I just bought my very first house. It’s on a pretty non-descript street in your average town next to a host of houses you’ve seen before. It’s near a host of stores that resemble those you’ve seen and populated by people you recognize by type if not my face. I mention all of this not to brag but simply to point out Betty Draper’s idea of hell.
Tonight’s “Mad Men” stepped away from the office drama of the past few weeks and saw its characters take flight from their normalcy into the realm of adventure. For the Drapers, that adventure took them halfway across the world. For Pete Campbell, it took him just a few doors down. But both instances found people in unfamiliar settings, strangers to themselves, and acting quite strangely to boot. Upon returning from their adventure, things looked the same on the surface but carried a very different type of weight beneath the veneer.
[Full recap of Sunday (Oct. 4) night’s “Mad Men” after the break…]
Tonight’s episode, “Souvenir,” started up a few weeks after Don Draper and Bert Cooper engaged in one of the most fantastic document signings in the history of television. Don’s now under contract with Sterling Cooper while simultaneously under Conrad Hilton’s thumb, traveling from hotel to hotel as Connie sees fit. But while Don Draper is sleepwalking through his days, Betty’s eyes are opening more and more.
With the fainting couch firmly ensconced in the Drapers’ living room, her mind has drifted towards the man who suggested she purchase it: Henry Francis, who swoops in like a middle-management superhero to aid Betty and her cohorts stop the construction of the Pleasantville Road Reservoir via a new chemical study to determine the water’s quality. It was the pencil-pushing Justice League aiding the Junior League of Tarrytown, people! Of course, once Henry escorted Betty into her father’s car in the parking lot outside of City Hall, a whole new chemical study was conducted.
With each week, layer after layer is added to Gene Hofstadt’s life and death. Once a bit player in the universe, he casts an ever-growing shadow on the events of the show. Why bring her father’s car to the event? In the hopes of turning herself from housewife into teenage girl, one attracted to an older man. Inside of her father’s car, she’s not Betty Draper, housewife. She’s Betty Hofstadt, unmarried and alive. That sense of “other” electrifies her as much as surprises her, and prompts a decision to leave her life momentarily and join Don on a trip to Rome.
In Rome, Betty experiences a veritable “what if” scenario, living the life she feels is right for someone of her stature, culture, and sophistication. Her fluent Italian is never explained, because “Mad Men” almost never prosaically explains such things, but speaks volumes about her past: family trips, European holidays, and the life of a model long gone, replaced by the banality and responsibility of the suburban housewife. The view outside their window of Rome is almost unreal, but that’s the point: it’s a painting into which she can potentially walk, experiencing a city that is hyper-real compared to the drab day-to-day of Junior League meetings and 4 am feedings.
Don, for his part, actively indulges her fantasy, treating the newly made-over Betty as an entirely new person. Well, he would know, wouldn’t he? He can no longer up and disappear like he did near the end of Season 2; he’s under contract now, ball and chain. So this brief sojourn is all he can afford now, and he makes the most of it that involves a role-play ending in the type of sex that nearly made my TV melt. Holy…something. Kudos to the cinematographer who lit the Drapers’ hotel room for that Roman bacchanal. The lighting was so gorgeous I nearly missed Betty’s lingerie. Nearly.
For both, this was a way to reconnect to the type of romance heretofore only seen in Don’s eyes when he tells the real Don Draper’s wife of his newly-started relationship with her last season. As audience members, we’ve barely seen their salad days. So to see them so enthralled with each other was a shocking surprise. And when Don lights her cigarette for her once home (echoing a move made by a Hilton employee in Rome), it seemed like a gesture stating, “What happened in Rome can continue here.”
But Betty knows better. Or, at least senses differently. For her, Rome is how life should be. Upstate New York is a Sartre-esque existence she’s forced to endure. It’s a combination of a life she never intended (as a stay-at-home mother of three) coupled with an inherent desire for excitement of any variety. Unfortunately for her, all she has are mementos of those things she’s tasted but never truly owned: a fainting couch stands in for Henry’s lips, which a charm around her bracelet will soon stand in for a city in which she could live the life she truly wants. But just like the city’s decision to suspend the construction of the reservoir, nothing truly lasts.
After returning home from Rome, Betty has to deal with Sally’s temper tantrum after Bobby caught her first kiss. In dispensing motherly advice derived from gazing at the fainting couch, she tells her daughter that kissing, “… [is] where you go from being a stranger to knowing someone.” In Pete’s case, he actually learned something about himself through a kiss with the German au pair down the hall from him. While most of NYC left the August heat for some sort of respite, Pete spent a long weekend in the Big Apple looking for something under his nose.
With Trudy spending her summer vacationing often with her family, Pete’s stuck reading Ebony Magazine (a nice touch from his early attempts to essentially create the urban marketplace), watching cartoons, and falling asleep on the couch. He’s bored, and sees a chance encounter with a crying au pair as a chance to make the most of his idle time (never mind hands). Turns out Gudrun, the au pair, spilled wine on an illicitly borrowed dress owned by her employer. Pete offers to replace the dress for her.
His journey takes him to Bonwit Teller, a store that sounds like it would have taken great pleasure is escorting me out before I even had a chance to walk a few feet into the place. Unhappy with his initial service, he asks for a manager and gets…Joan! Ah, Joan, good to see you again. And not covered in British blood. She and Pete both lie through their teeth as they discuss the replacement of the dress, although Joan’s much better at picking up on Pete’s lies than vice versa. Seems like Joanie’s the breadwinner working retail while Greg tries to completely shift gears by moving from surgery to psychiatry. Well, at least he doesn’t have to worry about using his unskilled hands on patients in that profession.
Pete successfully obtains a new dress for Gudrun, but is deflated when his offer to celebrate with her is shot down. So, Pete does what Pete does when shot down: get incredibly drunk and try again. Worked on Peggy in the show’s pilot; why wouldn’t it work on a German au pair? Unfortunately, that late-night booty call lands Pete a visit from the au pair’s boss, a man who promises discretion but suggests Pete looks elsewhere for his extracurricular activities.
Shattered by this confrontation, Pete can’t even put on his game face when Trudy arrives. Didn’t help that Gudrun herself led the Lawrence’s children into the same elevator upon Trudy’s arrival back in town. I honestly thought he was going to confess, and then assuming his panicked look told the story itself. But since Trudy faces reality about as well as Betty does, she pours all of her energy into a salad and denial. Pete’s confession, as it stands, is, “I don’t want you to go away anymore without me.” It’s classic Pete, in that it essentially defers blame for his indiscretion on Trudy’s absence, but also layered into this statement was, “Save me from myself.” Trudy accepts Pete’s proposal, undoubtedly relieved that she could conveniently forget his guilty look that morning.
It’s at this point where I was once again reminded that Season 3 of “Mad Men” really hasn’t dealt with the fallout of Peggy’s bombshell to Pete at the end of last year. Aside from one amazing line (“Your decisions affect me,” said by Pete a few weeks ago), there have been almost no ramifications to Peggy’s announcement. Perhaps Pete’s guilt tonight is the first example of any ripple effect. I can’t decide if Pete’s upset that he nearly ruined his marriage with Trudy, or that he nearly ruined his marriage with Trudy with someone not 1/10th the woman that Peggy Olson is. I suggest; you decide!
When all is said and done, life marches on for the Drapers and the Campbells, outwardly content but emotionally rattled by the past 48 hours. TS Eliot wrote in “The Four Quartets”:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Betty knows, more than ever, that her home is a prison. She claims to have ceased exploration, stating, “I’m done with that. We made our stand,” in regards to the reservoir project. But it’s unclear if the lingering effects of her Roman sojourn will do more to unravel the tenuous strings of the Draper household. As for Pete, he knows his condominium is only a home when Trudy is there. But it’s perhaps only a matter of time before the walls start to close on him as well.
What did you make of tonight’s episode? Leave your thoughts below!