“A Night to Remember”
September 14th, 2008
Describing Betty Draper to the representatives from Heineken, Duck Phillips identifies her as “well off and educated.” Now, in the context of the scene, we breeze right by it: they’re selling this pitch, so it’s not like anyone’s going to put on the brakes. However, let’s be frank: to this point, and even after the events of the episode, would anyone really consider Betty Draper to be educated?
This isn’t to say that she is not intelligent, or that she is not capable of achieving great things, but rather that her tragic flaw is her ignorance to the outside world, to the world that she is constantly being surrounded by. When she becomes the punchline of Don’s pitch to Heineken, she isn’t necessarily just reacting to Don’s use of her as a tool: rather, it’s that he knows better than she does what her role is, what demographic she’s in, and what she’s likely to buy when she goes to the grocery store.
But that’s Don’s job, as it is Peggy’s: it’s their job to tell people what they want. It’s just that, as both found out in this episode, you need to know your audience: whether your wife or the Catholic Church, there are certain rules that need to be followed if you’re going to let your role in the ad game dictate the rest of your life decisions. And, as seen with Don, Peggy and Joan, the balance between these two sides of one’s life, in whatever form they take, will eventually get the better of you.
And when that happens, as it did to Betty Draper who doesn’t even have a single role she could really latch onto in her lowest moments, it will serve as…well, you can read the title of the episode, you know where this is going.
I want to start with Joan, which might seem off considering the trajectory of the episode, but I actually found her storyline the most revealing. Joan is the most powerful woman in the office, there’s no question about that, our view into her life with her fiance is suddenly different: it’s very subtle, she is different when she’s around her husband-to-be. It was in her voice for me: she was more bubbly, more airy, suddenly no longer on the top of any sort of food chain. She’s fetching glasses of water, she’s told to just sit back and find entertainment in that quiet existence, and she doesn’t seem overly happy doing any of it.
Just look how quickly Joan doesn’t bother to set the table when she gets caught up in the world of As The World Turns, magic accent-changing comas and the lure of the escapist world of television. And while we can extrapolate from this that she certainly isn’t entirely content with her new life, we can’t go too far: television as an escape is not some sort of designation of unhappiness, or else I’d be pretty unhappy with my life. Rather, though, it’s interesting because the exact same thing happens at work, except that there television represents the wave of the future, and a sudden opportunity for her to be more involved in the day-to-day activities at Sterling Cooper.
In other words, Joan is yet another character caught on the crossroads, albeit in this kind of complex way. She’s a normal girl in some ways, watching her soap operas and with a fiance, but then she has this persona in the office, this example of old whose purpose to uphold older values, older standards. But unlike the other characters, it seems like it wasn’t until she read the script for the upcoming As The World Turns that she entered into this discourse; as someone ostensibly young (even being over 30, as revealed earlier this season), she’s trapped even more than Peggy within this old system, and it’s clear from this episode that part of her wants out – when no one even considered her staying in charge of Broadcast Operations, she was (maybe for the first time) no longer accepting the reality of the status quo. Should this extend to her personal life, things could get very interesting for Joan Holloway.
Now, since I’ve gone lone enough without mentioning it, let’s discuss the episode’s main action: Betty Draper growing a pair. Okay, so the crude language doesn’t really do her justice, but I raise the point only because she actually did: she went to the brink of allowing Don back into her house, but seeing the Utz commercial is enough for her to finally go to the point of not allowing him back into the house.
One of the things about this episode is that we don’t know how it compares to last time, as in last time Betty discovered something about Don. The fifteen month period between seasons contains a lot of mysteries, but this episode was definitely the one where not knowing certainly changed things. We’re operating under presumptions that whatever happened then was quite subtle: Don certainly tried to make a life change, and Betty certainly seemed to attempt to change her own persona in response. But they were purely surface changes: we presume that Betty didn’t say what she said on this particular night, and that whatever conversation they did have wasn’t enough for Don to not have an affair with Bobbie Barrett.
While we have no proof that this situation will be any different, it felt like something that will have impact: Betty said a lot of truthful things, and made a lot of statements that seemed a whole lot bigger than a single incident. Last time it was over something that was an invasion of privacy, over a general sentiment of mistrust, but now she has both greater reason and, more importantly, greater knowledge. What she knows isn’t enough to keep her from still being naive to the world around her, but she’s realized that Don is not above using her lack of knowledge against her.
The confrontation between them was an exercise in the ability of the new Betty Draper to engage in this type of argument: unlike before, when she could only talk to young Glen about her situation, she is more open to Don about what’s bothering her. She doesn’t just slip it into pre-bedtime chatter, she turns off the television and lets him have it. She still doesn’t quite have it: when Don asks her what she knows, she lies, telling him that she knows “everything.” We know this isn’t true, she’s right only by intuition and Jimmy’s truth that could well be, for all she knows, imagination; she’s lying just as she told Bobby not to lie earlier in the season, but she backed herself into a corner.
What followed was intensely compelling stuff, and the first time that January Jones has absolutely walked all over Jon Hamm in their shared scenes. Jones’ best work last season, in “Shoot” and “The Wheel,” was almost always isolated from their relationship, but here she’s smack dab in the middle of it and relishing the opportunity. Watching as she tore through his clothes, sorted through his drawers, stepped on the wine glass or eventually sat disheveled and unchanged from the previous night on their bed waiting for Don to return home, her reaction is everything it needed to be. As someone who is used to searching for something completely abstract, her own identity, her infuriation at not being able to find cold hard facts must be even more frustrating.
For his part, Don is taking a backseat here – he doesn’t go on the attack in their altercation (poking holes versus escalating anger), choosing to hope that Betty will calm down on her own accord. Really, he shouldn’t be surprised when Betty calls him and tells him not to come home: considering that he almost lost her last season because he didn’t pay enough attention to keeping her, leaving their late night conversation on the note they did (With Betty silently walking away after he says he doesn’t want to lose his family) was a dangerous move. At this point, Don is getting what he deserves, it’s just a question of whether or not Betty is able to keep up with the game considering that Don, even if he has off days, has been playing it most of his adult life.
And he plays it like no one else can, especially someone like Peggy. As noted way back in the introduction (it’s a big episode, forgive the length), Peggy is trying to extend her control in the office out into her life in general. She wants to treat her Pro Bono work for the Catholic Church and Father Gill as a job, where she’s the creative brains, the Church elders the clients, and Father Gill as the accounts man who is supposed to help her sell the product. It doesn’t work, of course, and she blames him for it (As Alan Sepinwall notes, the parallel with Duck/Don/Clients is extremely clear, and well played). She is frustrated at this, and justifiably so, but she does need to remember that her Accounts man doesn’t just have a drinking problem, but rather a really good friend who is holding him to some fairly strict values.
For Peggy, though, it’s a storyline designed to pull at whatever it is she’s really hiding inside (whether it’s guilt, agony, frustration or confusion) as it relates to her affair with Pete and the eventual birth of her child. Unlike with Betty, this isn’t a process of exorcism so much as a “new beginning” as Father Gill puts it: come find God, he says, and Peggy has a chance to start over. Unfortunately for Peggy, it’s not even close to being that simple, and the part of Don that was able to write off so much of his own past in favour of a new life needs to kick in for Peggy if she’s going to keep this up.
But, what if it could be that simple? What if it was actually possible for Peggy to find God and find her sins disappear? What if there was a chance, an actual chance, that Joan could simply forget the role she’s been playing at Sterling Cooper and find a new role without any people losing respect for her? And what if it was so simple that Don could just tell Betty he loves her and for her to ignore every other problem with his perspective on their marriage and take him back with open arms? The problem is that there is no simple solution: for all three characters, there are no easy answers, and God can only get you so far when psychology and life’s experience are the opponents. In this case, I don’t think it would even scratch the surface, and we’re far beyond that point now heading into the final third of the season.
- First and foremost, no new episode of Mad Men next week – with the show riding high on its four Emmy wins at the Creative Arts ceremony over the weekend, AMC figures that fans might want to see if they can take home the big prize on Sunday night so the next episode won’t air until September 28th.
- The most humorous line of the episode, for me, was definitely Roger’s little “Duck, Crab. Crab, Duck” introduction of the two men at dinner. It was one of those jokes that, like many on Mad Men, just fly by without the characters really letting on whether they get it. Well, except for Roger, who clearly delights in it.
- I didn’t look at it this way, but Sepinwall’s review linked above notes that Harry is honestly quite unlikeable here: he is the one who made this job, and he doesn’t really want to do the work and, when he gets the note about Maytag, he doesn’t put the “Agitator/Agitator” connection together other than a broad note on communism. It is clear from his speech to Roger that he wanted to be the liasion, the face for the clients, but considering that Joan did all of that work for him I have a feeling the new TV unit is going to be in for a rude awakening in the future.
- There is something extremely, extremely cathartic about watching Betty slowly destroy a chair, piece by piece, while her children look on. I immediately compared it to her end of episode bird rampage in “Shoot,” and while certainly different it had a similar effect.