Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Red in the Face" (season 1, episode 7)

Mad Men - "Red in the Face" (season 1, episode 7)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Most days (except Saturday) I am offering a short review of another episode until concluding the first season. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on August 30, 2007/written by Bridget Bedard; directed by Tim Hunter): This episode is red all over: Roger's endless soliloquies on redheads, redhead Joan turning him away for a weekend plan, Betty (red-faced from shame) smacking redhead Helen (red-faced from the slap), and much talk of Red-baiting (this is a very Russia-focused episode, between talk of vodka, anti-communist smear campaigns, and martyr cosmonaut Laika). The Sterling-Cooper crew plans to work for notoriously anti-Red Nixon against the Catholic "boy" Kennedy (whose dismissal by the older generation unites the subtly peeved but otherwise mutually antagonistic Pete and Don). Finally Don's elaborate prank on Roger forces him to climb twenty-three flights of stairs, after a lunch loaded with alcohol and oysters, until the older man is red in the face from exhaustion, puking on the carpet in front of the shocked, uptight Nixon team. This is revenge for Roger making a pass at Betty after subtly finagling an invitation for a late-night dinner (never has the slick boss-man seemed so pathetic). Pete, meanwhile, makes a far less clever/successful attempt to compensate for his own emasculation. After a degrading encounter with an indifferent customer service employee, in which his attempts to return a domestic indulgence from his wedding are interrupted by an old pal's far more successful attempt at flirtation, Pete randomly buys a rifle and carries it around the office. This infuriates his wife, bemuses his peers, and spooks Peggy. If Roger flounders with his boorish, undisciplined behavior and Don stews silently under Roger's thumb before calculating a nasty comeuppance, a brooding Pete both rejects and implicitly accepts his own inability, fantasizing with the full knowledge that both it and he are completely ludicrious.

My Response:
The thread through the color scheme (whether verbal or visual) and the action of the plot is humiliation, a constantly shifting game of who is putting the other one in place. In most cases, the competition is defined in terms of gender norms and expectations, particularly masculine ones, as noted above, with various tropes in play: the dominant patriarch, the assertive alpha, the smooth operator, the leering flirt, the self-reliant loner, the authoritative elder. Age is another key factor creating friction...if the older men have more power to overtly control the situation, the younger men are frequently more adept in ways that make their superiors look weak (although Pete can't manage either). This plays as a precursor to Kennedy's vigorous challenge to a sloppy Nixon in the TV debate a few months later, even though those two men were actually only four years apart. Youthfulness is a double-edged sword, especially when the woman is young...Roger may praise the under-thirty set in an early scene, but there isn't the slightest hint of respect in that praise. Don frequently infantalizes Betty, even blaming her for Roger's unwanted attention (while privately seething about Roger's imposition as well, albeit more from a possessive than a sympathetic, or even protective, angle). Likewise, although he doesn't entirely exploit the advantage (yet), the only person Pete can muster any authority over is Peggy, whose work he offers to read as she makes her first timid forays into the vicious arena of the Sterling-Cooper creatives. All of this reminds us that, in retrospect, the postwar/pre-sixties era might seem like a time when "men were men" without question, but that wasn't at all how many men perceived it at the time. As Pete's speech articulates, and many other moments suggest, the professionalized, psychologized, domesticated spirit of the fifties already felt like a diminishing compromise to many in those grey flannel suits. Mad Men at times indulges a latter-day gloss but in episodes like this the yawning gap between archetype and experience, and the characters' own perception of this slippage, is palpable.

Next: "The Hobo Code"Previous: "Babylon"

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