Tuesday, October 28, 2008

In the Red

Much like the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis which serves as the connecting motif running through Mad Men’s finale, Meditations in an Emergency, the second season of the Emmy winning show ended with a whimper, not a bang. As opposed to an explosive, crash and burn cliff-hanger type finale, three distinct "emergencies" were presented in an episode that provided the audience with a soft landing from the previous outings. These emergencies included: the aforementioned Cuban Missile Crisis, the takeover at Sterling Cooper by British ad agency, Putnam, Powell and Lowell, and Betty discovering that she’s pregnant while still trying to sort out her marital woes with Don.

As I've mentioned in a previous post, Mad Men deliberately uses color to delineate the feelings and motivations of cast members at a given point in the story. Red seems to be particularly significant in denoting when someone is experiencing a strong yearning to fulfil some unrequited need. Black, on the other hand, would seem to indicate a pragmatic resignation by a character, consciously or not, that some aspirations just aren't attainable. This is consistent with the show’s logo in which the word "Mad" is in red, while "Men" is black. By implication, the "madness" that afflicts different characters at times, is an outgrowth of some deeply felt internal void and made manifest for the audience by the prominent display of the color red. Whereas black often indicates the other side of that continuum.

An example would be the two gift boxes presented in The Mountain King. In a flashback from a previous Christmas at Anna's house, Don excitedly tells her about meeting Betty. In the background can be seen a gift box decorated in red ribbon. At the end of that same episode, Betty, who is now suffering over martial woes with Don, gives her daughter a gift that's curiously wrapped in black ribbon. It's also at this point where we get the first hint about Betty's pregnancy.

In the very first scene of Meditations in an Emergency, on a wall at the office of Betty’s doctor we see a painting depicting a fawn and it's mother (an analogy for Betty's situation). The exam room Betty sits in is dominated by black colors. She clearly doesn't want this baby. Betty and the doctor talk in code about other "options." However, the doctor, holding her hand, unconvincingly tries to dissuade Betty from pursuing these options just yet.

After his three-week disappearance, Don reunites with Betty at her riding club. Wearing black, she seems to be inviting a miscarriage by deliberately disobeying her doctor's orders about equestrian sports. Don confesses to his infidelity. Betty's ironic reply, "At least I'm not crazy," doesn't completely jibe with her behavior in past episodes. And certainly not what she will do in this one.

Back at SC, Pete, still showing signs of the newfound courage he displayed in The Mountain King, and after some encouragement from Peggy, admits to Duck's about losing the Clearasil account. Duck, who is wearing a red tie, seems to be falling in lockstep with the culture of the new British owners by using terms like "sticky wicket" to describe Pete's situation with his father-in-law. Luckily, the Clearasil account would be in conflict with one of PP&L's current clients. So, it's loss turns out to be a moot point. Duck expresses approval of Pete's “loyalty.”

Don watches a televised speech by John F. Kennedy that introduces the Cuban Missile Crisis into the storyline. The next morning, Don returns to the office in a wet overcoat. While this is ostensibly due to having just come in from a thunderstorm outside, it also could refer on a symbolic level to the global storm they all face or Don's baptism in the ocean at the end of The Mountain King wear he is reborn as Don Draper. Now consigned to an existence he had contemplated abandoning, Don, in contrast with Duck, is wearing a black tie. Peggy, who confides to Pete later in the episode that she has realized the costs associated with success, is wearing a black and gray outfit that conspicuously matches Don's.

Pete goes into Don's office and complains about being abandoned in California. Don, still a good pitch man, congratulates Pete for passing his "test." On a shelf behind Don is a globe. This is a new addition to his office decor. Later, when Don goes to Roger's office to discuss the merger, a cross is visible through Roger's window. Both of these touches reinforce the issues of worldly and supernatural concerns that underscore the major themes presented in Meditations in an Emergency.

Regarding the tension in Cuba, Don tells Roger, "We don't know what's going on." The junior executives at SC act out their own panic but seem more concerned over the implications of the merger than they do about the Russian threat. At one point, Ken, Sal and Paul are trying to watch a news broadcast but, ironically, can’t get the television in Harry's office to work. After hearing that the Soviets had fired on U.S. ships, Ken, pounds on the television exclaiming "Fix it!" Ken is referring to the poor reception, but his statement has a double meaning that also reflects his exasperation over the global situation. There's a nice moment when we see that SC’s “head" of television can’t fix his own. Just as world operates in the dark regarding Cuba, so are SC employees groping about for answers concerning their professional fate. They get Lois the switchboard operator to admit to hearing about "redundancies,” an English term for layoffs, in phone conversations among top brass.

Panic over the Cuban Missile Crisis is also on display when Betty visits her hairdresser. In curlers and wearing a blue smock salon, she lights up a cigarette as she waits her turn. The sight of an expectant woman smoking was a common thing in the 1960s, but has a somewhat jarring affect on our current sensibilities and reinforces the idea of Betty wanting to end the pregnancy.

Betty drops the kids off at Don’s hotel room for a visit with their father. As she drops them off, it’s notable that the daughter is wearing a black hat and a grey sweater. This seems to suggest Betty’s emotional downturn. The son, a stand in for Don who hopes to reunite with his family, is wearing a bright red sweater.

Outside, Betty passes by a department store display window. We see her visage reflected between two mannequins. One is wearing a red outfit and the other blue. At this moment, she is being given a choice between the pursuit of her urges (the red outfit) or to stay within her life of suburban domesticity (as represented by the blue outfit that’s similar in color to the blue smocks worn at the beauty salon).

Deciding on the former, Betty enters an upscale cocktail lounge and sits at the bar. It's not long before she is approached by a handsome stranger. Like Betty's nails and lipstick, his drink is red. The two end up having sex on a plush leather sofa in a back office of the lounge. The use of the couch, another familiar device on Mad Men (and referenced in the opening credits), suggests that the tryst is an emotional nadir for Betty. This also can be juxtaposed with the couch at Betty’s psychiatrist's office in Season One where she underwent a more traditional form of "therapy." After the encounter, probably intended by Betty as a form of penance for Don, her usually vivid red lipstick is all but rubbed off.

Peggy and Father Gill (wearing a black jacket) discuss nuclear war and god. Gill threatens Peggy with the possibility of damnation if she doesn't confess her sin. While he's severe and dogmatically correct, Gill isn’t portrayed as the stereotypical raving theist. Nonetheless, as she has all season in these matters, Peggy politely puts him off.

Back at their apartment, Pete watches Trudy packing as she readies to go stay with her parents until the Cuban situation blows over. A more hard-boiled Pete, who, educated about missiles from his trip to California, doesn't see any point in running.

Back at SC, Ken, Sal, Paul and Pete once again discuss the impending merger. Pete, not divulging the news of his promotion, is warned by one of the other execs about the hanging of "loyalists" by the "new regime."

Inspired by this, Pete tries to form an alliance with Don by telling him about merger (which Don doesn't let on to already knowing about). Referring to the missile crisis, Pete offhandedly comments that because the U.S. took a stand, the Soviets seemed to have backed down. Now Don is the one who is inspired as he takes a stand during his first meeting with PP&L. Duck, Roger and Bert are also there.

Duck, feigns surprise at his promotion. He outlines a bold new vision for SC that's rooted in selling media time not creative strategies. Don balks and threatens to quit. Duck informs Don that he'll held to the terms of his "contract." To Duck's surprise, Don reveals that he doesn't have a contract. Looking like an angry Nikita Khrushchev at the United Nations beating his shoe on a desk, Duck has a temper tantrum and pounds his hand on the conference room table before storming out himself. While neither Don nor Duck are wearing red ties in this scene, one of the PP&L representatives sitting between them is prominently wearing a red bow tie.

Heading back to his office, Joan tells Don that Betty has called for him to come home due to an emergency. He pointedly leaves his briefcase behind. This suggests his true desire to focus on his family rather then the work persona he’s created.

Pete and Peggy have a heart to heart. Pete declares his love for Peggy (a red picture is visible above her shoulder from Pete's viewpoint). Though it’s not exactly what he had in mind, Peggy honors Father Gill’s request by confessing to Pete that she had his child and “gave it away.” She tries to lighten the blow by pointing out that, as the mother of his child, she could have trapped Pete “forever.” This further links the Don and Peggy characters in that Don uses the word “forever” in a letter to Betty apologizing for his indiscretions. In both cases, the term is used to describe their ideal view of relationships. As mentioned above, Peggy also admits that “wanting” her career hasn’t proved nearly as satisfying now that she has achieved it.

The last shot of Pete shows him in his darkened office holding a rifle as if he were standing guard against the world outside. With Trudy, he seemed resigned to whatever fate had in store for him. However, it’s now as if he’s found something to live for.

Don returns home with little fanfare. He sits quietly with the family watching television. Later, referring to the kids going to bed, a helpful Don tells Betty that they "finally went down." On the radio, we hear signs that the Cuban crisis is subsiding (the Russians have backed down). Betty informs Don of her pregnancy. Both their reactions are complicated. While it’s an emotional moment, neither seem overly excited nor saddened. Not unlike the first scene in the doctor's office, Don, resigned to the reality of the situation, finally reaches out to hold Betty’s hand.

Fade to black.

No comments: