Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Mad Men and Drinking, Season Four, Episode 8: Half on the Wagon

Don Draper is "The Summer Man," as episode eight of season four of "Mad Men" is called, and the Summer Man is cutting back of the booze and getting healthy, in mind and body.

The episode begins with Don diving into a brightly lit pool at the New York Athletic Club, about the cleanest, most sunlit and most hopeful opening shot we've seen this season. He has hacking fits at the end of each lap, sure, and is winded in the locker room, but he's trying. "They say, if you have to cut back on your drinking, you have a drinking problem," he writes, breaking in his new journal, toning up his muddled mind at the same time he retrieves his body from the gutter. Throughout this season, Don has witnessed, with reticence, the coming openness of the new generation. Everyone's talking about themselves! He hates it, but he knows it's something he's got to sample, or go down emotionally for the last time.

He writes at a table in his apartment, which—amazing—has windows! Who knew? It's been a dank hole up until now. But he's pushed the curtains back to reveal a near wall of window. And he's eating finally, not vomiting. Dinty Moore from a can. He drinks while he writes, not a Mailer-like shot of whiskey, but a Bud. Don's watching his consumption. After an unsettling phone call, he stares almost with fear at the drink cart in his office, and them barks to Miss Blankenship to fetch him more coffee. When the old battle-ax carts four bottles of Canadian Club to his office, he tells her to bring them back to the store room. ("I'm set," he says, to which Blankenship smartly retorts, "And then you're not.") He refuses a second glass of Champagne while on a date at Barbetta with the blank-ish Bethany (time to give this character the hook), and opts for a dignified glass of Chianti later in the episode while dining with Dr. Faye Miller, who's liking the newly sober Don Draper.

What's more, Draper seems to understand what happens when he does drink. In his office during a meeting, he watches closely as Peggy and Ken pour out the Canadian Club. "People are always drinking around here," he suddenly seems to realize. When he takes a wary sip, he recedes from the camera, and his officemates drift from him, in a neat "Vertigo"-like Hitchcock trick. You drink and reality retreats. That's probably what he's always liked about it. But now, maybe that's not such a good thing.

Meanwhile, his ex-wife Betty's still got the drinking problem that Don probably fostered in her. When she and new husband Henry Francis bump into Don and Bethany at Barbetta, Betty hits the Gimlets pretty hard. (Nice to see this still-existent Italian Midtown restaurant make an appearance. Don takes Bethany to the best places. First Jimmy's La Grange, then Benihana, now Barbetta),

At the office, vodka remains the drink of young idiots (as it still is today). Looking for an angle on a Mountain Dew campaign, Peggy charges the creative crew to come up with three Mountain Dew cocktails made up of at least three ingredients. Not two. "You need three ingredients for a cocktail," said Peggy. "Vodka and Mountain Dew is an emergency."

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