Mad Men Recap: The Thrilla of Vanilla

Just call it the Thrilla of Vanilla: two pasty Madison Avenue executives duking it out while their co-workers gawked. There was no way Pete Campbell wasn’t going down. Lane Pryce, after all, was in the military once — a desk job, but still — and knew the gentleman’s version of proper pugilistic form. Pete didn’t do that badly, all things considered, but he still lost. In that climactic exchange between him and Don in the elevator — Pete’s pent-up domestic frustrations merging with the pain of losing and unleashing tears — his face looked like it was made of veal shank.

This was a heavy-hitting episode in more ways than one. Co-written by series creator Matthew Weiner and one of America’s finest living screenwriters, Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon), and directed by cast member John Slattery, who did a bang-up job in his season four Mad Men directing gig, "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword," this installment was deftly plotted and eventful. But it also held together at the level of signs, most of which, in Mad Men style, were Freudian and Lacanian: a thicket of thwarted ambitions, repressed desires, and symbolic castrations. It was all that and funny, too; I haven’t laughed this hard at a TV episode since that Civil War parody on Community. I guess I could nitpick Slattery’s direction as a tad busy — the crane-up from Don and Megan snogging by the side of the road to a secretary, um, banging away on a typewriter was unusually showy for Mad Men — but given that the whole thing was pitched more broadly than the show’s norm, the ostentatious touches seemed all of a piece. Any episode that starts out with Pete Campbell ogling a high-school girl in a driver’s ed class while watching a scare-tactics educational film (1959’s notorious "Signal 30," which you can download here) has no obligation to err on the side of subtlety. Read More...


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