Mad Style: The Better Half

Posted on May 29, 2013

No time for intros, kids. Lots of ground to cover, so let’s get to it.

 

Once again, yellow seems to be a repeating color this week. Regardless of whether one feels there’s a deeper underlying message to it all, it’s pretty obviously (to us anyway) meant to highlight the constant conversations about butter vs. margarine. What’s interesting to us here is that Peggy’s outfit is so non-committal in color; it’s sort-of-but-not-quite yellow; more of a tan with yellow undertones. She can’t commit to Don or to Ted in this scene, even though they’re both asking her to; neither butter nor margarine. It’s that passivity that really bit Peggy in the ass this week.

 

It’s an interesting costume because it’s so bold and focus-pulling in the scene, but the color and the dialogue she’s speaking are so vague and undefined. After Peggy left SCDP for the greener pastures of CGC, she started favoring these bold, Courreges-like suits with color blocking or thick bands of trim. It was – and still is – meant to serve as a stark contrast to all the Catholic schoolgirl plaids she’d been defaulting to for years. It’s her “executive” look, which makes it notable in a scene where Don attempts to school her on how an executive is supposed to act.

It’s kind of sad to see the state of the Olson/Draper relationship; sadder than watching either of Don’s marriages decline and collapse. She’s still pissed at him for undermining her life and he seems to be punishing her for leaving him. There’s a lot not being said in their exchanges and instead of the loose, sometimes confrontational style they used to enjoy with each other, their scenes now feel tense and clipped. We’re surprised by how much that … hurts. Of all the relationships on Mad Men, this is the one you want to see survive in some form. Not coincidentally, it’s the one least likely to survive in a lot of ways.

 

At home, with the jacket off, she suddenly looks much more traditionally feminine (cinched waist, bare arms, more prominent bust), illustrating her attempts to be a supportive female partner to her man. She’s here in this hellhole of an apartment (from her perspective) because he floated ideas of children and domesticity in front of her eyes, briefly dazzling her away from the balcony view she really wanted. Peggy’s whole story this season has been about the men around her attempting to define her and the ways in which she’s been allowing it to happen.

Abe is wearing a horizontal striped shirt and light wash jeans. Why is this notable?

Because:

 

It’s not easy being a wife to Don Draper and it’s not easy trying to get Peggy Olson to be a wife. In both cases, you could argue that even trying is a fool’s errand. Abe and Megan are suffering similar fates this week; a feeling of abandonment by their partner, a sense that they’re going in different directions.

 

We loved this smart little polka-dot number Peggy wore the next day. After Abe’s talk of revolution (and before Peggy picked up a bayonet), this red, white and blue ensemble served as a witty callback to the idea.

We don’t know what it is about Moira, but we feel like an eye should be kept on her. Her costuming is getting more and more noticeable in scenes, very similar to the way Megan was introduced. Not that we suspect or predict any similarity to Megan; just that you can sort of tell when a background character is destined to step forward in this story. It was the same thing with Allison, Don’s old secretary, who labored in the background for the entire length of the series and then suddenly started dressing much more noticeably in the weeks prior to her hurling an ashtray at Don’s head. Ditto Scarlett, whose wardrobe went from pretty to eye-popping just as Joan unsheathed her claws.

 

Also, he’s wearing green and blue as he professes his love for her. Sorry to sound like a broken record, but for the benefit of newbies, suffice it to say that B&G has been an extremely dominant color motif this season and there’s some merit to the idea that it’s used to signal adultery or cheating of some sort. We noted last week that, in a general sense, it also denotes confrontation.

Anyway, it’s interesting how a costume works differently from scene to scene. In the hallway outside his office, Peggy looked professional and put-together. Inside his office, her polka dots are fighting his stripes and the emotional turmoil both of them are feeling is captured by shooting her against that groovy wallpaper. She is the very picture of confusion and turmoil here.

But then you put her in her own home:

 

And suddenly she looks almost ludicrously out of her element. This is not where she belongs. That hat does as much to highlight their differences as his mustache. He’s counterculture and she is the height of the establishment; dressed like a Johnson or Nixon daughter.

Abe is again wearing a stripe; one that somewhat ominously looks like a prisoner’s uniform. The trajectory of their relationship has been playing out all season in their clothes, but this scene is the one where it all came exploding to the forefront. She doesn’t belong here and he feels trapped here. Mass Culture vs. Counterculture. Stripes vs. polka dots.

Megan continues to pick up cues from Abe’s clothing, reflecting her own unhappiness in her marriage:

 

She and Abe aren’t similar in any real ways, so of course her prison stripes are cute and colorful and stylish. We admit this is perhaps a stretch, but her scarf reminds us of the various bandages and slings poor Abe had to sport before getting out of his relationship.

As with Peggy, Ted & Abe, a figure in blue and green comes into the picture to insert herself between them.

 

Our first impulse upon viewing these costumes was to note how much it calls back to this scene from earlier in the season:

 

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Which foreshadowed the later scene not only by dressing them in similar costumes and by dealing with the clear and growing rift between the two of them, but also because the earlier scene revolved around complaints about the crime and quality of life in their new neighborhood. And perhaps in the cheekiest touch of all, Peggy wore a bandanna outlaw-style to foreshadow her upcoming spurt of unexpected violence.

But once we noted the pink nightgown callback, something clicked overhead and we realized that “women in pink sleepwear” has been another of those extremely consistent motifs that Janie’s been deploying all season (here, here, here, here, here, and perhaps most notable of all, here). Her costuming tends to revolve around the idea of one character or moment echoing throughout the story.

But even more notable than all the callbacks being referenced is the one call-forward being referenced:

Once again, Megan’s outfit mimics Abe’s; this time, almost exactly. The bold red star stands in for the bold red gut wound Peggy administered to Abe. There was some initial discussion about whether this iconic-style T-shirt was really 1968-accurate. Not only is it accurate, but it was seen on Sharon Tate in a spread for Esquire magazine the year before (picture NSFW). Janie confirmed on twitter that this was a deliberate choice. That is INSANELY ominous. There’s a growing sense of impending violence with each episode and we’ve been treated to some stabbing imagery this season (Abe and Stan), so any deliberate references to Sharon Tate are bound to get the hairs standing on end.

For the young ‘uns: Sharon Tate was brutally murdered by the Manson family in 1969. She was stabbed sixteen times. Now go watch Megan’s scenes again and notice how loud the police sirens get in each one. Just to pat ourselves on the back a little (as well as illustrate that this has been long in the planning), we want to point out that when the Season 6 promo pics were released, we noted that “Megan’s going a more California-inspired, Sharon Tate kind of route, which fits her character.”

 

The next morning, Peggy shows up to the office looking worse than she’s looked in some time. It’s been notable this season how consistently put together she is now. Her hair is done at all times (professionally, we’re thinking) and she wears more makeup and things like hats more consistently than she used to in the old days, prior to becoming copy chief. So this look stands out in comparison.

Once again, Moira’s outfit and even her demeanor (she clearly doesn’t like Peggy) draw attention to her in a scene.

 

But even though Peggy is sporting the hair and face of someone stressed out, tired and hurt, she clearly wanted to put something pretty on and run into Ted’s office. This dress (more polka dots) is bright and feminine and form-fitting. Plus it’s green to Ted’s blue; an invitation told through costuming: “I’m game.”  Granted, we doubt that Peggy did any of this consciously and we doubt that she wanted to start up a relationship with Ted right there that morning. But come on; boss or no, the first thing she did after getting dumped was run to tell the man who just admitted he was in love with her.

But Ted saw no value in her at that moment. He essentially won the margarine argument with Don and won’t need to emotionally toy with Peggy anymore to get to him. Again, we don’t doubt that Ted has or had feelings for her, but he also has or had a longstanding rivalry with Don and a tendency to poach things away from him. Now that he and Don seem to be going from rivals to collaborators, Peggy’s standing is now suddenly very tenuous. Don mistreats her and Ted toys with her. Time to polish up that resume and get the fuck out of Dodge, girl. Like your Upper West side house, there’s no place for you here.

All right. All of that was depressing as hell. Let’s step into the light. Betty’s light.

 

 

She’s like butter.

We said when the promotional shots for Season 6 were released that this period could actually be pretty kind to Betty, fashion-wise, if she got back to fighting trim. There was this late ’60s/early ’70s period of uber-draggy, Stepford-Wife femininity in clothing for Betty’s class and station. Big hair, false eyelashes, opera gloves, capes and diamante trim as far as the eyes could see. After several years of her getting frumpier by the minute, its kind of glorious to see her embracing this look.

It’s perhaps problematic to make an argument about empowerment when Betty’s entire journey is bound up in whether or not she feels attractive, but this is the world she was born into and the role she was told to play. There’s been some talk about how unrealistic her drastic weight loss is, but we tend to think Betty has been dabbling in eating disorders of one form or another since her childhood. Given a reason to snap her out of her complacency and depression, we have no doubt all her most destructive (and thus most effective) weight loss techniques all came roaring back. She starved, pill’d and possibly even upchuck’d her way to this dress size, make no mistake.

 

And like anyone who achieves a significant weight loss, she can’t help but wear tighter, more revealing clothing than she’s been seen in for quite some time. But let’s unpack a couple things about this look.

For one, we think it’s notable that her blouse contains all the color motifs of the season: whore red, adultery blue-and-green, and butter yellow. As we said in our Monday review, this was a perfect emotional storm for Don and Betty. Things needed to be exactly as they were in order for them to fall into bed together. Betty needed to feel great about her life and about her looks, and Don needed to be fucked up, raw and vulnerable in order to reach out to her again and then allow her to tell him exactly who he is. So to us, her blouse represents all the shit Don’s been putting himself through all season. He couldn’t help but look at her and see her as some sort of oasis from or even solution to all his bullshit problems.

Also: we love that her hair is so big and disheveled. It was so common back in the day to see suburban moms with big, messy coifs the day after attending some event where they wore an elaborate hairstyle.

Also-also: January Jones is still wearing padding here. Her hips and bust are padded to make her look fuller and more like a late 30s mother of three who gained and then lost some weight. We wonder if she’ll remain padded through the rest of the series.

 

It should also be noted that January Jones got the glamour lighting treatment all episode, for the first time in several seasons. She was lit and shot to look her absolute best, just like she used to be lit and shot when her character was married to Don.

 

And so did Jon Hamm, actually. They both looked better here than either of them have looked on the show in years. The second we saw her, we got excited because we could see all the effort put into making her look like the old Betty and instantly concluded they were going to sleep together.

Considering how open and affectionate this scene was, we really can’t lay any darker meaning on her her pink sweater. Pink and red have been used to call back to his whorehouse days, but like the color motifs on her blouse, we tend to think this interlude was all about putting those demons to rest for Don. We suspect they won’t have as much power over him after this.

Besides, pink was very much a Betty Draper color back in the day.

 

The next morning, we’re back looking at the blue-and-yellow motif that popped up this season. We still maintain that the prevalence of all the yellow in the story is margarine-based, but there’s also something to the idea we hit upon in last week’s Mad Style that it denotes a lack of connection in the scene. In this case, Don’s realizing that he has no real connection or claim to Betty anymore. She’s happy in her life without him.

And finally, Joannie; who is, as always, off on her own adventure:

 

Margaret is a clear example of the wilder post-hippie styles trickling up to the most conservative people around. Roger and his grandson are costumed to look somewhat alike, so you can tell they’re related. Joan is in purple, which was a color she tended to consistently wear during scenes with Roger or with Greg, when she was dating him. She wore purple when we found out about her affair with Roger, when the affair ended, when she fired Jane Siegel (sending her into the arms of Roger), when Roger continued to disappoint her,  and when Greg raped her.  It has all kinds of history in a scene like this one, where she’s watching Roger play with a little boy.

And it feels a little ominous when she’s in a scene with Pete, who seems to be continuously making a play for her this season.

Ew.

But maybe we shouldn’t be so worried about Joan.

Because who can complain about THAT?

Once again, Bob Benson and Joan are playing out a blue-and-green scenario. It’s been a color combo that appears throughout the story, but it has most consistently been applied to scenes between Peggy and Ted and scenes between Joan and Bob. Joanie’s scarf ties back to Megan’s and also to Peggy’s red-white-and-blue outfit. Her shirt is very similar to the one Don wore to camp.

But the real story in the scene is Bob Benson, of course. And not just because of his tiny little shorts. Let’s note that there is yet to be any physical contact or affection at all between Joan and Bob. That’s downright odd for any romantic or sexual relationship depicted on Mad Men.

 

And notice how completely non-confrontational he is with Roger; quite happy and eager to recede into the background when another guy enters the scene. Think about how phony he is in the office; how eager he is to be seen a certain way. Remember when he was in the whorehouse with Pete, how he politely stood in the hallway and waited for him? Remember when the “woman trapped in yellow” motif from a couple weeks back got upended by putting him in yellow while he rescued Joan? We think the big secret of Bob Benson might just be that he’s gay. We’d swear he and Joan were heading out to Fire Island for the weekend.

We should say that we don’t think he’s gay just because he’s wearing those tiny shorts. Those were the style back then, God bless them. Even straight boys were unafraid of their upper thighs getting some air.

 

 

We laughed out loud at this outfit. He’s a walking Anthora coffee cup:

 

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Bob Benson: Always “Happy to Serve You.”

We honestly don’t know if Bob’s gay or not. It’s just that there are some odd signals being sent that could be read that way. There’s been a ton of speculation about this character and most of it has felt a little overblown to us. Corporate spy or Don’s illegitimate son seem highly unlikely. Closeted gay man, on the other hand, fits his behavior perfectly.

Granted, that doesn’t mean he’s not a slimy little climber. He told Ken his father was dead and told Pete in this scene his father was nursed back to health. Like we said in our review on Monday, both statements could be technically true, but the scripts are going out of their way to make him seem untrustworthy. We’re wondering if it’s all a red herring.

 

Regardless of its nature, though, he clearly has some sort of bond or relationship with Joan, who keeps getting put in green and blue ensembles whenever she deals with that bond in the office.  In a way, we really hope he’s gay because that means Joan isn’t dating another in a long line of untrustworthy guys. She just found someone to take her to the fun piano bars in the Village when she needs to get away from it all.

TRUST US ON THIS ONE: Joan would be treated like a fucking movie star at any gay bar in the Village she strolled into. An entire drag subculture would spring up directly under her feet; countless young men saving their pennies to buy red wigs and padded bras. It would be glorious.

Anyway: blue and green: confronting Roger and telling him how it’s gonna be. Roger in his blue and yellow tie: failing to connect.

 

BONUS:

Because my God, how could we not?

 

[Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC – Stills: tomandlorenzo.com]

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