Sunday, September 26, 2010

Review: Mad Men "The Beautiful Girls"

Non Spoiler Review:
For an episode that started out at a lazy pace, the second half certainly ramped things up. Most of the cast gets showcased one way or another this time around—primarily Faye and Don, Joan and Roger, and Peggy and Joyce. But it's also the minor female characters that receive attention, as well—secretaries Megan, Caroline and Mrs. Blankenship. There are some big surprises that come out of left field, making for another entertaining hour that had me laughing aloud each time I rewatched particular scenes. Suffice it to say, Mad Men topped its John Deere incident.

As we approach the end of the season, it's evident the varied plot threads are beginning to come together into a tighter tapestry. As clues to last season's finale were evident only in hindsight, it looks like this one will be much the same, as there are so many directions the remainder of these episodes can take.

Spoilers Now!
There were several shockers this week. The episode started out more as a catch up on various characters. We see Faye and Don in bed together, and their relationship seems to be progressing nicely. In fact, Don seems at his best since...anytime. He's at ease around Faye in ways he never was with Betty, and he seems genuinely happy.

Greg has finally been called up to go to Viet Nam as soon as his basic training is finished, so that has Joan in a twist. Roger takes pains to alleviate her stress by sending her a massage at home. His affection for her continues to grow as he pines over their happy time together, but Joan isn't really interested in rekindling their affair, reminding him that they're both married.

Peggy meets Joyce for a drink, and Abe (from the warehouse party) shows up (as part of Joyce's matchmaking). But he and Peggy get into a debate about evil corporations and civil rights. Abe is gungho for equal rights for minorities, but can't see any relevance in Peggy's comparisons to women's rights, which prompts her to storm off in offense. When Abe shows up at the office asking her to read his manifesto about corporate evils and how it relates to SCDP's clients, she's horrified rather than flattered. She demands he destroy it or she could be fired if it's published. Abe can't seem to understand why she would be upset, but complies, and we're left to wonder if he's going to show up again to cause some trouble for her.

The story hits its stride when the team meets with Filmore Automotive (who are suffering a boycott for not hiring Negroes in the south). Don is called out of his meeting by secretary Megan to find Sally is there. She had taken the train to Manhattan after walking home from her therapist, and only managed to get that far without money on the kindness of an old woman who brought her in to the office. Don is horrified, and suffers another chilly chat with Betty, who says Sally has to stay with him as she's coming into the city with Henry the next day.

Sally is beaming to be with her father, and she certainly appears a lot more mature than she has in the past, even picking up on some of Betty's mannerisms and acting like a young woman. After ordering her to stay in his office, Don returns to his meeting, which is not going well as the three brothers controlling Filmore can't agree on anything. Peggy finds Mrs. Blankenship at her desk, dead (!) in her chair, prompting Don to be called out of the meeting again, which begins one of the funniest moments in Mad Men history as they attempt to remove the body without alerting the clients just next door in the board room.

After the dust settles, Roger reflects on his own mortality, and Joan agrees to go for lunch with him. They talk about the past and their choices, which is quite bittersweet given Roger chose to marry one secretary when it should have been Joan. On the walk back, we get the second whammy—Joan and Roger are mugged! They lose everything, but get away alive, and end up having a very quick and passionate tryst in the alley.

Don and Sally spend a wonderful evening as father and daughter, but come morning reality sets in as Betty comes to pick her up. Sally converts to brat mode immediately, prompting an embarrassing run through the hallway of SCDP and falling flat on her face in front of all the women in the office. Megan consoles her, and Sally is handed off to Betty, where she offers a chilly "Good-bye" to Don.

Exhausted, Don walks in on an upset Faye who has been put in the position of trying to calm Sally on a couple of different occasions. Childless Faye is not impressed with how it all turned out and made her look like a failure as a woman, but Don manages to console her that her life choices are not an issue at all. "What a mess," he says, as they embrace.

By day's end, the three beautiful girls of SCDP, Joan, Faye and Betty, enter the elevator together and stare forward pensively as the doors close.

What Worked:
This episode was jam-packed with character development. It seemed everyone was getting a moment.

The scene where Don attempts to maintain his composure dealing with the Filmore Autoparts executive, while behind them Pete Campbell attempts to haul Mrs Blankenship's body out from behind her desk rivalled the John Deere incident from last season for laughs. Faye, Ken and Don can see everything happening, and just watching Pete's body language we fill in the blanks of what's being said out of earshot.

Don is the best he's been all season, looking truly happy. Unfortunately he does op for a drink by the end of the episode, after dealing with the death, Sally, Betty and Faye. He has evolved quite a bit, though, as he manages to console Faye and show very much how he cares for her.

Abe's sexism really underlines the uphill battle Peggy faces, when women's rights gets none of the recognition that the civil rights movement has received. Abe's earnestness in trying to impress Peggy just digs him a deeper grave, and he eventually comes across as fanatical and stalkerish by the end. Given how Mad Men sets up subtle plot points, he could be trouble for Peggy down the road.

It was great to see a bit more from Megan this episode, especially the way she got emotional over Sally's meltdown. She is really a great character that has been lurking in the background, and I hope we see more of her. Roger's secretary Caroline, is also proving to deliver some good comic relief.

The atmosphere at SCDP is much less formal than Sterling Cooper, with the secretaries talking back to Roger and Don regularly. This may be a reflection of their forward-thinking firm, or just a sign of the times, but it serves as another contrast with the first season.

The episode ends with the women leaving the office together in the elevator, Faye, Joan and Peggy all weighed down by their respective relationships troubles. It's fitting that Peggy is in the middle. Joan has sold out to a marriage that has proven less than the dream. Faye has gone the other extreme by giving up a family in favor of career. Peggy continues to struggle with her options to find a balance for everything she wants.

Best Lines:
Don asking Faye to stay with Sally: "I would have my secretary do it, but she's dead."

Don to Sally about her French toast :
Don: "What's on this?"
Sally: "Mrs. Butterworths."
Don: "That's rum! Read labels!"

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