Monday, May 12, 2014

"Walk the Line"

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Five, "The Runaways"

As Waylon Jennings sings at the end of the episode, a number of characters feel like somebody's "been stepping on my toes and I'm getting pretty tired of it." Lou is fed up with his crew at the office whom he sees as a "bunch of flag-burning snots," who have "a thing to learn about patriotism and loyalty," as well as about taste in comic strips; Betty finally realizes--HELLO!--that a traditional 1960s marriage isn't supposed to include the wife thinking--even in Italian; Henry's put out by his wife's expression of her unpopular opinion on the war because it might cost him votes (who knew there were that many Westchester County residents opposed to the war, even in 1969?); Megan--I'm assuming--worries that Don has sent a woman pregnant with his child to her home for care and money; Sally KNOWS that her mother is out to stomp all over her toes and isn't shy about speaking out, while her poor little brother (weren't those two just a few years apart when the show started? now he seems to be about five or six years younger) fears having to go through another divorce. From the opening shot of Stan laughing at Lou's comic strip about Scout, who can "take anything but an order," this episode is about authority: those who desperately try to hold on to the bit they have left and those who want to defy the authorities weighing down upon them. Some are fiercely trying--like Waylon--to walk a line, but by the end of "The Runaways," Don looks like the only one who's succeeded (for now, at least), while the tragic Ginsberg has plunged headlong over it.

It's unusual to witness Betty as the character voicing the insight that grounds an episode, but this time she is. After Henry diagnoses "wildness in kids" as a "national disease" and their neighbor Mike opines that things aren't just bad in Vietnam, they're "falling apart here too," Betty says, "Well, I don't know that those things are unrelated. I mean first the kids start off protesting and the next thing you know every authority is up for grabs." While I disagree with Betty--I think most of the student protests in the '60s were a good thing--she is spot on that challenges to authority in the political realm are connected to those in the personal realm. Once people see it as okay to talk back, they'll do so whether it's to their parents, their teachers, the President, or the CEO of Dow Chemical. And not all of their protests will be important and meaningful; sometimes they'll just get angry, or aggressive, or bratty and throw some rocks at street lights in the affluent suburbs without leaving a note explaining why, if they know why. Was that just meaningless vandalism or--as the guests at the Francis' party seem to think--a big 'fuck you' to the pristine order the Westchester adults try desperately to impose upon the chaos of 1969?

With that scenario in the background, Betty is primed to see Sally's appearance at the house with black eyes and bandaged nose as an intentional affront to Betty's arduous preparations to marry Sally off to a suitable man who would never condescend to accept a trophy wife with a less-than-perfect nose. No "Come here, sweetheart. Does it hurt?" or even, "Seriously, you're fifteen and you're playing sword fights with golf clubs? But, I hope you're not in pain." No--all Betty can offer to her battered, self-confessed 'idiot' daughter is "That's your face, young lady!"

But, even as she's chastising her daughter for not following the traditional feminine script, and getting an earful from the non-conformist Sally, Betty is also starting to realize--finally--that there is something wrong with that script. Even someone as thick and as limited by self-imposed blinders as Betty is can't fail to be insulted when her husband, in multiple arguments over a couple of days, says things like "From now on, keep your conversation to how much you hate getting toast crumbs in the butter and leave the thinking to me." Betty's having a bit of a crisis. The woman who's always tried hard to walk the line between doing what society and her mother have told her she's supposed to do and what she might be interested in doing is talking back: "I'm tired of everyone telling me to shut up! I'm not stupid. . . . Guess what? I think all by myself!" She tells Henry that she doesn't know what she's going to do. I'm not going to hold out much hope that maybe this time she will do something outside the box; I've been disappointed before, but....

And in the meantime....While Don's first wife is expressing very conservative views about Vietnam, but also staging her own rebellion in the personal sphere, his second wife is nursing her sexual jealousy of Don--which is not unjustified in general, but is in the instance of Stephanie--when the pregnant niece of Anna Draper shows up at her house, and then jumping to the other extreme when she initiates the three-way with Don and her friend. What's up there? Okay she was, as Don pointed out, stoned, but I don't think it was just the drugs talking. Was this her way of trying to contain what she sees as Don's inability to be sexually faithful? If I can't have a faithful husband, I'm going to control the terms on which he has sex with someone else? It's going to be when I can participate too? Or is this Megan just trying to fit into what she thinks everyone hip is supposed to be doing? We first see her dancing provocatively with the young man at the party, but she's keeping an eye on Don while doing so. She then orders Don to "Kiss her. I know you want to." The next morning, she's trying to be cool about making coffee in the apartment where both Don and her friend are, but as soon as Don leaves, she starts to cry into her hands. She's not been real successful at walking the line between what she's "supposed" to do and what she wants to do.

Then, there's poor Ginsberg. He's exhibited scary signs of mental instability before. In the past, he told Peggy that Martians spoke to him. This time, he believes it's the computer that has a plan to "turn us all homo." "Am I Cassandra?" he asks, referring to the ancient Greek character cursed by Apollo with the gift of prophecy and the fate of never being believed. Since the computer first arrived at SC&P, he's seen it ominously. And he's right that it represents some of the partners' desire to stifle the creative team, replacing them with a completely rational, mechanized business model. And, his fears about computers replacing humans in some spheres and about technology's effects on human creativity have proven to be somewhat warranted. But, I don't want to reduce Ginsberg's psychotic break to a metaphor of the tragic components of the conflict between computers and humans. The young man who spent the first five years of his life in a Nazi concentration camp has oppression and control from horrible outside forces impressed into his very being. I couldn't help but think of HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey" as Ginsberg developed his ideas about the office computer. Did he see that movie when it came out in 1968, relating too heavily to the fictional story of a computer that manipulates and then kills people before being brought down itself? Whatever the genesis of this iteration of his mental illness and breakdown, the image of him being rolled out on the gurney, yelling "Get out while you can!" as the tearful Peggy and somber other women watch is one of the saddest and most serious of the show. While Don may or may not have successfully walked the multiple lines drawn out in that meeting with Cutler, Lou, and the tobacco men (the image of him whistling for a cab at the end suggests he at least THINKS he did), this episode was dark and portends the season (or at least this half of it) ending more on an Altamont note than a Woodstock one.


  1. Good god, I must have been raised by a witch, if all the reviews about Betty's parenting have seen are any indication. 'No
    "Come here, sweetheart. Does it hurt?"
    or even, "Seriously, you're fifteen and
    you're playing sword fights with golf
    clubs? But, I hope you're not in pain."
    No--all Betty can offer to her battered,
    self-confessed 'idiot' daughter is
    "That's your face, young lady!"'
    My own mother threatened bodily harm, death, hell's fury and all kinds of awful scenarios if I did anything she disapproved of. Especially if that had to do with my own safety. Much like Betty, she never actually did those things, or if she did I wouldn't be in a condition to write this comment. I can't help but notice that people's views of motherhood are very narrowminded, and the views on Betty's intentions are even worse.

    It seems that if you're not a sweet-talking, cuddling, warm, frantic, emotional martyr, then you're not a good mother. In fact, you're not even a good person! People go to great lengths to analyze Don and his complexities, yet refuse to do the same to Betty. Nobody ever admits that beneath her sharp tongue and fury, Betty is actually afraid for Sally. She's been raised to believe that looks are everything and if Sally's face is disfigured, who will want her? How will she live up to her full potential as a woman? People have refused to understand Betty so much that they don't even see the worry behind her actions. Betty LOVES her children believe it or not! Unlike Don, who sought to leave his kids TWICE! She worries about them, goes with them to field trips, plays with them, looks after them. She always has! When she had that death scare, her biggest fear was the kids. What will happen to her kids? Who will take care of them, cause you KNOW nobody does it more than Betty. Not even precious Don. You all want her to "break traditional feminine behaviour" or whatever yet you force her into another one. The one of a cuddly, madonna of your fantasies. If Sally had spoken to my mom like that, she would have done a LOT worse than threaten to break her arm and send her to her room. What kind of child speaks to her mother that way? Honestly, how dare she? People applaud Sally's ruthless sass of this episode and I'm sitting staring at the TV wondering what gives this child the right to be so rude. Betty is a less than stellar parent. There are times where she deals with her kids with inempathy and childishness. Sometimes even with downright cruelty. Yet she believes this is what parenting is. Her mother treated her like that and she even wept once to Don, crying because she's done everything her mother did. She doesn't understand that her own mother's behaviour was also problematic. She certainly doesn't deserve the loathing that she is so constantly subjected to by the audience. Seems like Don is not the only person who want to live out their perfect mommy fantasies through Betty. Fans do too.

    1. You're right about fans--and bloggers/critics--living out fantasies about motherhood (and probably womanhood in general) through Betty. Oscar Wilde once wrote that all literary criticism is autobiography. And, your point about Sally's behavior is well-taken. I should have balanced out my critique more. I think one reason that people "go to great lengths to analyze Don and his complexities" more than Betty is that Don is written much more complexly. To me, the writing of Betty's character offered more complexity when she was married to Don than it has for the last few seasons. I've been disappointed in where they have taken her, but you've given me something to think about as I consider writing about her in the future.

  2. I agree about how they never gave Betty more storylines outside of Don. Probably because she had no life outside of Don and her family. I get what you mean though. Perhaps people might have given her the benefit of the doubt if she had more going on in her life and she succeeded at it. I was always fascinated by how Betty could have chosen anybody in the world to marry. She could have gotten a rich italian husband. Easy. Yet she fell in love with this nobody from nowhere who had almost nothing. She knew he grew up poor. She didn't judge. She loved him anyway. I think she craved otherness more than she would openly admit. Betty is intelligent, perverse and curious. She's also unpredictable and adventurous. The writers never explored that side of her. Thus, Betty's "hatred" for her kids and her meanness or whatever is all they have to focus on.

    I always found it interesting about how women should behave according to the media. Its quite tragic. A woman MUST be a good mother. How you do it is also important. My mother treated us as more of a general than those sweet ladies in the baby ads, yet I never doubted I was loved. Being a good mother is necessary and it defines you as a human being. Just google how many sites list moments where Betty is a bad mom. Compare that to sites where they list Don's inadequacies as a father. Don does not have to be a good father. Fatherhood is an option for him. I don't think its fair.

    Another thing that's necessary is attractiveness. Remember the jokes about Fat Betty? Ofcourse. Remember the Jokes about tubby Don? Ofcourse not. Don's looks have significantly deteriorated since S1 but I have never heard a word of criticism.

    Forgive my diatribe. I'll stop now.

  3. That's an interesting point about how Betty likely could have married anyone, yet chose a nobody. I hadn't thought of it like that. It is an interesting feature of her character. And there were a number of intriguing moments for Betty in the first three seasons: her time in therapy sessions, their trip to Italy, her reactions to the Kennedy assassination to name just a few; had the writers followed up on them and developed her responses to and thoughts on them, that would have served to bring more complexity to her character. It makes me wonder why they didn't. It's not just sexism; there are other complicated female characters on the show (Peggy, Joan), but they do bring out some of the worst bad mother stereotypes with Betty. Is it because she's not part of the world of the office? In many ways the scripts focused on people's work are more interesting than those focused on characters' personal lives. Is she marginalized because it's first and foremost a show about those who work in advertising and she doesn't? I don't know. Something to think about.

    And you're right about different media expectations and responses around women's looks and motherhood than around men's looks and fatherhood not being fair. I thought the writers did a fairly good job of presenting Betty's struggles and emotions over her weight gain. It was one of the better plot lines for showing some more depth to her character post-marriage to Don. I never saw the jokes out on the Internet about "Fat Betty."