Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The M-Word

In "Maidenform," a failed pitch by Mad Men’s Don Draper to sell Playtex on promoting a new line brassieres, introduces the idea that Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe represent two bookends of a male defined feminine zeitgeist. “Jackie” is an avatar of the proper, reliable, homemaker, while “Marilyn,” represents her more overtly sexual and childlike counterpart. This concept came to life in a proposed Playtex ad that contrasted the brunette Jackie clad in a black bra with a blond Marilyn wearing white lingerie. It’s reminiscent of a similar construct from "The Birds" where schoolteacher, Annie Hayworth, is juxtaposed with frivolous, party girl, Melanie Daniels.

Three episodes later, this model of female choices is utterly destroyed right at the start of “Six Month Leave.” The first scene finds Don, still barred from the house by Betty, living at a hotel. Picking up the morning paper, he reads the news that Marilyn Monroe has been found dead. Instead of her full name, the newspaper headline simply identifies the dead icon as “MM.” This will prove significant later on.

The death of Monroe is the talk of the office. Peggy, reintroducing the Jackie/Marilyn idea, mentions to Don that had Playtex bought the lingerie campaign, they’d be spending that morning figuring out how to scrap it. Immediately following Peggy’s comment, we see a quick shot of two office workers, a blond and a brunette, commiserating together. As it unfolds, a number of Marilyn look-a-likes are seen throughout the episode that presents the star’s death as a watershed moment for the characters who’s familiar white male dominated world of the 1940’s and 50’s begins a transition into the more progressive and complicated one of the 1960’s and beyond.

It could be argued that the death of JFK would be a more historically accurate point of demarcation for this paradigm shift. However, as has been noted elsewhere, since MM will skip 1963 and start next season in 1964, the assassination of Kennedy will not be covered on the show itself. Thus, it would seem the discovery that the “Marilyn” persona is a mirage hiding something morose catalytically forces the characters to begin casting aside their innocence born of previous decades and face new, “grown up” realities.

This is accomplished with a retelling of Monroe’s demise through the storyline involving SC copywriter Freddy Rumsen. Although, each of MM’s main characters seem to sympathetically die a little in "SML," Freddy’s fate is the most directly linked with Monroe’s.

When we first see him, that dismal fate is foreshadowed by the newspaper Freddy is reading which is open to a full-page ad promoting a retailer’s “Final Reduction.”

As Peggy, Pete, Sal and Freddy get ready for a presentation to Samsonite luggage executives, Freddy reads them the copy he has written for a magazine ad. It describes the sadness of an imaginary Samosonite customer upon discovering that their suitcase, though beautiful on the outside, is empty. This realization could also apply to the people grieving over Monroe’s death who find out that her glamorous life was nothing more than an ornate facade covering a darker reality. It also ties in nicely later when Betty, still depressed over her marital woes, is shown reading “Ship of Fools,” Katherine Anne Porter’s pessimistic novel set on an ocean liner.

Although he hides it well, Freddy is at the tail end of a drinking binge that has rendered him so inebriated that he actually wets his pants in front of everyone. It’s suggested later that Freddy’s drinking problem is related to his experience as a “killer” in the World War 2. Roger and Don can’t understand why Freddy is so hesitant to brag about his war record anymore than they can understand why someone like Monroe, whose success had the world seemingly at her feet, would throw it away.

Incapable of doing the pitch to Samosonite, Peggy steps in and does a great job with the Samosonite people. However, Pete's complaints to Duck starts a chain of events that ends up with Roger deciding to fire Freddy. While Roger and a reluctant Don plan to frame it for Freddy as a “six month leave of absence,” the action clearly amounts to a dismissal.

Referring to the SC blood drive that pits the accounting team against the creative folks in a highly competitive contest to see who can bleed the most, Roger tries to console Don by stating that Freddy can still “give blood.” Roger’s attitude toward Freddy is similar to that of the celebrity industry which continued to cash in on the troubled Monroe for as long as it could until she was finally bled dry while making the aptly titled, but never finished, “Something’s Gotta Give.” Or as Paul Kinsey says about the SC blood drive event, “Media always wins.”

Meanwhile, one of the first shots of Betty shows her literally steaming as she boils water to defrost her refrigerator. Seemingly without direction, she mopes around the house, doing odd chores, drinking wine, and rummaging through Don’s things looking for proof of other infidelities. At one point, we see Betty splayed across the sofa, unconscious, her posture and blond hair suggesting the position that Marilyn herself was found in. Betty’s slumber is interrupted when her friend, Sarah Beth, stops by to borrow a dress.

It’s notable that, at different times, Freddy, Joan, Pete, and Don are all shown lying in repose on various SC couches only to be “discovered” by others and arguably linking them in spirit to the Monroe death scene.

Roger and Don plan a farewell outing for Freddy as he embarks on his leave. This is where the idea of Freddy as “MM” is most dramatically presented.

A panning shot at a restaurant deliberately moves past a blond Marilyn look-a-like and comes to rest on Freddy who’s sitting with Roger and Don at another table. Later on, the three go to an illegal gambling club. Not wanting to give their real names to the bouncer-doorman, they make up fake ones. Freddy’s pseudonym is “Mike Moneybags.” Note that the initials are “MM.” The password to get into the gambling club is “Milwaukee,” also an “M” word. Once inside, yet another Marilyn impostor is shown vacating a gambling table a seat that Freddy immediately ends up sitting in. During their conversation, Freddy talks about his father, a struggling businessman, who constantly moved the family in a vain search for success (“happiness”). Describing how his dad would randomly pick a promising new city, Freddy’s mimics his father by poking an imaginary map and exclaiming “Memphis!”

One of the players at the club is supposed to be real-life heavyweight boxing champ Floyd Patterson. The African American boxer’s presence is a graphic demonstration of the desegregated world that looms on the horizon (at one point Roger sarcastically comments to Don that a rival firm has hired a “colored boy”). It’s, perhaps, worth noting that, at 21 years old, Patterson became the youngest heavyweight champion by defeating Archie Moore (in a fight to decide who would succeed the retired Rocky Marciano). That distinction changed hands years later when a 20-year-old Mike Tyson won the heavyweight crown. The “M’s” are, of course, unintentional, but, nonetheless, in an episode laden with them, make for an esoterically fun coincidence.

Their boy’s night out finished, Don and Roger bid Freddy goodbye. From his demeanor in the cab toward Don, it’s clearly suggested that Freddy is not long for this world. Later on, Roger and Don share a drink at another bar. A bust of JFK is visible in the scene. Given the historical suggestion that Kennedy’s affair with Monroe precipitated the depression that would lead to her overdose, the association of the bust with the two SC executives would seem to indicate their equal culpability in Freddy’s demise.

The aftermath of Monroe’s death and the vacuum it leaves in their perceived worldview has different repercussions for the three main female characters: Betty, Joan and Peggy.

Joan, her external persona most closely associated with Monroe, takes it hard. However, as shown in “Maidenform,” her choice of black lingerie suggests that she really aspires to be a “Jackie.” This is consistent with the path of domesticity on which she has embarked with her fiance doctor.

On the other hand, Betty, who wore white "Marilyn" lingerie in "Maidenform," is left more dramatically unsettled. The alternate role she sought now ripped away and the Draper's troubled marital status leaving her current “Jackie” identity in a tenuous state, has made Betty's future uncertain. A hint of what’s in store for her character is demonstrated by the scheme she devises to deliberately endanger her friend Sarah Jane’s marriage by arranging a cozy lunch for her with riding club heartthrob Arthur. “Keep mixing,” Betty tells her kids who stir a bowl of cookie dough like the cauldron she has placed Arthur and Sarah Jane in as they embark on an afternoon of flirtation and, perhaps, more.

The real winner is Peggy, neither a Jackie nor a Marilyn (beige bra), who garners a promotion out of Freddy’s sudden departure. Whether realizing it or not, she's at the cutting edge of a new paradigm that will pair the traditional housewife with the career women. Peggy is a bit saddened that her rise is precipitated by Freddy’s fall. However, she consoles herself with the trappings (a raise, bigger office) that go along with that role.

Freddy was a good egg. But, to make an omelet, you’ve got to break one or two.


Feinsodville said...

Nice writeup, and thanks for the email. The only thing it seems to me you left out was Don punching Jimmy Barrett, which, ultimately, was a kind of unsatisfying form of revenge to me. Jimmy got up really quickly, and didn't seem very fazed.

Seems like Tony Soprano would've left his head in a bowling ball bag or something.

Also, what did you make of the strange encounter between Don/Roger and the prostitute (?) at the illegal gambling club. Great line (paraphrasing): "We're winners in general, but losers tonight."

Matt Maul said...

Jimmy did get up okay, but the point was made. Actually, I thought the punch was enough revenge for Don. After all, he WAS pounding Mrs. Barrett.

Regarding the line to the prostitute...since Roger's in love and Don's in the dog-house, I don't think either of them were into hookers that night.

Also, the gambling people I know say to NEVER let ANYONE know how much you've won. Lest you be rolled outside of the venue.

But, from a psychological standpoint, before that Roger was dishing out gambling advice to Don (i.e. you gotta bet big to win big). So, this could also be seen as Roger's feelings about life in general. In hindsight, given Roger's unsatisfying marriage, he probably really was feeling like a loser.

Another thing I couldn't find room in my post for was the notion that Don had designs on Jane. The double entendres when talking about the blood drive ("do you smoke after") and the shirts were in the Menken bag (reminding Don of a previous fling). So, I think part of his anger over finding out about Roger's "engagement" was a tiny bit about him being jilted. Just a thought.

Deborah said...

Great summary. Lovely examination of subtle details and subtext.

I have to say that we really don't know that 1963 will be skipped. Weiner has never said he will maintain a strict 2-year pattern. This is an assumption many reviewers have made; I think it's unwarranted.

We will certainly ask Weiner about it during our interview on October 27!

Matt Maul said...


Thanks for the kind words.

I have to say that we really don't know that 1963 will be skipped.

I'll defer to you on that. Obviously, I'm a huge fan of the show. But, regarding a lot of the story arc details, I, as they say, only know what I read in the papers :)

Donny Brook said...

rGreat essay. This show is so deep, so many connections to make.

What about the conversation they had about Floyd Patterson, with Freddie saying he'd never be beaten? In his next bout, he was knocked out in the first round by Sonny Liston.

Weiner would be a bit nuts to miss out on the assassination. He could end up with the Cuban missile crisis this year, and jump ahead 13 months to the assassination for the beginning of S3.

Matt Maul said...

What about the conversation they had about Floyd Patterson, with Freddie saying he'd never be beaten? In his next bout, he was knocked out in the first round by Sonny Liston.

Yes! And if Patterson had lost to Cassius Marcellus Clay (Muhammad Ali), that would have been GOLD.

I haven't decided how well the assassination would play as a real time thing.

Austin said...

I've read this elsewhere, but it bears repeating.

The name that Don gives at the club is Rachel Menken's husband's name.

I'm still trying to figure out if we're to assume he's thinking about her constantly, or if maybe the Menken's bag of shirts triggered some memories ...

Matt Maul said...

Austin, I missed it at the time but have since heard that as well. My guess is that the bag reminded Don that he still has feelings for her and so deals with it by turning it into his own private joke.