Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Summer Man" (season 4, episode 8)

Mad Men - "The Summer Man" (season 4, episode 8)

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 September 12, 2010/written by Lisa Albert, Janet Leahy, and Matthew Weiner; directed by Phil Abraham): "Don't you want to be close to anyone?" Bethany asks Don on their fifth or sixth date in as many months. The answer, for Don and many others in an episode defined by distance and proximity, is complicated. "The Summer Man" is all about where to define limits in a confusing time on both a personal and societal level. The soon-to-be-fired Joey's cocky demeanor, as he insults the scolding Joan to her face, stems in part from a confidence in his relationship to Peggy - she's "one of the guys" who can be trusted to appreciate their lockerroom humor but also "just a girl" who'd never have the balls to discipline him (until she does) for what we'd nowadays call blatant sexual harassment. Betty and Henry struggle with the stranglehold Don continues to hold over them as they silently stew in his former house and run into him on that aforementioned date with Bethany (Henry is being courted as a potential advisor for Mayor John Lindsay's eventual presidential campaign, but Betty's mind is elsewhere - across the restaurant - which pisses Henry off). They even pointedly refuse to invite Don to his own son's second birthday, a boundary no less wounding for being implicit.

And Don faces border crises all over the place. Bethany goes down on him in the back of a cab, transgressing her own initial limits, while Don himself - to a different date's surprise, and perhaps even his own - tells Faye he will only take her to the door of her apartment building despite their clear mutual desire. (She's already cast aside her own hard boundary by dating him at all.) When Don holds little Gene aloft and the boy refuses to return his absent father's gaze, Betty tells her new husband it's okay that the unexpected guest showed up for the birthday. "We've got everything," she tells him, echoing a doubtful refrain voiced by her and those around her all episode; Don, it stands to reason, has nothing. But of course the boundary between everything and nothing is as porous as any other. The main mad man's inner turmoil is conveyed throughout by jarring voiceover as he keeps a diary, a sometimes on-the-nose device whose obviousness serves a meta purpose: both the show and the character are attempting to figure themselves out after losing their defining traits. Even more on-the-nose, of course, is the early use of "(I Can't Go No) Satisfaction," such an obvious needle drop - it not only defines '65 but is about advertising, for God's sake - that the filmmakers have no choice but to go over the top with it, showing Don pull a pack from his shirt pocket just as Mick croons, "can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke the same cigarettes as me." The moment serves not only to capture the flavor of the moment but to suggest Don is finding himself increasingly removed from it, fading from cultural relevancy. At one point Don's self-conscious narration informs us, "We're flawed because we want so much more. We're ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had." Of course, Don is only about thirty-eight or thirty-nine right now, not that this is necessarily a hopeful counterpoint. He still has plenty of ruin left in him.

My Response: Every now and then it's worth pulling back from the show a bit to remind ourselves of how thoroughly its design aesthetic has shifted alongside the decade it's covering. The colorful, collage-y template of the SCDP office feels at once newer and older than sturdy, buttoned-down Sterling Cooper ever did: fresh and exciting in exactly the fashion of the mid-sixties but also more dated, to our twenty-first century eyes, by its location within such a hyper-specific era. Of course, as I noted in a recent entry, this milieu is often a matter of different eras butting up against one another and that's seldom been more true, at least visually, than in "The Summer Man." I was particularly struck by the snazzy shades and casual polos worn by the young freelance creatives whose clothes are as often as loud as their voices. When Pete pops into the hallway for a brief cameo in this episode, his tone of voice, physical demeanor, and traditional gray suit make him look as if he's just stepped out of a time machine. There's definitely a culture clash going on here not so much directed at the ten- or twenty-years-older generation, who are even physically removed in their corner offices, but between the slightly older and slightly younger silents. It's a distinction not just of age but history, between those who had roots in the old Sterling Cooper and understand how its hidden pecking order lurks beneath the seemingly loose SCDP vibe - and those who don't. Even poor Harry Crane may have been a youthful hot shot in the previous office but here he is just brushed off as "an old queer." Peggy, in terms of both age and station (firmly on the creative side of the business, but also atop it) could serve as a conduit and regulator between the factions but ultimately she ends up alienating herself from both sides.

Another compelling reminder of how time skews, distorts, and resets our perceptions can be found in the old Draper home. Once a bastion of suburban luxury, a moody, manicured refuge from the din of the city, it now seems smaller somehow, crowding in on Betty and Henry (demonstrated literally by Don's boxes). Meanwhile its secure distance from New York is erased by Don's weekend drive to pathetically gather his meager last belongings from the lawn, joined to an urban back alley dumpster by one quick cut. Henry remarks flippantly to Betty, when telling her she'll inevitably run into her "hated" ex from time to time, "It's a small town." Curiously, the sarcastic statement rings true here - the world of Mad Men hasn't exactly grown claustrophobic but somehow it does feel more compressed. You can even see this spatially in how easily everyone moves through the office: the walls have been knocked down or replaced with transparencies, but individuals liberated from their once-isolated little autonomous zones discover they're now stuck in an often hostile crowd no matter where they roam. Yet another group longs for what it once wished its way out of. As another singer would bluntly tell us a few years later, freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.

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