Sunday, 7 November 2010

'MAD MEN' 4.9 - "The Beautiful Girls"

Sunday, 7 November 2010

A fascinating episode of feminine turmoil, offering perspectives from Mad Men's prominent women. It's sometimes forgotten that this series has some of the strongest female characters on television, as the show's very title elicits the notion it's focused on '60s philanderers. "The Beautiful Girls" is a strong reminder that the female characters have just as much complexity as the men.

Joan's (Christina Hendricks) been told her husband's being sent to Vietnam after basic training, which Roger (John Slattery) isn't aware of and find himself upsetting her with his blithe flirting. Joan took offence this time, although Roger's apology by way of a home massage, manicure and pedicure seemed to do the trick, and the pair were soon enjoying a meal together. An evening spoiled by the walk home, where they were robbed at gunpoint, although the incident appeared to reignite Joan's feelings for Roger, as the pair had sex behind a stairwell once the danger had passed. A heat of the moment event, triggered by a life-and-death situation and high emotion? A clear sign that Joan finds Roger more comforting and protective than her husband? Would Roger have reacted differently to the mugging before his heart attacks gave him a sense of mortality?

Life and death was another issue woven into this episode. Miss Blankenship (Randee Heller) was discovered dead at her desk by Peggy (Elisabeth Moss). A tragic end for a woman who apparently spent her entire adult life as a secretary of declining skill, with Cooper (Robert Morse) the only person with a positive spin on Blankenship's ignoble fate ("she was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She's an astronaut.") Of course, we know from Roger's audio-tapes from "The Suitcase" that Cooper and Blankenship were once romantically linked, so it's only natural he should have a more upbeat opinion of her.

Miss Blankenship's passing was a great example of Mad Men's ability to juggle pathos and comedy, particularly in the moment Don (Jon Hamm) had to continue a meeting with a client while distracted by background sight of Pete (Vincent Karthesier) and Joan trying to remove hefty Blankenship from behind her desk. A very amusing sequence, if not quite achieving the black comedy peak of season 3's "lawn mower incident".

Peggy grappled with civil rights and racism, after being setup by friend Joyce (Zosia Mamet) with her friend Abe Drexler (Charlie Hofheimer), whose political opinions didn't fit with her own. Abe was clearly hoping to woo the intelligent Peggy over with his confident and eyebrow-raising thoughts on racism, but his disagreement with Peggy that racial discrimination is comparable to the injustices women face in the workplace was too polarizing. By the time Abe was laughing at the idea of "a civil rights march for women", Peggy had to leave offended. Unlike Roger with Joan, Abe's attempt to clear the air with Peggy was a failure. He arrived at SCDP the next morning, clutching an article he'd written for her entitled "Nuremberg on Madison Avenue", which contains material about the racism actions of a client SCDP represent (Fillmore Auto Parts) that Peggy thinks would get her fired if Abe published it.

Faye (Cara Buono) appears to be Don's unofficial girlfriend (what happened to Bethany?) and is even allowed to stay in his apartment while he goes to work in the morning. Unfortunately, there are signs Don sees Faye (and women in general?) as handy people to pass problems to, perhaps because that's exactly what he does to his female-only secretarial staff all day. Here, after daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) was delivered to his office, having been discovered alone on a train by a good samaritan, Don's anger over Sally's reckless behaviour and ex-wife Betty's (January Jones) inobservance, led to him asking Faye to babysit Sally until he got home. An understandable plan, and Don handled Sally rather well once he got home (making her promise not to run away from home again, spending the next morning with her at a zoo), but it was all just a temporary fix to a deeper problem...

Sally doesn't like her new life as a step-daughter having to mix with a different family, aware her mother doesn't seem to love her all that much. She'd rather stay with her father permanently, and makes a scene in Don's office when it's time to leave with Betty. An outburst that Don can't handle, so again brings in Faye to defuse the situation, resulting in Sally causing a bigger scene as she ran down the corridor and tripped over in front of secretary Megan (Jessica Pare). Later, Faye confronted Don over his recent behaviour, passing his daughter onto her, almost as if she was being "tested" – something she was very uncomfortable with, mainly because she feels like she'd fail.

The final scene of the episode summed things up neatly in a lovely visual of Joan, Faye and Peggy entering the elevator together – each symbolizing the three degrees of feminine progress in the workplace. Faye's opted to be singularly focused on her career (at the cost of family and kids); Joan has decided to place more stock in husband and homemaking just lately; and Peggy's somewhere in the middle, believing she can have both. And that does seem possible, as society gradually bends. Certainly, she'll have better luck than poor Miss Blankenship –- whose death perhaps signals the passing of the "old ways".

WRITERS: Dahvi Waller & Matthew Weiner
DIRECTOR: Michael Uppendahl
TRANSMISSION: 3 November 2010, BBC4/HD, 10PM