Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Six Month Leave" (season 2, episode 9)

Mad Men - "Six Month Leave" (season 2, episode 9)

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 September 28, 2008/written by Andre & Maria Jacquemetton & Matthew Weiner; directed by Michael Uppendahl): Freddy's gotta go. When he pees his pants in front of Pete, Sal, and Peggy, and then passes out in his chair, the whole office quickly learns of his indiscretion and Roger makes the unfortunate call, much to Don's irritation, Peggy's sorrow, and Pete's delight. His soft firing and the Drapers' great drift are what give the episode its core and, at their intersection, prepare us for the surprise ending and retrospective purpose. The initial push for the narrative, however, is rooted in the real world. Having already hinted, rather laboriously, at the Port Huron Statement, and with the Cuban Missile Crisis no doubt providing the backdrop for the finale or penultimate episode, "Six Month Leave" nods to another significant event of '62: Marilyn Monroe's overdose. Don sees the story in the morning paper as he leaves the Manhattan hotel he's been exiled to and Betty hears the news on the radio as she aimlessly roams her empty suburban home in a nightgown; both have more immediate matters on their minds. At the office, however, most of the female employees (except for the mostly matter-of-fact, business-minded Peggy) can't imagine anything more immediate. Joan even snipes at Roger that he'll understand her pain someday when he loses someone very important to him.

Roger does lose something at episode's end, but we'll get there in a moment. For much of episode 9, the boss is cleverly situated as a supporting player in both Freddy's and Don's dramas. The trio goes out for drinks, and then more drinks, and then more drinks, cushioning Freddy's fall by indulging the very habit that got him there but also making it clear that they like the guy, and the whole situation's unfortunate but necessary. Freddy takes his downfall remarkably well, though his final farewell to Don is poignant, leaving an underground gambling joint and climbing into a cab on his way to an uncertain future. "What will I do?" he sighs, and when Don offers a goodnight, he responds - no illusions - "Goodbye." Roger and Don continue on to another location, Don mostly dodging his friend's needling inquiries about his marital situation (Jane, earlier, revealed that she had deduced what's going on), at one point by striding from the bar to punch a conveniently-placed Jimmy Barrett in the face. Finally he concedes that they're separated, and that he's mostly relieved. Parrying Roger's half-hearted counterpoints (which, fixated on "another woman," are subtly not about Don's situation at all), Don inadvertently convinces him to make his own move. The next morning, Mona Sterling storms into Don's office and dresses him down for his "advice." Turns out Roger is sleeping with Jane, took Don's self-analysis as a pep talk, and has decided to leave his wife.

My Response: 
"Six Month Leave" reveals itself as a low-key crucial episode, low-key because it never makes bold stylistic flourishes or - until the final scene - reaches any momentous conclusions about the crises of its main characters; even when it looks like Betty might be preparing to cheat on Don, she's actually setting up her more timid friend Sarah Beth Carson (Missy Yager) with the dashing Arthur. Yet the lingering impression the episode leaves us with is that, indeed, things do change - and change quite quickly. So much of the first season was spent emphasizing the sturdiness of 1960 society (even with the occasional tremor, like Peggy's promotion or Don's brother returning, or outburst, like Peggy's pregnancy or Pete's blackmail). As such, this growing understanding of the sixties' mercurial quality comes as a bit of a shock, precisely because it's so casually conveyed. I liked how the strangeness of the Drapers' separation, out-of-place after the rigid domestic anchor established over a season and a half, is continuously underscored by characters offering understanding, "we've been there too" insinuations. Somehow this normalization - the fifties facade of middle-class marital stability conceals the age-old troubles that have always haunted the institution - only makes the situation more disorienting, like the Drapers are straight-arrow kids discovering that their parents have always been closet druggies.

Freddy's poignant situation is also a wonderfully-handled bit. God help me, just like the characters onscreen I couldn't stop laughing when Freddy pissed himself. He's one of the most sympathetic characters at the office, the one who gave Peggy her big break, and the situation is legitimately sad and embarrassing - we know he's not headed for rehab and may even decline into destitution. Nonetheless, the episode brilliantly wrings laughter from this sadness (the best, most rewarding TV shows always dance along the line between tragedy and comedy). I also love how gracefully Freddy accepts his situation - Joel Murray's performance here is a thing of bemused beauty. The scenario is so awkward yet it feels so natural, and we completely buy the interactions between the three men, like a POW film where the guards and a doomed prisoner share a convivial moment before performing their duty. Nothing personal, pal; you know how war is. Betty, on the other hand - and the offscreen Marilyn - has no such consolations. "Six Month Leave" reminds us that, in Mad Men's world anyway, men have solidarity in their suffering, even as they cause it for one another, while women suffer in silence and isolation. Don may prefer to keep to himself, but others offer company without invitation whereas Betty wanders around her home all alone until her maid finally encourages her to step outside. And even then, she can only reach out to her friend through another man. If the marriage ends, Don needn't worry: he will quickly land on his feet (at least for now). It's Betty who will fall, and fall, and fall, like the figure in Mad Men's opening credits.

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