The Carousel: Revisiting Mad Men
Hi again, lovely people! We are back Revisiting Mad Men – namely, discussing the first two of four poll-winning episodes from our Season 1 discussion. I want to thank everyone for starting so many great conversations in our first thread – I really didn’t know what to expect, and 170 long, thought-out, clever comments is crazy!
Last week we had a four-way tie. With 8 upvotes each, Episode 7 (“Red in the Face”), Episode 8 (“The Hobo Code”), Episode 9 (“Shoot”), and Episode 12 (“Nixon vs. Kennedy”) won. I expected Episode 6 (“Babylon”) to win as well, but I think 7-9 winning shows that Mad Men hit its stride hard at the midpoint of Season 1.
Miss Rim will be reviewing “Shoot” (her favorite of the season!) and “Nixon vs. Kennedy” next week, and this week I’ve taken on “Red in the Face” (my favorite of the season!) and “The Hobo Code”.
Red in the Face: Petty Humiliation Abounds
“Red in the Face” is best remembered for two things: that chip ‘n dip joke, and that projectile vomit ending. In between, the episode takes delight in showing us how its characters respond to humiliation, private and public.
To recap: Roger gets drunk, invites himself over to Don and Betty’s dinner, then hits on Betty. Don has to accept his boss’s apology, but finds the ultimate way to emasculate an older, less fit man: he goads Roger into overeating and overdrinking, pretends the elevator is out, and climbs 23 flights of stairs with Roger. Don strides into an important Nixon campaign meeting, while Roger pukes several gallons in front of the clients. The episode ends with Don grinning as Roger lies crumpled behind him.
Betty has her own response to embarrassment. Humiliated by Don’s petty grudge against her for being too friendly with Roger (he calls her a “little girl”), she takes it out on poor Helen. When Helen belittles her for giving 9-year-old Glen a lock of her hair, Betty slaps her in the middle of a grocery store. Turns out there are no social consequences to hitting divorced harlots when you’re Mrs. Donald Draper!
Finally, Pete. That chip ‘n dip. Always known for being petty, Pete gets flustered by the guys teasing him and calling him whipped. He brings the chip ‘n dip to the bridal counter to get returned, as his wife requested, but when the women there don’t take him seriously and a more macho friend shows up, he goes into full Bravado Mode. He tries to hit on a sales clerk, buys a rifle to overcompensate, and tells Peggy all about his alpha hunting fantasy. In the end, we see Trudy dressing him down as he sits there like a shamed little boy.
The title “Red in the Face” works on two levels for me – the obvious theme of embarrassment, and the focus on over-consumption. The episode starts with Roger getting unpleasantly drunk, and ends the same way. In the penultimate scene, Roger is goaded into eating a disgusting amount of oysters and cheesecake and drinking too many martinis; I always loved the production design in this scene, with the walls painted a hellishly intense red.
In the dim lighting, Roger does look red-faced, and what should be a luxurious lunch just looks vulgar. The claustrophobic angles of the oatmeal-gray stairwells in that long final scene also add a sense of nausea.
This episode shows the better side of none of the characters, and I love it for that. I take such petty glee in watching Don’s scheme, and the absurdity of Pete’s attempts to reassert his masculinity. Even Peggy gets an embarrassing moment, as Pete’s hunting fantasy makes her both WAY too hungry and WAY too turned on. She goes to get a giant ham sandwich and a Danish, AS WOULD WE ALL.
The Hobo Code: Dishonesty as an Ethos
The episode immediately following “Red in the Face” is the most important episode of the season in understanding Don Draper. “Nixon vs. Kennedy” tells us how Dick Whitman changed his name to Don Draper, but “The Hobo Code” explains why, and gets at the root of a lot of Don’s personality.
To recap: Don gets an unexpected bonus from Cooper (about 25 grand in today’s money), seemingly just for being self-interested and Randian. He goes to Midge’s place and offers to spend it on her in Paris, but Midge is getting high with her obnoxious beatnik friends. Don joins them and has a night of stoned introspection in front of the bathroom sink.
He remembers being a kid on a Depression-era farm, bullied by his religious stepmother and abusive father, and having a hobo stay the night. The hobo tells young Dick how great it is to leave your old life behind, run away and start over. He teaches Dick various hobo code symbols.
The next day, when Dick’s father refuses to pay the hobo for his work, the hobo leaves, and Dick spots the symbol for “dishonest man” on the fence. In two flashbacks, we see how Don learned that running away solves all your problems and why he avoids permanent bonds (his fear of contracts will become clear later…). Though of course, the episode ends by zooming in on the Donald Draper nameplate on Dick’s office door – a reminder that he’s got the sign of a liar on his own “front gate”.
This episode also sees the resumption of Pete and Peggy’s affair (they get it on in the office at 7 AM), the end of Don and Midge’s (he gives her his bonus and tells her to be happy with Beatnik Roy), and the end of Sal’s affair with gay executive Elliot before it even starts. Dishonesty all around!
Peggy’s growing confidence throughout the episode as her writing is well-received, only to be devastated by Pete’s statement that he “doesn’t like her” happy and confident when he refuses to dance with her, is my favorite scene of the episode. And I love the masterful innuendo between Sal and Elliot (this show already does double-meaning dialogue non-stop, and then you throw in closeted characters…), ending in Sal’s frightened rejection when Elliot stops playing around and takes a sip of Sal’s drink. The moment you realize Sal has never acted on his sexuality, and never intends to, is a depressing one.
Overall, an episode that furthers several characters’ arcs and does it through some truly gorgeous scenes.
Grade: A (man, reviewing only poll-winning episodes is gonna make me seem like an easy grader…)