Monday, August 11, 2008

Mad Men: "The Benefactor" - What are you worth?

For anyone worried that Mad Men wasn't delivering the goods this season, this latest episode should hopefully put those fears to rest. Revolving around a theme of the leverage of one's worth, the episode advanced almost none of the plot whatsoever, yet told us a lot about Don and company in a manner not unlike a classic Sopranos episode.

While last week's episode gave us a deeper look at Pete, he's nowhere to be seen this week. Instead the story primarily revolves around Harry, and of course Don, as they both are forced out of the comfort levels in order to achieve their goals. There's a couple telling conversations in the first half that map out the episode. First is between Sal and Harry, who is beside himself upon finding out how little he makes compared to others. "Show them what you're worth," says Sal. Harry asks "How do I do that?" to which Sal answers, "If you have to ask that, you're getting paid what you're worth." Later Don tells Bobbi Barrett that her client/husband Jimmy has an obligation to his benefactors (the Schillings,) insinuating that the you get the benefactor you deserve (Da Vinci, for instance, had the Medici). Finally, Betty lectures Arthur on being lax with his horse, prodding him to pull on her reigns, adding "She needs to be told what to do." All of these give Don's dramatic turn towards the end a bit more weight.

Harry's story presents us with the real life drama of CBS' series The Defenders losing their sponsors for controversial episode revolved around an abortion. That episode, like this one, was entitled "The Benefactor" and while Harry's attempt to get Belle de Jolie fails, similar scenarios were occurring in media buying at the time, as the episode was saved at the last minute by a sponsor, getting a great deal on the media buy. The show turned in a 90% favorable rating, making the fears of the advertiser overblown in retrospect. Using The Defenders here, also is a nice shout out to the series and it's groundbreaking gravitas. The use of the abortion episode has me wondering, though, if Harry at all thought about abortion as one way out of his financial situation (as the title 'Benefactor' suggests,) as Peggy seems to briefly think in retrospect while previewing the episode? Also note that Harry's CBS contact is based on a real life figure, the beloved Adgur "Flatty" Flatten, who for many years was Director of Client Relations at CBS.

Meanwhile, Don's cruel turn with Bobbi was one of those Mad Men scenes that reminds you of The Sopranos, in that just like Tony, only Don could get away with a sexual assault like that and still have us rooting for him in the end. It's the sort of uncomfortable reality that quite often our protagonists will go to darker places than we could see ourselves going. Betty, for her part, does look the part of profoundly sad, regardless of her Nordic heritage. Her crying at the end could be interpreted that she's happy, that she's "grateful" she's more involved in Don's life, but it's more likely that Arthur was dead on with his assessment. To that end, playing on the car radio was the Jack Jones hit "Lollipops and Roses" (which won a Grammy that year,) which goes "One day she’ll smile, next day she’ll cry / Minute to minute, you’ll never know why!" I have a feeling it's going to take more than lollipops and roses to keep Betty happy, though.

But what of the film that Don watches while playing hooky from work? The internetz has been transcribing and discovered that the French narration is in fact a recitation of the Fran├žois Villon poem "Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis" (translated as "Ballad of the Ladies of Times Past,") and a quick search shows that the film La Tour de Nesle (1955,) by Abel Gance, uses that poem to end the film. I haven't seen that particularly obscure Gance film to confirm, but the story perhaps has allusions to the Bobbi character, in the depiction of Queen Marguerite of Burgandy as a women who wants to take revenge out on her one night stands, only to have the tables turned on her by Buridan.

A lot of folks are assuming that the Jimmy Barrett character (played wonderfully by character actor Patrick Fischler) is based on insult comic Don Rickles, but it's more likely a composite of Rickles and his predecessor Jack E. Leonard. Barrett at one point says to Don "Didn't I see you in Gentleman's Agreement?" at once both nailing the Gregory Peck resemblance and the more subtle plot point of playing someone he's not, as Peck plays a reporter pretending to be Jewish to cover a story on anti-Semitism.

Previously: What Does One Do? (Episode 2.02)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately La Tour de Nesle was in color part of what made it unusual at the time not many French films were in color in the 50's. The film that Don is watching is definitely not in color.