Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword" (season 4, episode 5)

Mad Men - "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword" (season 4, episode 5)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. The last season will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on August 22, 2010/written by Erin Levy; directed by Lesli Linka Glatter): "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword" points both backward and forward while anchoring itself very firmly in the moment. The Japanese motorcycle company Honda becomes a potential goldmine client for SCDP, triggering a furious Roger's war-fueled resentments from the forties while hinting at the Pacific nation's eventual dominance of the auto industry in the eighties. (The notion of Japanese cars seems so absurd to the admen that, when they learn they have a shot at marketing the company's brand new models, they wonder if they really want to.) After Roger ambushes a business meeting with ratatatat insults involving barely-veiled references to Pearl Harbor and the atomic bomb, a furious Pete accuses him of having ulterior motives: is this really about promises made to dead sailor pals or is Roger worried that if Pete starts bringing in big hitters, Roger's own Lucky Strike account will carry less weight? Don nearly salvages the account when he cooks up a plan almost as conniving as the legendary creation of SCDP in '63 - he pretends to shoot an expensive spec commercial, in direct violation of the Japanese business' scrupulously written rules, in order to provoke his obnoxious rival at the CGC agency, Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm), into filming his own ad. Then Don self-righteously removes himself from the competition by telling the Honda reps that it would be dishonorable to compete against someone who flouted their conventions so brazenly. Don, reading the postwar anthropological study from which the episode takes its name, believes he's got a solid read on their cultural conventions; we'll see whether or not this stunt pays off in the long run, but early signs are promising. At any rate Ted faceplants, which is good enough.

While Don continues to thrive professionally, he's flailing in his personal life. A visit with his kids in the city heads south when he leaves them with a babysitter (neighbor Phoebe, whose unflappable demeanor in previous episodes collapses to the point where she is humiliatingly fired by Don). Sally decides to cut her hair, leading to an outburst from Betty who is particularly pissed that Don pranced off with a date rather than watch the kids himself during his one night a week. She's also alarmed by indications that the little girl is growing up all too fast. Encouraged by Henry to go easy on the kid, Betty lets Sally attend a sleepover which backfires disastrously. As her unsuspecting friend slumbers on the couch, Sally becomes ever more fascinated with the handsome men on TV and - tactfully, under the notable guidance of a female writer and director - we quickly find out how few inhibitions Sally harbors...as does her friend's mother (Amy Sloan). Deposited back at the Draper home as punishment for "playing with herself," the humiliated Sally is more confused and morose than ever and so Betty agrees, with Harry's prodding, to send her to a child psychiatrist, Dr. Edna Keener (Patricia Bethune). As quickly becomes apparent in their first meeting, it's Betty who needs a therapeutic outlet as much as anyone; we're right back in Betty's first season childishness as she sits in the playfully decorated office and starts inadvertently spilling her own guts to the intrigued shrink, who carefully sets up monthly meetings with mother as well as daughter - ostensibly just to check up on the child's progress. Don, kept abreast of his daughter's crisis from a distance, finds his own solace over sake with Faye in the company kitchen, finally sharing the familial troubles he withheld for so long. She, in turn, confesses that she wears a fake wedding ring as a prop to keep men away, although Don is quick to note that he must, implicitly, not be one of the ones she wants to keep away. Faye is able to exit this encounter without going any further, but we strongly suspect this won't be their last temptation to further let down their guard.

My Response: I've already discussed David Lynch's observation about period pieces and how they have to draw upon different eras, not just the one they take place in. Does Mad Men always worry about this quality? Not quite. The show unabashedly shifts gears to embrace whatever moment it's in; think how the Drapers' home was conveniently remodeled between '60 and '62 or how the move to a new office allows the series to embrace a more chic, almost Pop Art workplace than the relatively staid Sterling Cooper digs of seasons one through three. On the other hand, the characters' minds are often rooted in previous eras and the creators immensely enjoy evoking characters' memories of the twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties (even the teens - see the pointed German helmet collected by Betty's father - or all the way back to nineteenth century - remember the Spanish-American War veteran celebrating Memorial Day at the Drapers' country club?). Aside from Don with his Dick Whitman flashbacks, probably no character is more firmly rooted in the past than Roger, whose privileged background and present insecurities leave him little to honorably cling to aside from his Naval service during World War II. Even if Roger's virulent anti-Japanese xenophobia serves as a bit of a front for his petulant rivalry with the up-and-coming Pete, it's hard to separate the two. In both the grand and petty examples of generational rivalry he is struggling with the fact that something meaningful and solid - whether wartime commitment or professional status - can, with the simple passage of time, slip into irrelevancy.

Elsewhere in the episode, Mad Men almost feverishly embraces its up-to-the-minute mid-sixties aesthetic, although Glatter - who on this show, as in Twin Peaks, loves her eccentrics - lavishes attention on Don's painfully past-her-prime "new" secretary. Peggy roaring around a cavernous white soundstage on her bright red Honda motorcycle could be ripped from the reels of Help! while Sally's sexual awakening is accompanied by the jittery antenna transmissions of the contrast-heavy black-and-white (and, significantly, surrealistically Orientalist) Man From U.N.C.L.E. Roger's attachment to a twenty-year-old zeitgeist couldn't feel more anachronistic in this particular context. Although things have been trending this way for a while, it's hard not to feel like we have now fully crossed over into "sixties sixties sixties" Mad Men (though this is very much the swingin', pre-full-on-counterculture era) with hardly a remnant of the fifties left behind. In particular, Don's rivalry with Ted moves us beyond the "company man" ethos of early sixties Sterling Cooper into an age where individualist titans clash directly over clients and campaigns. And lest all the contemporaneous shout-outs seem frivolous, the March on Selma is referenced, marking an interesting contrast to the handling of the Japanese characters. Bert, who has always harbored something of an Asian fetish, is respectful and deferential toward his potential clients while flippant and dismissive about African-American civil rights; Roger, who is vehement in his hatred of the former wartime enemy, is utterly unthreatened by black protesters; while Pete of all people manages to strike a thoughtful, tolerant position across the board (as Meredith Blake notes in a 2010 write-up I stumbled across while revisiting the plot of this episode, "Pete's attitude towards race has always been open-minded in a free-market sort of way: He doesn't care where the money comes from"). Pete's explanation for this population's concerns - "They're upset that Lassie can stay at the Waldorf, and they can't" - interestingly leads us into the very next episode, whose title suggests an anthology format. As with "Three Sundays" and "Seven Twenty Three," will Mad Men indulge in a novelty format once again...?

Next: "Waldorf Stories"Previous: "The Rejected"

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