Tuned In

Mad Men Watch: The Fat Lady Sings… Soprano

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From Vesuvio to Lutece. / AMC

SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, crack open a bag of Utz—may I recommend The Crab Chip—and watch Mad Men.

Oh, I give up. The first post I write about Mad Men this season, I suggest that people overdo the comparisons between it and The Sopranos. The second episode, I concede there are a few more parallels.

Now Matthew Weiner (formerly of The Sopranos) follows up with an episode so Sopranos-y it should have started with Don Draper driving through the Lincoln Tunnel.

Let’s start with the most obvious, um, allusion. The Jimmy storyline was the Ralphie Cifaretto plot from “The Weight,” period. The protagonist has a headache to deal with when one of his employees makes an inappropriate fat joke about the portly wife of an important business associate (in The Sopranos, that would be Ginny and Johnny Sack). The underling, feeling that his business value makes him untouchable, doesn’t want to apologize. (“Who’s he think is keepin’ that fat bitch in Devil Dogs?”) The Don—or here, just Don—must restore order. Even the punch line of the denouement, “I just don’t have the stomach for it”—hey, I laughed—was pure Sopranos. Much more Sopranos than Mad Men, actually.

Betty’s continuing story, meanwhile, is in a way even more thematically Chasian, even if it doesn’t borrow a plotline so directly. The protagonist’s wife—a kept woman, frustrated with his infidelity and unsure of her direction—takes up a hobby to distract herself and is tempted to stray. (Also a Sopranos parallel: her husband actually does nail another woman, while she just has a moment of intense confrontation.) Come to think of it, Carmela’s crush on Furio was coming to a head in season 4, right around the time of “The Weight.” (But in season 4, Tony got the horse.)

Carm and Betty may be similar, but they’re not the same. In some ways, Betty is actually more interesting. Carmela’s predicament was pretty easy to sum up: she compromised her dignity and morality to be kept in the good life by her husband but repeatedly found she didn’t have the guts, or the resources, to walk away from him and the money. Carmela, also—who lived four decades’ later after all—had several models of women’s independence to follow (e.g., Angie Bonpensiero), and made occasional stabs at having something of her own: investing in stocks, going into real estate. But in the end she either couldn’t make the break, or found herself too dependent on Tony (e.g., his shady real-estate contacts) to really break free.

Betty, in 1962, has few examples around her of sisters doing it for themselves, other than her hooker ex-roommate and a divorcee neighbor struggling to get by. But though she lives in a simpler—well, more limited—time, she’s not a simpler, more limited character. Carmela was much more defined by her materialism, for instance, and her inner turmoil was driven by a Catholic guilt that she usually was able to buy off in the end.

Betty, on the other hand, comes from a WASP (Episcopalian? I’m guessing) background, which allows her to go down twistier avenues of repression. In Mad Men, the money doesn’t seem to be the be-all reason she stays with Don, though obviously she enjoys it. So what is it? What makes her tick? Part of it, it seems, it a partially arrested development: she’s child-like in some ways, hence her identification with Glenn. On the other hand, she’s no dummy: she’s not just more book-smart but more subtle-minded than Carmela, and enjoys the mental fencing in her flirtation with Pony Boy at the club. Moreover—as we saw with the mechanic—she enjoys having power and being able to express it.

But what can she do with it, besides flirt with the hired help? This, it looks like, is her developing story. One more thing: the shaky hands are back!

[Update: Oh, and I forgot to mention—Don violently going up Bobbie’s skirt and threatening Jimmy’s career was the kind of animal, sexually violent act we haven’t really seen from Don, but used to see all the time with Tony, e.g., with Gloria. It was Tony enough that to me it seemed either out of character, or at least evidence that there are some changes going on with Don’s character. Unlike Tony, Don’s threat itself is not violent; he promises to “ruin” Jimmy if he doesn’t apologize and fix the account. As for the assault, I wonder if he wasn’t “punishing” Bobbie in a couple ways: first, for putting him in a submissive, suppliant position, second, for having sex with him in the car, a regression that he beats himself up for later. Though for Don, the beating-up is projected outwardly, as when he calls her to remind her that he’s “At home. With my children.” And he asserts control in a way that crudely and starkly reminds her that she’s the woman in the relationship—putting his hand on the subject, so to speak.]

For the third Sopranos-esque storyline: one of the underlings realizes he’s being underpaid compared with one of his coworkers, and schemes to prove his worth. Here, the role of Ralphie (i.e., the higher-paid captain) is played by Ken Cosgrove, and the resentful Paulie Walnuts is Harry. (Also a season 4 storyline.) To be fair, it was probably the most distinctively Mad Men of the three main plots, and for that reason the most interesting. Nice work by Rich Sommer as Harry; I especially liked the way he got across his desperation in the Belle Jolie meeting—he’s so damn close! he can taste it!—without making it obvious or comical. Likewise in his meeting with Roger, in which he found just enough balls to get a promotion and a decent raise, yet—believably—not enough to let Roger knows that he knows Roger is lying to him ($310? No one makes close to that!). Harry is who he is; he can only hope to be a slightly more successful version of himself.

Several callbacks worked into that storyline, by the way. The most obvious was Peggy’s reaction shot as she watched the famous abortion episode of The Defenders (in an episode in which she was otherwise mostly silent). But there was also the brief moment between Sal and the gay exec from Belle Jolie, who tried unsuccessfully last year to get Sal to acknowledge that he is who he is.

So: next week on season 4 of The Sopranos…

Seriously, as we discussed last week after the ratings dived for episode 2, there is a serious difference between Mad Men and The Sopranos: people don’t get whacked. But they can get fired. We saw that this week as Don canned his poor assistant for turning rat—or, at least, failing to successfully cover for his trips to the movies. Is anyone else going to wear cement wingtips this season?

[Update: Re-reading this post, by the way, I want to make clear that I actually liked this episode, despite its practically being a Sopranos clip reel—it was probably the best of the three episodes so far this season, particularly as a standalone. Maybe originality is overrated.]