Friday, December 21, 2012

Mad Men: Red in the Face (1.7)

Or, alternatively, 22 Short Films About Mad Men. Some of the very best episodes of this show explore the most mundane corners of everyday life; the brief interactions we have with others, returning unwanted gifts to a department store, buying groceries, the rambling conversations about various different subjects, from celebrity divorces to our personal histories. Red in the Face is a collection of short stories, veering wildly in tone but each individually celebrating the small minutiae of people merely existing. It's a testament to how strong this show is, too, the fact that an hour lacking in any real cohesion or overruling theme is suddenly rendered something ambitious and appealing, instead of merely feeling scattered.

Roger is probably the MVP this week, repeatedly hitting a wall of rejection and embarrassment at every corner, exposing how lacking his life really is, despite all the outward greatness. He's first of all rejected by Joan, who decides to spend the weekend with a girlfriend rather than with him. Roger hit the mistress jackpot because... it's Joan, but is only just realizing her own tenacity and ability to think on her own. She's probably a little tired of it all, too, only invited over to his home when everybody legitimately in his life vacates the premises.

His dinner with Don and Betty also ends up in disaster. He's still affected by memories of war and his father's experiences in WWII, and comes onto Betty when Don is out of the room. He's similarly rejected (naturally), driving home drunk and alone. Even here, there's a sense with Roger that his best days are behind him. He doesn't understand JFK's appeal, preferring to stick with his fellow old-timer in Nixon, and is left blue-balled by a couple of bar cuties who clearly have their eyes on Don rather than him. And then he struggles to walk up the stairs to the Sterling Cooper offices, throwing up all over the shoes of some major new clients. Roger is always the most confident man in the room, quick with a wisecrack and able to talk anybody into giving up everything he wants, but he's also aging and tired -- a relic of the past. Obviously, he's not exactly over the hill, but there's so much middle-aged loneliness there.

Besides the age difference, it's a theme echoed in Pete, who once again experiences a run of embarrassments here. It seems so much of Pete's character is about his desperation to be a respected 'man', only he's constantly undermined at every juncture. Worst of all, most of the emasculation is unconscious, even old housewives in the returns department unintentionally diminishing his character. There's a lovely running gag here involving his returning of a garish 'chip 'n' dip' device, a bizarre china plate that looks like an enormous salad and holds both potato chips and the dip all in one. It's fug, and he and Trudy were bought two for their wedding day. So he returns one, running into an old college acquaintance who immediately catches the eye of a flirtatious college girl. There's this natural chemistry between both of them, something that entirely eludes Pete when he tries it on himself soon after. So, true to form, he resorts to ridiculing the college guy to turn her off. It's his character in a nutshell, somebody lacking in any natural ability or charm and becoming vindictive and juvenile whenever it's exposed.

Furthering that, he exchanges the chip 'n' dip for a hunting rifle, parading it around the office like his new baby. In one of the most shocking moments of the season, he literally aims it at a bunch of different secretaries, like some kind of hottie radar. And then he fantasizes about killing a bear in the woods, carving it up and eating it while a beautiful woman sits and watches. It's batshit, made even weirder by Peggy's near arousal at the thought of it, stumbling off and tearing into a bunch of food to halt some kind of sexual urge. Pete is so horrifyingly ugly as a character, but every once in a while morphs into this strange sociopath, just as vulnerable and lonely as he is sinister. Great work by Vincent Kartheiser, by the way, who is a revelation on this show.

Betty has a rough week, too. She's a character who has no sense of self on her own, so she molds herself into various 'types' to suit the occasion. I disagree with her skeezy therapist that she's literally becoming a child, but there's this almost unconscious naivety to her that stops her from reacting appropriately when Roger practically assaults her in the kitchen. While any woman would be immediately reactionary in a situation like that, Betty is just trapped and insecure, not knowing which way to fold when nobody is instructing her. So she sort of accepts it, even allowing Don to rage at her once Roger finally leaves.

It's only when in the company of women that she actually becomes pro-active, slapping Helen Bishop in the grocery store at the suggestion that something sinister is occurring between Betty and Glen, Helen having discovered the lock of blonde hair that Betty snipped off for him. While she's still cripplingly insecure and repeatedly determined to mold herself on the mother she still so idolizes, Betty only ever comes into her own around other women, presumably because she feels most comfortable in that environment. I guess it's just another sad reflection of the time, allowing herself to be walked all over whenever a man is around.

Red in the Face is another spectacular episode, scattershot in execution but in a way that becomes fiercely intimate at times. You really feel like you're watching people's lives unfold, glimpsing how everyday encounters and mundane tasks and conversations can illuminate enormous parts of yourself, as well as reveal hidden desires or strange fantasies. A


- I loved the look on Carol's face as she's introduced to Roger, clearly aware of his affair with Joan and actually meeting him for the first time. Just look at her eyes bounce between them both and how she looks so uncomfortable as they step away from her. That is how a random guest star with barely any lines makes a huge impression.

- I didn't mention the obvious Freudian imagery of Pete exchanging the oval-shaped chip 'n' dip for an enormous rifle, because... you know. As Frasier Crane once told a sex-starved Niles, "the less said about that medieval ramrod the better!"


Bertram: Stop smoking so much. It's a sign of weakness. You know how Hitler got Neville Chamberlain to give him everything at Munich? He held the conference at an old palace that forbid smoking. And after an hour and a half of not smoking, Neville Chamberlain would have given Hitler his mother as a dance partner.
Roger: All I can get from this story is that Hitler didn't smoke. And I do.
Bertram: Good night, peanut.

Betty: My mother always said, "You're painting a masterpiece -- make sure to hide the brushstrokes". She was really beautiful. But then I think, "why am I doing this?" I'm not that vain.

Guest stars
Robert Morse (Bertram Cooper); John Slattery (Roger Sterling)
Writer Bridget Bedard Director Tim Hunter

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