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When I Have a Brand New Hairdo

By Sarah Carlson | TV | August 23, 2010 |

By Sarah Carlson | TV | August 23, 2010 |

Only five episodes in, “Mad Men’s” fourth season has already proven to be one of the series’ strongest, and definitely its most entertaining. But unlike its predecessors, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword’s” competing narratives had decidedly stronger competing tones. There was drama at the agency, but also plenty of hijinks and laughs — like “The West Wing” during its Sorkin years. But back at the Draper and Francis residences? “Mommie Dearest.” The experience on the family side of things reminded me of reading Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant The Corrections, which was both enjoyable and miserable. I knew I was reading an impressive piece of fiction, but I couldn’t help but feel like it was a punishment. Perhaps in “Mad Men,” the dissonance was more acute this time because the storylines shared an episode, scenes alternating between the drama of Don and Betty’s kids and that of Sterling Cooper Draper Price. Considering the episode’s main themes, this style choice likely was deliberate, and it worked. The juxtaposition of dueling natures only made the characters’ world more real, more like ours. The experience isn’t always fun, but it’s valuable.

In Episode 4, Pete was forced to drop the Clearasil account at the request of Pond’s Cold Cream, and “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” begins with a New York Times reporter calling Don and asking if he knew that Clearasil, in addition to Jai Alai, had been picked by up Cutler Gleason and Chaough. Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) had gloated to the reporter that “Every time Don Draper looks in his rearview mirror, he sees me,” but Don claims to have never heard of him. Later at the executives meeting, Pete says he’s got a meeting with Honda motorcycles, which would be a $3 million dollar account, and the company is looking into making cars as well. He’s been reading the book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, a 1946 study on Japan by American anthropologist Ruth Benedict, to better know Japanese customs. Roger immediately objects, though, because it’s a Japanese company. He hasn’t forgotten Pearl Harbor and his involvement in World War II, nor any of the friends he lost in the battles, and sees no room for compromise. We can’t be at war one minute and shaking hands over business deals the next. His unwillingness to give the Japanese businessmen a chance — and his blaming of them for an attack that they didn’t even commit — is uncannily timely given today’s debate concerning the Islamic activities center near ground zero in New York City. It’s not that history repeats itself; it’s that man doesn’t change. Furious, Roger storms out of the meeting, but Don gives Pete the go-ahead to meet with the Honda execs.

That night, Don has Phoebe (Nora Zehetner), the nurse who lives down the hall, watch Sally and Bobby while he takes Bethany (Anna Camp) to dinner, a date Sally isn’t happy about. At dinner, Bethany makes it known she’s disappointed they’ve only dated three times in the past five months, and also isn’t thrilled with Don’s choice of restaurant — Benihana: It’s not intimate, she says, and it makes her hair smell like chicken. There, Don runs into Chaough, who proclaims himself Don’s competition for Honda. When Bethany asks who he is after they part, Don replies, “Some fly I keep swatting away.” Meanwhile, as Phoebe and Bobby watch a movie at the apartment, Sally comes out of the bathroom having botched a haircut. Phoebe, who suddenly has a Southern accent, is shocked. “Do you understand I’m in worse trouble than you are?” she tells Sally, who says that she wanted to look pretty. Phoebe has short hair and her dad likes it, Sally says, before asking Phoebe if she and her dad are “doing it” and claiming to know what “it” is (she doesn’t). Phoebe takes her to the bathroom to try to fix her hair. When Don comes home, Phoebe is apologetic and Don is furious, blaming her for not watching Sally and already predicting the “river of shit” he’ll be in with Betty, where the chain of anger ends. And he’s right: When Don takes the kids back to Betty and Henry, Betty slaps Sally when she sees what she’s done. Don and Henry both think it’s uncalled for, but Betty is furious and sends Sally to her room, saying she can’t go to the sleepover her friend has planned. “I can’t leave them with you for one second,” she tells Don, also mad that Don went out on a night he had the kids. “Because you’re so good with them,” he replies. He leaves and she says she wants him dead, and while Henry agrees, saying he never wasted the nights it was his turn to care for his daughter when he was divorced, he also tries to calm Betty down. Punishment will only make the matter worse, he says, and he recommends Betty take Sally to the hair salon and let her attend the sleepover. “Reward her, really?” Sally asks. Smiling, having calmed down, she adds, “You’re soft, you know that?” Or, you know, he has a heart. Thank goodness for Henry.

The next week, the Honda executives tour the agency along with a translator, and then meet with the executive staff, minus Roger, to lay down their proposition: A competition among several agencies. Each can only spend $3,000 on a pitch, without offering any completed work, to try to win the motorcycle account. Pete awkwardly presents the executives with gifts, but as they are about to leave, Roger appears, back from a scheduled lunch and is clearly pissed his coworkers are meeting with Honda behind his back. “I’m sorry I didn’t know this meeting was happening. Then again, some people like surprises,” he says, in one of his many lines I felt bad for laughing at. It only gets worse: Roger wants to keep the meeting going, saying, “I have to warn you, they won’t know it’s over until they drop the big one — twice.” And finally: “We beat you, and we’ll beat you again, and we don’t want any of your Jap crap.” He leaves, and Bert apologizes while Pete makes hilarious excuses, saying, “His wife’s very sick. He’s been drinking a lot.” But Pete has harsher words for Roger later, storming into his office on the heels of Don, who has just told Roger he doesn’t get to kill the account. “Christ on a cracker, where do you get off?” Pete exclaims. “It’s been almost 20 years, and like it or not, the world has moved on.” Roger speaks of pledges he made back in the service, saying Pete couldn’t possibly understand, but Pete accuses Roger of “wrapping himself in the flag” out of fear that with each account Pete brings in, Roger’s Lucky Strike account loses importance. At this, Roger charges at Pete and, if not for Don’s interference, would have pummeled him. Don tells Roger that Pete is right, however, and leaves.

Sally, now with a cute bob-length hairstyle, is at her friend, Laura’s, for the sleepover, and while Laura sleeps, Sally watches TV. Two men are on the screen, piquing Sally’s interest, and after awhile, she slowly begins to feel herself. Laura’s mother catches her and, shocked, takes her back home. Laura wants to speak to Betty privately about the matter, saying that she “doesn’t know what goes on” in the Francis household, but Sally’s behavior was not welcome in hers. Betty is mortified and apologetic, sending a slight reassured Laura home before charging up the stairs and confronting Sally. “What is wrong with you?” Betty yells. “You don’t do those things. You don’t do them in private and you definitely don’t do them in public.” “I didn’t do anything,” Sally says, to which Betty responds, “Don’t you lie to me, I’ll cut your fingers off.” (!) Betty tells Henry what happened and he tells her, apparently not for the first time, that Sally needs to see a psychiatrist. Betty is doubtful, saying she went to a shrink once (when she was “unhappy” and “bored”) and that it didn’t help anything.

At the office the next day day, Roger apologizes for his outbursts with the Honda execs, and even though Pete says they have another meeting lined up, Bert predicts that SCDP has lost its shot and that Honda expects them to resign. Chaough has already sent a present over, taunting them, and Don proposes they break the competition’s rules and go over the $3,000 limit to film a splashy commercial to woe Honda back. Lane nixes the idea on account of finances. That night, Don is reading The Chrysanthemum and the Sword when Betty calls. She fills him in on the previous night’s events, saying Sally is going to see a children’s specialist. Only “fast” girls do what Sally did, Betty says (the girl is only 10), and they argue over which parent has been the worse example when it comes to relationships and sexuality before hanging up.

At the office, Don, inspired by and quoting his bedtime reading — “A man is shamed by being openly ridiculed and rejected” — suggests to Pete, Peggy and Joan that they pull a head fake on Chaough. CGC is the same size as SCDP and can’t afford an expensive commercial either. But if they think SCDP is filming one, they’ll follow suit and break the competition rules. Pete worries that regardless of the rules, CGC’s commercial will win Honda over, but Don says he’ll worry about that. This begins a series of amusing bits, first with Joan “interviewing” a director for a top-secret commercial idea. Don interrupts the meeting, pushing a Honda motorcycle down the hall and to her office. “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought I’d put this in here,” Don says innocently as Joan sends him away, telling the director with a smile that he “didn’t see” the bike. The director, naturally, tells Chaough about SCDP’s plans for the commercial, and although they can’t figure out where Don is getting the money for the project, they take the bait and decide to film their own. They call in Smitty (Patrick Cavanaugh), who used to work at Sterling Cooper, to ask about Don’s methods, and Smitty says that Don never plays by the rules, but is a “genius.” Next, Peggy and Joey wheel the red motorcycle around a television studio in front of CGC people, there to film their commercial. When Chaough’s men try to get into the supposed SCDP commercial set, Joey, guarding the door, tells them the set is closed as they hear a motorcycle through the door. It’s just Peggy, driving the bike around in circles on an empty set.

At the office, Don opens Chaough’s present, sake, and pours a glass for himself and Faye. They small talk about her work with clients, and he asks why it is that people always want to talk about themselves. It makes them feel better, Faye says. Don asks if she has children (no), and what her husband does (no husband). Her wedding ring is a “stop sign,” she says, to avoid awkward interactions at work. She asks about his children, and he’s honest: “I don’t see them enough. And when I’m with them, I don’t know what to do. And when I drop them off, I’m relieved. And I miss them.” Meanwhile, Betty is meeting with a child psychologist, Dr. Edna Keener (Patricia Bethune), and ends up revealing more about herself than Sally. Her own mother was strict, Betty says, describing an incident in which her brother bought a “nudist” magazine and showed it to Betty. When their mother found out, she nailed the magazine to Betty’s brother’s door. What about you? Dr. Edna asks her, referring to Betty’s own sexuality as a girl. “I was private and mostly outgrew it,” Betty says quietly, adding that she knows children experiment, but not in public. (If only she could be this honest with Sally.) Betty feels Sally is punishing her for something, and Dr. Edna suggests it might not hurt for Betty to see a professional as well. They agree for Sally to visit the doctor four days a week.

When it’s time to meet with the Honda executives, Don goes alone. Meeting Chaough outside the meeting room, Don lets his competition know that he didn’t make a commercial, calling it too expensive. In the meeting, Don tells the executives that he knows not every agency followed the competition’s rules. “I don’t want to be a part of a competition like that, so I’m withdrawing us,” he says, which the translator words as “he said you did not honor your rules.” Don writes them a $3,000 check, says “Thank you for thinking of us,” and leaves. Well played. At the office, though, Roger is drinking and tries to goad Joan into joining him. She says she won’t watch him feel sorry for himself, and he says he feels sorry for everyone and that Don’s “over there surrendering now.” He starts to talk of his war buddies, but Joan cuts him off. “Since when is forgiveness a better quality than loyalty?” he asks. “But you fought to make the world a safer place, and you won, and now it is,” she says. “You think so, really?” “I have to.”

Soon Pete and Lane tell Don that his stunt payed off, and the agency is still in the running to win Honda’s account. CGC is out. Lane says he’s glad he let Don go through with his “unseemly” gamble, swatting back at Don’s “Let me?” with “You think Joan can rent stage space without talking to me?” But, “I realized that our financial future was related to Mr. Chaough’s demise.” Elsewhere in the city, Sally and Carla sit in a waiting room. Dr. Edna opens her office door, letting one child out and inviting Sally in. Nervous, Sally goes inside, and Dr. Edna closes the door behind her.

You, dear readers, chided me for deriding Sally in the recap of this season’s premiere, and I will admit it: You were right. With Betty’s behavior ever more destructive, poor Sally is bearing the brunt of the results. Henry’s own experience raising a daughter, who appears normal, is a tiny blessing for Sally, but until Betty faces her own demons, she’ll only impart them on Sally. The Draper children might be better off with Don after all. Do you think Sally seeing Dr. Edna will help at all, and does Sally actually need “help” in the first place?

The family drama is important social commentary, but given a choice, I’d rather watching the goings on of the ad agency. However, I know that is because it’s easier to watch the light-hearted plots; it’s the reality that’s hard to handle. We need both.

From “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”:

“Both the sword and the chrysanthemum are a part of the picture. The Japanese are, to the highest degree, both aggressive and unaggressive, both militaristic and aesthetic, both insolent and polite, rigid and adaptable, submissive and resentful of being pushed around, loyal and treacherous, brave and timid, conservative and hospitable to new ways. They are terribly concerned about what other people will think of their behavior, and they are also overcome by guilt when other people know nothing of their misstep. Their soldiers are disciplined to the hilt but are also insubordinate.”

Sound familiar?

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.