Wednesday, April 01, 2015

MAD MEN Ep. 11: "Indian Summer"

(S           P           O           I           L           E           R           S)

In which it provides the pleasure of a man without the man.

Longtime reader Dennis Mobeley wrote into the home office this week with a pertinent question.  “Dear Joe” he says “where are the teaching stories?  Didn’t you promise that these essays would be part retrospective analysis, part chronicle of your teaching the show?  ‘Cause it sure seems like after you laid the smackdown on your critics in that Intermission essay, the pedagogical imperative has been greatly subjugated.”

Dennis makes a good point: the teaching stories have petered out a bit as we’ve drawn closer to the end of Season 1.  He’s also probably the first human being to use “smackdown” and “pedagogical imperative” in the same sentence, so all credit to him.  I’ll have to steal that for the title of my new reality show: Pedagogical Imperative Smackdown!  Coming this fall to the CW!

The big reason why the anecdotes from my days of teaching past have died down a bit?  Well, I’ve just about exhausted all the ones I can remember from this much-discussed winter trimester.  Sure, I have tons of stories to tell (humorous and otherwise) about my teaching life.  And maybe there’s an essay series out there that will harness those stories someday.  But at this point, I’ve run through most of the Gatsby/In the Lake of the Woods/Mad Men stories.  There are probably a few more things to say about Tim O’Brien’s book.  And maybe a few things to wrap up when we get to the season finale.  But unless my memory is failing me, the good stories have almost run out.  Sure, I could relate fun anecdotes like “And then half the students complained about how unfair and hard the essays were…again” or “At this point, the handful of students who had hardly turned in any work that trimester asked me if there was a massive extra credit assignment they could do to pass the trimester” or “With a week to go before the four page trimester assessment analytical essay was due, tension ran high.  The 90% of the class who hadn’t thought about it all trimester long panicked.  Yik Yak filled up with more death threats aimed at me.”  But I’m guessing that most of you would find those tales a bit…lacking.

But wait!  There is one amusing story I can tell you that ties in with “Indian Summer.”  And it kinda stretches back to the previously discussed Bell Jar unit that I taught every fall (some of you have just commenced banging your head on the table, moaning “No…….more….Bell….Jar….”).

I’m sure that some of you reading this series of essays (especially those of you who might not have seen the show before, or at all) have been worn down a bit by the last few entries, focused as they are on the incredible capacity for the male patriarchal machine to crush women.  Well, “Indian Summer” is the episode (and the essay) for you.  Because after ten episodes of rampant misogyny and pyrrhic feminist victories, the ladies finally lay claim to significant chunk of power in this episode.

And it all starts with The Relax-A-Cizor!  Aka The Electra-Cizor!  Aka The Rejuvenator!  In “Red in the Face”, Roger came on to Betty by purring “You can’t tell me that I’m not giving you hot pants.”  Well, in this episode, the hot pants are made manifest…but it’s not the guys doing the giving.  Which makes this one of the funnier, bawdier episodes of the first season.

But you know what I love about Mad Men?  “The license it gives you to both critique and worship the icy enigma that is Don Draper?” I hear one of you say.  (My friend, you’re clearly too intelligent to be reading such low grade buffoonery as makes up these essays.)  “The sadistic lack of payoffs?” another of you chimes in.  (Well….yeah…..but that’s not at the top of my list.)  “Jessica Pare?” one of you definitively tosses out.  (Sigh….uh…yeah….mmmm…but she doesn’t come into the picture for another three seasons.)

No, what I truly love about Mad Men is its deftness in mixing the sweet and the sour, the sacred and the profane.  And so it is that one of the funniest, bawdiest Season 1 episodes opens with one of the great tragedies of the show: the suicide of Adam Whitman.  The scene is brief, and it’s a masterstroke on Matt Weiner’s part.  No matter how much zany humor is contained in this episode and the next, we always know in the back of our heads that a truly horrible thing has happened.  And the dramatic irony it sets in motion, slowly ratcheting up the tension for the viewer of when Don will find out, is compelling.

But this episode’s focus is on female empowerment.  Or self-empowerment for that matter.  Once Peggy learns that the Relax-A-Cizor is a de facto giant external vibrator, we’re suddenly thrust into a world where this sexual alternative is somewhat of a revelation.  The interaction between Peggy and Don, when she attempts to tell him about the unintended benefits of the device is awkwardly funny.  But it’s also a reminder that, not too long ago in our history, these things weren’t addressed in public.  Or at all.

Here’s where The Bell Jar comes in.  Those of you who read the book will remember that one of Esther’s great moments of victory occurs when she loses her virginity to geeky Harvard math professor Irwin, a victory made manifest by her complete control of the situation.  When we discussed this section in class, I had to explain the significance of such an act in the late ‘50s.  This discussion was then repeated when we hashed out “Indian Summer”.  Especially in relation to Peggy and the Relax-A-Cizor.  And Betty and the washing machine.

Imagine, if you will, me, decidedly not a health teacher, trying to discuss masturbation in a way that won’t completely disgust the students, but which also won’t condescend to them.  I always prided myself on the fact that I created a classroom environment in which students could discuss topics that might make them uncomfortable when addressed with other teachers.  I figured that if my default setting involved trying to treat teenagers like the adult half of “young adult”, they might rise to the challenge and take things more seriously.  That….sometimes worked.  Although I like to think that my success rate with this method was pretty good.

In any case, here I am, trying to help a group of people raised in the post-post-feminist movement society, one which has normalized so much discussion of sexuality, understand how masturbation was once thought of as a harbinger of insanity.  And how feminine sexual pleasure (and especially self-pleasure) was once a taboo subject on all levels.  That in 1960, society still preached the gospel of procreation first when it came to women’s sexuality, that they were supposed to be happy with whatever their husbands or boyfriends gave them.  That women of the time taking control of their own sexual fulfillment was not something discussed…or, often, even considered.

In my more optimistic moments, I like to think that my stab at gender studies was a fair success.  In my more pessimistic moments, I like to think that said stab boiled down to me saying “Now, ya see, Tab A is inserted into Slot B.”  The reality?  Eh, who knows.

Nonetheless, the complexity of self-pleasuring is the major thread that runs through “Indian Summer.”  Peggy continues to make great hay out of subverting the dominant male stereotypes, as she follows her breakout success with the Belle Jolie campaign by acing the Relax-A-Cizor pitch.  The befuddled male creative team gives her the assignment because she’s a woman, but there’s a strong implication that they also want a laugh at the ever-balooning Peggy’s expense.  (By this episode, the fat padding on Elisabeth Moss is at its most obvious.  When I first watched the show, I thought she might just be slightly heavier up to this point.  In class, the female students caught onto her weight gain in, what, Episode 3?)  But the whole thing ends up being another step in the path toward career success for her. 

The machine-related bits get the majority of the attention here, but the most instructive scene for Peggy is her date with Carl, near episode’s end.  Her phone conversation with her mother at the beginning of the episode sets up her clear reluctance to go out with him, but when she’s at the restaurant, the transformation that’s been brewing in Peggy since she first set foot in the Sterling Cooper office finally comes to fruition.  Both she and Carl subtly condescend to each other about their jobs, until Peggy finally retorts “Those people in Manhattan?  They are better than us, because they want things they haven’t seen.”  Contrast this with the timid girl who barely made it through her first day, and you see a profound change.  It would be easy to say that you can almost see Don as the ventriloquist right behind Peggy, so redolent are her words of his cool philosophy.  But as future seasons will prove, Don might be the mentor, but Peggy is more than just a dilettante.  Once her confidence is unleashed, there’s no turning back, for better and for worse.  Although in the moment, she nails her pitch the next day, gets a raise, and scores her own desk.  And gets to go home at night to the Relax-A-Cizor, which gives her the pleasure that Carl couldn’t muster….or earn…or… get the point.

And speaking of self-pleasuring machines, there’s Betty and the washing machine.  She’s clearly in a bad way by this point of the season, as Don is enmeshed in his affair with Rachel (who gains her own brand of self-pleasure/self-empowerment by sleeping with the clearly smitten, and hence submissive, Mr. Draper) and has little time or energy for her.  When she’s visited by the air conditioning salesman one day (“Would you like to live in frozen comfort?” he asks, which is a great metaphorical summary of Betty’s life in Ossining), it’s like something out of a stock porno script.  But it’s also a serious moment for Betty, the first time that we’ve seen her genuinely tempted to cheat on Don (even though the salesman doesn’t appear to be putting the moves on her) and one which fills her with guilt.  But as we’ve recently seen, she’s no longer content to be the doormat.  Just as Peggy continues to assert a growing sense of confidence and power (while also growing somewhat colder in order to survive), so too does Betty continue to take command, subtly goading a fatigued Don with the salesman story in bed that night.  Her use of sex as a weapon is bold, but like Peggy, it also reveals the growing (or, considering what we know about the Hofstadts, returning) iciness that will seep even more into her character as time goes on.

And when she accidentally finds pleasure in the vibration of the washing machine, it’s a revelatory moment.  She’s able to indulge her fantasies of getting it on with the A/C salesman completely on her own terms, safe in the confines of her mind.  And she gets to take control of the sexual satisfaction she so desires, the gratification that Don can’t make the time to give her.  And in this world, telling Don Draper that he’s just not cutting the cheese sexually (even if he doesn’t know it yet) is a big fucking deal.

Some stray bits to close:

*The plot mechanics that result from Don being promoted to partner are almost Greek in their fate-governed resonance.  Don’s victory dance/head game playing with Pete leads our weaselly boy to lounge around in Don’s office after he’s left, which results in him pilfering the box of Dick Whitman memorabilia that Adam sends out before his suicide.  That knowledge will tie Pete and Don together in a fairly deep way for the rest of the show’s run.  The promotion also creates the need to hire a new Head of Account Services, and reinforces Don’s desire to work without a contract.  This brief exchange with Bert Cooper literally sets up the genesis and resolution of Season 2, as the unctuous Duck Phillips will be hired to run accounts, and Don will foil his late season power play (and push him into self-destruction) by invoking his lack of a contract.

*And speaking of setting up future plot points, on her date with Carl, Peggy mentions how Sterling Cooper retains Utz Potato Chips as a client.  This would prove to be Chekhov’s potato chip bag, as Jimmie and Bobbie Barrett would lay waiting in Season 2 to pay off the tease in a most explosive manner.

*During the Lucky Strike meeting, Lee Garner brings up the recent lawsuit against the tobacco industry and its impact.  In August of 1960, Larry Hastings became the first person to win a lawsuit against big tobacco for causing death.  No money was awarded, but the victory opened the door for the steady escalation of tobacco lawsuits to come over the next few decades.

*It’s goodbye for now to John Slattery, as Roger’s second heart attack sends his character away for the rest of this season.  But fear not, first time viewers: Roger Sterling will return in Season 2.  And thank God for that.       


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