SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, make a plate of hash and eggs, open a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red, and watch last night’s Mad Men.
Watching Betty in the maternity ward drift off into her baby-dope-induced haze, I started to wonder: how many TV shows have there been in the past decade or two, in which no character ever had a dream or fantasy sequence?
The Office comes to mind for one: having a documentary format automatically restrains you from having characters suddenly dealing with dancing babies or seeing dead people come back to life. Mad Men likewise has mostly kept its characters rooted in the real, and I was a little leery of giving Betty a symbolic dream in which her father—while seemingly mopping up Medgar Evers’ blood—tells her that she’s a “housecat” who doesn’t need to do much. (Something that, after all, she could pretty well tell us herself.)
Maybe it’s partly for that reason that I didn’t love this episode overall, though there was a lot to love in it. The scene, while entrancing—Mad Men does love to indulge its art-film side with Betty—was surprisingly tell-don’t-show for this series. Likewise, while the subplot involving Admiral TVs and racism and the motif of the Medgar Evers murder were both strong, having the one just happen to fall on the other was a rare case of Mad Men doing That ’60s Show thing—having events in the characters’ lives directly reflect, and comment on, major events from history. (On the other hand, the way Evers manifest in Betty and Sally’s inner lives—as they subconsciously worked through Gene’s death—was a good example of the strange and oblique ways shocking events do lodge in people’s consciousnesses.)
But it is fitting, I guess, that the dream sequence would happen the way it did, in an episode that was in some ways about imagination and its limitations, dreams contrasted with reality. Betty’s dream—of finding importance and self-worth, of fixing her relationship with Don—runs up against the middle-of-the-night reality that it’s she, and not Don, who’s getting up exhausted to do those feedings (though the baby’s taking a bottle) and, more important, against her ingrained-from-childhood notions that she’s meant to be a pretty, quiet housecat. (“See what happens to people who speak up?”)
Pete’s run-in with Admiral is, strangely, another version of the same thing: the heads of the company, who can’t comprehend actually valuing black consumers and advertising to them, are constrained from making money by nothing but the limits of their imaginations and their self-imposed boundaries. Pete—for all his upper-crust breeding—can’t see why anybody’s money shouldn’t be good enough for anyone.
Cooper and Sterling soon take him to the woodshed for his advertising integration project, with Roger, as usual, getting the line of the night: “Let me put this in accounting terms: Are you aware of the number of handjobs I’ll have to give?”
Roger also calls Pete “Martin Luther King,” another tie to the Betty story. Pete too has a dream—a more prosaic one of judging all people not by the color of their skin but by the contents of their wallets. And he’s joined in this, of all people by Pryce, who sees the value of Pete’s idea. Pete may be naive on both ends—just as he can’t understand Admiral’s mortification at making the wrong color money, he can’t understand why Hollis can’t loosen up and realize that the dream—the “American dream” he calls it—is coming, in the form of prosperity and household appliances for everybody. But if Pete is naive, he’s also—at least in this case—freer than most of the coworkers around him.
Though I had some problems with this episode, this is one of the things I continually love about Mad Men: no character has a monopoly on being right: often the same thing that blinds a character in one situation is an asset in another one. Pryce is penny-wise and pound-foolish, as he amply demonstrates again to Don; but at least his penny-wisdom lets him cut through the American fog of race barriers and see through to the business opportunity. Cooper, who was broad-minded enough to shrug off Don’s identity theft, either can’t see or doesn’t care about Admiral’s folly.
And even Duck—Duck! looking all ’60s swellegant in a turtleneck—whom we knew to be an oily, contemptable drunk, is the one who is (with whatever motives) able to see that Pete is, in fact, one of the few forward-looking people at Sterling Cooper, and that Peggy is an undervalued employee who needs to take her shot now.
When Peggy goes to Don and asks for a raise, her mentioning having read about equal-pay-for-equal-work again seems like Mad Men uncharacteristically shoehorning current events into a storyline. But that she would ask for the money, and point out how she’s obviously being discriminated against versus her male coworkers like the slothful Kinsey, makes perfect sense. And her conversation with Don—who again is to preoccupied to really hear her—is one of the better scenes they’ve had together, this time not for what they say to each other so much as for how they talk past each other.
As she meets up with Pete—both of them dealing with frustration at work but processing Duck’s offer in a different way—we’re left in Pete’s position, trying to scrutinize her for signs of which way she’s leaning. (Of course, given their history, when Pete says “Your decisions”—plural—”affect me,” it’s about more than the job.)
Peggy has a dream too. Will she be able to achieve it at Sterling Cooper?
On to the hail of bullets:
* “Is he going to sleep in Grandpa Gene’s room?” There are so many warning lights flashing on poor Sally right now, and both Don and Betty seem too distracted to notice.
* Oh, yeah, Don was in this episode too. Good touch throwing him together in the waiting room—one of those democratizing places like a jury pool—with a guard from Sing Sing prison, which, though we’re used to seeing only Don’s affluent neighborhood, is also in Ossining, N.Y. Like many of you, I wasn’t sure exactly what to make of the shamed look Dennis seemed to give Don when he ran into him in the hallway. But I wonder if it goes back to his pledge that having the baby would make him “a better man,” and realizing now that it was just nerves and the Johnnie Walker talking. In any case, Don knows about broken pledges…
*…oh, and there’s the phone! Why hello there, teacher! Assuming this is going where it looks to—and how often does it ever go elsewhere for Don?—I wonder how this will be different from his earlier affairs. In Rachel, Don sought a kind of escape fantasy; Bobbie was a power relationship. What need does Don want to fill through Suzanne? What you you give the man who has everything—and so much of it?
* “Every job has its up and downs.” Funny line, but it was also interesting—in this whole well-done scene—how the second the elevator started moving again Hollis and Pete went back to real-life mode, with Hollis’ joke and Pete’s wisecrack about baseball.
* And hello to Yeardley Smith. Did anyone else close their eyes and imagine Lisa Simpson as the nurse?