In the wake of traumatic events, people face an often-impossible choice: dourly dwelling in the past, or pushing forward in a respectful manner. This week’s episode of “Mad Men” focused on the fine line between the two, as deaths both personal and impersonal rock the lives of those in Sterling Cooper. While a death close to home affected a family dynamic, a death in the political world opened up a new business opportunity for the ad agency.
Let’s deal with the personal side first: the circle of life in which the Draper clan finds itself. With Sally acting out at school in the wake of Grandpa Gene’s death, Ice Queen Betty starts going slightly mad while struggling to keep her emotions in check. Sally’s teacher can scarcely believe that neither parent informed her of the family’s recent loss, but neither Don nor Betty are particularly keen on anything approaching emotion when it comes to their children. Poor pugilistic Sally has to express emotions for the entire household.
[Full recap of Sunday (Sept. 13) night’s “The Fog” episode of “Mad Men” after the break…]
Betty claims that she’s trying to keep a calm environment in which her impending child can be born, but a series of bizarre camera tricks hints at her inherent instability as the child’s birth draws nearer. A shot of Sally smearing blood on her face would not have looked out of place in Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” video. Don’s “now you see him now you don’t” disappearing act in the hospital seemed to stem from her perception of events rather than the reality of the situation. And, of course, Gene himself kept popping up in her mind’s eye: not as a voice from beyond, but as her subconscious justifying the actions to come.
“You’ll be OK. You’re a house cat, you’re very important, and you have little to do.” These were words of “comfort” from her father in her Demerol-induced dreamland. Of course, we as the audience know the truth. Last week, we watched Gene complain to Sally that he had been too soft on his daughter, which in turn allowed her to settle for a life in which she’s nothing more than a housewife.
As such, what Betty craves is the ability to do as little work for as much credit as possible. Firing Carla was only one step; letting everyone in the neighborhood that she let her go was the second one, and perhaps more important in terms of announcing her new status. Of course, as with most things Betty, the dream is better than the reality. She wants the recognition of her position without actually having to perform it.
After misrecognizing the sex of her own child, she names the boy Eugene, against Don’s wishes. This brings her a smile. But upon arriving home, she can barely bring herself to face caring for the screaming child in the middle of the night. Want the key to understanding Betty’s relationship with the child, motherhood, and married life? It’s contained in one stunning shot tonight, where a mirror on her maternity ward door revealed only Betty’s face. Eugene is nowhere to be seen in this image, and Don flutters briefly in and out on the reflection. Eugene is himself a reflection of her, and exists lest as separate entity and more like something upon which she can project those lovely images that existed inside her drug-addled brain.
Course, certain images crept into this idyllic dreamscape to ruin its Betty-approved perfection. These images were both literal (her deceased mother and father) as well as symbolic: the blood on the floor that couldn’t be washed away. Read into the blood any number of things you like: the pain of loss, a guilty conscious, pent-up rage, even the act of childbirth itself. Betty herself was a mixture of both mother and infant, saying at one point, “I left my lunch pail on the bus, and I’m having a baby.” What a succinct way of stating it, Bets.
The blood itself came from Medgar Evers’ head, tended do absent-mindedly by Ruth herself at Betty’s kitchen table. Sally’s inquiries at school about his recent assassination burned this image Betty’s mind’s eye. Looks like leaving your child to stew in front of the television while a Buddhist monk immolates himself turns said child into a bit of a morbid soul. Who woulda thunk?
Medgar Evers wasn’t only on the mind of Betty Draper, however. He was front and center at the major show focus at Sterling Cooper as well. As Pete struggled to keep up in his competition with Co-Account Manager Kenny Cosgrove, he realized with Kinsey’s help that Admiral Televisions were selling higher in African-American communities than white ones. While the business implications seemed fairly clear to Pete, his risky plan to develop a marketing scheme targeting this demographic was met by unenthusiastic response from Admiral and apoplectic reaction from the senior partners at Sterling Cooper.
Even though Pete’s face-to-face market research on Admiral consisted of one insanely awkward conversation with elevator operation Hollis, it’s worth noting that Pete’s reaction to Sterling’s horrifying black-face performance paid off this week in his ability to marry business savvy with relatively progressive social values in order to come up with a truly unique way for both his client and the company to make money. Hell, Pete Campbell might have just invented the concept of the “urban market” this week. (Let’s see Kanye West hate on THAT.) And while it’s no surprise that Sterling himself couldn’t stomach the idea, British CFO Lane Pryce saw the benefit both as a non-American and the employee forced to make tough economic decisions no one wanted to make.
While Lane’s insight in this area was perceptive, his dealings with Don’s creative group were less so. A man that counts pieces of paper against a spreadsheet has no understanding of how to quantify the creative process. However, post-merger, it was only natural that eventually “Don’s way” wouldn’t continue to cut it, and Don felt incisions on all sides tonight. On the home front: his conversation with a new father-to-be in the solarium convinced him that he hadn’t done enough as a father so far in his life. Dennis, a prison guard, vowed that the birth of his child would mark the end of a loveless, dishonest era in his home life. But a sullen, quiet family man replaced the jovial, eloquent father-to-be as Don passed Dennis by in the hallway a few days later. Much like Betty, Dennis found the reality much less pleasing than the dream.
Don himself learns that lesson as well while in attempting to juggle the various women in his life. He tries to be a good husband, father, and boss, but is stretched so thin that he doesn’t do a particularly bang up job at any of them. He does make the first real overture of affection towards Sally during their midnight snack. But he quickly falls into old habits when fielding phone calls from Sally’s teacher (she of the unwittingly seductive May Day dance and now of the drunken unwitting WASP-y booty call) and fails to respond to an obvious distress call from Peggy who is increasingly disillusioned by the man who was once her idol.
Don is the benchmark against which Peggy measures herself. No great insight there. But just how much she simultaneously loves and loathes the man was not fully evident until tonight. If Season 3 has been about Peggy’s rise, tonight’s episode reminded us all of how little room she truly has to ascend. Making barely more than her secretary, she stares at the roomful of baby gifts in Don’s enormous office and says in a wistful yet damning way, “You have everything. And so much of it.” Almost shamed by that statement, Don can do little else but avert his eyes and admit that statement’s truth. (What Peggy fails to understand is Don’s intense fear of losing it at any moment.)
The reappearance of Duck, hoping to steal both Peggy and Pete for his new firm, tests the loyalty of both people towards both Don and Sterling Cooper as a whole. While you would never go so far as to say either person would call the company “family,” it’s undeniable that they both are attached to the firm on an emotional level. Part of that attachment lies in the company as the microcosm of the American Dream: working hard will yield results of an ever-growing bounty. Don’s the self-made man that shines as a beacon for them, and being so close but realizing just how far away they truly are from being him is starting to burn. Between Peggy’s fight for gender equality and Peter’s potential insertion into the civil rights issues of the day, it’s clear the relationship between these two and the older generation in the firm will only become more acrimonious as the decade wears on. And, as always, Don will stand at the midpoint, getting stretched and stretched. How long until he breaks?
As we near the halfway point in the season, what do you think of “Mad Men” so far this year?