This week on Mad Men, we got a substantial amount of Betty (January Jones) who, in my opinion, took a back seat in the tail end of last season. True to Mad Men form, we learned quite a bit about other characters even if they were in the periphery.
Let’s take a closer look after the jump.
Let me start by saying that ever since I volunteered to recap this series, I get hit with a shot of anxiety each week in advance of writing. Mad Men is an extremely introspective show filled with meticulous details. It’s daunting to figure out what exactly to talk about without rambling on and on. Will I do the show a disservice by misinterpreting? A way to navigate through this is to identify the underlying theme that ties the episode together. It’s the only way to start unpacking a show as complex as this.
This week’s theme? It is all about appearances, either keeping them up or giving up on them entirely.
Of course, Mrs. Francis is the prime example this week. The last time we saw Betty she was telling ex-husband Don (Jon Hamm) that not everything in her marriage to Henry (Christopher Stanley) was perfect. She’s since gained a few pounds (kudos to the makeup department for hiding Jones’ pregnancy and enhancing other areas for a believable weight gain). The extra pounds are attributed to being complacent as the dutiful wife. It’s easy to see Betty’s transformation as “letting herself go” – but really, she’s a trophy wife. And what is a trophy wife if not the blonde waif that we’ve come to love/despise? So what does her weight gain mean? Perhaps Betty’s happier as Mrs. Francis than she was when she was Mrs. Draper. Could it mean that with Henry, keeping up the appearance of a trophy wife no longer matters? It’s hard to say – and this might be a comment on Jones’ performance – because I’ve rarely felt that Betty was ever really truly happy about anything. So the short of the long: it’s ambiguous as to why she’s gained the weight, but it’s likely not to be the straight-forward answer of “she’s unhappy in her marriage”.
While in the doctor’s office trying to get a prescription for diet pills (after being egged on by her mother in-law about how she needs to keep up appearances), Betty learns that she’s got a lump on her thyroid. They’ll need to take a closer look but immediately Betty fears it is terminal cancer. What follows is an interesting journey. After returning home, she calls for Henry in a panic and when she discovers he’s not home, she immediately picks up the phone to Don for some comfort. Despite their toxic marriage, there’s a tenderness that comes out in the short conversation that makes their relationship so incredibly authentic. Don still calls her ‘Birdie” and knows exactly what to say to talk her off the ledge – “Everything is going to be alright.” They’re meaningless words, but exchanged between these two, the significance is palpable.
While waiting to find out whether or not Betty indeed has cancer, we wonder if this is the kick she needs to start living her life instead of going through the motions. In the face of death, Betty’s true nature is revealed – and it doesn’t come out of worry for her children growing up without a mother, but centers around her being forgotten. She laments how Megan (Jessica Paré) will replace her, and we even get a trippy Twin Peaks-esque dream sequence of her dinner chair being retired. Betty is all about Betty, even in the face of death.
More revealing is the contrasting reaction that Don goes through in response to the cancer scare. Top of his mind are the children – how will they function without their mother? What does this reveal to us about how he feels about Megan? (“She’ll try her best but…”) Furthermore, Don’s own mortality bubbles to the surface as he realizes how uninterested he is in frolicking on the beach with his 20 something wife and her friends. But he does it anyway. Why? Again, we don’t get answers in this show and it’s not about that. It’s about reflecting very real issues that continue to be prevalent in any time period. There’s no clear answer, just small nuggets that are planted and left to germinate.
In keeping with the theme of facades, we also have Pete’s (Vincent Kartheiser) self-made ascent to power, successfully usurping Roger (John Slattery) so insidiously that he doesn’t even notice it until it’s happened. I was wondering why Pete is so jovial when it is decided that Roger will be managing the Mohawk Airlines account. All is revealed near episode’s end: Pete calls an all staff meeting to announce that he landed the account and is puppet master while Roger essentially is demoted from Partner to Account Manager. Ouch. Pete may not have the biggest office, or the title on the door, but in his mind, he’s finally made it because everyone in the office (lest the senior partners) perceives him as such.
And finally, we get the introduction of a new copywriter – Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) who’s rough around the edges but is a fabulous new addition to the show precisely because of his transparency. He knows he’s got to present a different “self” when interviewing with Peggy (Elisabeth Olsen) instead of Don. We know this because he comes right out and says it. It’s refreshing to have a character like this, so forthright and open in a sea of closed off, brooding ones. Rather than get bogged down with yet another character to try and “figure out” Michael is much more open than what we’ve seen in the past.
What I’ve noticed about Mad Men is how subtle and nuanced everyone and everything is. The reason recapping the show is challenging is that anything can potentially be picked apart and analyzed. It’s debatable whether the show actually demands that we do this or even why doing so makes it is such a satisfying endeavour. Characters are closed books. We may get moments of revelation, but often what we know about them is cumulative. Michael bursts on the scene and it’s not disruptive (*cough Lost‘s Nikki and Paulo cough*) because he offers us something different and refreshing. When we follow Michael home to his tiny apartment and meet his eccentric Jewish father, I was pleased that there was more to him but happy that I wasn’t compelled to figure it out by myself. This works for the characters we’ve come to know over the series, like Don, Peggy, Roger, Pete and Joan. For newbies, it doesn’t work. This is also why we only ever get snapshots of supporting players like Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) and Stan Rizzo (Jay Ferguson). Maybe they’ll emerge as more substantial characters later on, but for now, our plates are full.
Some other observations:
- Looks like one of the coloured applicants made it through the interview process. Don’s got a new secretary named Dawn (Teyonah Parris), SCDP’s first African-American hire. There’s likely to be more to this further in the season, but again, why rush it? Right now she’s teased like Peggy was in season one.
- Turns out Betty’s lump is benign. I loved the ending shot with her finishing Sally’s (Kiernan Shipka) ice cream sundae in addition to her own. Looks like the cancer scare was just a momentary blip in her complacency (Or is it?!)
- I didn’t even touch on the scene where Don and Harry (Rich Sommer) go backstage at the Rolling Stones concert. Don’s very interesting conversation with a young woman (Lie to Me’s Hayley McFarland) is so richly layered and telling of his relationships with Betty, Sally and Megan and his position at SCDP that it could have taken up this whole blog post.
So what did you think Mad Men viewers? What stood out for you in this episode? Was there another overarching theme that guided your viewing? What do you think will become of Betty? Are you feeling more legitimacy to Don and Megan’s marriage? Sound off in the comments section!
Mad Men airs at 10pm EST Sundays on AMC.