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Friday, 16 of April of 2021

Mad Men – “The Summer Man”

“There have been a lot of complaints.”

Don Draper stands outside the New York Athletic Club, observing a passerby.

“Hmm. Maybe it’s time to wreck someone else’s family.”

There is a lot to like about this episode but one thing to absolutely hate.

When Mad Men explores the hierarchical and power relationships within the lives of their characters, they put on a clinic. The exploration feels organic and, although the viewer will have an “ah-ha” moment once the writers convey their point, it’s done with subtlety and class. They let everything develop naturally so that, when the point of the story does come about, you don’t feel like anyone had to sit you down and tell you the moral. This is the major difference between this show and much of what we see on most network television. The revelation doesn’t have to be spoken in Act IV. Sadly, I can only think of Full House as a reference (possibly because, when I think of formulaic television, that is my prototype) but there’s never an Uncle-Jesse-sits-little-Michelle-down-and-tells-her-what’s-up ending in Mad Men. A lot of the time, the point they were trying to drive home is left up to the actor to convey with a look, a moment of silence, or an air of unrelenting despondency.

So why in God’s name do they give Draper a pen and let him pour his thoughts like an analog, depressing, mature version of Doogie Howser, MD?

Yeah, that made me about livid. I’m generally against voiceover narration anyway but here it feels more wrong, more antithetical to how this series tells a story. Then, on top of that, Joan breaks her stoicism again in a way that kind of cheapens the first time. To be honest, the first fifteen minutes or so of the episode almost made me think that this week was a breather episode from last week’s excellent “The Suitcase.” But they made up for it in their usual way, with their intelligent, non-condescending storytelling, the exploration of characters, and some great stuff with my girl Peggy.

If only they didn’t cop out and let Don tell you how he’s feeling. Out loud.

While it was happening, the voiceover narration, I went through a couple different stages. First, I was appalled. This analog Sex in the City format is lazy and felt completely out of place to me, especially given Don’s previous attempts at conveying how he really feels through the written record. I brought this up for the letter of apology Don tried to draw up for Allison in “The Rejected”. He wrote a note to Betty after she officially recognized his philandering that was sweet even if a little distant. He tried to write something for Allison, something winning and smart and demonstrating just how much she meant to him but can’t commit the words to the page. I still feel like that crumpled letter was an open rejection to the plot device they use here, like teasing an informed audience of what was coming with an emotional man in front of a typewriter, but then showing us we don’t know jack because that’s not how Mad Men rolls. Well, here they do. After my initial anger for their lowering themselves to voiceover narration to tell us how Don feels, I started justifying it. Maybe this is leading to some exercise a therapist gave Don in order to cope with the confluence of crap in Don’s life. No. Maybe this is some nod to noir. Maybe. But still out of place for the series (although I’m in the camp that noir is a time-specific genre like Punk music was for the late-70s/early-80s so the nod here would be chronologically-shifted outside the bounds of that restriction). Then I just figured they did it so they could use the line, “I looked over at the Barbizon and I thought of all the women in there, one in each room, touching themselves to sleep.” Where else are they going to fit that in?

Through these journal entries (which he even admits are reminiscent of an adolescent girl talking to her diary) we learn what we’ve already come to know: Don, in this state, is incapable of being close to a woman, let alone allow himself to fall for one, in spite of the fact that he seems to be girl candy in this episode. One of the great things Mad Men did at the beginning of the season was show some chinks in Don’s powers of seduction. He couldn’t get Bethany to come home with him. He couldn’t land the nurse across the hall. He could close with Anna’s niece. Only prostitutes would fall for him but only because they were being paid to. But now Bethany is falling all over herself (and all over his lap) to establish a stronger connection with Draper and he’s even able to squinty-eye-in-the-dark Faye into a make-out session in the back of a cab. Maybe this is because Don is on the road to recovery (an upsetting fact I’ll address in a bit) and suddenly has his groove back but a little disappointing that personality quirk, the wrench in his womanizing ways, was swept under the rug.

But it’s not just Don that has a life existing somewhere in a confluence of crap. Joan, Peggy’s other beacon of light, deals with her own collapsing façade. Joan’s entire existence revolves around her commanding respect. She has always been treated with the respect of an Aphrodite that glides among the common workers. Her personality is larger than all of them and, even if the horndog men drool after her behind her back, she is always able to demand their professional attention when she required it. But as her husband goes off to basic training, she also finds herself not able to command the respect of her coworkers like she usually does. With her domestic life forever shifting and her work life crumbling, too, her stoicism is once again challenged. She cries again, very much like she did ol’ No-Brains-in-His-Fingers was stitching her up, only this slip in her collected nature kind of cheapens the previous one. The solitary lapse in her stoic front made it powerful. Here, it makes her look — smaller. Her biggest problem at work is her coworkers trivializing her position as a “glorified secretary” (nevermind the fact that the derogatory term also diminishes the importance of the secretary), making her concerns look petty. Her phrase, “There have been some complaints,” which she uses with Don in reference to some blue jokes being bandied about the office and to Lane when discussing the vending machine, makes her sound more passive-aggressive than persuasive, the difference being of strength. As Joey breaks the concept to Joan to Peggy, he tells her there is a Joan in every office: she is a busy-body that uses her looks to get what she wants and lords over anyone with a B-type personality. Essentially Joey single-handedly proposes the idea that not only is Joan petty and small and useless but that she is also not unique as a person. To Peggy. Who looks up to her. And that’s when Peggy turns on him.

Joey is a cancer and he must be excised.

His crimes also include unknowingly invoking her husband forcing himself on her (“What do you do other than walk around here trying to get raped?”) to Joan and then drawing (and posting) a drawing of her going down on Lane (I will admit the “Tally Ho” is the perfect caption). Joan’s reaction to the latter is what the men call “scorched earth” as she tells them she wants them to go to war and never come back (something that seems to hurt even Joey). This, however, is not enough for Peggy. Don vests her with the power to fire him and she whips that card out fast. She can hardly contain herself when she tells Joan what she did for her, how she defended her idol. Joan, of course, flips it around. Joan’s method was more manipulative and passive-aggressive but at least it demonstrated her power. Firing him outright not only disempowered Joan (because someone else had to fight her battle) but also reinforced what Stan refers to as Peggy’s “wet-blanketry.” Joan’s method might not have been the “big-shot” way of doing things, but at least it was her way and it’s through methods like this that Joan is able to spin her web of respect. Peggy set her back. A crushing defeat for both women.

Finally, we need to address something troubling: Don’s road to redemption. Several episodes this season have pointed strongly to Don drinking and sexing himself into oblivion, the symptoms of his alcoholism becoming more apparent as he blacks out, pukes, and sleeps with servers who know him as Dick. Last week, Peggy put it to him, asking him how long he plans to continue living like this. Now, my assumption has always been that, when Draper hits that rock bottom his seems to always digging into to find new lows, that it would be a burning ball of crap that would eventually take everything down with him. It would wreck the company, crush all his close relationships, and set bridges (both metaphorical and literal) ablaze. Yeah, literal. When Don hits rock bottom, I want there to be arson involved. But, as we can tell from his Dear Diary, he recognizes his problem and actively works against it, trying to have coffee instead of his midday drink, seeing his disconnect from reality as his team’s strategy session is, in actuality, a happy hour. But Don trying to repair himself now almost feels premature. He’s done some terrible things and had The Night with Peggy. But is that enough to prompt his rehabilitation? Maybe it would for someone like Duck but for Don Draper? Maybe this is another point of obvious storytelling in this episode where, in case you haven’t picked up on the past four seasons of alcoholism, they want you to know Don has a drinking problem. Frankly, both possibilities don’t make me feel great.

Believe it or not, there are some other things I want to say about this:

  • Joan’s mention of live ammunition — if you mention a gun in the first act, it’s going to go off in the third. Not necessarily in this episode but maybe soon. Or maybe that was a throwaway concern that I read too much into.
  • Greg trying to make Joan feel better by having her imagine a midtown hotel in the middle of the day does make her less upset but is that because it reminds her of Roger?
  • Don and Faye underscore his inability to be close to another person right now. His open denial of her in the car was plain but a more telling line happened over dinner. She: Don’t you want to be close to anyone? He: I do? It really does sound almost like a question, like he knows he’s supposed to but doesn’t really feel it. Or maybe that he knows he wants it but it feels so far away.
  • Bethany gets a little excited after meeting Betty at dinner. Don has a type: striking, educated, blonde women. She seems happy to be in that club.
  • You notice that I didn’t mention much of the Betty storyline. There really isn’t much new territory here in my opinion. Betty is still a child. While it’s supposed to show that she’s growing up by letting Don come to Baby Gene’s birthday party, it’s still apparent that she hasn’t really made any strides but is only acting as a child might if her father demanded that she share with her idiot kid brother. “We have everything.” Does Betty actually believe that? Is she even capable of being content?
  • I kind of liked Joey better when I thought he was a figment of Peggy’s imagination. His little quips like when Stan refers to Peggy as advancing the science of “wet-blanketry,” Joey has a punch that ends the scene. “You love her.” Obviously but I’m glad the characters can see that. At least the out-of-place Joey can see that. Again, a cancer that needed to be excised.

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