With yesterday being Mother’s Day, it seemed quite appropriate that the evening’s episode of Mad Men pivoted so heavily on Betty. By extension, Betty protege Sally Draper also figured prominently in the plot, which is usually one of my very favorite types of Mad Men episode. The odds that Sally’s going to stab someone with a letter opener before this show goes off the air continue to increase, much to my delight.
Last night’s installment wasn’t great, not in the same way that some of the episodes we’ve seen over the last few weeks have been great, but I did get a couple good cackles here and there. As best I can tell, the theme of the evening was “the grass is always greener,” which is something I had written in my notes before it was actually verbalized by one of the characters. A little too on-the-nose, even for a show that’s often a bit on-the-nose, but I’m not mad at it. Well, not too mad, anyway.
The episode began with yet another change of narrative pace, something we’ve experienced during almost every episode of this season. Not only did we jump quickly from character to character, location to location, but the episode took place over what had to have been weeks, maybe even months. (Exactly how quickly can one search for, purchase and then halfway move into an apartment?)
Previous episodes have taken place over as little as 24 hours, which, along with the frenetic pace of the scene changes, gave me a real sense of unsteadiness that I’m not sure was particularly well-matched with the episode’s narrative content; Betty going to Weight Watchers just didn’t seem as urgent as the steady clip at which we blew through the episode indicated the writers felt it should.
With that being said, we tentatively started with Fat Betty, who was faithfully weighing cheese cubes in the darkness of her kitchen (little-known fact: all of the lights were on, that’s actually as bright as the house gets) in order to try and be less fat. So far, it seemed to be working; January Jones’ fat suit had been downgraded by at least one order of magnitude, but clearly not enough to satisfy Mrs. Hofstadt Draper Francis.
The show then wordlessly shifted us to the elevator at SCDP for the first of many conversations that would take place there. This time, the lift’s occupants were Don, Pete, Roger and Bert, who were listening to Pete regale them of his conversation with a New York Times reporter over the weekend and assure them that the agency, and Pete specifically, would be featured in an upcoming issue of the Sunday Times magazine featuring “hip” ad men. Anyone who’s familiar with this show could see that unraveling a mile away, which is perhaps why so little time was spent on it.
Once everyone dispersed, we cut to Don’s office, where he and Joan were surveying the year’s work and deciding what should be included in the agency’s portfolio. In a bunch of clunky close-up shots, it became clear that not only had Don not had an idea in ages, but Ginsberg was the only person who seemed to be contributing any winning ideas at all. Remember that warning that Stan gave to Peggy about bringing in someone brilliant? It looks like it’s not only harming her stature within the agency, but Don’s ego as well.
In yet another office, Roger summoned Ginsberg for a bit of off-the-book work. Manischewitz wine had been dangled in front of Bert, and both he and Roger (but by the way Roger told it, mostly Bert) wanted to keep the business out of Pete’s clutches, even if they’d have to relinquish it eventually once the account joined the firm. Manischewitz is a Jewish foods company, specifically known for its wine, and Roger wanted Ginsberg to think of a couple of ideas so that he could impress the client at dinner and sound clever. It would cost him $200, but that’s a relative deal compared to what he paid Peggy for the last-minute Mohawk work.
It was also a relative deal compared to what he had to do to get Jane to participate in the dinner. The show has never mentioned it before, but Jane is Jewish, and Bert thought that bringing her along would help ingratiate them to the clients. Bert also didn’t realize that Roger was in the process of getting divorced for the second time, or if he did, he decided to play it for a laugh. Either way, it was kind of a half-hearted laugh. Anyway, Roger called Jane, and in order to secure her participation in the evening, he’d have to buy her an apartment that wasn’t full of memories of their marriage. Somehow, he agreed to those terms. Exactly how rich is Roger, anyway?
Back at Don’s apartment, and presumably at the end of the work day (although perhaps at the end of a totally different work day?), Megan and Sally were hanging out, talking about acting things, and teaching Sally how to cry on cue. Pfffft. Sally has studied at the foot of Betty Hofstadt Draper Francis, the world champion of cold, calculating emotional manipulation for her entire life! As if this failed actress could possibly have anything to teach her! That’s like Rachel Ray trying to teach Mario Batali’s kid how to make meatballs.
After observing that scene, Don promptly went back to work, where he was left to his own devices to investigate the progress of one Mr. Michael Ginsberg. As it turns out, Don’s sick of having his thunder stolen by the Jewish kid in the plaid jacket, and the Sno Ball account is where he planned to make his triumphant return to actually, you know, writing things and doing his job. He used the quiet time to sit down and record a few ideas that seemed like stinkers, even to him, but it was a start. Sort of.
While Don was trying to figure out how to use Satan to sell a snack cake (Side note: those were the Sno Balls we were talking about, right? They’re the only thing with that name that I know of, but why did everyone keep calling them “refreshing?” Chemical-filled snack cakes are a lot of things, but they’re not refreshing), Satan herself, Betty Francis, had arrived to his apartment to pick up the kids from Megan’s care. Because parking in New York was as big an issue in the 60s as it is now, Betty decided to come upstairs to collect everyone while Henry circled the block.
Betty has always been one of those exceedingly lovely people who loves nothing more than to count others’ money, but apparently she had restrained herself from investigating Don’s and Megan’s new life too closely until that evening. After Sally opened the door for her, she wandered in to survey exactly what it was that Don saw in Megan, including a quick glimpse of her lithe frame as she got dressed. After a terse, awkward exchange when Megan realized she had a visitor, Betty immediately went home, dove into the fridge and shot liquid food-crack, in the form of half a can of Redi-Whip, straight into her mouth.
That scene was admittedly hilarious, but the problem with it (and this entire Betty-centric episode) was that it didn’t feel simultaneously poignant. If we found Peggy or Joan doing the same thing in their kitchens, it would be a funny visual that would also make me feel something. But it’s Betty, who never seems to change or evolve or show even the smallest bit of dynamism, so I just laughed and moved on. It’s not that Betty’s unlikeable; unlikeable people can still be successful characters, and indeed, Matthew Weiner does a great job of making Pete Campbell both unlikeable but essential to the show. It’s that Betty, in her caricatured midcentury suburbaness, is not interesting or essential. When January Jones got pregnant and Betty, by extension, had to get fat, I was hopeful that Weiner would use the opportunity to make Betty no less flawed but slightly more human. If nothing else, I think that this episode proved that Betty is still his Achilles heel.
Betty wasn’t the only person mad at Megan’s living situation, though. Back over at Chez Draper, an actress friend had visited to run lines with Megan for a soap opera audition that was coming up. Megan didn’t get called back to read, apparently, but her friend had, and she gave the lines her best over-the-top network soap screech. Megan laughed at how bad the script was, but her friend took it personally, pointing out to her how convenient it was that she could prepare for auditions from the comfort of her uptown love nest with nary a thought given to how she was going to pay her rent the next month. A point, she has it.
The vitriol seemed to take Megan by surprise, but she was perhaps the only one not expecting it. In that era, social stratification was even clearer than it is in today’s New York, and there were no sunny Williamsburg lofts to which one could move to pretend to be a “starving artist” while still enjoying he pleasures and conveniences of a doorman. Fledgling actresses didn’t live at 73rd and Park, socialites did, and Megan’s friends who are slinging beer and getting mugged once a month in the Village were obviously going to tire of her privilege quickly. I think that this scene was a small peek at how the Draper marriage is going to come apart; Megan’s life pulls her back to where she came from, and as much as Don will likely want to indulge her, he can’t change who he is.
While all that was going on, Don was back at the office, being subtly pulled (or pulling himself) back in the direction from which he came. It was time to decide which idea, his or Ginsberg’s (Peggy’s had already been shelved), would be pitched to the Sno Ball people. The group stood around, evaluating the finer points of “Hit me in the face with a Sno Ball” and “MMMM Satan likes candy” or whatever it was that Don came up with, and the outcome was…charitable. In an apparent attempt to show deference to their boss, everyone decided that although they should lead with Ginsberg’s idea (which really would have been better if it had been “Hit me in the mouth with a Sno Ball”), Don’s should be presented as well.
Anyone who’s been watching this show for any amount of time should have known that a dual presentation would never happen. Not only is Don trying to nurse his ego in this episode, but even at his most confident, presenting two ideas is just not what Don does. He’s never done it before, and in an episode from last season, he had to get a little stern with Ken Cosgrove for trying to sell two ideas at the same time. Ginsberg wasn’t there for the pitch, so naturally, it was Don’s idea that was presented (and sold). When word of his exclusion reached Ginsberg, he hit the roof, but Don answered in the only way that a truly superior lifeform (and Don Draper/Jon Hamm is clearly the most superior of any man, ever) can: Not only did he not care that Ginsberg felt sorry for him, but he didn’t have thoughts about Ginsberg at all. We know that’s not true, but that kind of stone-cold brush-off did give the episode a little bit of much-needed electricity. Our cantankerous old bastard is back!
The real meat of the storyline, of course, was Betty and her endless, malignant unhappiness. We learned in a middle-of-the-night, pork chop-fueled confessional that Henry has made a bit of a miscalculation in his political career, which means that he won’t be working on a presidential campaign after all. That, coupled with Betty’s discovery of a sweet note that Don had written to Megan on the back of one of Plot Device Bobby’s drawings, the kind of short, heartfelt missive that he never once dedicated to Betty, sent her careening over the edge. Instead of drowning her sorrows in a can of dessert topping, though, Betty went back to one of her old favorite coping mechanisms: using her children, specifically Sally, to inflict pain and drama on Don.
Betty may not work as an overall character, but when she’s in her element, it’s a thing of beauty. It took her only a moment of contemplation to know exactly what to do: “casually” mention Don’s first wife, Anna, to Sally, and then act surprised that Megan hadn’t told Sally about her when she was helping with the family tree project. It was a good gambit, but Betty miscalculated a bit; she thought that she was forcing Don to tell Megan about Anna and his old life as well as turning Sally against them, but in reality, Megan already knew.
Sally did her part exactly how Betty knew she would, though. The next time Sally visited Don and Megan, she took the first opportunity to get Megan alone and launch into full-on emotional manipulation, just like her mother taught her. Megan handled the situation as well as she probably could have, and when she told Don about the incident later that night, she also handled his rage at both her and Betty quite well. She even stopped him from calling Betty to yell at her, which she knew was exactly what Betty wanted, which means that Megan’s managed to figure out Betty for accurately in the span of a few months than Don did in the years he was married to her. It’s moments like those where it seems like the Draper marriage does actually have a fighting chance; Megan tempers Don in a way that he desperately needs.
The next morning’s phone call from Pete, relaying his failure to be featured in the Times magazine’s ad feature (big surprise), gave Don a chance to confront Sally. She had heard his and Megan’s argument the night before and seemed to understand what she hadn’t quite been able to before: Betty was trying to use her as a vessel to spread her own dissatisfaction and jealousy. Don did a decent job explaining Anna’s role in his life without getting too detailed, and particularly once Sally realized that she had visited Anna’s house in California after she died, the anger she felt toward Don and Megan took on a new target: Betty.
Once back at home, Sally proved that the pupil had now become the master. When Betty inquired about the results of Sally’s family tree project, Sally informed her that she, Don and Megan had had a lovely conversation about Anna, complete with fond remembrances and the passing of old pictures. Betty, of course, looked like she might dive head-first straight through the refrigerator door in order to get to the can of Redi-Whip. The continuing evolution of Sally might be the only thing that really makes Betty worth having around.
In all of this, Roger and Jane were busy having their own storyline. He bought the apartment and she went to dinner, and during the meal, the Manischewitz executive’s grown son hit on Jane in a rather innocent and unthreatening way. Roger didn’t seem as steady and even-keeled from his LSD experience as he has in the previous several weeks, though, so he once again asserted his dominance by taking Jane to her new apartment and bedding her there, which ruined the place in the process by leaving the stink of their failed marriage all over it. In a rare moment of clarity, Jane called him out on doing just that and always having to make everything his, and he seemed to be genuinely sorry he did it, perhaps for the first time in his life. I doubt he’ll ever stop, though. He’s Roger, and as he once so accurately said, he wants everything he wants.
The great lesson of this episode, though, and maybe this entire season (or the entire series?), is that getting what you want often just leaves you wanting other things. Betty got her shiny new husband, but she’s undeniably envious of the way that Don moved on from their marriage. Megan got everything a girl could want, but she wants to go back to being a struggling actress. Don has been a walking cautionary tale for the idea that the grass is always greener on the other side since the day this series started. Roger has wanted a divorce almost as long as he’s been married, but given the chance, he marked his former territory one more time. If any budget had been left for music after last week’s Beatles moment, it would have been the right episode for a little bit of the Rolling Stones; you can’t always get what you want, but even when you can, it just leaves you wanting other things.
- This whole episode was such a jumpy mess, structurally, that I didn’t even get around to Pete, who was visited by Phantom Rory Gilmore, wearing nothing but a floor-length fur and pearls. Even in his fantasies, all Pete really wants is a blue-blooded wet dream.
- I also didn’t get to spend much time on Peggy, who continues to feel as though she’s been left in the dust. We already knew that from previous episodes, though, and this one didn’t push that story and further forward, except that she had a rather terse conversation in the elevator with Roger about why he had asked Ginsberg and not her. In this case, though, I think the reason was obvious, and it just made Peggy’s irritation feel unsubstantiated.
- Speaking of that conversation, weren’t there a LOT of people talking in the elevator last night? The foursome at the beginning, Don and Ginsberg, Peggy and Roger. Perhaps it’s just a device to isolate people for short, private conversations, or maybe we’re supposed to be thinking about elevators a lot. Who knows.
- Betty at Weight Watchers made me chuckle, and the meetings were quite accurate. I’ve done Weight Watchers before (it actually does work), and it would seem as though the environment, which Betty seemed to be trying to use as another substitute for the therapy she so seriously needs, hasn’t changed all that much in 50 years.
- Speaking of which, that’s another thing that irks me about how Betty is written. As viewers, I don’t think there’s any hope for us that Betty will ever eventually start to unmask her psychological problems. While that’s accurate to the extremely narrow lives that women in that era often lead, it also makes her character a dead end in the same way that Roger was starting to feel like a dead end before he took LSD. Maybe Betty needs to drop acid too.
- I left out the Thanksgiving dinners at the end, mostly because they felt like the most leaden part of an episode that crashed down like an anvil full of obviousness. They didn’t give us any insight into any of the characters or the story itself; instead, we got some obvious metaphors (the “toxic air” of New York) and more of Betty’s inability to concern herself with her own happiness instead of begrudging happiness to everyone else. We knew that stuff already.
- And actually, that’s sort of my problem with the entire episode: We knew this stuff already. Sally’s realization that Betty was using her was important, as was the Roger-Jane moment the morning after, but other than that, this episode didn’t give us the careful expansion on the season’s ideas that all of the episodes thus far have provided.
- After such a spectacular run of episodes, it was natural that we’d hit a pot hole at some point; excellence like that is simply unsustainable in the long term. I’m glad we went ahead and hit it now instead of later in the season when the stakes will presumably be higher.