August 10th, 2008
After a busy day of moving, there’s nothing better than sitting down with one of the most satisfying dramas on television and just letting its quality suck you in. But, to be honest, it wasn’t grasping me at first: maybe it’s being tired, maybe it’s just that the show is finding a slower pace after a couple of really quick episodes, but there was something about “The Benefactor” that wasn’t clicking.
But then all of a sudden everything starts clicking – what seemed like a strangely slow subplot for Harry Crane turns into a sudden revelation of its broader impact on his life (And Peggy’s for that matter). It’s one of those examples where something initially so isolated has this ripple effect, showing in tiny small moments how one thing impacts everyone else.
And even though the episode is slow to start for Don and Betty Draper, they end the episode both with extremely twisted views of their current marital detente of sorts: as they both continue to struggle with embracing their new roles, it is clear that their expectations for happiness are quite different. When Betty cries in the car on their way back from dinner, they’re inexpicable tears of happiness, her bar set so low that being used to flirt with an unruly comedian is her new calling.
But, I guess this is normal: for her, Don is really just a Benefactor, although a slightly more benevolent one these days.
What really struck me with this episode was seeing so much of Harry Crane – the early scenes were as pedestrian as it gets, as he sees Ken’s paycheque and immediately finds himself questioning his own. Salvatore is right, though: telling his wife is just silly, even enough it is part of his own plan to stay faithful to her. While the show spent last week drawing the parallel between Don and Pete, here we find Harry in the same situation: having cheated on his wife, his immediate response is near full disclosure, the type of thing that most people couldn’t even imagine. I knew that the moment he called his wife post-affair in “The Wheel” that Harry was different, but here we see how that can play out.
And what kind of turned me off at first was that it was so pedestrian: he is so goody two-shoes that he tries to find a new envelope as opposed to the far more logical solution Sal offers him, and then his reaction is to search for a new job. It’s even somewhat contrived that he’d stumble onto such a unique situation by happening to know the person in charge, but I should have learned by now that Mad Men does not do contrivances. They, instead, do creative rewrites of history which insert their characters into important issues for the same of television dramaturgy.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised to see how this story, an episode of CBS’ The Defenders that had enormous sponsor pullouts after the creators forced the network into shooting a script featuring abortion (Read below for a great link to more information about the show), would lead into a fantastic moment of revelation when I realize that Harry’s interest goes beyond his career. That when Belle Jolie goes to Peggy for her opinion, that he has no idea how much Peggy related to the television program that she just watched, how many “What If”s were running through her mind at that moment.
Peggy’s moment is small, but Harry’s is big: his omission of the episode’s content to his wife is an unwillingness to attach his success to abortion, in fear of the association. I was naively thinking that the episode, from which this episode of Mad Men derives its name, had little to do with his situation, but then it clicked that he truthfully pondered whether or not such an operation would help solve his financial situation. Considering that Harry’s ingenuity manages to get him a 12.5% raise and a new title as the Head (and only member) of Sterling Cooper’s television department, he is going to become an important part of the Sterling Cooper mandate moving forward; so, consider this a good step forward for showing us more of the rest of Sterling Cooper.
With Pete and American Airlines on hold for the week, our view into Sterling Cooper shifts to Jimmy Barrett, a loud-mouth and crass comedian surely based off of someone that my whippersnapper self doesn’t know well enough to draw out, who humiliates the bigwigs from Utz Chips and becomes a huge catastrophe requiring an apology. That they draft Don with the task isn’t surprising (Roger seems more sarcastic than usual, Ken and Freddy already screwed it up, Duck passes the buck), but it does send us on an interesting journal where, finally, he gives into the temptation that he’s been holding back for all this time.
And yet, at the same time, Don got more than he bargained for – it is clear that Don’s infidelities all had a clear pattern, and that the wife/sister/manager of Jimmy Barrett doesn’t fit into them. Don’s attracted to women who talk back: it’s what fascinated him about Rachel Menken, and what kept him coming back to Midge. However, this one was actively playing him: her attempt to manipulate him into paying for an apology brought out a side of Don Draper that is all about power, in this instance to the point of physicality.
I thought it was a great parallel with the premiere’s scene as Betty attempts to use her sexuality for a better deal on a fan belt, except that Don knows how to play this role – of course, what we realize is that Don, here, is the one on the opposite end, refusing to let a woman convince him to do something unreasonable and against his values. Don scared me in that scene, to be honest, and I have to wonder whether that side of him is what is keeping Betty satisfied with her current situation.
Betty, though, has to be given credit for doing at least decently for herself in the same situation as Don, although she was totally asking for it. Betty’s new role in her marriage is attempting to be Don, treating him as a babysitter as she refuses to allow her kids to join her at the stables for what she says is just for Mothers, but in reality is an opportunity for her to approach her own fantasy of sorts, the lone male rider in the group. January Jones has done beautiful work this season, capturing both the beauty of a lone riding Betty and the absolute vulnerability as she continues talking knowing exactly where things are going, letting the fear slowly take over her voice.
Why she ended up refusing his advances isn’t wholly clear, but there’s plenty of reasons: one is just plain fear, fear of something she desires but doesn’t fully understand (I haven’t seen hands those shaky since Kenneth “I’m a real good sex person” the Page), but the other could be some sort of realization that she was staring her own husband in the face in many ways. There seems to be this underlying attempt on her part to play the role of the women that Don slept with; I don’t think it’s for any sort of psychological well-being, but just naive curiosity that has resulted in her getting far over her head. While she isn’t as silly as Barrett’s Manager to push her demands too far, and she doesn’t have the stomach to go through with it, she’s testing the waters.
So there’s more to her episode ending tears than it seems: she claims that they’re tears of happiness that she is now part of Don’s life, but is she really? I hate to be a pessimist here, but she was literally completely used as bait for Barrett to apologize and nothing more, and her apparently “happiness” at this totally doesn’t jive with her earlier disappointment at the dinner not just being a chance for them to go out together. While some of it may just be Betty’s desire to play the new role while secretly exploring another, just as Don is doing, I tend to think that she has a lot less control over this process than she thinks she does.
But all of that was very late in the episode: although it took a while to get moving, the episode managed to do everything Mad Men does best. Offer parallels between its various characters, dramatize and expand the relationship between its male and female counterparts, and use history and the era to further character and plot.
- You know that I’m getting used to Mad Men’s strict attention to detail when the hail storm started and my first immediate thought was whether they had researched the occurence of Hail in NYC on that particular day. Something tells me they didnt, but if anyone wants to point me into some sort of Weather equivalent of Wikipedia, please do.
- It was small and expected, but the nice subtle reminder of Sal’s date of sorts with the Belle Jolie spokesman was really well done. Considering that they’ve cast Sarah Drew, they’ve got to be getting more into his wife at some point, and this is at least a reminder for the writers to get on that already.
- I noted it above a little, but John Slattery had a lot of fun in this one: between his scattered introduction of the Jimmy Barrett problem to Don and his brilliant handling of Harry in the meeting, Roger was just a really fun character to watch this week. It was kind of a more energetic Cooper, in a way.
- Speaking of Harry’s meeting, loved how quickly he buckled on the salary issue. Even though he knew that what Roger said about no one making close to $310 was a lie, having seen Cosgrove’s paycheque, he couldn’t really say anything about it. He could have made up any myriad of excuses and continued the argument, but he was so happy with $225 that he just ran. He may have been standing up for himself, but he was still on shaky ground (And, like Betty and Don, trying out a new role to appease someone else, in this case his wife).
- I was thinking the episode was going to be about obesity when they opened with the fat jokes from Barrett and then the cute little “Oh, she outgrew it” leotard comment from Betty’s riding pal.
- Patrick Fischler, who guest starred as Barrett, has now been on Mad Men, Burn Notice and The Middleman thus far this summer – his agent deserves kudos for landing him on my three favourite summer shows.
Wikipedia and Other Relevant Links
[A new feature this week – a couple of relevant links for the episode]
The Defenders [TV Series] – Providing both the namesake and the inspiration for a major part of the episode, The Defenders won three Primetime Emmy Awards for Best Drama Series, and also has a bit of a history of social ambiguity that sounds like another show I know. From the Museum of Broadcast Communications:
“As [Series Creator/Story Editor Reginald] Rose declared in The Viewer magazine, “We’re committed to controversy.” And indeed, the series often went beyond a strict focus on “the law” to probe the profound social issues that are often weighed in the courtroom.”
I really suggest checking out the rest of the Museum article, it’s got some great stuff on the show’s social impact, and “The Benefactor” in particular.