Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Rejected" (season 4, episode 4)

Mad Men - "The Rejected" (season 4, episode 4)

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 15, 2010/written by Keith Huff and Matthew Weiner; directed by John Slattery): Connections forged, broken, and wistfully recalled define our first full venture in 1965. Allison, suffering in silence for weeks, breaks down during a Pond's Cream meeting supervised by Faye. Ostensibly gathered to discuss their make-up regimens, the focus group of secretaries quickly turn toward man problems and Allison runs from the room. Don, already discomfited by her broken gazes toward the two-way mirror (through which she knows he is watching her), tries to apologize and smooth things over but instead she asks him to write a recommendation letter. Offering to sign anything she composes, Don's generous intent is read (perhaps correctly) as casual indifference and Allison hurls a desk ornament across the room in rage before a second, and final, dramatic exit. The whole office now knows, more or less, what happened between these two. On a more pleasant note, Peggy befriends Joyce Ramsay (Zosia Mamet), a LIFE Magazine photo editor who works below her in the same building. After struggling for years to find her place in New York's social universe, Peggy clicks with Joyce's hipster bohemian circle, sharing pot at avant-garde loft parties and making out in a closet with Abe Drexler (Charlie Hofheimer), an independent reporter, during a police raid. Joyce's undisguised more-than-friendly interest in Peggy, whom she tries to kiss, may complicate the camaraderie but for now everything is falling into place.

The same is true for Pete following years of marital struggle with infertility, infidelity, and in-law tension over adoption. Pete discovers he's going to be a father after all, right as he's supposed to break bad business news to his own father-in-law (and client, whose Clearasil account is about to be dropped). Later he will flip that bad news on its head, at least for himself, strong-arming Tom into bringing his entire conglomerate - Vicks Chemical - over to SCDP. Called a "son of a bitch" by the soon-to-be-grandfather, Pete just shrugs; his youthful petulance has, with time, matured into a more worldly ruthlessness. But not too worldly: when a gut-punched Peggy congratulates him on impending fatherhood, hints of shame, regret, and confusion flicker across his face - a look that returns as he and Peggy stand apart at the end of the work day. She gathers with her lively, colorful friends near the elevator, he stands on the other side of the glass partition with gray-suited admen in whose ranks he is quickly rising. Both have done well for themselves, though his path to the top is clearer, and both appear to be hitting their stride after many awkward false starts and detours. But they are headed in very different directions, one toward the greatest generation fifties ideal of the nuclear family, the other toward the baby boomer seventies ideal of swinging singledom. The divided screen provides a perfect microcosm of the silent generation, split right down its middle.

My Response: Allison's departure allows Don to maintain a foothold in "The Rejected" but most of the episode is driven by Pete and Peggy, who have long provided drama as the show's dynamic B-team in separate yet subtly linked spheres (Betty meanwhile has utterly collapsed as a Mad Men linchpin since the divorce, although of course we're just four episodes into the season). Only in the ending do they briefly come together, before drifting apart again, but separately they plug into several different storylines besides their own individual arcs. Peggy is present for Allison's meltdown - indeed, her presence may make it worse since Allison assumes that Don's former secretary slept with him too, an assumption Peggy angrily rejects. And Pete meets up with good old Ken, who has drifted from agency to agency following the original Sterling Cooper's collapse. This meeting is as blunt and brittle in its own way as Peggy's run-in with Allison - if potentially far more productive. Will the old gang come together again? (I miss Paul in particular.) The dance between Pete and Peggy is even emphasized by similar gestures: both gently bang their heads against office surfaces, Pete on a column and Peggy on a desk. Perhaps scripted - there are resonant visual/verbal echoes/reflections throughout the episode - I wouldn't be surprised if this was a director's innovation. Roger Sterling himself takes the reigns as Slattery directs his first episode, displaying a deft sense of rhythm in cut, composition, and performer's movement, from the startling multiple-telephone introduction to the aforementioned "parallel worlds" conclusion.

With all the activity among the younger set, meanwhile, Don's drift seems all the more rudderless. He certainly appears to be repelled by the placid domesticity he once clung to and kicked against in equal measure, acerbically rejecting Faye's suggestion that the Pond's campaign center a conservative yearning for marriage. The episode ends, wonderfully, as he wearily observes an old couple in his apartment building. ("Did you get the pears? Did you get the pears? Did you get the pears?" "We'll discuss it inside.") But what is he left with? Apparently critics worried about this at the time; reviewing the episode's synopsis I see that Noel Murray wrote in 2010, "Weiner's stubborn insistence on keeping Don a lost soul could lead to creative stagnation." He has a point, and if this season hasn't felt as strong as the others, that quality is certainly a factor. In retrospect, seasons one through three read as the slow-motion portrait of a marriage's collapse and the writers haven't found anything to equal the power of that trajectory yet. However, I bristle a bit at the implicit eye-roll in Murray's "keeping Don a lost soul" - as if the character needs to experience premature "redemption" to rescue him from the doldrums. I'm not sure exactly what he needs, but it isn't that; Don was a lost soul when married and he'll be a lost soul if remarried. What he could maybe use is direction, a shimmering city on the horizon offering the dream of salvaging his losses - something to run toward after running away for so long. But he'd better not arrive wherever he's going (indeed, it's probably better for us to suspect "where he's going" is a mirage)...at least until the show's final days.

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