Mad Men S3E8: Souvenir

Posted on October 05, 2009

“When you don’t have any power, you have to delay things.” 

Last night, one of television’s most cynical shows had one of its most cynical episodes of all time as it examined the state of marriage in 1963. In a reversal of the normal code on how to depict marriages on television, it was an act of adultery that led to a strengthening of a marriage and a glamorous, sex-filled getaway romp that led to the weakening of one. And if that wasn’t reversal enough, we find out that little Betty Draper, she of the shaking hands and fainting couch and childlike pout, is, when set free, way out of Don Draper’s league.

We’re torn on this episode. There was a lot about it that we liked but the fact of the matter is, this would have been a great episode if we hadn’t already spent so much time this season on the deadend Draper marriage. To be perfectly blunt, we don’t watch this show for a weekly examination of the ennui of upper middle class suburbia. That was always a welcome feature of the show, but this season it’s become the main story. Ossining simply isn’t as interesting to us as Madison Avenue. There’s so much story to be mined from the ongoing saga of Sterling Cooper and it feels like we’ve been going over and over the same story in the Draper household with no changes or advancement. Don is trying to be good but he’s emotionally distant because he’s living a lie; Betty is a furious mass of childish resentments. Done and done. At this point we’re rooting for Henry to break up this miserable marriage.

We sound more critical than we mean to. We really did enjoy this episode, especially for the unexpected infusion of early ’60s continental glamour.

Betty’s hard at work at her Junior League assignment of saving the town’s reservoir. “They should be paying you for this,” says Don in an uncharacteristic moment of support and appreciation. “I’m paid well enough already,” Betty replies, the perfect surface response from the perfect surface wife. Everyone involved in this little social contract understands the rules. She’s working “outside the home,” but it’s fully funded by the salary of her successful husband, which makes it less threatening. Still, it offered a moment when he was actually interested in something she was doing and she ended it by encouraging him to go out and play with his kids, which he does. We said it before: this is a miserable marriage, but it has its moments where it almost works.

But these are only moments. When Don gets a call from Hilton’s office, he grabs a pen and literally overwrites Betty’s work, scribbling notes on her call list. She dutifully rips out the piece of paper- probably with the name of yet another woman who refers to herself by her husband’s name – and doesn’t even think about the thoughtlessness.

Later we see Betty primping as she gets ready to make her big Junior League appearance at the town meeting, knowing that Henry is going to be there. We get this great shot of her meticulously finishing her face in the mirror, Sally watching her every move in awe. Betty is sending a message loud and clear to her little girl: It’s very important to be pretty.

Henry comes through for the ladies of the Junior League and takes his prize from Betty: a kiss. We all saw that one coming. Betty struggles not to react and drives off in Daddy’s car, watching him in her rear view mirror. When she gets home she’s more animated than we’ve ever seen her, doing a little victory dance and mock shouting “We won! We won!” She embellishes the story to an attentive Don, neatly avoiding any hint of her pretend relationship with Henry. When Henry explained his political maneuvering to Betty, he said, ‘When you have no power, delay.” In Betty’s retelling it becomes the far more poignant “When you don’t have any power, you have to delay things.” So heavy was that line with meaning that even Don and Betty got it right away.

Betty, in either a fit of guilt or an attempt to run away, abruptly invites herself on Don’s business trip to Rome. One thing we loved about Betty’s sudden transformation into experienced continental traveler was that the writers never attempted to explain it but to long time viewers of the show, it made perfect sense. Between her excellent education and her previously mentioned time in Italy as a model, any explanation for Betty’s shockingly easy slip into la dolce vita was taken care of. In a weird way, this felt almost like a Joan storyline. We got to see a glimpse of what Betty is capable of; what she enjoys, and that glimpse illustrates how far her real life is from the life to which she’s more suited.

It’s not that we think Betty should be spending all her time wearing gorgeous clothes and hairstyles – although we have to say, she never looked as good as she did this episode, whether done up in haute 1963 styles or just curled up in bed with Don in a towel, she glowed the whole hour – but clearly she’d be better served with a little more sophistication in her life. When she tells Don at the end of the episode that she hates where they live and who they know, all we could think of was, “Move into the city! What’s stopping you?” Seriously, they have more than enough money. If a little sophistication and ambiance can get Don and Betty THAT hot for each other, then get the hell out of Ossining, fools.

And those scenes were scorching. It was great seeing them be playful with each other, flirting at the cafe as if they didn’t know each other. When Betty tells Don she could take him or leave him, you could tell he’d never been more turned on by her. For one night at least, Betty was as smart, interesting and devastatingly sexy as any of the mistresses Don bedded, from Midge to Rachel to Bobbie to Joy. That sex scene was so hot and so of-the-moment stylish that it looked like something from a James Bond film of the period. Which reminds us, we kind of loved them for momentarily relying on a cheesy backdrop to fill in for the view from their hotel room. No doubt, they didn’t have the budget to do anything better but in a strange way, it felt era-appropriate, like they were two actors in a Hitchcock movie.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Pete’s living the life of the bachelor as Trudy takes off for vacation with her parents. Unsurprisingly, Pete doesn’t have the strength of character to be left alone. Inserting himself into some neighborly drama with the au pair down the hall, Pete finds himself in Bonwit Teller, attempting to replace the dress the girl ruined. We kind of saw where this was going and weren’t too surprised to see Joan there, working as a manager. It was a great scene, though. Pete made his feelings for the social status of retail clerks plainly obvious by how he treated the first woman to speak to him in the store. Joan and Pete both knew that as far as social positions go, she was in a decidedly inferior one. Still, she’s Joan fucking Holloway dammit, and she took control of the situation immediately; fixing Pete’s problem, making sure he knew that she suspected it wasn‘t Trudy’s dress, and wrapping the exchange with the line that has become the defining slogan of the show: “This never happened.”

What a sad little scene, though. Joan didn’t look nearly as glamorous or in control as she did when she was queen bee at Sterling Cooper. We couldn’t help but notice that she was wearing purple. We’ve noticed for some time that they put Joan in purple when they want to show her powerless or demoralized. She wore it when her husband raped her, when she and Roger had a revealing conversation in a hotel room, when she tried to fire Jane, and now here, revealed as a shop girl in front of a former co-worker. Joanie, come back to SC!

Upon presenting the grateful au pair with her replacement dress we see what a little shit Pete Campbell can really be, showing up later, drunk, and forcing the poor girl into sex with him. If that wasn’t disturbing enough, then the scene with his neighbor that basically came down to “Hey, we’re neighbors. Let’s not rape my nanny, okay? Keep it out of the building.” sealed the deal.

Trudy comes back from her vacation looking fabulous in a striped scarf wrapped around her head. And here’s where the show really plays with complexity. For all the wrongness of the Campbell marriage, there is a lot there that works for these two people. Trudy, misunderstanding Pete’s quiet, offers that she’s fine and happy without any children in her marriage with him. “You’re my husband. I want what you want.” It’s not exactly a healthy line by modern standards, but with where and when they are and what they’re dealing with, that’s not a bad place to be, considering how bad things were for them a while back. It’s a good enough marriage for Pete to feel remorse over what he’s done. And it’s a good enough marriage for Trudy to forgive and come to terms with it. When Pete said at the end that he didn’t want her going away without him anymore, that may have sounded like he was trying to avoid responsibility for what he did but we don’t think so. We think he was saying that he really needed her to be there for him, to keep him from doing wrong things. For this childless couple, their marriage is built on his childish nature being kept in check by her maternalism.

Don and Betty come home to Ossining, so relaxed from their non-stop sex that even the eternally reserved Don admitted to Carla that the trip was “Short but sweet.” Unfortunately, Carla’s there to yank them back to reality and as soon as she starts in on Sally’s behavioral problems it’s right back to the roles of Don and Betty Draper of Ossining, New York.

The next day, Don is trying to keep the magic alive by lighting her cigarette for her and buying her a charm to commemorate the trip but it’s not enough. The title of this episode is “The Souvenir,” and that refers as much to the charm he bought her in the gift shop as to the realization for Betty that it was never going to get any better than it already is. She’s stuck in a suburban unhappiness and sees her future stretched out in front of her, at best, with a couple trips to Rome along the way to remind her of what she doesn’t have. She voices this to Sally when she explains the Rules of Kissing According to Betty Draper: “You don’t kiss boys. Boys kiss you.” And you should save up your kisses because nothing’s more important to Betty than the thrill of that first kiss. “It’s where you go from being a stranger to knowing someone and every kiss after that is a shadow of that kiss.” That’s the souvenir: the realization that everything from this moment on is a shadow, a reminder of how good you thought things were going to be.

Like we said, cynical.

[Pictures courtesy of amctv.com]


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  • Elizabetta1022

    You know, I read the scene where Betty invited herself along to Rome a little differently. Yes, I think she may have felt a little guilty, but I also think she felt powerful after her flirtation with Henry. She was ready to take on Rome and show Don what she was capable of. He really was in her arena while they were there, no pun intended. (Interesting, too, that the charm depicted the coliseum, no?)