Monday, May 14, 2012

Vampires and Happiness

Mad Men, Season Five, Episode Nine, "Dark Shadows"

While this episode only features "Dark Shadows" briefly beyond the title--in the scene in which Megan is helping her friend Joyce prepare an audition for the supernatural soap opera--the vampires are lurking in the shadows everywhere, ready to drink the blood of others to compensate for some lack in their lives. Deprivation is the central theme, from the opening image of Betty sadly weighing her cheese for her small diet meal to the closing focus on her scantily-filled plate on Thanksgiving. "Don't go around hoping that happiness will come. . . . Take some," croons the singer over the credits. Yet none of the featured characters--except perhaps Megan (and even she is feeling deprived in the face of her friend's success)--know how to approach happiness for themselves without hurting someone else in the process. They all seem to see happiness as a zero-sum game: there's only so much to go around and if I'm going to get more, then someone else has to have less.

Betty parrots the self-help talk she's being taught in Weight Watchers to Henry when he's lamenting his choice to leave Gov. Rockefeller to work for Mayor Lindsay. "It's aways easy to blame our problems on others, but we're in charge," she tells him. But when her attempts to control her food intake bare all the discontent that she had been burying under over-eating, her means of taking charge are--as usual--passive-aggressive. She takes out her unhappiness on her ex-husband. After seeing the inside of the new Draper apartment, the slim Megan getting dressed, and a sappy love note Don wrote to Megan on the back side of a picture Bobby had drawn, Betty tells Sally about her father's 'first wife,' suggesting she go to Megan for more information. But, Don--having learned a rare lesson from the failure of his actual first marriage--had already told Megan about Anna and Dick, so Sally's question doesn't create the havoc that Betty was hoping for. Not for the first time, Megan displays some wisdom beyond her years when she stops Don from calling Betty in anger: "If you call her, you're giving her exactly what she wanted--the thrill of having poisoned us from fifty miles away." She's got it. Poisoning others--or trying to suck the blood out of their relationship--rather than face up to the source of her own unhappiness, is what Betty the vampire goes for. As Don points out to Sally, "You should know your mother doesn't care about hurting you, she only wants to hurt us." Betty is about hurting others to compensate for her own hurt. I feel for her, though. Her relegation to the periphery this season is demonstrated in numerous ways: the costume designers have her dressed in boring, middle-aged woman dresses, shoes with square heels, and the frumpiest button-up-to-the-chin nightgown for bed. When she was married to Don, she always wore sleeveless, silky or chiffony sleepwear. Not only has she gained weight, but there is nothing sexy or modern about anything Betty wears--in contrast to Megan who is clothed in stylish slacks, colorful blouses, and sits cross-legged on the floor to give Sally acting lessons in how to cry on demand. Betty lives in a very traditional looking suburban house and we hardly see her anywhere in it but the kitchen. No bedroom scenes between her and Henry, we see them at night in the kitchen, when neither can sleep and Henry cooks himself a steak since he "can't eat fish five nights a week." But, while I empathize with Betty and her unhappy life, I'm frustrated by her continued inability to figure out what it is she really wants--or face up to the facts of what she probably knows: that suburban housewifery isn't cutting it for her. Her decision to exchange one dissatisfying husband for another was the wrong one. The Weight Watchers leader tells the group before Thanksgiving, "The food is just a symbol of all the other things. We should fill ourselves up with our children, our husbands, our homes." Betty looks disturbed hearing this. She knows that her children, husband, and home aren't enough to fill her, yet she lacks the courage to search for what truly would make a difference. So, on Thanksgiving, she sits with her scanty plate of food and offers the childish statement of thanks: "I'm thankful that I have everything I want and nobody has anything better." It's a lie and she knows it, but until she's willing to do the hard work of going after what's not a lie, all she will be is a vampire, sucking the blood of those around her--but not truly nourishing herself.

Pete Campbell is another childish vampire who feels deprived of the happiness he'd like to experience, but doesn't know what it would entail. So, like Betty, he goes after what his privileged culture tells him should make him happy: in his case, the next professional success and another submissive woman. When these elude him, he lashes out, rather than do the hard work of searching within for what might really lead him to contentment. He clearly enjoys getting on the elevator with three of the named partners of his firm and gloating over his new "friend" at the New York Times, who wants to write a story about the "hip" firms, including SCDP. But, he crows, they shouldn't expect to be interviewed because the reporter "just wants to talk to me." Come Sunday, however, the paper's magazine includes the story without any reference to their agency. Pete wakes Don with an angry phone call; he looks disheveled and old in his pajamas and rumpled hair, sputtering into the phone, indignant at being left out. Don snaps at him: "Don't wake me up to throw your failures in my face." Pete is only thirty-two years old, already a junior partner in an up-and-coming firm, but sees nothing but failures littered across his path. He also has the other symbol of success for the upper-class: a suburban wife and child, but he's not happy with them either, so continues to desire another man's wife. He lamely fantasizes that the Times Magazine article will bring Howard's wife back to him, imagining her sliding into his office dressed only in black leather underwear under her coat. When this doesn't materialize either and he has to listen to Howard crow about his "girl" in the city, Pete nastily suggests that his train buddy spend Thanksgiving in the city with his girlfriend and Pete will go to his house and screw his wife. "Good luck with that," the startled Howard laughs, but then muses, "I guess the grass is always greener, right?" He's right; Pete is always looking with jealousy at the other side, so he's always sucking any happiness out of the side that he's on--and the people like Trudy and Don and Roger who live there with him.

Roger is the ultimate vampire of the episode as he seeks to compensate for his greatly decreased professional prestige by going after the Manischewitz account and sucking the blood out of both Michael and Jane in the process. It was rather sad watching Bert Cooper approach Roger with the secret news of the chance at the "Jewish wine" account. "Don't you think we can do this on our own?" he asks. "Pete Campbell's good for our business, but this requires your finesse--and your Semitic wife." Roger still has finesse, but he's dumped his Jewish wife and lacks ideas, so he needs to go hunting. In a replay of his transaction with Peggy earlier in the season, he this time calls Michael into his office (Jews are clearly so "other" to Roger that he couldn't possibly do business with Jewish clients without Jewish input) and pays him $200 in cash for a couple of good ideas that he wants "by sundown on Friday." "You can wipe your ass with 200 bucks," the always direct Ginsberg tells Roger, who just muses to himself, "I gotta start carrying less cash." The $200 buys him a great ad idea to sell to the wine maker over dinner and, to Roger's credit, he doesn't directly claim the idea as his own, rather alluding to having picked the brains of the creative people to be able to show them what the agency is capable of. Michael can take pretty good care of himself, though being bled for his ideas. The price for Jane's participation in the evening is much higher. She complains to Roger that their apartment has too many memories for her and she can't really start her life over until she's living someplace new. He buys her a new apartment because, of course, if an insensitive Gentile like Roger is going to meet Jewish clients, he thinks he has to be able to show them that he thinks "Jewish women are the most beautiful women in the world." But, Jane's new apartment is going to cost her more than an appearance at Roger's business dinner. On the way back, he demands to be shown what he's just paid a lot of money for and, once inside, makes a move on her. She tries, if rather feebly, to get him to stop, but we next see them the morning after, Roger happily and obliviously walking out of the bathroom to a despondent Jane, wrapped in a blanket on the couch: "You ruined this," she tells him, since now this apartment will have memories of their failed relationship too. "You get everything you want. And you still had to do this," she justifiably throws at him. "I feel terrible," he responds, unconvincingly. He is the unmodern vampire without a conscience.

Finally, we have Don--an intended victim of Betty's vampirism, turning vampire himself on employees when it suits him. It was fun seeing Don be creative again. Going through Ginsberg's "shit I gotta do" folder sparked something in him and he stayed late at work dictating his ideas into a tape recorder and pitching them with the others at their meeting the next morning. He was smiling, clearly enjoying himself as one of the creative group, rather than just the boss listening to ideas. Michael--always the direct one--tells Don how impressed he is that he can not write for so long and then come up with the great devil idea. But, while Michael's funny snowball fight idea for the Sno Ball ad campaign is supposed to be sold along with Don's to the client, Don leaves it in the cab and just pitches his own. "I don't like going in with two ideas," he tells Michael when confronted. "It's weak." Don's ambition and desire for something to add to his own portfolio take over as he goes in for the bite. "I feel bad for you," Ginsberg, the double blood donor of the evening, tells him. "I don't think about you at all," Don retorts. Like Roger, he is in a position of power, ready and able to suck what he needs from others to maintain his position. Dark shadows indeed.

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