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Mad Men blogging: You can go sleep at home tonight if you can get up and walk away

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, October 26, 2009 22:24 EDT
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Spoilers.

Since the end of the second season, I’ve increasingly wondered what Don thinks is so scary about telling Betty the truth about his past. It was a really good example of how our fears outstrip the reality. The truth, if spelled out, isn’t so bad, or at least the version Don can ever admit, which is the one where the mix-up was the Army’s fault. You can sympathize with why he took someone else’s name to escape getting killed in Korea. That the original Don Draper’s wife forgave the new Don Draper and became his friend would be enough absolution for Betty, I’ve always thought. That the new Don Draper stepped up and took care of Anna only adds to that. And last night, they confronted this reality. But you also saw what Don fears the most, which is losing control. He may act like a victim of circumstances, but part of him enjoys conning someone and keeping them in line. That’s why he’s in advertising. That’s why he let the teacher believe that he fought with Betty over infidelity.

So while I agree with Lauren Bans that last night’s episode was about people getting smacked over the head with reality (literally, when it comes to Joan’s husband), I think it was ultimately still about the larger show’s theme about creating reality through perception. That was what the whole thing with the dog food was about, and Don’s attempts to convince the owner that all she needed to do was change the name and keep the product intact. Don Draper just changed his name. It was a cheap shot to try to compare that to the marital name change, but it was a basic truth that I think Don’s only now beginning to really get.

What this episode explored more is why people have to choose perception control and illusion more than a discourse about reality versus illusion. And the reason is that reality can obscure reality and become an illusion. Take the dog food situation. Yes, it’s true that this particular dog food is made from horses, but focusing on that obscures the larger truth, which is that all dog food is made from horses, and that singling out one brand as a scapegoat is unfair. Betty only thought she discovered the truth when she found the box, but she discovered the bigger truth when she asked her lawyer for advice, and he reminded her (and mainly the audience) that women in 1963 didn’t have much of a right to sue for divorce, not if they wanted to keep their kids, or not if they were facing a husband who controlled all the wealth. We are reminded that Don doesn’t give Betty much money—their joint checking account has $200 in it, even though they are sitting on over half a million from the sale of Sterling Cooper alone, and Don’s got $5,000 stashed in his desk. Faced with these realities, the truth about Dick Whitman is a joke. Don Draper, particularly the image of the faithful husband, is an illusion, but it’s the one that obscures the fact that her reality is that she doesn’t have a lot of options.

We discover, too, that Betty Draper already knew the most important thing about the Dick Whitman to Don Draper transition, which is to say she knew that Don grew up poor and is ashamed of it. Once again, the writers take a character that was set up to be easy to hate, and make her more sympathetic. Betty’s powers of observation are more acute than one would think—she calls Don a great storyteller, and lets him (and the audience) know that she’s not oblivious to all the evidence that he grew up in poverty. Once again, I’m forced to point out that a lot of what many in the audience take to mean that Betty is a bimbo actually means that Betty is stifled and bored, but when stimulated—even by something unimportant—she demonstrates that she takes in a lot more than she lets on.

The episode is a Halloween episode, and there’s a spiral of symbolism about costumes vs. who we “really” are, ending on the note of Carleton asking Don and Betty who they are. The children are dressed as a hobo and a gypsy—obvious symbolism for Don, especially considering that he’s been associated with a hobo before, and is often restless and traveling. So what’s the costume, and what’s for real? Personally, I’m not a fan of the idea that you birth or your family or your social class is who you “really” are, and I think the person you become should be considered the person you are, and that you have a right to make that choice. Don answered the question, “Who are you?” earlier in the highly dramatic and well-played scenes of being outed by Betty, and he said he was Donald Draper. At the end of the day, I think that’s about right.

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The B plots of Joan and Roger seem relatively unconnected on their surface, except that Joan calls Roger and asks him for help in finding a job. Greg’s rant about how he worked hard and paid his dues, and he still can’t make it work—the speech that inspired Joan to hit him with a vase—applies to Joan as well, but Joan’s hard work and dues-paying was mainly in the department of being attractive. Joan worked hard at being vivacious, funny, sexy, and capable, and put herself out there as the perfect wife, and it took her forever to get a husband, and he’s second rate. Both Joan and Greg have to assess all their prior work, and decide if they’ve got other options. Greg parlays his skills into being an Army surgeon. But Joan does something similar—all her hard work in becoming Joan means that she’s got a powerful man like Roger still remembering her fondly, and she’s going to cash in on that. Yes, Roger’s help is Joan’s version of joining the Army. Let’s hope it works out for her.

The whole digression about Roger’s past with the woman who owns the dog food business baffled some commenters, but I think I know what’s going on. It’s related to the Joan thing, and it’s setting up ye ol’ dramatic irony. Roger cuts off his old lover harshly, because he claims that he only has eyes for Jane, but then he turns around and glows in the attentions of Joan, who is cashing the check of his former infatuation with much more ease. Obviously, he’s not as oblivious to the charms of other women as he claims to be, and while it’s not cheating by a long shot, I suspect Jane is going to find out and she’s going to perceive Joan as a massive threat. All Roger’s proclamations this week sound weird, but once Jane gets pissed about this, oh irony.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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