Mad Men – “The Summer Man”

“The Summer Man”

September 12th, 2010

“All he knows of the world is what you show him.”

There has always been a disconnect between Don Draper’s external persona and his internal struggle, but this season has largely broken down that expectation. Now, Don is incapable of hiding his sadness from the outside world, lacking the glossy exterior to trick those around him into believing that he is truly a happy man.

“The Summer Man” throws light on this reality by taking us inside Don Draper through what I believe will be a fairly divisive decision to have Don’s journal serve as narration for the episode. By all accounts, including his own, Don Draper is dedicated to changing his current path, but the real test is whether or not those around him believe this transformation – while I would share the reservations that some have regarding the narration, I would ultimately argue that it helps crystallize the episode’s key theme of the difference between self-perception and how Don and others are perceived by those around them.

As with all forms of narration, we can’t trust Don’s words on the page; in fact, we’re not supposed to trust them. While we are shown enough scenes which would indicate that Don has changed, we are inherently skeptical, and his journal is a nice entry into this particular issue. We are, arguably, inside Don’s head in the episode: we lose track of the sounds around him when Don finds himself fixated on the drinking around him, and we are there with him as he struggles with temptation at numerous points along the way. However, we also see how much Don is struggling, which is why we are meant to question his journal entries: is he writing what he feels, or what he feels he is supposed to write? Don takes to the exercise because he feels like he should, not necessarily because he absolutely has to, which means that there is meant to be a certain tension.

Yes, at times, the narration became a bit too “on the nose,” especially the self-awareness in remarking that he felt like a little girl writing down each day’s events, but I think it speaks to the inadequacy of such methods of communication. Considering that Don was losing time, it makes sense that he would desire to document it, and while I think that the episode would have worked just as well without the narration (with, instead, scenes of Don writing in the journal interspersed throughout the various montages) I do think that hearing what Don has to say is important at this stage in the proceedings. Without it, we would have wondering what Don was writing, when in reality we should be wondering whether or not his actions are a reflection of that writing. I think that’s the more important part of this story, and while it was clunky at points I felt like the narration ultimately worked towards those goals.

This was especially true when it bled into the episode’s other storylines, which were all pretty much along the same lines. Henry Francis should have known what he was getting himself into when he married Betty, but it’s clear that he did not. He spends the episode anxious over whether or not he and Betty are actually married outside of the legal definition, and whether her continued obsession with Don isn’t a sign that their marriage is a sham. Being involved in politics, he’s always concerned about appearances: he tries to control what Betty says, and does, on their date at the restaurant not because he’s a horrible person, but because he’s an insecure person. As Francine noted, Henry is ambitious, and ambitious people are always anxious in their current station.

Betty, meanwhile, is simply not mature enough to keep her anxieties from bubbling to the surface. Even when, at episode’s end, she expresses her confidence in her life, there is that moment where she looks wistfully at Don and Gene, reminiscing about the life she left behind. It’s in her face, whether she wants it to be there or not; it emerges in the restaurant as she watches Don and Bethany, and so she runs to the ladies’ room to smoke it out in a stall. Like any child, she isn’t capable of hiding her emotions, which makes it that much more difficult for Henry to handle. What is Betty’s decision to stay in the house but an attempt to give the appearance of normalcy, to remain connected to that life (and the friends it represents, including the return of Francine)? And yet to Francine, Betty’s behaviour is a show of strength rather than a desperate effort to hold onto the past, so perhaps her act is fooling the people she wants it to fool if not the person who she most needs it to fool (Henry).

Meanwhile, Joan and Peggy are both in liminal positions at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and each have certain views of their own roles which somewhat differ from those around them. As the Boys’ club has emerged over the past few episodes, with the arrival of Joey and Stan having turned things into a fraternity of sorts, Joan and Peggy’s advances, advances made in comparison to their original positions, are challenged – these outsiders are not, like the others, aware of where they started, which means that there has been no incremental gaining of respect (to connect with Bethany’s characterization of her dates with Don). As a result, while Joan is pleased with her newfound role, these upstarts are yet another group of people (adding to her own husband) who feel she is a glorified secretary, which makes her about as publicly insecure as we’ve seen her since back when her license was photocopied and put up on the bulletin board – she conflates her own complaints into office-wide ones in an effort to get Joey fired, understandable considering that Joey calls her a whore and (worst of all) raises the “rape” question. The episode doesn’t go anywhere with that final note (except that she initially resists Greg’s advances in light of it), but it’s an unwelcome reminder of what has happened in her past, and the submissive role she has in many situations been forced to play.

Peggy, meanwhile, becomes Joan’s advocate in an attempt to prove her strength as both a woman and as a creative force within the agency. When she talks to Don about Joey, she is simply trying to do what is right, but when she actually fires Joey she is doing what she feels is expected of her by Don. She is living up to her position in the company, standing up for her colleague and maintaining her authority over the people who ostensibly work for her but who, pretty much all season, have been largely out of her control. And yet, what Peggy doesn’t realize is that firing Joey does to Joan what Don firing Joey would have done to Peggy: it makes her seem like she can’t fight her own battles, that she needs someone else to stand up for her. Joan was content with her wish that they would all die in Vietnam, a speech that much more meaningful when considered in light of her husband’s own plight, but Peggy felt that more needed to be done. However, she felt that for herself more than she felt it for Joan, and thus her own efforts to consolidate her power were ill-perceived by the person she was trying to defend.

Peggy, really, was just trying to do what was unexpected, because that has that much more impact on those around you (and it worked – Joey notes that she isn’t the girl he thought she was as he packs up his things); it’s the same technique Don uses when he decides against taking Faye Miller back to his place on their first date. In Don’s case, the move works precisely as he wanted it to: it makes him appear vulnerable, and thus more desirable for someone like Faye who is clearly tired of male partners who lack gentlemanly qualities (at least based on the conversation Don overhears earlier in the episode). And yet, for Peggy, what she expects of herself and what society expects of her are not yet in alignment, just as Joan’s understanding of her role at the company is not shared by those who surround her. Even when Don does exude sadness, like the neighbours who Francine speaks of who observed him walking with the children, people don’t believe it: they presume that it’s an act, that he is in fact living it up as a bachelor. And yet for women it’s quite the opposite, in that shows of strength are seen as lies. Yes, to some degree Betty’s shows of strength are an elaborate act, and you could even argue that some of Joan’s frustration is her effort to mask her frustrations with her marriage as Greg prepares to ship off to basic training. However, their lives are further under the microscope than Don’s, which is perhaps why “The Summer Man” places Don further under the microscope than we may be used to.

Cultural Observations

  • I like the idea that Don has never written more than 250 words, always five paragraphs of fifty words in order to fulfill the bare minimum of what was expected of him. It says a lot about the economy he is used to in his life, and how the journal offers a different outlet.
  • Some fine work from Phil Abraham here – it’s not a particularly flashy episode, but there are some really powerful individual scenes (Don floating to the bottom of the pool, Don loses his sense of hearing amidst the drinking, etc.) which he captured in an evocative fashion.
  • Greg, once again, presumes that Joan is crying because he is leaving rather than that she is having problems at work, or that she is remembering the time he raped her. They don’t get much douchier.
  • Very glad to have Anne Dudek back, even if Francine remains as out of touch as ever – the idea that Don has nothing to lose is a very limiting way to characterize Don’s relationship with his children, and so I was pleased when Don crashed Gene’s birthday party.
  • I was, however, less pleased with Don literally bringing an elephant into the room.
  • Speaking of Gene, I felt Don’s voiceover was at its most obnoxious when describing Gene – “he was conceived in a moment of desperation, and born into a mess” is just too poetic for its own good. I understand that Don would be writerly, considering that he is an Ad man and all, but it seems too perfectly formed – same goes for the “Spread out like a skydiver” metaphor. I definitely liked the idea of the narration far more than the execution.
  • Not quite sure where they were going with Harry offering to assist Joey in landing the Peyton Place job – interesting that Joey would read it as a come-on, as I just read it as Harry becoming more and more “Hollywood,” and also curious where they might be going with it. Will it become fodder for Joey in an attempt to get revenge on the company while working at their rival?
  • Nice restraint in avoiding any sort of actual physical comedy with Mrs. Blankenship’s cataract surgery – it is a very broad story idea, but it resisted its most broad execution in favour of a Ray Charles joke or two, which could be much worse.
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6 Comments

Filed under Mad Men

6 responses to “Mad Men – “The Summer Man”

  1. Candigirl617

    Chalk me in the camp who felt for Betty. First, I think that’s the time she’s seen Don on a date. And Betty knows good and well that Bethany is a younger version of her. And for better or worse, Don looked like he was having a good time, thus confirming her suspicions of him as the carefree batchelor living it up. Henry may be generally ok, but he’s petty and childish in his own way. He married a woman 6 months pregnant. I he really shocked she still has feelings for her ex-husband? And, crushing Don’s boxes, dumping them on the curb and then shirtless lawn mowing was a series of fits that rivaled Betty’s. If he’s the grownup in the relationship, they are doomed.

    • SS

      He didn’t marry her when she was pregnant, he met her then. I think the baby was pushing 6 months old when they got married.

    • Eldritch

      “He married a woman 6 months pregnant. “

      I seem to remember their flying to Vegas with the baby in her lap. Perhaps Gene was the best man.

      “And, crushing Don’s boxes, dumping them on the curb and then shirtless lawn mowing was a series of fits that rivaled Betty’s. If he’s the grownup in the relationship, they are doomed.”

      I’m sure he made a mistake marrying her. I don’t believe he knew her for the immature child she is, but he’s always struck me as the adult in the relationship. There are any number of examples of that. He talked her out of a harsh punishment after she slapped Sally. He often speaks to calm her down and make her more reasonable.

  2. Mel

    I thought the production crew did a really great job during the restaurant scene — we see Betty looking fabulous as always and then when she sees Don and Bethany, all of a sudden she looks matronly, almost frumpish (the miracle being that they could make January Jones look anything but stunning)

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