Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I Love Television (But My Heart Belongs To Peggy Olson)

One of my least favorite bits of typical small talk is when someone (probably me) mentions something about a TV show and the person I'm speaking with is all "I have no idea what you're talking about [peasant. the "peasant" is usually silent.] I don't watch television." And then I really, really want to be like Jules in Pulp Fiction and reply, "But you are aware that there is an invention called television, and on this invention there are shows" and continue on with what I was talking about. Now, saying "I don't watch television" for the purposes of snootiness is no longer just obnoxious, it's also ignorant as hell. As anyone with half a brain has realized, we are in the midst of a Golden Age. Over the past decade television has finally come into its own as the brilliant novelistic story-telling device it has always had the potential of being. Novelistic being the operative word. In other words, the medium is no longer the message. What is currently being done in the maligned medium is nothing short of thrilling. Particularly in light of how dreadful most American movies are right now. The fact that I feel the need to still point this out is ridiculous.

Thus far, the 4th season of Mad Men has been a little slow to get moving. In semi-related news, my high school English teacher made a big point of telling us how most of the sixties were really just like the fifties, and it was only in the second part of the decade that things started to change. In Mad Men Land it is now February of 1965, and things are changing fast and the lines in the sand are being drawn. Those lines aren't yet impassable walls, and clearly one can still travel back and forth across them. It will be interesting to see who lands where, but it's becoming clearer and clearer each episode.

Peggy's role this season has been somewhat downplayed and disappointing. She has a new (creepy) boyfriend who manipulated her into having sex with him, and other than that, hasn't had a great deal to do. But the most telling scene in the first three episodes is when she was discussing the Ponds campaign with Freddie Rumsen and she grows increasingly frustrated with his ideas that she calls "old fashioned". In this week's episode, "The Rejected", she really comes into her own for the first time this season and it made for incredibly exciting viewing. Peggy meets Joyce, a young photo editor at Life Magazine on the elevator and they become friendly. Subsequently, Joyce invites her to a cool art party downtown. It's pretty clear that Joyce is a lesbian and one wonders if Peggy knows this. The party is lots of fun. They get high. Joyce tries to kiss Peggy, who laughs it off and this delightful exchange happens:
Peggy: I have a boyfriend.
Joyce: He doesn't own your vagina.
Peggy: No, but he's renting it.
They watch a friend's experimental film. They meet Cute Art Boy and Pretentious Photographer (who asks Peggy how she can take advertising seriously after Warhol). The cops bust up the party and Peggy hides in a closet with Cute Art Boy, who brags to her about how he was arrested at a sit in. She asks him if he went to jail, and he sheepishly admits, "No, my sister came and got me." Peggy and Joyce run down the street away from the warehouse, holding hands and laughing. It's a lovely little scene and one of the few in the entire series where you see just how young Peggy is and how capable and desperate for joy she is.

Peggy's story is contrasted to great effect with Pete's. He finds out his wife is pregnant and he is thrilled. Happiness aside, it seems to make him grow up right in front of us. He is clearly unhappy and embarrassed by how much his in-laws have done for him financially and career-wise. By the end of the episode he is playing hard ball with his father-in-law, more or less strong arming him into bringing Cooper Sterling Draper Pryce the whole Vicks line. He already looks five years older than Peggy. Her reaction to his wife's pregnancy is so emotionally spot on. At the end of Season 1, she gave birth to Pete's child and gave it up for adoption, and hurt and shock register on Peggy's face that was likely unexpected even to her when asked to sign an office "Congratulations!" card. I hate the phrase "closure", but it sure looks a little like that when she goes into his office and congratulates him herself.

And what about Don? He looms over this episode like a drunken éminence gris. Don Draper isn't a person. He's a fictional character created by Dick Whitman, and as the trappings of the Don Draper construct get stripped away, one can argue that "Don Draper" ceases to exist. He's all glamour and smarts, with a beautiful family and the money to support them and their beautiful life. Don Draper in a dingy furnished apartment downtown isn't really "Don Draper" at all, and Draper/Whitman knows it and is cracking up. He's spiraling badly, and the jokey, glamorous drinking and womanizing of the first couple of seasons is turning ugly. He's aging visibly, and drinking to blackout nightly, and making bad decisions and fucking up. Last night someone referred to him as "a drunk" for the first time. The slick, old style glamour of the post-war years has fallen into decadence and is out of fashion, and I don't know that "Don Draper" as a construct can survive the sea change. Peggy sees it happening, and this might be my favorite moment of the whole episode:


At the end of the episode, Pete stands in the lobby of Sterling Cooper with the suits from Vick. It could be a scene from any point in the previous 30 years. Peggy looks on from the other side of the glass office wall, surrounded by her new friends who couldn't exist in any time other than 1965.


Wink said...

I agree, TV is better then ever. Mad Men is one of the best examples and we can thank it all to the emergence of series on cable and the short order, 13 or less, full season orders. It was unheard when the traditional networks where the only venue in town.
Peggy has been my favorite character from episode one. The willingness of the entire Pete/Peggy issue eing referenced years later, without any dialog, was brilliant. There was a time, not that long ago, the network would have fought it tooth and nail. The rule of three applied: Tell them what you area about to tell them, tell them and then tell them what you told them. The audience was assumed to be mostly moronic and too distracted to actually pay attention.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Does anyone still snootily say "I don't watch television?" Anyone? After Sopranos, Twin Peaks, etc.? I haven't heard anyone pull that since the late 80s (when it was still a semi-reasonable proposition).

Caviglia said...

They do. Believe me.

Caviglia said...

I could even give you some names, but, like, not here.