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.