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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mad Men: "Maidenform"

Illustration for article titled iMad Men/i: Maidenform
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Illustration for article titled iMad Men/i: Maidenform

I can't imagine a more surprising start to a Mad Men episode than the pounding sound of The Decemberists' "The Infanta," even though the images accompanying the song–our three primary heroines suiting up for their day–is typical Mad Men. So typical in fact that it directly echoes the opening montage of this season's first episode. That was five weeks ago in our time but three months ago in Mad Men time. Now it's Memorial Day, and Don and Betty are at a country club fashion show, and remembering those who fought for our country… "Many of whom will not be enjoying ribs this afternoon."

I also can't imagine a more surprising turn than the dark, dark places Don goes to in this episode, much of which is set in motion by those women's fashions, those ribs, and a Memorial Day salute that has him standing up and getting a round of applause from his daughter for his service in Korea. That salute apparently reminds Don that he's actually not Don, because it drives him to the telephone to call Bobbie, the one person who helps him forget that he's a lying bastard–or at least lets him enjoy the fringe benefits of it. Don apparently has started working out a lot of his psychological issues–his contradictory impulses towards women, his disgust with his own poor character–by having rough sex with Bobbie, with a little light bondage thrown in. The problem is that Bobbie can't stop talking, about her kids, or about Don's reputation around town as a ladies' man, and it's spoiling the mood for him. So finally he ties her up and leaves her stranded in a hotel room. What a prick.

But hey, he's our prick. And his loutish behavior this week sets up a bone-chilling final scene, in which his daughter tries to watch him while he's shaving, and her adoring eyes makes him crumple with self-hatred. Unlike the women at the start of the episode, he can't look at himself in the mirror anymore. And as the camera pulls back, there's yet another mirror, catching his reflection as he slumps down onto the john.

In fact, there are quite a few mirrors this week, including one related to the title, "Maidenform." Sterling-Cooper has the Playtex account, and though Playtex's market share keeps increasing with their ads about their reliable fit, they're jealous of Maidenform's sexy ads in which women literally stop traffic with their awesome brassieres. So Playtex asks S-C to come up with a new campaign, and appropriately enough, they come up with one that mirrors (ahem) Playtex's own inferiority complex vis-à-vis their competitor. The men of Sterling-Cooper, out drinking one night, concoct the notion that every woman is either a Jackie Kennedy (upright, elegant, straight lines and prim behavior) or a Marilyn Monroe (curvy, yielding, "fun"). And since men want their women to be a Jackie and a Marilyn–or a Playtex and a Maidenform–they conceive a campaign in which the same model wears a fine-fitting black bra for daytime, and, in a mirror (ahem) image, a sexy white one for night. Two women in one–every man's fantasy. And thus what every woman should aspire to be, according to the old boys at Sterling-Coo.

In a way, this carries on last week's theme of womanhood and its various models. It's a theme that's resonating with Peggy for sure, as she keeps finding herself shut out of these late-night male-bonding sessions out of which ideas like "Jackie v. Marilyn" are born. (For the record, the guys think Peggy's a Gertude Stein. Or perhaps an Irene Dunn.) Joan has a suggestion for Peggy, which mirrors (ahe… oh, you get the idea) what Bobbie was telling her last week about using her femininity. "Stop dressing like a little girl," Joan snaps impatiently, and sure enough, Peggy shows up at the end of "Maidenform" in a low-cut party dress, hanging with the boys at a titty bar. And they're all happy to see her there… save Pete, who's a little disappointed in her. (I guess he was hoping she'd be a Jackie; or maybe he's jealous that she's being a Marilyn on the lap of somebody else.)

Then again, Pete's a bit of a tramp himself. He has his own pathetic dalliance this week, with one of the models auditioning for the Playtex ad, in the apartment she shares with her mother, while the TV is on. And yet when he gets home and looks at himself in the mirror, unlike Don, he's happy with what he sees. Go figure.

But I shouldn't expect any better of Pete, an overgrown kid who gets a load of Duck's dog padding around the office and thinks that it would be a swell idea if the office had its own dog. Duck, modeling manhood, disabuse Pete of that notion.

Speaking of Duck, he's as much of a major player in "Maidenform" as Don, and the wringer he gets run through only reinforces how good Mad Men is at taking characters with unsympathetic qualities and making us feel for them. A couple of weeks ago, Duck looked like Don's enemy-in-the-making, but after the embarrassment of American Airlines, he's been shown up, and he needs Don back on his side. (Not surprising, given Duck's bright idea for a Playtex campaign: "I went to sleep in a bra, and I thought I was… so-and-so.") We find out a lot about Duck this week–primarily that he's the ghost of Christmas future for Don and Pete and possibly Roger and who knows who else. He's a divorcee, and an alcoholic, and when he's tempted to take a drink, but stops because his dog is staring at him with sweet, pleading eyes, he comes up with a novel solution: he abandons the dog on the streets of New York, and heads back up to the liquor cabinet with a steely resolve.

But that's not Don, right? Don just sends his daughter away for a few minutes when she makes him think about his failings; at least he doesn't abandon her for good. But one has to wonder: How long can he go on being a Don by day and a Duck by night?

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

-But how does Betty fit into all this? Perhaps a bit too neatly. When she buys one of the revealing bathing suits from the country club fashion show, Don calls her "desperate" and insists she change, in a scene that drives home the "men want to two women" theme a little too bluntly.

-Speaking of the fashion show, I loved the parade of women with 1962 body types: a little bulgy and poochy in their bikinis. One thing you have to say for Mad Men, its women look more like real women than nearly every other show on TV.

-A light week for Roger action, aside from him bumming a cigarette from Don, and his opinion of the Playtex request: "Someone has a wife with an opinion."

-Say, who do you think Don sent that book to back in episode one?

-Pete's "date," the model, had one of this week's most telling lines, when she complained that agencies are always disappointed when they see models in the flesh after falling in love with their pictures, even though, ultimately, "All they need is a picture." To me, that sums up what this episode is about even more than Don's scene with Betty.

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