Thanks to Don Draper and his alter ego Dick Whitman, Mad Men has always been about dualities and secret identities. With all the heirs to Don's spiritual legacy running around — Peggy, Pete, future lesbian Sally Draper — it's pleasantly shocking that Ken Cosgrove is the first to take on a second name and a second personality as writer Ben Hardgrove. Secretly he's been writing sci-fi stories on the sly and it's one of his tales, about a robot who destroys a bridge between two worlds, that we get last night's leitmotif. It was all about bridging two worlds and the impossibility to live two separate lives. The hour was filled with dualities, between the city and the suburbs, husbands and wives, men and boys, Brits and Americans, hookers and chewing gum, and Pete Campbell and not getting his ass beaten.
Let's take a look at our four men and how their manhood measures up against each other.
Pete: We first see Pete taking driver's ed with a bunch of high school students, which is just like Pete Campbell, who has always been a sort of man-child. Here he is, yet again, stuck in some sort of arrested development. Of course while he's there, he's ogling a young girl who seems to be enjoying his gaze. Back at home we see him lying in his giant house is Cos Cob (which is sort of like Greenwich, Connecticut, but not as fancy) and the faucet is leaking. He gets underneath the counter and fixes it, smiling at himself that he's a real man with a big boy toolbox and everything.
Back in the high school, we see Pete admiring the trophy case, pondering on the past glories of high school boys past. His girlfriend comes up and starts chatting with him and we can see that they've struck up some sort of flirty friendship during classes. But it doesn't seem like an adult and a high school student. She seems scared by the recent nurse killings and the sniper at the University of Texas. "Everything feels so random. Time feels like it's speeding up," she says. It might be for her, as she's swept up in the specter of violence that seems to be overtaking the country, but for Pete it is slowing down. Actually, it's reversing and taking him all the way back to high school, as he tries to plot a Sunday in the gardens with his nubile friend. "But neither of us can drive," she points out, showing them both how little power they really have.
Pete is continuously emasculated throughout the episode as every shred of what he feels defines him as a man is stripped away from him. First his wife Trudy is able to close a deal to get Don to visit his house when he can't (mostly because Don likes Trudy more than he likes Pete, who once blackmailed him). Then Don is more important in his house than he is. When Pete's sink breaks, it's Don who strips off his shirt revealing his hunky chest and takes control of the situation, fixing the sink in the quick minutes that Pete ran off to get the tools. Pete didn't fix the leak, he actually turned the pressure up, which made him think the leak had stopped, but it really just set the plumbing up for an explosion. Then his young friend is more interested in pursuing a sexual relationship with a handsome young high school boy than she is with Pete. Even when he goes to the brothel Don seems more popular than he is. (Then how does the hooker seduce him? She tries different strategies, but saying, "You're my king," is the thing that gets him hard, the one sentiment he can't seem to get anywhere else. More than the sex, that is what he's paying for.)
Pete's life in the suburbs is just like the broken sink, he thinks that he's fixed his problem, fixed his urges (which we've seen in the past spoiling Peggy and ruining the au pair who lives next door) by marrying and starting a family, but he just made them worse. When he's in the car with Don, who doesn't like that Pete slept with a hooker, he tries to justify it by saying he's doing his job, the one thing that's left for him to find some self-esteem. But even his trick of taking the client to the best little whore house in Midtown blows up in his face and ends up with him getting his ass beaten by Lane (more on Lane in a minute). The best part of that scene is that Pete, still heady from his night of being a king for hire, tells Lane that he has no use at the firm. Lane, calling his bluff, challenges him to a fight knowing that Pete is going to lose in a fight. Pete only stands up when all the other partners urge him on. He has no interest in a real confrontation. When he is threatened he turns into a sniveling, childish wimp.
When he gets in the elevator with Don, Pete seems shocked at what happened. "We're supposed to be friends," Pete says. No, Pete, that's not the way things work. You can't buy your friends. You can't make people be nice to you and hang out with you just because they work with you. Just because you invite Don over to your house doesn't mean he's your friend. When you act like an asshole to everyone around you, you're not going to have any friends at all. You are business associates, and it doesn't matter how many people come over your house wearing plaid jackets, they still think you're a jerk.
Then he says, "I have nothing," and to him, that is true. His wife thinks Don's manlier than he is. He can't sleep with younger women anymore, even by force. Everyone at his job thinks he's a jerk. His wife's parents helped pay for the house he lives in that he can't even fix. He can't even drive himself home from the train station at night. Instead, we see him sitting powerless in drivers ed class seething as his conquest is conquered by another man. And the voiceover, of course, nails him perfectly. It takes someone like Ken to finally get into Pete's head. This is how he is starting to become like Don Draper (something Don warned him about after the whorehouse). He's not happy with the life everyone told him he was supposed to want in the suburbs, but he's pretending that he's into it, thrilled that he can blast his stereo as loud as he wants (but only with Trudy's permission). But on the inside, he's dying. He's a sink with the pressure turned all the way up, waiting to burst and create and awful mess.
Lane: Our British overlord is having some troubles at home of his own. In fact, he's sort of facing the same problem Pete is, but in a different direction. He's happy here in the good old U.S. of A. where he's away from his abusive father and all the clubiness of the British upper class that he never felt a part of. His wife, however, is not, but has returned to the states after Lane's dalliance with a black Playboy bunny last season. She wants him to try to make friends with other Brits and go watch the UK win the World Cup at some expat bar in New York (was that the 1967 version of A Salt and Battery in the Village?). He does so amiably to make her happy and meets a muckity muck at Jaguar, who is interested in throwing some business Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price's way.
Lane tells the partners that he has some new business and he wants to bring it in on his own, proving to all of them that he deserves to be at the firm. Of course no one thinks he can do it on his own and Roger goes in to offer some pointers. (Roger, just like in the firm, was not a major force in this episode. He seems to be acquiescing into his impotency, happy to help the agency on the rare occasions when he can and feebly trying to insert himself into the proceedings, but not putting too much effort into it. Roger has waived the white flag, more happy to complain about his lot than trying to improve it like his coworkers do.)
The dinner turns out to be a disaster, with both of the men being too stiff upper lip to talk about their problems or what they need, which nullifies Roger's strategy to start a conspiracy to build their friendship. Don, Pete, and Roger then find a diplomatic way to get Lane out of the picture and tell him they'll take the guy out and show him a good time and then Lane can come in and close the deal. At the group dinner, the client says that he wants to have fun, which leads them to the Kitty Cat Lounge where he does what any man being offered free whores does.
The next day Lane gets an angry call from his wife. It turns out the hooker left her chewing gum in the Brit's bush and his wife discovered it and made him pull the business. Lane finally brings something in and all the other men ruin it. When Pete challenges Lane's position in the firm, he does the one thing he knows he can beat Pete at, challenges him to a boxing match. What was so great about the scene is that Lane is very serious about it, rolling up his sleeves and taking his British boarding school boxing stance and the other partners all gather around to watch, encouraging Lane to beat the shit out of Pete, something we all know is coming (and, as Joan says, something everyone was wishing they did themselves). We see lots of backstabbing, undermining, and behind the scenes action, but at least Lane is the first one to make it an honest contest about manliness. (And how awesome was Don pulling the curtains while giving Pete a "you are going to get your ass kicked" stare.)
After proving that he's the most virile one in the room, he's back in his office feeling bad for himself when Joan (who has been conspiratorially listening to the action with Peggy) comes into his office and closes the door. Lane and Joan have always been in cahoots, the administrative and financial team making sure they have each other's backs against the disorder that everyone else would throw the firm into. He asks her what his position is and she says, vaguely, "Something very valuable." If anyone knows how to make someone feel like a man, it's our Joanie. Lane says that she could do his job, and in a spurt of gusto, he plants a firm kiss on Joan. She, of course, handles the situation perfectly, not telling him to stop or causing a row, but by getting up, opening the door, and sitting back down. They're still allies, still friends, and their relationship will continue, just not romantically. And maybe Joan even knows that Lane doesn't even mean it sexually. He's searching for something, anything, to make him feel powerful, and conquering the most gorgeous woman in the office (even the woman that several on the staff have already have) would do the trick. Joan knows better — and so does Lane. It won't really help at all.
Ken: While Pete and Lane are living double lives of quiet desperation, Ken is leading one quite swimmingly. After a strange run-in with Peggy at a diner, we learn that Ken has been writing sci-fi stories as Ben Hardgrove and has some degree of success. Ken is an odd duck, always quiet and slightly goofy who seemed to get ahead by luck rather than hard work or conniving deceit like his counterpart Pete Campbell. Ken is the kind of guy who lives in Jackson Heights, Queens, and doesn't have the same aspirations for affluent living that his coworkers do. He fancies himself a man of the people, and he's as easily forgettable as his wife's name. We knew that he wrote short stories, but it always seems like a silly past time, a vanity project rather than something substantial.
When he and Caroline (that's her name!) are at dinner with Pete and Trudy, his wife brings up his writing career and he tells them about a story he wrote about a robot whose job it is to fix the bridge between two worlds. One day, he destroys the bridge and kills thousands of people. They ask him why the robot does it and he says, because he's a robot and he has to do what everyone says, but he's the one who says whether this bolt is on or off, and if he changes a few things, he can ruin everything. Ken is living in two worlds at once, the one of his office and the one of his writing career. He's cutting back a little bit at work and giving more to writing, which makes him happy. Everyone else is living in two worlds too — Pete with his smiles at home and his scowls in his soul, Lane with his stiff upper lip and his sadness about his loveless marriage and inconsequential job, and Don with his multiple personalities which are finally collapsing on each other — but it makes them all miserable.
But Ken is also the robot, or at least that's how he sees himself. He has to be the good upstanding man and do what everyone says. When Roger calls him into the office and tells him to give up writing, he tells him (and Peggy, who interestingly has a pact with Ken to take to each other to another firm if one of them ever leaves) that he will. He's under the orders to do what he's told, and he does, but he can also blow up the bridge. He can tear the two worlds asunder, destroying everyone who is trying to bridge them.
That is the point of Dave Algonquin (a name inspired by a joke about the Algonquin brief case that Pete makes at dinner) Ken's new nom de plume. He's back to leading his double life, thinking that he can't be both the ad man and the writer in the office. But he's writing a story inspired by Pete, by the sadness that Ken accurately sees in him. The isolation that he has put himself in. Ken sees Pete as someone so alone that everything in life is beautiful, especially the most ordinary things, and that beauty is too much to bear. Pete thinks so poorly of himself that he doesn't feel that he deserves the big home and the wife and the children because he hasn't earned them. He has this bounty and while it makes him content, it also repulses him. When this story is published, it could destroy both worlds forever.
The duality between Ken and Pete is increasingly interesting. They've always been like two different planets connected by their work, but they are really completely opposite. Pete is using his secret life to do something destructive, exhibiting bad behavior that will cause him to explode. Ken is using his secret life to do something creative, exhibiting behavior that will cause him to grow. We always thought Pete was the better man because he was better at his job but it turns out, all along, that it was Ken who is the hero, robotic or otherwise.
Don: It was a strange week for our hero, who was relegated to helping the action along rather than being the center of it. He was more of the measuring stick that Pete and Lane were held up to, the sort of masculine ideal who is good at his job, desired by women, and able to fix a sink with nothing more than his square jaw and some determination. What none of these people see is that, deep down inside, Don is a ruse. He's not what he pretends to be.
But strangely Don Draper and Dick Whitman seem to be conflating into one person. At dinner at Pete's he mentions that he is from the country casually, unafraid that someone might figure out where the real Dick is from (even though Pete already knows). Then at the House of a Thousand Blossoms, he tells the madam that he grew up in a place like this and is comfortable there, even if he isn't purchasing any of the wares. In the past he's confided some real facts about himself to strangers, but this time it's not a confession, it's just a statement of fact, and it doesn't have any sort of deep emotional cause or impact like it has in the past. Like all the other women Don comes into contact with, the madam is immediately won over.
Megan, on the other hand, is still working on improving Don. She thinks it's weird that he doesn't have any friends and is pressuring him to make nice with Pete and Co. She really loves him, even though she doesn't want to make a baby with him in the car on the way home from Cos Cob, but I'm questioning whether or not Don really loves her.
He says he doesn't want to go to the suburbs on a Saturday because it feels like death to him, but it is just because it reminds him of the empty life that he lead with Betty. He wants to stay in town with his hot young wife, who he is faithful to, and try something else. Everything about how he is living now seems to be a reaction to the old Don Draper. He's searching for authenticity and trying a new path, but it seems like it's an over correction. It's as if he's saying no to hookers, hating the suburbs, and staying faithful to Megan not because he really wants to, but because he has to prove to himself that he can. He hasn't found the real Dick Whitman, he's just adopted a new persona to pack his life into.
When he's in the car disparaging Pete about his erotic entertainment, Don still puts more value on Pete's life than he does his own. He tells Pete not to ruin it, to lead one single, upstanding life. Don feels like his only shot at happiness is over and, try as he might, he won't be able to find it again with Megan.
If Ken Cosgrove (of all people!) has taught us anything, it is that inhabiting two worlds at once is a very dangerous prospect, and that it will eventually lead to some catastrophic event that will ruin both of those worlds. I have a feeling that it's going to be Megan who gets hurt the worst in all of this.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
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December 14, 2011 12:53pm EST
Let’s put the cards on the table: I have not read Steig Larsson’s best-selling “Millennium Trilogy” and therefore cannot comment on whether or not Columbia Pictures’ big-budget (American) adaptation of its first novel is a spot-on transfer of the shocking story or if Rooney Mara has lived up to the punk-goth-genius of an anti-heroine he created. This review is about director David Fincher’s craft and the dream cast he has assembled to make The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo one of the most brutal and engrossing films of 2011.
Right from lustrous sexy title sequence evoking torturous S&M imagery to the ultra-cool Karen O/Trent Reznor rendition of Led Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song” the Oscar-nominated filmmaker plunges his audience into a very specific experience. This is not to say that the story itself is notably inventive; Dragon Tattoo is more or less a standard serial killer thriller wherein a pair of investigators attempts to solve a decades-old murder that has ties to other gruesome mysteries and a wealthy Swedish family. It’s the sinister atmosphere and tone he cultivates using color music and lighting that makes this tale so unique and highly watchable in spite of the terrible events that occur throughout.
Perhaps most compelling though is its mixed bag of characters from different walks of life including Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) a recently disgraced financial journalist in need of an assignment Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgard) a yuppie-ish corporate tycoon charged with running the family business started by his uncle Henrik (Christopher Plummer) and Lisbeth Salander (Mara) the alpha-outsider and titular character of this eerie epic. All are emotionally scarred and the actors charged with portraying them go the darkest corners of their own souls to make them their own. Mara in particular must be praised for her ghoulish and extreme embodiment of Salander who suffers physical and emotional torment unlike anything we’ve seen in cinema this year. This more than her scene-stealing presence in Fincher’s The Social Network is no doubt her star-making turn; expect to see her name on a marquee soon. Though she and Craig at times struggle with the Swedish diction (the latter’s native British accent slips through more times than I can count) they more than make up for it with their physical personifications facial expressions etc. Yet it’s Skarsgard who is most impressive as the younger Vanger (he’s of Swedish descent) and delivers a stunning and chilling performance that will rival Mara’s in defining this film in years to come.
Still this is a Fincher film through and through and I cannot think of source material better suited for the maker of Se7en and Zodiac than this disturbing chronicle. Visually he’s given the opportunity to create damp decaying interiors familiar to fans of his work but contrasts them with beautifully filmed exteriors including some terrifying whiteout conditions that are sure to lower your body temperature. In terms of form he and editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall effectively lay out dual character arcs (that of Salander and Blomkvist) that run parallel but connect in uncanny ways until their eventual convergence resulting in a highly literary feel. Both Baxter and Wall won Oscars for cutting The Social Network and I’m afraid that their penchant for quick transitions between shots has a decreasing effect on the terror; for a film that so closely treads the line between horror-thriller I felt that letting certain shots play out a bit longer could’ve had more dreadful results.
Still in no way I am saying that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn’t come with its share of nail-biting suspense. Fincher takes tense situations to the next level using unconventional camera angles and Reznor’s unnerving score making many sequences in the movie hard to watch. It’s a tiring but entertaining task; one that is a pleasure and pain to endure but the auteur’s masterful methods are quite magical even when being used to tell a story as menacing as this one.
There’s nothing else playing at the multiplex this season that’s quite like it and should you choose to view it you’ll carry its shocks with you for days after.