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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mad Men: "Love Among The Ruins"

Illustration for article titled Mad Men: "Love Among The Ruins"
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“Lust of glory pricked their hearts up, dread of shame

Struck them tame;

And that glory and that shame alike, the gold

Bought and sold.”

—Robert Browning, “Love Among The Ruins”


“Let’s also say that change is neither good or bad. It simply is. It can be greeted with terror or joy. A tantrum that says, ‘I want it the way it was’ or a dance that says, ‘Look, it’s something new.’”

—Don Draper, Mad Men (“Love Among The Runs”)


Episode two of Mad Men’s third season opens with a dance declaring “Look, it’s something new” in the form of a doe-eyed Ann-Margret wailing her way through the title track from the movie version of Bye Bye Birdie, a musical as much about changing times in its own way as Mad Men. The episode almost closes with one as well: the penultimate scene finds the Draper family watching a field day Maypole celebration, the original dance declaring something new. As the children dance around what began as a pagan fertility symbol, Don stares at a lovely teacher and sensually strokes the new grass. He’s fine with something new. He welcomes it even, at least for the moment. But there are simply too many tantrums from people wanting things the way they were to suggest a dance will be enough to make the transition easy.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have Ann-Margret performing it. “She didn’t have that,” Sal says, comparing Susan Watson, who originated Ann-Margret’s role on Broadway, to the young star. And what is “that”? Sex appeal, sure, though that’s not necessarily what Sal’s responding to. The “ability to be 25 and act 14” as Peggy suggests? Maybe. But I think there’s something more at work. In 1963 Ann-Margret had an ineffable “it” quality. She was the right person at the right time to become an icon of the moment. The female embodiment, if you will, of the spirit of ’63, or at least the spirit of the part of ’63 we’re at now, before the tragic end. She had a life beyond the moment, too, sometimes embodying the dreams of the time that didn’t come true, as in her remarkably vanity-free performance in Carnal Knowledge. But all that’s later. Right now it’s the spring of 1963. The grass has freshly sprouted, and Ann-Margret may not have much of a voice, but she sure has something.

And whatever it is, Patio wants it. Yes, Diet Pepsi really was known as Patio for a brief period after its introduction, a name that seems as clueless about how to reach the target consumer of women interested in “reducing” as Sterling-Cooper seems for much of the episode. Patio wants a frame-by-frame knock-off of Birdie’s opening scene, a spot the S-C boys are eager to cast. Peggy thinks they may not really know what they need in order to reach women and she’s downright Don Draper-like in her insistence. “Clients don’t always know what’s best,” she says. But later, her mentor will undermine her instincts and her confidence. “Men want her and women want to be her.” Is Don right? Or is he just not thinking this through? The episode’s final scene suggests we haven’t seen the end of this particular conflict.


Whichever the case, Peggy’s frustration causes her to break out of her routine and head down to a student bar where she picks up a student for a night of… is passion the right word? At first I thought Peggy was simply testing a theory about the Patio campaign, but she seems to have a different sort of experiment in mind. Trying Joan’s winning line—“It’s so crowded in here I feel like I’m on a subway”—she picks up a sweet clod of a kid, has her way with him (up to a point), turns down his offer of breakfast, then leaves. Neither of them seems to have any illusions about where this is going, but the kid at least tells her a specific place where he can be found, not something vague like “Madison Avenue.” Ultimately, there’s not a lot of ambiguity about what Peggy does: She seeks out and enjoys and easy sexual companion. We’ve previously only seen Peggy sleep with a man after he made her an object of his desires. Now she seems to be sinking into the new possibilities of the moment (even if it's with a sloppy-eating hamburger enthusiast who mistakes her for a typist.)

Others aren’t handling change so well. In fact, much of the city is having a problem with it. Building the Madison Square Gardens Project means losing the “Beaux-Arts masterpiece” of the original Penn Station. And while the Madison Square Gardens executive dismisses the protesters as “lunatics” he seems a little unsure of himself. And rightly so. In real-life, the demolition of the original Penn Station created a huge outcry, and not just from lunatics and New York Times writers. The city’s collective regret over the destruction led to the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Committee. (It’s not like Paul was just going into a bohemian reverie. This is what got destroyed.)


With the Madison Square Gardens project, S-C again finds itself attached to one of the era’s key changes. Don seems to sense this, or at least sniff a winning account and, compensating in part for an already soused Roger, goes into full Don Draper mode to become a poet of change. “I was in California. Everything is new and it’s clean,” he tells the potential client. “New York is in decay.” It’s a hell of a speech and it gets the job done, only to have it undone by S-C’s new British overlords’ inability to see the profit in taking the project on. The tension between the Yank and Brit wings of the office, already high and evident in Don and Betty’s awkward dinner with Pryce and his frustrated wife (Embeth Davidtz), is getting worse. (And here’s a question: Is Cooper, who leaves in frustration before the situation escalates, simply above the fray or did he reach his breaking point with the British element between seasons?)

The Drapers' troubles don’t end away from the office, either. After a tug-of-war between Betty and her brother, Betty’s stroke-plagued father comes to live at the Draper house. The episode nicely captures the tension between siblings and the way old resentments can turn from fissures into cracks. Is William really a callous money-grubber eager to send Papa Hofstadt to a home now that he has no girlfriend to take care of him? He doesn’t seem like that great a guy. He’s short with his father and clearly in denial about the state of his mental health, but most of the accusations come from Betty with no real evidence to back them up. Apart from one scene in which he’s reduced to sleeping in a bunk bed, we don’t really see his side of the story. But we do see a weak-willed man who folds when Don turns on the pressure.


Admittedly, it is pressure of Don Draper-sized proportions, and, to my eyes at least, it’s caused as much by a need to end Betty’s perpetual crankiness as a sense that bringing Betty’s father into the home is a good idea. Last season revealed that Gene’s dementia had advanced to a mortifying point when he propositioned his own daughter. Now he’s in the home with car keys. This does not look like it’s going to go well. On the other hand, he does prove himself adept and disposing of liquor in a hurry when the sound of sirens brings him back to Prohibition days and brings us a reminder that the way things were weren’t always better. But whether you’re dancing or pouting, change is on its way.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

-  I didn’t even get to Roger, who’s finding life as a newlywed problematic, even if it’s not the bride bringing the problems. No one wants the new Mrs. Sterling at the wedding, even if he’s paying for it. Of course, the date of the wedding might prove problematic…


- Note the disparity when Don and Betty are asked how long they’ve been married. One says 9 years the other 10. Thoughts on why?

-  Joan’s been told that when her husband—boo!—gets a promotion they’ll be having a family. She talks about it like it’s a threat. He’s clearly a man who likes to make threats and act on them.


- I like that Mad Men only occasionally plays the “Weren’t things different then?” card for laughs, but when it does it’s gold. What better way for a pregnant woman to relax than to smoke and drink in bed? Why not washing back some thalidomide while you’re at it?

- I heard the word “bullshit” this week. Is that a first for this show? It’s the first regular cable show I know to take advantage of the battle South Park fought and won with its “It Hits The Fan” episode. (I could be very, very wrong about that, I know.)


- Bringing it all back home, Roger has a Greek ruin in his office now.