Friday, March 20, 2015

MAD MEN Ep. 5: "5G"

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In which I’m sorry your life is in a million pieces.

“Midge: I like that you come in here, acting like somebody else.  It must be so intense above 14th street, then you shoot down on the train.  That look when I open that door.  Sometimes you’re preoccupied, but then you always…well, you always…change gears.

Don: I don’t even think about it.

Midge: I know.  I like being your medicine.”

And now we come to the time when things get dark.  Really dark.  Painfully dark.

In six and a half seasons of Mad Men, Don Draper has done some reprehensible things.  Some of those come with the territory, the narcissistic, hedonistic behavior common to the jet set ‘60s ad world.  But some of them go much further.

In those six and a half seasons of bad behavior, there have only been a few instances that have caused me true pain and discomfort.  Like a knife in the gut.  One of them takes place midway through the Dante-inspired Season 6, in an episode that, if it’s not the ninth circle of Hell for Don, surely must be close to it.  What he does in this episode is so morally and ethically repugnant, it almost marked a point of no return for me.  (I know that I spoiler tag these posts, but I don’t want to reveal anything more about the episode to which I’m referring.  If you haven’t made it to Season 6, do so.  If you have watched it, you might know what I’m talking about.)

But the other truly painful instance comes in “5G.”  And it’s probably as close to a moment of original sin as Mad Men gets.  Because it’s in this episode that Dick Whitman, dressed in his very well-tailored Don Draper suit (apologies to Hannibal), gives his long lost brother Adam $5,000 to leave his life for good. 

$5,000.  Nearly $40,000 in 2015 funds.  Enough, as Don tells Adam, to start an entirely new life.  Enough, as it turns out, to destroy one life for good.

Much of the Don/Adam action takes place in a temporal haze.  The only other character to interact with Adam is Peggy (and maybe Allison the receptionist.)  When Don returns from meeting Adam in the lobby, the sound drops out of his perception of the staff meeting, his cigarette striking his lighter the only ghostly echo.  The climactic moments of the episode, in which Don visits Adam’s apartment to deliver the money, seem like a late night fever dream, the kind of voyage into the dark night of the soul whose reality you long to deny.

Even the masterful construction of these climactic moments is meant to confuse the audience.  After burning the old photo that Adam sends him, Don’s call to the hotel is vague.  As he hoists his satchel onto his desk, the camera cuts to a low angle of him pulling something from his desk drawer.  A slight click is heard.  The camera cuts to a low angle shot of Don carrying the satchel in the hotel.  His conversation with Adam is laced with innuendo.  When Adam tries to pay him a compliment (“Of course Uncle Mack thought you were soft.  But you’re not, are ya?”) Don’s reply of “No I’m not”, coupled with his icy death stare, seems like the precursor for him pulling a gun out of the bag.

Of course, it’s not a gun that’s in the bag.  But a gun might’ve been a better fate for Adam.  At least his death would’ve been instant.  Don’s attempt to pay off his only living relative is a far worse fate than a bullet.

Give all the credit in the world to Jay Paulson, whose deeply sympathetic, heartbreaking portrayal of overgrown manchild Adam paves the way for the emotional devastation of that climactic hotel scene.  At first brush, Adam can seem almost autistic in how guileless and open-eyed he acts.  But his demeanor stands in stark contrast to the hardened cool of Don; this kid from the Midwest, relocated to New York to try to find his way…he’s the normal one.  Don Draper: Master of the Universe is the warped individual in this scenario.

It can be easy in all of this to forget about Don’s pained perspective.  He’s the hatchet man in this episode, but he’s also driven by those Fitzgeraldian hot whips of panic.  During his lunch with Adam, his cold dismissal of their mother’s death from stomach cancer (“Good”) is tempered by the pain he alludes to when he reveals to the audience that she wasn’t his mother.  And when Adam asks if he missed him, Don’s choked response proves that none of what he is about to do ranks as pure formality.  His attempt to make Adam disappear is meant to protect his new life (the foundations of which, we see, are already starting to crack), but it’s also driven by one unescapable fact: Adam’s genteel nature is almost a mirror reflection of what Dick Whitman must have been like.  Future episodes (and seasons) will show just how insecure and frightened a human being Dick Whitman was, and how his one in a million chance to literally become someone else led him to flee to the opposite end of the spectrum.  To the sleek, cold, powerful, comforting confines of Don Draper.

Through six and a half seasons, the adult Adam Whitman has only appeared three times.  One of those appearances is his suicide, which serves as the brief intro to Episode 11: “Indian Summer.”  But his shadow looms large over Don for the rest of the show’s run.  His third appearance, as a vision in the final episode of Season 5, also helps pave the way for another emotionally devastating final scene.  But that’s another episode for another day.

The return of Adam is the main arc of “5G”, but it also sets the thematic tone for the rest of the episode, in which compartmentalization runs rampant through the characters’ lives.  As with many Mad Men episodes the featured Sterling Cooper client (in this case, Liberty Capital and their prospective private…I mean executive…I mean private executive bank accounts) also reflects the main theme.  In one of his more repellent acts, Pete, fuelled by jealousy over Ken’s Atlantic short story, tries to pimp out Trudy to her old boyfriend Charlie, all so that he can get his own story published.  His complete rationalization of it is still slightly stunning (see Pete haters, I’m not that much of an apologist.)  Charlie also tries to compartmentalize the affair he pitches to Trudy, reassuring her that it would only involve sex and nothing further.  Francine and Betty put on a master’s class in denying the extracurricular activities of their respective husbands, while Peggy begins to really understand how much compartmentalization (of Don’s relationships, of her morals) will be required of her if she’s to stay employed.

But, of course, it’s Don’s attempt to keep all of the conflicting facets of his life separate, the epic juggling act of a man bound to eventually drop everything, that is the backbone of this theme.  For the first time, the audience has confirmation that their antihero is literally not who he seems.  And it’s apparently the first time in a long while (outside of the opening scene of “Marriage of Figaro”) that he’s had to face his actual past.  As he shifts from celebrating his award with Betty, to sleeping with Midge (who, when she calls him at the office, offers the first breach of Don’s sacred barriers in this episode), to reuniting with Adam, to getting the family photo with Betty and the kids, his demeanor becomes more and more frazzled.  As evidence by his conversation with Midge (highlighted at the beginning of this essay), he’s long been the master at switching between these disparate worlds.  But even a master can only stay that way for so long.

Once again, we close with a few stray threads:

*During kitchen conversation with Francine, Betty complains about her visit to Sterling Cooper by saying “When I go to his office, I expect the royal treatment.”  It’s the first indication, albeit a subtle one, the series gives us that she’s not entirely a babe in the woods. 

*When Don tells Adam “I’m not buying your lunch, because this never happened,” it echoes Peggy’s declaration to Pete after he returns from his honeymoon.  Of course, Don will repeat this advice to Peggy in Season 2, Episode 5’s flashback to her time in the maternity ward.

*For an episode that’s so dark, the opening sequence of Don and Betty returning home from the awards banquet is a nice glimpse into the genuine affection they have for each other.  Of course, they also wake up with hangovers (and to the echo of Don’s veteran smoker’s cough.)

*”He came back all greasy and calm” (Peggy)

*”I just think it’s odd that the bear is talking” (Trudy)

*Requisite teaching anecdote: the tension in the room when the students thought that Don was bringing a gun to the hotel was electric.  And yes, most of them loved poor Adam.

And in one final note, “5G”  has one of my favorite edits of Season 1, as we cut from hubba hubba Don perched over Midge in bed to Pete and Trudy in bed.  As you can see from these stills, the comedy is self-evident:

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

MAD MEN Ep. 4: "New Amsterdam"

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In which kids!  I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today!

I freely admit it: when I first watched Season 1 of Mad Men, I hated Pete Campbell.  Sure, I had been trained by seven seasons of The Sopranos that even the most vile characters can have redeemable qualities (see the genius turnaround of Ralph Cifaretto in Season 4’s “Whoever Did This”) and vice versa.  Through five brilliant seasons of The Wire (yeah, Season 5 haters, I said it), David Simon schooled me in matters of moral and ethical relativism (and magical alcoholism.  Ladies in the audience, if you ever plunge through The Wire, please note that there’s no way in hell that a master’s level drunk like Jimmy McNulty can still look that attractive.)  Fer cryin’ out loud, I have an English Lit. BA from THE Ohio State University.  I’ve spent most of my adult life working in shades of grey (wait….that didn’t come out right….) 

But even with all of that background, I still despised weaselly Pete throughout the first 13 episodes.  Looking back, a lot of my hatred might have stemmed from artificially lowered expectations.  As I mentioned in my intro essay to this series, I started watching Mad Men on DVD several month before Season 4’s debut.  So conditioned was I to pledge allegiance to HBO’s superiority in all things television, that I had successfully resisted the notion that AMC could possibly create anything better than a standard crappy network show (bonus point to those of you who can spot all the flaws in this logic that are now readily apparent.)  After all, they had commercials!  HBO (and, to a lesser extent, Showtime) has masterfully manipulated the lack of commercials interrupting the flow of their shows’ episodes to create meandering shaggy dog narratives, establish plot points that never pay off (the Sopranos Russian!), and throw in slow burn episodes whose tension would be torched by ads every ten minutes.  (To be fair, Matt Weiner’s agents also thought that AMC was a terrible option for the show.  But history has a funny way of changing like that.)

It took me teaching Mad Men for the first time to finally be slapped upside the head by the complex aesthetics that lay beneath the show’s slick exterior.  And this is why “New Amsterdam” is now one of my favorite episodes of Season 1.  Because it’s here that Weiner gives Pete Campbell his first extended chance to be a flawed, sympathetic human being.

(During my days of teaching the show, I would go to great lengths to defend Pete.  Trying to encourage students to find his soul, while also remembering that studly Don was sometimes no less a weasel, was a great pedagogical object lesson.  I still admire Vincent Kartheiser’s total commitment to the role.  Most of his previous career had consisted of sly, sexy drifters and hustlers.  And Angel’s son.  In real life, he’s a good looking guy, and his bohemian leanings are the complete opposite of his Mad Men character.  But he’s never shied away from hammering home Pete’s slimier aspects, while still lending a depth and gravitas to him that really starts paying off in later seasons.  And not only has he gained weight to play older Pete, but he’s also shaved his hairline back for months on end to accentuate his decline in virility.  ‘Cause, you know, not all of us can be Jon Hamm.)

The title of the episode is the first indication that we’re going to be swimming through the great lagoon of the past, specifically the paternalistic legacies that threaten to engulf most of the main characters.  For the first time, we’re introduced to Pete’s parents, and it’s here that we finally get a glimpse of the genesis of his smarmy demeanor.  Dorothy Campbell is a doting and slightly oblivious scion of privilege, while her husband Andrew can only view Pete as a disappointment, his advertising career “no job for a white man.” (Incidentally, Andrew’s yellow sports coat/shorts/boat shoes with no socks ensemble in this scene is one of favorites of this season, another example of how costume designer Janie Bryant is one of the unsung stars of the show.)  Note in the image above how Pete is positioned in a completely subservient manner in the frame; there are many instances in this episode in which characters are framed as either surrounded by empty space or in clear deference to a more powerful figure.

To a modern audience, living in an era in which the advertising industry’s philosophy has colonized most of our psyches, this condescending view of the profession can seem like a shock.  But it also reinforces something about Pete that can be easy to forget: the crushing burden of expectations that comes with a well-moneyed East Coast, Ivy League, prep school background.  Watching the show today, or even when in debuted in 2007, we can sometimes forget how codified and prevalent this mentality once was, the power it held over generations of American aristocrats.  But even now, it still exists; just hang out at Harvard or Yale sometime (or better yet, read this New York Times article from last fall, a damning indictment of the rampant class and gender inequity at Harvard’s Business School.) 

And Pete is a product of this environment, a young man trying to make his own mark in the world, simultaneously trying to flee from and live up to his parents’ legacies.  It’s the core of his character, and it dilutes some of the nastiness he often displays to his co-workers and friends (especially in this episode, where Don is constantly needling him in front of others.)  His winning Bethlehem Steel pitch is, indeed, a good angle to satisfy the unconvinced Walter Veith (even though we can tell that Sal’s striking concept art would be a knockout), but all Don (and later, Roger) can see is a broadside to his fragile ego.  The good of the company must still ultimately be channeled through Don’s glory. 

When Don retaliates by telling Pete to clean out his desk, we get one of the most striking images of the series: Pete Campbell sitting on his office couch, in tears, crushed.  As long as you’re willing to extend some minor bit of empathy to him, it’s a truly sad moment, Pete as nothing more than the little boy, dressed up in a suit, desperate to impress his dad.  As we’ll see throughout the season, Pete hides a deep need to gain the favor of men who hold patriarchal positions in his life; in this episode alone, he seeks validation (even in a backhanded way), from his wife Trudy’s father, Don, and Roger.  And for a show as precise with its editing and camerawork as Mad Men is, it can certainly be no mistake when the taxi-bound scene that follows Pete and Trudy’s dinner with her parents (in which a petulant Pete whines about Trudy always getting what she wants) cuts directly to Betty on the couch with Glen Bishop, their blocking in the same positions as that of the Campbells.

(This was also, of course, the debut of Matt Weiner’s son Marten as the laconic, preternaturally mature Glen.  His request for a lock of Betty’s hair always got a huge laugh from the students in my class.  They couldn’t quite get over Glen’s creepiness.  Weiner actually based the scene on a childhood crush he had on a much older babysitter.  When you look at it from that perspective, it’s a nice, albeit painful, reminder of how awkward childhood crushes can be.  My attempts to elaborate on this usually fell on deaf ears.  To many of the teens, Glen was just a mildly psychopathic and pervy child.  But he would gain the room to develop as the show progressed.)

The final scene of “New Amsterdam” is a stark reminder that even though there’s genuine talent and drive inside Pete, his family name will continue to haunt him and control his fortunes.  Unbeknownst to him, Bert Cooper saves his job because axing Pete would alienate all of the upper class connections that his mother’s maiden name (Dyckman, a play on a real life New York legacy clan) brings with it.  When Pete and Trudy finally get to show off their new Park Ave. apartment (financed by her father, after Andrew Campbell gruffly dismisses the idea of financing his ad man son’s first home), the neighbors only want to hear fantastical stories about the Dyckman heritage.  Pete defers to Trudy, and as he watches her tell the stories from afar, and then turns to face the Manhattan skyline, we understand the inner turmoil that defines him.  Once again, he’s Don’s mirror image: a guy who seemingly has it all, but can’t have the spiritual fulfillment he so craves.

And Pete isn’t the only character in this episode who’s deflated by paternalistic figures.  In a great, multi-layered sequence, Don and Roger meet with Bert to confirm Pete’s firing.  When they enter his office, the camera cuts to a close-up of an old picture that’s revealed to be a much younger Bert with a pre-teen Roger perched on his knee.  “You were cute back then” jokes Bert, who then undercuts Roger by saving Pete’s job.  It’s made clear in future episodes that Roger’s father started Sterling Cooper with Bert, and that generational tension always slightly informs the Bert/Roger dynamic.  Roger (who in many ways is still a child himself…as Lane Pryce will memorably affirm several seasons from now) then quickly deflects Bert’s paternalism by condescending to Don (“Don’s a big boy.  Aren’t you Don?”)  When Roger tells Pete lies to Pete by telling him that Don pushed to save his employment, it’s both canny move designed to build loyalty and reenactment of two parents playing good cop/bad cop.

But the chain of paternalism doesn’t stop there.  As Don and Roger enjoy a post-work drink in Don’s office, each tries to reassert his primacy.  Roger rails against Don’s generation, how they don’t know how to drink, how they’re too self-obsessed (as pictured here, the scene opens with a rear shot of Roger in a reverse negative of Don’s famous pose from the show’s logo.)  Don shoots back with “Maybe I’m not as comfortable being powerless as you are”, which clearly sets Roger back.  This scene defines much of the Don/Roger dynamic, two alpha males who are always engaged in a mildly covert war of wills.  The extended silences between them in this scene tell more than the dialogue itself.  Their one-upsmanship will come to the forefront again when we get to Episode 7: “Red in the Face.”  But that’s an emasculation fest for another day.

In the end, both men agree that “maybe every generation thinks the next one is the end of it all.”  It’s a line that serves as the long coming payoff to one from the first Bethlehem Steel meeting, in which Pete offers Walter Veith tickets to Bye Bye Birdie, the then-new musical that prominently features a song which opines “Kids!  I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today!”  Don acidly repackages this line by saying “Kids today, they have no one to look up to…’cause they’re looking up to us.”  The sins of the father, indeed.

We close, once again, with some odds and ends:

*Somehow, it took me a long time to realize that the first three books I taught in my Sophomore curriculum (Catcher in the Rye, Bell Jar, Great Gatsby) all featured central characters who either lived in or spent substantial time in New York City, and who were in the midst of becoming disillusioned with their privileged background.  And with the state of privilege as a whole.  Add in Mad Men’s deconstruction of the idealized high class New York life and you get what was (honestly) an unconscious broader narrative amongst the first few months of class.  It only hit me later that at some subconscious level, a good deal of the students I taught who came from privilege might have failed to connect with some of these works because of their inherent critiques of the moneyed lifestyle.  My conscious hope was that the Sophomores would be forced to empathize with characters who might not share their backgrounds, problems, etc. but looking back I can see that some of those students couldn’t understand how anyone with that much affluence could think that it was a bad thing.

*This episode also marks the series debut of the great Alison Brie as Trudy Campbell (and yes, the picture of Trudy in the pilot is of a completely different woman.)  She’s never been a regular player on the show, although there are stretches where she appears more often.  But she’s very good at playing Pete’s long suffering better half.  And very funny.  And I sorta have a thing for her, so I couldn’t not mention her before we wrap up here.

*For those of you keeping score at home, I assigned F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic short story “Babylon Revisited” to supplement this episode and the weekly Gatsby reading.  Pete shares many of the same existential conflicts with “Babylon”’s Charlie (a thinly veiled version of the post-crash, deeply alcoholic Fitzgerald, a man desperate to regain his daughter, but who’s haunted by his own personal legacy.)

*”New Amsterdam” is also a really funny entry in the series.  Don’s dry putdowns of Pete when he meets Trudy for the first time are right out of a Preston Sturges comedy.  Pete’s defense of his advertising acumen (“I have good ideas!  In fact, I used to carry around a notebook and pencil just to keep track!  Direct marketing!  I thought of that! Turned out it already existed, but I arrived at it independently!”) is great self-parody.  And when Don and Roger take off their shoes before entering Bert’s office, the rear shot of them shows Roger sinking to his real height, some two to three inches below Don.  Jon Hamm’s brief double take is priceless.

*I shortchanged Betty a bit in this episode, but there’ll be more of her to come.  Her relationship with Helen Bishop continues to grow, even though she clearly views her as a possible preview of her life without Don.  And there are some nice parallels drawn throughout between Betty and Pete.  But this episode is clearly the Pete Campbell show, so back to Betty in the future.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

MAD MEN Ep. 3: "Marriage of Figaro"

(S           P           O           I           L           E           R           S)

In which there’s not gonna be a cake.  Am I the only one who knows that?

“My God, the suburbs! They encircled the city’s boundaries like enemy territory, and we thought of them as a loss of privacy, a cesspool of conformity and a life of indescribable dreariness in some split-level village where the place-name appeared in the New York Times only when some bored housewife blew off her head with a shotgun” —John Cheever, Esquire, July 1960.

It should probably come as no surprise that John Cheever, the Ovid of Ossining, the Chekhov of the suburbs, made a brief cameo appearance in my Sophomore English curriculum. Aside from being one of the most accomplished, lauded, and prolific short story authors in modern American literature, he also served as an early litmus test/object lesson for my students.  Midway through the Catcher in the Rye unit that kicked off the year, I supplemented the weekly Salinger reading with Cheever’s devastating short tale “The Swimmer”, ten or so pages (depending on the format) of the most expertly constructed, mournfully poetic chronicling of one man’s annihilation of his life that you could imagine.  If you haven’t read “The Swimmer”, stop right now and go do so.  No, really.  It’s fantastic. (Most of my former students in the audience are keeled over laughing right now.)

Okay, you’re back?  Cool.  So yes, the story of Ned Merrill and the steady, brutal stripping away of all his illusions is, quite possibly, one of the saddest works of American short fiction in the canon.  Remove yourself a bit from the pure plot mechanics and you’ll also see that Cheever was at the height of his stylistic powers with “The Swimmer.”  The famed opening line (“It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying “I drank too much last night.”) could be a summary of his entire literary career, and of a certain strain of booze-soaked 20th century American fiction that still holds many readers in its sway (check out Olivia Laing’s fascinating The Trip to Echo Spring for a trenchant analysis of the alcoholism that joined the careers of Cheever, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, Tennessee Williams, and John Berryman.)  And the way that Cheever skillfully weaves together the visual symbolism of the story, how subtle hints of inexplicably changing weather methodically build toward the desolate late autumn landscape of Ned’s soul, leaves the reader shaken and dazed when he finally ends up at the door of his abandoned homestead.

I wanted the students to see that if you broke down even a story this short into its individual parts, you’d find that months and months of work could go into crafting such a sleekly designed misery machine.  So we’d usually spend almost an entire class period tearing apart “The Swimmer”, looking for the foreshadowing strewn throughout, picking up on the subtle changes in Ned’s physical strength, charting the hints of doom that Cheever increasingly places in the neighbors’ mouths at each successive stop in Ned’s voyage along the Lucinda river.  I also used this tack for the first two pages of The Great Gatsby, which for my money are two of the greatest pages in literature, so densely packed with allusions and foreshadowing, the story of Nick Carraway’s life in miniature.

It probably shouldn’t surprise you that a lot of the Sophomores were…um…not very enamored of these days of granular analysis.  And I got it: when you’re 16 years old, spending 45 minutes picking apart a story about an aging alcoholic in 1964 (or an enigmatic single guy in 1922) isn’t exactly what you dream about at night.  Rest assured former Sophomores: when I first read “The Swimmer” during my Junior year of college, I was mildly befuddled too.  My ultimate hope was that some unfamiliar heavy lifting so early in the year would be good training for the analysis that they’d be required to pursue for the rest of the year (and for the rest of their academic careers.)  Many a Sophomore was probably just confused about why we were spending so much time talking about drunks. 

(A good chunk of the students I knew over the years thought that I was a major stoner, mainly because I love psychedelic music.  One or two privately swore that I was on LSD.  I later learned that one in particular thought that I was a major cokehead…because sometimes I rubbed my nose a lot…due to my seasonal allergies.  All of this, despite the fact that I was one of the most straight edge adults in the building, something I professed to them on several occasions.  Nevertheless, these bits of misguided speculation actually endeared me to a certain segment of those students.  Somehow, I had become the adult Ferris Bueller.  Oh well, someone has to be the righteous dude.)

After the sprawling plot threads of Mad Men’s first two episodes, “Marriage of Figaro” serves as a much more streamlined affair, focusing mainly on the dichotomy of Don’s home and work life. And it’s haunted by the ghost of John Cheever (it’s no coincidence that the Drapers home is smack dab in the middle of Ossining, NY.)  Although years of biographical study have shown Cheever’s opinion of suburban life to be more shaded than he often let on, his famous Esquire quote (featured at the beginning of this essay) on the banality of that life still holds much wickedly humorous weight and power.  And it encapsulates the general state of malaise that Don (and, in some ways, Betty) feels during Sally’s birthday party, as he slowly realizes just how rotten this dream life really is.

(In my final year of teaching, I dove deeper into Cheever’s biography than I had previously, bringing to light how his deeply repressed homosexuality only added to the existential split in all aspects of his life.  As part of this exploration, I read the Esquire quote to the students, which I followed with a gleeful and ironic “HA!”  Their blank stares were amusing.  Somehow I hadn’t put two and two together: many of these students lived in the Columbus versions of Ossining.  It was the only life that they really knew.  We’ll touch on this in more depth in the essay for Episode 4.)

There’s a gorgeous moment early in the episode when Rachel Menken concludes her tour of the department store by taking Don to her favorite spot: the roof (much like he repackaged his seemingly inferior self for greater mass appeal, he’s also trying to repackage Menken’s for a wider audience.)  There, with the picturesque Manhattan skyline as a backdrop, Don kisses her for the first time.  It’s another example of how the show deftly plays off of audience expectations built by decades of movie lore.  The way the shots are composed and the soft lighting are straight out of a classic romantic drama, and Don again ably plays the role of the suave Cary Grant figure.  (It’s also notable that Rachel tells him that her mother died in childbirth, as we’ll soon know that Don’s prostitute mother also died as he was born; the two outsiders find yet another bond.)  When they join together, it’s a downright exhilarating experience.  It’s also Don starting on his third romantic interest.  And when, in a moment of admirable restraint, he tells her that he’s married, Rachel’s rebuke knocks the breath out of him.  Even his attempt at drawing her back to him, in which he tells he that he knew what he wanted from the moment she stormed out of their first meeting, is a pure fantasy; as Rachel reminds him, he stormed out of the meeting.  Once again, Don is pitching himself with an idealized version of reality.

(We’ll talk more about this as the season rolls on, but this bit of business is a reminder of the multi-faceted power of Mad Men’s formal and narrative aesthetic.  The show is both a gorgeous, seductive representation of refined romantic cool and a complete deconstruction of that same state of mind.  The rooftop scene makes you swoon while also reminding you of just how amoral Don can be.  Just as Henry Hill’s ascension through the mob in Goodfellas is both a thrilling flight of fancy and a brutal indictment of the lifestyle, so too is Don Draper’s journey both exceedingly cool and exceedingly repulsive.)

After this aborted romantic interlude, Don’s home life can only be a disappointment to him.  The day of Sally’s birthday party begins with a few tender moments between father and daughter, but once the guests arrive, the rot begins to set in.  The neighborhood men are generally crass and sexist (Carlton Parker, husband of Betty’s pal Francine, marks his series debut by smarmily hitting on Helen Bishop minutes after she arrives at the party.)  And the women are even worse, as they spend most of their time cattily tearing into Helen, both before and during her arrival.  When they ask her why she walks around the neighborhood at night, it’s like they’re asking why she has a third arm.

Much like Midge Daniels, Helen Bishop is another Mad Men character who, though she only appears in five episodes, makes the viewer yearn for more of her presence.  Darby Stanchfield ably captures the full range of Helen’s proto-feminist leanings, including a charged sex appeal that’s embedded in her confidence.  In her rebuke of Carlton’s advances, her sarcasm is so icy and withering that she almost makes it seem like she’s serious (the second time in this episode that a female outsider puts a man in his place.)  When she joins Don on the back porch, two outcasts are once again joined together.  “Interesting crowd in there” she entreats him; his reply (“same crowd out here”) reflects the tableau from several scenes hence, when the kids playing house parrot their parents’ nasty arguments (proving that the adults truly are just kids with more money.)  For a moment, the audience is led to believe that Don is about to plow through his fourth woman (as are Betty’s friends), but he’s dispatched to get the birthday cake.  And these two reflective loners never have a romantic moment.

It’s the birthday cake appointment that brings Don full circle, both in terms of his plot arc and his life.  For the beginning of “Marriage of Figaro” is the first time that we hear the two words that will forever change the course of Mad Men and lend it a power far beyond that of a ‘60s corporate procedural: Dick Whitman.  At this point, the train passenger who seemingly mistakes Don for his old Army buddy Dick seems like a throwaway moment.  But in retrospect, it’s the first look at the real man behind the armor of Don Draper.  And with that knowledge in mind, the rest of the episode also gains in power, as we realize that much of what we see on the homestead is Dick looking through Don’s eyes with mounting disappointment.  As he records the party with his 8mm camera, the grainy recorded images switch from kids running through the house to adults caught in slightly awkward moments (including Carlton and Francine after she rebuffs him.)  Don as naughty voyeur is a humorous sight, but when he comes upon Joyce and Andy locked in a clandestine kiss, he’s reminded of his clinch with Rachel from the previous night…and that Joyce and Andy are seemingly the only couple at the party who are genuinely still in love.

After his brief meeting with Helen, a depressed Don picks up the cake, but then drives past his house on the way home.  Eventually, we find him late at night, parked at a railroad crossing (in another great crossfade, pictured at the beginning of this article, of Betty leaning forward to cut Helen’s Sara Lee cake as Don, in his car, wakes up.  The All-American couple are as close as a kiss, yet miles away from each other.)  As he balefully stares into the distance, a passing train is reflected in the car window.  At season’s end, we’ll see the tragic moment when Dick Whitman fully committed to being Don Draper, in which he stayed on the train as the body of the real Don was presented to his family as Dick.  For now, Don manages to salvage his reputation with the kids by bringing a dog home for them (much to Betty’s chagrin.)  But just as the trains keep on running, so too does the momentum of his past and the distorted flow of his present.  And they can only be ultimately headed for a collision.

A few random notes to close:

*The first shot of the episode is of the groundbreaking Doyle Dane Bernbach advertising campaign for the Volkswagon Beetle, in this case the ad calling it a lemon.  It marked the beginning of counterintuitive marketing, a concept that’s integral to the modern advertising industry’s widespread co-option of irony.  The Sterling Cooper brass hates the campaign, but once again Pete has a preternatural understanding of its effectiveness.  It’s notable too that during Sally’s party, the men covertly insult Helen by ragging on her choice of a VW Bug as her car, noting that the lack of a backseat means that she’ll have to pick up a midget hitchhiker to get some action.  Classy.

*In my Sophomore curriculum, this episode coincided with the chapter of Great Gatsby featuring Nick’s first visit to the wild bacchanal of Gatsby’s famed party.  Most of the students picked up on the parallels between Gatsby’s shindig and Sally’s birthday party: the glossy exterior, the slight sense of confusion, the absent host, the heart of darkness that’s slowly revealed as the part wears on.

*This is also the first episode in which Don’s coworkers take note of his mysterious charisma and charm.  Pete is jealous that during another botched meeting with Rachel Menken, Don saves the day by flirting with her.  And when he wonders how Don does it, Harry notes that no one knows anything about him, that for all they know, Don could be Batman.  Let’s see…Bruce Wayne….dual identity….early childhood trauma of losing parents…hmmm….

*Mad Men’s humor is often underappreciated, but this episode makes great use of the lighter side of these characters.  In particular, there’s a great running bit about the Chinese couple planted in Pete’s office as a practical joke, which ends with Don escorting Rachel to the elevator only to be met by a chicken.  “New junior executive” Don dryly quips.

*And finally, in the “Ladies Room” essay, I completely forgot to mention my favorite Plath line, from her poetic patriarchal takedown “Daddy”: “Every woman adores a fascist.”  I once had a graduating senior pay tribute to our Bell Jar time together by putting this quote on her senior yearbook page.  And boy, does the line serve as fertile ground for the male-female relationships throughout the run of Mad Men.