Sorry this is a day late. I went to a sock hop Sunday night, and only got to see “Mad Men” last night. But better late than never! Spoilers, as usual, and more breaking it down into themes and chunks.
We open with Betty’s erotic dream, of course, but there’s also the “I Have A Dream” speech and the obliquely noted dream of going to the moon. The episode title is “Wee Small Hours”, a reference to both an album and a song by Frank Sinatra. The album is about loneliness, pensive moods, and above all, dreaming. Subsequently, this episode felt at times like a dream. Noel at the Onion AV noted that Don’s interactions with Suzanne and Conrad Hilton particularly felt dreamlike.
But notice that dreams get interrupted, a theme established the second the phone started ringing and waking everyone up. Everything was going one way, and now the gears are shifting. It’s not just sleep that’s interrupted. Betty’s little discussion with Henry is interrupted. Suzanne Farrell’s run is interrupted. Don’s relationship with Hilton is interrupted. Sal’s nascent career in directing commercials is interrupted. The best laid plans of mice and men, and all that. Betty’s party was built in anticipation of Henry coming, but it was the female aide instead. A character expresses a wish to vote for Kennedy, but she won’t have a chance. The fundraiser may be for Rockefeller, but Goldwater will be the nominee.
Conrad Hilton says in this episode that Americans aren’t chauvinists, but that we just expect more. All the interruptions point to a dark irony in that. The truth is that some Americans—white, upper class, men mostly—expected the world, but most Americans were actually told to keep their expectations low. The civil rights movement rumbling in the background was about dreaming big, expecting more. The 60s in general would be dominated by an explosion in these kinds of demands for justice and equality from all sectors. But all the interruptions in this episode force us to ask the hard questions about what became of those dreams. Not to discount the strides made in the 60s, but the dream was interrupted, and the goals have still not been met. I imagine that Matthew Weiner, who leans heavily on poetry for inspiration, had Langston Hughes’ “Dream Deferred” not far from his mind on this one.
This theme was most explicit in Betty and Carla’s conversation about the Birmingham bombing. Earlier, we hear the “I Have A Dream” speech on the radio. Then the horrible tragedy is referenced, and Betty suggests that this interruption be reason enough to give up on the dream. Betty’s passivity was at its extreme this episode, and she’s imposing that view on everyone else.
Sal and The Closet as a plot device
Marc and I have been watching “The Shield”, and have finished season one, and while I like it a lot, one of the things that’s been bugging me is how gayness on TV is almost always represented in relation to the closet, and how the closet and coming out and whether or not to do so is an easy way to generate tension. Not that those stories aren’t important—they are—but they tend to be the only stories you get. And on “The Shield”, it’s really uncomfortable because it really shows how the obsession with the closet inadvertently creates a narrative where the blame for the problems gay people face lay all on their shoulders, because they won’t come out. Everything bad that happens to Julian in the first season of “The Shield” seems like it’s his fault, because he won’t come out. I see this kind of thing over and over. And to a degree, I forgave it on “Mad Men”, because it’s the 60s, and so the pressure to stay in looked a lot different. But in a sense, it was one of the more unimaginative story lines.
But this last episode shifted gears dramatically. After all, even though Sal didn’t want it that way, he was out to Don. And not only did that not afford him protection, it made the situation worse. If Don thought that Sal was straight, I doubt very much that he’d suggest that Sal should have had sex with a male client just to keep him happy. Not that the closet doesn’t exacerbate Sal’s problems, but it was a strong reminder that the oppression gay people face is mainly dished out by straight people. I also liked how the episode showed how people that are members of an certain oppressed group will often use social oppression as a tool to bully other members with, to build themselves up. The Lucky Strikes guy reminded me of all those nasty right wing women like Kathleen Parker who feel powerful by exploiting sexism to beat up on other women. I get the impression that Mr. Lucky Strikes has had a lot of success in the past using men’s closeted status to bully them into sex.
And this is a continuation of the theme of coerced sex, and a nice demonstration that rape is about power more than sex. The two rapes before, and now this: All three cases were about men wanting to assert themselves and feel powerful. It’s not a coincidence that Mr. Lucky Strikes tried to sexually assault Sal after he was provoked into feeling jealous that Sal had a creatively fulfilling job.
Betty and Don’s dueling affairs
Once again, we’re reminded that Betty and Don actually have a lot in common. Both of them are thrilled by the chase, and both of them are intoxicated by the power their own sexual attractiveness gives them. But Betty doesn’t have a lot of experience chasing like Don does. When told she has to chase, she gives up. For women, if you have to chase, then you’re not considered sexy—a winner—anymore, so what’s the point? (Or that’s how Betty sees it.)
Don has managed to avoid any real entanglements since he came back from California. A tryst here and there, sure, but actual affairs, not so much. But when Hilton defeats him, he slides right back into this old ways. Seducing someone is a quick fix to feel powerful again.
Betty and Carla’s tense relationship
Most blogs I’ve seen focus strictly on the way that the civil rights movement is imbuing Betty and Carla’s relationship with all sorts of tension, as Betty is becoming more conscious of both racism and her desire not to see herself as a racist. The cocktail party chatter about civil rights while Carla silently waits on them in the background particularly stands out in this regard. What makes this show so interesting, however, is the way these political issues are woven in with personal issues and you really see how the two interact. Because the unspoken thing hanging between them in Carla’s knowledge of Betty’s almost-affair. They’re not talking about it, of course, so it’s hard to say what Carla is thinking exactly. But there’s this moral transgression hanging between them, and instead of feeling bad that she’s put Carla in this situation, Betty’s acting like Carla is her chaperon or something. I think that really added to the frustration the audience had with Betty saying that foolish thing she did about the Birmingham bombings. The relationship is already strained, and it’s all Betty’s fault, and she just keeps adding more crap to Carla’s plate, and Carla can’t really do anything about it.
Carla’s tried to reach out to Betty before, and create more of a congenial relationship, but Betty’s having none of it. As always, she’s just clueless about what her behavior does to people in her household that could be hurt by it, either the children or Carla. I can’t help but imagine that the Draper marriage earthquakes leave Carla feeling a little stressed out and drained, since her employment depends on Don and Betty staying together. So even if she had no opinions at all on the matter—thought I get the impression from her body language that she has opinions—she would still be involved, because what the Drapers do affects the people that work for them. We mostly see this theme through Peggy, who always gets the worst of it when Don is in a bad mood, but now we see the same set of problems in the Betty/Carla relationship, though it plays out in a different way, and Carla has basically no rights to speak up for herself, whereas Peggy has some leverage.
The show has nibbled on the margins of the ethical problem cheating creates for people who learn your secret, and therefore are sucked into your drama against their will. But this was the first time they really started to look at the ramifications of that fully. An interesting choice, particularly with the backdrop of discourse about integration.
A lot packed into one episode! What did you think, Pandagonians?