Monday, 20 September 2010

Mad Men: The Beautiful Girls

Death is never funny, or so the general thinking goes. But like the best episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore show, which Beautiful Girls resembled more than once, Weiner took some of the darkest rites of passage in modern human experience - death, racism and desperate love - and turned them into high comedy. And like the seminal episode about the passing of Chuckles The Clown in the middle of a circus show, Mad Men showed that death usually does have a hilarious side to it. And is almost always a circus.

This episode really is one for the women. We get the aging party girl, Ida Blankenship, the office crew (in which Joan was starting to look more and more old-fashioned) and of course young Sally, who is in many ways directly affected by the cultural turmoil surrounding the women of the show. Having divorced parents and a mother who cannot even deal with her own feminine identity, let alone Sally's own exploration, has obviously set off fireworks in Sally's brain, which she foolish decides that only her father can fix..

Mrs. Blankenship has classic line after classic line, and I was thanking the show for the addition of a brilliant character when, suddenly, she snuffed it. Roger predictably made it all about him, but we see genuine compassion and sadness from Cooper and the rest of the office females. But it does show something that happens when these women die; they become legends, with secrets in their graves, and not much more. And that's probably why it affected Joan more than others.

I suppose in some way Joan really cares about her louse of a husband. But I still find it surprising how committed she is to him. You can explain it away as social mores ruling her behavior, but that never seemed to be Joan's primary concern, so much as keeping control of her own status using any means possible, even if it means rejecting progress for other women. In many ways, Roger is the perfect man for her, a relic from the past, just as she aspires to be.

As for Peggy, she is still blossoming, and willing to explore to find her way in the world. She more than competently takes down her would-be lover's double standards, but more importantly, begins to recognize and react to her own, even while knowing that fighting racism is battle she cannot fight while ALSO fighting misogyny and the glass ceiling.

Betty seems to be more easily cowed by the judgment of other women than  by the men in her life. She listens to Henry because she respects him. But cold disapproval only bothers her when it comes from other women. Maybe that's what Sally is really rebelling against, the inherent and obvious weakness in her mother when facing any kind of challenge, frippery or otherwise.

By the end, when that elevator door closes, we see that all the worries and contradictions facing the 3 generations are fully present in Joan, Faye and Peggy (but Peggy looks positively serene next to the other two, maybe because her idea of womanhood isn't quite as rigidly defined as the other two's).

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