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. :(


  1. My husband Steve and I have spent the past four weeks watching Seasons 1 and 2, for the first time. We're almost up to date now (Season 3 is pre-ordered, but we've seen much but not all of it). And I have to say, boy was Don a dick. He's ruthless. Cruel to Betty (who isn't so great herself), cruel to his brother, careless toward his colleagues. I think he was portrayed a lot more sympathetically in what I saw of Season 3, though, of course, you all had the background I didn't.

    Perhaps the one exception to this pattern of cruelty is how he treats Peggy, and I'm not sure what motivates him to help her out. Was it just a device to let the writers reveal some of his inner psyche--the scene where he tells her how to get out of the hospital was fascinating ("Just do whatever they want, and get out of here. Put it behind you. You'll be amazed how easy it is to start over." (I'm quoting from memory.)) And the scenes with the first Mrs. Draper are revealing and even a relief. I understand quite clearly now that he's drifting and lost and can't find a way into his own life.

    It may only be at the end of Season 3 that we get a chance to think he may get into that life, and get to live it without all that doubting--to embrace the work family, as Cathy says here. We shall see. When does Season 4 start?

  2. This is interesting, Julie. I actually hoped to make the time over break to re-watch the full first season to give me a different perspective on the one that just ended. Of course, that didn't happen, but there is a long time before Season 4 starts (probably in August? that's when Season 3 started), so I'd like to watch all of them again before getting into the upcoming season. When my sister was visiting in November, we watched one Season 1 episode (she, too, started watching just this season without having seen what came before and is now going back to earlier episodes). I was reminded of just how much a dick Don was then--I hated him early on--and how far this last season went to develop and reveal much more of his complexity and inner life. You're right that he was a much more sympathetic character during Season 3.

    And, Betty seemed so much nicer in the episode we watched. She was actually sitting on the bed with one of the kids reading a bedtime story and spoke pleasantly with him (I think it was Bobby). So, I will have to get back to re-watch. Thanks for posting and getting me to think about it again.

    As to Don's treatment of Peggy, I think it's not just Peggy, but Joan too (or maybe that came out more in Season 3; I'll have to watch for this dynamic when I re-watch). He does seem to treat the women with whom he's involved sexually very differently than those with whom he works. He can actually be pretty progressive (for the '60s) with Peggy in helping her develop her career. The show is nothing if not really really interesting.