Friday, March 27, 2015

MAD MEN Ep. 9: "Shoot"

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In which she wanted me to be beautiful so I could find a man.  There’s nothing wrong with that.

Just as long form television dramas sometimes pause at the ¾ mark of their season, doubling back a bit on old themes and motifs in preparation for the home stretch, so too did my trimester of Mad Men/Great Gatsby/In the Lake of the Woods also seem to slow down a bit around the time that we watched “Shoot.”  During the final class period of each year, I always asked the Sophomores to choose their favorite and least favorite part of the past eight months.  The most popular answers for the latter were The Bell Jar (surprise, surprise), the Raymond Carver documentary To Write and Keep Kind that we watched before reading Short Cuts (this one still boggles my mind, as it’s a fairly inoffensive hour-long film)…and writing the second trimester Mad Men essays.  We’re talking some 100% all-natural loathing of those essays here.  And I understood their frustration.  Part of the challenge of those assignments was to examine changing materials through the same basic lens week after week; the repetitive nature and all of its inherent emotional fluctuations was a big chunk of the lesson.  And hey, I had to grade them all each week, which wasn’t always necessarily fun.  (Okay, the only real fun I had in grading them was the awesome insights of the true believers.  And the improvement of people that were working really hard.)  But huge life lesson everyone: rewarding work doesn’t necessarily have to always be fun.  (Agh, I’m slipping back into teacher speechifying mode.  Sorry.)

And to be fair, the other reason why things started to slow down was just as often In the Lake of the Woods.  Tim O’Brien’s book is sort of an odd bird in the annals of my teaching career.  When I first taught it, most students loved it.  I had several who claimed to never read books race to finish it before the rest of the class.  But in four years of teaching it at the Sophomore level, its track record was somewhat dicier.  To this day, I still know survivors of the Sophomore experience who adore the book.  But there are also probably former students of mine who still refer to it as “that stupid book about the guy and his missing wife.”  And don’t get me wrong: for as tremendous as the book is, it’s also incredibly depressing.  Powerful, yet very very depressing.  Stick your head in the oven depressing.  I always figured that watching Mad Men each week would at least provide a dose of levity and humor to Woods’s bleak voyage through the heart of darkness.  Of course, that might’ve discounted the students who thought that the show was also unremittingly bleak.  And did I mention that we read this book during the middle of January in Columbus, Ohio, a time and place fairly conducive to giving up most hope for humanity?

(I won’t go into it much here, if for no other reason than you, my dear reader, probably want to get to more discussion of “Shoot”, but I firmly believe that some of the growing disenchantment with Woods was also due to that much discussed and often true millennial dislike of deeply challenging subject matter.  And by that, I mean literature that doesn’t work overtime to make readers feel better about themselves, or reconfirm what they already know.  It sounds cliched, but each year of teaching seemed to bring with it more and more students who were increasingly resistant to opposing or unfamiliar points of view.  I could be sardonic and say “Thanks parents for instilling a sense of hyper-inflated ego in your offspring.”  I could be self-deprecating and say that I’m starting to sound like Roger Sterling in “Red in the Face.”  I could also note that a great of deal of my former students are pretty awesome thinkers and human beings.  Or I could just shut up and say maybe we’ll get back to this point later.)

So smack dab in the middle of this often dead period of the class lay “Shoot.”  Much like “Red in the Face”, it follows an emotionally draining episode with something more self-contained, though no less instructive.  And it’s appropriate that this episode is directed by Paul Feig, who would go on to helm Bridesmaids, The Heat, and the upcoming female-centric Ghostbusters reboot.  For in large part, “Shoot” deals, once again, with the crushing expectations that society foists upon women, and the residual damage those expectations perpetuate.

Throughout Season 1, we’ve seen a steady recounting of the frustrations that plague Betty’s life.  “Shoot” provides us with a quietly devastating encapsulation of them.  For the first time, the modeling career that she gave up for domestic life with Don is brought into sharp focus, her stories of shoots in Italy filled with a sense of dreamy elation, her delight at being given a second chance a rare marker of true happiness for her.  But even this moment of triumph is marred by the harsh realities of her personal and social standing.  Jim Hobart may flatter Betty by calling her “Grace Kelly” and offering her a gig in McCann Erickson’s Coke campaign, but he’s merely using her as a pawn to lure Don to his agency. 

The modeling job itself may be an ego booster for Betty, but it’s also a reinforcement of society’s cage, an acid observation on women’s proscribed roles.  Mad Men has always been a show that deconstructs the seductive allure of advertising through the seductive allure of its own form.  The show’s lush cinematography, production design, and costuming provide such decadent pleasure for the viewer that it can easy to forget how reflexive these features can be.  Witness the beginning, middle, and end of “Shoot.”  The opening scene depicts an edenic summer tableau, with a radiant Betty trimming the hedges, Sally and Bobby playing with their dog, and their next door neighbor benignly waving to them as he releases his pet pigeons.  But by episode’s end, we’ve seen the neighbor threaten to shoot the Draper’s dog after she attacks one of the pigeons, and a once again radiant Betty returning to the yard to fire at those pigeons with an air rifle (as much the move of a protective lioness as a symbolic lashing out at another seemingly free being who must always return to their cage.)  The Coke photoshoot is almost a sick, Technicolor mockery of these two scenes, gorgeous, yet completely artificial (there’s a bit of a nod to the doomed symbolism of the McCann shoot in the final scene of the Season 5 finale.)  Betty seems to move between worlds in this episode, but she must always portray the perfect mother and housewife no matter what.  Even during her session with Dr. Wayne, she admits that her mother only wanted her to be beautiful to ensure her marital prospects, and viewed her modeling career as the equivalent of prostitution (shades of Pete and his father in “New Amsterdam.”)

Don’s role in Betty’s unhappiness is, for once, somewhat restrained.  There’s a sense of tragedy in how his courtship of her led to her giving up something she loved, but there’s also an old school sweetness in a lowly fur company copywriter successfully wooing a gorgeous model.  He actually supports her choice to model for McCann Erickson, and Jim Hobart’s manipulative attempt to seal the deal by sending him proofs of Betty’s shoot so offends him that he finally turns him down (although that’s a complex scene; more on it in a bit.)  When Betty lies to him at dinner about her departure from McCann, he consoles her by telling her “I would’ve given anything to have a mother like you.”  It’s another great moment by Hamm, as he drops the standard Don-isms for moment of genuine love, made even more resonant by our knowledge of his terrible childhood, tossed from one unwilling mother to another.  But as always, there’s a darker edge to it, as his attempts to convince Betty that she’s a fantastic housewife only last until 1pm the next day, when her returning depression leads to her front yard target practice.

I’m currently in the midst of revisiting Season 2 for the first time since I originally watched it, so some of my observations might be getting a bit muddied from here on out.  But watching “Shoot” right after the Season 2’s “A Night to Remember” has given me a new appreciation and sympathy for Betty.  In later seasons, she’ll become a remarkably cold person, but in many ways it’s all because of the psychologically traumatic blows inflicted on her in these first few seasons.  By “A Night to Remember” (in which she’s once again expected to play the perfect housewife, and a representative for all housewives for the Heinekin campaign), Betty is completely broken, her confrontation with Don (after she can’t find any physical evidence of his affair with Bobbie Barrett) a heartbreaking depiction of a shattered psyche.  The tragedy of her arc is that in trying to liberate herself from Don, she ends up becoming him: a damaged and sensitive person who chooses to guard themselves against the cruelties of the world by hiding behind a steely veneer.

Betty isn’t the only woman to deal with nearly overwhelming societal pressure in this episode.  Once again, Peggy must run the Sterling Cooper gauntlet, damage coming from all sides.  After a dress rip forces her to wear one of Joan’s larger outfits in its place, Paul acidly notes that “She’s having a very bad freshman year” and Ken calls her “A piece of fruit that went real bad, real fast.”  And in trying to reassert her dominance in their relationship, Joan chides her as having had too much lunch, and not taking advantage of her sexuality to get ahead.  This is one of the first explicit mentions of Peggy’s weight gain, and the cruelty of the office expectations for female beauty is stunning; she might be slightly heavier, but there’s nothing unattractive about Peggy.  But like Betty, she also claims a moment of liberation and fires back at Joan, memorably telling her that men like her “because you’re looking for a husband, and because you’re fun…and not in that order.”  Joan’s only recourse is to insult her virginity, but Peggy’s refutation of that jibe leaves badass Joan momentarily shaken.  It’s yet another chapter in the origin story of Peggy Olson: Career Woman; the killer look in Elisabeth Moss’s eyes when she tells off Joan is like the awakening of a sleeping giant.  (There’s also the great moment where Pete, fed up with the boys insulting Peggy, coldcocks Ken at the end of the day…although valor toward women is subsumed by Paul spinning it as a gateway for male bonding.)

But you can’t blame Joan too much.  After all, she’s just as much a victim of society’s expectations as anyone.  She’s just chosen a path in which she exploits those expectations to her own ends, even though her victories are limited at best.  But in an office like Sterling Cooper, limited victories are coveted.  Look at Pete’s secretary Hildy.  As I noted in the essay for “Red in the Face” she has a great moment when she shoves down Pete’s phallic hunting rifle.  But in “Shoot”, she’s subjected once again to Pete’s attempt to be as suave as Don, as he tries to get her to celebrate with the boys and him.   Her uncomfortable stare lends the whole things the fetid air of a frat party about to go terribly wrong.

The other great concern of shoot is Don’s recruitment by McCann Erickson.  As I mentioned before, the climactic scene in which he rejects Jim Hobart’s advances is one of great complexity.  He seems to be genuinely offended by the usage of Betty’s photo proofs as bribe, but those idealized photos also seem to strike a deep psychological cord in him, their existence a sordid reminder of the artificial nature of the Drapers’ marital bliss.  As we see throughout the series, Don does have a deep (if often misplaced) sense of loyalty, and his decision to stay at Sterling Cooper is partially motivated by that feeling.  But as will become readily apparent by season’s end, working at a small firm, with no contract and little oversight, creates the perfect conditions for a man scared to death of his past catching up with him.    

In conclusion, we go to the now-standard odds and ends:

*One of the biggest laughs in “Shoot” occurs during the Pete/Ken fight.  As they brawl in the background, Don and Roger emerge in the foreground.  Their dry reaction (“Roger: Drop you at the station?  Don: Sure”) is priceless.

*Despite being the head of one of the largest ad firms in the city, Jim Hobart would disappear from the plot after this episode, although he would return for a key cameo in Season 7.

*This Week in Pete Campbell’s Preternatural Greatness: Pete devises the canny political strategy in which Secor Laxatives buys up all the non-Nixon television ad space in key election swing states, thus relegating JFK to the radio (where, as Bert Cooper puts it, his pretty face won’t be an asset.)

*”Secor Laxatives.  You know I have to talk to those people.  They’re not what you’d expect.  They have absolutely no sense of humor about their project.” (Pete)

*”But don’t be fooled.  You hear Pan Am, you imagine London, holed up at the Dorchester with three stewardesses.  The truth is it’s more like a 20-hour boomerang flight so you can make a coupon sing in Spanish.” (Roger)

Thursday, March 26, 2015

MAD MEN Ep. 8: "The Hobo Code"

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In which every day I make pictures where people appear to be in love.  I know what it looks like.

Freddie: Donald walked around the village three times and then set it on fire.”

Abigail Whitman: Dick Whitman, stop digging holes.”

(If you’re interested in making this a potentially pleasing interactive experience, click on the link above and listen to Miles Davis’s version of the Concierto De Aranjuez while you read this essay.  The beginning of the piece is played by Miles buff Midge when Don first arrives at her apartment.  It’s a great theme song for this episode: as original composer Joaquin Rodrigo noted, the first section is intended to transport the listener to another time and place, while the second section was his way of remembering he and his wife’s honeymoon and the miscarriage that led to the loss of their first child.  And yes, that info is lifted from the Wikipedia page.  So laugh it up former students.)

By this point of my Sophomore English curriculum, we had finished The Great Gatsby and were waist deep in the big muddy of Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods.  Most people I talk to have never read this book, although some have read O’Brien’s Vietnam short story collection The Things They Carried.  And that’s a shame, because In the Lake of the Woods is a phenomenal examination of the haunting and cyclical nature of the past, and of the need for reckonings on a personal and national level, all wrapped up in the guise of a mystery about a missing woman.  It was both one of the most demanding and rewarding books that I taught in my ten year teaching career, perhaps the greatest example of my Form=Content stalking horse that I unloosed on the students.  There’s no real objective indicator of the truth, only various and disparate voices telling their version of the tale of Vietnam veteran John Wade and his wife Kathy, their failed run for a Minnesota Senate seat, and the past that they both try to flee but which ultimately annihilates the fragile construct of their lives.  It’s about how Vietnam was just another example of man’s inability to learn from the past.  It’s about fathers and sons, how a lonely boy, desperate for the love of a tortured, alcoholic father, invents the alternate persona of the Sorcerer to give him some power over his life…and how that persona becomes an escape hatch into a mental house of mirrors that delivers the boy from trauma after trauma, yet ultimately entraps him inside its furthest depths, frightened, confused, lost, alone.

So yeah, I’m guessing you can see the strong connections it has with Mad Men.

Of course, memory and the past were the twin wraiths that haunted most of this second trimester unit.  We focused on three alpha males who are the very embodiment of the classic American Dream, three men who come from nothing and through sheer force of will create idealized versions of themselves, alter egos which allow them to conquer the world…and lose their souls.  (For me, one of the key lines in Gatsby comes Nick says “So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.”  Think about all the complex implications contained in that one beautiful sentence, and how they apply to these three men.)  And three men who must come to terms with their troubled pasts if they have any hope of remaining human.

I failed to mention this in the “Ladies Room” essay, but one of my favorite passages in that Sophomore English course, and one that applies to Mad Men in spades, came from the conclusion of The Bell Jar.  In that final scene of the book, as Esther Greenwood prepares for the interview that might lead to her release from the hospital she muses:

 “We'll act as if all this were a bad dream."

A bad dream.

To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.

A bad dream.

I remembered everything.

I remembered the cadavers and Doreen and the story of the fig tree and Marco's diamond and the sailor on the Common and Doctor Gordon's wall-eyed nurse and the broken thermometers and the Negro with his two kinds of beans and the twenty pounds I gained on insulin and the rock that bulged between sky and sea like a gray skull.

Maybe forgetfulness, like a kind snow, would numb and cover them.

But they were part of me. They were my landscape.”  

Of all the characters we covered that year, all the ones searching for some greater truth in life, Esther’s realization is probably the most powerful moment that any of them have.  And it’s a sentiment that so many of the characters in Mad Men struggle to come to terms with.

“The Hobo Code” is the episode where, for the first time, we see Don try to make amends with his past, fleeting as this attempt might be.  Of course, it takes him getting high with Midge’s friends to loosen up his psyche enough to make this journey.  One of the show’s strengths is how it usually strikes a balance between ’60s cultural references as indicators of passing time and key plot devices.  Don’s drug experience in the village is a somewhat radical notion for a guy like him, but it’s also a harbinger of the slowly encroaching drug scene that would soon hit the mainstream.

It’s during the flashback to his childhood (spurred by Don’s reflection in the bathroom mirror, not the last time in the show’s run that literally facing himself will lead to revelation) that we finally see as solid of an origin story for our conflicted protagonist as we’re likely to get (for now.)  In it, we see how Don Draper is an amalgam of three people: Archie Whitman, the hobo, and young Dick himself.  Joseph Culp (the son of real life ‘60s icon of cool Robert) is such a perfect choice to play Dick’s father.  His imposing physicality, icy cruelty, and naked self-interest are all traits that young Dick would later adopt (along with his hairstyle and cigarette smoking technique) to create the armor of Don Draper.  But underneath that armor is the hobo’s wanderlust that motivates so much of Don’s itinerant ways.  And the fear of young Dick, the scars of being a dead prostitute’s child in an emotionally distant family still felt in the Don of 1960.  When the hobo recounts how a wife, kids, and mortgage left him frustrated and sleepless, until the night that death came to find him and drove him away from the safe life, it informs so much of what motivates the Don that we’ve come to know (and calls back to the pilot’s exploration of the Freudian death wish.)

But Don isn’t the only character in “The Hobo Code” who’s trying to come to terms with their past.  And their place in life.  Matt Weiner could’ve named this episode “Babylon Revisited” (yeah, I couldn’t resist), for even though Rachel Menken is absent from the proceedings, her insights into the dual meaning of “utopia” from Episode 6 (the good place and the place that cannot be) apply to all of the main storylines here.

Which is a great jumping off point for the romance between Pete and Peggy, that biggest of headscratchers for many viewers.  My students were always perplexed and repulsed by what good girl Peggy sees in weaselly Pete (although as the years progressed and more of them didn’t like Peggy either, they just didn’t care as much.)  So when the couple once again get it on at the outset of this episode (to the expertly timed comic bemusement of the janitor), they didn’t quite know what to think.  Matt Weiner has offered the easiest motive for the dynamic that exists between these two: each sees the other as the only one they can relate to in the office.  Both are younger employees with good ideas who are too often condescended to by their older superiors.  In Pete, Peggy sees someone who’s dashing in his own way (yeah, Pete haters, toss your tomatoes at me now), but also a covertly tender and vulnerable person.  And in Peggy, Pete sees a genuine person, someone who loves him for who he is, not for the rarified social status from which he comes.  In the aftermath of their office tryst, Pete delivers a touching monologue to Peggy, in which he expresses his frustrations with the crushing expectations that led him to his marriage, and how despite his best attempts Trudy seems like a stranger to him.  It’s a great, humanizing character moment, and Vincent Kartheiser really nails it.  And hey, in the end, love is strange sometimes; lasting relationships are often formed by people who logically don’t make sense together.

(A tip of the hat to “Hobo Code” director/stalwart tv cinematographer Phil Abraham and his episode DP Steve Mason for how they assemble this sequence.  Pete is introduced in closeup as he gazes out the window, and when he swings his chair around to greet Peggy, his framed phot of Trudy is revealed in the mid-ground of the shot.  Cut to the reverse shot and Pete’s rugby trophy is featured behind him.  They end up serving as symbols of his conflicting impulses, but also reminders of his legacy.  And when Pete and Peggy have their post-coital talk, the infamous hunting rifle from “Red in the Face” is prominently featured leaning against the wall to the left of the frame, a clever indicator of Pete’s reinforced masculinity.)

But try as he might, Pete can’t escape the shackles of his past that easily.  When Peggy asks him to dance at P.J. Clarke’s late in the episode, he icily dismisses her with “I don’t like you like this.”  It’s a rebuke with many implications, and as crushing as it is for Peggy, it’s also a very sad moment for Pete.  Like Don, he’s lost in the nether regions between what he wants and what he’s supposed to want.

And speaking of characters stuck between desire and expected desire, there’s Sal Romano.  There are fairly strong implications in the pilot episode that Sal is gay, but it’s only in this episode that his taboo leanings are finally confirmed during his meeting with Belle Jolie rep. Elliot.  Sal’s a fairly interesting character, in that most of his overall arc is defined by his suppressed homosexuality, and the consequences that its revelation holds.  Modern viewers might look at Bryan Batt’s performance and see the overt femininity (and wonder how no one at Sterling Cooper sees it), but we’re also dealing with an era not that far removed from metrosexual leading men like Cary Grant…and closeted gay leading men like Rock Hudson.  In a show with such a large ensemble cast, it’s difficult to fully develop every character, so Sal invariably suffers a bit in this department.  But all credit to Batt for creating such a sympathetic, conflicted, fully formed person in the limited screen time he’s given.

In the grand scheme of utopian desires, we ultimately land back on Don and his doomed relationship with Midge.  It’s interesting to view his progression in this episode through the lens of Bert Cooper’s Ayn Rand fixation.  He rewards Don with a check for $2,500, commendation for their purported shared sense of complete self-interest and lack of sentimentality for those who depend on their hard work.  Jon Hamm sells the subtle pangs of guilt that flash across Don’s face as Cooper utters these words, but he also rushes out to indulge these selfish tendencies by taking Midge on an impromptu trip to Paris.  He wants to reinforce the power of his base desires, but he’s still haunted by the past that created these desires.  When Midge refuses to go with him, and he signs away his bonus check to her (“Buy yourself a car”), it’s the second time this season that he’s tried to buy another character’s happiness on his way out the door.  Chase after a life with her he might, but it’s here that he finally comes to terms with the fact that they’ll never exist in the same world.  And when he returns home, the Randian superman image falls apart, as he promises Bobby that he’ll never lie to him.  (Despite Don’s attempts to redeem himself throughout the series by connection with Bobby, it’s with conflicted daughter Sally that he forms his most lasting bond.  Now, this could be because Kiernan Shipka has played Sally throughout, while Bobby has been portrayed by four different actors.  But that’s another discussion.)

It’s one of the fleeting moments during this season when we see the real Dick Whitman.  But, of course, the lies wouldn’t stop there.  His moment with Bobby is touching, but the final shot of the episode tells the greater story.  Once again, we see Don from the rear, this time as he enters his office.  The sounds of the office become deafening, and we finish with a close up of the name “Donald Draper” on his closed office door, as much the mark of a dishonest man as the hobo’s scrawl on Archie Whitman’s front gate.

To finish, a few loose ends:

*With the exception of a brief cameo in Season 4, this is the last that we’ll see of the lovely, vivacious Rosemarie DeWitt as Midge.  As I noted in one of the first episodes, she’s such a great minor character, and it’s sad that her time on the show was so limited.

*Elliot’s reference, early in the episode, to meeting Robert Mitchum is no throwaway line.  Legendary tough guy Mitchum (a spiritual forefather of Don Draper) rode the rails as a drifter and hobo in his younger years.  During that time, he acquired a fondness for marijuana, which led to a famous bust at the height of his fame.

*Best reaction of the episode?  Ken Cosgrove’s befuddled double take at Don’s “I’m not here to tell you about Jesus” line in the Belle Jolie meeting.

*”Ken, you will realize in your private life that at a certain point seduction is over and force is actually being requested.”  (Don)

*”We’re going to get high and listen to Miles.” (Roy, in a line reading that always gets me for how comically pretentious it makes him sound.  Kudos to Ian Bohen for making Roy just a bit of a jackass.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

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

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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)