Mad Men Monday: What I want vs. what’s expected of me vs. ?
Was there any doubt that Don was impressed by what Dr. Faye Miller said to him at the Christmas party? On last night’s episode, he echoed her sentiments to Lane, suggesting he stop asking what’s expected of him, and starts asking what he wants. What’s expected of me vs. what I want—according to Dr. Miller, it’s that simple.
Dr. Miller should have familiarized herself, as a psychologist, with the concept of rationalization, because that’s what she was doing when she suggested she works with advertising agencies not because it works well, but because she wants to help people. That they who work in advertising are somehow liberators, freeing people from what’s expected of them and giving them permission to pursue what they want (as long as they spend money doing it). And so Don gives Lane that permission, and he’s done some good in the world, right? So why does he look so sad?
In part, it’s because his only true friend in the world is dying, of course, but I think it’s more than that. I think it’s because Don’s existential crisis is eating him alive, and he’s trying to drink all the time to blot it out, and yet, it won’t leave him alone. And it’s because the phrase “what I want vs. what’s expected of me” was so profound to him. He really has reduced life to this equation. In this episode, however, we’re reminded there are other options, other complications.
For instance, where does doing what’s right fit into this neat little equation? I’m sure a glib marketing psychologist would say “what’s right” is just another example of “what’s expected of me”, but Don’s little trip out to California was all about the difference between those two things. Hiding from Anna that she’s dying of cancer is what’s expected of him, but is it right? You could say it’s what he wants to do, but Anna’s family pitches their expectations at him based on what he wants, which is the past of least resistance. And that’s what Dr. Miller’s neat little equation leaves out—expectations are sometimes foisted on us by appealing to what we want, especially our laziest, most conflict-averse sides. This question of how what’s right can be completely different from what’s expected is brought up in other ways. The conversation about the sit-ins is particularly telling, especially since the young woman actually straight up says she agrees with what they’re doing (even if she doesn’t do it). What I want vs. what’s expected isn’t the question here—the measurement of value is what’s right. What you want is less of a factor, especially since the young woman makes it clear that for many anti-war protesters, what they want is what’s expected. They want to go to class, they’re expected to go to class, but they feel that they have to protest this war. The older people laugh cynically at her. They don’t deal in these terms of right vs. wrong, and in fact find the whole thing strange and silly. Don tries to impose his worldview, suggesting the only thing that matters about the younger generation is those things they want, like rock and roll records and miniskirts, things that can be sold to them. But the young woman laughs it off. Not that those things don’t matter, but there is simply more to life than this.
The what I want vs. what’s expected equation breaks down with Joan and her husband, as well. When you look at Joan’s situation, the simplistic theory that there’s a real self with wants underneath all those layers of expectation seems inadequate to explain Joan’s pain. On the contrary, Joan is caught in a tug-of-war of different expectations. Her work expectations conflict with her family expectations. Her expectation that she and her husband should start a family conflicts with his duty—which is another word for “expectation”—to serve in Vietnam, where he will undoubtedly be deployed. Even, I think, the discussion about Joan’s previous abortions indicates how much life is often just a matter of conflicting expectations. Is there any doubt that she had to get those abortions? But if the one non-physician abortion resulted in sterility that prevented her from filling the expectation that she have children, then we can imagine that there would be much tongue-clucking about that.
It’s interesting to me that it’s now, when Joan and her husband are basically stuck in this trap, that we finally see a spark of love between them. It’s like hopelessness has given them a little space to look at each other for the first time.
We know what Joan wants, of course. She wants a calm, peaceful life full of love and a work environment where she’s respected for her immense professionalism and talent. But what’s expected of women at that time is to be too feeble-minded to handle all that. Is Joan’s ability to defy what’s expected—and get Lane to apologize—a triumph over what’s wanted over what’s expected? Or is it just a matter of what’s right and frankly what’s obvious winning out?
And let’s not forget about the role chance plays in life. Lane does what’s expected in sending flowers to his wife, but by a sheer accident, the flowers end up bringing an end to his marriage. (By the way, that scene more than any was causing flipping out in our living room. It was a small but cutting example of how the writers on “Mad Men” don’t shy away from the various ways that life can really screw you over.) Lane likes to exert control over his world, but that is impossible some times. Still, I have a suspicion that he’ll be able to walk away from his night of debauchery with Don and back into his regular, controlled life. Meanwhile Don is laying on his bed, staring into the abyss. Glib little slogans that would reduce our choices to slot A or B don’t work in the real world. And now, more than ever, there are no rules.
Obviously, I’m of the opinion that Don should have told Anna. But what do you think? Was he in the right keeping the news to himself?