Tuned In

Mad Men Watch: First Kisses

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Spoiler alert: Before you read this post, call down to room service, order anything you like, then watch last night’s Mad Men.

“You’re going to have a lot of first kisses. You want it to be special. That’s when you go from being a stranger to knowing someone.”

The episode “Souvenir” was a story of two affairs: one between a man and a woman other than his wife, one between a couple married to each other. When Don and Betty Draper visit Conrad Hilton in Rome and Betty—dolled up and sitting alone in the hotel bar—is approached by her husband, they and we get a chance to revisit what it must have been like for them to meet the first time, when Betty was a model and Don merely an unknown stranger, not an unknowable one.

Betty’s faux affair with Don follows quickly on her passing up a real one with Henry. Unsurprisingly, the charge she gets from their fling in Rome doesn’t last; what’s stunning is how quick and stark the reversal is when they return home. (Even her victory in saving the reservoir ends up being short-lived.) There have been several times this season where Betty’s character has walked the line between being merely troubled and being downright monstrous; her icy rejection of Don, and his sentimental gift of the Colosseum bracelet charm, is one of them.

On the one hand, I can see her disappointment. To her, Rome is a taste of a romantic, liberated life she wants all the time. To Don, it is what it is–a fun getaway, something to look back on with a pretty memento. That they are in such different mental places must make the existing gaps between them seem much worse. On the other hand, what does she expect, exactly?

What’s especially stunning is that Betty seems to turn on him precisely when–and maybe even because–he has given her what she had seemed to want. Don has signed his contract with Sterling Cooper; he’s committed to being a well-compensated but beholden working man for at least three years; he has, at her urging, slapped on the golden handcuffs. Yet now that Don has made this gesture of setting down roots and officially committing–for whatever it’s worth–the daily routine of being the housewife to a successful ad man in Ossining seems stifling. “I hate this place,” she tells Don. “I hate this town. I hate our friends.”

She may well not have liked any of it before. But, ironically, did it take Don’s signing on the bottom line to turn it into actual hate?

The story of Pete’s summer fling, while more elliptical, is in a way more interesting for how it played out. Maybe I’m the only one, but I was actually surprised when Pete’s encounter with the au pair turned sexual. Initially, it seems as if Pete is simply lonely and at loose ends, looking for a project and some type of connection.

When Pete ends up pressing himself on the au pair—showing up drunk and saying he’s earned a fashion show for his efforts—he seems to be coming full circle to the creepily aggressive Pete we saw persist his way into Peggy’s apartment after his bachelor party. But this time we’re seeing his behavior within the full context of everything else we know about him: how it grows out of an intense social awkwardness that seems to get worse the harder he works at it. (See his encounter with Joan at Bonwit Teller, in which he nervously asks her how she’s doing after he’s already asked once and gotten a response.)

Pete’s social ungainliness can make him unlikeable in his behavior, but on the other hand, it leaves him totally unsuited for a Draper-like double life. He’s a bad actor, but he’s also a bad liar–he lacks the social facility. He lasts all of thirty seconds in front of Trudy before all but confessing his infidelity.

We don’t know what strain Pete’s dalliance will put on his marriage in the future, but in this moment, weirdly, it actually seems to have brought him and Trudy closer together. (At least to the extent that he gets Trudy to pledge not to go off without him in the summer again.) Whereas Don and Betty’s passionate rekindling in Rome has left them further apart.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* Another thing, as we saw earlier, that Pete’s lack of social radar makes him unable to pick up on is the reflexive racism of business: hence, his inability to understand why Admiral TV wouldn’t want to seize an opportunity in the African American market. And thus we meet Pete in his office—reading a copy of Ebony.

* I’m not entirely sure why Betty decides she doesn’t want to end up on the fainting couch, so to speak, with Henry. It seems something more than a power exercise for her (like when she charmed the repair out of the roadside mechanic in season two). There’s something more she wants from Henry—it’s clear when he kisses her and she doesn’t exactly resist—but for whatever reason, she pulls back.

* You do not mess with Sally. It’ll be interesting to see if her increasing problems with her temper play out this season, or if they’re a set-up for the bout of thermonuclear-grade teen rebellion she seems inevitably headed for later in the series.

* Pete eating cereal and laughing at Davey and Goliath has to be one of the funniest quick shots I’ve seen in this series.

* Joan tells Pete that Greg’s considering “a new specialty”—psychiatry. Given that she hasn’t wanted to share her problems with anyone from Sterling Cooper, I wonder if that’s his actual plan or just her current cover story. Let’s hope we find out more, soon.

* Incidentally, while I know I tend to overwork the Mad Men / Sopranos comparisons, it’s hard not to recall that a certain other show sent its characters to Italy for a change of scenery on episode.