Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Maidenform" (season 2, episode 6)

Mad Men - "Maidenform" (season 2, episode 6)

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 31, 2008/written by Matthew Weiner; directed by Phil Abraham): Rarely has an episode's theme been so pronounced, even schematic. "Maidenform," in which Sterling Cooper attempts to spin a brassiere account in a new direction, is all about how men view women and how the women under that gaze feel about how they are seen. Playtex, trying to chase Maidenform's sexier campaign, pushes Sterling Cooper to redesign their approach and Peggy is put in charge. Unfortunately, she keeps getting undercut as the men talk amongst themselves, in the office, at the bar after work, eventually even going to a strip club with the clients (who've graciously turned down the Jackie/Marilyn artwork to stick with their more conservative instincts). Flustered by the way work blurs with socializing, and knowing that as the odd woman out she can't cross between those worlds with the same ease as her peers, Peggy seeks advice from Joan, who offers a similar message to Bobbie's last week: you can't be a man (Joan dismisses Peggy's attempt at a professional uniform as "dressing like a little girl"), so use your femininity to climb the ladder instead. In her final scene, Peggy shows up at the club dressed (and presenting herself) in a completely different fashion, and the men - who earlier refused to assign her Jackie or Marilyn, settling on Gertrude Stein or Irene Dunne instead - are surprised but welcoming (this role they know how they accept her in). As she sits on the aged client's lap, Pete looks on with a mixture of jealousy, admiration, and desire, and she avoids his gaze.

If the women are confused and overwhelmed by what the men around them expect, the men are often all mixed up as well - albeit in different ways, and with the complications of greater power on hand. Pete cheats with a model who was turned down for the Playtex mock-up (she takes him back to an apartment she shares with her mother), and the next morning he conducts an awkward conversation with Peggy at her desk. Her confusing place in the professional/social arrangement of Sterling Cooper is even more complicated by her long-ago fling. While Pete is pleased enough with his own extramarital excursions, Don's attempt to regain his old confidence through infidelity backfires. Tying Bobbie up and telling her not to talk, he gets rattled when she won't shut up - especially when she tells him she knows about his reputation. He's already become unnerved whenever she mentions her adult children, but it's his own child who ultimately breaks him down. Early in the episode, Sally gazes admiringly at her daddy as he and other veterans stand for applause (I love the shout-out to the aged Spanish-American War veteran in the back), triggering a discomfort that sends Don out of the country club luncheon to call Bobbie. And near episode's end the little girl enters the bathroom as Don shaves and tells him, "I won't talk" - a jarring reminder of the encounter with his lover. Don freezes while staring in the mirror, sends Sally out, and sits on the toilet in his towel wondering who the hell he is and what he's doing. When Bobbie asks where comes from, he answers with a chuckle, "You don't want to know;" clearly, neither does he.

My Response:
Mad Men makes a habit of marking holidays, especially in season two, so now we get our first Memorial Day episode. Is Don's tangled experience in Korea what haunts him? Or as the latter passages suggest, is he troubled by his own present-day dishonesty? Most likely these issues are all wrapped up together in one hazy, queasy package of self-loathing self-doubt. I didn't mention it in the summary, but Don also takes some of this angst out on Betty, chiding her for purchasing a bikini, although this probably has more to do with him spying on her as she chats with Arthur at the country club. As "Maidenform" constantly reminds us, the power may be in the hands of men but it's slipping - they aren't sure how to handle their confusing relationships with co-workers, mistresses, daughters, and wives (or, in Duck's case, an ex-wife who leaves him with their old family dog when she remarries, nearly driving him back to drink). Don lived a divided life in season one, nursing a deeply cynical streak as a result, but at least he knew his place in that world, and was comfortably numb within it. This season is beginning to look less like a rut than a slow downward decline, one that Don will not be able to reverse.

This is, after all, the sixties, and if Don is too old to have his consciousness shaken by participation in the forthcoming counterculture, he's still part of a generation whose worldview is radically shaken by overlapping events. Don's personal story, as I discussed in the first episode to detail his Depression past as Dick Whitman, dovetails with a larger American narrative for which the decade of Mad Men was a crucible. Peggy, meanwhile, is on the opposite trajectory, a steady if awkward path to power. Peggy's arc is not neat and tidy from episode to episode; perhaps it will look cleaner in retrospect when we eventually reach the finale, but for now she has to learn lessons more than once, and just when it seems like she's found her place, a new barrier presents herself (or rather she and we realize it was there all along). Moreover, we can suspect that some of the lessons she's learning may have to be unlearned further down the road. Considering the multifaceted messiness of real life, here's an area where the televised format has an advantage in verisimilitude over its more acclaimed cinematic cousin. We can zoom in on the confusing moment-to-moment push-and-pull of the individuals' daily lives and also step back to observe the larger patterns emerging on a much broader canvas.

Next: "The Gold Violin"Previous: "The New Girl"

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