Again, this week’s episode of Mad Men stirred up a lot of feelings, feelings that sunk deeper and deeper in all the little quiet moments of tension. Big things happened in this episode, but I had a lot of problems with it. Everyone seems to be a one-dimensional caricature of themselves, both new and old characters, and the behavior of people seems illogical based on what we’ve previously established. Overall, there was something to be said about insecurity, rejection, deception, and misleading assumptions as themes, but there’s something that really didn’t hit for me this time around. Let’s take a look.
We first see Don once again in the throes of his life of unemployment watching a movie. I knew this movie would be symbolic – the glamorous cars driving endlessly are the scenes that are played out for us from the film Model Shop, which ironically is about an unemployed man hanging in the balance going back and forth to see his actress girlfriend in LA. We then see Don trying to spy on the office yet again, when Dawn – amidst her new responsibilities – tries to relay a message from Megan’s agent. Herein lies the start of incorrect assumptions: Don assumes that Dawn’s primary responsibilities are still just as a secretary. He can probably hear the phones ringing a cacophonous chorus in the background while Dawn is trying to talk. Dawn is also too polite (possibly still respectful of Don’s dignity) to share that she has new responsibilities, meaning less time to dedicate as his faithful secretary. She eventually feels the pressure of mild distress, and confusion as to how to handle Don on the phone, and asks if she can put him on hold. He abruptly hangs up. This lovely, quiet, calm, polite performance continues later on in the episode. I really appreciate watching Dawn’s slow rise in this office – it’s an excellent way for the show to integrate a story of race amidst the stories of power hunger in an increasingly chaotic world.
The beginning of insecurities arise when Megan’s agent reveals her acts of desperation to get through to a director from a casting call that didn’t quite go her way. Megan’s agent implies perhaps there’s something Don needs to take control of. Don’s surprise visit to LA turns sour once he tries to confront Megan about what’s going on. Megan’s insecurities reveal themselves – although she seems to be holding it together living alone, I’m sure it’s not helpful at all for the man who left you behind to tell you to man up about your auditions. Megan also confronts Don about his work, why he creates this environment of not being around. Don knows he can no longer uphold the conceit about being at work – Megan immediately assumes he’s having another affair – so he reveals that he’s been on leave. Megan, tired of the lies NOW, kicks him out of her house.
Okay, here are two problems I have with this: 1) I kind of assumed (perhaps I am committing the wrongful assumptions as an audience member) that their marriage was definitively over because Megan realized at the season finale last year that Don was unthoughtful of her wants and wishes. She was mad at him for bringing up her hopes about LA, she goes and leaves her steady acting job, then Don takes LA away from her. You’d think that would be the last straw for her, right? You’d think she figured out Don’s deal by this point, right? As dramatic and definitive her stance was to kick him out, it felt very late. I guess she couldn’t kick him out of THEIR apartment, really HIS apartment, in the finale last year, but still, for her to keep pretending things were okay by Don letting her move to LA still? She’s a smart woman, and she could’ve seen right through that. Especially as the one who knows Don’s dirty PAST secrets. 2) Just on a pragmatic standpoint, does Megan really think she can go on without Don’s money living in THAT house in LA? It seems like yes, she’s getting work as an actress, but not enough to substantiate the house and lifestyle she’s living. But whatever. I guess not all things in television universes can be logical. They never usually are.
We then shift into Betty’s world, finally. She is now the only woman left in the Francis household – the images of the kitchen table with the family minus Sally are stark and powerful. Betty is pretty much drowning in her insecurity in that big old house. First, with her inability to connect with Sally, who I’m sure as a mother living in a house of men she’d hope would be an ally, she has to find ways to feel fulfillment as the woman, the mother with her two boys. It’s interesting we open with her catching up with her friend – remember her neighbor from Ossining? – and to hear that her friend finds fulfillment outside her family. Her insecurity as a mother drives her to force herself to be more part of her children’s lives. Her maid offers to chaperone Bobby’s field trip to the farm, but instead she volunteers to go. While there, Betty is clearly disconnected and distant from Bobby’s world. She’s a mere bystander, not a participator, and she finds ways to distance herself, i.e. making rude comments to herself about the cute teacher’s shirt being a little too sexy for the kids’ field trip (and then making this comment later again with a fellow mother who is just obliging by the act of being present for her kid). The scene takes a sharp turn when they get ready for a picnic lunch. Betty steps away to go to the bathroom – she misses Bobby’s act of courteousness, telling his friend he can’t hang out because his mom is with him. Instead, Betty falls victim to Bobby’s unthoughtfulness when she discovers he gave away her sandwich to another girl who was without a lunch. The gumdrops he got back become a sour punishment when Betty chides him for giving away her sandwich. There are several striking things about this moment. First, Betty just immediately assumes Bobby is inconsiderate and unthoughtful – perhaps reflecting more shades of Don. She has no idea that Bobby turned away a friend to be with her for lunch, and if you think about it, Bobby was offering food to a classmate who FORGOT their food. That’s actually super considerate. But the cost? Striking thing number two: the assumptions about Betty and HER relationship to food. We know she’s recovered from her depressed weight gain from seasons past. So I’m sure everyone is aware and sensitive about whether or not she will eat. Bobby defends his decision by pointing out he wasn’t sure Betty was even going to eat. Maybe she wasn’t. But Bobby’s incorrect assumption backfires, again throwing something that makes Betty insecure in her face. This is the best moment of acting for Bobby – his deep upset, and almost disgust while eating the gumdrops is incredible and raw. This moment unravels all this psychological tumult for Betty – enough that she continues to give Bobby the cold shoulder. She’s almost punishing him the way she would punish a MAN she were dating. Henry Francis tries to understand where she’s coming from (also chiming in: “did you eat today?”), assuring her she’s a good enough mother. But we leave Betty wondering, “Why don’t they love me?”
And “Why don’t they love me” is probably what Don asks of himself, as his world continues to unravel. He feels guilty about Megan, who is clearly falling way out of love with Don. And he gets continual rejection from SC&P. He shops himself around to a competitor – wanting to feel accepted by SOMEONE for his talent – and gets an offer. He immediately turns to Roger to reveal he got an offer. Roger, who seems this season to be the loyal defender of the men he brought up, tells Don (without consulting anyone else) to come into the office on Monday. This scene plays out rather brilliantly – cutting back and forth from Don anxiously watching time pass on his watch, waiting, really, to him inspecting the office and all its changes. He assumes everyone would welcome him back, but everyone tiptoes around him like they’re walking on eggshells. The only people who do welcome him back are the creatives. They’re the only ones who oblige Don’s ego by sharing what’s happening and riffing off ideas with him. The partners are all upset – even Joan – about Don’s unannounced reappearance. Dawn continues to oblige Don as well, not revealing she has new responsibility, that she’s not just the “get my coffee and lunch” girl (the shot of her looking into the creatives’ pit from the window in her office is a wonderful composition – an outside girl looking in, a girl now totally separate from the man she once knew)
What bothers me here is that when the partners finally meet to discuss everything, they all say, “Yeah, he was supposed to just look for another job,” somehow ALL forgetting he’s a partner until Roger reveals that they’d have to buy him out to totally get rid of him. Um, guys. REALLY? Cooper? COME ON. Anyway, they accept him back with several major stipulations, the biggest of which is that he has to answer to the very prickly Lou. I suppose Don accepting is a reveal of his insecurity – wanting to be back in his world so badly he’ll do it at whatever cost (we also know he probably was willing to take the lower position with a lower income from the other agency) – but perhaps he’s building himself up for a renewed takeover. But who knows. I still have issue with the idea of everyone undermining him. For the first time in a while, I’m really rooting for Don to show everyone what he’s made of.
My last note on this is they’ve really designed Lou to be such an antagonistic character but with no real flavor. Even the troubled characters on this show are humanizing, and Lou just seems very one dimensional. Peggy also seems uncharacteristically one dimensional, just wound up and bitchy because of her forlorn love. She acts cold and ungrateful to Don, as if this is supposed to do something for her ego. Yet, I otherwise read in her face missing the respect she gets from Don during pitch meetings when Lou just finds every way to reject her. Perhaps for Peggy, to deflect her constant rejection, she has to project it onto Don? Whatever it is, I hope this stops soon with Peggy. I want to root for her again.
Overall, a lot of troubling and unsettling things going on within the characters and around them. The way we get there seems to me a bit out of character for the show. But maybe things will pick up now that Don’s actually returned to his world.