Sunday, August 8, 2010

MAD MEN 4.3--"The Good News"

"I could tell from the minute she saw who I really was, she never wanted to look at me again. Which is why I never told her."

In which this week's episode gives last week's an episode a run for its money in terms of being depressing, then becomes oddly sweet in the last half.

Under the best of circumstances, Mad Men is not what one might consider the cheeriest show on television. It can be at times, a rather bleak slog through the bleak lives of people we're not altogether sure that we like enough to follow along with, but every now and again, the characters on the show will pull themselves out of their respective personal tailspins and do something for someone else. Naturally, these acts of kindness tend to be as weird as the people doing them, but it's that kind of show.

As last week we saw the welcome return of Freddy Rumson, this week we see the return of Anna Draper. Yes, "Draper" as in "Don Draper's ex-wife, only not." For those who saw the end of the second season, you saw how the whole business of Anna discovering that Don is not her Mr. Draper shook out, and it you're like me, you were quite happy to see her again, especially given Don's present slow-motion meltdown.

For all that Don is charming, chummy, and a gifted salesman, he is ultimately a lonely person. Part of this is a function of being trapped in the Big Lie that is Don Draper--it requires him to keep people at a remove, because to tell them the truth puts him at risk, and the last time he told someone the truth, as he relates to Anna the story of when Betty found out, Betty had no interest in the "real him."

Anna is different, and loves Don unconditionally (Anna and Don may be Mad Men's happiest and most well-adjusted relationship), and bloody hell, doesn't he half need it? Equal parts confidante, needle in the balloon of his ego, and a source of unconditional love that Don desperately needs and has never really had, so when he stops off on his vacation to Acapulco to see her, we're cheered up because this is something Don desperately needs as his life collapses in on itself post-divorce. If Don is feeling alone and self-destructive, the person who can tell him he's not alone and he'll listen is exactly who she needs.

And she tries to bolster him as much as possible while still being evenhanded (yeah, one could hardly blame Betty for divorcing your ass because you were lying to her about who you really were, Don) and there is the wonderful possibility dangled before us that Don will introduce the kids to Anna, because a free-spirited pot-smoking aunt is something all kids growing up should have.

So, naturally, we learn she's dying from bone cancer. And it's so advanced, there's only a short time before the end. Don is crushed--this is his last tether to a place where he can be himself and be happy, out from under the Big Lie. Don scrubs his plans for Acapulco and decides to stay with her until the end to help her, but it's too big and there's nothing he can do because he really doesn't have a meaningful stake in things, a fact slammed full into his face when Anna's sister tells him "You're just a man in a room with a checkbook."

Which is true, and not. Because Don tries to deal with problems from a remove--he takes care of Anna from across the country and only occasionally visits, but you get the impression that for her he would. And he tries gamely, but he can't. And through it all, she gamely encourages him in whatever direction would make him the most happy.

So he perpetuates another Big Lie (Mad Men characters stay trapped in Big Lies. Either complicity or not, deception is constantly isolating them.) I should say here, the moment where Don tell her he has to go is phenomenally played by Jon Hamm and he sells it perfectly, because you don't know whether he's going to tell her the truth or not.

But he doesn't, and he returns to New York. Acapulco lost its luster, so he goes back to the office, which is the only structured reality he has left, really, and it's here he intersects into the other 2 plots of the episode, which we'll take in reverse order.

Lane Pryce is an outsider--he's an indelible reminder that the Real World encroached on Sterling Cooper's boy's club when the British firm bought them out in Season 2. Pryce was their point man, and yet, became acutely aware he was in an untenable position--his bosses just wanted him to spruce up the company so they could sell it, his wife is desperately unhappy living in New York, and everyone at the office dislikes him and considers him an outsider who's just there to fire people. Even Don says this week they haven't been very welcoming.

And yet, he really liked the people there. Without him, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce couldn't have happened. Thanks to some stuff that's been happening off-screen which has driven him into the realm of "obsessive workaholic" and he makes the mistake of pissing off Joan, apologizing, and pissing her off even more with a snafu involving simultaneous flower deliveries.

Now it can be told: Lane is going through a divorce, and he's feeling pretty rudderless. The office is all he really has now, and he spends New Year's Day in the office working because it's easier than the alternative of trying to work out what the hell he's supposed to do now that his life collapses. Don, maybe because he's stinging from the thing with Anna, maybe because he recognizes how lost Lane looks, he decides to help him.

And this is what saves a depressing episode, because they decide to get rip-roaring drunk and go to a Gamera movie, use steaks as belt buckles, and hire a pair of hookers (I know, I know. For Mad Men, this is both a kindness and makes sense) and generally attempt a catharsis for their mutual problems--not that any of us would consider that therapy.

So this is a small and weird act of kindness.

Such is not given to Joan. Joan's character arc is basically that she's been constantly waiting for her life to begin as she has grown acutely aware of how much time is on the clock. She wants what she's always wanted--a husband, a family, and was quite looking forward to the day she could quit her job and be taken care of. I've always thought her hyper-competent, in-control majordomo act at the office has always been a bit of a thwarted maternal instinct.

Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out. Most of this, of course, is due to her husband, who is, depending on who you ask, either the first or second most hated character in Mad Men. The main reason for this is he's a rapist, but beyond that, he's also a raging asshole man-child and on a show that's full of them, he stands above them like a mighty frost-giant. Mad Men is the only show that could create conditions that a person announcing they're going to Vietnam causes people who watch the show to go "Good. I hope his ass gets fragged."

Joan has a moment when she finally gives voice to her anger, and as her asshole doctor husband is telling her it'll be all right and soon they'll be able to get on with planning their life and she finally breaks down and says, "when?" Naturally, her imbecilic doctor husband doesn't pick up any of this, nor the fact that she'd rather go to the hospital than be treated by him for a simple cut on her finger, which says a lot about the quality of doctor he must be.

So. . .yeah. This episode was pretty depressing, with some funny bits interspersed, but on the whole, even the funny bits seemed more like "If we don't laugh, we will kill ourselves because the world as we know it is completely coming unglued. and we don't know what the hell we're going to do." Not the sunniest of places to leave it, eh?

That's all for this week--join us next week when things totally turn around and everyone goes to the circus or has work outside because it's a pretty day or something like that. We're three episodes deep and this bleakness has to break sometime. Join me again next time for "The Rejected." Do not stand behind him, if you value your life.

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