Episode 8: A Night To Remember. Or: Would You Like A Seat At The Table?

by , Sep 15, 2008, 5:15 PM
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"Mad Men" is getting richer by the minute. Last night, the cinematography, art direction, set design, writing, casting, and acting reached a new level of achievement, and I'm running out of superlatives to describe them. The show is the equivalent of a portrait by a Dutch Master: the burgher presents himself, in all of his formality and finery, while the artist, through his choices of shading, lighting, and positioning of the subject, gets us to question whether we see the man's true identity at all -- or even whether the man knows himself.

 

The episode opens early in the morning with Betty riding hard -- her horse, that is. Indeed, the steed is only one of several husband substitutes that she tries using to free herself of her growing rage and bitterness, to no avail.

She's got lots of company in the female sadness department. This episode could also have been called "The Sisters of Disappointment," starring Betty, Peggy, and Joan -- all of whom get thrown off while trying to ride herd.

Mad Men Season2/Episode8 The episode centers on an elaborate dinner party given by Don and Betty -- a last supper of sorts, and certainly A Night to Remember. That title, however, comes from a flyer Peggy has created pro bono for Father Gill to promote a church dance for young people. She comes up with what she calls that "wholesome and romantic" line, and illustrates it with a couple dancing. Later she defends the visual as "the kind of hand-holding that leads to marriage."

Obviously, with her incredible penchant for denial and compartmentalization, Peggy is not the best judge of love or marriage. Still, she's great at advertising, knows her work is good, and is not afraid to fight for it. In response, The Church Ladies (loved the hat, glasses, and accent on the tall one!) are more annoying than the most clueless paying client; one of them tells her to at least leave room for "The Holy Ghost." Most disappointing to Peggy, Father Gill ends up selling her out as well. She gets very aggressive; as an ad person, she's not afraid to buck the Highest Authority.

Speaking of bowing to authority and being thrown under the bus, the arc involving office manager Joan was the juiciest to date. It was delightful to get a glimpse of her at home, relaxing on her couch in slacks and a sweater, finally freed from her stiff office armor. (And massaging her shoulder where her massive bra strap had left a welt -- she literally carries the female world on her shoulders.)

One of the commenters had asked if perhaps Joan was lying about the fiancé, and we get to see that he does indeed exist, although the real Joan is invisible to him.

Through a fluke -- because Harry's newly created TV department is understaffed and overloaded -- Joan takes on the job of script reader. She clearly loves it, and is built for it, so to speak, while Harry had previously been accused of "goldbricking." Joan's excellent work in picking soap operas (she knows what makes a good story, and knows how to smooth over agitated clients) turns Harry's fortunes around. Her success becomes threatening to all of the men in her life -- her dream doctor future husband wants her home "eating bonbons" and watching soaps out of desperation, not ambition. Roger, her married sometime-boyfriend, takes the opportunity to screw her professionally for a second time. (When she fired secretary Jane for insubordination, he rehired her and told her that sometimes Joan can't control her feelings, which was untrue and belittling.)

This time, a guy with no experience, except for his membership in the Boys' Club, gets the job Joan had been doing so well. Not only had she never even been considered for the promotion, but she's enlisted to train the undeserving lug to boot. She swallows her rage and does as she's told, from fetching water for the fiancé to going back to confining office-motherdom.

At one point while she's still reading soap opera scripts, Joan asks her fiancé if it's possible for people to come out of a coma. He tells her it's far-fetched. Both Don and Peggy, so adept at switching identities, the ultimate soap opera trick, are pushed to come out of their comas in this episode -- and so far, neither can.

Meanwhile, the dinner party scene brings out writerly genius: For some reason, Roger is intent on wooing Crab Colson, a guy from Rogers & Cowan (anybody know why they're so interested in a PR firm?) Thus the best joke of the night came from the inevitable introduction: "Duck, meet Crab. Crab, Duck."

Crab is the uber-WASP, talking about sailing his sloop down from the family place in Old Lyme to Larchmont. He wants Don to join him at the country club.

But Duck is much more interesting as a fish out of water; he arrives late, apologizing for the fact that he has to come "stag." (Don, who's getting kinder and more understanding towards him as they build a better relationship -- unlike the one with his wife -- answers "Who cares?" We'll soon know.) Sadly, Duck also finds himself revisiting his old haunts in New Rochelle on the way. (I was wondering if he'd see his abandoned dog Chauncey on the street and run him over.) And as a recovering alcoholic, Duck is plunked down in the middle of lots of drunks, the worst of whom is Crab's wife, Petra, who literally walks into a wall.

But the party is Betty's chance to show her perfection. And indeed she does. Getting ready for the event, she'sMad Men Season 2/Epidsode8 shown dusting with Pride furniture polish, and then abustin' with rage: she finds a weak leg on a dining room chair, and pounds it into smithereens. (Second Don substitute.)

Later, she'll serve a perfect leg of lamb, with egg noodles from a recipe taken from her German grandmother. (I thought her people were Nordic?)

The party scene starts with their daughter, Sally, dancing for their guests in a tutu. Betty wears a hostess apron, but it might as well be a tutu for all the performing she's doing. Once the guests arrive, she's dancing as fast as she can, and the result is dazzling: a sophisticated international menu set off by wine from France and frosty beer from Holland.

She hadn't known that it was a set-up of sorts: the agency is trying to get the Heineken account, and Don decides to appeal to upscale suburban housewives, with exactly his wife in mind -- with a new kind of beer display aimed at women (including wine, cheese, and toothpicks with cellophane tips) in the supermarket.

The next day, Don gets lots of kudos in the office from the client for being "woman-friendly" (that's a term he uses, although I don't think the -friendly coinage was in use then) and knowing his wife. In reality of course, he doesn't even see her.

Betty uses her humiliation at being laughed at -- not being let in on the Heineken joke -- to bring up the affair with Bobbie. "How could you?" Betty asks. "She's so old." (I was surprised that she could have held it in this long.)

Don stonewalls, just as Peggy stonewalls the priest in not acknowledging any of her problems. (By the way, I couldn't help but think that the scene with Father Gill standing over the Xerox machine was a knowing echo of the 1976 Xerox ad with Father Dominic.)

Don goes to bed, and Betty unravels -- obsessively looking for clues to his affairs. He's so careful, though, that all she finds are cocktail napkins with ad slogans written on them, including the ever-penetrating Freudian question, "What do women want?" in the service of Fresh Deodorant. (A Fresh Deodorant commercial is playing in the office at one point: the announcer says, "Fresh doesn't promise you eternal romance.")

Mad Men Season2/Episdoe8 Neither does Don. The kids might be watching "Make Room For Daddy," but he makes no room in his life for Mommy. He's bigger on whores than Madonnas. Finally, like a ghost (holy or not)in the night she appears to him, stripped of everything, wearing white, while he sleeps on the couch.

She tries to reconcile. He tells her he loves her, and "I love the kids, and I don't want to lose all this." That's not the answer she wants -- to be listed as part of the package.

At home, later, the Utzman cometh -- she sees Jimmy's commercial and all the lies come back. She calls Don at the office and tells him not to come home.

Meanwhile, Father Don, put in his place by Peggy, also gets his payback. He humiliated Peggy at the office, talking about taking Communion, when all she wanted to do was Xerox.

Like Joan, he's shown at home for the first time. He also removes his professional armor, takes out his guitar, and plays a folk song. He's amazingly happy and relaxed.

The only man who is shown to be as lonely and despondent as Peggy, Joan, and Betty, is Don. In the final scene, he sits in the bare-bones break room, in great contrast to the perfect crystal, silver, and china of the dinner party. He opens up the refrigerator, and has a Heineken beer -- a perfect husband in the isolation of his work home.

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