Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Flight 1" (season 2, episode 2)

Mad Men - "Flight 1" (season 2, episode 2)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review an episode of season two, possibly followed by each episode of season three. 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 3, 2008/written by Lisa Albert & Matthew Weiner; directed by Andrew Bernstein): The strange, strained relationship of Don Draper and Pete Campbell takes a new twist in "Flight 1", although they only have two scenes together - one of them quite short. In the first scene, Pete stumbles into Don's office as if in a daze. Earlier that morning, everyone in the office huddled around a radio in stunned silence, listening to news of an American Airlines crash into Jamaica Bay off Long Island. Before long, jokes broke the mood and Pete pitched in a few of his own, but at this moment he isn't laughing. We don't know why yet, although we may suspect: he's just come off a phone call with his brother. As he walks out of his corner office, everyone is carrying on as normal yet there's a slightly eerie tinge to the character's point of view shot, suggesting a heightened yet vaguely disoriented awareness (I thought maybe his reaction implied that his wife was pregnant, which says something about Pete I suppose). Then Pete tells Don, and no one else, that his father was on that flight. Don pours a drink, offers advice ("Go home. Be with your family," and above all, "Do what you're supposed to do"), and a reminder of the Dick Whitman affair as Pete asks if Don would go to his family's side if his father died. Don says yes, and Pete narrows his eyes in an oddly-timed bout of curiosity and queries, "You would?"

Their second scene follows another uncomfortable (how often that adjective arises) encounter between Pete and a co-worker. Duck is chomping at the bit to chase American Airlines as a new client; a contact at the company has tipped him off that they're seeking a new direction after the disaster. Don - despite bringing Duck to Sterling Cooper a few episodes ago - has clearly developed a hostile position towards Duck (and vice versa), only heightened when he's forced to dump Mohawk Airlines, a smaller rival whom he'd personally cultivated. In a cynical move delivered with graceless manipulation (a specialty of his) Duck visits Pete's office to offer his condolences, flatter him, and invite him to participate in the upcoming American meeting. Pete declines the awkward offer but we can see that he's adrift - he never got along with his father, isn't sure how he's even supposed to react to the patriarch's death, and turns to Don for some sort of guidance. But Don is in a foul mood and sharply shoos Pete away when he wanders into Don's office for the second time in several days. Had he let Pete speak, perhaps a plan could have formulated to save the relationship with Mohawk and stop Pete from going down this new road. Instead, the young man appears at Duck's meeting after all, unannounced and willing to work which shocks and impresses the American rep Shel Keneally (Vaughn Armstrong). Although Pete clearly just saved a deal that might have cost Duck his job, he's also revealed that he's much better at playing this game (or at least playing with a much stronger hand) than the senior adman - who looks both nervous and relieved at this turn.

Elsewhere in the office, Joan snarks at Paul when she discovers he's dating Sheila (Donielle Artese), a black woman who works at a New Jersey grocery store, and Paul gets revenge by posting Joan's real birthday in the copy room - revealing that she's actually in her early thirties. At home, Don and Betty have friends over to drink and play cards, and Betty vents about her son's propensity to cheat and lie (he traced a picture of George Washington which he passed off his own drawing, and soaked in the praise, which she finds reprehensible). Peggy, meanwhile, visits her own family homestead, where she is guilt-tripped by a Catholic mother Katherine (Myra Turley) and quietly resented by the sibling, Anita (Audrey Wasilewski), she left behind in her own rise up the professional ladder. There are hints of why she's there, beyond just dropping off a vacuum cleaner and saying hello to her mother and sister who are living a world away over the East River. A baby bib hangs from the wall near some cups and as she's about to leave, her sister asks, "Don't you even want to see it?" And so Peggy peeks behind a closed door to glance at a sleeping infant. The next day in church, her sister (quite pointedly) drops the baby off on Peggy's lap as she and her mother go up to communion, and Peggy stays behind. The child instantly begins crying and Peggy's anxiety rises. Both she and Pete are flooded by confused emotions when their relationships to their own kin aren't what they're supposed to be.

My Response: 

There's something often compellingly off-kilter and disjointed about this episode. The many paired characters - most notably Don and Pete but also Pete and Duck, Pete and his brother Bud (Rich Hutchman), Don and Betty, Peggy and her sister, Peggy and her mother, Joan and Paul, and Don and Mohawk CEO Henry Wofford (Matt Riedy) - have tense, evasive conversations in which their discomfort with one another is clear yet one or both of them can't quite come clean to the other. The Campbell family gathering is particularly effective in its portrayal of a void where there's supposed to be grief. Indeed, killing the senior Campbell off this way is a brilliant stroke, both to demonstrate an absence of affection and to illustrate the shock of his sudden demise. There's no corpse to smooth the transition between there and not-there and so Pete's confusion feels particularly palpable for the viewer. Of course, it also offers fuel for wild theories: will Pete's dad show up again, not having actually been on that flight at all, to throw Pete's perplexed reaction into further disarray, and force an explanation as to why he was so ready to represent the airline he died on? I doubt it; while such a melodramatic flourish would be entertaining, it would also be far less forceful than the more subtle developments offered by "Flight 1."

While Pete is the focus of this story, and Peggy provides some of the payoff, interesting work is done with Don too. Who would have foreseen, several episodes into the series, Don as the moral center of Sterling Cooper (perhaps even of his own suburban neighborhood too)? Appalled by the agency's unflattering rush to dump the sturdy, honorable Mohawk and suck up to American, and discomfitted by a neighbor's lust for a schoolgirl babysitter, Don even gets to stick up for the all-American modesty and ingenuity of John Glenn while the ever-bitter Roger snipes about the hollowness of the astronaut's heroism. Don's talk with Pete is fascinating for the way its rigid reserve simultaneously maintains his distance and lets down his guard. In comparison, Duck's appeal lays it on too thick and looks quite hollow. I swore I wouldn't let myself ever feel sympathy for the insufferable jerk of the pilot episode, but Pete's lost-boy behavior is almost touching as he drifts toward Don's office, seeking a surrogate father figure. Pete's patrician yet pathetic dad never offered a model to emulate, and there's some irony as he agrees to exploit his father's death, both an affront to his father's snobbish disdain for the petty commercial world and a fulfillment of the shallowness beneath the old man's upscale veneer.

Next week: "The Benefactor" • Last week: "For Those Who Think Young"

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