Three episodes in and Mad Men continues its careful meditation on the lives of its central characters, only sprinkling the tertiary characters as foils as opposed to breathing so much life and a full storyline into them. I’m enjoying the slow burns here – the last two episodes have left much for me to reflect on afterward – and this episode ties in several themes that have either been at the heart of Mad Men all along or are coming to fruition with the passage of time. The main three (or four, as it were) characters featured in this week’s episode are pretty much called out on their shit, which does two things: 1) it lays bare some uglier things of their past they may find hard to let go, which really lends to 2) the times may change, but these people may not, and what will that ultimately bring to them?
Let’s start with Joan.
We see her first waking up alone in a bed, curtains closed. We’re not quite sure where she is, but she’s getting a collect call from her mother. She quickly reveals she’s taken a trip out to the LA branch of SCP. She seems relaxed, proud, happy. She’s fought so hard to earn the money, the position, and respect that would allow her to enjoy such perks like this. We realize this is her first trip out when she walks into the LA office and is a big fish in a very small pond – Lou Avery is basically the lone ranger running the joint out there. Joan mistakes a lost refined gentleman for a client, and strikes a connection she can’t let go – let’s not forget Joan seems to chase the older, more achieved man (Roger), so this fatal attraction should be no surprise. She takes up the man’s offer to dinner, and interestingly, after having seen her adoringly talk to her now 4 year old son on the phone from her hotel room, she instead offers what appears to be the projection of herself she wishes she had: just a singular, powerful woman. She notes her greatest success and her happiness comes from finally having the job she wants. She’s a woman who’s always been about the job, even when life happens. Let’s not forget she’s already been divorced, and she had otherwise given up on having the traditional nuclear family when Bob Benson tried to propose for them to have a sham marriage for appearance’s sake. Her date reveals he’s also divorced and is enjoying the freedom of both divorce and retirement, and he’s very forward in continuing to pursue Joan. We have to assume Joan’s taken it easy on her dating life for both work and her son (and probably in that order). Especially since she’s already been so sexualized at work, romance is definitely something that’s been more of a sidebar for her. When her LA date follows her to New York, though, the truth is revealed that she has a young boy. Realizing that her son could get in the way of potential happiness – her new squeeze eventually admits that he’s bothered by the fact Joan’s tied down to a young boy – Joan is ready to turn her back on her son, the mistakes of her past that hold her back: her failed marriage, and even the fact that her son is Roger’s biological son. It’s a painful moment to see her both rejected for such a shitty reason, then blow up at her babysitter for being late, causing Joan herself to not get to the one place of peace and redemption (work). She screams toward her son, at the babysitter, that “You’re ruining my life!” And you know she really means it for her son. She hesitates in the doorway to call back, still her back turned to her son, that she loves him. Her workwoman ruthlessness shows when the date shows up to apologize at her office and she’s ready to just send away her son – talk about really hiding away a reminder of the ugliness of your past! At least the guy is decent enough to talk her down from all that, for now.
Though you could argue the next central thing is really about Sally, Betty is at the heart of the next story, too. Betty and Sally definitely represent past and future here, with Sally understanding the very thing that is laid out in this episode – some things about people don’t change, even when things around them do. It’s not shocking that Betty is left completely oblivious to Sally’s continued friendship with Glenn Bishop. When he walks through the door of the Francis manse, though, you know that skeletons in the closet are about to come out. Glenn invites Sally to hang out, which Sally is willing to because she’s about to embark on a summer teen trip. But Betty comes through and is taken by this now handsome, almost fully developed man. If Sally never knew about the “relationship” these two had back when they were neighbors, she understands immediately as she stands between them in the foyer, her mother trying to push her off to get her purse. The veneer is shattered, though, when Glenn reveals he’s about to go into the war. Sally, the absolute caller-outter of bullshit, first lays it out on Glenn, questioning his motive to enlist. She is so maddened by this that she turns away the hang out date. Even though she tries to call and apologize, she’s heartbroken she can’t say goodbye to her friend. Betty, however, gets a second chance to have a moment with Glenn, who visits conveniently after Sally has gone on her trip. It’s interesting that these two share such a deep connection, because it is with Betty that Glenn reveals the truth – he’s still the emotional battered kid of yesteryear, joining the army to still avoid scolding and torment from his stepfather. This childlike sadness appeals to Betty, since her demeanor is definitely still stuck in a level of childishness. Glenn, making a point he’s finally 18, tries to lay it on Betty, and Betty, in an actual moment of self control, stops him. You know she wants to inside, but she is also good at knowing how to “play the role,” which of course has always been the thing that eats away at her inside. When Glenn walks out, Betty of course has a moment of repose to really feel the weight of sadness of losing one of the few people she seems to share a deeper connection with, even if the relationship is wildly inappropriate. She’s upset to the point where she gets rid of a very realistic looking toy gun of her son’s. How much more is she going to do about it? Probably not much. Why? Because she’s the mother, and a politician’s wife. Betty is definitely one of the more repressed characters of the series, never being able to say what she wants to say, or act the way she really wants to without reprimand. But in doing so, she sometimes doesn’t get the thing she may want or need, and here is another opportunity for genuine friendship (or whatever) wasted.
It’s interesting that Don’s story is so much about what lays ahead in the future. He’s literally asked by Roger to write a speech for an annual McCann event about what the future holds. It isn’t a surprise that Don struggles to write this speech. Why? Because he’s still cleaning up the mistakes of his past. We open with a woman opening the door to his apartment – it’s the realtor he’s hired to sell his house. She comments on the vast emptiness of the space and how it’ll be a hard sell. Essentially, people want a vision of their future in his home. And you can also say people are looking to Don to provide a vision of the future – Ted Chaugh even reveals that Roger asked him first to make the speech, but Ted knew Don would make it better. Don’s so good at the charisma and selling ideas, but he can’t sell it to himself. And his inability to see past himself burns him. He actually asks Peggy for her thoughts to draw up inspiration, and Peggy almost prophetically says she wants to be the first female creative director. Talk about a future prediction, huh? This moment is so filled with promise that you feel like this is going to come to fruition. And, of course, Don’s continued questioning of Peggy turns sour, and she sees what right through him. She lays it on him and says she’ll do him the same favor of shitting on her dreams if he ever revealed them to her. Don actually gets caught in a work kerfuffle, being asked to mediate not just the pitch but the continued fights surrounding the client, from Mathis’ outburst and how to handle the next meeting. Don is supposed to be the guiding light for SCP. He rightfully guides everyone to the second chance – don’t remove the copywriters from the gig, and he advises Mathis to make light of what happened. Of course, Don hints that Mathis should come up with his own joke, but Mathis poorly executes an old school joke of Don’s in the meeting. Mathis confronts Don, and even though Don ultimately fires him, Mathis gets the last dig – that Don is empty not just in his personal life, but in his own character. Don’s just good-looking smoke and mirrors, and people can see that. Like Sally….
Later, Don takes out Sally and her friends to dinner before they board the Greyhound to their two week summer trip. Still thinking about what the future holds, Don asks Sally’s friend what they want to become in the future. Sally’s friends reveal to have strong visions and aspirations, and Sally is somewhat adrift. Then, Don caters to the flirtatious whims of one of the girls, RIGHT in front of Sally! In their goodbye at the bus, Sally confronts Don, saying that what she really wants in her future is to get as far away from Betty and Don and actively not become either of them. Though Don is prophetic and correct in revealing that Sally will always be like her parents, it comes with a twinge of pain and realization. After dropping her off, he comes home to his apartment – now sold. He is truly the emptiest man we could’ve seen him, even after his revelations of the past. He’s really in a position to start over and embrace the future, but is he able to? He stands stunned outside his doorway, so as not to taint the vision of the buyers’ future with his sad, sordid past, and he has no direction to wherever his future lies.
The writers are carefully paving the way to close the books on these characters, but it seems the ultimate reveal may be that they will live in this limbo of a time past, at least the adults. The times are becoming more uncertain, more scary, but there’s much about these characters that may never really move forward. Even if Peggy becomes the creative director one day, will she ever change and be not just about the job? Same with Joan – will the job become the new thing that gets in the way of her romance, because she really can’t just give it up and it really does give her the fulfillment she can’t otherwise get elsewhere? Will Betty ever rise above the typical housewife role, even when her desires are completely not aligned with it? And moreover, will Don be able to genuinely fulfill himself, outside the job, outside his own family? Really, what is change, and what is the future for the people in Mad Men? Who will survive, and who will crumble? That’s really what we’re slowly working our way toward.
Till next week.