Everybody’s Scared There
After a full season of Dawn hanging in the background, I became a little worried this week that her step into the storyline meant she was about to get fired. Instead, we finally got the expansion of Mad Men into a world where we’d hope it would go – granted, we’re only seeing a diner that Black people frequent at this point. But I do hope that we get to see more in the weeks to come – not just because it would be good to see the show step outside of its White world, but more so because Dawn brings a potentially interesting story to our already swirling narratives. Sure, Joan may have taken a shine to her (isn’t Joan always difficult on the ones she ends up liking?), and it could be fun to watch her find some success at SCDP(?), but more so I’m intrigued by the potential in a storyline of a young, Black woman trying (for whatever reason – and I’d actually like to hear more about her motivation) to make it in a majority White company, and the strain that puts on her friendships and love life back home (and, of course, I’d like to see this done with the insight brought to other characters’ narratives, and not in some cliched way).
Hopefully this isn’t just another version of the episode where Dawn and Peggy hung out – one that exists just to support the development of a White character, only before sending the Black character back into the background for the rest of the season. Of all the heavily exposition dialogue coming from Dawn’s mouth, though (oh I’m single…I can’t meet a guy I’d want to date because I spend all my time with white people…you’re getting married so you don’t have to worry about money…), I found her insight that everyone is scared at SCDP dead on – and something I hadn’t really considered before.
Of course, she may just fade into the background once more, because her parallel to Joan certainly worked well, as both had to question the decisions they’d made to get where they are. Not only was Harry’s tirade particularly cruel and demeaning (especially, I suppose, because it was in some ways true…the company’s ongoing overlooking of Harry and what he contributes does seem shortsighted and stupid), but Joan even seemed wistful for the old secretarial life she complained they still treat her as embodying. Between watching her settle for making out with the other guy’s friend in the bar, and then still at work, seem to be mostly in charge of secretaries’ daily comings and goings, I began to wonder what more it is Joan actually could do at SCDP. She’s not Peggy pitching Heinz – I can’t imagine her taking that kind of initiative, or trying to land a contract. Of all our characters, Don is the only one who even competes with Joan for their stuck-ness in the past. Don’t get me wrong – I love Joan! I guess I’d just hoped for more from her partnership. I wanted to see her step up and really flourish in the role…but I guess that’s the point – even if you get ahead as a woman in this world, the chances for your professional development remain slim.
The other story I saw strangely connecting with Dawn’s was Meghan’s – not in terms of plot, but perhaps in terms of style. Watching Meghan finally and gleefully receive some scenes in her soap opera made me wonder if that’s what it felt like for Teyonah Parris to finally get some character development in the show…and of course, I’m left wondering which one is going to blossom into a full role.
One stray thought – we have another week that references the dangers of smoking as Arlene tells Meghan to cool it (the weight loss isn’t worth the wrinkles).
I’ll leave Peggy’s campaign and Arlene and Mel’s crazy swinger offers…16 years married, they must be doing something right! I’d also be curious to hear your read of Don and Meghan right now. She’s becoming more and more childlike and confusing to me, and his jealously feels misplaced – a sign of his old-fashioned nature more than anything else. And finally, did the religious imagery feel forced to you? Sylvia’s cross – and the fact that she prays for peace for Don! really?! – seemed to arrive from nowhere. Not only had Don never expressed concern about religion, but rarely does the show – why treat it like a potent symbol at this point??
And on that note…
Church is impossible; you can’t stand out in the crowd of harlots –
Yes, this really was quite the episode to foreground boys behaving badly and the struggles of women to find their way around/above this petulant oafishness. Granted, Harry might be ignored more than he should be (but really, more than Ken? More than Stan?), but what got his goat wasn’t watching Pete in that meeting, it was watching Joan. His sputtering, flailing anger at the idea that a woman like Joan could have a place at that table before him was a perfect emblem of white male privilege – if he’s not there it must be because the system is rigged, not because of any inherent faults of his own. I was grateful that everyone else in the room could see the childishness of his behavior, even if they tried to placate him (by offering him a bonus of more than his annual salary – um, that is pretty generous!). More than I thought he was making good points about his own invaluability (again, I can think of plenty of other people in the office who don’t get made partner because they have a few creative ideas “that solve problems” – isn’t that kind of the job description?), it was infuriating to realize that no one was going to step up and defend Joan’s right to be there on her own merits – not even Joan! Her 15 years experience, the fact that she knows the office better than anyone there, that she has proven herself as a capable accounts director (even better, and more honest, than Lane) – nary a word was said. Just a simple consolation – “don’t worry, we’ll handle him” – and a gentle suggestion that she not fire the one black employee when they are already in hot water for not being diverse enough in their staffing.
But like you, I found myself pondering her friend’s counter when Joan says that they still treat her like a secretary despite her elevated title – “it is all there for the taking,” her friend suggests. But what is “it” and what would taking it look like for Joan? We’ve seen for the past couple seasons that despite her rise in professional success, Joan doesn’t really have a “modern outlook.” She always hoped she’d end up married and taken care of, and now she is divorced and raising another man’s baby not sure how to recalibrate her dreams. Is there a way she could assert herself? She really represents the paradox of women in her moment. She isn’t explicitly being held back by the other male partners. If anything, they are reasonably supportive and depending on how she asserted herself are likely to go along. But there is absolutely no expectation that she will or should support herself. There is no formal or informal network that encourages her or challenges her or expects her to be professionally ambitious. Worse, there is a general paternalism and often explicit misogyny that reminds her at every turn that her place at the table isn’t really “earned” and that her most valuable assets are below her neck. No one in particular and everyone is to blame for this inertia. [digression: what did you make of Joan’s blue rose dress? And what about the tear at her shoulder seam. I kept thinking about a similar tear in Betty’s jacket shoulder two weeks ago? These things almost always mean something, so I am just tracking them here].
Which makes Peggy’s rise so much more miraculous. That is not to say that Peggy didn’t earn where she is and that she is not exceptional at what she does – she just beat Don at a pitch fair and square! But crediting Peggy with extraordinary talents only highlights how much harder it is to imagine real equality for women who haven’t yet figured out how to even name their talents. I don’t really want to bring Dawn into this comparison, because I agree with everything you wrote and it feels too early to say if she is going to be a real character or just a glimpse into late 1960s racial politics. Here’s hoping, though, that she is going to give us a lot to talk about in coming weeks!
In the midst of all of these fascinating female story lines we get Don showing his true oafishness too. What did you make of the fact that he eavesdrops on both the young women he has most influenced professionally and personally? First, he lingers outside Peggy’s Heinz pitch. Was he impressed with what he heard (“that’s my girl!”) or jealous? He storms off from losing that account to show up on Megan’s set and fume about her loose morals making out with her co-star on screen. I guess if he can’t take it out on Peggy, Megan will do. It was very hard to take Don seriously in his chastisement and I really don’t know if we are supposed to think he meant it or if he even knows what he means. But the age-old insult that acting is just a thin veneer for prostitution surely means something different coming from Dick Whitman, who really can’t seem to decide how he likes his women if he doesn’t have some kind of power over them. So, of course, he runs off to his married mistress, only to find that she might be on to him more than anyone. I wasn’t particularly bothered by the religious symbolism, because at least we had been set up for Sylvia’s Catholicism. Don’s derogatory tone (“what do you do when I leave? Kneel down and pray for absolution?”) seemed right on the money for a man for whom religion doesn’t even register. Was Sylvia’s response a bit predictable? Yeah, I guess so (more so than I’m Just a Gigolo last week?!). But it was also one of the rare moments of insight a character has about Don – refusing to see the many masks he wears and instead seeing something almost real about him. And in that way, it does put Sylvia in the same camp as Rachel and Dr. Faye. All the more reason to assume that relationship is doomed.
Should we fire him before he cashes that check?