“Seven Twenty Three”
September 27th, 2009
It’s always interesting to see how viewing Mad Men changes when you have certain pieces of information.
One of the key themes of “Seven Twenty Three” is knowing certain information, or having certain contraptions which allow you to better view your situation. The eclipse is obviously the central image of this, but across the board we see characters who know things which make the actions or words of others particularly dangerous. It’s like everything is a trap waiting to happen, where saying the wrong thing can push someone to do something you couldn’t expect. Of course, this being Don Draper’s show at the end of the day, it is Don who says the wrong thing, and who is slowly losing what he thought was control of his life as he waits until the eclipse gets more interesting before donning his sunglasses.
For me going into this episode, I had heard about the walks of shame, and had pieced together what I would consider to be one of the most traumatizing (if not in the same way as Joan’s Season 2 predicament) images Mad Men has offered to date. However, much like an eclipse, there is something powerful about seeing even what you know was going to happen, especially when the important thing is not so much what happens but rather how it changes the person at the centre of it all.
When Don Draper destroys any shred of confidence that Peggy Olsen has, he is plugging a leak. Don claims at one point that Betty is attempting to turn his pending contract negotiations in a selfish fashion, but the episode reveals unquestionably that it is Don who is selfish and Don who thinks more about himself. Faced with the idea of losing that power, after Conrad Hilton starts sniffing around and making both PPL and Sterling Cooper nervous, Don lashes out at Peggy, who was trying to get in on the Hilton account as she’s gotten in on many others. It’s a terrible piece of timing, with Peggy’s expectation of mentorship (something she relied upon to get the job in the first place) is met with a cruel reality check about how she should be rising up the ladder by putting her head down and being great at her job, not by leveraging her personal relationship with Don in order to achieve success.
Of course, Don is all about leverage, so it’s an hypocritical message at best. Don mentored Peggy because he saw something of himself in her, yes, but he also to some degree wanted to be able to use his clout to undermine the established order. Don dislikes authority, which is why he wants it all to himself – his problem in the episode is that everyone seems to simultaneously realize that he’s been stubbornly holding onto that power for a long time largely unchecked. Remaining with a contract gave him the power to weasel out of the Duck Phillips situation, but it also creates a sense of mystery that is only effective until people start to notice. With Conrad Hilton showing up in Don’s office and throwing Don a bone (the New York hotels), everyone else sees that Don is as human as anyone else, and if he sees an opportunity for more power or is sucked in by someone more powerful, he’s vulnerable in a way that scares the people around him.
It’s important to notice that when Conrad Hilton sits in his own chair and asks Don to sit as if a guest, Don sits obediently, and yet when Bert Cooper does the same thing later in the episode Don refuses to sit. Based on how excited he was at a potential position in London, and how intrigued he is with Hilton, there is no question that part of Don is antsy, wanting to break out from his current existence. The problem is that the masquerade that is his life as Don Draper has created dependents: Sterling Cooper, Betty’s sanity, the kids, Peggy’s career, all needing him to a degree that requires him to show them some concessions in kind. Don isn’t wrong to feel anger when Roger calls Betty to pressure him about the contract, nor is he wrong to feel as if Betty is overreacting considering she has never really pressured him about work before. But Don is seeing all of his power, including the wool over Betty’s eyes, wash away with a newfound paranoia about his future, a future that he can’t even imagine as he focuses on living in the present and struggles to forget about the past.
Don’s walk of shame, which we see at the start of the episode, is not from an affair but a moment of juvenile escape which results in a near empty wallet and a broken nose. In some ways his shame cycle should have started when Sally’s teacher, upon the moment that Don even starts a conversation with her, transitions the conversation into their inevitable affair. Carlton’s discussion of the parent/teacher contract (not conversing with them outside of the classroom) is apparently true, as the teacher says that the fathers are all the same, drunken philanderers. In the end, we don’t know if Don was simply making conversation, but we know he’s ogled her before and kept his phone call with her a secret. But instead of shame at being called out, Don feels shame because someone has dared to make a move before he does and pretend as if they’re in control, leading him to become even more petulant when he’s confronted by Betty that night. His decision to take two phenbarbital and hallucinate a conversation with his father (where the man thinks him craven), before getting knocked out and having the young newlyweds take his money, is giving up power to some higher power…and he wakes up with a broken nose, reluctantly signing the contract and resigning himself to a sort of consciousness.
The consequences of his actions are more clearly drawn out than usual. We can usually say that Betty’s life is driven by a desire to please or spite Don, so her decision to meet with Henry Francis and eventually by the fainting couch he suggests would vaguely be considered about Don anyways. But, unlike her tryst in the bar last year with Captain Awesome, this has a purpose: she’s putting herself out there to save a part of her (not so) beloved Ossining, and I honestly believe that to a certain point the sexual tension between them was an afterthought to Betty simply putting her connection out there. But once she realizes the secrets that Don keeps from her, and their fight takes place, Betty is very quick to purchase herself an antique fainting couch (all the better for her to play the damsel in distress) and put it by the hearth so that her interior designer wants nothing to do with it and so that there will be no unnecessary gathering around the heart except to watch over the fainted dame.
And I don’t think I’ll ever forgive Don, to be honest, for what happened with Peggy Olsen. Sometimes we forget how weak-willed Peggy really is, and that the girl who managed to come back after her pregnancy is only as strong as she appears to be. It is as if she has won too many battles, transformed herself too far and run into a situation where she expects too much and is willing to go too far to get it. When she took control earlier in the season and had a fling for a boy from a bar, she played the role of the innocent doe in order to prove that she could do it. However, once Don essentially turns her into an annoying dog who doesn’t know when to stop begging for scraps, Peggy doesn’t play that role so much as become that person. Already flattered by Duck “wanting her” in a way that Don seems to have put behind him now that he has other things to be worried about, she attempts to show a sense of loyalty to Don but sees it all melt away as he attacks her for trying to get her way into the Hilton account. She goes to Duck’s hotel room to return a gift, but she’s also looking for something to make her feel special again.
What’s funny about sex on this show is that the analytical critical perspective means that we view it outside of the bounds of morality, at least in some instances. I don’t feel as if I judged Betty for her affair in the bar, primarily because you could see where the act was coming from and to some degree it was a character testing their boundaries more than anything else (plus, we’d become numb to Don’s affairs, so his wife doing the same felt consistent). However, Peggy is someone who has the potential to be a new sort of person in this decade of change, and yet here she is sleeping with Duck and becoming his play thing in a way that is more unbecoming that I could have ever imagined. When we find her waking up next to him, it’s disturbing enough; when they engage in a morning tryst, and Peggy seems a willing participant, it’s her giving into her own desire for power and control without realizing that she is relinquishing it in that moment. Duck wants to sleep with Peggy because he wants to control and dominate what he feels Don treats in the same fashion, the same way his efforts to take Peggy and Pete are a way to hurt that which he left behind, and to see Peggy willing enter into that situation is hard to watch.
It’s especially hard to watch when you realize that Don could have avoided it all by being nicer to Peggy in that pivotal scene, just as he could have avoided ending up drugged on a hotel room floor if he had told Betty about the contract. Perhaps he blames Conrad Hilton for the temptation or his father for making him both desire power (having been powerless against him) and fear losing it to the point of driving people away. His father tells him that he has the hands of a woman, having never gotten them dirty, and that all he grows is bullshit. Don has always been terrified to put down his roots, running off to California to reconnect with ones that no one in New York seems to know that he has, and yet he’s managed to grow a life that includes everything it should: people who trust him, people who love him, people who rely on him, and everything in between. Don is not a stranger in this life so much as he is someone who wants to maintain control, but on July 23rd he believes he gave that up by signing on the dotted line, a decision he eventually makes not because he wants to settle down (although the broken nose might have been a wakeup call) but because Bert Cooper reminds us that Pete told him all about his past, and that he hasn’t done anything at Sterling Cooper which makes him quite so safe in his new life. That’s a sobering moment, but one which only reminds him why he’s so desperate and paranoid as opposed to giving him the chance to reform and see the situation for what it really is, leaving us just about where we left off if not even worse for wear.
As a piece of television, the episode used quite a common technique when it showed us the eventual positions (Betty lounging seductively on her fainting couch, Don unconscious and waking up in the hotel room, Peggy lying in bed with an unseen man) of the three main characters before showing us how they got there. It was interesting, though, that there was no real sign of when we were seeing these events or others, which was easy for Peggy and Don but difficult for Betty those moment was so comparative innocuous and rested, perhaps reflective on her comparatively simple problems. After last week’s blood-soaked climax, this one was definitely a step back from the broader show’s events and a narrowing in on what one would consider the three “leads” of the show, which is interesting to see at the midpoint of the season. As always, Hamm, Moss and Jones all did some fine work in the episode, with Moss in particular disturbing me just as much as she should.
- We got a few small moments with Pete in this one, such as his head cheerleading with Don and Hilton (excited about the prospect) and proving himself more amenable to Don than Peggy was on the subject of the account. Don rebuffs Peggy something fierce, but with Pete he simply notes that the roles should be shifted (even if he knows they never will be). He even throws Pete a bone, telling him to work on getting another account and then they’d talk. Combine with Pete knowing about Hilton before Peggy does, the two of them are definitely shifting roles a bit.
- Interesting to see the general public opinion of Ad Men come into play with both Ogilvy’s book as well as the general perception: the two kids who drug Don (although, Don took the drugs willfully so I guess that’s kind of the wrong term for it) respond with skepticism and derision when he announces that he works in advertising.
- Speaking of those kids, was there ever a point in time when people thought that there would be a rule that people who got married wouldn’t be drafted to Vietnam? This was a slightly more nuanced way of working the growing paranoia about Vietnam into the series (the brief mention last week felt sudden and out of place), but the kid is certainly in for a rude awakening. Of course, it’s always possible it was a lie built on duping Don, but if they were not actually getting married and were just mugging him I think they would have taken his car and avoided leaving a thank you note.
- I saw a few critics post their show notes from the moment where Peggy and Duck are clearly going to have sex. Mine was “WHOA THERE.” I knew it was coming and still wishes I could pull in the reins.
- Loved Bert Cooper, with his socked feet on his coffee table, gushing over how Connie is “a bit of an eccentric. The long pause afterwards was great.
- After sealing their rift last week, Sterling reopens it (knowingly, one feels) when he calls Betty and tells her about the contract. Perhaps it’s an example of Roger protecting Don from himself, an argument that Don might some day understand although which will result in justifiable anger at the moment.