This week’s episode of Mad Men treated us to a blend of themes that are highlighting ideas that have always been important to the Mad Men universe, but have never been explored in this manner. There were a lot of detailed subtleties – definitely an episode to pay attention to – from very specific sound editing (vacuums, constant radio chatter) to continued emphasis on doorways (Vulture discusses doorways as one of several symbols that will play into importance this season). We also get a disturbing taste of Don’s past, which we always knew about but never saw in the way we do in the episode. This was a more emotional episode for the crew, exploring character more than pushing us forward in any particular space and time. The main themes that grip at our emotions in this episode involve Women, War, and Wants. Let’s explore by theme.
The relationship the Mad Men ad men have with women has always been complex. But this is another moment where it really gets put into the forefront. Specifically, the women in this episode are put in a challenging position, a wounded position, specifically. What ties the three primary female story arcs together are symbols of blood and pregnancy/menstruation.
Peggy, still learning what it means to be a woman and a leader in a male-dominated industry, tries a different, gentler angle with her creative team, thanks to the suggestion of her secretary (who she really seems to get along with – the secretary even hints that Peggy is nurturing and encouraging with her, the way Peggy wanted to be with Dawn last season) The kickback to Peggy’s failed efforts of trying to be more understanding and encouraging is a quiet but cruel joke from her ragtag crew of boys, leaving her a powder product to help alleviate the undesirable symptoms of the period. The powder haunts her, as she approaches her new boss Ted with it, and he brushes it off, then when she makes he habitual call to Stan at SCDP, reaching for her booze with the powder just glaring at her. Nothing can point out the pitfalls of a woman in a position of leadership like the recognition of this glaring (and natural) part of the female body and female experience. Even though Peggy is in a seat of power, it’s still a long fight to really taste the glory that she has observed Don to have.
In a surprising turn, we have a prominent Trudy storyline. I found it odd at first, to open the show with the end of a dinner party, with Pete flirting with the women and Trudy acting coy with their husbands. My first thought was, “Oh God, are they swingers now?” The openness Trudy has with this interaction was curious, until the crescendo of their story arc occurs. Pete now has that apartment Trudy promised him at the end of Season 5, and he has taken to it the way we would expect him to – inviting women back for a roll in the hay. The woman he invites back here is one of his neighbors, who in the cold open he promises Broadway tickets to. She is tentative at first, but goes forth with it, relishing in her city romp. However, Trudy and Pete hear blood curdling screams at their door – clearly the woman couldn’t keep it from her husband that she slept with Pete, and Trudy and Pete just hear her husband yell, “She’s your problem now, Pete Campbell!” Her face is scratched and bloodied – total mutilation for her mistake. Trudy in a moment of understanding takes the opportunity to usher their neighbor to safety, while Pete tries to push away and hide the problem, also scolding her for her indiscretion. Pete gets a little of his comeuppance here when Trudy confronts him about being reckless with his affairs, hinting that she knew he’s cheating on her but didn’t expect it to bite them in the ass in their own neighborhood. While it’s great that she puts her foot down, telling Pete she’s not going to just divorce him and be a symbol of pity, and she’s setting the rules for Pete not to come home, there’s still the sense of loss and defeat for her. Also important to note that when she returns home from getting the neighbor to a hotel, she enters a doorway – from the darkness of the bedroom, to the light of the bathroom (bathroom – periods – blood – gruesome imagery, but must be connected) And also – the symbol of the bloody towel is the last thing we see before we leave this storyline. A manifestation of her own battle wounds in her marriage?
Then, we have Megan, who really has shown herself to be an emotional ball since her decision to pursue acting in Season 5. Perhaps what she reveals is why she appears to have been aloof and distant from Don at the start of the season – after getting emotional from firing the maid, she reveals to Sylvia, the neighbor who is sleeping with Don, that she just had a miscarriage. This takes an unexpected emotional toll on Megan, who showed hesitation to the idea of bearing a child with Don. She looks much more a broken woman now, and not just because she failed in fulfilling a pregnancy – her eyes are sunken in a little, and she never looks as glamorous as she usually does. She is in a downtrodden position. On top of it all, she admits feeling guilty for kind of wanting the pregnancy to fail – Megan clearly has trouble with her own maternal instincts, enough so that she never told Don about the pregnancy until it has failed. It is interesting that instead she hides this vital part of her womanhood from Don, creating her own distance from Don after they established the common understanding of his troubled past. I’m interested to see in the aftermath of distancing herself due to her pregnancy if Megan will begin to see Don has returned to his disloyal ways.
Lastly, we have Don’s flashbacks to growing up in a brothel, paired interestingly with his affair with Sylvia. The initial image of Sylvia in this episode is directly contrasted against a particular prostitute in the whorehouse he moves into with his mother, who is notably pregnant with his younger brother. Young Don is clearly at the verge of puberty, curious about this one prostitute who coyly beckons him, even though she shouldn’t be. His masculine hunger drives him more and more to Sylvia, even having them secretly meeting by a doorway for their trashroom. The final image we get, aside him in lustful passion in Sylvia’s arms, is young Don spying on his pregnant mother about to service a customer, the imagery of her lying down pregnant implying not only birth (and the natural cycles of the female body) but submission – very striking image that hints at how Don views women at all. More on this in a bit.
A major theme that crosses through the episode is War, not just the Vietnam war, but also the struggles to make it in the ad industry. The whole first half of the episode is marked with radio and TV broadcasts updating on the Vietnam war, and we find them at the point of the Tet Offensive, when the ceasefire is violated with an attack from the Viet Cong. The news of the war is broadcast primarily in the scenes with Pete at home, possibly hinting the end of his ceasefire with Trudy (immediately following we of course get the Trudy declaration of independence) Dr. Arnie Rosen also openly mentions his shock at this event at the dinner he has to promptly leave for a house call. The idea of war and ending a ceasefire then becomes more prominent between Peggy and her new firm and SCDP, for two different clients. First, Heinz Beans declares their own sort of war against their partnering division, Ketchup, with their rep telling Don and Ken that he will pull their account if they even talk to Ketchup about doing an ad campaign. The threads of war here start wearing thin. As Stan reveals this flub to Peggy over the phone, which Ted asks about, Ted moves forward and lands a meeting with Ketchup, recognizing the opportunity with “the Coca Cola of condiments.” As Peggy is called to war, she is doubtful (again, showing the differences between her leadership being a woman versus what a man would do in this situation) – she knew that this fact was revealed to her in confidence, and doesn’t want to rock the boat. She quietly takes the dossier on Ketchup at the end, and I can just hear the echoing of Ted chiming in that hearing the downfalls of the place she left behind can be satisfying. Lastly, Herb, our creepy Jaguar rep from Englewood, tries to coerce SCDP to change their ad strategy to focus on local business advertising, thus trying his hand at controlling the account he helped land. Don prompts the drums of war by sneakily botching Herb’s plan, his feigned attempt of selling the idea of radio ads instead convincing the Jaguar reps to stick with the national campaign. What will Herb’s dissatisfaction lead to – more nights with Joan, who digs at Herb as he tries to cozy up to her in his office? We’re about to witness a sea of change, just as the US is experiencing a change in the war abroad. Lots of cards in the air here, with only small hints at what could happen next.
We get a very well-written dinner scene between Don and Sylvia filled with the subtext of wants. Don and Sylvia ask each other, tensely, what they want for dinner, but hint at more carnal desires. But how else do these wants play into their lives, and what is it leading to? Sylvia seems to potentially want more, throwing out the dreaded line of “let’s be careful not to fall in love.” But does Don even really know what he wants? Other than, of course, bedding Sylvia. Don gets a very superficial fulfillment of his wants, but we know this can only implode on itself when he tires of it (I mean, he even reveals to Sylvia he wants all this to “stop”) He and Pete primarily seem a little muddled in what their desires really comprise of, neither really having a steady clue of what the want, evidenced by their continued roster of affairs (and consequential blunders within those affairs). We see confusion as well in what Megan really wants, as she confesses her miscarriage. Could she perhaps have finally accepted the fulfillment of her role as a mother? Is she unsure of her role as the housewife (in which she continually looks more and more out of place)? We see Joan as well in a moment of brief doubt, the reminder of how she got what she thinks she “wanted” (the partnership, the leadership role) waltzing in and haunting her. And Peggy as well, in being called to “war” against SCDP, is unsure what she wants, tentatively looking through the folder on Ketchup. What sort of success does she really want, and how does she want it? We leave the episode with a lot of questions, with answers for each person hopefully soon to come.
And, last notes:
-This Bob Benson character is a little eerily chipper for his job. It’s kind of strange and off-putting, to see such optimism floating around the grim environment of SCDP. Also telling that in his moment of trying to brown nose with Pete, he is talking over a vacuum, kind of reflecting that no one is really trying to listen to him at this point anyway. What will it take for him to be “part of the team,” like he projects himself to be?
-Really loving Linda Cardellini going toe-to-toe with Jon Hamm as his new mistress. I know she won’t last long, but I am enjoying her stay.
-I’m curious about the symbolism of Dr. Arnie Rosen as this beacon of wisdom. Obviously he is integral to the story as the husband of the woman Don is having an affair with, but he has these elevator moments with Don and poignant conversation with him, always revealing something (he is the one who outwardly discusses Vietnam) Not quite a guardian angel, but some stable observer giving us clues, like some side character in a Shakespearean play. I’m interested to see his continued involvement in the storylines of the season.