“When’s everything going to get back to normal?”
Such was Roger’s plaintive plea towards the end of this week’s Mad Men, after having (yet again) been stitched up by Pete Campbell in their continuing struggle for one-upmanship. It’s a telling line. Things aren’t going to get back to ‘normal’ for the generation represented by Roger Sterling and Don Draper; their ‘normal’ is long gone. Times are changing fast, a point perhaps underlined by references to the Rolling Stones song ‘Time is On My Side’. For Roger and Don, time switched sides a while ago.
It’s looking very much like that’s going to be one of the biggest themes of this season as it goes on. Don, once so effortlessly cool with his smooth charm and ability to blend in with beatniks as well as businessmen, is beginning to look like yesterday’s news, and he knows it. Nowhere was this better shown than in his abortive backstage trip with Harry to try and entice the Stones into advertising baked beans. Still immaculately suited like a member of the Rat Pack, Don stood out like a sore thumb among the crowds of eager teenagers waiting to see their idols.
Tellingly, the younger Harry, with his black polo neck sweater and checked sports jacket, seemed to get much closer to the Stones than Don could hope. Don was left with an impatient teenage girl to whom he’d previously had to prove he wasn’t a cop, with his neat tie and buttoned down suit. Where the Don of previous years might have tried to party with her and perhaps even seduce her, the Don of 1966 treats her the way a protective father might; projecting his own daughter on to her, perhaps? She, in turn, is impatient with Don’s ‘old-fashioned’ manners, though he’s still a good-looking man. I’m pretty sure her theft of his tie was a gauche attempt at flirting.
Still, Don got the last laugh when it turned out that it wasn’t the Stones Harry had been taken to meet after all – they turned up as Harry was emerging from the room. “So who you were you talking to then?” smirked Don, as Harry spluttered, “they sounded just like them… they even sang to me!” It was a laugh out loud moment, but the whole scenario served to underline Don’s growing sense of obsolescence. His somewhat dismissive, cold attitude towards Harry says it all. Harry is the future, having had the foresight to set up the agency’s vital TV advertising department. For all his talent, Don is from a time when advertising was on billboards and in magazines.
In the constant chess game between Roger and Pete, Roger too was feeling like he was being bested by the younger man. Having scored a cheap shot early on by winning the lead on the new Mohawk Airlines contract, Roger gloated by switching the meeting venue to his office without telling Pete and Lane. But Pete got the last laugh. Holding a daytime champagne reception to celebrate the contract, he told the assembled masses that Roger would be “in charge of the day to day operations, but I’ll always have sight of everything”.
After silently fuming at the back for a moment, Roger stalked out for a rant at Don about Pete: “I’m tired of hanging onto a ledge with the kid standing on my fingers”. But as Don pointed out, Pete had grown up; and like so much around them, what he’d grown into wasn’t necessarily what they’d like.
This week’s other main thread was catching us up with Betty. After her absence last week, this was no particular surprise. What was a surprise was her appearance; in the seven months since we last saw her, Betty has, to put it kindly, got a bit larger. Bravely clad in a convincing fat suit like the one sported by Jamie Bamber in season three of Battlestar Galactica, the actually pregnant January Jones put in a convincing performance of depression and self-loathing. Stuck at home munching potato chips in front of the TV, it’s clear that Betty is at a pretty low ebb. Just to make that worse, on going to the doctor in a vain attempt to procure diet pills, she discovers she has a sinister lump in her thyroid gland.
Betty’s been, intentionally, a pretty dislikeable character over the last few seasons, so there was initially a sense of schadenfreud to see her like this. But whatever she’s done, she’s still desperately unhappy, and her plight caused quite a bit of sympathy. Time is passing her by too; she’s visibly taken aback when the doctor mentions how “middle-aged women” often put on weight. And faced with her own mortality for, perhaps, the first time, it’s notable that she’s straight on the phone to a disconcerted Don, begging him to tell her that everything’s going to be all right.
However unpleasant she may be (especially to her own daughter), it’s hard not to feel sorry for Betty. Every choice she’s made has led her down a pretty unsatisfying path. After finally ditching the lying, cheating Don, she’s ended up with a political minnow and mother’s boy who plainly makes her no happier. The antithesis of the bright, challenging Peggy, Betty too belongs to a world that no longer exists – a world where strong, trustworthy men provide for her and take care of her. It’s easy to dismiss that as an unrealistic fantasy, but the constant shattering of her illusions makes for uncomfortable viewing.
And since it turns out that the lump in her neck is benign after all (a fact that she fails to let Don know), it’s clear that Betty’s piling on weight is nothing to do with any medical condition. Not a physical one, anyway. Perhaps she’ll go back to that staple of coping with depression in the 60s – a neverending series of tranquilliser prescriptions. In the mean time, she has a disturbing encounter with a fortune teller, while her friend Joyce calmly describes how she’s become reconciled to the fact of her own imminent death. This leads to one of Mad Men’s few, occasional dream sequences as she visualises haunting her grieving family like a plump, pink-clad ghost.
Back at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the grapple with the ongoing civil rights struggle continues, clearly another theme of the season. After last week’s accidental callout to potential black employees, Don now has a black secretary, the apparently capable Dawn (Teyonah Parris). Dawn is bright and good at her job, none of which stops Harry patronising her (“It must be very confusing here.”) or Roger making sneering racist jokes (“It’s always darkest before the Dawn.”). As the single black face in the agency, I wonder if more will be made of Dawn’s character as the season progresses?
Institutionally racist though he may be, Roger is mindful of the need for inclusiveness. When Peggy, tasked with hiring a dedicated copywriter for Mohawk Airlines, proposes taking on young Jewish guy Michael Ginsberg, Roger reassures the Mohawk board that it’s a good thing to employ a Jew – “everybody’s got one now, apparently”. Ginsberg, played by the cute and younger than he looks Ben Feldman (he’s actually 31) is a ball of hyperactive, youthful energy, and so deliberately eccentric that even Peggy is surprised – “My stomach rumbles and sometimes it sounds like the f-word.” Clearly, he’s yet another face of youth around the office, with his jeans and checked sport coat, and even Peggy seems to find him disconcertingly young in comparison.
It was, on the surface, a fairly light and inconsequential episode, though as ever with Mad Men, what was beneath the surface was far from light. Capably directed by Jon Hamm himself, it yet again forefronted the issue that times are changing and the likes of Don and Roger have reached an age where they can’t change with them. As usual, period detail was immaculate but understated, though the smirk-making reference to “that clown Romney” (Mitt’s father George, the governor of Michigan at the time) seemed a teeny bit forced. Still, as the forces of youth marshal against Don and Roger, it’s clear that they’re faced with a choice – will the future be like Pete Campbell, or like the Rolling Stones?