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Monday, April 22, 2013

Review: Mad Men, To Have and to Hold



Season 6, Episode 4
Grade: B+
Verdict: This week's episode tackles, as par normal with Mad Men, gender inequality in a number of forms both in the work place and in the double standards that occur within a few characters marriages. I was happy to see a number of characters get story-time as well, particularly someone who had been given zero characterization at this point. A very good, but not quite great episode, as it trods familiar territory.

Mad Men since its inception has tackled the idea that the prototypical male of the 1960's could get away with alot more than the fairer sex. The first few seasons deftly explored this notion via Don's flagrant affairs and the inner turmoil experienced by Betty, not only due to her own personal unhappiness but also her routine mistreatment at the hand's of Don. Peggy's slow workplace climb was the professional outlet for this same messaging. Since Don's divorce from Betty and Peggy becoming a full fledged account manager (and then a department head in her own right), we only ever return to the issue of equality on a piece meal basis. To Have and to Hold marks the first time that show has returned the issue to the forefront of our thoughts and its interesting the way things have changed, but fairly stayed the same over the course of 3 or so seasons.




This week strands into two plot developments that engage the two notions of the personal and professional gender gap. In terms of the personal side, as usual, it's related to Don and his on-going affair with his neighbor. At this same point, while Don has tryst going on in secret, Megan receives word that she'll be getting a bigger part on the soap opera she's a part of which includes love scenes. While she's concerned about Don's reaction, to her credit, she's pretty forthright about the issue and rather than hiding immediately checks with him about it. I was pretty satisfied with the way the episode handled this end of the topic, as Don didn't "fly off the handle" like I would have expected and instead offered his "tolerance but not his encouragement". It was a nice step forward for the man that couldn't even abide a salesman coming into his home when he wasn't around a few years ago. Unfortunately, some of the goodwill the episode built up with me collapsed in on itself during the final confrontation between Don and Megan when he makes an unexpected visit to her set by the episode's conclusion. Don pulls the "you were clearly enjoying it!" routine, creating conflict with the somewhat more free spirited Megan, which is then contrasted with Don going off and having a real affair. Mad Men is typically more subtle than this, and much of this point could have been made without the predictable fight in the dressing room. In between these two events though, we do get a fascinating scene where Megan's Director, played by Ted McGinley, and his wife (who also happens to star on the soap opera) have dinner with Don and Megan. The look on Don's face (in the above picture) when a possible swing situation is proposed was priceless and both of their perplexity at how such a couple could be married for so long throws in a unique challenge till their still somewhat stilted world-view.

On the professional end, Joan finally became a focal point in an episode, much like Pete last week. Joan's status as a partner is challenged when in an attempt to do the sensible thing of firing Harry's secretary who skipped out on work, yet had Dawn clock out for her at night, she is immediately challenged by Harry who rails against what he calls Joan's "petty dictatorship" (already a fairly sexist comment), and then barges into a partner meeting to state that he deserves a seat at the table moreso than Joan because his accomplishments occurred in broad daylight. This is something that's been broiling up since at least the premiere when Harry expressed disgust at the partners taking photos on the staircase, and in some ways, it's hard not to relate to Harry's position. He's worked incredibly hard for the company and expanded its reach into the television market, potentially securing more dollars than anyone, but his brash attempts, despite Ken's urging he not do so, come across as in-gratefulness more than anything else. But all of this underlines the struggle Joan is incurring as a partner with clearly limited power at SCDP. When her friend who works for Mary Kaye comes to town and Joan's mother brags to her about having a daughter thats a partner at a Madison Ave. advertising firm, Joan is clearly excited about the prestige and how it sounds off the tongue. Unfortunately, her power is still in title only and her main duty is still what she was doing prior to becoming a partner, which is overseeing administration. Joan has to solace herself with a night on the town with her friend, and it's a nice set of scenes particularly when Joan expresses her inner dismay about her treatment at the company, which her friend retorts that what matters is what she does with the power she has now that she's at the table. It'll be interesting to see where that goes, but knowing Mad Men, most pretenses of progress seem to often be just that, pretenses.

A few other elements I found enjoyable included the Heinz Ketchup presentations with some great call-back to the mentor-protege relationship that built between Don and Peggy now that they're on opposite sides of the aisle. Neither company got the account, but some seemingly irreparable harm was done, as Stan's anger at Peggy betraying his trust boiled over into a middle finger in her face and due to SCDP's presentation, Ken's account with Heinz Baked Beans was lost. As this is a series that moves quite slowly and doesn't quite pick up plot threads immediately, I don't know if Ken's earlier reserve will start to fray away, but I've been hopeful for more involvement from Cosgrove over the past few seasons and he's gotten some nice choice scenes thus far. I hope another "Signal 30" is on its way. Speaking of periphery characters, the fact that Dawn finally got a plot development was a fabulous move. Mad Men has been a very uniform cast ethnically, and bringing its sole African American character to the forefront for once was very welcome. It also helps that it highlights just how almost petty even Joan's complaints are in comparison. Sure Joan gets treated like a secretary by the men running the show, but those same men at least give her the opportunity to be in the room. For them, Dawn is just another person of color fulfilling a quota. It's powerful stuff and Dawn's ability to keep her head down is pretty admirable, especially her offer to placate Joan in light of the issue regarding the time sheets. Now that she's in charge of the punch cards and the supply closet, I'm also hopeful her role will continue to expand.

"To Have and to Hold" covered alot of plot development for an average episode of Mad Men, but in doing so it lost just a tiny bit of its more under the surface nature with some slightly overt moments. It was still a very good episode, but once you're used to great episodes from this series, anything else feels like a slight step down.

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