As a small reminder: I’m making my way through all of Mad Men before the last episodes premiere next spring. The plan is to do two episodes a week, with reviews going up Mondays and Wednesdays, but the schedule might vary a little bit.
“Marriage of Figaro” is an odd episode of television. It is not the best episode of Mad Men ever made, but coming in these initial stages of the show, it is very much the key episode in understanding the direction the series is going to take. It comes after two episodes that, more than anything, serve as an introduction to the world and characters of the show, at a point where the show is basically ready to put the foot on the pedal and start moving forward into the more important developments of the season. “Marriage of Figaro” does a little bit of this, but before things really get going in Mad Men’s season one, creator Matthew Weiner decided to give us an odd episode of television. One that makes it clear that -if you haven’t realized it yet- this show’s main investment is not on plot, but on character.
I think this approach to storytelling -slow-moving and character oriented- is one of the show never really caught on with audiences the way a show like Breaking Bad did in its last seasons. Breaking Bad is all plot. It’s a magnificently executed show, but it’s ultimately about what happens to Walter White and he people he affects as he becomes a drug dealer. Mad Men, on the other hand, wants to be about more than its plot. Sometimes it feels like it wants to be about everything, but at this early point in the series it’s clear that it wants to be about the inner life of its characters. A few notable things happen in “Marriage of Figaro”, but the stakes are really low. There is no bomb about to go off or villain to take down, the only thing on the line here seems to be the happiness of a privileged white man. What’s interesting about that? Well, that’s a question I asked myself when I first started watching the show, and I feel like Weiner also asked himself this question, and that is why he decided to explore deeper themes about America and humanity in the show. But let’s not get too philosophical about the show (at least not yet). Right now let us talk about “Marriage of Figaro”.
The episode begins with Don reading a magazine while sitting on the train on his way to work. He flips a page over and the famous Volkswagen “lemon” ad, which was pretty revolutionary at the time. Everyone in the office seems to have an opinion of the ad. Don is dismissive of it, but Pete Campbell thinks it’s great, and mentions the “think small” campaign (which VW launched in 1959), while saying that sometimes “less is more”. This seems to me like the key scene in the episode, and I have thought of many in which to interpret Don’s dismissal of the idea that “less is more”. Is it that he wants more than he could ever had? Or is it that he is willing to give up everything to in search of something that is apparently “less”, but could mean more? I’m not quite sure which is the thing the writers of the episode had in mind, but I think both are valid interpretations considering what happens in the episode.
“Marriage of Figaro” is rather unique in its structure when compared to other Mad Men episodes. It is clearly divided in two halves. The first half takes place at the office in Sterling Cooper, and the second at the Draper’s house in Ossining. What’s more, while most episodes of Mad Men feature one or two sub-plots that focus on one of the supporting characters, this one centers exclusively on Don. It’s as if the show were saying “this is our lead character, we’re going to explore his inner life, and if you are not ok with us doing that, then this show is not for you”.
In the first half, Don spends a day at the office. Rachel Menken comes in for a meeting in which it is revealed that, despite being currently working on her campaign, nobody at Sterling Cooper has ever set foot on her department store. This reunion between Don and Rachel (after their initial fight and friendly reconciliation in the pilot) is extremely flirtatious, ending with Don offering to visit the store that afternoon. Rachel gives Don a tour of the store that ends with them kissing. Rachel is a pretty cool character, and I’ve always liked her initial reaction to Don telling her he is married. They clearly want each other, but while Don is pretty comfortable with having an affair (as we know from his relationship with Midge), Rachel is rightfully not having it. She has basically nothing to gain and everything to lose going into a relationship in which she would be “the other woman”. Especially in 1960.
So, Rachel calls off the kissing, but Don won’t let go. Betty and him are hosting little Sally’s birthday party that weekend, and Don seems to be barely able to go through the day. If you’ve watched all of the show you’ll know that the relationship between Don and Sally is one of the show’s most interesting elements, but at this early point in the series’ run, it isn’t even clear how much Don loves his daughter. What is for certain is that Don wishes he could be anywhere except at that birthday party. At one point he uses the excuse of picking up the cake to leave and not come back until very late at night, when the guests have all gone. Don is clearly unsatisfied by his home life, as represented by the fact that we see him having tremendous difficulty building a playhouse for Sally.
The episode, like many in Mad Men‘s run, goes heavy on symbolism to signify what is going on inside Don’s head, and while a lot of it is too obvious and doesn’t leave much room for interpretation, “Marriage of Figaro” ends up being an effective way of letting the people know what kind of stories the show is going to tell going forward. Coming as early as it does in the show’s run, it is not only a way of establishing the tone of what will come, but also kind of a gamble considering how an episode as contained and metaphorical as this one could have alienated a large portion of the audience. However, what we are supposed to get out of this episode is clear, and on that level there is no denying that it is a successful piece of television if not the most elegant one.
Also in this Episode:
Like I said above, this episode is one of the few Mad Men installments that seems to focus almost exclusively on Don. We do get a couple of minutes with Pete, who comes back from his honeymoon, and has a conversation with Peggy that serves to reveal to us that he is still a jerk. He basically tells her that he is married and isn’t interested in her, even though he was the one that knocked on her door back in the pilot.
Also, after being mentioned last episode, we finally meet the bishops. Mother Helen is victim to a lot of scrutiny and talk from the other ladies in the neighborhood, but she kind of saves the birthday party by having a frozen cake on her fridge. We are also introduced to her son Glen, who seems like a perfectly regular kid, but would become so much more as the season moves forward.
- An important development going forward is that at the beginning of the episode, while he is riding the train, Don is recognized by a man who claims to have met him in the army. The only problem: he doesn’t call him Don, he calls him Dick.
- Of course Paul Kinsey smokes a pipe.
- Peggy is still trying to prove she is a big girl at the office. In this case, she expresses the desire to read Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Hopefully she won’t read it on the train, because it would “attract the wrong element”.
- Don rather cruelly calls a little boy with polio who is wearing a feathered headband “chief tiny tim”.
- Not to mention Pete calls Rachel Menken “Molly Goldberg” behind her back, alluding to the popular 50s sitcom The Goldbergs.
- And while we’re at it, let me say that Betty’s neighbor Francine has pretty antisemitic reasons not to vacation in Boca Raton.
- Crazy sixties: All the women in the neighborhood wonder why Helen Bishop walks so much (jogging wasn’t a thing yet). We are also reminding that it was perfectly acceptable to casually hit children, even if they weren’t your own.