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.

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