Monday, 24 March 2008

Mad Men: New Amsterdam

It was nice to be reminded that not every TV episode unified by a theme requires a voiceover to explain said theme to us. This episode of Mad Men offered some thoughtful rumination on the nature of fatherhood, without being bookended by the introduction and summation of a surrogate perceptive viewer. Admittedly, it was still a themed episode (never the most finessed way to tell a story) but it built up slowly and carefully, not spelling it out until near the end with Roger’s observation, ‘Kids today, they have nothing to look up to because they’re looking up to us’.

Elsewhere, we saw Glen without a father, Pete with his father, Trudy with her father, and more abstrusely Roger as Don’s father, Bertram as the firm’s father, and Don as Pete’s father. Of these, the most effective where those that added to the character. Hence, Pete heaped the frustrations on himself in his interactions with his father and father-in-law, while Betty’s concerns about her husband were thrown into relief by the quirks of a father-less child. The intra-firm paternal relationships served more to drive the plot, not that that harmed the show.

The episodes also developed the conflict between Pete and Don. The obvious inference from the show’s setup is that Pete is Don when he is younger, perhaps softened by his absence from war. The writers never take this simple motif at face value, though; rather, the dynamic is more that Pete hopes he is a young Don and Don fears he used to be Pete.

The programme certainly goes some way to establishing that they are mirror images of each other, with the great unknown of whether the experience of war separates them. Pete’s first instinct is always to do the wrong thing, but he is capable of checking himself quickly. Thus, his initial anger at his wife for invading his personal space was swiftly calmed and they took lunch together. In contrast, Don’s first instinct is to do the right thing, against which he soon rebels. In this way, in the previous episode when his wife jealously sent him from another woman’s company to fetch a birthday cake, he obliged without murmur only to spurn this path later and buy a dog without consultation (his thoughts with a potential affair) rather than the cake.

Overall, this episode returned to the ideas I enjoyed most in the pilot, but which had been at best tertiary in the subsequent episodes. There wasn’t too much marvelling at how the 1950s were different, which had been pre-eminent if still subtle (kids with plastic bags over their heads, pregnant women drinking, etc.) up until now. The episode instead derived its humour from the office wit that livened up the pilot; the standout line for me was Don’s instant response to the remark that there’s a Pete in every agency, ‘Can’t we get one of the other ones?’

Pete’s acting also stood out, particularly the palpable sickness he conveyed at being fired and then again after being saved. He also injected the necessary mania into his argument with Don, which was otherwise odd. His desire to snap back at Don’s imperiousness was clear, but he did so in a remarkably ineloquent and ridiculous way. His assertions that he could have invented direct marketing and his boasts about his notebook were a wonderful evocation of the perils of trying to fight/impress a superior without composure. It would, nevertheless, perhaps have been better to keep Pete collected until later in the series, when his insecurities and frustrations might unravel him to better effect.

Seeing him brood by the grand windows at the episode’s close, as he was confined to the shadows by tales of his maternal family’s former (but long gone) glory, marvellously left him on the brink of desperate suicide and overseeing an empire.
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