Much like at a CYO dance, the ladies were the ones who drove the action this episode. Betty did something she never though she’d do, Joan lost something she never thought she’d want, and Peggy faced something she never wanted to face again. In a delicious turnaround from the normal Mad Men story, the women drove the action and the men took a back seat.
In the aftermath of Jimmy Barrett’s malicious bomb drop of last episode, Betty is clearly destroyed. Ever the perfect wife of her social milieu – in fact, as Don inadvertently proved to her, typical of it – Betty once again tamped down her feelings and devoted all her emotional energy to doing what she does best: keeping up appearances. The Drapers have an important dinner party to plan and Betty is consumed by it, to the point of destroying her own furniture for the crime of being less than perfect. Her face as she slowly breaks her dining room chair into kindling is flat and dead. Even in her rage, she is perfectly composed. The only being that sees her sweat is her beloved horse. That doesn’t mean her own children are unaware of her emotional state. In fact, they’re far more attuned to her rage than Don is and the fear on their faces as it manifests in such a creepy fashion is heartbreaking. The Draper family seems irrevocably broken and we can’t help thinking that everyone involved would be better off if they just all went their separate ways.
Meanwhile, it’s become increasingly obvious why Harry’s wife had to push him so hard to go after his promotion several episodes back: because he’s not too ambitious and seemingly not too bright. His brand new television department makes its first major mistake and he immediately whines that he can’t keep up with the demands of the job. Instead of giving him his asked-for new hire, Roger suggests he pulls from the secretarial pool to get the grunt work done. Enter Joan Holloway.
We really need to stop trying to anticipate the potential future directions of characters and plotlines on this show because they consistently pull the rug out from under us. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense. Joan made such an issue earlier in the season of her complete non-interest in furthering herself or attempting to enter “their world,” (the male world). At the time, we thought it was a way to draw a clear distinction between her and the so-hungry-she-can-taste-it Peggy, but instead, it was a way of setting up this new development. She starts off by rolling up her sleeves and helping Harry with his work load only to find that she really enjoys the work and not only that, she’s good at it.
We finally meet her doctor fiance and – what a shock – he’s a total jerk. He’s clearly uncomfortable with the idea of his blowup doll of a wife displaying any brains or ambition and with visible irritation tells her that her job is to walk around and look pretty and her future consists of nothing more than sitting on the couch and eating bon-bons. In typical Joan fashion, she indulges his frustration while blithely going back to her newfound interest.
Peggy finds herself at the mercy of the good Father Gill, who with every good intention to guide what he sees as a lost sheep back to his flock, ropes her into doing pro bono advertising work for the upcoming CYO dance. Peggy’s discomfort with the priest is palpable, likely because she senses not only his intentions, but also his knowledge of the past she very much wants to forget. Don told her in that psych ward that it would shock her how much she’d be able to bury her past but he didn’t tell her there would be people in her life desperate to remind her of it. We wanted to hate him for being so pushy with her, but he’s really only doing what he sees as his job and frankly, Peggy needs someone to shove her into dealing with it, even if we don’t think the church is the way to do it. She’s obviously modeled herself on Don Draper, whether she realizes it or not, and Don’s life built on lies is clearly nothing to work towards.
The Draper dinner party goes off beautifully on the surface. The house looks beautiful, the children are dutifully entertaining, and the host and hostess look like walking advertisements themselves. The guests, insofar as they’re capable, are charmed. The role of the Sterlings as the inevitable future of the Drapers is once again reinforced when Mona tells Betty to enjoy it while she can and laughs bitterly and knowingly at Betty’s furious “What an interesting experiment.” We have no doubt that Mona has had a lifetime of experience being nothing more than a servant to her husband’s ambitions and recognizes in Betty a time when she allowed such things to bother her.
Betty confronts Don for humiliating her at dinner but of course what she’s complaining about isn’t really what she’s complaining about, as is so often the case. We thought this was going to be another of those confrontations that would be nothing but subtext, but she yanked the narrative into the direction she wanted it to go and did something so anathema to her that it was kind of shocking. She went straight for the jugular and told Don that she knew about him and Bobbie. She finally said what she meant. It was a wonderful and riveting thing to see, especially her wrinkled-nose distaste that he would cheat on her with someone “so old.” How perfectly Betty. And what does Don do? Like the sociopath he is, he looked her right in the eyes and lied to her. Again and again.
But Don is reading off an old script and this one isn’t going to blow over by acting earnest and hoping for it to go away. Betty spends the entire next day disheveled and drunk in her party dress, rifling through Don’s suits and desk drawers, ostensibly to look for evidence of the affair, but it shifts into a semi-desperate attempt to find out anything about this lying enigma she’s been spending her life with. Once again, kudos to actress January Jones who made Betty’s slide into despair heart-wrenching to watch. “How could you this to me?” she says to Don, looking like an exiled princess in the middle of their bed, her makeup smeared and her dirty dress surrounding her. “I would never do this to you.” Although we don’t really believe that with all the extramarital flirting she’s been doing lately. Still Don lies to her and to our surprise, she still wouldn’t even entertain the idea that he might be telling the truth. As pathetic as she looked, she still displayed a spine we didn’t think she had.
She gives him one more chance to come clean and fix the situation when in the middle of the night, totally stripped bare of her normal perfect wife trappings, she confronts him a final time. And while we believe him when he says he loves the kids and doesn’t want to “lose all this (“this” being the perfectly constructed life he spent his entire life coveting),”we don’t quite believe him when he tells her he loves her. After all, he continues to lie to her face. Still, despite the perfectly composed face, we can see the fear in his eyes.
The ability of the writers to wring tension out of emotional drama astounds us. We didn’t realize we were doing it, but we were holding our breath through the various scenes of Betty’s emotional breakdown. When we see her kneel in front of a broken wine glass, her wrists out, or opening an oven door, we can’t help but fear that she’s going to attempt to kill herself. Of course, they surprised us by having Betty once again do something we never thought we’d see her do. She coldly calls Don and tells him not to come home, she doesn’t want to see him. So great was the tension that the four of us who watched it last night broke into spontaneous applause at her actions. When was the last time a television show made you applaud?
Meanwhile, Peggy is struggling with Father Gill and the CYO ladies. She’s annoyed that she’s been dragged into doing something she doesn’t want to do and frustrated that she’s not even being allowed to do it the way she thinks it should be done. Again, we wanted to hate Father Gill for being so pushy, but he’s only doing what his job dictates. He picks away at Peggy’s scabs and she doesn’t like it one bit. In perfect Peggy style, she simply does not respond to things that she doesn’t want to face and stares at him wide-eyed, then looks away. We see her later, stripped bare just like Betty, staring ahead in the bathtub when suddenly she covers her face with her hands. The good father got to her and it remains to be seen where she’s going to go from here.
Back at Sterling Cooper, Joan fulfills her newfound duties so well and the clients are so happy with her work, that Roger comes around to the idea of hiring someone to do it full time. Of course, this being 1962, no one even entertains the idea of Joan actually moving up to fill the position. Peggy Olsen lucked into a couple benefactors in Don and Freddy Rumsen, but Joan has no one on her side to plead her case. Up till now, she hasn’t displayed a shred of ambition and even though most of the men in the office are intimidated by her intelligence, the packaging is just too distracting for any of them, least of all Roger, to see her as a worthy contributer in “their world.” Christina Hendricks knocks it out of the park with her acting in the scene when she finds out she’s been replaced. It’s not just that you can see her hide the disappointment in her face; she’s also hiding her own surprise that she’s disappointed at all. And in one of those perfect, real life bits of writing that this show does so well, we see her at home that night, wincing and rubbing the grooves her space age bra have cut into her shoulders. The weight of being Joan Holloway is literally cutting her down.
A recurring motif in this show is one where people are constantly shown putting on or taking off their armor. From Pete adjusting his tie and cufflinks approvingly in front of a mirror, to the female characters getting in or out of their restrictive undergarments, everyone goes through life hemmed in by their roles and how they manifest in their clothing. To Joan’s painful undergarment moment and what that says about her we can add Father Gill’s lengthy disrobing of his vestments. Once again another character is stripped bare and he sits on his bed in his undershirt with his guitar and for the first time truly comes to life in front of our eyes as he passionately sings a Peter, Paul and Mary tune. The scene shifts and the music almost seamlessly goes from Father Gill’s warbling to the actual Peter, Paul and Mary recording as we see Don sitting in the breakroom, his life broken as he drinks a Heineken. He made the Heineken people happy with his pitch, but inadvertently started the ball rolling on the destruction of his marriage in doing so.
[Photos: Courtesy of amctv.com]