This week’s episode of Mad Men was a special sort of episode in that, once again, we see a lot of development for character, and subtler hints at potential major plot points to explode in the final two episodes. I’ll admit, I thought it was just another one of those soapy episodes, what with the Pete and Peggy storylines playing through and seeming – at least at the surface – insignificant to the grander whole. The last few minutes of this episode, though, are going to stick with me through to the end of the season. The acting, the staging, and the symbolism were so powerful and well constructed, that I can let the darkly humorous soap opera plotlines slide. The main people to observe from this last installment are Peggy, Pete, Sally, and Don. Let’s take a look.
We were introduced a few weeks ago to Pete’s mother and her recent bouts with Alzheimer’s, or some other form of dementia. The always-have-an-answer-for-everything Bob Benson referred a nurse to Pete. We see Pete’s mother visit the office so that Pete can give his payment to Manolo (who had a sort of terrible cheesy accent AND appearance – my one total down note for the whole ep). During which, Pete asks Peggy to entertain his mother while Pete talks to Manolo privately about his mother’s condition and terms of payment. We get a nice twang of a callback (the first of two major Pete-Peggy callbacks) when Pete’s mother brings up a “child they have together.” Peggy is caught off guard, until she realizes his mother thinks she’s Trudy. This only prompts Pete’s mother to confide further and discuss her blossoming relationship with Manolo. At dinner, Peggy and Pete strike a very familiar chord with each other again, where Peggy decides to hint that Pete’s mother asked her about their child, thinking she was Trudy. (Loved the subtext here as Peggy, knowing she was about to hit a hot topic, chose her words wisely) This causes Pete to ask Peggy what else his mother talked about, which was Manolo. Pete went from being afraid to fly to proclaiming he couldn’t be less afraid of it by the end of their conversation.
What’s been interesting about the Pete’s mother storyline is we have another look at the Mad Men universe’s trouble with mothers. Everyone seems to have a fragile relationship with their mother (Don, Roger, Peggy’s REJECTION of motherhood, Megan even – with Marie and her own miscarriage, and definitely Sally), and we’ve seen Pete get stuck with his mother’s condition thanklessly by his brother. His difficulties coping with the condition are magnified by horrifying images of his mother’s sexuality. There’s always been something disturbing about how the men treat sexuality – especially given how open most of the men are to adultery and just sleeping around in general – but how it becomes a double standard when they try to understand that from the woman’s perspective. We get more discomfort of sexuality, though, when Pete confronts Bob Benson on his choice of a nurse. Bob drops a huge hint about doing anything for someone you really care for and admire (amazing shot of the leg touch and Bob’s creepy charming clean smile) – which Pete quietly but coldly turns down (“and tell him I think it’s disgusting” – what a burn!) What do we ultimately take away from this? We already know Pete is frustrated and powerless in the firm, he’s been rendered powerless in his situation with his own mother. Bob’s true intentions of his constant shadowing is just another thing Pete feels contributes to what looks to be his inevitable downfall (what that downfall consists of has yet to be seen)
Whereas last week I discussed Peggy being caught in the middle at work, this week we see Peggy pinned against all the male relationships she forged in the business, and how she tries to manage those relationships. She was well aware from the start of her career that to play the boys’ game she’d have to dig down deep with them. She managed to not sleep with her superior, but managed to dally with an account executive. She gained the respect of Don after he quietly refused her way back in Season 1, and it took time for her to develop a peaceful relationship with Pete. In this new firm, she’s developed similar close relationships with her superior and her peer, both of which resulted in some form of romantic consummation. Now without Abe, Peggy is in a wonderfully powerful but vulnerable position – projecting her independence, but still longing for the approval and trust and companionship of a man. At the dinner with Ted and Pete, she’s wonderfully positioned not in the middle of the two of them, but in clear view of both of them, and with them clearly in her vision as well. Each man sensed the closeness and flirtation Peggy has with the other, Ted looking over suspiciously as Peggy and Pete share in a laugh together, Pete looking on as Ted showers Peggy in compliments. Again, the Peggy-Pete callback was great in functioning as a dramatic tool for Pete’s story as well as planting a seed for Peggy, where Ted kinda looks a little jealous of their rapport. Later, we see the trials and tribulations of Peggy living alone in da hood, so to speak, when she deals with a rat. Her meek feminine side comes out as she approaches her living room in fear, and runs out of her apartment to avoid the rat that won’t get out. She finally buys a trap, but the rat is caught in it. Who does Peggy call? Stan! Their rapport is also wonderful and flirtatious, but Stan understands this and draws the line and tells Peggy to just let the rat die overnight.
This totally seems a humorous distraction for Peggy, but I now wonder what the “rat” in her apartment really means. Death is a constant in Mad Men, and for her to face killing something in the apartment she didn’t really want, the traces of its blood smearing her floor – this has to be foreshadowing of something. Maybe a contributor to the Bob Benson as suspicious character theory? Or is this simply perhaps an elaborate and gruesome metaphor for Don’s adultery being discovered…
Don and Sally
The war finally hits home for Don… sort of. Sylvia and Arnie Rosen’s son is found hiding in Don’s apartment, upset about his draft status being bumped up to 1A after returning his draft notice in protest. Don was otherwise playing it well the last few episodes, cutting off the relationship with Sylvia (or really, the other way around) – with the opportunity to help Sylvia available, his desires for her rekindle and he becomes so distracted by finding a way to help (also at the naive suggestion of Megan). Meanwhile, Sally is dallying with crushes and sexuality herself – she and her friend Julie are the only two female members of their Model UN going into the city. Betty refuses to let them stay at the hotel, and Sally asks to stay at Don’s, to which she complies. Sally and Julie meet Mitchell (the Rosen’s son) and are quite taken by him. They get very girly and giggly, writing a list of things they like about him that Julie sneakily leaves at the Rosen’s through the trash room door. By this point, Don also finds a way to help Mitchell – after awkwardly bringing it up at a client dinner, Ted chides Don for messing around then offers to put in a good word in the Air Force for Mitchell to at least train as a pilot. Don calls Sylvia, who is emotional and overwhelmed by this saving grace. And in starts the wonderful symbolism coming into this storyline – the significance of the trash room door as an entryway into the adultery has already been noted in other recaps, and I’ve hinted as much as well. Sally enters the very adult-oriented building, asking for keys she does not have – keys she perhaps isn’t ready for (i.e. adulthood, though she constantly tries to act like it, and sexuality, which she’s discussed coyly and almost shyly with her friend Julie, or better yet, truth). The doorman reluctantly complies to give Sally the keys. Sally enters the elevator doors which close in on her (we all know how much elevators have played some role in the show). As she enters through the Rosen’s trashroom, through the next doorway she finds Don and Sylvia in flagrante. Don races downstairs to try to find Sally, and we see him TRAPPED in the elevator (trapped with the weight of his guilt!). When Don comes back home, his last conversation with Sally is THROUGH a door, where they both quietly acknowledge, explain, and deal with the emotions rattling between them (buffered by that lovely little door)
Don’s relationship with Sally has been pushed more and more into prominence over the last few seasons. I’ve always believed that this relationship was so significant because this is a new type of relationship with a female character that Don has yet to contend with – he’s had his fair share of experience with the mother-son relationship (or lack thereof), and we know how he otherwise treats women, but what of his own daughter? What will it mean for him when she finally “grows up,” whatever that really means for Sally? We saw hints dropped last season, where Don stepped in as the conservative, “good” father telling Sally to not dress so mature, not wear makeup. We’ve seen Sally encounter the realities of adulthood – thoughtless murder, random acts of sex (remember the infamous Sterling and Marie moment?). Now it comes to a head with Sally catching Don in the act. I feel like Sally always knew her father had it in him – I mean, I’m sure she understood the nature of Don and Megan’s marriage. We’ve also seen signs of Sally trusting her father much more in general, even with the awareness that Don is not easily accessible even to his own kids. This moment ruptures her trust in him, and scars her in a way that none of those other “truths” of life really can. The one who would take Don’s side – and who Betty points out is quite like her father – now has to contend with this weakness, dirtiness, and truth about her father. It’s like another moment where Don flubs up because he was on a “love leave” of sorts. We can only wonder now what this will mean for Sally and Don before the end of the season – will something else drastic happen between them? Will Sally alienate herself from both her parents?
Overall, this was an episode of our major characters we’ve followed all along making shocking discoveries in their home lives. It feels like the foreshadowing and build-up to some grander form of chaos to come, especially now that the draft is real.
Before we end, a few odds and ends:
-Surprising turn for Bob Benson! Are we to assume he’s bisexual because he was taking a beach trip with Joan, which seemed to be under romantic pretenses? Is he cozying up to these people seated closely in the power structure of former SCDP for a reason?
-I feel more and more that Ted Chaogh is the antithesis of Don. He was the other storyline of the episode, showing him contending with his home life, in which his wife was disappointed and dissatisfied. Ted is the same position as Don – a creative force, a partner, a commanding lead in his business. He’s been doing everything right for the firm ever since the merger – he’s the one securing, maintaining, and sealing the relationships with the clients (part of what I suspect is a larger plot to usurp power from the former SCDP partners). The difference here is that Ted is NOT distracted. Don has been having hiccups since his marriage to Megan because he’d find himself distracted – if not by Megan, by something else. Drugs, Sylvia. It affects him so deeply that it affects his work. Even with Ted’s home life on the rocks, his head is level at the office, even with his attraction to Peggy. And whereas Don would look like he’s just fulfilling a father role when he sees his kids, you see this different shimmer in Ted’s face when he surprises his sons, watching TV with their mother asleep on the bed. I have a feeling Ted’s star is going to clash with Don’s, and we’re going to start seeing Don’s star fall.
-Roger Sterling juggling. No other words necessary.
Two more weeks – let’s see where and how that ball drops on the Mad Men universe!