I guess I’m just going to have to give up and call these “Mad Men Tuesdays”. Sorry.
My ambivalence about the “inflict your character with alcoholism and/or cancer” type of storyline this season is receding. It seems that they’re not going there with the quiet-music-character-humbly-enters-AA-hat-in-hand-now-everything-is-okay cliche that makes me want to scratch my eyes out. As I noted to Marc, Don isn’t a joiner, and I don’t think he’s a believer. They hat tipped AA for its champions with Freddy. I think they now feel free to look at the situation while avoiding cliches. With that in mind, I appreciated the detail work involved in showing Don cutting back on his drinking. He’s sipping his liquor. He’s going with wine or beer over hard liquor. He’s pouring smaller drinks. Most importantly, he’s paying attention to when the alcohol brings with it a numbing effect that keeps the world shut out, and he’s choosing to scale back even more when that happens.
That said, I want to to talk about Joan first and then get back to Don. Marc made the observation that the Don at the beginning of the episode is dressed very 1960 in a sea of people dressed 1965. By the end of the episode, Don has a 1965 look that he’s rocking. He’s not going to be yesterday’s news. But Joan doesn’t have that choice, and I think the quiet tragedy of her story was the bleakness that kept this episode from really being a note of pure optimism.
Joan’s conflict with the Young Turks in the office immediately reminded me of something I read years ago that made me realize exactly what kind of misogyny second wave feminists were up against, which in turn made me realize that “Mad Men” is hardly an exaggeration. I suspect the writers had this in mind, too—an interview the Beatles gave to Playboy in 1965.
Paul: Some of those American girls have been great.
John: Like Joan Baez.
Paul: Joan Baez is good, yeah, very good.
John: She’s the only one I like.
George: And Jayne Mansfield. Playboy made her.
Paul: Actually, she’s a clot.
Ringo: Says Paul, the god of the Beatles.
Paul: I didn’t mean it, Beatle people! Actually, I haven’t even met her. But you won’t print that anyway, of course, because Playboy is very pro-Mansfield. They think she’s a rave. But she really is an old bag.
The praise of Joan Baez is condescending, but what really is upsetting is the way that Paul just dismisses Jayne Mansfield completely. The implication—beyond just her actual age—is that the girl who can’t help it is completely passe because her sex appeal isn’t what’s hip anymore. And with that, it was basically over for Mansfield. Some sexist little fuck who’s still wet behind the ears declared her an “old bag”, and at least according to this biography, that was that for Mansfield’s career as a Playboy model. It certainly was a symbol of the times. A little googling shows that Paul’s contempt for Mansfield seems to have been really strong, since the band took the time to meet the actress, but Paul didn’t even show up.
In other words, you can think you’re a big deal, but they can still draw a picture. For the young guys in the office, but especially for Joey, the fact that Joan keeps insisting that she matters, even though she’s over 30 and doesn’t have a fashionable body anymore, just strikes them as preposterous. The worst part is that you read this Playboy interview, and you really get the impression that women’s bodies and women themselves matter mostly to these young guys as tokens with which to communicate with other men. Paul McCartney didn’t have a vendetta against Jayne Mansfield because she personally pissed him off, I’m sure. Notice who he’s really swiping at—Playboy for being so old and out of touch with their love of buxom blondes. Swiping at Mansfield is a way of sneering at the notion that he had to pay his dues and respect his elders. He’s here to toss them out and conquer the world, and she’s just a symbol of the old school that has to disappear completely before he’s satisfied.
But Joan’s heavy assumption that Peggy will suffer the same fate doesn’t strike me as accurate. Not that the young guys respect Peggy as an equal, but it’s also not true that Peggy is defined as strictly by her sexuality as Joan in the eyes of the men around her. Men have repeatedly tried and failed to do this to Peggy. They don’t know what to make of her, but simply suggesting that her very presence can be dismissed with a flip suggestion that she’s aging and a relic doesn’t seem like it would have the power over her that it does over Joan. Which is why I’m more ambivalent about Joan and Peggy’s interaction in the elevator. It seems initially that Joan is right, but in the bigger scheme of things, Joan is 100% wrong. At the end of the day, pandering to rules written by men and taking an “every woman for herself” approach didn’t work—women did have to team up and find power in numbers. Joan’s way of dealing with things doesn’t seem like it’s so smart anymore. Peggy may be awkward and unsure of herself, but she was right. They can draw a picture, okay, but she can have them fired.
The alcohol abuse has been such a dramatic thing with Don that it’s overshadowed the other major theme of the season, which is precisely this major inter-generational struggle. It’s been frustrating watching Don, who has always been crafty, nimble and able to think outside of the box (due to his status as the perpetual outsider, the man who is faking it to make it) let the times just pass him by. This episode, it finally feels like Don is turning a corner after his dark night of the soul with Peggy. For reasons outside of her control (being female) and personal flaws (stubborn, old-fashioned), Joan really is being passed by. But Don has a chance to turn his ship around and get with the times. The scene where he’s with the young people and everyone’s drinking had two major things going on. One is that Don is really working to find when he’s triggered to drink to numb himself. But also, I think he’s focusing on the youth of his colleagues and their energy, and he’s deciding that instead of fighting it, he’s going to create a space for himself in this new world.
But doing so doesn’t mean that he just simply apes the younger men and that’s that. It’s never that simple, is it? Don’s journey is about getting with the times, but mostly in service of becoming his own man. It begins with taking advantage of how the new times mean that the old rules—including the rule that successful men must have trophy wives and houses in the suburbs—aren’t in play any longer. He finally names his reluctance to take it further with Bethany, which is basically that it’s the same old shit he was going before that isn’t going to work out. (By the way, interesting how blow jobs represent the old-fashioned in this episode. That’s not the symbol I would have picked, but it was effective. I think it’s because it represents a sort of feminine compromise that is increasingly becoming passe—sucking a dude off to keep the complaints to a minimum while maintaining your “innocence” is some serious 1950s shit. More fun is the woman on the pay phone yelling at the guy she’s seeing that she doesn’t cook and give her back her keys already.) He takes the shit that he was storing the garage out and just tosses it; it was him staking his claim to a life he’s finally beginning to realize was just holding him back. Betty’s assurance to Henry that they have everything sounds hollow now that Don has learned to stretch out and enjoy his bed—once again, weightlessness is invoked when he describes this feeling—and the longing in Betty’s eyes shows that she doesn’t really believe her own lies. She is still a child, throwing tantrums and being hovered over by her new daddy-husband. But Don is weightless. He holds the baby over his head and the baby looks like he’s about to take off.
To keep up with the times, paradoxically, Don must fully grow up. His crutches have to go—not just alcohol, but being validated by women, having a life stuffed with status symbols, exerting complete authority over his underlings. Realizing this finally means securing that date with Faye, a more age-appropriate woman than Bethany. He lets go of his childish defensiveness around her, genuinely complimenting her work. He lets go of asking her out repeatedly in order to conquer her, and when he asks her out with the intention of just enjoying her company, everything changes. He doesn’t need to fuck her to win. He doesn’t need these petty victories. Let’s hope he can keep it up.
All that said, it’s hard to walk away from that episode with pure optimism. That Playboy-inflected pornographic cartoon mocking Joan was the big symbol of what’s happening to her. Don has become a swimmer, and a much-younger man starts to race him, and he actually wins. Joan is symbolically pushed to her knees, but Don symbolically is made powerful, weightless, and independent. Viewed from that perspective, what initially felt like a happy episode instead feels deeply sad.