Friday, May 18, 2012

"Mad Men" Week 8: Roger and the Chosen Wine

"Dark Shadows" (a title hopefully not inspired by the recent release of the Tim Burton-Johnny Depp theatrical remake snoozefest of the same name) was true to its title, as it involved several key characters (mostly Don and Betty) retreating to the darker corners of their souls in desperate grabs for self-preservation. Roger Sterling, of course, is no stranger to this kind of thinking; after all, he declared to Peggy that within the agency it's "every man for himself." Roger wasn't concerned about self-preservation in this episode, but the darkest, ugliest traits of his character definitely drove his share of the plot.

For starters, there was Roger Sterling the bigot. Not since he donned black face in season three has Roger's insensitivity been so openly displayed. Needing ideas for a secret (damn that Pete!) pitch meeting/dinner with reps from Monarch Wines, maker of the Jewish-targeted Manischewitz brand, Roger calls upon — gasp — Michael Ginsburg for creative insight. He tells Ginsburg that Monarch is looking to market a wine to "normal" people like himself, and during the course of their meeting proceeds to direct several more anti-Semitic cheap shots at him. Ginsburg is unfazed by Roger's quips, but is concerned that this side work might get him into hot water with Don. Ever the pragmatist, Roger hands Ginsburg the remaining wad of cash in his pocket exchange for Ginsburg's services and silence (It must be Roger Sterling Sr.'s money that's truly bankrolling the entire outfit). Ginsburg is not silent about the arrangement, however, and when Peggy finds out, she is disappointed that Roger did not call on her for this secret project like he did for Mohawk Airlines.

Roger isn't finished using (Jewish) people as a means to an end, as he needs ex-wife Jane Siegel to be his pretend-wife at the client dinner (to be fair, this was at Mr. Cooper's initial insistence). Roger was never comfortable mentioning Jane's ethnicity when he was actually married to her, but once he's at the dinner table with the Rosenbergs, he's extolling the exceptional beauty of Jewish women, lamenting the prejudice in the world and expressing his "envy for the humor, the closeness, the way your people keep track of each other." This hogwash, combined with Ginsburg's bus ad idea, wins over the Rosenbergs. Despite the presence of handsome Bernie, Jane must keep up the facade of being married in order for Roger to lock down the account.

Jane's compliance in this dinner scheme meant that Roger purchase her a new apartment, mainly so she could escape the trappings of their failed marriage and start anew. After the dinner, Roger wants to see the apartment, "the better end of the deal." Once inside the barely furnished flat, Roger's libido takes over and he and Jane end up having relations, despite her brief protest. The morning after, Jane is in tears, having realized that her new apartment has been sullied with the memory of a one-night stand with her ex-husband. "You get everything you want and you still had to do this," she tells him. Roger answers with "I feel terrible," an act of contrition so hollow and insincere that it's laughable. While Roger didn't sink to any particular "new" kind of low this week, this episode leaves the impression that any hope for the redemption of Roger Sterling's soul now has a snowball's chance in hell.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

"Mad Men" Week 6 and 7 Recaps

I've sucked at keeping my personal blog up to date with these "Mad Men" entries. If you've followed this blog in weekly anticipation of my thoughts on Roger Sterling and have been disappointed, I apologize. (Remember that you should read it here first anyway.) On second thought, I'm pretty sure you people don't exist. 

Week 7: "Lady Lazarus"

"It's what I've always wanted. Sit back and watch the business roll in while you pass the jug with some shmoe from Lutherville, Maryland." — Roger Sterling

Roger wasn't much of a prime mover this week, having but a few minutes of screen time (thus making this week's blog post for some shmoe in Frederick, Maryland, a little less fun). While the "previously on" teaser suggested viewers would be treated to another skirmish in the Roger versus Pete feud, their interaction ended up on the lighter side. But as with almost any "Med Men" scene, it was not lacking in subtext.

Roger summons Pete to his office to present him with a pair of skis, courtesy of Roger O'Hara at the Head ski company. He informs Pete that the client specifically asked for Pete to handle the account, even as they dined with Roger. Naturally, Pete is wary of Roger's generous handling of this situation, but Roger isn't being magnanimous so much as being mischievous. It's clear from the above referenced quote that Roger could care less about this particular client, even if they were the leading ski manufacturer in the U.S. and UK at the time (thank you Wikipedia). From his  non-X-rated adventures at the cancer society ball last week, we know Roger is set on capturing the prestigious accounts, the accounts that will not only fill the coffers of SCDP but wholly restore his importance in the agency. If Pete is occupied with small fish like this, that keeps him out of Roger's impeccably silver hair. And besides, Roger doesn't know a damn thing about skis (and we see that Pete, in most comedic fashion, doesn't either). From a metaphorical standpoint, the skis could also symbolize the downhill descents experienced by Roger and Pete this season (and throughout the series, for that matter).

Roger's only other scene involves another heart-to-heart with Don (booze in hand, of course) regarding Megan's exodus from SCDP. Both men are stupefied by youthful Megan's desire for self-actualization, with child of the Depression Don viewing aspirations as impractical flights of fancy, and Roger unable to relate to them because his vocation was determined by his father. Roger's theory that Megan is acting out because she wants a baby is dismissed by Don, but not without Roger providing a little comedic irony for the viewer ("Jane wanted a baby, but I thought, why do that to somebody?"). In the end, Roger's advice for Don is to go home and impose some sort of routine "to keep you both out of trouble," which is advice that came from Mona's father, of all people. Not surprisingly, Don tunes out this tenuous piece of advice just like he does the Beatles at the end of the episode.

A random side note: Why weren't we treated to Roger taking another hit of LSD during the "Tomorrow Never Knows" montage? Would that have been too spot on?

Week 6: "At the Codfish Ball"

Roger Sterling was the only member of the "Mad Men" ensemble to not to be confronted with an unpleasant turn of events this week. After a "life-altering" journey to the center of the mind with LSD and the end of his tenuous union with Jane, Roger is full of an infectious joie de vivre that endears him to Sally Draper and especially to Mrs. Calvet. He's isn't really a new man, but seems to have reclaimed the confident swagger that he's lacked since losing Lucky Strike.

Even if he is in the honeymoon stages of divorce with Jane, Roger does understand the "expensive" implications that she warned him of last week. Thus, he needs to sink low once again by taking advantage of spurned ex-wife Mona's connections to powerful business executives to gain a foothold on leads at the upcoming American Cancer Society ball. Mona's conciliatory response to Roger's fishing for leads is out of pity, but ultimately pragamatic. After all, he is still financially supporting his first family and new advertising clients would ensure that she will continue to live comfortably. As for pity, Mona tells Roger "I thought you married Jane because I had gotten old, and then I realized it was because you had." With a glint in her eye that suggests she too uses carnal knowledge as currency, Mona assures Roger he'll be "suprised" at the info she can find out by Friday.

Roger's renewed sense of confidence is put to great use at the Cancer Society ball and the scenes leading up to it. Not to get hung-up on the whole "like-ability" issue once gain, but Roger Sterling hasn't been this fun to watch, since well, ever. From the moment he strolls in to the Drapers' apartment with an undone bow-tie hanging around his neck like some annoying but endearing child, his charisma buffs a likeable shine on his often rough exterior.  His avuncluar bonding with Sally Draper as his "date" is heartwarming and begs the question as to what kind of father he was to Margaret at the same age. For Marie Calvet, Roger's impish charm stands in stark contrast to the (figurative) impotence of her husband, thus ratcheting up the sexual tension between them. From the moment they meet eyes, we know it's but a matter of time.

The illusion of like-ability is ultimately shattered when Sally, in an attempt to find the ladies' room, instead finds Roger in a particularly jarring sexual situation with Mrs. Calvet. Now that Marie has gotten a taste (for complete lack of a better word) of Roger, might she pursue further trysts with him? It would be bad enough for Don and Megan to discover what happened at the ball, let alone the makings of a full-blown affair. To paraphrase Roger's musings on Jane earlier in the episode, he's now in a position to seriously blow up Don and Megan's lives.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

"Mad Men" Week 5: "Go Ask Roger When He's 10 Feet Tall..."

This summation of Roger Sterling's maiden voyage on acid is almost two weeks behind schedule on this blog.  Check out the "TV Without a TV" blog for (somewhat) more timely analysis of "Mad Men" and its characters.

As "Mad Men" is so faithful to its 1960s setting to the point of fetishism, the show would be remiss if it never touched on the psychedelic drug use of the time. In the advertising realm, it made plenty of sense to see younger generation creative types like Peggy and the sadly departed Paul Kinsey experimenting with marijuana as a muse, and it seemed inevitable that "mind expanding" LSD would be utilized for a creative breakthrough in the boardroom. However, instead of witnessing the profound or perhaps unintentionally comic influence of LSD on adventurous copywriters, Matthew Weiner and company decided it would work better on Roger Sterling as a plot device to manufacture his divorce with child-bride Jane Siegel. As if their marriage wasn't already dissolving like a sugar cube ...
Roger becomes the first "Mad Men" character to turn on, tune in and drop out thanks in part to Don. With a potential new client in the Howard Johnson's hotel chain, Roger proposes that he and Don partake in a weekend fact-finding mission to an upstate location, for reasons having little to do with business and more with acting like "rich, handsome perverts." Of course, this means the wives stay at home, but newly-chaste Don rebuffs Roger's debauched scheme in half-hearted favor of a couples weekend with Megan and Jane. Naturally, Roger backs out of the deal, leaving Megan and Don to go upstate while he is forced to go to a dinner engagement with Jane and her snooty friends. There's a telling scene where Roger catches a glimpse of Don and Megan hand-in-hand as they depart for the sunshine and sherbet of HoJo's, the look on Roger's face illustrating his envy for the wedded bliss that he's never experienced with Jane. 
Thankfully, Roger doesn't have to intentionally mispronounce Frank Lloyd Wright's name for petty amusement, as Jane's dinner party gathering of snooty intellectual friends are a merry band of headshrinkers with a serious jones for the teachings of Harvard psychologist-cum-acid guru Timothy Leary. It turns out that Jane's friend and psychotherapist has invited them to try LSD as a means to discover the "truth." Roger is nonplussed by the endless psychobabble and references to Tibetan Books of BS and wants to leave after dessert, but Jane guilts him into taking a trip. While Roger is skeptical of the drug's effects, the requisite sound and sight gags eventually ensue, signalling Roger's awareness of his situation. As Brian Wilson plaintively emotes "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" ( a very fitting song for Roger's plight in the office in the last few episodes), Roger is told by a hallucinatory form of Don to go and be alone in the truth with Jane. 
Several hallucinations later and back at home, Roger and Jane finally discover the painfully obvious truth of their wedded misery, with Jane confiding that her therapist was waiting for her or Roger to end the marriage. Other "truths": Jane's attraction to older men isn't exclusive to Roger and she almost had an affair; Roger never really loved Jane, but "used to like her" (read: "stopped caring after the sex became routine").  After the acid wears off in the morning, shrewd opportunist Roger declares to Jane that the marriage is over, framing the LSD trip as a "beautiful" moment of mutual agreement to part ways without the lawyers and acrimony. While Jane is hurt but relieved, she warns Roger that "it's going to be very expensive." 
Roger married Jane in a (horn)dogged pursuit of midlife happiness. Now that he is free from her, will he finally be able to unite with recently divorced paramour and baby mama Joan? It's easy to assume this will happen, but "Mad Men" isn't a show known for predictable plots.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

"Mad Men" Week 4: A Lecture from the Professor Emeritus of Accounts

With only 45 minutes left before the week five episode airs on AMC, here is my week four rumination on Roger Sterling for the "Mad Men Project".  A hearty congratulations to goes out to Colin McGuire, as his "TV Without a TV" blog was just named one of the best newspaper blogs by the Maryland/DC/Delaware Press Association. I thank him again for making this all possible.

After three weeks of watching Roger Sterling pathetically navigate his reversal of fortune within the agency, it was satisfying to see him return to form as a shrewd and savvy account man once again (perhaps the John Slattery director credit had something to do with this). Roger might be a terrible human being, but there's no denying that he's gifted with an emotional intelligence quotient that no other account man at SCDP possesses, especially arch-enemy Pete. And while Roger hasn't worked as hard as others to bring in new accounts, his hard work is reflected in the round-the-clock dedication to the whims of his clients. To him, the dedication of the account man is so total that nothing (including moonlighting as a hack science fiction writer) should divide your attentions. Roger relishes his work and believes it can satisfy every intrinsic need.
The scene with Roger teaching Lane the performance aspects of a successful client dinner was a highlight not just for Roger, but for "Mad Men" in general, as it momentarily stripped the show to its essence. That statement might seem trite, but to echo Colin's frustrations with last week's episode, the dream sequences and other soap opera-like flourishes often detract from the very compelling drama that exists in the everyday work of ad men. In other words, it was a welcome change to see Roger actually doing his job, and doing it well, too. Roger was surely being self-deprecating (and perhaps self-pitying) when he referred to himself as "Professor Emeritus of Accounts," but the countless three-martini lunches and late night dinners he's logged over the years certainly give him the expertise that Lane could benefit from. Unfortunately, Lane was unable to implement Roger's manipulation-masquerading-as-empathy routine with Edwin Baker from Jaguar, setting up a follow-up dinner and a calamitous turn of events ironically spurred by Roger. 
Naturally, Roger's efforts to cater to clients often leads to morally dubious behavior, and when Lane's buddy from Jaguar looks to indulge in some after-dinner "fun," seasoned veteran of debauchery Roger knows exactly what he's looking for. The resulting loft party with prostitutes (and a madam who might be Dr. Faye Miller's fat older sister) leads to unsurprising sexual dalliances for Roger, Pete and the client (and surprisingly not Don), but ultimately spells disaster for the Jaguar account when Mr. Baker's wife eventually discovers evidence of the "fun" he had. While Lane's anger over the circumstances is ultimately transferred to Pete via fist, it's worth wondering if Lane has gained a new respect for Roger's account man sensibilities. Lane has put Pete in is his place (for the time being at least), perhaps opening the door for a restoration of Roger's role as top account man.

Friday, April 13, 2012

"Mad Men" Week 3: Roger's Deep Pockets

Here's another (thankfully less-winded) analysis of Roger Sterling's insufferable antics from week three of "Mad Men". 

Roger Sterling's ineptitude and toothlessness were played up for laughs this week, albeit for only a few minutes of screen time. Having totally neglected his day-to-day management of the Mohawk account (to presumably spend all day lounging in his office in what appears to be a dentist's chair), Roger is forced to find a copy writer to craft an entire corporate image campaign over the weekend for a Monday morning conference call with Mohawk. With "genius" Ginsburg out of the office, Roger is forced to turn back to the penis-free Peggy to handle the creative grunt work. Of course, he needs her to sacrifice her weekend and to lie about her sudden role in the campaign.

Roger thinks a simple $10 bribe will buy Peggy's silence and compensate for the sudden overtime, but Peggy is not about to be manipulated so easily. Roger dismisses her protests over this raw deal by pulling rank and threatening to fire her if she doesn't comply, but Peggy sees right through these hollow threats. Roger's back is firmly against the wall and she lets him know it, giving him no choice but to sweeten the deal by upping the bribe. As Peggy hustles Roger for the $400 in his pocket, his lack of power is laid bare in a most embarrassing fashion. (This begs the question that Harry asked in week 1 — Why does Roger always carry so much money? And more importantly, how does he continue to have so much cash in light of his divorce and the lean times the agency is experiencing?).

Because Roger is effortlessly hustled by a woman who moments earlier he scolded like a child for having her feet on the desk (not to mention the whole lack-of-penis dig last week), the scene is another hilarious yet powerful example of Peggy's subversion of the prevailing gender dynamics in the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. And thanks to Pete and Peggy, Roger is receiving his due karma, no doubt to the satisfaction of the viewing audience.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

"Mad Men" Week 2: "Tea Leaves"

This is way late, but more astute readers would have already breezed through it over at "TV Without a TV". Anyway, here's another installment of passionate analysis for Roger Sterling and "Mad Men" week two.

"Tea Leaves" was an apt moniker for the second episode, as Roger Sterling catches an unsightly glimpse into the not-too-distant future of the advertising agency he's known his entire life — a future that will likely have no place for him, and sooner rather than later.
Roger's stake in the future of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce continues to be thwarted by Pete Campbell's restless ambition. The power struggle between them picks right up in the first scene, as Roger refuses to go to Pete's office for a meeting regarding Mohawk Airlines. There is good news to celebrate, though, as Roger's client-winning rapport based around liquor and wartime nostalgia has brought the regional airline back to SCDP. Pete acknowledges Roger's role in landing the account and asks him to handle the day-to-day work. While Pete suggests Roger hire a simple retail copywriter for basic airfare ads, Roger has other ideas and wants to give Mohawk "a good looking version of Don." Though Peggy is a qualified in-house candidate for such work, Roger is concerned that the traditionalists at Mohawk would prefer "someone with a penis" to write their copy. Peggy is then given the task of hiring a new copywriter with grand ideas (and proper anatomic orientation). 
While Peggy fears that iconoclastic young copy writer Michael Ginsburg will clash with the prevailing austerity of Roger and Don, both men are impressed upon meeting and urge her to hire him. However, Roger's motives are based more on insensitive opportunism than talent, as he feels having "a Jew" on board would make the agency seem more "modern" and impress Mohawk. He chalks up Peggy's misgivings about Ginsburg to feelings of job insecurity and assures her that no one will replace her. 
Roger is forced to reevaluate this position, however, when Pete gathers the entire staff together to announce the acquisition of Mohawk. In Machiavellian fashion, Pete seizes the moment to cement his prestige in the eyes of agency by declaring to everyone that he's signed the airline himself, giving no due credit to Roger. While Roger is certainly receiving his comeuppance for trying to poach Pete's accounts in episode one, he is understandably furious and warns Peggy to forget what he's told her about Ginsburg and job security, as we learn Pete was the last person Roger hired (and according to Roger, was something of a protege). Roger then storms back to an office to liquor his wounds with Don following behind. 
As Roger and Don share a moment of closeness that hasn't been seen in a little while, the notion of mortality looms large, albeit in different senses. Don is concerned about Betty's possible terminal illness and  acknowledges how her death would change his life (with Roger callously quipping that Betty's death would "solve everything"). While the ever-jaded Roger has given up on actual life and death, he is forced to confront his own mortality within the agency, expressing resignation over having to prove his worth and being "exhausted from hanging onto the ledge having some kid's foot on my fingertips." Roger has certainly been outmaneuvered by Pete, but his predicament is equally his own fault.
When Roger leaves Don's office, he innocently asks "When is anything going to get back to normal?" For Roger, posing this question is a delicious slice of irony. Of course Roger was referring to the power struggles in the SCDP offices, but the seismic social and cultural shifts to come in the late 1960s (and their resulting effects on the advertising world) will undoubtedly turn the WASPy privileged profession Roger inherited into something unrecognizable. Whether or not Pete pushes him out, Roger will face the unpleasant reality of his own obsolescence.
Bombs away.

Friday, March 30, 2012

"Mad Men" S5 Week 1: Will Roger Sterling Ever Have a Silver Lining?

Here's my inaugural contribution to the  "Mad Men Project" TV blog run by Frederick News-Post copy editor, entertainment scribe and good friend Colin McGuire. For additional in-depth analysis of "Mad Men" and its band of chain-smoking, adulterous and mostly unlikeable characters- click here.

"As a wise man once said to me, the only thing worse than not getting what you want is someone else getting it." — Roger Sterling

We could all agree that with the possible exception of Betty Francis/Draper, it is Roger Sterling who holds the title of The Most Easy-To-Despise Character On "Mad Men." Like Betty, he's an adult-child that's been irreparably damaged by an upbringing insulated by wealth and privilege. But unlike Betty, Rodger's narcissistic behavior echoes and embodies the ugliest societal and cultural ills of the era that "Mad Men" is so adept at capturing (or sensationalizing, depending on who you read). Rampant chauvinism, bigotry and adultery have been part of Rodger's MO in every season. Combine these broader cultural character flaws with a petulant rich boy sense of entitlement (see above quote) with a total lack of empathy that even brushes with death cannot mitigate, and there's very little hope for him.

Despite Roger's seemingly intractable character flaws, there was a bit of thought (and perhaps hope) that Matthew Weiner and associates might have sketched out some sort of redemptive arc for him this season. Roger is so easy to hate now that it's making him one-dimensional — a charge not often leveled at the show or its characters. However, if the two-hour season premier is any indication, the author of "Sterling's Gold" will continue to be King Midas in reverse and earn weekly heaps of scorn from the viewing public.

Roger's coarse boorishness was in full bloom Sunday night, providing for choice moments of drama and plenty of comedy (he might be insufferable, but it's hard to dispute his humor). Whether he was ruining Don's surprise party (thanks to a debate over etiquette, no less), openly coveting the new Mrs. Draper during her chanteuse rendition of "Zou Bisou Bisou" to the chagrin of Jane ("Why don't you sing like that?"), or eyeing up he and Joan's newborn son like Narcissus looking in the mirror, it was classic Roger.

One standout scene occurs when Roger mocks Megan's Francophone song and dance routine in front of a not-so-amused Don (Don: "We don't make fun of each other's wives in this office"). Roger backpedals and offers Don some backhanded compliments of Megan while contrasting his own wife's stupidity and neediness to lighten the tension. It's trademark Sterling cruelty, but moreover it illustrates Roger's continuing resentment of Don's allure (just like Roger's toast at the party). Even in the young-enough-to-be-my-daughter trophy wife game, Don has emerged victorious over Roger. Look for this simmering jealousy to boil over throughout the next 12 weeks.

However, the most significant Roger subplot of the episode is his battle for power and prestige with Pete Campbell. With the loss of the Lucky Strike account last season, Roger lost his only true stake to relevance within the organization — something that Pete was happy to call him out on (and almost get punched for in the process). Now, with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce entertaining very few clients and little more to do than pout over his secretary's attention to Don's business, Rodger resorts to poaching Pete's accounts by lecherously hovering over Clara's desk to sneak a peak at Pete's meeting calendar (and despite Pete's later dismissal, probably Clara's breasts too). Pete is obviously infuriated when he shows up for the Mohawk Airlines meeting to find Roger in his old-boy boozehound element with the clients.

The power jockeying continues as Pete petitions the senior partners for Roger's larger and more prominent office space to entertain potential clients. Despite Pete's attempt to illustrate his portfolio of many accounts to Rodger's zero as justification for the office space, Rodger simply pulls rank on him and tells Pete that he can do business "in the crapper for all I care." The writing is on the wall, however, and Rodger sort of capitulates by forcefully bribing Harry Crane to trade offices with Pete. This tense Rodger and Pete interplay yielded plenty of comedic moments as well, especially when Roger took the bait regarding Pete's supposed 6 a.m. meeting with Coca-Cola on Staten Island.

Above all, the feud with Pete underscores Roger's growing sense of desperation. His name might be "on the building" as he used to brag, but claiming no major clients with whom to share booze and swap war stories, Roger will forcefully deny his irrelevancy and possibly sink to even lower depths than witnessed Sunday night. Whereas Pete seems concerned (at least on the surface) about the success of something larger than himself, Roger is stuck in shameless self-preservation mode. Will he legitimately reclaim his birthright through some redemptive act, or will Roger Sterling's "Mad Men" colleagues finally tire of his insufferable business as usual and drive him out of the agency? We know his association with Don and Lane is uneasy, and we know his only true ally, Bert Cooper, is fading into an irrelevancy of his own. Might we see the replacement of the "S" in SCDP with a "C" this season? I cannot wait to find out.