Sunday, 5 April 2009

MAD MEN 2.8 - "A Night To Remember"

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Spoilers. Female empowerment is the nucleus of this week's Mad Men, with confession its... orbiting electron? After the events of "The Gold Violin", we're left wondering what Betty (January Jones) will do with the knowledge Don (John Hamm) has been having an affair; ignore everything and keep pretending their marriage is rock-solid? Or find the courage to tackle Don on the matter?

Before all that, Harry (Rich Sommer) is finding it difficult to run Sterling Cooper's new TV department single-handed. A client has already complained that their scheduled commercial for "agitators" in washers ran during the ad-break for a program that had referenced "communist agitators". Harry tells Roger (John Slattery) that he needs someone to read through TV scripts to prevent such a thing happening again, but Roger advises him to fix the problem himself –- leading a desperate Harry to ask Joan (Christina Hendricks) to become his temporary script-reader...

It's a task the flame-haired Joan takes to heart, proving to be a reliable, competent and perceptive assistant in this new role. Indeed, after we glimpse her home-life with "doctor" fiancĂ© (actually a med student who'd rather she sit at home all day watching TV and eating bonbons), Joan essentially decides to follow in the footsteps of Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), by making herself invaluable in her new assignment. A slap in the face comes later, when -– despite being instrumental in assuring clients that the company's script-vetting service has been improved -– Harry decides to let Joan return to her regular duties, having found a male assistant to work fulltime.

Hendricks hasn't had too much to do this season, but this was undoubtedly a highlight for the actress. Her reaction to being let-go by Harry -- after allowing herself to believe she was making career progress as "head of broadcast relations", only to be sent back to being the focus for lecherous execs -- was heartbreaking and beautifully played. Joan has always seemed perfectly at home in her mother-hen role, but this was the first time we've seen her at home (where she's being groomed to become a Betty-style housewife) and showing flare for a more challenging position. Poor Harry obviously didn't mean to snatch Joan's dreams away from her (he's unaware she even has ambition), but he should have noted how well Joan performed. Interestingly, only Don has ever seen the potential in a female employee (elevating Peggy to copywriter), but ironically fails to bring that progressive attitude into his family life.

Meanwhile, Peggy is asked by Father Gill (Colin Hanks) to quell the concerns of the church committee about the poster she's designed to advertise their dance night – a suggestive piece entitled "A Night To Remember". Peggy believes it's an excellent way to entice women to attend, who will therefore draw in a healthy male crowd, but her meeting with two old-fashioned churchgoers leaves Peggy irritated because Father Gill fails to support her. Later, Gill calls Peggy at her office (where she amusingly pretends to be her own secretary), and comes in to try and make peace with her, while making multiple copies of her poster. Of course, Gill's secretly hoping Peggy will open up to him about her adultery and secret love-child, by mentioning the fact she doesn't take communion at his services, but Peggy isn't ready to trust him just yet...

But, of course, the real standout of this episode is the meltdown of the Draper family, which is beautifully paced. At first, things appear to be relatively normal between Don and Betty (did she blame last week's vomiting on bad vol-au-vonts?), although there are tell-tale signs of Betty's anger; like when she smashes an unstable dinner chair to pieces in quiet fury. Later, Betty plays hostess at a dinner party for Don, Roger, Duck (Mark Moses) and a client called Crab Colson. The evening is a pleasant one, but Betty isn't too happy when her choice of party beverage (a Dutch beer called Heineken) proves to Don's assembled friends that their new client Heineken can appeal to "upscale housewives" like Betty, as he insisted it could earlier at work.

After the diners have left, Betty confronts Don over using her to prove a point in front of everyone, claiming it embarrassed her and made her look stupid. Don tries to play down her overreaction to his little mind-game, but Betty continues her barrage and builds enough steam to reveal that she knows of his affair with Bobbie Barrett. Don denies her accusation outright (saying Jimmy has "a big mouth", never actually that he's a liar), and leaves her to cool off. While Don's at work the next day, Betty (still in her party dress, make-up symbolically rubbing off), searches their house for signs of her husband's adultery, but can't find any evidence. January Jones is superb in these scenes –cracking up over Don's infidelity, but still with a seed of doubt (hope?) in her mind that Jimmy's just paranoid and wrong. Don himself is such an accomplished liar, he probably half-believes his own lies, and certainly finds some of Betty's anguish genuinely hard to fathom.

Just when it feels that Betty may have had her pressure-valve release and will apologize to Don, she notices the advert Jimmy Barrett filmed for Utz nuts, calls Don at work, and sternly tells him to not bother coming home. In another of the show's wonderful endings, Don is consigned to his office's break room after-hours, to slurp from a can of Heineken – clearly the beverage of choice for cheating husbands, not wronged housewives.

Overall, "A Night To Remember" was suitable titled. We've been waiting for Betty to tackle Don about his affairs since the series began, so this episode obviously marks a real turning point for Mad Men. It's also brilliant how every episode dances so beautifully around a theme and weaves in so many clever symbols for what the characters are going through (the dent Joan's bra-strap makes in her shoulder, for example.) Or how about various characters losing their clothes to embrace their real identities? Betty's disintegrating party dress, Joan's un-glamorous home attire, Peggy naked in the bath, but particularly Father Gill stripping off his vestments (almost like body-armour) to play the guitar.

31 March 2009
BBC Four, 10pm

Writers: Robin Veith & Matthew Weiner
Director: Lesli Linka Glatter

Cast: John Hamm (Don), John Slattery (Roger), Rich Sommer (Harry), Christina Hendricks (Joan), Elisabeth Moss (Peggy), January Jones (Betty), Bryan Batt (Salvatore), Aaron Staton (Ken), Michael Gladis (Paul), Mark Moses (Duck), Colin Hanks (Father John Gill), Talia Balsam (Mona Sterling), Sam Page (Greg Harris), Audrey Wasilewski (Anita Olson Respola), Matt McKenzie (Crab Colson), Amy Landeecker (Petra Colson), Christopher Murray (Phil Mathewson), Marty Ryan (Richard Hanson), La Monde Byrd (Hollis), Deborah Lacey (Carla), Julie McNiven (Hildy), Joeanna Sayler (Woman) & Angelo Tsarouchas (Bouncer)