Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Fog of War (Mad Men 3.01)

I once again can't help but indulge myself and discuss a number of observations made while watching Mad Men's Season 3 opener. Feel free to play along.



While pitching to nervous executives at London Fog, the company that provides the central motif for Mad Men’s Third Season opener, Salvatore Romano quotes Balzac: “our worst fears lie in anticipation.” Appropriately titled “Out of Town,” Sal’s own worst fears about being discovered as a closeted homosexual is probably the most dramatic turn of events in an episode that contains many of them. As usual, MM's methodical, almost detached tone belies the cauldron of boiling emotions (like the pan of milk Don heats in the first scene) contained within.

Our first sight of Don Draper is a shot of his bare feet. One’s first impression might very well be the phrase “barefoot and pregnant.” Which, as it turns out, Don is. While heating milk for what the audience is tricked into thinking may be for the baby Betty announced she was having at the end of Season 2, Don thinks back to his own birth. A quick snippet shows the prostitute who was Don’s birth mother presciently telling her condomless john that if she'll cut off his "dick" and boil it in hog fat if she gets pregnant. She uses the term "sheath." Another euphemism for condom is "raincoat" and makes this incident part of the running motif in "Out of Town" established later with the London Fog account. The client does indeed get her pregnant and turns out to be Don's birth father. The prostitute subsequently dies in child birth and Don’s parents adopt the newborn. Christening him after his dead mother’s warning, we find out how Don got the name “Dick” and the symbolic origins for his hatred of ham. The imagery of a penis boiled in hog fat juxtaposed to the close up of Don spooning a viscous layer off the top of the boiled milk is slightly jarring. As he contemplates the skim covered spoon, Don could be seeing himself.

Watching Don take the glass of milk to a visibly pregnant Betty, we realize that it’s only been a few months (rather than years) since the close of Season 2. Season 3 continues the use of red and black to represent a manic continuum of emotions from highly aroused/desirous (red) to profoundly deflated (black). In "Out of Town," the color blue is (at least temporarily) added to the palette. Don and Betty’s bedroom scene is bathed in blue light. As we see later, this color would seem to suggest an attempt by characters to corral both their urges and the resulting actions into something less combustive (and perhaps more socially acceptable). Also continuing the linkage from previous seasons between a suitcase and one’s life, Don's pregnant wife informs him that his valise is all packed.

The first scene establishes that Putnam, Powell and Lowell is now fully installed as the British parent company for Sterling Cooper and introduces a new financial officer, ironically named Lane Pryce. The episode picks up after about one third of SC’s workforce has been downsized. Pryce and Bertram Cooper contemplate an oriental artwork depicting a woman making love to a tentacled octopus. The woman in the piece would seem to represent SC while with the duplicitous British company represented by the octopus. It’s notable that Pryce is shown wearing a red tie while the original SC employees ties are mostly black. After firing Burt Peterson as head of accounts, Pryce brings up the London Fog account. He starts out by commenting on the fact that the brand name itself is misleading. According to Pryce, there is no such thing as “London fog.” He claims that the famous “fog” hanging over London is really the result of industrial (commercial) activities. This ties in nicely with the fog of confusion and misdirection Pryce subsequently unleashes on the employees of SC as PPL firms up their control.

Pryce uses a Machiavellian tactic to pit Ken Cosgrove and Pete Campbell against each other by offering them BOTH Burt Peterson’s vacated position as head of accounts. During their respective meetings, Campbell appears nervous and disingenuous, while Cosgrove comes across as confident, affable and competent. Cosgrove has the presence of mind to ask what his new salary will be. Pryce informs him that at “21” ($21,000), he’ll probably be somewhat disappointed. Twenty-one is also another term for “Black-Jack.” Pryce also tells each man that their promotion should not be discussed with anyone else until a formal announcement.

Finding themselves in the same elevator at the end of the day, Ken and Pete walk on eggshells to avoid directly addressing the recent turn of events. Significantly, both are wearing raincoats and trying hard to, as Don will later say in a different context, limit their “exposure.”

Once it’s clear to Pete that his sharing of the accounts with Ken is an exercise in corporate Darwinism devised by Pryce (who views the remaining employees of SC with the same level of detachment with which he regards an ant farm left in Burt Peterson’s abandoned office) he complains to his wife about having to wait for success to come. Like Sal, Pete’s worst fears seem to be in the anticipation of the future. Pete’s wife is wearing black and the gift she brings him ostensibly to celebrate his “promotion” is in a black box.

Joan Holloway and Pryce’s assistant John Hooker are contentiously at odds throughout the entire episode as both clearly try to establish dominance over the other. In addition to the fact that they have the same initials (JH), it’s probably more than coincidence that the last name of Joan’s PPL counterpart is “Hooker.” The idea of prostitution having been raised earlier, this would seem to suggest that both John and Joan debase themselves for the purpose of advancing their respective careers. Joan certainly has used her sexuality toward that end. Meanwhile, John clearly plays the role of Pryce’s sycophant to cement his position. Unlike her co-workers, Joan, wearing one of her famous red dresses, wins the first round.

The central story of “Out of Town” is Don and Sal’s trip to Baltimore for a meeting with executives at London Fog in the hopes of quelling any concerns about Peterson’s firing. On the plane, they look at a magazine ad for Fleischer whiskey. The ad depicts a man carrying a large Fleischer liquor bottle. They are approached by Shelly, a flirtatious stewardess (wearing a blue uniform), who gets Don’s name off of his luggage tag. However, because Don’s brother-in-law had previously used the suitcase and left a tag bearing his name on it, Shelly mistakenly thinks Don’s name is Bill. Used to going by false names, Don plays along with this and introduces Sal as Sam Fleischer (after the liquor ad). This links Sal with an image of a whiskey bottle being carried by a man and thus symbolically reflecting Sal’s secret homosexual desires. Shelly and the men arrange to meet for dinner.

Still under their assumed names, Don and Sal dine with Shelly, another stewardess (also wearing a blue uniform), and a pilot (wearing a bib which makes him look baby-like). Shelly remarks about the airline’s strict rules outlining acceptable conduct stewardesses have to adhere to while in uniform. Later, when making a play for Don, she’ll lament the fact that an impending marriage brings with it limitations in her personal life. That Don’s attempts at domesticity with Betty are played out under blue lighting and Shelly’s blue uniform represents restrictiveness would seem to be deliberate. Expanding the masquerade at dinner, Don and Sal pretend to be “G-Men” investigating corrupt Teamster head Jimmy Hoffa. Note that later on, an exasperated Hooker refers to the SC environment, albeit somewhat inaccurately, as a “gynocracy”(a society run by women). It’s worth mentioning in passing that Hooker inflection when saying the word uses a soft “g” sound as opposed to the hard “g” that an American would probably employ for the term.

After dinner, Don, Sal, Shelly share an elevator ride up with a bell hop clad in a red uniform. Sal gets off on a lower floor and upon entering his hotel room, flops himself on the bed. Don’s room is on the 14th floor. But, as is the custom (and verified by a shot of the elevator control panel), the 14th floor is really the 13th floor in disguise. Don and Shelly share an intimate moment outside of his room. Shelly, still clad in blue, further expresses her reluctance to betray her fiance. Don presses the issue by telling her that it’s his birthday (a reference to the opening flashback). Shelly teasingly asks to see his driver’s license. Don, realizing that the name on his license is just as bogus as the one on his luggage, says that such a gesture wouldn’t prove anything.

In his room, Shelly appears shy about disrobing in front of Don. As with Pete and Ken earlier, she indeed appears to be trying to limit her exposure. Meanwhile, Sal calls the front desk for help adjusting his thermostat. In response, the concierge sends up the same bell hop from the elevator with the red uniform. After fixing the problem, the bell hop gets suggestively close to Sal. A shot from Sal’s viewpoint shows the close proximity of their feet (both in shoes). This could be showing Sal still trying to maintain control, as it seems to be deliberately contrasted with an earlier shot of Don’s bare feet (who, at the time, was reflecting on his past and experiencing a more vulnerable moment). Sal and the bell hop end up in a passionate embrace. The bell hop takes off Sal’s jacket to reveal that black ink from a broken pen has stained his shirt. But before Sal can consummate the encounter, the hotel’s fire alarm goes off. Quickly throwing on whatever clothes they can, Don heads down the fire escape with Shelly. On his way down, Don sees the shirtless bell hop with Sal. Sal is mortified at being “outed.” The shot of Don and a distraught Sal descending the side of the hotel via the fire escape is reminiscent of Mad Men’s opening credits that include a figure falling down the side of a building.
The next day, Don and Sal have their meeting with the London Fog executives. The executives are concerned about being vulnerable to capricious economic cycles. Don reassures them that while "there will be fat years and there will be lean years…it is going to rain." On the plane ride home, Don asks a still embarrassed Sal for his opinion. Instead of directly confronting Sal about his homosexuality, Don describes a London Fog ad of a women clad only in a raincoat with the tagline: “Limit Your Exposure.” This is certainly Don’s way of cautioning Sal concerning his private activities. But it is also a credo that Don himself is attempting to adhere to (and something his birth mother failed to do).

Arriving home, Don and Betty visit with daughter Sally in their bedroom. Don reassures Sally that no matter what happens, he’ll always come home. Sally finds a Shelly's uniform pin in Don’s luggage. For the audience, it’s an awkward moment suggesting that Betty will find out about Don’s encounter with the stewardess. However, Betty unquestioningly accepts that Don brought the pin back for Sally. While at first blush, there’s a certain visceral squeamishness associated with the act of Sally putting on Shelly’s pin. In fact, their names are even similar. However, the demarcation of Sally as the focus of his life (rather than the "Shelly’s" of the world) would be consistent with his attempts to be a better husband and father. One doubts if Don will be successful. “Out of Town” ends with Betty and Don telling Sally about the events surrounding HER birth day. According to Betty, it was raining on the day Sally was born. And as a famous Morton’s salt ad with a rain soaked child proclaimed: “When it rains, it pours.”

7 comments:

Mark said...

Nice to have you back. I look forward to these writeups after every episode.

While I didn't think there was anything revelatory or especially new in this episode, I enjoyed it. My only complaint is that wasn't enough Roger or Peggy, two of the show's most engaging characters.

Also, it's interesting to me that the only subordinates Don treats as equals Peggy and Sal, the ones with the biggest secrets to hide. It's as if he recognizes that and identifies with it.

Deborah said...

As ever, I'm here to nitpick:

We did know in S1 that Don's mother was a prostitute; he told Rachel in episode 1.10. And it wasn't that the "raincoat" didn't work; they had a very specific dialogue; he couldn't afford to buy a condom, she allowed it and threatened to cut his dick off if he got her pregnant as a result.

Great observations.

Matt Maul said...

Mark, I loved Roger's sarcastic remark about not always getting their "inflection."

Re Don and subordinates...I look forward to see how his relationship to Pete works out. Pete certainly views Don as a mentor.

Matt Maul said...

Deb, thanks for catching my condom mistake. I really need to watch these episodes twice. It's been fixed no pun intended... ;).

Juanita's Journal said...

And it wasn't that the "raincoat" didn't work; they had a very specific dialogue; he couldn't afford to buy a condom, she allowed it and threatened to cut his dick off if he got her pregnant as a result.


Are we supposed to believe that someone told this to a young Dick Whitman? Who? Archie Whitman? Or the middle-aged woman who acted as his mother's midwife?

Matt Maul said...

Are we supposed to believe that someone told this to a young Dick Whitman? Who? Archie Whitman? Or the middle-aged woman who acted as his mother's midwife?

Don clearly knows his history. But how specific does his knowledge go is a fair question.

Good old Archie Whitman could have told him for spite's sake while drunk. That's something a 9 or 10 year old's not likely to forget. Then again, that midwife may have told others and the story got around.

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