Mad Men S5 E8
(Note: This recap of S5 E8 — “Dark Shadows” — was originally published on a now-defunct platform on May 14, 2012 and is being saved here so all the Mad Men recaps are in one place).

Happy Mother’s Day ladies!  Sunday’s Mad Men was Matt Weiner’s gift to Moms everywhere.  Regardless of your own maternal shortcomings, you can console yourselves that at least you’re not as bad as Betty Draper Francis.

Really, what can be worse than using your own daughter to drive a wedge between your former husband and his new wife?  Telling Sally about Don’s first wife, Anna, and then advising her to ask Megan, secretly hoping that Don had kept it a secret from Megan, just as he had kept it hidden from her.  She expected this to cause an explosion in the Megan/Don relationship.  Which is almost what happened.

What Betty didn’t count on was that Megan is the “girl who can do everything,” as Peggy astutely noted last week.  As the only adult in Manhattan, she was able to calm Don’s fury and prevented him from calling and blasting Betty, which was his initial inclination.  Instead, Megan continued to help Don travel down the road to becoming a better person and if anything, strengthened Don and Sally’s relationship at Betty’s expense.  Upon returning home, Sally then extracted an exquisite measure of revenge by oh-so-innocently informing Betty that Don had told her all about Anna, adding, “Daddy showed me pictures and they spoke very fondly of her.” Betty knows full well who they are NOT speaking fondly of.

That was a great scene, but the show overall was the least excellent and least demanding of the episodes this season.  The portentous title of the show, “Dark Shadows,” forecast the presence of evil and darkness, but it had the feel of a soap opera, which is only appropriate since the title comes from the vampire-based soap opera (see below) that debuted in 1966. (And what a coincidence – and I do believe it was a coincidence – that the Johnny Depp movie version of that show opened last weekend.)

You can make the case that evil actually is afoot in “Dark Shadows,” (the Mad Men episode, not the soap opera).  The episode shows how envy – one of the seven deadly sins – distorts our personalities and makes us do things we know are wrong.  We see Betty trying to move to her good side in the Weight Watchers’ meetings, but she is still overcome by jealousy and competition.  In the first meeting she admits to “feeling a lot of things I wish I hadn’t,” a rare expression of emotional maturity, but after the second weigh-in, she is sour and unhappy that the pound-a-week-losing Judy Schechter has lost more weight that she has.

The theme of competition is pretty heavy-handed in “Dark Shadows.”  In the very first line of the show Roger explains to Bert that fishing is competition – not because it’s man versus fish as Bert assumes, but because “it’s man vs. man. The weighing and measuring.”  Then in the final line of dialogue, when Betty has to reveal what she’s grateful for at Thanksgiving, she says, really, really pathetically, “I’m thankful that I have everything I want. And that no one has anything better.”

In between those two lines we have numerous examples of competition and jealously.  Don and Peggy are both competing with Michael Ginsberg. Don actually stays at work on a Sunday night to come up with a creative idea that is better than Michael’s and then presents only his own idea to the client.  Betty is competitive and jealous of Megan, with her lithe figure and glamorous apartment. As noted, Betty is also competitive with the other women at Weight Watchers.  Roger is competitive with Bernie Rosenberg, the client’s son who is hitting on his estranged wife at dinner. He’s so competitive that he aggressively seeks to have sex with her at her new apartment. Pete is competitive with all the other agencies and is yanked that SCDP don’t appear in a NYT magazine article on ad agencies (an actual piece by Victor Navasky that appeared on November 20, 1966.)

The only one who is not competitive is Megan.  Her friend is jealous of her modern apartment and rich husband, but Megan herself seems supportive of her attempts to land the part on the aforementioned Dark Shadows series.  She does admit, when the friend is giving her grief about her fortunate situation, “What do you want me to say, that I’d kill for an audition in this piece of crap?  I would. Are you happy?” Admitting to that kind of jealousy seems a healthier and more honest way of dealing with it than lobbing the cutting but passive-aggressive remarks that the other characters make.

It surprises me that there are many viewers who don’t like Megan.  She’s been on screen more time this year than anyone else, except for Don himself.  Until this year, the second-most important plot-line on Mad Men has been Peggy’s story, which exemplifies woman’s struggle for equality.  But the Megan story has gained traction this year – she exemplifies not just woman but the new generation who reject the compromises and cynicism of the previous generations.  She’s only a few years younger than Peggy but Peggy is from a different era.  It’s no surprise that her last line of dialogue – in response to Don’s suggestion that they open the window to cool off the apartment is to note “The air is toxic. I don’t want it in here.”   A perhaps too-obvious metaphor for the rotten world that the older generation has built.

By the way, there really was a “killer smog” on November 24, 1966 that killed 400 people. Hats off again to the Mad Men research department:

Some other observations:

·         Many Mad Men episodes are rooted firmly in specific moments in history and deal with broad sociological themes. Not with “Dark Shadows.”  The themes explored in this show could have occurred on many other television series set in any historical era.  The only thing that tied it to the mid-sixties was Weight Watchers, which was formed in 1963. Those meetings, in which the plump ladies are advised that “we should fill ourselves with our children, our homes, our husbands, our happiness,” could not have occurred like that just a few years later, when The Feminine Mystique had penetrated more deeply into the culture.

·         Speaking of Weight Watchers, from 1978 to 1999 it was owned by Heinz! It was probably not in the baked beans division, though.

·         Megan, I don’t think Sally Draper needs any acting lessons.  The girl is a natural at putting on an act to get what she wants or to manipulate her parents. You are playing with fire if you give her any more tips.

·         Henry Francis is unhappy because he “backed the wrong horse” in leaving Nelson Rockefeller’s team to join the John Lindsay administration. In the 1966 election there was a major backlash against Lyndon Johnson (one that paralleled the 2010 backlash against Barack Obama) in which Rockefeller, George Romney and Ronald Reagan all won gubernatorial elections by huge margins.  Henry thinks that Rocky will run for president, but Betty is more astute for once in noting that Rocky’s divorce makes him an unpalatable presidential candidate.  In fact, Rocky initially supported Romney as the candidate from the moderate wing of the GOP but jumped into the race in February 1968 after Romney faltered in New Hampshire. Although he finished second at the GOP convention, there was no chance that he would be nominated.  Of course if backing the right horse is what’s important to Henry, he should be making inquiries right about now with Richard Nixon.

·         In Michael Ginsburg’s “Sno Ball” portfolio there are several references to pigs.  This refers to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which the protagonist is named Snowball.  Here’s a relevant quotation from the book, which might actually interest Betty Draper Francis: “The animals were happy as they had never conceived it possible to be. Every mouthful of food was an acute positive pleasure, now that it was truly their own food, produced by themselves and for themselves, not doled out to them by a grudging master.”

·         How many ways can Roger Sterling make anti-Semitic jokes?  When told that he needs to meet the heads of the Manischewitz wine company and to bring his “Semitic wife” because they are obviously Jewish, he asks “How Jewish are they? Fiddler on the Roof – audience or cast?” Then in explaining the business opportunity to Michael Ginsberg, he manages to make three anti-Semitic remarks in one paragraph: “They make wine for Jews and now they’re making it for normal people. You know, for people like me. They’re open to everything. It has to be cheap – surprise – but impactful. Bring me a couple of your best ideas by sundown Friday. [pause] I have done a little research.”

Finally, I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, when are they going to start dealing with race relations in a major way?  This was a bigger topic in previous years that in this season.  They obviously hired Dawn, the black secretary, to make a point, but I just can’t believe that the whole civil rights saga, the most important issue of the sixties other than the Vietnam war, will continue to fly under the radar.

Don’t forget. It’s every man for himself.  On Mad Men it sure is.

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Reagan Mondale

Whenever the presidential debates roll around, I always think back to my small part in one of the most inglorious moments in debate history – a moment recalled ad nauseum after President Obama’s recent lackluster performance.

In the early 1980s, I moved to Washington, DC, as an eager foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution.  It was a thrilling time for me.  I had been one of those kids who always read the op-eds before the comics and I just loved Ronald Reagan.

I was lucky enough to end up with a job in the opposition research department of the Reagan/Bush ’84 re-election campaign. Opposition research has since gained a sleazy reputation as the black-ops part of the campaign – the team who digs up dirt on mistresses, undocumented nannies and other indiscretions, but at the time it was a fairly respectable profession in which we researched Walter Mondale’s speeches, congressional statements and interviews so that we could more dramatically draw the difference between him and the president.

As we approached the first presidential debate, our boss, Ken Khachigian, who was very active in the debate prep, asked us to submit proposed closing statements.  Two days before the actual debate, he pulled me aside and said that Jim Baker, the president’s chief of staff, had  liked my draft and they would work some of it into the debate materials.

I could not have been more thrilled and quickly envisioned a world where I would be hired as a Presidential speechwriter, maybe hopping rides on Air Force One and getting the occasional wink from the big guy himself.

On debate night (Sunday, October 7, 1984) we piled into my boss’s office at 9:00 p.m. after a day of hanging around the campaign headquarters watching football games (need I mention that this was a world before email so people spent a lot less time on busy work and more time on important pursuits). I had a feeling they would use my opening paragraphs if they used anything.

This is what I had written:

“Four years ago, I asked all of you if you were better off than you had been when Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale entered the White House.  Most of you decided that the answer was ‘no,’ and we had a change of leadership.  

“I believe that if I asked the same question now, most of you would say that you ARE better off than you were four years ago, and that it IS easier for you to buy things and plan for the future. 

“But tonight I’d like to ask a slightly different question.  Is your COUNTRY better off now than it was four years ago?  Are you prouder to be an American?  Are we headed in the right direction as a nation?  Do you think America will continue to be the best country in the world?  These questions are really what this election is all about.” 

The statement continued for another 500 words in a similarly eloquent vein, and as I reread the rest of the statement now, 28 years later, I had to admit that wasn’t bad.

But as we settled back to watch the debate that night, my anticipation began to turn to unease.  Reagan was clearly not on the top of his game.  Like Obama on October 3, he had only half-heartedly prepared and was taken aback at the strong attacks of his opponent.  Substantively, I thought Reagan had scored a draw, but stylistically it looked bad.  He was inarticulate and fumbling and seemed to lose his train of thought.

And then came the time for the closing statements and I hoped against hope that my little contribution would help rescue the day.  Instead this is what he said:

“Four years ago, in similar circumstances to this, I asked you, the American people, a question. I asked: “Are you better off than you were 4 years before?” The answer to that obviously was no, and as the result, I was elected to this office and promised a new beginning. 

“Now, maybe I’m expected to ask that same question again. I’m not going to, because I think that all of you — or not everyone, those people that are in those pockets of poverty and haven’t caught up, they couldn’t answer the way I would want them to — but I think that most of the people in this country would say, yes, they are better off than they were 4 years ago. 

“The question, I think, should be enlarged. Is America better off than it was 4 years ago? And I believe the answer to that has to also be “yes.” I promised a new beginning. So far, it is only a beginning. If the job were finished, I might have thought twice about seeking reelection for this job. 

“But we now have an economy that, for the first time — well, let’s put it this way: In the first half of 1980, gross national product was down a minus 3.7 percent. The first half of ’84 it’s up 8\1/2\ percent. Productivity in the first half of 1980 was down a minus 2 percent. Today it is up a plus 4 percent. 

“Personal earnings after taxes per capita have gone up almost $3,000 in these 4 years. In 1980 — or 1979, a person with a fixed income of $8,000 was $500 above the poverty line, and this maybe explains why there are the numbers still in poverty. By 1980 that same person was $500 below the poverty line.” 

There was a lot more like that (here’s the full transcript: http://bit.ly/QCCYYT.)  A jumble of statistics and not much vision. More stumbling.  Later it transpired that the President had been so annoyed at Mondale’s relentless attacks that he threw out the second half of his closing statement and just started bringing up topics that had been mentioned earlier in the debate but hadn’t been addressed to his satisfaction.

In the days that followed, the media would not shut up about how bad Reagan had been – particularly in his closing statement. Fortunately I had been sworn to secrecy about my contributions, which is just as well, because if there was one thing everyone agreed on it was that the closely statement was spectacularly awful.

Needless to say, I never did get that job as a White House speechwriter, but Reagan did famously rebound in the second debate.   As usual, the media had overreached and spent two weeks portrayed Reagan as a doddering old fool, so when Henry Trewhitt, the foreign affairs editor of the Baltimore Sun, asked him if he was too old to be president, he responded with one of the most famous lines in debate history:  “Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt, and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”  No one can remember another single thing about that debate.

For a while I used my draft opening statement as a writing sample when applying for jobs after the election, but eventually, it got too tiresome to explain that, well yes, the president did use some of my ideas, but not the actual words, and no, I wasn’t completely responsible for almost tanking the election.  So I just filed it away and didn’t look at it again until commentators started comparing the Obama and Reagan debate performances.  And it made me realize that if I actually had gotten that White House job I dreamed about I never would have met my wife and we never would have had my son, so all in all it was good that for this one time Ronald Reagan couldn’t follow a script.

madmen-s5e7

(Note: The Recap of S5 E7 — “Lady Lazarus” — was origibnally published on a now-defunct platform on May 7, 2012, and is being saved her so all the Man Men recaps are in the same place.)

Congratulations to Matt Weiner for one of the great head fakes in Mad Man history.  The title of last night’s episode “Lady Lazarus” is also the name of a notoriously depressive Sylvia Plath Holocaust poem. If you want to slit your wrists, here is a reading from Plath herself:

This would make even Ingmar Bergman want to take a Zoloft. (Sample lines: “Dying/Is an art, like everything else/ I do it exceptionally well.” Sheesh.)

Sylvia Plath? The Holocaust?  That could mean either a subplot about concentration camp-born Michael Ginsburg or the suicide that’s been hinted at since the “falling man” promotional ads started appearing earlier this year.

And indeed, the episode initially seems like it’s going the former route.  In the very first scene Pete tells his commuting buddy that his life insurance policy even covers suicide after two years.  Further, this scene is set up like the Hitchcock movie “Strangers on the Train” (where two train travelers discuss killing each other’s spouses and one actually does.) Almost immediately there’s another Hitchcock reference to “The Birds,” further suggesting a creepy Hitchcockian sensibility.

And then we meet Beth, the wife of the man on the train, a classic unhappy Sixties housewife, who despite being “well-provided for” is miserable because she knows her husband is cheating on her (shades of Betty Draper!)  Beth is absorbed by the recent photos of the earth from outer space, which show our home planet as “tiny and unprotected, surrounded by darkness.”

And then finally, there’s this little speech from Pete, who continues to be morose as a suburban husband, and is particularly unhappy that Beth, who succumbed once to his advances, will not progress toward a full-blown affair. Talking to the always-clueless Harry Crane he says: “Why do they give you a glimmer of hope in the midst of rejection? A thread to hang onto. A misplaced word, a suggestion of the future. Under a court of law it would look like an accident but it’s not.” Yikes, that’s some heavy existential stuff if you consider that “they” can be the whole human race and not just “women that Pete wants to have sex with.”

But, presto-chango, Lady Lazarus is not about suicide after all.  Yes, it’s about a dead woman being reborn but that woman is not Sylvia Plath but Megan Draper.  Feeling increasingly deadened in her job as an successful copywriter, she slips the chains to pursue her real dream, which as we have learned, is to be an actress.

And here’s where we have to work backward from the last scene in the episode.  In a show about the Sixties, it was inevitable that Mad Men and the Beatles would intersect in a major way.  It is hard to overstate the crucial role the Beatles played in the development of the Sixties sensibility.  They started as a conventional boys band, then popularized long hair, stirred up teens like no one before or since (except for maybe Elvis), expressed the alienation at the root of the Sixties rebellion before anyone else put a finger on it and ended up symbolizing everything that was counter-cultural. In song after song, album after album for six years they dominated the cultural landscape.

The Beatles played an important role in a previous Mad men episode. Back in Episode 10 of Season Four — “Hands and Knees” — Don takes Sally Draper to the Beatles appearance at Shea Stadium. This is a the episode where Lane gets caned by his dear papa and everyone seems to be hiding something. So it was perfectly spot-on that the closing credits featured an instrumental version of the Beatles song, “Do You Want to know a Secret.”

Matt Weiner explained later that they used an instrumental version of the song because the licensing fees for actual Beatles version were prohibitively expensive.  So what a huge surprise when Megan gives Don the “Revolver” album in the final scene, suggests that he play a particular track if he wants to understand what’s going on in society, and we hear the actual song Tomorrow Never Knows.

This is both a shocking and thrilling selection.  Even today, almost 50 years later, the song never fails to amaze. Here it is, in all its psychedelic majesty.

This song, in this episode, shows how deeply into the Sixties the show has come.  On the surface things still seem normal – husbands still commute to the city from the suburbs and people pursue careers, but deep down there is a tidal wave of dissatisfaction and disillusionment heading our way.

John Lennon wrote “Tomorrow Never Knows” after reading  The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead by Timothy LearyRichard Alpert, and Ralph Metzner, which in turn was adapted from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Following the instructions laid out in the book, Lennon took LSD and was never quite the same.  (You will remember of course, that at the party where Roger and Jane started their own LSD trip, the other guests were discussing the Tibetan Book of the Dead.) Lennon lyrics make it clear that there’s a path to transcendence that does not involving making commercials for baked beans:

Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream,
It is not dying, it is not dying

Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void,
It is shining, it is shining.

Megan bless her, has the clarity of vision to know you can should not spend your life doing a job you do not love and she has the courage to make the change. Her co-workers do not understand this, and even Don doesn’t get it at first.  In a rueful conversation Roger remarks, “I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do. My father told me.” Don replies, “I was raised in the Thirties – my dream was indoor plumbing.” But, he adds, “Why shouldn’t she do what she wants? I don’t want her to end up like Betty – or her mother.”

And here’s the new Don Draper – he has become the perfect husband. Supportive, understanding, sensitive (and well-off.) And how heart-breaking it is that at the moment he has become possibly the happiest he’s become in his life, the one thing that makes him happiest – working with his wife – vanishes.  No wonder when he looks into the elevator shaft all he sees is a void.

Megan, at least, gets to pursue her dream, but will that lead to happiness?  We’ll see.  Don has made the excellent point that “sometimes we don’t get to chose where our talents lie,” and it may turn out that Megan true calling is in advertising after all, where she has a real talent. But I think Peggy’s right.  She’s one of those girls who can do it all.  She’s a great character and an inspiration to us all.  Let’s hope she doesn’t find that professional success doesn’t break up her marriage.  That would be the expected thing, but Matt Weiner usually does not do the expected thing.

Some other observations:

·         This episode takes place on and around October 17, 1966. We know this because the news broadcasts are full of reports of LBJ’s trip to Asia, which began on that date.

·         Joan increasingly seems like a dinosaur, stuck in the Fifties. Her aphorisms about sexual politics are drawn from an age when women had to entrap and manipulate men. Last week she was sure that Abe was going to propose to Peggy, failing to foresee the possibility of cohabitation. This week she dismisses Megan as a typical second wife, following a “playbook.” She snarks, “She’s going to be a failing actress with a rich husband. Did you know that he met Betty Draper when she was a model on a photo shoot? That’s the kind of girl Don marries.” Joan can possibly be forgiven for not knowing exactly how talented an actress Megan is, having missed the birthday party where she performed “Zou Bijou Bijou.” Nor has she seen her acting in client pitches.

·         What is the Beatles-like song that the Cool Whip people want to put behind the commercial and why does Michael Ginsberg react so viscerally to it?  It’s supposed to be 30 years old.  Is it a Nazi song? Many mysteries with Michael.

·         Last week Julia Ormond appeared as Megan’s mother. Last night former Gilmore Girl Alexis Bliedel, showed up as Beth, the unhappy housewife. Gilmore Girls is a show I never watched but Twitter went crazy when she showed up as a suburban housewife.  I wonder if she’ll be back and finally take those pills/slit her wrists/put her head in the oven. She tells Pete, “I’ve had men paying attention to me since before it was appropriate and they don’t care what I say. They just watch my lips move.” She doesn’t sound like she’s long for this world.

·         What a hilarious joke Roger pulled on Pete, convincing him to take those skis by appealing to his vanity and telling him the client specifically wanted him to have them. Pete looked completely ridiculous carrying the skis around the office and transporting them home, as Roger undoubtedly knew he would. Revenge is best served cold, indeed.

·         As mentioned, Beth is wigged out by how vulnerable the earth looks from outer space.  Here Are the photos to which she was referring:  http://bit.ly/r32xVo

·         I want to be head of desserts.

·         Wise words from Megan: “It’s so simple when it’s someone else’s life, isn’t it.”

By the way, I think we will find out that the Beatles let Lionsgate use Tomorrow Never Knows for a reduced rate or maybe even for free.  I have no inside knowledge on this.  Just guesssing.

mad man howard johnson

(Note: This recap of S5 E6 — “Far Away Places” — was originally published on a now-defunct platform on May 1, 2012 and is being saved here so all the Mad Men recaps are in one place).

I always wondered if Matt Weiner is on drugs when he writes his Mad Men scripts and now I’m pretty sure that he is.  Sunday’s show “Far Away Places” has the most vivid acid trip in TV history – and he did it entirely without special effects.  Only someone who frequently hallucinates could have thought this up.

The show itself feels like a hallucination, like some tripped out French “New Wave” movie playing with time and space, but the structure of the episode could not have been simpler.  The episode features three separate stories that take place at the same time over the same 24 hours.  Nothing new there, but we are so accustomed to TV’s convention of interwoven and parallel story lines in which you get multiple cuts among the various stories that when they play our serially it seems mind-blowing.  As the episode progressed, it felt like an increasingly complex puzzle but it was only at the conclusion that you realized it had actually been three mini plays one after another: 15 minutes of Peggy, 15 minutes of Roger and 15 minutes of Don.  Seriously, what could be less complicated?

Even more amazing is the LSD trip that Roger and Jane take.  It seems so freaking weird, but it’s really a matter of dialogue, camera angles and the occasional musical sound effect.  Usually these experiences are portrayed with distorted lenses, animation or CGI pop-ups, but here is a perfect example where Weiner’s budgetary limitations do him a tremendous favor – simpler is better because it’s more believable.

The title of the episode is “Far Away Places,” which refers to the LSD trip, Don and Megan’s ill-fated trip to the Plattsburgh Howard Johnsons and (presumably) Michael Ginsberg’s birth monologue. It’s hard to know what was more hallucinatory – the actual LSD trip or Ginsberg’s story about coming from Mars but in reality being born in a concentration camp and later found in a Swedish orphanage at age 5.  You don’t need to be on drugs to have a loose grip on reality.  “Are there more like you?” Peggy asks? I don’t know, I’ve never found any, he responds.

Speaking of Far Away Places, how trippy is that Howard Johnsons?  The colors are so vivid and bizarre – and such a shock of memory.  Yes, I spent a lot of time in Howard Johnsons restaurants in the Sixties and it never dawned on me that they were so freakish.

But for pure Sixties out-there-ness consider the movie that Peggy goes to see after she blows the Heinz pitch.  Born Free is about a couple who adopt a lion cub (just like Ginsberg was adopted!!).  I actually used to have the ‘45 record of the theme song, as performed by Andy Williams.  Some of the lyrics include:

Live free and beauty surrounds you
The world still astounds you
Each time you look at a star

Stay free, where no walls divide you
You’re free as the roaring tide
So there’s no need to hide

Does this or does this echo an acid trip? (Here’s the trailer to the movie.)

In any event, to the main point of the show. This was a depiction of three relationships under stress: 1) Peggy and Abe, because Peggy cares too much about her job; 2) Don and Megan because Don doesn’t care enough about his job; and 3) Roger and Jane because Roger doesn’t care one way or another about anything.

The Peggy and Don conflicts are hard to watch because they are so real.  The fight that Don and Megan have is a remarkable depiction of how frighteningly fast a resentment can escalate into a full-blown crisis. Megan wants to be taken seriously at work but Don is looking for a playmate; when he yanks her away from her colleagues on the day of the Heinz pitch, he is tacitly diminishing her worth to the team.  He’s still on his honeymoon and just wants to recreate the joy of their Disneyland vacation; he’s genuinely so excited for her to taste orange sherbet. Again, here’s the shock of recognition – how many of our own arguments have escalated like this because we can’t articulate, even to ourselves, what is bothering us or what we desire until it’s too late.  And as much as I sympathize with Megan, has there ever been a more devastating and cruel taunt thrown in a spouse’s face than “Why don’t you call YOUR mother?”

As for being born motherless, this is another thing that Don and Michael have in common. Except that Ginsberg has a loving dad, which is one of the best things this season.  It’s wonderful finally to see someone getting unreserved guilt-free love from a parent.  To have someone who will stare at you while you sleep is no little thing.

Some random observations:

·         Megan has abandonment issues. Presumably we will find out later what those are.

·         Nice to see Burt Cooper reasserting his authority at SCDP. Until now, everyone in authority at the firm has been coasting – will they now start working again?

·         I loved it that the LSD session was conducted in an upper-intelligentsia East Side environment and not by a bunch of hippies.  Apparently LSD was not outlawed until 1968 so taking it under the supervision of a doctor was probably legal.

·         I also loved how the Beach Boys was playing in the background during the LSD trip.  Why the reel-to-reel tape, though, and not the record?  (Assuming the music is from Pet Sounds” although I don’t actually own that LP myself.)

·         The word “displacement,” which had an important meaning in World War II, was used in two very different contexts. When Ginsberg says he’s from Mars, he reassures Peggy, “Don’t worry, there’s no plot to take over Earth.  We’re just displaced.”  Later Roger tells Jane he’s moving to a hotel because he doesn’t want to displace her.  Both Ginsberg and Jane are Jewish, but so different they can’t be seriously considered the same ethnicity.

·         When will Mad Men tackle civil rights?  The first scene in the entire season was a civil rights protest, but except for the occasional awkward scene with Dawn, the entire subject of race has been unexplored.  This is certainly a conscious decision by Matt Weiner, but the more he delays dealing with it, the more I dread an explosion.

·         Funniest line: When Jane realizes that her marriage is over, “It’s going to be very expensive.”

Boy I would love some fried clams right now.

(This blog post originally appeared on another now-defunct blogging platform on August 11, 2011, and has been reposted here for posterity.)

rs-carole-king-39a155c9-dd9e-4abd-aca9-b2659cbfef28

When I was in the 11th grade, the Russian Club, of which I was a member in good standing, went to see James Taylor at the old Boston Garden. This was my first rock concert and the crowd was even bigger and more enthusiastic than anything I’d previously experienced when I’d gone there to see the Celtics or Ice Capades. But before James Taylor took the stage, he introduced a woman named Carole King. None of us in the Brockton High School Russian Club had ever heard of her, but when she started to sing “I Feel the Earth Move,” I couldn’t believe we were seeing such a great opening act. Were all rock concerts like this?

She went on to sing several other great but previously unheard of (by us) songs, including “You’ve Got a Friend” and “It’s Too Late.” She also did some nice renditions of “(You Make me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Will You Love me Tomorrow,” songs that we thought belonged to Aretha Franklin and The Shirelles. To this day, that was one of the best concerts I ever attended.

It wasn’t until several months later that we understood the significance of what we’d seen – that concert tour was essentially the launch of the singer-songwriter era. There had been singer-songwriters before – Bob Dylan and such – but this new confessional genre didn’t really coalesce as a vehicle until the release of “Tapestry,” a monster hit that was Billboard’s number one album for 15 weeks and went on to sell 25 million copies.

I hadn’t really thought about Carole King until she and James Taylor went on their wildly nostalgic “Troubadour” reunion tour last year. And then when I was on vacation last month I heard “It’s Too Late” on the car radio – always an evocative experience when you’re driving to the beach with the windows open and smelling of Coppertone.

When I returned from vacation I pulled out the CD. (No, I never had it in vinyl. As much as a liked the individual songs, buying “Tapestry” itself didn’t seem like a Y-chromosome thing to do.) I wanted to see if such a consequential album still held up after all these years.

The first thing I noticed is that the album cover is one of the greatest rebranding jobs in music history. The cover photo is a long shot of a woman of indeterminate age and ethnicity sitting in the cozy window seat of a vaguely rural house. She’s bathed in sunlight, barefoot, wearing jeans and holding what appears to be a tapestry in her lap. Oh, and there’s a cat in the foreground. This is the picture of a mellowed-out former hippy and quasi-Earth Mother, someone with whom you would have a nice cup of chamomile tea.

In fact, until the album came out, Carole King was no one’s idea of a back-to-the-earth hippy. She was born in Brooklyn (where her college boyfriend was Neil Sedaka!) and together with her husband Gerry Goffin she had become a phenomenally successful Manhattan-based songwriter. Working out of the Brill Building in the 1960’s she churned out hits for artists as diverse as Aretha Franklin, The Monkees, The Chiffones, The Drifters, Herman’s Hermits and Blood Sweat and Tears. She was among the last practitioners of that old-fashioned tradition going back to Tin Pan Alley in which a songwriter wrote a song on spec, hoping to sell it to someone who would make it hit. She was in show business, with an emphasis on the business.

carole_and_gerry_vintage_studio

The young Carole King and Gerry Goffin

But after splitting from Goffin, she and her kids moved to L.A., and settled into Laurel Canyon, a haven for artists like Joni Mitchell and Crosby Stills and Nash, who were developing a new style of music. It was out of this amazingly creative milieu that the new Carole King emerged.

If there was ever an album that captured the Zeitgeist of its age, it was “Tapestry.”   The Carole King celebrated therein is a natural women, lovelorn but independent. She’s strong but vulnerable. She’s a friend and a lover (but definitely not a mother – kids are neither seen nor heard of in this album). She was what every thinking woman wanted to be as the sixties morphed into the seventies.

Hearing “Tapestry” afresh, the songs that were great then remain great today. “I Feel the Earth Move” is still one of rock’s great anthems to passion, and has there ever been a more rueful break-up song than “It’s Too Late”? And in “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” her slower, more mature approach seems profounder than the Shirelle’s pop version.

Not every song is a gem. Although the “Tapestry” versions are OK, I do prefer the more soulful renditions of “Natural Woman” and “You’ve got a Friend” by Aretha Franklin and James Taylor, respectively. I actively dislike Smackwater Jack, with its clichéd attack on small town sheriffs; and “Beautiful” (“You’ve got to get up every morning, with a smile on your face and show the world all the love in your heart”), is a little too self-helpy for my taste.

Then there’s the title song, which is one of the weirdest, most out-of-place songs on any gigantically popular album. The opening line does a perfect job in setting the tone for the whole album: “My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue.” But then the song describes “a man of fortune” with “a coat of many colors” who eventually turns into a frog. He is replaced by a gray and ghostly figure, previously seen in black, who unravels the tapestry, because he has “come to take me back.”   This sounds like the grim reaper coming to get her at the end of her life. If so, this is such a downer of a song, I can’t believe it’s on this otherwise generally optimistic empowering album. My guess is that most listeners grew confused with the heavy-handed symbolism and just pretended the song wasn’t even there.

What strikes me about the album now is that except for the aforementioned title song, everything in “Tapestry” is very simple, with few complicated images or multisyllabic words. Nothing wrong with that. Great poetry often relies on short basic words, but after a lifetime of listening to the sophisticated melodies, lyrics and meanings of Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon or the Beatles, it’s a surprise to see that that this album is a work of such sparseness.

Although most of the classic songs on Tapestry remain terrific, I can’t say I love Carole King’s overall delivery. Her voice is neither rich nor deep, and she falls into the trap of over e-nun-ci-a-ting every syllable. It’s almost as if, after a career or seeing her lyrics smothered by mushy vocals, she wanted to make sure that every word came through clearly. This makes the singing a little choppy and very duh-duh-da-duh.

Finally, what strikes me about this album after so many years is that she made it when she was only 29 years old. Today, that seems remarkably young (particularly for someone who had already had an astoundingly successful first career as a song-writer) and she seems wise beyond her years. But at the time, her corporate overlords must have thought she was a little over-the-hill. How else can you explain that soft-focus cover photo, where she’s wearing long pants and a long-sleeve sweater? Not only is the camera pulled back far enough to obscure her face, but there is not an inch of skin showing. She is definitely not selling sexuality. No Gaga-esque outfits for her.

Carole King's "Tapestry" album, photographed by Jim McCrary

So, to the question at hand; after listening to “Tapestry” fresh for the first time in years, I would say, yes, it remains terrific, mostly. I’ve downloaded it into my iPod and will be once again playing my favorite songs and deleting the rest. I might even play the CD itself on a cool autumn night when we’ve made a fire and are mellowing out with some Port.  Now if I could just find my “Sweet Baby James” album, we’d be all set.

(Note: This recap of S5 E5 — “Signal 30” — was originally published on a now-defunct platform on April 17, 2012 and is being saved here so all the Mad Men recaps are in one place).

mad men signal 30

An episode that begins with screeching tires and a crash and ends with “Ode to Joy” covers a lot of ground.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Mad Men is its unpredictability.  Starting with the misleading promos that offer snippets of upcoming scenes taken out of context, you can never tell where Mad Men is headed. There are zigs and zags within the episodes, even within the scenes themselves, which makes the series one surprise after another.

When I saw that last Sunday’s show was titled Signal 30, I was filled with dread.  Signal 30 is a notoriously gruesome driving school safety movie designed to scare students into good behavior by graphically showing the aftermath of traffic accidents.

Coming on the heels of last week’s gothic marriage of sex and violence I could only imagine some horrible end for some character (particularly Megan, who is standing between Don and his natural state of unhappiness.)

Nope, this was just another Matt Weiner head fake; Signal 30 turned out to be one of the funniest episodes of the series, with one surprising scene after another.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that after four straight episodes of sometimes heavy-handed exposition showing how the sixties have changed everything, we are right back to the culture of season one.  The female characters all have subsidiary roles as the mad men themselves duke it out with each other (literally.) The boozing and carousing are back. Don is back – confident and good looking again, no longer seemingly like a relic of the old days. Heck, even Sterling and Cooper seem to have regained a little of their Mojo, offering sage business advice and one-liners galore.

And of course bad Pete is back.  He was a swine in season one and seemed slowly to be maturing, but it’s clear that he hasn’t grown up at all.  If anything, he’s gone backwards, hitting on a jail-bait cutie in his drivers’ ed class (what an idiot – as if he didn’t learn his lesson from impregnating Peggy and then humiliating himself with his neighbor’s au pair).

Now that Dr. Greg Harris is back in Vietnam Pete Campbell seems to have emerged as the designated villain of the series.  And he was born for humiliation.  Impatient, grasping, always wanting more, and completely lacking in self-awareness, he’s both a figure of contempt and pathos.  “I have nothing Don,” he whines  after getting beat up by Lane (in one of the great scenes in Mad Men history.) Right, Pete, nothing except a successful career, a beautiful wife, a sweet baby daughter, a house in the suburbs and a great pedigree.

But Pete has become one of those guys who can’t get no satisfaction.  Nothing’s enough. Having grown up with wealth and privilege, he needs to earn his way through life because his father frittered away the family fortune.  He wants to be creative but can’t get the respect he craves. And he seems bored with the life he’s worked hard to build.  Ah, the ennui.  The disenchantment of the modern man.  I’ll give him some slack, conceding that it’s tough to grow up with expectations that fall considerably short in adulthood, but that doesn’t change the fact that Pete has become, if you will forgive the expression in a family blog, a dick.

That’s what makes his myriad humiliations such a treat.  Let’s categorize them, just for fun:

·         He is unmanned by a much older Lane Pryce in bout of fisticuffs, right there in the office in front of an agog trio of Don, Roger and Bert.

·         His slightly perverted advances towards the queen of his drivers ed class are rebuffed because she favors a fellow student named Handsome, who is such a lug-head he would rather go to Vietnam that accept a track scholarship to Holy Cross.

·         His attempt to fix the drip in the kitchen faucet blows up during the dinner party and Don, to great applause (and references to Superman) has to come to the rescue, fixing the faucet while Pete is still fumbling to find a wrench.   (Not being very mechanical myself, I have to sympathize with Pete, but I’d like to think that I would know at least to shut off the water before running to find a tool box.)

·         He is made to feel cheap and dirty by Don’s exemplary behavior at the brothel when they take a client out for a good time. Don, of course, says nothing judgmental – Pete intuits that Don is looking down on him for partaking of the pleasures that Don has passed on, and there’s nothing Pete wants more than Don’s approval. (And how funny is it that when the client tells the group that he wants “to have a little fun,” Peter suggests, “We could grab a drink at the Carlyle. That’s a good place to get into trouble.”)

·         His erstwhile rival, Ken Cosgrove, with a less successful career and a plainer wife, seems so much happier; he turns out to be a successful author of science fiction stories, recalling for us that when Ken published a story in The Atlantic Monthly in Season One, Pete failed to get any takers for his own fiction and was reduced to seeing it published in Boys Life! (And what he doesn’t know is that Ken is setting him up for eternal humiliation by writing an eloquent Cheeverseque short story based on Pete’s suburban unhappiness.)

Pete’s dissatisfaction is the mirror opposite of Don’s state of mind.  We now have happy Don. Having literally strangled his own destructive urges last week, he is now so blissful that when he gets drunk the first thing that pops into his mind is “Let’s make a baby.”  Megan says that’s impossible, but we don’t know whether that’s literally or metaphorically impossible.

Don’s happiness stems from his marriage, which admittedly, as Pete points out, is still in its honeymoon stage.  Don has always been attracted to strong women (despite marrying Betty) and Megan has surprisingly turned out to be a match for him.   She stands up to him, but in a flirty, not bitchy, way. She picks out his clothes, gets him to cut back on his drinking and tells him that if he wants to get out going to Pete’s dinner party he has to call his wife himself. She knows his secrets and still loves him. The word “uxorious” (Definition: fondly doting or submissive to a wife’s desires) comes to mind.  In response to Pete’s snide remarks about his failed first marriage he says “If I’d met her first, I would have known not to throw it away.”

Even though it’s impossible to anticipate Matt Weiner, I still can’t stop myself, and it seems that Don will continue to have his swagger, confidence and fidelity as long as he remains happy with Megan. Remember that so much of his destructive behavior was driven by his unhappiness with Betty (in a telling early episode, Don gets passed-out drunk at his son’s birthday party after seeing the loving relationship between a neighboring couple.) That’s why I fear for Megan, and had my heart in my throat as she drove home from the Campbell’s party.  If she makes Don too happy, the might lose its focus, so an early death – perhaps from a Signal 30-type car crash – would be a way out of this conundrum.

Some other random thoughts:

·         All the episodes this season have been firmly rooted in a specific historical date. This one starts on July 30, 1966, the date the Brits won the World Cup.  The next day, just a couple of weeks after the Richard Speck nurse massacre, an ex-Marine climbed to the stop of a tower at the University of Texas and began taking target practice on the students below, eventually killing 16 and wounding 32. I remember both the nurse and Texas Tower murders vividly. Mad Men integrated the Speck murders into last week’s story but the Texas events are mostly an afterthought, except for the remark that the Drivers Ed girl makes: “Everything seems so random all of a sudden. Time seems to be speeding up.” Indeed.

·         And how creepy is it that Ken’s wife calls the Texas murderer Charles Widmore, only to have Don correct it: “Whitman.” You wonder if Matt Weiner had planned this moment from five years ago when he gave Don the birth name of Dick Whitman.”

·         Is it really likely that the wife of the Jaguar prospective client would have found out that he’d spent the evening at a brothel because he had “chewing gum on his pubis”? You’d think that would the kind of thing you’d notice no matter how many martinis you had, but if you challenge the credibility of something like this, Matt Weiner always seems to find a newspaper clip, memoir or interview to show something like this happened.

·         There was a huge discussion on Twitter about the sports jackets that Don, Pete and Ken wore to the Campbells. I have seen similar jackets in my own family photos, although not thankfully on me. This is the kind of shock of recognition that Mad Men creates almost every episode.

·         The interaction between Joan and Lane after the fight demonstrated once again why everyone loves Joan. Lane is so overcome by Joan’s kindness (“If they tried to make you feel different from them you are And that’s a good way to be”) that he kisses her.  Wordlessly she gets up and walks to the closed door. Will she lock it so they can continue, or will she walk out in a huff?  In another surprise, she simply opens it to remove the element of privacy and walks back to the couch and says “Everyone is this office has wanted to do that.”  You bet. “To Pete Campbell.” Oh.

·         Ken’s story about the robot who removes a bolt from a bridge, thereby causing its collapse, is almost existential in its insight into modern man (represented in this episode by Pete).  The guests at the Campbells are dumbfounded when he outlines the story and they probably don’t get his explanation either: “He’s a robot. People tell him what to do. He doesn’t have the power to make decisions. He can only decide whether that bolt is on or off.” I can’t wait to read his new story under his new pen name “Dave Algonquin,” a perhaps overly obvious reference to the Algonquin Table writers of the 20’s and 30’s.

·         Love the Lobster bibs they were wearing at the dinner with the Jaguar guy.

mad men lobster bibs

·         Since when do Ken and Peggy have a pact?

·         Bert is an astute political analyst: “Believe me, Nixon’s lying in wait,” and later “You don’t stop a war before an election.”

·         After Pete gets beat up by Lane, Don tells him, “you’ll be fine,” which is essentially what he told Betty when she had her cancer scare.

·         Funniest line: “Reschedule the meeting,” after Pete and Lane have beaten and battered each other’s faces  to a pulp.

·         Second funniest line. Peggy to Ken about one of his short stories. “I read the one in Galaxy about the girl who lays eggs.  Wow.”

Wow indeed.