Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Who Moved My Blue Suede Cheese (Mad Men 3.02)

I hate to keep beating it to death, but Mad Men's deliberate use of color (blue and green this time) once again dominated this season's second episode (at least for me).

A television series boasting a rich ensemble cast, such as Mad Men, poses a challenge in terms of character development because generally the audience is either given a lot of a little bit OR a little bit of a lot. "Love Among the Ruins," Mad Men's second episode for Season 3 provides the latter as many different story arcs are advanced. This is somewhat in contrast to Episode 1, "Out of Town," that seemed more focused on one or two characters. However, both episodes take at a leisurely (almost Deadwood-like) pace. This is strictly an observation, not a criticism and may represent a growing confidence that Matt Weiner and company feel about the material as a result of the show's success.

Like The Sopranos, the title and first few seconds of any Mad Men entry (or, given the extensive use of food as a motif in LAtR, one could say "entree") lays the thematic groundwork for what follows. In this case, the title refers to a 1855 Robert Browning poem (notably included in his book "Men and Women"). The protagonist ponders a grass covered pasture that had once been a great city. While lamenting the loss of a mighty infrastructure--"their triumphs and their glories and the rest"-- and anticipating the arrival of his lover on that very same spot, he seems to prefer the land's new use as the site of his rendezvous concluding that "love is best." Thus, the idea of social change (and people's reaction to that change) is established as the overriding theme of LAtR.

(Note: I realize that the image on the left is from a 10,000 Maniacs album of the same name, but the color scheme seemed iterative of the poem and worked with my observations.)
This is further reinforced by LAtR's very first shot showing a clip from the opening credits of 1963's Bye Bye Birdie. Ann-Margret sings the title song against a blue backdrop. The plot of the musical follows the stir created amongst the general public when Conrad Birdie, an Elvis Presley-like character, is drafted into the army. Margret plays Kim McAfee who is selected to represent all of womanhood and kiss Conrad "goodbye" at his farewell performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. LAtR uses McAfee to symbolize a specific female construct that, like the structures in Browning's poem, is destined to be replaced with a new, different paradigm. This old construct is defined by traditional, albeit outdated, ideals such as purity, chastity, and innocence.

Continuing MM's use of color to visually represent its themes, LAtR features numerous juxtapositions of blue and green which represent a choice between the old and new order characters are forced to confront. As established in "Out of Town," blue seems to designate the existing social conventions that are often constricting for those attempting to adhere to them. For example, in OoT, Shelly had to comply with a strict Code of Conduct while wearing her blue Pan Am uniform. This corresponded to what she viewed as her duty to comply with societal norms concerning fidelity. In LAtR, green, like Browning's pasture, is a more modern and arguably more emotionally satisfying new worldview. However as inviting as this new worldview may be, it still represents change. And, as discussed in Spencer Johnson's "Who Moved my Cheese," change in and of itself can be a threatening thing.

The first scene of LAtR show the Sterling Cooper creative team viewing the Ann-Margret number. Pepsi wants something similar incorporated into TV ads for a new diet drink called “Patio.” Unlike the rest of the creative team, Peggy feels that the concept (a 24 year old acting like she’s 14) and, by implication, the social construct it represents is false. Given that in MM's universe, Peggy functions as new female prototype synthesized between the clashing dialectics of Betty and Joan, this is understandable.

The next scene shows Don and Betty's daughter Sally (wearing blue) dragging a blue chair into the kitchen. In this case, blue seems to corresponds to the Drapers’ attempts at making their traditional family unit work. It also suggests that under Betty’s influence, Sally’s path will follow an old female model. A pregnant Betty follows up on the food motif introduced in LAtR through the Patio discussion by commenting that she's out of Melba toast. Don and Betty discuss what appears to be a redecorating project being planned for their home (snap shots of various decor options are on the kitchen counter). Don's informs her that his plans for the day include taking the children to Tarrytown (a older New York village) to buy a part for his car after looking at some "antiques."

The scene cuts abruptly from an irritated Betty saying "What are you doing?" (ostensibly at her children) to a meeting between Pete Campbell, Paul Kinsey and representatives for the new Madison Square Garden complex to be built on the "ruins" of Penn Station. In effect, Betty is railing at those who would be facilitating change. The Madison Square Garden project folder used by the SC creative team is green. An offhand observation made by one of the meeting participants emphasizes that fact. The client is seeking public relations help in dealing with a small, but nonetheless loud, group of New Yorkers expressing their opposition to the tearing down Penn Station in order to make room for the “Garden.” Paul upsets Madison Square Garden people by taking the side of the protesters. Since Paul eagerly helped the builders of a nuclear power facility when faced with a similar PR issue, he would seem to be doing some elitist posturing here. Paul has done this before. In the previous season, he bragged to a group of civil rights protesters that advertising was basically a “Marxist” endeavor because it improved the lives of the masses.

Joan greets Betty upon her arrival at the SC office with a compliment on how she’s carrying her pregnancy as gracefully as Wilma Flintstone. This is accurate historically as the 1963 season of The Flintstone’s did feature the birth of Pebbles. However, it’s notable that this episode, named for a poem about "ruins," would reference an animated series set in the stone age. Instead of her usual red dress, Joan is decked out in a bright green blouse and blue skirt. Joan and Roger both reference her impending marriage. This highlights the idea of confrontation with changing realities.

Pryce informs Roger, Bert and Don about the loss of a client. An old style suit of armor is clearly visible in the corner. Meanwhile, outside of Pryce’s office, one of the secretaries (in blue) and Joan (shot from the waist up to focus on her green top) dangle a pendulum over her stomach (an old divining technique) to determine the gender of Betty’s baby. At various points in LatR, Betty is prominently shown drinking alcohol and smoking. This certainly reflects prenatal behavior for the time. It also, perhaps, may suggest a connection between parental inputs and the resulting attitudes those children ultimately possess. On the other hand, that the unborn baby is shown in close proximity to Joan (in green top) while she is moving a pendulum over it side-to-side (not totally unlike the ribbons in the Maypole dance later) could suggest the impending birth of a new paradigm.

Later that evening, the Drapers and Pryces engage in forced civility while dining out together. Mrs. Pryce is clearly not enjoying her time in New York. The scene ends with the arrival of an ostentatious dinner cart at their table. One interesting exchange occurs when Don and Betty are asked how long they’ve been together. Don says ten years while Betty says nine. One could surmise that Don is really referring to the first time they had sex instead of their actual wedding anniversary. So, even though Betty is firmly part of the old female construct, it’s precepts of chastity and purity are an ideal she would seem to honor in the breach. During the car ride home, Betty makes it clear to Don that experience with the Pryces has only added more discomfort to what has already been a disagreeable last few days. She expresses this in terms of food (the “cherry” on her “sundae”). It is revealed that the health of Betty’s ailing father, Gene, continues to decline. As a result, Gene’s companion, Gloria, has left him. Gene’s deterioration will serve as a personification of the “decay” taking place in the old, established order.

An exterior shot showing a woman in a green coat followed by one in blue leads to a scene between Roger, his ex-wife and daughter Margaret to discuss the latter’s impending marriage (a traditional institution). In fact, LAtR features a number of exterior transitional shots showing people wearing green and blue outfits coming in and out of frame. Conflict arises for Roger and Margaret when his daughter says unequivocally that she does not want Roger’s new young wife at the ceremony. The scene ends with a close up of the actual invitation showing the date of the wedding as Saturday November 23, 1963. This is one day after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Not only does this bode poorly for Margaret’s ceremony, but it’s also a point in American history cited by many as the catalyst for a decade of societal upheaval.

Pryce and Don lie to each other about enjoying their dinner. Pryce enlists Don and Roger to fix the situation with the Madison Square Garden reps at lunch. Meanwhile, Peggy overhears Joan, who is bedecked in blue, teasingly joke with some clients who are clearly attracted to her.

Gene (in blue slacks) arrives at the Draper house with William (Betty’s brother), Judy (William’s wife) and their children (dressed in green and blue outfits). They brings with them sandwiches bought on the way. Gene, still missing Gloria, gets her a sandwich despite the fact that she won’t be there. Gene also makes a big point out of the fact that that the trip was easy in the Lincoln. At some level, this may be a symbolic reference to Abraham Lincoln, who, like JFK, was killed by an assassin railing against the established order. Also, William and Judy, who are acting as agents of change in that they seek to institutionalize Gene (effectively getting rid of him), wear green clothes.

At lunch, Roger laments the situation with Margaret, but concedes that he made his bed and must lie in it. Raffit, one of the Madison Square Garden reps finally arrives. While initially unreceptive, Roger (after a rough start) charms him into staying and pointedly orders a salad with “blue cheese.” Don pitches the idea that the best way to handle the protesters is to change the subject. He goes on to say that while change itself is neither good nor bad, people greet it with either terror or joy that results in a tantrum or a dance (such as the Maypole dance Don will later witness). Don further suggests that New York is in a state of “decay” and that the Garden represents something fresh and new. Raffit signals his satisfaction with Don’s approach by picking up the lunch menu. To Don’s consternation, Pryce later informs him that the London home office does not view the Madison Square Garden account as profitable enough. Don thinks this is shortsighted as the new complex represents “30 years worth of business.” Don has his own “Who Moved My Cheese” moment when he asks Pryce why PPL bought SC. Pryce, in a seemingly honest moment, declares that he doesn’t know.

As Pryce exits Don’s office, his secretary (in blue) and Peggy (in a green top) are visible outside the door. Peggy wants to discuss the Patio account. Since Don hasn't seen Bye Bye Birdie, they run the Ann Margaret number again. Don watches the performance in a perfunctory, almost bored, manner. He certainly shows none of the interest that he’ll later display when watching the Maypole dance. Peggy reiterates that the Bye Bye Birdie rip off is phony. She also feels that the imagery aimed at men should really be tailored to target women. Don ends the argument by pointing out that because women know about men's attraction to Ann-Margret types, women will want “to be her” and respond accordingly. Not to split hairs, but Don’s assessment isn't necessarily without merit. As a previous post discussed, in Season 2’s "Maidenform," the SC creative team establishes two categories of bra customers: Jackie Kennedy (black bra) and Marilyn Monroe (white bra). In that episode, Betty, who from all appearances would be a “Jackie” wears a white bra while Joan (clearly a “Marilyn”) wears black. Thus, each woman’s respectively internalized aspirations overrule what would otherwise have been considered conventional wisdom.

At one point, Peggy, wearing a blue house coat, is shown in her dreary apartment at the sink doing laundry. She clearly does not seem to revel in her socially consigned role. Pretending to be Ann-Margret in the mirror, Peggy tries in vain to take on that persona. Later, Peggy is outside the office after work. The composition of the shot depicts the “decay” of New York Don mentioned to Raffit at lunch. Instead of going home, Peggy heads into a bar. She gets the attention of some men by parroting Joan’s subway joke. Peggy, clearly the aggressor, approaches a young male (listed in the credits simply as “college boy”) with whom she ends up sharing a booth. The food motif is continued when she playfully takes a bite of the boy’s hamburger. He tells her that he is an engineering student. This is noteworthy because as an engineer, the boy would be involved with the alteration and/or replacement of infrastructures. The two joke about being replaced by machines. Back at the boy’s apartment, Peggy, still in her blue top, and the student are locked in an embrace on a green couch. Echoing the condom conversation from “Out of Town” as well as evoking imagery of a long extinct society, Peggy asks the boy if he has a “Trojan.” Like Don’s father, he doesn’t. Unlike Don’s mother, Peggy recommends “other things” that they can do. After the encounter, Peggy gets dressed to leave. She again wears her blue top while her young lover lies under green sheets. They don’t exchange contact information. Instead, in a clear case of role reversal, Peggy unconvincingly tells the student that she’s sure they’ll run into each other again.

Another role reversal presented with Gene. Watching television with the kids, his illness seems to have rendered him childlike (somewhat echoing Peggy’s reference to a 24 year old acting 14). Also, as mentioned earlier, William and Judy, who represent change, are mostly shown wearing green. However, in one scene, having to sleep on the Draper children’s bunk beds (covered with blue bedding), they seem to regress back to children themselves. Here dialog between the couple indicates concern that they may not be able to achieve the change they desire and remain locked in their current situation. This turns out to be correct. After some heated discussions with Betty, Don, who at one point is told to leave his soot covered overcoat in another room (presumably remnants from New York decay), decides that Gene can stay in the Draper home. Don then basically kicks William and family out ironically informing his brother-in-law that they can take a train home from Penn Station. When Gene is informed of the news, he is crushed that all the "plans" he has made will never happen. He also tries to convince everyone he's okay by stating: "I'm not blue." Which, given his mental state, is incorrect.

Later, lying in the bed he made (a sort of reference to Roger's earlier statement), Don (in blue pajamas) hears a commotion in the kitchen. The sound of sirens outside causes Gene to flashback to Prohibition days and he dumps all of the Draper's liquor down the kitchen sink.

In the next scene, Don has a sort of epiphany during a Maypole dance ceremony at the children’s school. Established as a ritual of Spring renewal, the dance takes place on a green lawn. The teacher, barefoot and wearing flowers in her hair dances while carrying a green ribbon. The display so captivates Don that he becomes somewhat emotional and leans down to stroke the grass. Once it’s over, the spell seems to subside as he poses for a family photo (his children again dressed in blue) that includes Gene. This more than likely refers back to the snap shots of proposed ideas for their home redecoration choices shown in the first kitchen scene. In context, the photo with Gene suggests that Don, for the time being, is choosing to stay remain with the old, traditional family model.

The next shot shows Don entering the office. As the camera pans to him, a secretary in the foreground clearly pulls a blue folder from a rack of files before revealing Don. This would seem to indicate that while Don is intrigued by the new paradigm seemingly being built up around him, he is still not ready to leave the old one. Glancing at Peggy, he seems to be contemplating something. Perhaps he is reconsidering her stance on Patio campaign and the larger issues her position implies. Entering Don’s office to discuss the Pampers account (a product associate with birth), Peggy carries a blue folder. Both seem desirous for the change in the status quo they inately sense, yet neither seem quite ready to embrace it.


The Rush Blog said...

Pretending to be Ann-Margret in the mirror, Peggy tries in vain to take on that persona.

Which persona? The Ann-Margret persona . . . or the Kim McAfee persona? Was Peggy aware that the Kim McAfee persona was a spoof on teenage girls infatuated with rock stars during the late 50s/early 60s? If so, she doesn't seem aware of this. And I think that Weiner used the wrong model - namely Ann-Margret - to make his point.

Matt Maul said...

That's a good question. I saw it as a little bit of both.

Certainly, there's the actual McAfee character from Bye Bye Birdie dealing with new realities in her life as personified by Birdie's induction into the army. This is certainly consistent with the concept of change inherient in the title of the episode. Then, there's Ann-Marget herself. As Peggy points out, she's a bit old to play McAfee (but I guess they couldn't have had an actual 14 year old getting wet over a rock star, could they?). Nonetheless, she does represent a certain type of womanhood that, in the context of the Mad Men universe, is on the verge of becoming passé.

AND, at the risk of repeating myself (too late, I know), she's conveniently framed on a blue background which is totally consistent with the use of color throughout the episode.

Mark said...

In ancient Greek/Roman and then later medieval literature, didn't the color green always signify spirituality? I seem to remember this being used prominently in Morte d'Arthur, especially in reference to Lancelot. And your noticing the use of color makes sense, given the time period of the show and developments in color cinematography that were taking place at the time. Heavy use of the color green always reminds me of the dance sequence in Preminger's Bonjour, Tristesse. But maybe none of those things are relevant here.

Another interesting aspect of the episode that I noticed, as brought on by the title and the reference to the poem, is lovemaking being interrupted. This is most obvious in Peggy's encounter with the college student; William and Judy sleeping in bunk beds; Don and Betty being roused from their marital bed by Gene; and Roger being asked to not be with his wife at his daughter's wedding. Even the usage of Bye Bye Birdie plays, in a way although to a lesser degree, into lovers being separated or forced to be apart.

In a sense, this could seem to indicate that art, or the desire for something larger, keeps people apart. This, of course, is a recurring theme in Mad Men.

The Rush Blog said...

Actually . . . Kim McAfee was 15 years old in the play. And I don't know what her age was in the movie.

Also, Ann-Margret was 21 years old when she filmed the movie. She had just turned 22 when the movie was released in the theaters. And the age difference between her and her character was almost as half of the age difference between Tom Welling and his Clark Kent role on "SMALLVILLE"

Matt Maul said...


In ancient Greek/Roman and then later medieval literature, didn't the color green always signify spirituality?

I didn't know that. But it would certainly seem to fit.

lovemaking being interrupted

True 'dat. There was a lot of lovemaking getting interrupted in episode 301 as well.

Rush Blog...

Kim McAfee was 15 years old in the play. And I don't know what her age was in the movie.

I honestly don't know what her age is supposed to be in the movie either. But as the father of a couple of girls in the 14-16 range, I'd have to say that the difference between mid-teens and 21 or mid-teens and 24 is negligible (from my daddy's eye view anyway).

Cliff said...

Do you think there is any correlation between one of the pet names Don has for Betty, "Birdie", and the choice of "Bye, Bye, Birdie"?

Matt Maul said...

Do you think there is any correlation between one of the pet names Don has for Betty, "Birdie", and the choice of "Bye, Bye, Birdie"?

That's a great catch Cliff. I hadn't heard Don use that one lately, but you're right. Given that Betty represents a "traditional" female and that model is on the way out, it certainly fits.

"Bird" is also a term for woman. So, it makes sense that Don would call her that. Then there's the first season episode where Betty shoots the neighbor's birds. Which shows a level of resentment to her assigned station in life.

Jo said...

There's actually an upcoming episode called "The Color Blue" (ep. 10) may be on to something.