Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 4.9
"On Feeling, Filling, and Flying"

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The next in our multi-authored series of posts on the fourth season of Mad Men, posted prior to the publication of MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style and the 1960s by Duke University Press, is by Konstantine Klioutchkine, Associate Professor of German and Russian at Pomona College, and Sanja Lacan, PhD Candidate in Slavic Studies at UCLA]


Written by Konstantine Klioutchkine (German and Russian, Pomona College) and Sanja Lacan (Slavic Studies, UCLA)

“Fillmore Auto Parts: For the Mechanic in Every Man!” is the advertising slogan Dr. Faye Miller conjures up for three Fillmore executives in a meeting at the center of this season’s ninth episode, devoted, as its title suggests, to “Beautiful Girls.” Mad Men frequently structures its episodes around the language of advertising pitches, one of the most memorable of which is the well-known Kodak Carousel presentation at the end of Season 1 which Michael Berube discussed two weeks ago. Indeed, wordplay, including the kind found in many advertising campaigns, organizes the fabric of meaning in the show.

The wordplay in “Fillmore” evokes Don’s advice to Peggy from the Season 2 premier ("For Those Who Think Young") that she feel more in order to produce effective advertising—and also, perhaps, to produce an effective self. “You are the product,” he tells her, “you feeling something—that’s what sells.” Up to the current episode, the show’s fourth season has been purveying more feelings than fillings, a trajectory palpable in the portrayal of Don’s gradual descent into alcoholic despair until his rebirth in last week's episode ("The Summer Man"), as a person who, as Don says self-consciously, “sounds like a little girl, writing down what happened today” in a diary. “The Beautiful Girls” departs from this trend with an encouragement to turn from feeling to filling, from emotion to sex, from emasculation to the rediscovery of the mechanic in every man.

Fittingly, the episode’s opening scene of Don on the phone quickly cuts to a sex scene between Don and Faye, punctuated by a play on the transparent sexual implication of Don’s actual first name, Dick. As the characters are having sex they dislodge a lamp, prompting a suggestive question as to what might have broken: the lamp or Don’s phallus. The upshot of this wordplay is the celebration of Don’s post-swimming virility. But the return of Don’s manhood means more than mere sexual prowess: it is also related to the return of his ability to destroy human life. As far back as the award-winning pilot, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” Don’s bohemian lover Midge describes him as a person capable of “leading sheep to slaughter.” In the current episode, Don’s potential for violence emerges in Ken Cosgrove’s jest that “Don Draper” be identified as the cause of death of his secretary, Miss Blankenship, in the coroner’s report.

Following the exchange about the (un)broken object, the dialogue between Don and Faye seems to take its cue from Tristram Shandy as they wonder about the time. Unlike in Lawrence Sterne’s famous 1759 work, in which Tristram’s conception is interrupted when his mother asks his father if he has remembered to wind the clock, no reproductive clock is being wound up here (at least none that we know of). Instead, the clock reminds the characters of the need to return to work. Ultimately, attitudes toward reproduction vis-à-vis the production of labor become an especially poignant matter in the episode which builds this motif in part out of sexual wordplay.

Another important scene concerned with filling involves Roger Sterling and Joan Harris walking down a lonely street after dinner. They fall victim to a hold-up and turn over an array of vaginal symbols--rings and a purse prominent among them--to the gun-brandishing assailant. After the latter leaves without taking a shot, Joan encourages Roger to make use of his own firing power, and they have sex in the street.

Extending this theme of shooting at women, the post-mugging coitus links with an earlier conversation between Peggy and her potential love interest, the politically-minded bohemian Abe. In response to Peggy’s comparison of her own struggles to those of African Americans, Abe points out that “they’re not shooting women to keep them from voting.” Peggy perceives Abe's insistence that she adopt his radical political views as a figurative shooting down of women. Sensitive to Abe’s penchant for aggressive proselytizing, Peggy’s lesbian friend Joyce extends the episode’s sexual banter by saying that Abe “pulled a boner.”

This comment leads to an exchange between Joyce and Peggy which amplifies the episode's sexually-charged wordplay. Joyce discusses male and female roles by constructing the metaphors of a masculine “vegetable soup” as a filler that requires a feminine “pot” to “heat ‘em up and hold ‘em.” Peggy, however, is not ready to agree. Before leaving, Joyce highlights Peggy’s symbolic masculinity by calling her “Peg.” This shortened version of the name Margaret evokes the idiom of “a square peg in a round hole,” reminding us that Peggy’s achievements and problems alike are inseparable from her resistance to stereotypical female roles.

How does this focus on sexual wordplay relate to the titular theme of the episode, “The Beautiful Girls”? The answer might lie in another set of wordplay that organizes the theme of women around images of birds. While working on a crossword puzzle, Bert Cooper asks his former secretary Miss Blankenship for help finding a three-letter word for a flightless bird. By naming the extinct emu, she both predicts her own demise and introduces avian wordplay into the episode, with the near homonym of emu and emo. Miss Blankenship might insist that she knows more about crossword puzzles than her ex-flame and ex-boss Bert Cooper, but she is no flightless bird. In Episode 7 (“The Suitcase”) Roger describes her as “a queen of perversions,” and in the current episode Bert compares her to an astronaut who ascended from her birth in a late-nineteenth-century barn, to her death on the 37th floor of a modern skyscraper.

The episode’s central figure of flight is Don’s daughter Sally, who flees her mother in order to play a Lolita-cum-wife to her father. But Sally’s flight also finds its limit when she falls to the floor before being forcibly returned to the care of her mother. This particular flight, couched as it is in various forms of intensely emotional behavior, may seem rather contrived, at least insofar as Sally models herself on the amateur detective Nancy Drew, whose book she reads while waiting in Don’s office. The ambivalence and uncertain agency expressed by Sally’s behavior may prove central to understanding the show’s depiction of the female condition. Limited by various social, economic, and cultural forces, many of them, nonetheless, prove highly capable of gaining some power over their circumstances.

Two contrasting instances of wordplay clarify the logic of the bird theme, which became prominent in the first season, in Don’s repeated address to his wife Betty as “Birdie” and then in the 9th episode (“Shoot”) in which she took a BB gun at her neighbor’s doves to unleash her pent-up aggression at this symbol of her own lost freedom. Miss Blankenship complains that Faye always “breezes by,” singling her out as especially free: will she remain so now that she has succumbed to Don’s charms?

By contrast, the three-letter word for a flightless bird materializes at the end of the episode in the image of two figurative hens in Don’s office: his ex-wife Betty and his daughter Sally (their flower-patterned dresses distinguishing them from the more formally-dressed professional women). Their status as flightless is emphasized by the visual opposition in the scene in which Betty and Sally stand on one side of the reception area while the childless working women (supposedly freer? or flightier?) observe them from the other.

By way of bringing together these two sets of wordplay, we suggest that the show puts a special emphasis on investigating the human condition of its characters through its symbolization of their attitudes to sexual practices. In this episode, the death of “the queen of perversions,” provides a signal to renew sexual endeavor, both corporeal and symbolic: Joan and Roger’s public sex, Faye and Don's sex, the forms of masturbation and oral sex which previous Season 4 episodes have depicted, and—per the episode’s preview—Peggy’s “receiving a romantic gift that could compromise her career.”

Although the theme of sexuality in “The Beautiful Girls” is organized around the male-centered slogan for Fillmore Auto Parts, the question about what forms sexuality should take is posed primarily to women, who are portrayed as erotically more creative and adventurous than men. Joyce might be right in her insistence that women are about to give up being pots in order to become vegetable soup in their own right.

The final scene of the episode, however, suggests that women’s options remain ambivalent and confusing. Joyce, Faye, and Joan do not get to determine which of the several elevator doors will open first and each fails to guess the one that will. They are momentarily confused before filling what becomes available. In the closing scene, Peggy arrives to the lobby in time to join Faye and Joan in the already open elevator car. She comes closest to making her own choice, but her choice is to join the two confused older women.

In this way she remains a square peg in a round hole, as the smile on her face contrasts with the visible distress of her colleagues. Ultimately, it appears that filling--as much fun, verbal and otherwise, as it might be--may be as fully disorienting as feeling. What will that portend for the option of flying?


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Nico said...

An interesting analysis, though emus aren't extinct.

Unit for Criticism said...

Nico, you are right. Thank you and welcome to Kritik. According to Wikipedia emus are only extinct in Tasmania--probably not a level of specificity our guest bloggers had in mind. Since the change will involve our writers' point about the connection to Miss Blankenship we'll let them decide how they'd like us to correct the error or if they'd prefer that the matter of the emu's well-being be discussed down here. Writers: please advise us either by email or via public comment.

fab said...

at this rate Sally will be DOA from a drug OD around about 1968 or so. And Don pointed out that it was the Shrink who was responsible for the latest fiasco. meanwwhile, "I Know a Place" by Pet Clark at the bar shows the Real Sixties gradually creeping up on everyone like Satisfaction (1965) did last week, along with the Vietnam War Escalating--Joan's husband going. These people have no idea what Social Revolution is in store for them, though we and the producers certainly do. the calm before the storm inundates everyone.

Jez B. said...

Blankenship's death was great this week. But what is Faye wearing on her neck in that shot on the elevator? It looks like it should be repurposed on project runway (and did anyone see January Jones on it recently?).

This was cute. But Sally as Lolita? Not sure. Would that mean Don is like the creepy stepfather? Or Henry?

Konstantine said...

On emu: Nico, whereas ornitologically speaking you are right, Mad Men is not a scientific document but rather an aesthetic product. As such, it signifies not with schientific veracity but with symbolic implication. Although not all emu are extinct, many types of emu are, and some famously so. This sad fact provides these flightless birds with the connotation of extinction, which I believe Mad Men makes ample use of in this episode.
Furthermore, it might be worth keeping in mind that a core premise of the show is that meanings by which we live our lives are produced not so much by the sciences but by media industries, such as advertising. And advertising, like television, makes its meanings in ways that are markedly distinct from those used in science.

Konstantine said...

On Lolita: Jez, whereas Nabovkov's novel may invite a moral reading, the author himself encouraged readers to abandon moral hope when entering the gates of aesthetics. Thinking in Nabokovian vein, what's important about the sexualization of Sally in this episode is that it evokes a particular pattern, one involving an underage girl and a brooding father figure. This pattern does not make Don into a Humbert Humbert, but it may bring into focus a range of Nabokovian concerns, both with regard to Sally and with regard to Don. The format of a blog allowing little detailed discussion, we would like to make only two very brief and general suggestions here. One, Nabokov's verbally playful art may be an important reference point for the aesthetic organization of Mad Men. Two, the sexualization of a girl in this episode plays with the reverse and more prominent trend in the show, the infantilization of women.

Jez B. said...

Okay, Konstantine. That seems reasonable. I just wasn't sure what you were getting at. Lolitas are in the eye of the beholder if you know what I mean and Sally seems to pull on different strings with Don than the Lolita kind.

Lauren said...

Thanks Kostia and Sanja for this very interesting attention to linguistic wordplay. I would not have noticed many (maybe any!) of the things you pointed out and it is most interesting to think of Mad Men from that perspective; there's no question that the writers are very attentive to their use of language.

I have a few scattered thoughts to share.

1. As always I am glad to see Sally. This character has so much depth. She merely enters the scene and the game changes: her presence mesmerizes and there seems to be something meaningful about her every move.

2. In contrast, I feel a bit frustrated by the surprisingly large number of new characters who now appear in each episode with little or no character development. Paul Kinsey and Sal had a story and you saw it accumulate over time so that when either of them did something, the act had a context that had grown out of the serial form. I can barely keep track of Stan and Joey or begin to guess why either of these characters went into advertising instead of becoming, say, insurance salesmen. I also find Joyce disappointing; a lesbian token. She says interesting things but in the manner of a puppet lowered into a scene to ventriloquize those interesting things.

3. Much though I had high hopes for this character, I can't but feel disappointed by Faye (right now anyway) because of the under-attention to her motives. This began for me with the last episode with the overheard phone call which introduced out of the blue an explanation for her having kept her distance from Don--another boyfriend. That felt lazy to me, and though I think something interesting was attempted in this episode with her frustrations about having failed a "test," things have moved so fast from her initial reluctance to her now being in a full-blown romance with Don--complete with falling furniture-- that I find it difficult to identify with her. And now it appears that Megan--another new character from out of nowhere--is going to enter the drama in some fashion. I really liked the scenes with Alison early in the season; the downside is that she's now gone.

4. I did not love seeing civil rights addressed in the conversation between Peggy and Abe--the latter of whom feels too much like a token bohemian to complement Joyce's token lesbian (and so much less interesting than Roy--the bohemian that Midge fell in love with toward the end of season 1). I always felt that characters like Hollis and Carla did much more than many critics of the show's treatment of race gave them credit for. Though minor characters, their perspectives from the margins were often very powerful. While it makes sense to hear white people discussing civil rights in 1965, the comparative lack of even minor characters of color stands out all the more when the civil rights struggle is channeled through a character about whom we know almost nothing (except that he fancies himself a serious writer and has a thing for Peggy). Paul Kinsey was so great because he was such a blowhard and we knew that he'd have much rather gone on a business trip to California than on the freedom ride. Are we supposed to laugh at Abe too for likening Madison Avenue to Nuremberg? Maybe: but that would depend on our willingness to laugh at the illusions of strangers, and most people are more generous than that.

5. I will miss Ida Blankenship. R.I.P.

zina said...

Thematically, the show is defined by Vivian Winters, who brought Sally to her father: "Men never know what is going on" - which could echo Bob Dylan's 1965 taunt, "Something is happening but you don't know what it is, do you Mr Jones?"

Don is obviously the man who does not know what is happening, as he proves it to Vivian Winters when he tries to pay her off. He most egregiously demonstrates his lack of awareness when he passes Miss Blankenship after leaving Sally in his office, and does not notice that she is already dead.

Abe too does not know what is going on - he may be aware of the civil rights movement, but he does not even consider that women might need their own march and struggle.

There is a mirroring between Faye and Don's scene in his apartment, and another scene between him and Bobbie Barrett in S2: Bobbie was leaving their hotel room and asked Don to wait for her, and he said: I would not let you alone in my place. Now, Faye was teasing him about leaving her in his place. There is a reversal of gender, as has often happened in S4. With regard to Faye, she is the one who still seems to be holding on secrets, and having boundaries (Chinese walls) while Don cannot, since the beginning of S4, conceal to his co-workers how much of a disaster zone his life really is.

I don't see Joyce as a token lesbian, but rather as a friend for Peggy - her first friend it seems. I think her comfort around the office shows that their friendship has progressed since we've seen her.

Betty and Sally are mirror images, with their blonde hair and flowery dresses. Lolita would not be the word I would have chosen, but certainly Sally was playing mini-wife to Don, who was weirdly enjoying it - but is makes sense, really, since during his marriage to Betty, he had always treated her like a little girl.

Lauren said...

Very interesting insight into the structural importance of Vivian, Zina. Thanks for that. I think you are right that this was a very thematically tight episode.

Some clarification of what I meant. Sure, Joyce is Peggy's friend and sure Peggy could use one. But to me, (so far), she is as much a token friend as she is a token lesbian. By "token" I don't mean that there aren't multiple roles she can play in the narrative. I mean that she is a relatively undeveloped character (albeit one who occasionally says interesting things).

To me a character becomes interesting when what I have learned about him or her inflects what he or she says--and vice versa. I don't find that to be true, yet, for Joyce or Abe or the office "guys."

Maybe I just like my filling mixed with feeling ;).

Sandy said...

Most people not directly associated with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are undeveloped and, as noted, even some that are, like Stan and the other members of Peggy's boys' club. What I like about Joyce is her centeredness. She is the only woman who knows what she is and what she can do.

Back to the wordplay about the extinct flightless bird: the answer is moa, which is only one letter away from MIA, which may foreshadow the fate of Joan's husband. Veering off into the silly fringe on emu: Americans say "ee-moo," but the Australians say "em-you," which could stand for MU, or Mizzou, where Jon Hamm got his degree.

I'm looking forward to next Sunday, which I hope will bring us something more substantial: perhaps Don treading water in the swimming pool.

Jez B. said...

..."perhaps Don treading water in the swimming pool"

As in the "drowning in his chair" shot from last year?

Anonymous said...

Although this episode is quite clearly focused on women, I've been wondering also about its focus on death: Mrs. Blankenship, of course, but also Vietnam, and the mugging at gunpoint: all confrontations with death. But how is this related to the episode's other concerns and stories: Sally, Joan, Faye? A friend noted that the three women in the elevator all had to resist being "put in a box" by men. Sally was put in a room by her father, Don. Do these coffin-like spaces represent the social death experienced on a daily basis by these women?

Lauren said...

Greetings Anonymous and welcome to Kritik. Thanks for these very interesting questions. My guess is that most people at this point will transfer their attention to the latest post on the most recent episode so please join us there. Also, we'd appreciate if you "signed" your post with some name: any name or initials or even a number will be great.