Tuned In

Mad Men Watch: What’s in a Name?

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, put down that vase and watch last night’s Mad Men.

Well! Feels better to let all of that out, doesn’t it!

What was so amazing about that long, draining, overdue confrontation between Don and Betty Draper was that it was absolutely absorbing even though it consisted–on the surface–of Don’s revealing information we had known all along: his family history, his parents, the war, his ex-wife (or “ex-wife”), his brother. The real suspense was in wondering whether Don would find an out again, and whether he would find some way to change, or withhold, some information he was too uncomfortable to lay bare. And the shock was in seeing him actually tell all, right down to his culpability for Adam’s death.

At least, it consisted on the surface of information we already knew. What we got in the telling, though, were things we had always wondered: How would Betty respond to this information? What does Betty assume about his past? How does Don see the facts of his life, which we’ve scarcely heard him discuss out loud with anyone save for bits and pieces? (There was his revelation about his mother to Rachel Menken, for instance, or, more tangentially, little moments like his casual remark here that he’s eaten horsemeat, presumably under much less genial circumstances than Annabelle Mathis.)

In the process, we see an astonishing reversal of the relationship between Don and Betty: her commanding and in control, him diminished and cornered. (The opening moments, where Don walks into his children’s arms like the snapping jaws of a trap, were brilliant.) And if Mad Men was annoyed about monopolizing merely the writing and best-drama awards at the Emmys, it may now have a couple of acting submissions to fix that problem for them. Jon Hamm has spent almost three seasons building an edifice of confidence and seamless artifice; here he had the chance to show it sliding off Don Draper like mud sliding down a mountain face. He’s cornered and afraid; he swallows hard and avoid Betty’s gaze, like a guilty child.

As for Betty, her refusal to confront Don last episode–bolstered by her lawyer’s advice to look the other way for her “good provider”–turned out to have been a head fake. When she pointedly asked Don for cash on the way out the door to Philadelphia, I initially read it as her passive-aggressive, childish way of hoping that he would come clean to her without her having to act; but looking at it a second time, it seemed more like her giving him one last chance.

I could go over their long talk–maybe the most harrowing spousal showdown since The Sopranos’ “Whitecaps”–but much of it speaks for itself, and honestly, I was so gripped by it the first time through that I largely stopped taking notes. The false man who was Don Draper melted away like candlewax; Betty, meanwhile, grew before our eyes, moving through stages from anger to stoicism to contempt (I see how you are with money; you don’t understand it”) to, finally, sympathy–or maybe pity. She takes command of the interrogation, but at the same time, you can see her wishing he would give her some decent reason to accept him.

It’s the last scene between Don and Betty that’s most intriguing. With everything on the table between them, is their marriage broken, or is it now stronger? With all Don’s deceptions admitted, she seems to look at him, if not more warmly, at least more comfortably. With her husband finally having told her who he is, has she gotten what she wanted? Is she now a more equal partner in their marriage, rather than a pretty thing who’s kept on a need-to-know basis?

And Don–having had to give up his entire strategy for being in the world, will he be lost, or can he grow comfortable actually being known by his wife? Will being brought down make him more fully a person? Will it change him? As far as his infidelities are concerned, that’s no certain thing: when Suzanne asks if she’s going to see him anymore, he replies, “Not right now.”

As with so many things on this show, to see the challenge Don has before him in life, look to the challenge he has at work. Mad Men has from the beginning analogized Don to the products that he is selling at work. Last night, he was dead meat. And now Don Draper has to rebrand himself. As he tells Annabelle:

“Any agency that does not change the name is stealing your money. The product is good, it’s high-quality, dogs love it, but the name has been poisoned.”

“That name got us where we are. Do you think that was just luck?”

“I’m not saying a new name is easy to find. And we will give you a lot of options. But it’s a label on a can. And it will be true, because it will promise the quality of the product that’s inside.”

You don’t need a Ph.D. in literature to decode that this is how Don has regarded his own name; even as Betty is breaking him down, he keeps protesting that he doesn’t see what difference his story makes. He’s still the same man!

He’s the same man, though, now with a name that’s been poisoned, and without the option of coming up with a catchy new one again. His job as an ad man has always been, as they say, to get the dogs to eat the dog food, but his own brand is going to be a trickier problem. With no other option, he must now actually attend to the quality of the product that’s inside.

In other news, Joan bashed Greg over the head with a vase!–I mean, that right there would put this in the pantheon of top Mad Men episodes. This episode, pretty clearly, was constructed as a triptych of powerful women: Annabelle trying to reassert her power with Roger, Betty finally discovering her power in her marriage–and, here, Joan deciding to stop coddling whiny Greg and show him where the power lies in their marriage.

It’s odd, because a sense of threat has always hung over the scenes between Greg and Joan since we saw him rape her at the Sterling Cooper offices. But beyond that scene–a pathetic act to assert his dominance against humiliation–we’ve since seen him largely attentive to, and at times even cowed by Joan, who now has the job of propping him up and creating the illusion that he’s a grown-up. (It’s no coincidence that, as she coaches him for his psychiatry interview, she actually seems like a therapist leading a session–yet another way in which Mad Men has shown us the ways Joan could have achieved if she had had the same opportunities as the often-inferior men around her.)

And so when Joan clocked hubby over the head–pushed by his self-pitying claim that she doesn’t know what it’s like to want something and not get it–we may have briefly feared that he’d get violent. But in retrospect it made much more sense that he’d react, in character, like a punished puppy, bringing flowers and apologizing. And–like a puppy wanting so badly to make his mistress happy and dropping some awful dead thing on the front porch–he comes home beaming with the news that he’s joining the army.

The commenters who suggested that “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency” (which ended with Joan applying a tourniquet and getting spattered in blood) foreshadowed a character we know being affected by Vietnam are looking more and more right. I’ve got to wonder where this is going from here, though. Maybe a spinoff? Anyone for “Mad Men: China Beach”?

And speaking of war, time for the hail of bullets:

* Who’s giving odds that Annabelle becomes a bidder for Sterling Cooper?

* Incidentally, take it from my colleague Joel Stein: horsemeat is scrumptious, though “closer to beef than venison.”

* “You obviously wanted me to know this or you wouldn’t have left your keys. You wouldn’t have left all of this in my house.” Exactly what I was thinking we she found the stash–or, more to the point, if Don really wanted to let go of his past, why would he have hung on to its reminders? So what about it–is Betty right?

* I referenced “Whitecaps” above, but it shows the difference between Mad Men and The Sopranos that Betty and Don’s showdown is not a blow-up but an interrogation. When Don goes into the kitchen for “a drink”–as she rightly notes, his escape instinct is kicking in–she takes control of the situation like a cop (“You don’t get to ask any questions!”): She will get the drink, and he is going to sit down and talk. No one gets slammed against a wall, but the blows land just as hard.

* One very slight quibble: the last line–“And who are you supposed to be?”–was probably irresistible, but I wish they’d gone for something less obvious. I realize others will probably love it, though.

* Whatever comes of Annabelle’s return to Roger’s life, it’s interesting to see him paired with a woman who gives as good as she gets, and their banter, with its allusions to his broken-hearted past, was something: “That woman [in Casablanca] got on the plane with a man who was going to end WWII, not run her father’s dog-food company.”

* Poor Suzanne. The question now: is Don really done with her? Is she really done with him? Early in the episode, she lets on that she’s been the other woman before: “I just wanted more than I thought I would want. But it’ll pass. Actually I know that it will.”

* I don’t know that Canadian Club would particularly want a product placement in this kind of scene, but I did notice that, at the Draper’s dinner table, the label was turned full-on to the camera. At least Don Draper managed to sell something that night.