Sunday, November 8, 2009

Moving On

Mad Men, Season Three, Episode Thirteen, "Shut the Door. Have a Seat."

The last episode was called "The Grown-Ups," but it's in this one that we see Don finally becoming one. When he berates Conrad Hilton for just wanting to "kick [him] down to size" and connects that with Hilton calling him "Son," Don reveals that he still sees himself as the victimized son of his own father--and continually acts from that position. But something makes him start to rise out of the battered boy role. Is it Hilton's challenge to Don when he tells him that he didn't expect Don to be one of those whiny people, always complaining about what they don't get handed to them? Is it Bert Cooper telling him that he doesn't think Don has what it takes to start his own business? Is it the threat of divorce and the loss of his children that pushes Don to start to behave more like a father--an agent in the world--rather than a down-trodden son who is always acted upon? Whatever it is, we see some changes in how Don relates to those around him, in how he takes charge of his own destiny.

And, unlike what he did in Korea to change his life situation, this time he does it in concert with others. He's part of a team. As his nuclear family is breaking up, his work family is becoming closer. He comes to recognize that his relationship with Betty is irreparable. But--or perhaps because of that--he seeks to fix other relationships that are important to him: with Roger, with Peggy, with Pete. Roger tells him, "You're not good at relationships because you don't value them." That's only partly true. Don hasn't fully valued his relationships. But, it's more because he hasn't valued himself. He's seen himself as his father saw him. Now, instead of looking at the world through his father's eyes, he looks at his father differently. His reactions to the sale of Sterling/Cooper are interspersed with memories of his father dealing with declining crop prices during the Depression. He's recognizing that his father had problems too--as well as caused problems for Don. And as he remembers the horse kicking his drunk father to the ground and his young self running to him--unconscious, bloodied--he recalls crying out, "Daddy!" A much more affectionate name, the name Bobby calls him. His fear (?) at his father perhaps being lost to him is mirrored by Bobby's fear over news of the divorce. "Is it because I lost your cuff links?" has to be the saddest line of the evening. And as Don struggles to explain to his son that his and Betty's actions aren't due to anything Bobby has done, perhaps he's also realizing that his father's actions didn't always have to do with young Dick. And so, he's able to separate somewhat from them.

This growing up on the part of Don manifests itself in continued open, emotional conversations with others. Don is learning to state his needs and ask for things. While his open and emotional confession to Betty did not pay off as he'd hoped, his expression of feeling to Peggy does: "I don't know if I can do it alone. Will you help me?" could be seen as just saying what he needs to say to persuade Peggy to join the new firm, but I think he's sincere. He's been a loner for so long, even in the midst of his marriage and family. That didn't work for him. This seems to be much more effective. When he comes out of the bedroom of the new office suite after severing his ties with Betty, he smiles at the crowd of people there. They've pulled off this coup together; they'll be working in cramped corners together; they'll be tackling multiple jobs (Don types!) together.

And what a team! Joan's back! Yeay! Peggy's back on board with a new confidence (to Don: "Beg me? You didn't even ask me!" And I loved it when Roger asked her if she'd get him some coffee and she just said, "No."). Roger's back in the fold. Lane's on board. Even Pete, whom I don't like, despite last week's reprieve, is a strong addition to this group. We have to have someone to hate from time to time.

Which reminds me to talk about Betty. Betty, Betty, Betty. At least this episode seems finally to resolve the question of whether she's named 'Betty' after Betty Friedan. Not. Yes, she's been discontented with her lot, but she has apparently decided that the discontent comes just from being married to Don, not from being in a traditional 1960s marriage. Apparently, the kept woman thing is what she wants. Or all she has the stomach or imagination to go after. So, she's trading one husband whom she realizes she never knew for another husband she doesn't know. And, he doesn't know her. But, as my husband observed, they know what roles they'll play in each other's lives. And that might be enough. A rather pathetic way to live, say I judgmentally, from my more enlightened world. Especially when seen in contrast with what all those in the new ad agency are opting for. But, in 1963, a woman's options were much more limited, especially an affluent married woman with no marketable job skills. Even in today's America, divorce typically leaves a woman in much reduced economic circumstances, while elevating those of the man. And given how she's lived her life to this point, I can't imagine Betty opting for divorce without the "life raft" Don accuses her (justly so) of building. As a single divorced woman, she would have to work at some relatively menial job for not much money; she'd have to do her own housework, not being able to afford a maid--and that after a long day's work; she'd have to give up the horse and that whole lifestyle; and what would happen to the baby while she's working? Her range of choices is extremely constrained, but I still don't like her--as much for how she does what she does as for what she actually does.

But, there is this nagging question that I've seen raised in other online forums, which I hearken back to after watching this episode: is the show's depiction of Betty sexist? I've seen this asked in the context of reflections on how she'll show, for awhile, signs of a woman emerging into raised consciousness, but then revert back to being a stereotypical housewife. Why, I've read, do they show her symptoms of shakiness, etc., have her visit the psychiatrist, only to have that all dropped? Is she just the classic neurotic woman? It's a question I've wondered about too, but I don't see her characterization as sexist. Betty is cold, emotionally unconnected from her children and most people in her life. She's not a good mother, only the latest evidence of this offered tonight as she leaves her two older children for six weeks to fly to Reno to get an easier divorce. This after they've just received the devastating news that their father is moving away from them. She's a horrible person, but some women are like that. Some men are like that.

If this were the only depiction of women on the show, there might be some merit to the charge of sexism, but not when we look at the trajectories that Peggy and Joan have traveled. Peggy has moved from mousy secretary to strong-willed, independent, professional woman who demands better treatment for herself from the men for whom she works--and gets it. Don openly respects her now. And, while we don't see Roger get up to get his own coffee, he accepts her refusal to do it for him.

Joan has moved from the sex object of the office--and one who encouraged that construction of herself--to being the indispensable runner of the show. Roger truly holds her in high regard now, doesn't only lust after her. She's been shown time and time again to be smarter, more capable, more witty, and more cool in the face of trouble than most of the men around her.

Peggy and Joan represent the women who were forging new paths in the '60s. Betty represents the many who didn't. That's not sexist. It's just realistic. The others--Peggy, Joan, Don, Roger, even Pete and Trudy--are moving on into the post-Camelot future, with all of its promise and struggle, joys and heartaches to come. Betty, for all that she might seem to be moving on--the last shot we see of her, she's on an airplane--is still marching in place, just exchanging one husband who claims to have given her everything she wanted for another who promises to take care of her too. In the meantime, Don and Peggy and Roger and Joan are growing up.

And we have to wait months to see them again. :(

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The World a Mirror

Mad Men, Season Three, Episode Twelve, "The Grown Ups"

Another wow this week! I was only two-and-a-half when President Kennedy was shot, so have no memory of it. But this episode really threw me right into the middle of what it must have felt like to need to sit in front of the television for hours--for days. It was a way to connect with others in the country. A way to process what was going on. I've never liked Pete and Trudy, but as he refused to go to the Sterling wedding ("It's one thing to go there and pretend I don't hate them. It's another to go there and pretend the president hasn't been murdered." Great line.) and we see them curled together on the couch two days in a row talking things over with each other, I liked them. They seemed--at least for a short time--to be maturing into "the grown ups" of the title.

And the assassination seemed to make equals of Betty and Carla--for at least a short period of time. When the two sat on the couch together, crying, and Carla lit up a cigarette (we've never seen her smoke) as Betty had, they were united. Just two women together, watching a tragic event reported.

But it's the way the show pulled off the merging of personal and national tragedies so effortlessly that was stunning. When Betty jumps up in shock after viewing Lee Harvey Oswald's murder live on TV and cries out, "What is going on?!" she's railing at the chaos and disintegration not only of the country's life, but of her own life and marriage. As my husband noted, a national illusion was shattered when "Camelot" was destroyed and the illusion of Betty's marriage was shattered with the discovery of the box. She tells Don, when he comes home on the 22nd, that she "can't stop crying." Perhaps the assassination was an event on just such a scale that allowed Betty--who's often so cold--to access a depth of emotion usually unavailable to her. As she sat captive to the television set, no make up, dressed only in a bathrobe well into the middle of the day, she seemed to feel things for the dead President that then morphed into feelings about Don's betrayals that she'd not been able to express before. The question is: has she finally become a grown up too, using this event to acquire insight into the reality of her feelings for Don and her marriage and what she must do with her life? Or is she making the mistake of crafting a huge decision at such a traumatic and emotional time? (Please don't jump into a marriage with Henry Francis! In past episodes, he's seemed more grown up about his and Betty's relationship--such as it is--but tonight not so much, declaring his desire to marry a woman he barely knows. Come on!)

Neither Betty nor Don has been happy in their marriage. So, being honest about that and telling Don, "I don't love you" is a huge step for this woman who for so long kept her head buried in the sand. Part of me applauded her--though her timing was lousy. Yet Don looked so stricken as he walked into their bedroom that my heart ached for him. We've seen a lot of genuine emotion from Don in the past few weeks. His first scene tonight: holding baby Gene in the rocker in the dark, looking down at him tenderly was such a vulnerable moment. He's the better parent. What would a divorce do to him and his affection for his children? What what it do to the children? But, Don needs something to pull his head out of the sand. It was classic Don to tell Betty, "Everything's going to be fine." It wasn't classic Betty to challenge him: "How do you know that?" Indeed. He wanted the children not to be watching coverage of the assassination and when Betty seemed upset, suggested she "take a pill and lie down." But Betty seems unwilling to "take these pills" anymore. What will Don do with Betty's new clarity and unwillingness to hide? And what is the nature of his caring? Last year, while he was living in the hotel after Betty found out about the affair with Bobbie, Don told Roger that he wasn't unhappy about it--and seemed to mean it. But, then he begged Betty to take him back in that beautifully written letter. Does Don, after years of uncomfortably being both Dick Whitman and Don Draper, have a "split personality": Dick, who needs the security and love of home and family that he never got as a child, so clings to Betty for that; and Don, who must constantly re-create himself and not put down roots, who needs to roam from woman to woman so his identity will never be discovered? What does he feel for his marriage? Can he really believe--as the ending song conveys--that "it's the end of the world" that Betty no longer loves him? Will this confrontation finally force him to become a grown up?

Other observations: Roger seems to be growing up as well. He and Mona can be civil to each other and his phone call to Joan was adult-to-adult not lecherous older man to sexy young woman. They're truly friends. For him to need to talk to her at this time was touching. "No one else is saying the right thing about this." I wonder what he would think was the right thing. It was interesting, too, that Joan offered the explicit reflection on how the rest of the world did go on--and the tragedy in Dallas was just one of many that day. That hospital in Dallas, she knows, wasn't the only one to which people were brought in emergencies, in which people died, in which relatives mourned. It was a large-scale reflection of what goes on all over. And, sadly, just a precursor of more assassinations and deaths in war and chaos to come as the decade grinds on. And this show is such a truly wonderful way to have it all reinterpreted for us.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

"Trick or Treat"

Mad Men, Season Three, Episode Eleven, "The Gypsy and the Hobo"

Wow! This season just doesn't stop packing the punches--one powerful episode after another. At Halloween--that time of year when spirits move between worlds and revelers "don" (pun not initially intended, but since it offered itself to me, I'll take it )different identities--Don Draper is unmasked. By an empowered Betty, who is tough and strong in her refusal to take the lawyer's advice to "just go home and try to make it work." I was impressed. She looked him straight in the eye, while he averted his; she was steady and adamant as he shook so much he couldn't get a cigarette out of its pack; and when she told him, "We're not done," as she went to tend to the crying baby, he didn't leave, though he looked wistfully at the door for a moment. The scene in their bedroom was poignant and moving as he showed her his photos, straight with her for the first time. He reveals all, honestly, and cries over his brother's death. She faced the truth she found in the box, when I wondered if she might just go back into an easy denial. And when confronted with Don's story, she faced that too, not wanting to be moved, but feeling for him nonetheless. It was sad watching him cry while she sat next to him, ramrod straight, stiffly rubbing his back. It's not clear--to us or to her--where she's going to go with this--but Betty took a huge step tonight. As did Don.

Yet, at the same time that Don is revealing--openly and painfully--his one secret life, his other secret life is waiting in the car. And while I have to hand it to Suzanne for not banging on the door and calling him out as I thought she might after last week's episode on the train, Don isn't willing to give her up yet. He only tells her that they can't see each other "right now." He's not done with secrets.

Knowing the title from the beginning, I kept wondering who was supposed to be the gypsy and who the hobo. I remember the episode from last season (I think it was last season) where the hobo left the sign on the Whitmans' gate that Dick's father was not an honest man. Now we have Betty revealing Don to be a dishonest man. Is she the hobo? And is Don--the perpetual wanderer--the gypsy? When the children's costumes were revealed, the literal gypsy and hobo were shown, but I still like the image on that porch with the gypsy and hobo and their trick-or-treat bags with the figurative gypsy and hobo behind them--disguised just as much, if not more so, as the neighbor somehow knew: "And who are you supposed to be?" While the orphan boy sings, "Where is love?" Too perfect. What will Don answer to those questions? What will Betty answer to them?

A few other thoughts:

--While Don--in Oliver's boyish soprano asks, "Where is love?"--it's interesting that Roger seems to have figured that one out. What a surprise to see a Sterling Cooper man turn down sex with an attractive woman who's throwing herself at him. And how interesting to hear some of his backstory before the war and Mona. I like him again. Toughest line of the night: Lady from the past: "You were the one." Roger: "You weren't." Ouch.

--Most intriguing line of the night: Don--"People change their names, Bets. You did." So, he's comparing a woman getting married and taking her husband's name to his stealing of another man's name and identity. That's a downright feminist critique of marriage and the alien roles women have to adopt. Robin Morgan would be proud of him!

--Poor Joan, having to listen to Dr. Creep tell her that she doesn't know what it's like to "want something your whole life and to plan on it and count on it and not get it." I'm glad she threw the damn vase at him. What will she do now with his latest change of identity to Army doctor?

What do you think? Let's get some conversation going.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Memories and Ink

Mad Men, Season Three, Episode Ten, "The Color Blue"

Perhaps it's because I also saw "Cats" this weekend and "Memories--all alone in the moonlight" keeps flitting through my brain, but Paul's Chinese memories and faint ink proverb seems to me an even richer lens through which to view Episode 10 than "the color blue" of the title. Yes, the various characters' divergent perspectives on events was certainly important. And what a glimpse into the workings of Don's mind to hear his response to the wise ponderings of Miss Farrell's student. ("People may see things differently, but they don't want to"? Statistics on exactly what percentage of the population sees the same color when looking at the same object?) Of course we can never be sure that the blue we see is the same blue anyone else sees, just like Suzanne can never be sure that the affair she sees is the same one Don is having. The husband Betty thinks she has--with all the flaws she grants him--will never be the same husband stored away in that box in the newly unlocked drawer. The Peggy Paul views as he's yelling at her following their first meeting with Don is not the same Peggy he gazes wonderingly at after she's pulled a positively brilliant campaign idea out of the wreckage of his drunken memory lapse. (Go, Peggy! My girl is back!) Lane and his wife see different New Yorks when they look out the window of their traffic-bound car with blue neon lights reflected off the window and, while Roger looks at Jane in their car and sees his wife, his very funny mother sees a woman who must be his daughter. ("Does Mona know?" The episode didn't offer much in the way of laughs, but old Mrs. Sterling is a hoot!)

So, yes, the eight-year-old's question about perceiving blue points me into one set of observations. But, I really like Paul's conjuring up the proverb about the faintest ink being stronger than a memory. As snobby and pretentious as he is, he can be very insightful when he wants to be. While Paul may think that he's fragile memory's victim of the week, I have to give that prize to Betty. She's stored up ten years of memories of her marriage--good and bad: memories she's used to construct this relationship and the image of the husband around whom she's built her life for a decade. Now she finds out that those memories mean less than the ink on the papers and photographs she's found. The box's contents provide her with something more solid than memories. But, what will she do with this knowledge? How will she use it to reconstruct her life? Is this the opportunity she's been waiting for? (And I've been wanting for her.) What will she do with it? Until she figures that out, though, she's stuck with Don's construction of their marriage and with his construction of her as nothing more than a showpiece: "I want to show you off, Bets" and, to the kids, "Look how pretty Mommy is." Don, who thinks he can quantify the world and people's perceptions of it, but who is so trapped in his own set of illusions, he can't see the train wreck that seems to be looming in his future: an affair with a woman so close to home who does not know how to be a discreet mistress; a newly-forged alliance with Suzanne's unstable brother (I take it that Don's compensating for not helping his own brother when that brother so desperately reached out to him); another Sterling Cooper sale. Don keeps obsessively going back to his box--a tacit recognition that if we haven't captured something on paper that it's gone--whether that be our ideas or our identities?

Memories, perceptions, illusions: they were all captured so well in Roger's set of lies as he introduced Don at the anniversary dinner: "loyal, charming, quiet but not modest" indeed. Don accepted, smiling broadly, aiming for--but missing--modesty, Betty's eyes shooting darts at him from her end of the table . He might think that everyone wants to see things the same way he does--but he's wrong.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

"Some Dreams Deferred"

Mad Men, Season Three, Episode Nine, "Wee Small Hours"

In the "wee small hours," people dream. The episode begins with Betty's dream of Henry Francis about to make love to her on the chaise lounge she viewed through the window on her first walk with him. Her fantasy is rudely shattered by the telephone summoning Don to Conrad Hilton, so he can share his dream of "bringing America to the world, whether they like it or not." On the way to meet Hilton, Don encounters Miss Farrell, jogging along the side of the road in the dark. As he drives his latest dream woman home, Martin Luther King's voice rings out of the car radio, sharing a dream that he dared to express to the world in broad daylight. These dreams prepare us for Episode 9, in which the distinctions between fantasy and reality are revealed as all too stark--unless you're Don Draper (or Dick Whitman pretending to be Don Draper, your entire life one big fantasy). Then you get to fall asleep at the end of the show with your dream woman in your arms.

In the "wee small hours," people dream. But it's in the light of day that these dreams get shattered. The morning after Betty's interrupted dream, she begins her pen pal exchanges with Henry. She asks for his indulgence if she has a hard time expressing her thoughts accurately, for she hasn't written letters in a long time. Sadly, though, she asserts, "I do have thoughts." She yearns for someone who will care about those thoughts--want to listen to them--will adore her for them. But, when she's actually with Francis, she's confronted with the reality of what an affair between a married woman and a working man would actually be: not the romantic stuff of her dreams, but a "tawdry" episode on the desk in his locked office with the secretary outside the door or a quick tryst in a room rented by the hour. She declines.

Conrad Hilton shares with Don a middle of the night glass of bootleg "hair tonic" and his dream of one day having a Hilton Hotel on the moon. Sadly for him--bizarrely for everyone else--he's disappointed during Don's presentation of his clever ad campaign to discover that Don didn't take him seriously on that one.

"Mr. Lucky Strikes" doesn't get lucky with Sal and proceeds to shatter Sal's dream of being a commercial director. (You know you're not in 2009 anymore when an employee is fired for not having sex with a client.) Sal apparently figures that since he's been fired anyway for not acting on his homosexuality, he might as well try to live out one of the fantasies he's spent years repressing. We don't see the outcome of his "wee small hours" Central Park adventure.

But, all of these sexual pecadilloes--real and imagined--the dreams of sexual and lunar conquests, seem trivial when compared to the Black community's deferred dreams. And the dreams of the four girls in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that were completely snuffed out with their lives. These are just alluded to in the episode. They're background noise--broadcast over car radios and kitchen radios, chatted about by white woman at a political fundraiser. I'm sad for Betty that her life is so unfulfilling. But as long as she sets her sights--and her hopes for rescue--on nothing more substantial than a "tawdry" affair, she'll never appear as worthy of sympathy as Carla. Carla, who feels she must turn off the broadcast of King's sermon at the funeral of the girls when her employer enters the room. Betty magnanimously tells her she can leave the radio on, but it's clearly Betty who has the power in this situation. And Betty who gets the last word about whether civil rights are timely right now. Directly after this scene, we see Don make his escape for Miss Farrell's apartment. In the realm of sexual and domestic politics between men and women, the men obviously have the power and the upper hand. Betty is sadly the marginalized, over-powered one here. But in the realm of race relations--where the stakes are life and death--Carla is the one deserving of our empathy. Until Betty is able to connect her dissatisfaction at her "problem that has no name" with a larger, widespread set of injustices against women everywhere, her problems will be trivialized. She needs the women's movement. She needs to understand that "the personal is political"--both in her relationships with Don and Henry and in her relationship with Carla.

But for now, the "wee small hours" belong to the White "mad men" of some power--men whose power ranges from the sexual to the corporate to the murderous: Don, who's dream of bedding Miss Farrell doesn't have to be deferred; even Sal, who, though marginalized by his sexuality, is still free to call his wife with an excuse about work from a pay phone in Central Park; Conrad Hilton, who can summon his lackeys to him anywhere, anytime since his vision is "good because we have god"; and the Klansmen, who plant bombs in churches in the early hours of hot Sunday mornings. But, powerful or not, they're all in for change as they crouch toward November 22nd, toward the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, and toward the feminist revolution.