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No Satisfaction

By Sarah Carlson | TV | September 14, 2010 |

By Sarah Carlson | TV | September 14, 2010 |

Sometimes during certain “Mad Men” episodes, the rampant sexism depicted sends my blood racing to such a boiling point, I quickly move past thoughtful to homicidal — past typing up observations of the episode to yelling at characters to stab another character’s eyes out with a pencil. Sunday’s “The Summer Man” was one of those episodes. Half a meditation on Don’s life and half a look at sexual politics in the workplace, the eighth episode of Season Four combined to form a fairly bleak view of the “Mad Men” world in mid-1965. The characters are still stuck in their situations, whether they were self-created or not, and winning doesn’t seem to be in the cards for most. Some, such as Don, have reevaluated their expectations, while others, such as Joan, have lowered theirs. But when your only goal is survival, fulfillment is usually nowhere in sight.

“They say once you have to cut back on your drinking, you’ve got a drinking problem,” Don narrates as the episode opens. They also say that when you drink at 10 a.m. at the office, you’ve got a drinking problem, Don. Welcome to Step 1. But perhaps he’s hit bottom hard enough — especially after losing Anna — that he can now come back up to the surface. Naturally, the writers have him swimming at an athletic club’s pool, out of breath but at least taking steps toward leading a healthier lifestyle. Outside the club it is summer, and Don stops to light a cigarette as the Stone’s “Satisfaction” plays and passersby walk in and out of the shot. He looks classically cool, but his suit and tie stands out against the younger and hipper crowd around him.

Don is journaling now, and his scribblings narrate part of the episode in a manner that reminded me of a neo-noir. But this isn’t a noir, and self-serious voice overs can quickly turn into a ham-fisted way to quickly get information across to the viewer. The gimmick mostly worked here, especially as Don himself acknowledges the awkwardness he feels in his journaling (“I sound like a little girl, writing down what happened today,” he says later). But given the rest of the episode’s storylines, I wish the writers would allow Joan her own episode and narration. Don is in search of, and seems to be on the way toward attaining, atonement. The women of his world, however, are in for a longer journey.

Joan is the butt of many of the male Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce employees’ jokes, and none outshines the others as much as the freelancer, Joey. He and Stan are busting up a new vending machine, in which Joey lost his watch, and the ruckus brings Joan out of her office to investigate. Joey calls her “mom” and is disrespectful to her request that he respect office property, so Joan calls him to her office. Joey is all eye rolls and indignant, protesting that Stan behaves worse than he does (saying this as Stan moons Joey and Joan from the office window). When Joan calls him arrogant, he goes after her. “What do you do around here besides walking around like you’re trying to get raped?” he asks. “Excuse me?” Joan replies, in shock and controlled anger. “I’m not some young girl off the bus,” he says. “I don’t need some madam from a Shanghai whore house to show me the ropes.” Stab him in the eye, Joanie! I’m not kidding.

Joan soon sees Joey talking with Stan and some guy outside her office, obviously relaying his comments to her, and they all laugh. She leaves the office after that and comes home to find Greg about to leave for Army basic training. She cries at the thought of spending eight weeks alone and without someone to talk to. What about her friends at work? Greg asks, and she only cries harder. “Is this the way you want to spend this time, crying?” Greg asks, implying they sleep together. “I can’t,” Joan says. “Oh, sure you can,” he replies as he kisses her. The ever-forceful Greg. Joey’s comment about Joan “trying to get raped” was nicely timed, considering Joan was raped at the old office by the man to whom she’s now married. Now he is preparing for Vietnam. And no, Joey, she didn’t ask for any of it.

Vietnam picked up its pace in the summer of ‘65, and Don watches news footage of the war on TV as he journals. Sunday is Gene’s second birthday, and Don knows he’s not invited to or wanted at his son’s party. Betty has already left a message for him at work telling him he can’t have the kids that weekend. “He was conceived in a moment of desperation, and born into a mess,” Don writes, and he goes on to list goals he has for himself. Gaining “a modicum of control over the way I feel” is for starters, which he’s finally associating with drinking.

Don watches his co-workers, including Peggy and Stan, drink at the office the next day but doesn’t join them. He sits in a daze until he’s told the Mountain Dew reps didn’t like the agency’s ad pitch. They’ll need more help, so Don calls in Joan to tell her that Joey will need to be made a full-time employee for the next several weeks. Joan speaks up, saying she knows it’s the wrong place to say this, but perhaps hiring Joey isn’t the best idea. She says, vaguely, that there have been complaints about Joey and his behavior, and she mentions he was involved with “a very blue joke.” “Boys will be boys,” Don says, not having heard enough evidence to take action, one would assume. Stan pipes up as Joan leaves, saying, “I know the joke — This guy’s balls are so big!” Peggy leaves to confront Joey, telling him to lay off Joan. Joey isn’t moved, saying that every office has a Joan, someone who thinks they can boss others around. Even his mother was a Joan, he says. She’s not your mother, Peggy says, and she and Lane basically run the place. She warns him against further assholeishness.

That night, Don has dinner with Bethany, a woman he’s dated sporadically during the past eight or so months. She’s painfully young for him, but she’s direct in telling him what she wants from him — his attention. In walk Henry and Betty, however, and Betty loses her composure at the sight of Don with Bethany. As they walk past their table, Henry coldly says hello to Don as Betty is silent, and Betty later can’t help but eye the two throughout dinner. Henry is meeting with Ralph Stuben (Peter Lewis), a political aide for U.S. Rep. John Lindsay, to thank him for securing Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s support for their campaign. Stuben says Lindsay only has his eyes on being mayor but that, hypothetically, they are putting together a team to look at the possibility of him running for president in 1972. “It would be built, if it were going to be built, around you,” Stuben says to Henry, who then turns his attention to Betty. She’s still glaring at Don, and Henry asks if she knows what she wants to order. “Honey, this part is almost over,” Stuben says to her reassuringly. The poor wife doesn’t want to listen to man talk! She excuses herself and rushes to the bathroom to hide in a stall and smoke.

On the Francis’ drive home, Betty is drunk and sulking and Henry is angry with her for misbehaving in public. ” ‘I need a drink.’ What are you, a wino?” Henry says. “That is not something you’re allowed to say.” Betty reminds him that she’s already been married to someone who tried to control what she could and could not say, and Henry says that Don is still too present in Betty’s life, and perhaps also in her heart. Then he tells her to shut up. As Don and Bethany head to their homes in a taxi, though, Don is all smiles as Bethany performs oral sex on him. (“She wants me to know her, but I already do,” is what he will write in his journal.) In the morning, Betty apologizes to Henry while justifying being upset at the sight of Don. “Henry, he was the only man I’d ever been with,” she says. In the garage, as Henry gets in the car to head to work, he sees rows of boxes in front of him labeled “Draper.” He accelerates, crushing the boxes slightly, before leaving.

At his office, Don overhears Faye in the office telephone booth, yelling at and breaking up with someone. Joan, tired of hearing complaints about the new vending machine, goes to Lane’s office to tell him the machine is simply trouble. Joey, Stan and Peggy see Joan go to Lane’s office, and when someone wonders what the two are doing in there, Joey starts drawing a cartoon of them having oral sex. Peggy tells him to stop. Back in Don’s office, Henry calls him to say he needs to pick up his boxes from their garage. Because Sunday is Gene’s birthday, Henry says, it would be best if Don came by Saturday. Don is compliant, too broken to argue.

Peggy goes to Joan’s office to complain that they vending machine ate her money, but while there, the two notice Joey’s graphic cartoon has been taped to Joan’s window. Joan goes out to the creative wing to confront the boys, and when no one confesses to the drawing, says, “It’s a very brave person who does something anonymously.” Stan replies, “It’s a very brave person who does that,” gesturing to what’s going on in the cartoon. “It’s still illegal in many states, you know.” Joan has her own response to the problem: “I can’t wait until next year when all of you will be in Vietnam. You will be pining for the day when someone was trying to make your life easier. When you’re over there, and you’re in the jungle, and they’re shooting at you, remember you’re not dying for me because I never liked you.” She walks away as the guys are silenced, but probably not sorry.

Peggy doesn’t think that speech covered it, however, and she grabs the cartoon and heads to Don’s office. She tells him Joey is responsible and wants him to take action, but Don tells her to go fire Joey if she likes. “Believe me, you do not want me involved in this. People will think you’re a tattle tale,” Don says. “You want some respect? Go out there and get it for yourself.” And so she does. Peggy calls Joey into her office to reprimand him for drawing the lewd cartoon, especially after she told him not to. “This is why I don’t like working with women; you have no sense of humor,” he says. So, Peggy fires him. At first disbelieving, Joey then says that they will see what Don has to say about the situation. “Don doesn’t even know who you are,” Peggy replies. “Sorry it didn’t work out.” Joey then dumps out her files and causes a slight scene as he leaves the agency. “Watch out, fellas. Fun’s over.” Stab him in the eye! Gouge ‘em both out! Gah.

Don is still in his office, now talking with Faye about something workish, and he not-so-smoothly asks her out for dinner. She suggests he ask her out for an actual date, not just for a dinner tacked onto a workday. They decide to meet Saturday.

Betty is at home talking with her friend, Francine (Anne Dudek), about the previous night and her “misbehavior” with Henry and Stuben. She’s still upset at the sight of Don and a girl who looked all of 15, she says. Francine says that her husband always thinks Don looks like a wreck, but Betty doesn’t believe it. “He’s living the life,” she says, “let me tell you. He doesn’t get to have this family and that. Francine has better advice, though: “Just be careful. Don has nothing to lose, and you have everything.”

Later, as Peggy and Joan leave for the day, Peggy brings up Joey’s firing. Joan already knows, and she isn’t thrilled. “Now everybody in the office will know that you solved my problem and you must be very important,” she says. Peggy is stunned, saying she defended Joan, but Joan says Peggy only defended herself. She’d already handled it, and could have handled it further on her own if she’d felt it necessary. “So, it’s the same result,” Peggy protests. “You wouldn’t be a big shot,” Joan replies. “No matter how powerful we get around here, they can still just draw a cartoon. So all you’ve done is prove to them that I’m another meaningless secretary and you’re another humorless bitch.” I guess we really can’t win. If you’re not gonna drink that liquor, Don, I will.

On Saturday, Don arrives at his old house to find his boxes of belongings waiting for him at the curb. Henry is mowing the yard, ignoring Don as he packs the boxes in his car’s trunk. Don just takes the boxes to a dumpster, however, and Henry ignores Betty later on as he comes into the kitchen from doing the yard work. “We’re flawed because we want so much,” Don writes in his journal that afternoon. “We’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had.” He takes Faye out to dinner that night, commenting that it was hard to get reservations at the restaurant. He should have just come to her, she says — she knows people who know how to get things. Her father, for instance. He owns a candy store and is “a handsome two-bit gangster” like Don. Don tells her that Sunday is Gene’s birthday but that he isn’t going, saying he isn’t welcome there. “He thinks that man is his father,” he says. “Maybe it’s OK.” “All he knows of the world is what you show him,” Faye says.

Don complements Faye’s work and asks her how she’s able to get clients to do what she wants. She cites one of Aesop’s fables, a tale of the wind and the sun competing to see who can make a man take off his jacket. The wind’s blowing only makes the man hold onto his jacket tighter; the sun’s warm rays make the man take off his jacket without a hitch. “Kindness, gentleness and persuasion win where force fails,” she says. Don then plays on the story and gives Faye his coat, and later in their taxi ride, the two kiss. Faye asks where Don lives, but he rejects her offer of coming over and says he’s just going to take her to her door. “That’s as far as I can go right now,” he says. “That’s not what I expected,” she replies, not unhappily.

The next day at the pool, where he has been swimming all week, Don begins to race the man swimming in the lane next to his. He’s gotten better during the week and is clearly more energized. He then shows up at the Francis residence with a stuffed elephant for his son. Henry asks Betty what Don is doing there, but Betty smiles and graciously carries Gene over to see Don. She returns to Henry’s side, saying, “We have everything.” Then, she watches as Don lifts Gene up in the air, smiling and making faces at the son who really doesn’t know him.

The soul-searching done by Don (and a little by Betty) appears to be helping them slowly turn their respective lives around, or at least in healthier directions. Yes, you generally can achieve more through kindness than force, as we saw play out in the former couple’s handling of Gene’s birthday party. Betty letting go of some of her anger toward Don is impressive, but now it seems that Henry has inherited her bitterness.

But, what about when gentleness doesn’t work — Is the mentioned fable supposed to apply to Joan’s story? Should Peggy have just let the cartoon fiasco go instead of taking charge and kicking Joey to the curb? Joey’s disgusting treatment of Joan also seemed to appear out of nowhere; was he always such a jerk? Joan is right in what she said to Peggy; assertiveness in a woman is almost always translated into her being a bitch. But that shouldn’t stop a woman from being assertive; it’s the “bitch” part that needs changing.

I prefer the Joan who shattered a vase over Greg’s head, and hurled a bouquet of roses at Lane’s. I’d have reacted the same way Peggy did, and my instinct is to shake Joan, and tell her to fight back and try to take what is hers. But she’s been beaten one too many times at a game she knows is rigged, and I can’t judge her. Don is taking baby steps toward remaking himself, but Joan hasn’t been given that chance. That leaves her, and the viewers, unsatisfied.

Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Pembroke Welsh Corgi.

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