Efficient, nasty action scenes can't overcome mostly bland characterizations and a half-baked story.
"Mad Men" Season 4, Episode 9 -- "The Beautiful Girls" -- was another of the series' killer movies. Like "The Rejected" (which I wrote and vuddeoed about a few weeks ago), it made superb use of office space -- the hallways, windows, corners and doors that those familiar with the sky-high digs of Sterling Cooper Draper Price have become part of the "Mad Men" memory-architecture. I wanted to pay tribute to that aspect of the series in this little essay about the ghosts on the 37th floor. Please take a look (it opens with a montage of portraits) and then read below for some notes...
I wanted to begin with an appreciation of these women, young and old, whose lives intersect at various angles throughout the episode -- written by Dahvi Waller and Matthew Weiner and directed by Michael Uppendahl (who also shot Episode 2 this season, "Christmas Comes But Once a Year"). So, I decided to start with some faded film portraits (OK, Photoshopped frame grabs), with a semi-ironic nod to feminist film theory that would soon become popular (since politics and civil rights actually play a dramatic part in this episode). Each of the "girls" in the montage is the object of another's gaze -- usually a man's, and usually the one who is her most receptive audience, or at least her most important, at SCDP. Faye is seen doing what she does best, giving a presentation; Joan stands up for/to Roger; exception: Peggy and her friend Joyce (seen by Stan, who Peggy outplayed in "Waldorf Stories," and for whom they are both performing here); Miss Blankenship is talking to her boss, Don Draper (commenting that his daughter Sally looks much chubbier in photos); Sally is sitting on the couch in her father's office, while he is on the phone with her mother; Betty is on the other end of the line -- the only woman in this sequence who isn't being watched; Megan, SCDP's receptionist, is seen from Sally's POV, because Sally has a sympathetic connection with her; now we switch to another female-female perspective: Joyce (love her Bacall-like pocket pose affectation) in Peggy's office; and Peggy, in conversation with Joyce, but not beholden to her gaze (as you know, it is my contention that Peggy is the strongest character on the show). The overall movement of the sequence has brought us closer, from medium shot to Peggy's close-up. And, finally, almost all of the women in the preceding portraits, surrounding Don and bearing witness to the handover of Sally to Betty. This is an amazing shot -- the power of all those eyes. And for some reason it breaks my heart when Joyce enters that glass door (a significant location for her and Peggy) just as Betty and Sally are exiting. These three are strangers to one another, but everyone in the lobby is connected in some way, whether they know it or not.
The new company only moved into these modern offices ("The office is new because they are forward-thinking," says the Japanese translator in "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword"), but the place is already swarming with memories... I wanted to do this mainly because I saw the dissolve between Allison running down the hallway and Sally doing the same. Then came the overlaps between Joyce opening the door for Sally and Betty, and opening the door (several episodes earlier) for Peggy; between Peggy entering the elevator to the right and Joyce entering the elevator to the right (seen from the opposite angle); and the elevator encounters between Joyce and Peggy, Joan and Peggy, and Joan, Faye and Peggy at the end of the episode. If you've been watching "Mad Men," you'll recognize the areas I've chosen to highlight (mostly the hallway outside Don's office, and the reception/elevator area at the other end of the hall), the ghosts that inhabit them, and the reverberations between them...
A note about the music: My preferred way of composing these critical essays/love poems is to use images and music, with few titles or recorded dialog (see "close-up" and my little fantasias on "Miller's Crossing," "Chinatown," and a few others. Two pieces of music immediately suggested themselves -- the first song you hear (which is deliberately "on the nose": "You can't escape / She haunts your memory... She will leave you and then / Come back again...") and another one I couldn't quite put my finger on. I finally found it, after a lot of work on Google, iTunes and Amazon.com -- but I used only the instrumental prologue.
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When it comes to words, you can't do better than Matt Zoller Seitz on Mad Men Mondays at The New Republic's web site. Here's his piece on "The Beautiful Girls." (I will have more to say about the series' gift for finding those instances in which characters are both doing the right thing and the wrong thing -- simultaneously, inextricably -- a little later...)
Two more excellent pieces on this episode:
Luke De Smet at The House Next Door.
Keith Phipps at the A.V. Club.