Actual Life and Death; I’ve Given Up On That
Let’s start with Betty, if for no other reason, than to get that story out of the way quickly. We noted last week her conspicuous absence. It feels a bit cheap to me for the absence to give way to the reveal, dun dun dun…she’s now a fat housewife. This might just be me – but I always find the make-up in “attractive character got fat” storylines too distracting to let the story work (think fat Lee Adama on BSG). And, in general, these storylines overdo it (consider the fact that only a year has supposedly passed since we last saw Betty and January Jones is pregnant here AND has make up work done to expand her even further). But what intrigued me about the storyline was this: Roger’s naming of her narrative as “actual life and death” was immediately undone with Betty’s own declaration that she’s been put through the ringer just to find out she’s fat. There’s the obvious symbolism that being unattractive really is death for Betty. But what I find more interesting here is the use of Betty’s near death storyline to bring about the revelation that she doesn’t actually want to be loved. When the the tea leaf reading tells her that she is surrounded by people who care undoes her, we could interpret her tears as tears of guilt for leaving that care behind. But when we pair those tears with the subsequent dream sequence of Sally putting the chair up on the table like at closing time, I think they actually reveal that Betty feels that love as pressure. She always wants the chance of escaping her life to hover on the horizon in a way that would let her do it guilt-free. She wants to know that leaving her life won’t leave a vacuum. She accepted her own death surprisingly quickly…until she had to consider the impact it would have on others. I think what we’re seeing here is Betty’s attempt to make herself disposable so that she can be disposed of.
But now on to the storyline I really loved: the arrival of Michael Ginsburg. And actually, I think these two stories are connected. Mad Men is working hard this season to situate itself in relation to actual historical events – so we get this episode crossing over the celebration of the nation’s birth on July 4th, and closing on the death of a legend from the nation’s favourite pastime. We have the episode’s only actual narrative of life and death, slipped in quietly to the background in Pete Fox, give way to an affirmation of Betty’s non-death, just fat, story in eating ice cream for two. We get father passing blessing on to an albeit reluctant son giving way to mother passing something of a curse on to a daughter who refuses to accept it. And then the music gives way to “I am sixteen, going on seventeen,” which initially feels light and cheery until we recognize it not only as a song about the youthful desire to age played for us ironically, but also as a song sung by a young Jewish woman to her young love who would soon become the Nazi who hunts her family down.
Indeed, with so much going on in this episode about the rise of a youth generation and the throwing off of the traditions that came before, I found myself wanting the sense of something a little stable. I know this is the moment of youth revolt (and I’ll leave Crane and Don’s misadventures with the Rolling Stones for you to talk about), but given how well Mad Men complicates everything we thought we knew about the middle of last century, I guess I’d like to see something a bit more fraught happening with this new guard too. But I’m trusting that’s to come.
The stray comments: How fantastic was that line about Romney being a clown – gotta love the family legacy there! Pete is such a wanker, seriously – but I love that his wankishness opened up room for us to see just a glimmer of Roger’s own insecurity…which leaves me intrigued by his connection with Michael over throwing something out of the window. Has Peggy gotten herself into trouble with this hire? And finally, I know it’s silly – but I kind of liked the obvious symbolism of Don’s secretary’s name (what is this, the “Dawn” of a new era at SCDP??) being simultaneously mocked by the Don/Dawn parallel.
Oh, and of course – the idea of a band called “Trade Winds” doing the music for baked beans was just too delightfully base to let slip by.
Excited to hear your thoughts…mine feel a bit jumbled and random, but I think that’s what such a jumbled and random episode warrants – not that I’m complaining, mind you. For now I’m allowing the messiness to evoke the chaos of the era.
It is funny how these things strike us differently, but I actually loved the Betty storyline this week. Maybe I just loved having Betty back in all her perfectly realized childishness. I do agree that Betty’s near brush with possible death provided her with a chance to see herself anew and I really like your reading of this as a rejection of love, a desire to be disposable. Betty has felt trapped for a very long time in the role of infantalized pretty girl but has no real idea how to get out of it. “Letting herself go” is her own passive way to slip beyond the reaches of the demands that have been suffocating her. I think you are probably right that the possibility of dying is another way out that is not unattractive to Betty. As horrible as her friend’s description of battling cancer was, it also didn’t seem that different from what I imagine Betty feels all the time – alone at sea, the real people in her life like tiny images on a receding shore line. But I also saw her cancer scare as creating the opportunity for Betty to really care. She reaches out to Henry for physical intimacy she has clearly been denying them both; she affectionately, even sincerely, kisses little Gene’s head and holds hm closer. It is as if, for a moment, she can see the value of her life and wants to hold it close. Maybe, I couldn’t help thinking, cancer would be the one thing that forces Betty to grow up, to change in some way. Granted, it would only be possible for her because she wouldn’t have to sustain it. When she got the phone call clearing her case, I read her confusion and even return of peevish childishness as a kind of regret that that chance to really care was being taken away. Giving herself over to the ice cream could be read as either a retreat back to her passively destructive withdrawal from the demands of her life, or an active rejection of those demands. I suppose only time will tell!
Speaking of the demands placed on a wife like Betty, I loved the little visual echoes as we moved from Betty’s unzippable dress and her retreat to bed (fully clothed) to Megan’s eminently zippable modern frock as she prepares to wine and dine the Heinz couple. For all of Megan’s many gifts, in this particular case Don needs a Betty and Megan has to learn very quickly on the spot that she is there as a wife, not as a creative ad person in her own right. She would clearly love to debate the merits (or demerits) of a Rolling Stone bean ad, and practically chokes on her assent to Mrs. Heinz that such “man talk” is boring. I wonder if Don will continue to find Megan a liability or an asset as he navigates this brave new world.
I realized last week after I posted that I barely said a word about Don, and that is largely because he is no longer the center of cool in this show. In fact, Don seemed insanely parental in this episode, and that, for me, was the whole point of the backstage shenanigans. I don’t think it was that long ago that Don would have found the flirtatious advances of the band aids alluring and the whole generation they represent intriguing. As it is, he came across like a father (and maybe a little trace of what he learned from Dr. Faye about field research?). The young woman he was talking to couldn’t have been *that* much older than Sally, though interestingly, not *that* much younger than his 26-year-old wife. Maybe marrying Megan has actually woken Don up to how much older, in years as well as mentality, he really is from this new generation.
Watching Don and Michael interact, I couldn’t help wondering if these generational tensions will work their way into the office as well as the bedroom. It was nice to see Don in something like his previous position of power, commanding the attention of the younger generation. And it was nice to see him show up for work long enough to conduct an interview and stay until dinner time. But it was also telling that the “ad” that caught Michael’s eye was The Letter, not say the Glo Coat bit that won Don the Clio. We don’t know for sure what Don meant when he wrote that letter. He was clearly angry and pissed and wanted to do something provocative. He obviously knew he was dealing in irony. Did he, though, really imagine people laughing harder than they have at anything when they read it? Did he know how it would read to the age of irony just coming of age? I have to agree with Stan: Michael’s ads are “bitchin’,” but is Don the one who needs to watch out more than Peggy by letting this new ironic edge into the team? Will he find himself, a few years from now, in the same place Roger does, hanging on to a ledge with some kid’s shoes stepping on his fingertips?
After two seasons of serious antagonism between Roger and Don, they shared another moment of solidarity last night, once again bonding over their own struggles with the new generation. Roger’s question – when are things going to get back to normal? – summed up the whole feel of the episode for me. We have not hit a full-on cultural revolution yet, but the world is tilting on its axis and there will be no righting it.
I feel like there is more to say, especially about Betty and Don’s new relationship. Their exchange on the phone was probably more intimate than we’ve seen either be with their new spouses and it was a real reminder that no shiny future can undo the work of a scrappy past. I am waiting for some more pronounced tension between Mrs. Draper and Mrs. Francis, however. And I could fill a paragraph with my favorite quotes from Roger, including the one you alluded to: “I wanted to smooth the ground by hiring a Jew. Turns out everyone has one now. Truth is, it makes us more modern. Between that and ‘it’s always darkest before the dawn’ over there. At least this one we’re hiring on purpose.”