Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Love Among the Ruins" (season 3, episode 2)

Mad Men - "Love Among the Ruins" (season 3, episode 2)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another 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 23, 2009/written by Cathryn Humphries, Matthew Weiner; directed by Lesli Linka Glatter): Out with the old, in with the new! (But it's not so easy, is it?) As spring blossoms, Sterling Cooper tries - in stops and starts - to make the case for Madison Square Garden's replacement of the revered landmark Penn Station, Betty's father arrives with her brother's family and when they leave he doesn't, Peggy attempts to figure out if the juvenile sex appeal of Ann Margaret can (or should) work for her, and Roger grumbles about his daughter's wedding now that he realizes - or is forced to recognize - that they don't want homewrecker Jane ruining the big day. Of course Margaret's nuptials are set for November 23 (the camera lingers on that save-the-date so we don't miss the implications) and the Jane drama may end up being the least of her overshadowing worries. With Kennedy, Oswald, and Jackie's bloody dress still in the distance, another '63 icon makes an appearance: the episode opens with a conference room screening of the bold pre-credits sequence of Bye Bye Birdie. While all the men are charmed by the vivacious young star, Peggy's snippy reaction ("Let's say we can find a girl who can match Ann Margaret's ability to be twenty-five and act fourteen") launches a sequence of uncertain reflections and forays for the ever-confused copywriter.

In the office, she overhears Joan flirting with a group of young men and steals her line later in a bar. Alone in her room, she faintly sings the song she made fun of in the mirror; when she meets a college student in a bar she trades banalities and burgers and then tiptoes out in the morning with a not-entirely-convincing (but not exactly insincere) "This was fun." When Peggy expresses her frustration with this derivative campaign for Patio (a Pepsi subsidiary marketing a diet drink for women), complaining that the "shrill" Bye Bye Birdie imitation would be embarrassing in a movie or play, Don reprimands her: "You're not an artist, Peggy. You solve problems." And this works as an effective segue into Don's own assertive problem-solving at home. With William trying to force a nursing home as the only viable route (the guilt-tripping alternative he proposes is that he and his wife move into the dad's house to take care of him full-time), Don takes his brother-in-law aside and harshly informs him that the elder Mr. Hofstadt will be living with him and Betty from now on, William will pay for him, and the house and car will remain the old man's property.

Don knows he's both putting his foot down and taking one for the team (essentially he's ensuring that both he and William, who won't be getting the house anytime soon, will lose in different ways). He's reminded just how much he's taking one for the team when he wakes up in the middle of the night to find Eugene, thinking it's still the middle of Prohibition, pouring all the family's wine bottles down the sink. And at work, Don discovers the limits of his power as well: after coaxing Madison Square Garden back into Sterling Cooper's fold (Paul used a conference to bash them for their vulgar imposition on New York's architectural landscape), he's brusquely informed by Lane that the UK office has nixed the deal, considering it an overextension of resources. Exasperated, Don asks why they were even bought out in the first place and Lane, whose wife has already voiced their discontent with the relocation, mutters honestly, "I don't know."

Out with the old and the new, in with the.....?

My Response:
When he has to woo Edgar Raffit (Kevin Cooney), the Garden rep, Don's pitch is fascinating not just for the social implications but for biographical reasons. He refers to his recent trip to California and waxes poetic: "Everything's new and it's clean. The people are filled with hope. New York City is in decay. Madison Square Garden...it's the beginning of a new city on a hill." Not only is this little speech a welcome callback to one of season two's richest and most enigmatic storylines - ambiguous because Don seemed intimidated and disoriented by the West Coast's energy - it's also a reminder of the self-transformative ethos that led Dick Whitman to metamorphose into Don Draper. That this argument is being utilized in the service of what was back then and is still today recognized as one of the most craven construction/destruction jobs in New York history may tell us something about where Don currently perceives what was once his own "new, clean" life. Conversely, if he still views the life he's built with Betty as a precious Penn Station, perhaps this shallow impatience with "decay" presages another wrecking ball deployed for a far inferior alternative. Either way, the analogy feels foreboding.

The moment is also a wonderful example of Don's ability to simultaneously cut through self-deceptive bullshit while spinning his own, far more subtly effective line of bullshit. Raffit's whiny, bitter resentment - it isn't enough to have power and resources on his side, he greedily craves public approval too - is viscerally despicable. The attitude recalls, for contemporary audiences, subsequent decades of the "conservative victim" mentality that has plagued U.S. politics for decades, culminating with the election of Donald Trump, the impossible-to-top apotheosis of chip-on-the-shoulder elitism. But Don's dismissal of Raffit's resentment - while refreshingly frank (calling out Raffit's pathetic guilty conscience) - is in a way much more pernicious than the wounded pride of the resentful developer: a clever neoliberal gloss on unaccountable power. The deal is of course undone by Sterling Cooper's own unaccountable power dynamic: an elegantly ironic kiss-off in an episode packed with such gestures.

I really enjoyed almost every element of "Love Among the Ruins"; if the season premiere was solid but not particularly exciting, this proves a much juicier affair. It's great to see Lesli Linka Glatter behind the camera again (already a favorite from Twin Peaks, and proving to be probably my favorite Mad Men director as well). She and the screenwriters capture eyecatching bookends between the surprising Ann Margaret serenade and the lyrical maypole sequence in which a teacher with flowers in her hair dances with Don's daughter and other schoolchildren in a sundappled field. In both cases, we see grown women exhibiting an exaggerated youthful enthusiasm that evokes deep longing in male onlookers (not simply lustful, at least in the latter case). Don's hand drifts down toward the grass which he brushes gently, sharp suit and stylish shades concealing his romantic reverie from the surrounding crowd.

If there's one frustration emerging for me, it's with how the show is handling Peggy. As every other character gets a clear storyline (usually based on other characters to interact with), challenging them and draw out a distinctive persona, Peggy feels trapped in a tug of war. At least three or four times now, probably more, we've seen her face limitations borne of her unique position: a somewhat socially withdrawn woman who is also an outspoken professional. Each time, she's made a move (calling Don by his first name, appearing at a client event all done up, chopping off her ponytail) before eventually, a few episodes later, reverting to the same awkward role as if no change had ever been made. Yes, that's the point - and for much of season two at least, this dynamic effectively illustrated her ambiguous position - but the constant repetition of the process offers little sense that the writers are building something, and more of a feeling that they're starting from scratch each time. In retrospect, I may discover that this unconventional dramatic form is actually a brilliant stroke, reminding us how our narrative conventions rest upon specific, often subtly gendered, assumptions. However, this pattern also feels a bit unfair to Peggy herself, leaving her without a partner to bounce off of. Maybe, as a few scenes in this episode hint, she will find such a partner in a character who is in his own way as deeply unsettled as her - although the poetry of Don's and Peggy's symmetry is more in their distant echoes than their combined forces.

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