Wednesday, March 25, 2015

MAD MEN Ep. 7: "Red in the Face"

(S           P           O           I           L           E           R           S)

In which…what, you want to bounce me off the walls?  Would that make you feel better?

In her acclaimed treatise Boys Will Be Boys: Psychotextual Crystallization and Heteronormative Metamemory in the Post-Industrial, Post-Colonial, Post-Chase and Simon, American Dreamscape, noted gender studies scholar (and past winner of the Adrian Veidt Fellowship) Lillian Tyack sagely noted that “There is nothing in the American experience quite like watching males compete for dominance.”  She probably greatly enjoyed “Red in the Face”, which might be both one of the most instructive and most hilarious episodes of Mad Men’s first season.

Over the years, some authors have observed that one of the ways in which Mad Men subverts the rules of the modern long form drama is by assembling each season as a loose collection of short stories, microcosmic snapshots of the characters’ lives that together form the main narrative thrust.  For the most part, each season has covered one calendar year, so each episode usually jumps ahead of the last by one month, making this format somewhat necessary.  There have been times when this format has caused frustrations; episodes with huge moments of revelation are followed by ones in which the relevant character hardly appears (like when Pete disappears for chunks of the first half of Season 2.)  But using this literary construct also allows for chapters of the Mad Men story that serves as satisfying standalone chamber plays.

“Red in the Face” is one of the best of these more intimate episodes.  And besides the simple pleasures of watching some of the lead actors get to stretch out, we also get to witness a witty, incisive exploration of one of the underlying themes that drives the show’s narrative: emasculation and its myriad consequences. 

The story arc that kicks of the episode (and the chain reaction of emasculation) features Roger and Don and an ill-fated impromptu dinner date.  Mad Men is a show about the literal passing of time, but it’s also concerned with the relationships between different generations (and all the posturing that can occur therein.)  In the show’s early seasons (but especially in this first run), Roger and Don are portrayed as two of the closer people at the office, at least in a brotherly sort of way.  Roger feels fairly disconnected from the younger employees at Sterling Cooper (strike that: the younger male employees), and even though Don is only several years younger than them, he’s enough of a traditionalist to feel a much stronger kinship with Roger, and to serve as the bridge across the generational divide. 

But their scenes together are also charged with residual tension.  Like generations of men worldwide, these two love to engage in graduate level bouts of ball-busting.  As I noted in the “New Amsterdam” essay, their climactic after hours confab in that episode features a slightly deflated Roger sardonically jabbing at Don about his generation’s lack of a proper drinking philosophy (and for basically being a bunch of self-obsessed, navel-gazing wimps.)  Don wins the round by dryly quipping “Maybe I’m not as comfortable being powerless as you are.”  And in “Red in the Face”, this gentle battle of egos takes on some collateral damage.

A note about the awesome chemistry between John Slattery and Jon Hamm: it’s one of the great pleasures of the show.  And this episode allows them to indulge it to great effect.  Watching two actors who clearly enjoy each other’s company get to shoot the breeze about work, women, and the like is tremendous fun.  Roger is supposed to be almost 20 years older than Don (in real life, Slattery is nine years older than Hamm), but these two lotharios have enough in common that the foundation of their friendship will always have some stability.  After all, they’re really the only two true ladies’ men in the office, so they have to stick together for that reason alone.  In subsequent seasons, the time that Roger and Don spend together would fluctuate.  But when they’re given the chance, Slattery and Hamm still bring the goods.

But anyway, back to the main theme of this episode.  The emasculation fest all starts off when Roger discovers that Joan is headed off for some after work escapades with her roommate Carol…presumable with other men.  He tries to play it cool, but as we saw at the end of “Bablyon”, Roger has deep feelings for Joan that she’s not entirely willing to accommodate.  When she rebuffs his advances by asserting her need for advance notice, he makes a beeline to Don’s office, hot on the trail of redemption for his bruised ego.  He makes sure to mildy put down a clueless Peggy while they talk, and in one of the funniest lines of the episode, dismisses Pete as he and Don walk off by quipping “Good night Paul.”

While at the bar, Roger reverts back to his old patter with Don about their tomcatting ways, but he’s emasculated again when the attractive younger girls he thinks are flirting with both of them turn out to only have eyes for Don.  Roger may still have some sway with women, but he’s also an aging lothario.  His reaction to these twin setbacks takes full form at dinner with Don and Betty, as he rolls out his old war stories to impress/subtly belittle him and shamelessly flirts with her. 

War, in particular, was still a significant claim to masculinity in 1960, and it’s in the beautifully constructed writing for this scene that a major cultural signifier becomes a metaphor for the assertion of male power.  Roger pokes at Don’s Korean War experience as not being as great as his World War II service (indeed, the Greatest Generation rhetoric is still dominant in our modern conversation), but he also feels inferior to his father’s World War I tenure, which involved using a bayonet to stab men repeatedly to death.  After all, in the hierarchy of male bravado, hand to hand combat is still the supposedly surest proof of manliness.  But Roger is still able to bask in the glory of his war stories, especially to a polite and eager audience like Betty, who he makes a brazen pass at in the kitchen while Don is foraging for more vodka.

In the aftermath of their dinner, emasculated Don unleashes his wrath on Betty.  After his constant prodding by Roger (who also subtly pokes at Don’s upbringing and copywriting acumen), she’s the only convenient outlet for the rage of his tarnished ego.  It’s a great summary of Don’s warped psychology: despite Betty’s protests, he invites Roger home, expects her to be the good housewife and host, knows that Sterling will try to nail anything that moves, and is then morally offended when she does what he asks and still avoids Roger’s advances.  His lowest blow comes when he tells her that living with her is like living with a little girl, a callback to what Dr. Wayne tells him about Betty’s psyche in the episode’s opening scene.  The moment is harrowing, but the payoff to Don’s feelings of emasculation is the humorous capstone of the episode, as he bribes the elevator operator to shut down the service so that he can force an ulcer-ridden Roger (returning from a long, drunken lunch with Don) to climb the 23 flights of stairs to the office, resulting in Sterling projectile vomiting in front of the Nixon campaign representatives.

(Note, too, how in the twin images above, the blocking for the Roger/Betty and Don/Betty kitchen confrontations are mirror images of each other.  No matter what, Betty ends up battered around from both directions.)  

But hey, could we really discuss an episode about emasculation without the presence of Pete?  As I’ve noted before, Vincent Kartheiser is so good at playing the callow Mr. Campbell because he’s willing to fully embrace the slimier aspects of the character.  Especially when it leads to embarrassment.  Pete’s first appearance in “Red in the Face” features his aforementioned dismissal by Roger and Don, and it only goes downhill from there.  When he tries to return the garish chip and dip that was a duplicate wedding present, his attempts at charm are roundly rejected by the counter girl, who, in a great bit, shamelessly flirts with Pete’s college buddy Matherton at the same time.  Teddy Sears, who plays Matherton, is a good four to five inches taller than Kartheiser, and much more traditionally handsome in the classic square-jawed style.  It’s another callback to the physical difference between Pete and Don.

So how does Pete respond to this constant belittling of his masculinity?  By purchasing a hunting rifle, that ultimate phallic symbol of male pseudo-power!  It should be noted that when I taught this episode, most of the student took my lessons about Chekhov’s gun to heart.  They were convinced that Pete was going to shoot someone in this episode.  For the remainder of Season 1, they were convinced that Pete was going to go on a murder spree with the rifle.  Or kill himself.  The whole thing ends up being a cheeky joke, as to this day the rifle still hasn’t gone off (although, in a funny callback, it pops up again in a cardboard box when Pete is moving his office in Season 6.  Does that count as the Chekhovian payoff?)  For the moment, he has his easy glory.  But even that is fleeting as, in one of the funniest moments of the episode, his faux targeting of the office is interrupted by his secretary Hildy pushing the rifle down.  Cue double entendre-laden slide whistle.

Poor Pete can’t buy a break; during the strategy meeting for the Nixon campaign, he correctly notes that Jack Kennedy and Elvis have the same appeal, but  Don, Roger and company dismiss this prescient bit of insight, Sterling noting that “America does not want some greasy kid with his finger on the button”, Bert Cooper joking that they should “remind me to stop hiring young people.”  And when Pete returns home, Trudy excoriates him for exchanging the chip dip in the first place.

And then, in what is undoubtedly the episode’s comedic highlight (it always garnered the biggest laughs when we watched it in class), Pete invites Peggy into his office, and launches into a prolonged fantasy scenario involving him hunting big game with his knife, slaughtering it, and then having a busty woman in his cabin serve it up to him, looking on as he devours his prize.  Elisabeth Moss’s perfect comic timing makes the scene, as she waits a half beat in rapt attention before saying “That would be wonderful.”  It’s notable that Pete uses the blade-aided, hand held combat scenario; it’s a callback to Roger’s regaling of his father’s bayonet exploits in WWI.  Geez, how many phallic substitutes can they fit into this episode?

(There’s also a great bit of faking out in this scene.  Peggy wanders out of Pete’s office, apparently in a lusty haze.  When she makes a beeline for the catering cart to buy a ham sandwich and a cherry danish, it seems like a psychological substitute for her inflamed sex drive.  And that’s probably partly true.  But eagle eyed viewers will also notice that Peggy is somewhat bustier in this episode than in the beginning of the season, as Moss was slowly having padding added to her wardrobe.  Looking back now, and knowing that Peggy is pregnant with Pete’s child from their Episode 1 romantic rendezvous, it’s apparent that her ravenous hunger is as much tied to the baby as it is to Pete turning her on.   And yes, I know that last part probably just made some of you feel ill.)

All of the inspired goofiness aside, “Red in the Face” also sandwiches in some deeper exploration of Betty’s plight.  When Helen Bishop confronts her in the supermarket over giving Glen a lock of her hair, Betty is so embarrassed (in part due to Don’s cruel rejection of her from the night before) that she slaps her.  In a subsequent dining room conversation with Francine, she really rejoins the shark tank of the neighborhood housewives, embracing their previously rejected hatred of Helen’s otherness.  The irony of Don calling Betty a child is that Dr. Wayne’s assessment is true (this will be addressed more in later episodes.)  But even as she strikes back at Helen and everything she represents in a fit of middle school pique, she also shows a complexity that most of her fellow housewives lack.  She mirrors Don’s sense of compartmentalization by recalling how she put the slap out of her mind, not wanting to admit that it happened.  And as she notes to Francine when recounting how Dr. Wayne looks down her neckline:

“And as far as I’m concerned, as long as men look at me that way I’m earning my keep.  Then every once in a while, I think…no.  This is something else.  I don’t want my husband to see this.”

It’s a multi-layered statement, both flirting with feminism and a return to a traditionally subservient role.  Even though Betty has been kept largely separate from the rest of the characters, and even though she’s been portrayed as the victim of Don’s chauvinism, “Red in the Face” is one of the first signs of the deeper levels of her psyche.  It’s the development of those levels that will lend the Draper marriage such a depth and resonance, especially when their seismic split finally occurs.

And to wrap things up, a few odds and ends:

*”Sterling: All I can get from this story is that Hitler didn’t smoke.
  Cooper: Good night peanut.”

*”By the way, Matherton—he has the clap” (Pete)

*”Don: Bet they gave you a medal for that.
  Sterling: They did.  But not for that.  It was for drinking.”

* "Drinking milk...I never liked it.  I hate cows" (Don)

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