Mad Men, Season 3

Week 2: Peggy's Mirror Dance
Talking television.
Aug. 24 2009 3:16 PM

Mad Men, Season 3

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Week 2: Peggy's Mirror Dance

OK, Patio drinkers, here's my take on Don and Peggy:

Mad Men is, fundamentally, a show about reconciling image and reality: How can Don affect the image of a perfect family life, pretty wife, kids, Coupe de Ville, and so forth, when in reality he's a misanthropic horndog and the offspring of a whore?

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Don vacillates between a lofty estimation of his own métier—in which ad men are bards voicing the genuine, stifled yearnings of Middle America—and a cruder acknowledgment that Sterling Coop is peddling fantasies and widgets to the impressionable masses. Remember how Don chided Peggy last season when she suggested in the pitch for Mohawk Airlines that "sex sells"?

"You feeling something. That's what sells," he said. "Not them. Not sex."

Maybe Don's not a fan of Patio, which he dismisses as "a drink that sounds like a floor." But his suggestion that "men want her, so women want to be her" is about as tired as "sex sells." So Peggy is doing to Don precisely what he did to her: calling him out for phoning it in.

The problem with the Bye Bye Birdie clip is that it's such an obvious confection, right down to the fact that Ann-Margret is acting 10 years younger. "It's phony," Peggy says, sounding like Holden Caulfield. (Not a bad analog for her, actually, and just about the right age—how come he's never hanging around those bars in Brooklyn?) But Don either doesn't get it or, more likely, completely gets that this is a meaningless, seductive image but is too lazy or preoccupied to care.

As for the dance in front of the mirror, I wonder whether it's merely an excellent coincidence that Ann-Margret was born Ann-Margret Olsson? I sort of loved this scene, actually, and unlike you, John, I found it plausible: This is Peggy wondering whether there is anything to that giddy, flouncy image of juvenile sexual availability. (To judge by a more recent spokes-singer, Pepsi certainly continues to think there is.)

Don't get me wrong: The scene made me squirm. But for me, those icky moments are what make Mad Men exceptional television. Think of the creepy Glen Bishop subplot from Season 1, in which Glen is played—squirm warning!—by Weiner's own son. It may just be that I grew up on Twin Peaks, or that I like cringing while watching TV, but I prefer Dionysian undercurrents when they're downright weird. The suburban-underbelly genre is about as old as the suburbs, but whether it's Glen walking in while Betty's on the toilet, or Betty giving Glen a lock of her hair, or Betty's dad groping her at the table (which was disturbing, but effective, I thought, and made me enormously sympathetic to Betty), Mad Men excels at the twisted reality behind genteel facades.

As for the maypole scene, it must fit into this semiotic scheme; I'm just not sure how. The teacher is an echo of Ann-Margret, obviously. But what does it mean that the camera keeps lingering on Don's fingers touching the grass? Is he trying to ground the seductiveness of the image with a tactile reminder of concrete reality? I know I sound like an insufferable comp-lit grad or Paul Kinsey. But Weiner is trying to tell us something when Don caresses the grass like that. What do you think it is?

Speaking of Kinsey: Good for him for being on the right side of history and speaking up for old Penn Station. I hope we haven't seen the last of this subplot; unlike the Kennedy assassination, this historical moment hasn't been dramatized to death. (And if you haven't seen the heartbreaking episode on the destruction of Penn Station in Ric Burns' New York, I'd encourage you to check it out.) I laughed out loud when Pete Campbell described the drawings for Madison Square Garden as "right out of Metropolis." I was in Penn Station the other day, and the aesthetic experience was not so much Fritz Lang as Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

It really soured me on Don that he could so blithely see the old Penn Station get the wrecking ball. ("Change is never good or bad," he says. "It simply is.") For Don, the past is something to be cast off, and his easy, unequivocal way with the Garden guys provided a scary glimpse into the vacuousness of his philosophy.

Even if it was the bottom line, and not a love of Beaux Arts architecture, that drove them to drop the client, the Brits saved the day. I agree, Julia, that Pryce was less formidable and more factotum this time out. But I love his snooty, passive-aggressive wife, Rebecca (Embeth Davidtz, from the fantastic film Junebug), who gets the Roger-ish lines "We're near the U.N., so there's plenty of Africans" and "What we lost in London, we gained in insects."

And, speaking of Lane Pryce, the big mystery still lingering is what happened to Duck Phillips. Before his possibly-booze-fuelled explosion in last season's finale, Duck was in line to be president of Sterling Cooper. Did the suits in London show Duck the door because he fell off the wagon and pulled a Freddy Rumsen? Or did Duck finally see the monstrous error in his ways and strike out to find Chauncey and bring him home?

Bye, Birdie,

Patrick

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