Mad Men Season 4 Episode 8: The Summer Man

Posted on September 13, 2010

It feels like this season has been, in part, a response to some of the critics of the show, especially those who felt it glamorized things like the alcohol abuse, adultery, and misogyny that seems to characterize the time and setting of Mad Men. No one could argue that we haven’t seen the downside this season to a lifestyle that includes deskside bars and endless meetings fueled by alcohol. And after this episode, no one could claim that the show is naive or somehow cute about the sexism women were subject to back then and how it was humiliating, infuriating, and born out of true misogyny and raw hatred, not the chase-around-the-desk, pat-on-the-ass version the show has sometimes been accused of.

And yet, this is not likely to go down as one of our favorites. A less-than-awesome episode of Mad Men is still better than just about anything on TV and like every episode, it gave us much to mull over, but still. This one seemed a little more disjointed than usual and strangely flat, especially given where Don’s arc has taken him.

The death of Anna seems to have been his rock-bottom point and now he’s trying to pull his life together, cutting way back (though not quitting entirely) on his drinking and getting in some much needed exercise at the pool. But the most interesting development of all is that Don is writing. What it is we don’t know, but it’s allowing a level of introspection he’s never demonstrated before. For the first time, Don’s really talking about himself, even if it is only to himself.

And what’s both illuminating and a little depressing is just how mundane his thoughts really are, consisting mostly of the shoulda-coulda-woulda cri de coeur of every man approaching middle age, “everything could have been different.” Regrets about things done and not done coupled with bemusement at his former cockiness and self-regard and a desire to still be someone other than who he is. “I wake up and I don’t want to be that man.” Don, it seems, is just like everybody else.

Still, if there’s one thing Don needs, it’s to get his head on straight and if he has to write his way out of it, then that’s as good a method as any. Besides, it seems to be working. When he hits the street with his shades on and Mick Jagger sings to us about how he can’t get no satisfaction, suddenly it’s the ’60s and suddenly Don looks like he might be at least pointing in the direction of “okay.” “Summer’s coming,” he says, with something that sounds a little bit like hope.

Besides climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, Don says he also wants to “Gain a modicum of control over the way I feel,” which is essentially Don saying he wants to get his head on straight except it’s framed in a typically rigid Don way. Don doesn’t “get in touch” with his feelings; Don seeks to control them. Similarly, Don doesn’t quit drinking altogether; Don tries to control his drinking. Obviously, it’s not a recipe for success but it’s a testament to how dark his life had gotten that this is actually a step in the right direction for him.

As for Joan, she’s dealing with her own sort of mid-life crisis. The once supremely confident queen bee no longer seems to have any control over either her professional or her personal life. And worst of all, people like Peggy Olson are coming to her rescue without asking for permission to rescue her.

We have to say with a little bit of pride that we feel like all the work we did in discussing Joan’s wardrobe and what it means both for the character and in the context of the time has paid off with her arc this season. Joey is about a decade younger than Joan and he makes no bones about the fact that he thinks she’s ridiculous and old-fashioned; a caricature of a ’50s sexpot, “walking around like you’re trying to get raped.” Not that his enmity was born solely out of a generational difference. No, Joey, like Stan, hates women and his anger gets increasingly ugly, with a subtly violent undertone, the more free rein he’s given to express it. There’s no “glamorizing” of sexism here. What he said to Joan was ugly and what he drew was even uglier. We can shout “Fire him!” from the comfort of our 2010 living rooms, but in 1965, it wasn’t so cut and dried. Joan used the tools at her disposal and quietly cut the testicles off every man in that room. “I can’t wait until next year when you’re all in Vietnam,” she tells them, revealing exactly what’s really on her mind and ending with the show-stopper, “remember that you’re not dying for me because I never liked you.”

But Peggy isn’t Joan and she has her own ways of dealing with this sort of thing. “You want some respect?” asks Don, playing the mentor. “Go out there and get it for yourself.” We loved seeing Peggy fire the little shit, but there was definitely a part of us that understood where Joan was coming from when she dressed her down in the elevator. Peggy didn’t give Joan the option of handling this. Peggy, well intentioned as she may have been, started from a position of assuming that Joan couldn’t handle it, and that offends Joan as much or more than some sophomoric cartoon. It’s also highlighting yet another generational difference (as well as illustrating yet again how forward-thinking Peggy is): Joan’s way of handling this mostly had to do with using her feminine wiles and her ability to manipulate people (note her repeated use of “There have been a lot of complaints” when in fact she’s talking about her complaints); a behind-the-scenes, string-pulling way of dealing with this that was the only option she ever had available to her so she learned how to do it well. Peggy is young and more forward thinking. Sexual harassment offends her and to her, it needs to be cut out of the workplace.” “I don’t remember women pushing this hard,” said Don, and he was talking about Bethany and her “I have needs” plea, but he could just as easily been talking about Peggy, who demands respect, as opposed to Joan, who earns it through less forward methods.

“Now everyone in the office will know that you solved my problem and you must be really important, I guess,” says Joan to Peggy. “You proved to them that I’m a meaningless secretary and you’re a humorless bitch.” It’s that obvious loss of power that bothers her the most. And even though her assessment of the consequences of Peggy’s action was probably true, her own methods aren’t fool-proof anymore and Peggy’s method of dealing with it will be proven by history to be the correct one. Everything about Joan, from her body to her dresses to her way of moving through the world, is losing its power. “Who am I going to talk to?” she asks Greg as he’s packing to leave her, and sobs when he suggests her friends at work. She’s alone, with only her well-maintained armor to keep her company.

Don, on the other hand, seems to be trying not to be alone anymore. After giving Bethany one more shot, he realizes that he knows this girl already, something that was starkly illustrated by the original Bethany, Betty Hofstadt Draper Francis, glumly crashing their date and staring at them wordlessly before stomping off to sulk. There was probably a time when Betty Hofstadt gave 5th-date blowjobs in the backseat of cabs too, hard as that may be to imagine. Don’s not about to make that mistake again.

Instead, he makes another play for the stronger, more insightful, more blunt Faye Miller and we have to say, that was a pretty damn charming first date for the two of them. We really weren’t seeing it until now, but this one has possibilities. It’s notable how quickly Don opened up to her, practically as soon as they sat down. “I’ve been a little out of sorts,” he admits to her, the understatement of 1965. But she gets him to consider the idea that maybe he should go to Gene’s birthday party, even if he’s not welcome there. She teaches him that it’s worth putting work into your relationships, even when there’s no immediate benefit, even if it’s really hard. That’s something that Don never really understood before. When relationships got hard, Don had a suitcase packed and ready to go at the drop of a hat. He’s starting, slowly, to realize that’s no way to live a life.

As for Betty, she couldn’t handle seeing Don with a pretty, younger version of herself and honestly, who can blame her? When they were married, she was tortured by thoughts of Don with other women and all her suspicions turned out to be true. She’s still obsessed with him and still – come on now, you know it’s true – a little in love with him. Henry can put all the boxes to the curb he wants. She didn’t suddenly act all grownup at the end because she’s forgiven him and moved on. She did it because Francine reminded her that Don has nothing to lose and she has everything. She has to give the appearance of having grown up and moved on because she risks losing way too much if she doesn’t. One divorce the neighbors can forgive – and only then because Don had such a bad reputation among them – but a second failed marriage? Betty will lie through her teeth before she’ll let that happen. “We have everything,” she says to Henry, by way of explanation, but when she looks at Don laughing and playing with their son, you know she doesn’t believe it.

Bullet time:

* There was an interesting comparison being made between Don’s battered and abused body as he struggles out of bed or sits forlorn in a locker room and Henry’s strapping, shirtless, sweaty body as he comes in from mowing the lawn.

* We also couldn’t help noticing that the cake Betty was making for Gene’s birthday was decidedly half-assed. “Oh, Betty. You have terrible luck with entertaining,” says Francine and we had to laugh because we recalled Sally’s disastrous birthday party, when Don disappeared for hours and the dinner party where Betty had a little meltdown and stayed in her party dress for two days. It’s a wonder she’s still throwing parties at all.

* “I feel like Margaret Mead.” God bless that little wiseass from Brooklyn.

* Joan’s sexual history got thrown in her face in unexpected ways, not only with Joey’s disgusting “walking around looking like you’re trying to get raped” line, but also when Greg tried to coax her into a little goodbye sex with “Just pretend we’re in some midtown hotel and we both snuck out for the afternoon,” which pretty much describes her entire relationship with Roger.

* What was up with that bizarre scene with Harry trying to get Joey to try out for Peyton Place? Harry’s not long for the advertising world, it seems. He obviously wants to be a player in the TV industry and that kind of career leap – from advertising to production – wasn’t all that unusual back then.

*Bethany seemed quite pleased to find out what the former Mrs. Draper looked like. “What? Her?” Bethany took one look at the previous year’s model and knew she could do a better version, if that’s what he wanted. Poor thing. She probably thought it was the blowjob that drove him away.

* We love Faye for being a bit rougher than the girls Don normally goes for. “GO SHIT IN THE OCEAN!” Could you imagine Betty or Bethany saying that? No, this one definitely has possibilities. Good for Don for not sleeping with her and being honest about why. He obviously feels he can’t feed her his normal diet of bullshit.

 

[Photo credit: AMC TV]

    • http://twitter.com/tymczasowa its complicated

      GO SHIT IN THE OCEAN! Loved that line.

    • BBolmarcich

      i always look forward to reading your review after I watch an episode! You guys do a great job but for some reason this was the first post I did not like. Probably because I absolutely LOVED this episode and you described it as “less-than-awesome”. I think this episode illustrates a large turn for many of the characters in the show that you did not highlight. Also, I think the new narrative of Don really changes the dynamic of the show and I love what it does!