Surprising me, still
Mad Men Season 5 Episode 8 recap
It is the mark of a show like Mad Men that even the episodes that aren't the strong pillars of television art, the ones that don't end with everyone together at a maudlin dinner table, has the ability to surprise. There are things that happened this week that I didn't think could exist in the world of SDCP, but they keep expanding our world, the one we share with them, to make the impossible true.
Let's start, then, with the place that tested my disbelief most strongly. I have wondered a lot about which Pete Campbell we're seeing right now. I love to hate him as much as the next girl, although I often err on the side of lenience. Mostly because I think the show has done, in the past, a remarkable job of showing us where Pete's coming from, what combination of relatively understandable factors can combine to turn him into a regular workaday douche. But the Pete of today isn't as evidently in need of something as he has been in the past. Of course, fidelity has never been his strong suit - but in the past, he's run to women who would be able to take the burden of whatever he was carrying around that he couldn't take to Trudy.
The question is... what is that now? He's relatively successful, what with people bringing him skis sight unseen (of course, the visual gag of Pete greedily taking both pairs and both poles and trying to scuttle out of Roger's office is almost schadenfreude enough to negate the bliss of being “known” as the guy to go to) and his position in the company solid. What is it he wants?
The only acceptable answer is “risk”. Pete doesn't pick up a girl at the office or anywhere in a vast city where he could easily have an assignation sight unseen; he's deliberately confining his misdemeanours to a small town, where not only does he know her husband - ride with him every day on the train - but she could run into Trudy at any time, if in fact she actually went to the market - a comment that was a little too Rory Gilmore for my liking.
(Sidebar for only those who know or care what a “Rory Gilmore” is: I was very, very surprised to see Bledel in this episode, and though her wide-eyed beauty and detachment were exactly what was required from Pete's somehow untouchable fantasy, it seems she really doesn't have anything else, does she? It wasn't hard at all to imagine that the character in question was Rory, making a particularly bad decision her grandparents would disapprove of, right? Is this just what happens to some people? Does a face like that mean she'll be the same character forever and ever? And does she find it tedious, as we do? Wouldn't she love to be Peggy?)
Pete is desperate to get caught doing something wrong. Because he's bored? Because it's all become a little too easy? Maybe if he really were struggling more at work - if Don was on the top of his game and so still putting Pete through his paces - maybe the urge to rattle everything wouldn't be so strong. But Pete can't stop and won't stop until he's had everything come crashing down. Don's warned him; Pete himself has drawn thick lines between what's “wrong” with Trudy (nothing, really, if the dinner party episode was anything to go by) and what a man is “entitled” to do. Only if he really screws up can he put his back into fixing it all - and feel like he's got a real focus again.
I wonder whether that same focus will overtake Don, now that Megan has left the agency. Was he unreasonably lenient on her? Did you hope, a little bit, like I did, that he would give her the lecture that wound up coming from Peggy(more on that in a minute)? We're caught between the two Dons here. Husband Don (version 2.0) wants to be supportive of everything his bride does, and to set up a relationship based on real trust and affection, and not get into similar patterns of irritation as he did with Betty. Contrast this with Work Don who believes (and I'm with him, I gotta say) that everything worth knowing in his business is worth learning through trial and error, with the assumption that there will be a lot of error up front? How much of his regret, when Megan leaves - that little scene with Joan said so much - is because perhaps he wasn't tough enough on her? That maybe she would want to try harder if he pushed her more? How much of it is sheer envy - that the talents she showed in coming up with the Heinz campaign were so easily accessible and even more easily thrown away?
Here is the really big secret about the creative pursuits: most of them are about wanting to be “something”, about the romance of the position, more than ability, at least at first. Nobody plucks you out of obscurity and says “Hey, your talents would be very well served in advertising!” Yes, of course some have a natural ability to write or paint or sing, but the competition is so fierce and the “corporate” worlds where you do these things still so unformed that there's an acceptance that you will be bad before you get good, that whatever natural talent you have (and it's implied that it needn't be all that much) will come second to learning tips, tricks, and rules to getting things done. By and large your individual shortcomings (like Peggy's stiffness when pitching to clients) can be overlooked if you have something to back them up. But regardless of your level of talent, knowing “how things work” is what will push you over the edge into success. There are a thousand variations on this that make it both true and not true, but it speaks to the maybe-true sentiment all of us have inside: that something you can do effortlessly isn't actually worth doing - or at least spending your life on. This is where Peggy got so upset: Megan's confession that she doesn't like what they do, even though she's good at it,takes the spot of some other hopeful and probably of a woman who could be a protege Peggy could be proud of. It's not even that Megan is abandoning her God-given talent, as much as it is abandoning all Peggy's hard work.
So Megan goes to be an actress - something she does, indeed, need to take classes for, and Don gulps (since, as Joan points out, this is a lot more like Betty than Megan's previous “career girl” incarnation) and turns all his resentment and anger that he's let something fall out of his fingertips by, as always, turning on Peggy. It wasn't quite "that's what the money is for", but their snippy, snappy argument at the whipped cream testing labs (and yes, lest all you fans of other lesser shows think I'm being partisan, that was Mr. Belding) tells us what we've known for years: these two will, like a married couple, always be there for each other. What I didn't know, what surprised me, was that she was capable of putting Don in his place without shaking. That's different even from two weeks ago and it makes me wonder whether the loss of Megan at work has reminded Peggy that once again, she's all Don has to rely on, creatively. They are back in each other's pockets and back into one another's minds. Peggy will miss Megan, as will Don, but it's creatively beneficial for both of them that she (and her TWO green raincoats) are gone.
It's complicated, and it shifts things - notice how quickly Roger slides, happily, back into buddy mode once his friend needs a shoulder to cry on, and how Peggy and Joan have been brought together by being part of the “old guard”, watching the kids grow up and clucking their tongues. Whether it shifts faster than Don is ready for (given how quickly he snapped off that record) depends entirely on him. And who he now wants to be.
"You didn't have the feet, mom - I don't have the heart!"
Name that movie. You got it?
Who likes this person? Who likes the talented person who doesn't care?
Photos courtesy AMC