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.
“She wanted me to be beautiful so I could find a man. There’s nothing wrong with that. But then what? Just sit, and smoke, and let it go until you’re in a box?”
If there is a shining moment for Betty Draper as a character (and January Jones as an actress for that matter) in the whole of Mad Men, then it’s this episode. The quote above comes when Betty is talking to her therapist about her mother. Putting a character in therapy is a good way to get them to talk about themselves, and Mad Men, being a show that likes having their character inadvertently tell something about their lives that colors the audience’s perception of their existence (or the whole series), doesn’t disappoint. What do we know about Betty? She’s having a tough time dealing with her mother’s death, and it seems like a pretty big part of it has to do with her trying to live up to the ideals her mother planted in her in the midst of a marriage that seems to have a big vacuum at its center.
Curiously enough, this episode shows the Draper marriage at their most functional. Certainly at the most functional we’ve seen them in the show so far. Betty is offered a chance to go back to modeling (being the face of an international Coca-Cola ad), and Don is as his most supportive. What I’m about to say might be a little spoilery, but only if you’re super sensitive to that kind of stuff. In hindsight, knowing Don’s behavior in future episodes, it is a little weird and unnerving that he is so supportive of Betty’s comeback to modeling. A sign of this is how protective he’s been of Midge being an independent woman beyond the times he spends at her apartment, especially in the previous episode. Another is how uncomfortable he feels about Rachel Menken’s situation as the chief of her own business. In any case, Betty wants to go back to modeling, because, as we’ve established before, it seems like the one thing life has thought her is that a woman’s biggest triumph is to be desired.
It doesn’t go too well for Betty in this episode. The whole modeling thing ends up being a play on Jim Hobart’s part to lure Don into quitting Sterling Cooper and joining McCann Erickson. Is that why Don was so relaxed about his wife being in the Coca-Cola ad? Did he know it was a way to attract him to a new job all along? More interesting than this question, though, is Betty’s reaction. She doesn’t know that Don knows she’s been rejected, so she tells him that she’s decided that she prefers being a housewife. Deep inside, though, Betty totally wanted to go back to being a beautiful woman on magazines and billboards. She is frustrated, and to channel her anger, she grabs a rifle and shoot her neighbor’s pigeons. Now, to put this into context, the Draper’s dog Polly bit one of the pigeons, and the neighbor had threatened little Sally and Bobby to shoot Polly if something like that happened again. It’s an incredibly rewarding moment to see Betty, the ultimate example of indoctrinated female passivity grab a firearm and take action. To become mama bear and shoot some birds to protect her children. The sad part is, of course, that she probably doesn’t see it that way. Sure, she wants to piss off his neighbor for being a jerk to her children, but it feels mostly like a way for her to release her anger. It’s a moment of only half-empowerment.
It’s one of Betty’s best moments in the whole series, and a very interesting one when you start to question what the show is trying to say about her. She is compared to Grace Kelly throughout the episode. Kelly, of course, was an actress who had to quit making movies to become Queen of Monaco. Betty also had to quit her modeling career, but for what? Twentieth Century monarchs are little more than a beautiful image. They’re heads of state without any real power. Their whole purpose is to attend luncheons and be pretty. Betty’s role as Don’s wife (or any man’s wife for that matter) is practically the same. She is supposed to be the smiling woman in the Coca-Cola ad and nothing more. Sure, the ads in which she’d be modeling would be ways of perpetuating the idea of the perfect wife that only needs to be pretty, but modeling itself, being a working woman, is an incredible source of empowerment. The saddest thing about Betty is that what she misses in her life is being powerful, and she doesn’t even know it.
Also in this Episode:
Another conversation with undercurrent of female empowerment is the one between Peggy and Joan. Peggy has been gaining weight, and the people at the office are taking note of that. The boys, unsurprisingly, are particularly crass about it. Peggy is the only woman at the office who has written any copy, yet the only thing her colleagues care about is whether or not she’s hot. Meanwhile, Peggy’s line to Joan that “Men think you’re looking for a husband, and that you’re a lot of fan. And not in that order” is another sign of how far women are from achieving equality. The very woman who is proud of having had a glimpse of a professional future is undermining the other for being a sexually independent woman.
- Don and Betty go to the city to see Fiorello!, the Broadway musical about New York City mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia. It is one of the eight musicals to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and it is also remembered for tying with The Sound of Music for the Best Musical Tony of 1960 on the year that Gypsy, widely regarded as the best musical ever made, was nominated.
- Betty mentions Italy! She spend some time there when she was a model. Apparently, she was the muse of a designer named Giovanni, who was probably handsome, but also probably gay.
- “I did do some modeling, you know?”. It’s such a perfect Betty line, and the fact that she casually repeats it so many times throughout the episode makes it even better.
- How about that ad with Jackie Kennedy speaking Spanish? I didn’t know American politicians were trying to win the Latino vote as early as 1960.
- Another sign that Pete is a very smart guy despite being an asshole is his plan to buy airtime for laxative commercials in order to prevent Nixon from running ads against Kennedy in key states.
- The visual effects when Polly bites the pigeon are very rough, but then again, the show has always had a pretty tough history with visual effects. The most obvious of which are the greenscreened backgrounds when people are driving in cars.
- Betty’s line about how she wants to take a picture of Sally crying made me say “jesus fuck” out loud. That woman’s got some issues, but you already knew that.
- “I didn’t know you had it in you. And I mean that”
- It’s becoming clear to me, with this rewatch, that Pete Campbell is very much positioned as this season’s main villain. I don’t know why I had never seen that before.
- “Are we done here?” “No” It’s always somewhat of a joy to see Don put a stop to Pete Campbell’s happiness.
- It’s also pretty funny to see how unfazed Don and Roger are about the fact that Pete and Ken are having a fistfight right in front of them.
- SPOILERS This is the first mention of McCann Erickson on the show, and the first time in which they threaten to take Don under their control. If you know what happened at the end of the latest season, you know that the last episodes of the series should be very interesting on this front. “Eventually you come up here or you die wondering” is a good line to get me excited about what will happen in the show’s run to the finish line.