Mad Men Tuesday: Secrets, Lies, and Things Get Very Ancient Greek-ish
Well, that episode was completely packed with iconic images of the 60s that are, above all other things, forward-looking and revolutionary: the Playboy Club, NASA, the Beatles. It was also all about female sexuality, though not as thoroughly as last week’s episode was about female power. You had commodification of female sexuality at the Playboy Club, another reminder of the unfair restraints on female reproductive capacity with Joan having another illegal abortion (we think, which I’ll get back to), and a symbol of an outpouring of female desire with the Beatles concert at Shea Stadium. Indeed, if you wanted to have fun with that concert, you could use it as a symbol of how women’s desires are bigger than the Beatles—and you know the Beatles are bigger than Jesus—because that concert was legendary for being basically unhearable over the screams of the girls in the audience. Since the writers are prone to using pleasingly explosive symbols of burgeoning feminism, I wouldn’t put it past them.
What was really strange was that all these signposts are optimistic, cheery ones dropped into an episode that was all about sadness and secrets. The Playboy Club fittingly served as a crossroads symbol, befitting Playboy’s mixed legacy of sexual liberation coupled with its anti-feminism that dated it rapidly. Yes, it’s a symbol of changing times, but there was that elaborate business with the key, a symbol of secrets and the keeping of appearances, very 50s concepts. The one character who take advantage of the times by trying to live openly instead of having a shadow life is quite literally beat down and violently forced to return to the 50s way of doing things. (Even though they tried to complicate Lane’s situation by imbuing his new relationship with creepiness by making her way younger and a Playboy bunny, in the end it was hard not to feel wildly sorry for him. He and his girlfriend love each other and they want to make a go of it, despite the obstacles, and it’s hard not to root for a couple like that. Also, he bought his son a big, goofy Mickey doll.) Everyone else is swamped by secrets. Don’s is the most obvious and troubling in the episode, but you also have Roger’s secret about Lucky Strike and Joan and Roger’s secret about the pregnancy and abortion. You also have three scenes where characters talk about honesty and not keeping secrets in an intimate situation, and in two of those, the people talking up the importance of openness and honesty have secrets they don’t reveal. Betty tells Henry that she doesn’t want secrets (but she keeps the one about Don’s identity) and Pete whines about the importance of honesty to Trudy (who still doesn’t know his secrets). Only Don comes clean, but ironically it’s because he’s the one in the best situation to do so. Pete would lose his marriage if he came clean, and frankly it’s not Betty’s place to rat on Don to her new husband. But Don once again tells the truth to a woman he’s involved with and once again he finds more sympathy than he probably expected. Each time he tells his secret, you’ll notice, he reveals a little more of it—this time he admitted that he wasn’t just a victim of circumstance when his identity was switched with Don Draper’s.
This is why I’m coming around to the notion that the theory flying around that Joan lied about her abortion to Roger may turn out to be true. It goes against her pragmatic character, sure, but the last scene we hear her speak in before she talks to Roger, she straight up tells a lie, and so we’re reminded she’s capable of it. Her supposedly advanced age has been hammered at all season (irritating, because she’s only in her mid-30s, but shows how times have changed), and the whole discussion with both the sad mother at the clinic and with Roger were cryptic and demonstrated the Joan’s feelings about this are perhaps not as resolved as they were when she had abortions in the past. It suits the storyline, but part of me will be irritated if they have the fake out abortion. It’s like the “oh no, she lied about a rape!” storyline. It would be less of a problem if it wasn’t always the fucking storyline. On TV, most rapes turn out to be false accusations and all planned abortions result in someone changing her mind at the last minute. “Friday Night Lights” broke the protocol and actually showed a realistic storyline where a woman gets an abortion and that’s that, so I would hope “Mad Men” wouldn’t be that cowardly. Particularly since they’ve already done the “we want to discuss abortion without getting letters, so we’re going to reference past abortions or potential abortions, but never show someone affirmatively making the choice to go through with it” maneuver. But it’s tough—you don’t want to say a story is bad simply because another story doesn’t get told.
Abortion or potential not-abortion aside, the real question mark of the episode is what’s going to happen next. As I noted at the top of the post, mixed signals were the order of the day. On one hand, SCDP lost two major accounts that are basically going to put them under. With Lane taking a leave to go home to his family, if only to hammer out the divorce, we got the standard issue tragically ironic statement that signals that shit is about to go down—Lane saying their finances are in order, with a laugh emanating from the show’s Greek chorus Roger, in case the irony was lost on a single soul. Once that sort of thing is uttered, you know someone—or in this case, something—is meeting a tragic end.
Or is it? “Mad Men” knows how to throw curve balls, that’s for sure. And all this sadness and tragedy is contrasted with the cheery, hopeful aspects of the 60s that by and large did work out—rock music, space exploration, and sexual liberation. It’s hard to feel bad when the last thing that actually happens, plot-wise, is that Don gets Sally’s tickets to the Beatles. Of course, that was undercut by an alarming shot of Don leering at his temporary secretary, hinting that he may backslide from his new found ability to make happy, responsible choices. Still, I’m entranced by the image of Don Draper standing in a stadium full of young women letting lose their adolescent sexual energy by screaming their heads off in such a way that it’s hard not to think of a bacchanalian frenzy. Not that I think he’s going to be a lech about it—he’s generally sure to make sure his eyes are firmly trained on women who are of age—but he’s a clever man. Exposure to such an unusual situation is exactly the sort of thing that could get his creative juices flowing.
If he can keep his personal life on track, that is.
What do you think about what is a very ambiguous episode? Is Joan still pregnant? Is Don going to stop running and admit he’s Dick Whitman? Is SCDP done for? Is Roger done for? (His stress levels are pushing him to gobble heart pills.) Is Trudy going to find out Pete’s secret? What the fuck was Trudy wearing?