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.