Mad Men – “Ladies Room”

“Ladies Room”

Season One, Episode Two

One of the complications of using a pilot as a piece of misdirection, in this instance not revealing Don Draper’s wife Betty until the very end of the episode, is that the need for exposition (a necessary evil in a series’ first episode) lingers on.

In that sense, this is Betty’s pilot, a chance to get a view into the life of a housewife in an era of uncertainty and confusion perpetuated by new-age psychiatry and the elusiveness of her own husband. Betty is a woman who just lost her mother and who feels as if she’s missing a side of her husband (or five) that he never shows to her, without knowing that a few of them remain hidden even to his co-workers and his mistress.

With her introduction, the narrative of Mad Men’s female characters comes fully into view, as Peggy’s struggles on the job reflect upon the challenges women faced during the era in a frank and honest perspective. When jumping into this series, you really need to get through the second episode before you can understand where Matthew Weiner is taking us, with a whole new side to the story and continued subtle hints at the stories to come.

It takes some time to warm to January Jones’ performance, one that should be getting some awards buzz leading into the Emmy Awards. I’ve seen some insinuate that her performance is all in the makeup, hair and costuming, but that’s oversimplifying by half. Just watching this episode, you could call her character stiff or even lifeless, and some have seen this as a reflection of Jones’ work, but this is where the character is located: she’s playing someone who themselves is acting, constantly, and Jones gets more and more comfortable as her character does.

As she struggles with the mystery of the man in her life and how she fits into that mold, Sterling Cooper is fighting with another mystery: what do women want? The episode’s central pitch is a new line of aerosol deodorant, and the question that Don Draper wants them to ask is “What do women want?” He doesn’t want a psychological bullshit answer, ironic considering his unwillingness to allow his wife the same caveat in terms of his own relationship with women, but rather a simple explanation for what will make a woman buy a can of deodorant for the man in her life.

This is only the beginning of the strange relationship between Don Draper the creative director and Don Draper the man – how he treats the question of a woman’s interest in an ad campaign is cold and realistic, and here we start to see the first signs that his decision to reflect many of the same qualities in the relationship with his wife is starting to take its toll. Betty is fighting to live up to a particular standard, and presumes (perhaps correctly) that Don’s expectation is the model of the deodorant-purchasing housewife he creates for his account executives. This fact will, over time, continue to haunt pretty well all of these characters, if perhaps in different ways.

For Don, he finds his answer in Midge, another woman who isn’t quite as prominent but nonetheless important. Don tells jokes to his wife about pornographic pseudonyms, while he talks to Midge about those bullshit psychological questions in an attempt to get work done. While some of his demeanor carries over between the two sides, in other ways that division between home and work displayed in the pilot is continuous, and at least somewhat describes how he uses Midge for both work and play.

In this episode, as the title suggests, we do get quite a lot of insight into the role of women within the universe that Weiner is creating. Here, they are a source of release (Peggy’s own honeymoon of sorts remember her time with Pete, or Pete looking to blow off some steam with Peggy following a rough pitch), or ownership (Don’s anger at Midge’s television, clearly offered by another potential suitor); Sterling Cooper is awash with women crying in the bathroom stalls because these men are, for lack of a better word, pigs.

This is an oversimplification of their characters, but they certainly aren’t done any favours in this episode: we learn more about Ken and Paul as we move on, but here they seem to be (to different degrees) claiming Peggy in some office ritual in which she does not feel comfortable. The show, at this point, actually needs to be careful not to over-characterize these men as hounds; while Pete is off on his honeymoon, there is still a sense that there isn’t a decent man around these parts, a contention that is not quite true. Yes, they’re all flawed, but at the very least they have reasons and the season does a fine job of explicating those as it moves on.

But for now, for Peggy, the world is a sea of struggles – she has Joan pointing out that she should probably enjoy this attention while it lasts since she isn’t much to look at, she has all of the men looking at her, and she has the specter of Pete Campbell hanging over her. Betty, meanwhile, is in a place of supposed stability where her lack thereof is resulting in serious anxiety, and where therapy only makes her more anxious about everything that has gone wrong for her. And this will not change for quite some time, driving their storylines forward.

The conclusion of the episode, the absolute violation of Doctor/Patient privilege as Don contacts Dr. Wayne, Betty’s psychiatrist, for details about her first session, reminds us that although these two episodes have partially divided male and female narrative introductions this is a world in which men can (and do) walk between the two as if it is their business. Although we get mostly Betty or Peggy’s perspective in the episode, at any point in time these men will waltz into their space, violating their lives under some sort of relationship whether its perceived social hierarchy or the belief that a husband has a right to know. For now, they haven’t done much to challenge this, but trust me: we haven’t seen the last of these ladies, nor their final moments.

Cultural Observations

  • You know that a show is a character drama when it has important exposition about how the ad agency works (Paul’s tour he provides Peggy) in the second episode – it isn’t really important to the point of the series, but it is nice to get a glimpse into how exactly things work at Sterling Cooper.
  • Play close attention to the Nixon campaign, something that I really enjoy as it starts to echo throughout the season. Not only does it eventually require knowledge of the tour that Paul provides (Media becomes important), but it features the great Robert Morse as Bertram Cooper, the other half of the agency’s title.
  • The 60s references, as you can tell, are far more subtle here; when they mention the near-death of radio, the detriment of television, the space-ageness of aerosol deodorant, it never feels like the show is winking at us, screaming “WE’RE IN THE SIXTIES, REMEMBER?” at every turn. It wasn’t that egregious in the pilot, but it is certainly more measured here (And throughout the rest of the season).


Filed under Mad Men

2 responses to “Mad Men – “Ladies Room”

  1. Pingback: Catch Up on Mad Men Season One | Tired and Bored With Myself

  2. Pingback: Mad Men – Season 1 | No Flipping

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s