Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Jet Set" (season 2, episode 11)

Mad Men - "The Jet Set" (season 2, episode 11)

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 October 12, 2008/written by Matthew Weiner; directed by Phil Abraham): The motto for "The Jet Set" may as well be "You can do that?" Way back in the pilot, Don expressed his belief that the rules don't really exist, but now that belief is moving from theory into practice. At Sterling Cooper, Roger flatly tells Duck that he's not going to make partner based on the lackluster business he's drummed up. Duck responds by using Roger's personal troubles to pitch his former British employers on buying out his current American ones. And he does so while taking first a deep breath and then his first, savoring sip of liquor in several years. Somehow the things that men have worked hard to achieve - be it marriage or sobriety - don't taste nearly so sweet as indulging the momentary urge to throw it all away. Elsewhere in the office, Peggy is invited on a date (perhaps?) to go see Bob Dylan by Kurt Smith (Edin Gali), the eccentric German half of "the Smittys," those quasi-bohemian young admen who were brought in a while back but whom I haven't had much reason to mention yet (that's about to change). When their co-workers tease the nascent couple, Kurt matter-of-factly corrects them: "I'm a homosexual." You could hear a pin drop as he calmly leaves the room, and while no one's particularly comfortable, few are less comfortable than Smitty Smith (Patrick Cavanaugh), who has probably just had his own cover blown, or perhaps especially Sal, who never knew such thoughts could even be humored, let alone spoken aloud. The episode even starts off with an expansive surprise, as Jane reveals to a clearly caught-off-guard Roger that she's a talented, deeply intelligent poet.

Of course, the character most egregiously subverting expectations, abandoning professional restraint, and ditching social norms is Don. He wasn't even supposed to be on the trip to California but thanks to a last-minute switch-up, he jets across the country with Pete and stands awkwardly by the swimming pool in his gray suit. Though of course the whole series is shot on the West Coast, the filmmakers really let us know that we're supposed to be in Los Angeles now; that warm light suffuses everything and there's an openness, a sense of restless freedom in the air. And then Don meets Joy (Laura Ramsey), a strangely irresistible young woman whose father Willy, a count, initially appears to be pimping a high-priced call girl (when Don finds out Willy is her father, he's sitting in bed with them and Don is visibly creeped out). Initially Don resists the odd appeal, but the second time she encounters him he's just come from a deeply unsettling conference, in which a confident defense contractor boasted about the total annihilation of the USSR possible with a singe missile. So Don takes up Joy's offer to go swimming, abandons Pete poolside (when Pete returns to New York, he hardly seems to realize that he never saw Don again), and has some very strange times with Joy's family. Passing out after taking a drink (there are repeated hints that he's being drugged), regaled with tales of the family's seemingly carefree, globe-trotting, and highly sexed-up lifestyle, and exposed to a milieu he never even really knew existed, Don doesn't exactly appear to be enjoying himself - but the long strange trip is clearly too fascinating to abandon, as if he's been hypnotized.

If so, he's not assuming a new identity so much as shredding the one he worked long and hard to construct. When he calls someone unseen from Joy's phone near the end of the episode, he announces himself so matter-of-factly that it's shocking: "It's Dick Whitman."

My Response:
This is one of the most captivating, subtly surreal episodes of the series so far, although it's worth noting that it suffers a bit for being a TV show rather than a film, not allowing itself to linger over Don's slow, steady immersion in a strange milieu for fear of losing other threads. While the subplots complement each other nicely, it's a pity we aren't able to saturate ourselves in the Polanski-esque atmosphere of the weird family. Nonetheless, even without recourse to a clockwork structure or dramatically cinematic style, there's a (black) magic to the scenario. I can't recall many films or TV episodes that have evoked such a strong mixture of unease and curiosity in me. Watching Don initially refuse to take the bait, knowing that something mysterious and dreamlike awaited him, was quite frustrating and yet there was an equivalent impulse pulling in the other direction; like viewers of a horror film, we want to urge him to run away. Something is profoundly off about this group and we're as drawn to find out why as we are disturbed by the possibilities. They are as worldly as they are otherworldly, an aristocratic intrusion into a show that has thus far been dominated by the bourgeoisie (and haunted by poverty). The fresh-faced Ramsey is perfectly cast as a siren whose appeal you can't quite pin down; on a show full of immediately identifiable bombshells, she has something else going for her and her presence is as unnerving as it is appealing.

After watching "The Jet Set" I realized how very close we are to the end of the season. I think I expected the Californian storyline to be one last segue, with some backburner character development, before the crisis of the final stretch took hold; instead, this development is clearly initiating the climax itself. And it's looking increasingly likely that the Cuban Missile Crisis will provide the cathartic release to close out the second season; we still seem to be a few months away from that event but why set as historically-minded a series as this in 1962, if not to exploit the real-life drama? The conference that Don and Pete attend certainly commits the legwork to get us thinking about the nuclear terror underpinning postwar prosperity. Of course, '62 was also the year of European art films like Antonioni's L'Eclisse, Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel, Truffaut's Jules and Jim, and the aforementioned Polanski's Knife in the Water (with Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad still making the rounds and Fellini's La Dolce Vita having recently lit up the U.S. box office like no foreign film before). Don's adventure feels like a cross between the anything-goes social world of those movies and the more anxious intensity of an existential sixties novel, maybe (though it was still a few years in the future) John Fowler's The Magus. With all of these currents crossing, "Dick Whitman" is no longer an outstanding bill from the beleaguered past, but a promising ticket into a far out future.

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