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Mad Men: "The New Girl"

Illustration for article titled iMad Men/i: The New Girl
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Illustration for article titled iMad Men/i: The New Girl

So here's a question that's been driving me nuts since "The Benefactor:" Does Don like Bobbie Barrett or not? I mean, I know he likes the ocean, and bridges, and movies (including the foreign ones, like La Notte), but when Joan tells him he has a phone call from Mrs. Barrett, does he cringe inside, or does he get a little tingle of anticipation? Does he want to enter into that creepy dance of seduction with her, or does he just enjoy being with someone who'll let him "disappear?"

Honestly, I'm not sure how I feel about Bobbie, as I indicated in last week's post. The character rubs me the wrong way, and I don't like how Don behaves around her–which is exactly her function on the show, to push him and bug me. This week, she also served another function: To be one distinct, slightly terrifying model of womanhood.

The episode begins with Don and Bobbie out drinking (and driving), which leads to an accident, after which Don calls Peggy, who helps fix everything by paying Don's bail and letting Bobbie stay at her place until her black eye heals. Through all this, we learn a few things about Bobbie, including the fact that she orders at restaurants for her husband Jimmy, because Jimmy doesn't understand that being a celebrity means you don't wave around a lot of money and act like a big spender. You let other folks pay your way. Similarly, as she explains to Peggy, being a woman in a man's world doesn't mean trying to act like a man. It means being fully a woman, and letting the men fall at your feet.

That's a lesson apparently already learned by Don's new secretary, the literal "New Girl" of this episode (although the title, as always with Mad Men, has multiple connotations). Within minutes of assuming her post, the wolves are out and sniffing, led as always by Ken Cosgrove. (I love Ken's response when the new secretary asks him his title: "I'm Ken!") When the new girl shows too much décolletage on her second day though, Joan gives her a swift reprimand, and reminds her that contrary to what Bobbie is telling Peggy elsewhere in the city, there's a right way and a wrong way to use your sex appeal.

(Of course Joan's feeling a little cocky now, because as Fred Rumsen points out, she just got a visit from DeBeers. She's an engaged woman. She's got hers. … And speaking of Freddy, he had one of this week's other memorable lines, after playing a little symphony with his zipper in the middle of the office: "It's Mozart!")

The problem with Bobbie's advice to Peggy–to play up her femininity and treat Don "as an equal"–is that Peggy feels like she owes Don. As we learn in a series of flashbacks, Don helped Peggy cover up her little problem from the end of last season–a problem that, incidentally, was caused by her using her sexual wiles in the workplace. As he did with his brother, Don urged to "move forward," saying, "This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened." But just as with Don's poor, doomed brother, he refuses to give Peggy any specific game plan on just how she's supposed to become somebody new. Perhaps the Bobbie plan is a viable option. Because as Bobbie explained to Don about the nature of opportunism, "This is America. Pick a job, and then become the person that does it." (And as Don could've replied but didn't: "You don't have to tell me.")

As for Don, he recovers from his accident with Bobbie by making up different stories about how his arm got busted up, and by finally confessing to Betty that he has high blood pressure. This leads to one of the funniest and saddest closing lines in Mad Men history as Don's daughter asks Betty, "Why can't Daddy have salt?," and she replies, "Because we love him." If there's ever been a more apt metaphor for the wonderful-yet-constricting institution of marriage, I can't think of what it would be. (Too bad Joan didn't hear it. Or Peggy. Or the new girl. … Of course Bobbie already knows.)

Frankly, I'm a tad hesitant on "The New Girl" in comparison to last week's masterpiece "Three Sundays," in part because I'm not sure all the elements of the episode are especially well-integrated, or that the presentation of different aspects of womanhood–revolving around Bobbie–really comes to much. (At least not yet. Since much of the season so far has been about boyhood and manhood, I'm sure the female side of this contrast will be an ongoing theme.) I also felt that "The New Girl" relied a lot on some of the gimmicky "Hey it's the '60s!" stuff that plagued the early episodes of Season One. The cop who busts Don points out that the legal blood alcohol limit is .15; Peggy gripes about having to fill her brother's car with "two dollars worth of gas;" Bobbie notes that Marilyn Monroe is scheduled to appear at President Kennedy's birthday celebration; Peggy comments that "most women would love to have Marilyn's problems;" and so on.

I also wanted a little more of Pete's subplot this week. He and his wife visit a fertility specialist, which leads to several uncomfortable questions, like "Are you familiar with the principles of conception?" and "Did your testicles descend normally?" And it leads Pete to reveal more than he intends to, and not just in his mini-rant about he can't stand the way his job requires him to spend half the day tiptoeing around creative crybabies and the other half babysitting turnips who just fell off the truck. It also prompts him to ask, "What man doesn't want a child?" before muttering, "Although…"

I suspect Pete will continue to be haunted by his wife's subsequent question to him, standing in the middle of their well-appointed apartment: "What is all this for?" That's really been the question Mad Men has asked since its first episode over a year ago, and it's one that's starting to ring in Pete, Peggy and Joan's ears as loudly as it has in Don's.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

-Perhaps some of my hesitation about the continuing presence of the Barretts is that I've seen too many good shows start to lose their way when they introduce new recurring characters too quickly. New characters tend to take screen time away from the people we've gotten to know and love, and they can make a serialized drama's focus too diffuse. On the other hand, as we were reminded tonight, Bobbie's really just taking the place of a couple of Don's mistresses, who were recurring last season. For example, tonight we caught up with Rachel…now known as Mrs. Katz!

-A cute cut between Pete about to jerk off in the fertility clinic and Roger playing paddleball. And a cute line from Roger to Joan, about her impending nuptials: "I think it's nice to hear the story of… relatively young love."

-Don reminds us of the danger of his "keep moving forward" plan when he neglects to pay Peggy back for bailing him out. "When you try to forget something, you forget everything."

-Off-topic question that's also been nagging at me for the past two weeks: Do you think Bob Costas wears a toupee?

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