Mad Men, Season 3

Week 6: Attack of the Demon Barbie
Talking television.
Sept. 21 2009 3:29 PM

Mad Men, Season 3

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Week 6: Attack of the Demon Barbie

"One minute you're on top of the world.," Joan says, possibly paraphrasing Chekhov.  "The next minute, some secretary's running over you with a lawnmower."

Like you two, I adored Sterling Cooper's first industrial accident. I'm constitutionally incapable of watching Mad Men without a stiff drink, and I was nestled into my sofa, thinking I had the rest of the ep mapped out, when the mangling began and I literally sat bolt upright, spilling my whisky, only half-believing what I was watching. I haven't experienced that kind of visceral surprise at a television show since Christopher slept heavily on The Sopranos.

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You're right, John: Part of the brilliance lay in the misdirection. We'd already had our big surprise: The British are coming! Corporate reshuffling! Bye-bye, Lane Pryce! The dazzling MacKendrick represented something fresh and new: a worthy rival for Don.  "That kid," Roger said bitterly. "He has the spark."

Little did MacKendrick know, Weiner was just sizing up his ankle. The real beauty of Lois' bloody joy ride was that it didn't feel arbitrary or forced. On the contrary, with all the boozing that goes on in Mad Men, it's a small wonder this sort of thing hasn't happened before. I'm pretty sure the good people at John Deere worked a disclaimer into the instructions about not operating the mower while wasted at an office party.

I also loved the gallows humor everyone began indulging as soon as the shock wore off. When someone observes that MacKendrick might lose his foot, Roger murmurs, "Right when he got it in the door." The Brits have descended with such furious antagonism that MacKendrick's golf handicap and career seem a small price to pay for a return to the status quo.

My favorite exchange comes when Don eyes the big stains on Joan's stunning green dress and realizes that something terrible has happened.

Joan: "Blood."
Don: "My god."
Joan: "I know. It's ruined."

I felt for Joan as she took her leave of Sterling Coop, and I agree that we haven't seen the last of her. But whereas MacKendrick's amputation  came as a shock, we saw Dr. Butterfingers' demotion coming. I liked Joan's exchange with Peggy and her moment with Don, but was I alone in feeling a bit cheated that she didn't get any face time with Roger? I always sorta hoped that Roger and Joan would find some way to make it work. At the very least, their interactions have produced some of the finest writing on the show.  Would Joan really leave the building without so much as a nod to Mr. Sterling?

The org chart joke was a hoot, but I worry that Roger's absence from the chart underscores his larger absence from the show. Roger used to be a full-fledged character. He played a role that was much more expansive than the walk-on one-liners he's been reduced to of late. For all his objectionable attitudes, he was a wry and intelligent observer of the business. Remember when he resolved Don's conflict with Pete in Season 1 by telling Pete that he was supposed to be fired but that Don had intervened on his behalf? The chess-master craftiness of that move convinced me that Roger might've landed a corner office even if he hadn't inherited one. These days, he's a sad-sack caricature—a racist, a spoiled brat, and a lech who's even less effectual, if such a thing is imaginable, than the other name on the building, Bert Cooper.

Perhaps Roger has just regressed. But the reconciliation with Don felt flat to me. It should have been a duel between silver-tongued equals. Instead we get a petulant Roger whining, "I don't like being judged," while a barber kneads Don's shoulder knots (with what looks to be a late-model Relax-A-Cizor). Roger may be an overprivileged, retrograde swine, but I don't buy either that he would express his outrage at Don's insult in such simpleton terms or that he would be placated quite so easily. It may be that there's more to come on that score. I hope so.

But what we need to discuss in the meantime is the curse of the demon Barbie. Is it me, or is Betty, like Roger, becoming one-dimensional? I agree, John, her effort to bribe Sally was an obvious misfire, seeming to underline not only Betty's callow materialism but some sense that she fundamentally doesn't get her own kids (or kid, rather, as Bobby gets so little screen time, he could be off at boarding school for all we know). I get that Grandpa Gene's death has awakened in Betty a new affection for the baby that she previously felt decidedly ambivalent about bringing into the world. And I get that for Sally, Grandpa's death has cut the opposite way, making her resent the 'lil usurper. I even get that Don, who sees the baby not as a reincarnation but a tabula rasa, knows how to soothe Sally's primal fears of the dark (and of unkillable, flying Barbies). But by juxtaposing Don's artful parental intervention with Betty's artless one, isn't Weiner laying it on a bit thick?

Like Roger, Betty seems more unsympathetic with every passing episode. Is this by design, do you think? Or are we meant to see, in her bad parenting, a kind of pathos?

I'll be at Dublin House, trying to figure it all out.

Patrick

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