Tuesday, September 21, 2010
[Spoilers for Mad Men episode 4.9 “The Beautiful Girls” to follow.]
Everyone’s missing the point here, so allow me. Yes, “The Beautiful Girls” is certainly and obviously about the lifestyles of beautiful girls in the mid-‘60s, from Betty-in-training Sally on up to the one-time sexpot Miss Blankenship. But cinema is more than narrative. As directed by Michael Uppendahl (who also helmed last year’s time-bomb “The Color Blue”), “The Beautiful Girls” is about the melting pot. Barriers are falling and doors are opening. Where once you could keep well within your own milieu, and thus not worry about challenging your worldview, now all these disparate cohorts of the mid-‘60s are bouncing off each other, often in surprising, explosive ways. Insert Crash joke here.
Look at the climax: It’s just Don returning Sally to Betty’s care—and can we please all take a moment to notice how pleasant Betty was, at least to Sally? Hate her or not, this is a complex woman worth taking seriously—but look how many people from different walks of life are thrown into the scene: There’s Dr. Faye in the background, receptionist Megan (notably the daughter of an immigrant), Joan and Peggy (our constantly dueling forces of modern womanhood). It's no coincidence they're the colors of the rainbow (Megan in yellow, Peggy in green, Faye in blue, Joan in purpley red). As Don leaves, Megan sits shaken by her encounter with Sally. As Betty leaves, she bumps into Joyce, our new favorite lesbian.
Earlier, some stranger brings Sally to Don, and Abe Drexler sits in the reception area scoffing at the way he handles himself. When Miss Blankenship passes, Peggy is literally bounced from room to room searching for someone to help. In a truly threatening moment, Roger and Joan, in a neighborhood they could once walk through comfortably, come face to face with a poor, black criminal. One of the EMTs (if that’s what they called them back then) is also black. Which brings us to Abe and Peggy’s little culture clash, and later Peggy and Ken/Stan’s culture clash, and the racist company owners sitting in the fishbowl blissfully unaware of the world-changing going on around them (in this season’s masterstroke of black comedy).
Some of these encounters are accidents (the mugging), and others are staged (Abe running into Peggy and Joyce), but really they’re all driven by the engine of the ‘60s, social upheaval grabbing the country by the coasts and turning it over. It’s strange to see Roger and Joan in this low-end diner, though they’re somewhat at home having been there plenty in the past. It’s weirder still to see Sally playing house with her father; Oedipus aside, Don hasn’t ever been so present with his kids. Note, too, the wife-beatered young pizza boy. We never see this many people from this many demographics bombarding each other on this show. Uppendahl clearly gets this, his shots fluidly moving from one social group to another (as in the pan from Betty and Sally over to Joyce), but Dahvi Waller and Matthew Weiner wrote the events into their script.
It’s easy to notice what the title is telling us to look at, or what the historical commentary suggests, or even the topical moments like the Greek revolution or the possibility of internal forces organizing and taking over America (both factual historical points equally reminiscent of the current global financial crisis). What’s shocking is how few people are noticing the big picture. Which is strange, because so many detractors like to reduce Mad Men to exactly that.