Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 9–Dark Shadows

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 9 YET.

“I’m thankful that I have everything I want. And that no one else has anything better.”

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Less portentous and existential than last week, this week’s Mad Men still offered another slice of angst in the lives of a selected few characters. Don’s increasing insecurity (not to mention Peggy’s) in the face of new young competition came up, along with the repercussions of Roger’s recent decision to end his marriage. But the lion’s share of the episode belonged to the little-seen-recently Betty and the way her own unhappiness is blighting the lives of everyone around her, including Don and especially Sally.

January Jones was on formidable form this week as Betty, increasingly frustrated with her unsuccessful attempts to lose weight after ballooning between seasons. Having established that her chubbiness is a result of psychological unhappiness rather than illness, Betty’s taken to attending Weight Watchers, then in its infancy as a New York-based therapy group. It has to be said, none of the women in Betty’s group looked particularly fat by today’s standards; a knowing comment, perhaps, on the increasing levels of obesity since the 60s?

Either way, Weight Watchers doesn’t seem to be making Betty any happier. Despite her strict diet of burned toast and grapefruits (plus fish five days a week, to her husband’s annoyance), she’s still not losing much weight. And when Betty’s unhappy, she takes it out on those around her. As has so frequently been the case in the past, those first in the firing line are daughter Sally and ex-husband Don.

Despite occasional cordial relations with Don, it’s clear that Betty’s never really got over the breakup of their marriage. This was made abundantly clear as she stopped by Don’s swanky new penthouse apartment to pick up the kids. You’d think the palatial mansion she lives in with Henry would be enough to keep her happy, but no, she’s clearly salivating with jealousy at Don’s hip furnishings and view of the Manhattan skyline. As if that wasn’t enough, she catches a glimpse of his new model wife Megan getting dressed, with that perky figure Betty herself no longer has.

We kept returning to Betty’s increasing frustration throughout, and it finally boiled over when she found young Bobby’s drawing of what appeared to be a harpooned Moby Dick (a symbol for Betty’s fruitless quest for happiness perhaps?) Discovering the rather sweet note from Don to Megan on the other side of the drawing, Betty’s jealousy and annoyance led her to try and torpedo the perceived happiness her ex and his new wife lived in. In doing so, she once again found herself using poor old Sally as a weapon, ‘innocently’ asking why her daughter’s family tree didn’t include Don’s (ie Dick Whitman’s) first ‘wife’ Anna.

That’s a nasty tactic by any means. Sally was plainly unaware of her father’s tortuous history, and it would be pretty complicated to explain to an adult, never mind a twelve-year-old. So she immediately blew up at Megan (another effect Betty was aiming for, perhaps) for lying to her. Stuck in the middle of an obviously bitter row between Don and Betty, poor old Megan couldn’t really deal with this.

It was only when Sally overheard Don and Megan having a flaming row over the matter that she realised what so many children from ‘broken homes’ have before her – she was being used as a pawn between two bitterly estranged people trying to hurt each other, with no regard for her own feelings. Again, Kiernan Shipka’s performance was astoundingly mature as Sally played an absolute blinder; when ‘innocently’ asked by Betty how her questioning of Don had gone, she simply shrugged and made out that it had been no big deal at all. I couldn’t help laughing and exclaiming, “well played, Sally!” That’s how much Mad Men draws me in sometimes.

Back at the office, we had two big plots going on. Don found his alpha male status increasingly threatened by the talent of young Ginsberg, and Roger tried comically to adapt to acceptance of New York’s Jewish community in order to screw over Pete Campbell by nabbing another account.

Of these two, the Roger storyline was the more obviously funny;  you can always rely on Roger for a few laughs. Witness his frustration at having to secretly bribe yet another copywriter in his attempts to damage Pete, and his awkward attempts at acceptance of Jews. Ginsberg handled it well though, and Roger’s enough of an old smoothie to still manage to charm his Jewish potential client.

This was in no small part thanks to the help of his now-estranged wife Jane. There was a comical moment when Bert Cooper (who we don’t see often enough), found out that Roger had separated; he looked at his watch and harrumphed, “what, already?” But Roger needed Jane (she’s Jewish, remember) to show the clients how accepting he is. She certainly charmed wine magnate Rosenberg’s handsome son Bernie – I wonder if that will go anywhere in later episodes?

Perhaps not, because she ended up back with Roger. It’s clear since their acid trip that she’s not as sanguine about the end of their marriage as he is; now we realised that he’s not entirely over it either. So he dragooned his way into the new apartment he’d bought Jane so she could be free of the memories in their old one, and took advantage of the presumably drunk Jane to have his way with her. The man’s incorrigible, and certainly doesn’t learn lessons.

It was a bitter conclusion to an otherwise amusing plotline, as a repentant Roger was told by the tearful Jane that he’d just made her new apartment as painful to be in as her old one. One of the things that makes Roger likeable despite the horrible things he does is the obvious fondness behind his thoughtlessness; we saw last week how fond he still is of former wife Mona, and it now seems Jane is another he bears no ill will towards. Whether she feels the same is uncertain. But she knows Roger. He does what he does because he has no thought for the consequences of his actions; and based on the last five seasons, he’s unlikely to change any time soon.

Don, as usual, had the slightly more serious storyline. Stumbling over Ginsberg’s copybook on his way out of the office, he realised how talented the younger man was – talented in a way that Don himself doubts he is any more. So he stayed in the office (missing Betty’s awkward visit to his apartment) running through some frankly hokey sounding proposals for something called ‘Sno Balls’ (these might be a real product, but as a non-American I’m completely unaware of them).

After figuratively sweating blood over it, Don came up with a half decent proposal, but in the pitch meeting, Peggy and Rizzo seemed to prefer Ginsberg’s. Ginsberg himself probably compounded the problem with his amusing surprise that Don still “had it”. And with that, the fight was on – not that Ginsberg even knew. Don was threatened, however much he denied it, and after being frustrated in his every attempt to gain the upper hand, resorted to the downright sneaky tactic of simply leaving Ginsberg’s proposal in the cab when he went to pitch to the clients.

I don’t think we’ve seen Don resorting to this kind of underhand strategy out of desperation very often before. It led to a marvellous two handed scene in the elevator (increasingly where characters in the show go to have frosty exchanges). Ginsberg, having realised he’d been screwed over, nettled Don with his own youth and potential: “I’ve got millions more ideas. Millions of them”, following that up with a zinger: “You know, I feel sorry for you.” To which Don coldly came back with, “I don’t think about you at all.” But that wasn’t an argument-winning line because Don – and the viewer – knows that it’s a lie.

So if there was a theme at all in this week’s angst-ridden drama, it was denial. Betty’s denial of her own obvious unhappiness; Don’s denial of his obsolescence; Roger’s denial that he still has feelings for his ex-wives. And even Pete’s denial that his affair with Howard’s wife is over – in one of the more comical scenes, he fantasises that she’s come to the office wearing a fur coat and little else. Lucky he’s got that couch in his office, he plainly needed a lie down.

A few historical notes anchored the show in 1966. Megan was clearly running lines from classic gothic horror soap opera Dark Shadows, which began in June of that year. Given that it ran for five years and is fondly remembered as a cult show, Megan’s assessment of it as “crap” is amusing. After all, it must be well-remembered to have inspired the title of this episode! Elsewhere, Henry’s obviously annoyed that New York City mayor John Lindsay isn’t running in the 1966 State Governor race; that went to Nelson Rockefeller for a second time. Rockefeller would later go on to be Vice President under Gerald Ford. As Henry crossly comments, he’s backed the wrong horse in sticking with Lindsay.

And finally, this week’s Hideous Checked Sports Coat count – low. It’s November, so everyone’s switched to Hideous Checked Overcoats:

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But for a bit of variety, the head of Betty’s Weight Watchers class has a Hideous Checked Housecoat:

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More eye-watering 60s fashions amid the existential angst next week…

Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 3–Tea Leaves

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“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.

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Ginsberg demonstrates another eye-watering 60s jacket.

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?