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Spoiler Alert Thursday: Mad Men, season 3, episode 1

It’s been a very Mad Men-oriented few weeks for me — writing my article on season 2, discussing the show with both The Girlfriend and Erika, who were trying to catch up before the new season began, and then of course orienting my entire day Sunday around watching the season premier with The Girlfriend (who succeeded in catching up). While the hype has turned some off, I think that anyone who was able to overcome his or her instinctive revulsion toward anything that seems too popular was likely to find the premier very satisfying — a much better opener than season 2, perhaps promising a more focused season 3.

As The Girlfriend pointed out, it’s apparently nearly impossible for Don Draper to avoid cheating on his wife, since women throw themselves at him unceasingly. Given my article’s focus on identity and Don’s control of his own name, I found the use of a pseudonym in the context of his fling — which presented itself as the after-effect of someone borrowing Don’s suitcase and writing the borrower’s name on it, meaning that Don was in this case stealing the identity of someone who had falsely claimed something that actually belonged to him — to be an interesting strategy, but an ambivalent one. Does he still feel burned by Bobby Barrett’s revelation of his name’s place in gossip, or does he feel that a one-night stand with a young stewardess (as opposed to his more “substantial” flings in the earlier seasons) doesn’t warrant opening himself up even to the point of sharing his name?

As I was trying to reconcile this adulterous tryst with Don’s admission of guilt last season, I realized how narrow his confession had really been: he didn’t apologize for the adultery as such, but only for the disrespect he showed Betty. Apparently this disrespect, in Don’s mind, was centered in the fact that he let his mistress get too close to his family life, and perhaps also in the fact that he so often used Betty as a prop to placate Jimmy Barrett. His one-night stand this time around seems calculated to make absolutely sure nothing gets back to Betty — it’s in a different city under an assumed name. Yet a trace of the affair nevertheless finds its way into his house, in the form of the stewardess’s pin that the daughter found while unpacking Don’s things for him — apparently looking for a gift, in an echo of Peggy’s suggested “What did you bring me, daddy?” slogan for the airline ad campaign near the beginning of season 2 — and now that I think of it: the fact that the affair takes place in the context of air travel seems like a kind of reference back to Don’s failed struggle to keep the company from dumping the smaller airline last season as well.

I’m not sure what to do with Don’s emotional disturbance at the end of the episode (nor the strange moment when Betty says that Don’s “good at” setting fantasy tableaux and then the scene changes abruptly). The Girlfriend (who works in advertising) said that he was changing the London Fog campaign mentally to be more family-oriented, which is obviously what he does with everything, so that colored my initial reception — but then I rewatched and wondered if it was just a matter of contemplating the “close call” with the pin. Even then, it’s ambiguous, though. He could be soul-searching about his continued need to cheat, or he could be thinking to himself, “Why do I have to keep playing this family game?” Or he could just be traumatized by the idea of birth with his fresh (manufactured!) memories of his mother.

Of course, the most satisfying and painful scene — for both the audience and the character — was Sal’s homosexual tryst, rudely interrupted by a fire alarm that then resulted in Don “catching” him. Don’s remarks to Sal on the plane, under the cover of a potential advertising pitch, are remarkable for their lack of judgment. Even though Don prudently advises Sal to be careful, perhaps this minimal acknowledgment and acceptance of his proclivities will embolden Sal to pursue further encounters. After all, his rejection of the client’s advance last season was based in fear — if he has nothing to fear from his boss, however, that opens up some wiggle room.

The twist of dividing the coveted “head of account services” job between Pete and Ken was brilliant insofar as it allowed us to see Pete at his most fascinatingly, morbidly pathetic — both in his celebration when he gets the promotion and in his bitterness when he realizes he hasn’t really “arrived” after all. It may be just me, but I detected an increased ability in his wife to deal with his moodiness and help bring him around, reminding us yet again that Pete has married above his means in more ways than one.

But the biggest surprise for me was that Bert Cooper had decided it was a good idea to purchase some tentacle porn for display in his office. I don’t think anyone saw that one coming.

In terms of predictions, it seems obvious that there will be some kind of romantic encounter between Peggy and the male quasi-secretary — her only chance to fuck a secretary and truly join the elite corporate ranks. Presumably, since this is Peggy we’re talking about, things won’t go well.

August 20, 2009 - Posted by | Spoiler Alert Thursdays


  1. does he feel that a one-night stand with a young stewardess (as opposed to his more “substantial” flings in the earlier seasons) doesn’t warrant opening himself up even to the point of sharing his name?

    Except that Don shares something even more personal than his (fake) name — the fact that it is his real birthday, which is something that even Betty doesn’t know.

    But overall, I agree that Don probably thinks that he’s being more respectful of Betty by limiting his affairs to out-of-town flings, rather than getting involved in ongoing relationships with women who are in some sense his equals (whether because they are societal outsiders, in the cases of Midge and Rachel, or because they are independent businesswomen, in the cases of Rachel and Bobbie). And Betty has apparently decided she wants this deal. At first, I didn’t know what to make of the fact that Betty was totally unfazed by the stewardess’ stickpin. Betty must have known what it was and what it meant, and Don was clearly holding his breath, waiting for Betty’s reaction. But I guess Betty decided that it was enough for Don to be a good father and an attentive husband (which job requires also that he not entangle himself in any real relationships with other women), and that she doesn’t need more, or deeper, than that. For Don’s part, he knows he can’t tell the truth about himself to his wife. He can’t let Dick Whitman go, though, and he resorts to sharing bits of the truth to people who don’t matter, like anonymous stewardesses who don’t even know his real name.

    Don’s remarks to Sal on the plane, under the cover of a potential advertising pitch, are remarkable for their lack of judgment.

    I thought this moment was incredibly touching, much like Don’s (arguably terrible) advice to Peggy in the hospital room to leave the past behind her.

    Also, Sal’s conversation with was it Paul? back at the office, about the London Fog ad was remarkable. Transcribed inaccurately from my memory:

    Paul: What does the man [who is looking at a presumably nude woman in an open raincoat] look like?
    Sal: Um, interested? Intrigued?
    Paul: No, what does he look like?
    Sal: [dismissively]: Oh. Handsome.

    Compare it to Sal’s totally gay take on the Lucky Strike art in season 1 ep. 1. It’s like he’s instantly internalized what it means to be a heterosexual male. The man is always the subject, and to the extent that he is the object, he’s generically handsome, and doesn’t really matter. So I disagree that Don’s advice evinced a lack of judgment — it worked! Sal needs to do a better job of playing straight, and he has somehow, upon Don’s advice, learned how to do it.

    Also. Ken and Peter look a lot thinner this season. And the Japanese tentacle porn was too, too much. I don’t like being winked at by my television programs. It’s interrupting.

    Comment by jms | August 20, 2009

  2. ISTR wikipedia claiming that Cooper had that print in his office all along, but I can’t corroborate that now.

    The discussion of marginal tax rates: irritating winking?

    Comment by ben | August 20, 2009

  3. That’s true about the birthday. It’s strange that the only person he’d really told things like that before was Rachel, whom he really intensely pursued.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | August 20, 2009

  4. I found the whole thing with the stewardess a bit, incredible. Apparently Don Draper has gone from being a really charming, good-looking dude who gets a lot of tail to a magical being who can make any woman, anywhere want to sleep with him on sight.

    To be fair, she did note she was getting married soon, so perhaps she was just on a mission that particular day.

    Comment by Michael Schaefer | August 20, 2009

  5. If she was just on a mission, then that would help to explain why Don went with it — he really can’t resist an assertive woman.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | August 20, 2009

  6. This is all great, but a much better show was on Sunday night; viz., “True Blood.” The most recent episode was a hinge between the first and second halves of the season: Godric was safely returned to his lair, the Fellowship carried out a successful attack on the lair, and Godric realized his death-wish by committing suicide following having his Sheriff’s position revoked. (Question: why does the TV personality get to hire and fire sheriff’s? I don’t know much about vampire politics, but wouldn’t the Kings and Queen’s have authority over such matters?) With respect to the vampires, we are now in a position where vampire/human political violence can take place openly, of course there will be factions in each who do not want to see violence. Presumably at some point Sarah will defect to join Jason. At the same time, back in Bon Temps, Lafayette and Lettie Mae successfully kidnapped Tara while she (and Eggs) was possessed. Sam also went to Frank Sabotka, the only other person who has seen the maenad’s rituals, presumably for help. Put another way, resistance to and knowledge of the activities of Admiral Cain are spreading. The question, of course, is whether the vampires will become involved – afterall, Cain tried to sacrifice Sam and attacked Sookie at the start of the season.

    Unmentioned so far: but it is clearly the case that since Eric’s conversation at the Fellowship with Sookie where she asked him if Godric was his maker (“Don’t use words you don’t understand”) and Sookie replied that he clearly loves Godric (“Don’t use words I don’t understand”) that Eric (aka Alexander Skaarsgard) has most likely become the sexiest man alive — at least to the ladies. Ultra-violent, track suits, foil highlights, and sensitive. What’s not to like? Of course, I’m still “gay-tham for Statham.”

    Turning to “Durham County,” a travesty those who do not live in Canada have likely been spared, well: the finale was just — and I don’t use this word lightly — retarded. Nothing more can be said about that.

    Comment by Craig | August 20, 2009

  7. Not knowing where they’re going with the “octo-pussy” there is a parallel to be drawn between that and the Relaxacisor. I’m very interested to see how Sterling Cooper continues to cope with sexual revolution.

    And where the hell is Joanie’s plotline going? Between the comment she made to Roger “some day you’ll lose someone close to you. It’s very painful, you’ll see,” and the violence her fiance has demonstrated, my money is that he kills her on the honeymoon.

    Comment by ebolden | August 20, 2009

  8. Looking back, it was ironic that he raped her in Don’s office, since he’s the executive who actually never sleeps with secretaries.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | August 20, 2009

  9. Craig, I know this may sound ridiculous, but have you ever considered watching TV shows that are actually any good at all? Traits to look for might include some minimal redeeming value, not being a complete waste of time, and not actively eating away at your very soul.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | August 20, 2009

  10. the sexiest man alive — at least to the ladies. Ultra-violent, track suits, foil highlights, and sensitive. What’s not to like?

    Craig, you have strange ideas about women.

    Comment by jms | August 20, 2009

  11. it was ironic that he raped her in Don’s office, since he’s the executive who actually never sleeps with secretaries.

    This was really sad. The fact that Don never sleeps with secretaries is mostly relevant because it’s the reason Joan respects him so much — despite the fact that he’s young, handsome and successful, he’s not one of the lads.

    Greg understands that the S/C office is Joan’s special realm, where she’s supremely in charge, and he tries to take it away from her. Maybe on some level he also senses Joan’s special respect and regard for Don; the fact that he rapes her in Don’s office surely makes it even more horrible and humiliating for her.

    Comment by jms | August 20, 2009

  12. JMS: I thus refute you.

    Adam: on the contrary, “True Blood” is the only significant discussion of the ethics of consumption (especially of animals and animal products) in contemporary popular culture. Indeed, I’m pretty sure the entire show is about the normative basis of our relations to the things we kill, eat, exploit and abuse (i.e., “true blood,” the synethetic consumer blood product is structurally equivalent tofu). Plus, it has vampires (and it isn’t as heavy-handed as I understand “District 9″ to be). As for your favorite show, all I can tell is that it is about well-dressed, upwardly mobile people fucking. Didn’t we do that already with “Melrose Place” and “Sex and the City”?

    “Durham County” I am obliged to watch until it is made no more because I watched the first season under the false impression that it would be interesting in some way about Canadian ex-burbs. My mistake: it was not. Now I just want to see them all die.

    Comment by Craig | August 20, 2009

  13. structurally equivalent tofu


    Comment by ben | August 20, 2009

  14. I don’t understand the question.

    Comment by Craig | August 20, 2009

  15. I thought the exchange between Don and Sal on the plane rang true. I’ve had a lot of conversations with family members (extremely conservative ones, from Utah, no less), about their knowledge of homosexuality at the time and their stories lead me to believe that the majority of similarly situated persons at the time would have responded similarly.

    I also thought the juxtaposition of Don’s infidelity with Sal’s (both are married, after all), was interesting. Don’s, ostensibly commonplace, seemed banal and unsexy, while Sal’s, ostensibly more perverse, was life affirming and sexy as hell.

    Then again, I’m queer, so I’m biased.

    Comment by Grant | August 20, 2009

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