Two halves of the same person
This week was a reminder of just how formally beautiful Mad Men can be, plots, characters, and visual clues layered in symmetrical folds, creating a perfect origami swan of symbolic excellence! The connecting thread (to mix my metaphors) was the strange couplings – the connecting halves of disparate and sometimes perfect pairs – that wove their way through every plot point. Peggy names the theme when she yells at Don for pretending that he and Ted are not involved in a passive-aggressive odd couple routine, determined to divide the newly united SCDPCGC into teams: “sometimes you are the same man.” Megan echoes this later that night at dinner when sharing her frustration at trying to make Chloe and Colette into recognizably different people (and did you think for a moment that Megan might have gotten her part precisely because she could do that hammed up French accent so well?!): “they are two halves of the same person, driven by the same desires.” Perhaps precisely because he heard that speech from Peggy a few hours earlier, Don requests they skip the dinner Megan just cooked and “turn on the tube.” Thank god that Megan finally acknowledged how boorish and distant her erstwhile committed spouse has become, but more on the Don/Megan dyad in a moment.
The episode opens and closes with Peggy outside the glass partner room. In the opening scene, she is called in by Don and Ted to adjudicate their taste vs. price angles on a margarine campaign. Since we know Peggy’s been having daydreams about lip-locking with a turtlenecked Ted, it is easy to see why she sways team Chaough, even as she tries to play peacemaker, waffling between both ideas. While I worried from the get-go that Peggy was choosing crush over professional judgment, I have to agree with her lecture to Don: who made it her job to settle the waves on this rocking boat? And she did have a point that Ted, at least, never demeaned her or scolded her like a child or made unreasonable, emotionally-freighted demands of her. Or she did until Ted turned into a manipulative asshole who berated her for seducing him in the midst of his all important Fleishmann’s pitch, only to confess his feelings, wring a mutual confession from her, and then treat her like a moping teenager when she arrives bedraggled from the hospital to confess that she and Abe are splits. I’d like to see Peggy’s new fantasies of slugging Ted’s cheerful puppy face after his rejection cum pep talk. The episode ends as Ted sends her on her way to “round up the troops” and she turns, symbolically to Don’s office, only to find herself cut out of both, standing alone, looking into the empty partner’s room. If Ted and Don are two halves of the same person, and that person is calling the shots of this new creative team, is there any room for Peggy, or have we just watched her hit the glass ceiling, I mean, office door?
If Peggy is wondering what would have been if Don and Ted had never gotten drunk in Detroit, Don gets his own trip on the what-if express. The liminal space of family camp weekend and Henry’s over booked schedule reignites Don and Betty’s little-known history with getting naughty in the woods. Except, of course, that whatever they share in that cabin is definitely not “what would have been.” They only find their moment of intimacy (be it the holding or the canoodling kind) because they are outside all the normal space and time of ordinary life. While we got one more suggestion of just how confused Don is about sex – apparently it has nothing to do with intimacy for him, which means, what, it really is all about power? – we also saw a new level of vulnerability for Don, not in bed with Betty, but watching her genuinely happier with Henry. As Don sits down at his symbol of aloneness in the universe table, he watches Betty reconcile her past and present before his very eyes. I am not sure if he missed Megan per se (though I’ll grant that he at least thought he did), but I do think he longed for that inner reconciliation.
Roger is longing for something of the same, but refreshingly he is doing so not through new or old lovers, but through his progeny, however conceived. I’ll leave that story arc, Joan and Pete’s increased flirtation, Abe’s near-death-bed confession and multiple stabbings, and Bob Benson’s shorts to you.
I’m fine with being a tease.
If the thread holding the episode together was the odd couplings (and yes, I’d agree with you on that), then perhaps Peggy and Abe take the prize. We’ve commented numerous times how they’re so oddly matched but somehow work – maybe because underneath all their radical differences, they still want some shared traditional things…i.e., a home together and babies (even if they want them in different ways). Peggy’s fantasies over the past few episodes have revealed though just how much she wants a different kind of man (a successful professional, pseudo-intellectual with a smoking jacket and cravat, perhaps). But as a second string character, we never get to see inside Abe’s head. His potential deathbed confession – that Peggy is the enemy, her activities offensive to his every waking moment – reveals she’s just as mismatched to him as he is to her. Up till now, we’ve been able to assume that opposites attract with these two. But in the midst of what might be one of the funniest breakups I’ve ever seen on television, I was reminded what had drawn these two to each other in the first place. Abe was intrigued by the fact that Peggy was the strongest, most competent seeming woman in the room (completely in line with his liberal leanings, even though it’s corporatism that’s made her that way), and Peggy was drawn to his way of seeing the world differently (completely in line with her work reframing products for consumption, even as it’s related to his desire for justice). These qualities – which they seem to share in common – are created by their utter difference from each other. I suppose it was only a matter of time. But I’m pleased we managed to hang on to Abe for as long as we did!
Without him, in fact, I wonder who will become the moral centre (or better, fringe, I suppose) of the show (because he’s far from its centre!). His progressive politics have been the only real place where we’ve seen racism combatted in any meaningful way. His excitement for the riots in Paris in Prague, and his real desire for the same in the US, are the only place where establishment is really challenged on this show. Mad Men needs characters like this negotiate the late ’60s – to remind the viewer of the world outside all these privileged doors. And I’m curious to see who is going to step in to fill that role. Certainly not Bob Benson – but more on him in a moment!
As for the double stabbing – I couldn’t help but notice how ominously the background of this episode lingered. There is a slow burning build in fear for the white characters that something – riots, change… – is coming on the horizon. From their fear around the MLK riots, to last week’s granny home invasion, civil unrest is making its way toward the fringes of white, privileged lives much in the way it likely did – on the fringes. In this episode, constant sirens rang out in the background, however, reminding us of how New York would change in the 70s and 80s, and become a much more dangerous place for a spell. And yet the most dangerous moment in the episode came not from the threat outside (a mere hand stabbing), but rather from the threat within (fear driving those inside toward senseless violence). That Peggy duct taped a knife to the end of a broom handle felt so perfect to me – had she simply wielded the knife, she would have gotten close enough to see it was Abe…but the distance she gave herself out of a desire for safety is what made the violence anonymous…and, by extension, allowed it to land on her lover.
As for Bob’s shorts – good gracious! Those were amazing! And I have to hand it to him – he pulled them off! There are moments when I’m just amazed at Janie Bryant’s costume work on Mad Men, and this was one of them. They so perfectly captured the creepy ability of Bob to manufacture these perfect little moments of weaseling his way in. They are the ideal item of clothing for a man of his age to wear to the beach in 1968 (just like those perfect coffee cups he takes everywhere with him – what is with those!?), and yet they’re totally creepy at the same time. I’m assuming that he doesn’t care all that much about Joan, but rather has figured out which partner will give him access to the rest. As for Pete’s growing flirtation, I actually saw him in this episode as reaching out to Joanie as a friend – a desperate need for companionship more than sex. And there was something sad and sweet in that – which is pretty much the only way Pete does sweet!
Close the door; you’ll let the bugs in –