. But if that sounds disappointing, chin up: "Babylon" is also the episode in which Peggy first shows signs of the glass-ceiling-shattering creative powerhouse she's destined to become.
Knowing what’s coming, it’s nice to see moments of Don and Betty still enjoying each other’s company, and bodies. They are a gorgeous couple. There’s some clever writing as the two engage in verbal foreplay in bed; Don initiates sex by asking how her studies in “Advanced Reproduction” are coming along. “Completed,” she says. “I got an A.” Don replies, “I flunked the whole thing,” to which Betty replies, “That’s because you got caught cheating.” A moment of dead silence greets the joke, but Betty is blissfully unaware of what’s going through Don’s mind at the time. The lights go off, and Betty delivers a stellar monologue about how badly she craves Don’s return home every day. Watching the scenes again, I’m struck by the show’s use of music—so, so sparingly, but effectively when it does play under a scene. Then again, with dialogue and acting this good, I admire Matthew Weiner’s choice to let most scenes play out without a score at all. It’s a testament to just how fantastically effective the drama is.
This is also when we start dipping beneath the surface of one of the show’s most fascinating characters: Roger. A visit to the office from his wife and abrasive daughter is followed immediately by a scene in a hotel room with “Red,” his lover’s nickname for Joan, zipping herself up after an afternoon rendezvous. Roger tells Joan it’s been “the best year of my life. You have any idea how miserable I was before I met you? I was thinking about leaving my wife.” That paradoxical line encapsulates the genius of Roger Sterling. A gift of a caged finch later in the episode is supposed to keep her occupied, but it’s really just a bad metaphor for what he’d like to do with Red—keep her in a walk-up apartment for him to see on the side.
Season 1’s complicated relationship with The Jews continues as representatives of the Israeli Tourism Board come to Sterling Cooper for a new campaign. As they grapple with how to sell American travelers on a vacation in a new, war-torn state, it’s Sal who notices that the best selling point is that Israelis are gorgeous. “The Jews here don’t look like the Jews there,” Paul notes. That sparks a burning in Don’s loins for Rachel, the department store heiress with whom he never quite sealed the deal. He ruins it by pressing her for ideas on his Israel campaign, and she counters with a searing speech about engrained antisemitism. That she does it with his hand in hers makes it all the more disorienting. She leaves with a lesson on the etymology of “utopia,” i.e. the “place that cannot be.” Draper pisses her off.
One of my favorite Mad Men sequences ever happens in this episode. It’s the Belle Jolie lipstick test, where the ladies of the office are herded into an observation room and instructed by a smoking Joan to play with an array of lipsticks. As they apply the makeup in the mirror, the men tear them apart on the other side—particularly Sal, who is just the cattiest gay ever: “Has no taste... Ugly dress... Horrible wig.” This sequence also introduces us to Fred Rumsen, a copywriter who represents the advertising old-guard. A heavy drinker with no vision who never amounted to much, he’s a sad and vivid character study, and one I was always attuned to in future episodes. (Credit goes to Joel Murray, the gifted actor who plays him.) If the lipstick scene doesn’t make you uncomfortable, I’m a little worried about you. It’s so invasive and outrageously sexist, but also brilliant. It’s a scene that just keeps giving and giving, like when Joan bends over and the guys stand and salute. Of course, what it’s all leading to is the “basketful of kisses” observation made by “mouse ears,” or Peggy, which impresses Fred and sets her on career path. “It was like watching a dog play the piano,” he tells Don in describing her creative intuition.
Don and Midge join an unwelcome guest, Roy, for an evening at The Gaslight Cafe for performance art and poetry reading. The Gaslight is a real place, a coffee house and creative hotzone in the basement of a West Village building. Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan performed there.
“Last night I dreamed
of making love to Fidel Castro
In a king-sized bed
at the Waldorf Astoria.
Viva la revolucion! he roared
as he vanquished my dress.
Outside the window
Nikita Kruschev watched us
Plucking a chicken.”
For the lipstick sequence alone. This is probably one of the strongest episodes not just of Season 1, but of the entire series.
QUESTIONS FOR RE-WATCHERS:
– Fred Rumsen is a secondary character I happen to love. Which of the more minor Mad Men players appeal to you?
– Series creator Matthew Weiner has been criticized for distorting his portrayal of the gender politics of the era. Do you think the sexism in Mad Men is accurate, or exaggerated for shock value?
– Watching Don give his brother that stack of $5,000, and his brother’s devastation that followed it, really moved me. What scenes in these three episodes elicited particularly strong reactions from you and why?
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