Mad Men – “Six Month Leave”

“Six Month Leave”

September 28th, 2008

“Some People Just Hide in Plain Sight”

On the surface, Marilyn Monroe was the picture of grace and beauty, living the Hollywood dream and conquering the globe in the process. Of course, inside she was emotionally distraught, and her suicide rocked America in August, 1962. In the world of Mad Men, it rocks the secretarial pool at Sterling Cooper, sending them to the kleenex boxes and making them all question, at least a little bit, the value of life.

But that quote, coming from the elevator man of all people, is the driving force behind this series, particularly for Don Draper: he can’t actually hide away from everyone, he needs to be out there and available even while hiding pains as deep as his traumatic family past and as recent as his separation from Betty. Peggy may have hid in the months after her pregnancy, but now she’s back at work and having to act as if none of it is there, struggling while all eyes remain on her in her new success.

But this episode is all about those people who can’t hide in plain sight, who based on either inexperience or circumstance are no longer able to (or desiring to) hide something about themselves. In the case of Freddy Rumsen, our zipper musician extraordinaire, his habits have long been known by those in the office, but there comes a time when you get too comfortable and what was hidden becomes clear to too many people or, more accurately, to the wrong people. In the case of Betty Draper, she’s been so used to hiding her feelings that she has no idea how to express her displeasure, unsure of what she wants other than to be left alone and allowed to take care of her own life for a change.

While a less careful show might be running dangerously close to hammering this home a bit too hard at this point, “Six Month Leave” has more than enough moments of emotional discovery to feel like a new step into this particular subject, one of the show’s (and my) favourites.

Let’s talk Betty first, considering that I think she’s obviously in the most interesting place emotionally speaking. In her case, she’s finally had the backbone to stand up to Don and boot him out of the house (for those who, like me, found even a two-week break disorienting, Betty kicked Don out of the house after their latest altercation at the dinner part. What I noted last time, and really came to fruition here, was that Don has played this game his entire life, having to disconnect emotionally from something and move on with his life. For Betty, though, this isn’t possible: while Don can waltz around the office as if nothing has happened, ignoring any mention of it, Betty can barely get out of bed she’s so overwrought by her situation.

And while I’m not suggesting that Don isn’t at fault for this separation, for Betty this is more about self-reflection than anything else. One of the episode’s most powerful scenes is Betty just sitting at Don’s desk, as if waiting for something to come to her. She isn’t digging through all of his papers like last week, desperate for some kind of evidence, but almost instead wishfully staring at the typewriter hoping that in some way her fingers will start typing and the words on the page will tell her how to feel (or, more literally, that the locked drawer will open). When she’s discussing with Sarah Beth about therapy, and her friend says that the doctor simply diagnosed her as “bored,” Betty is almost jealous: as much as her therapy experience was tainted by Don’s involvement, it at least offered that intoxicating hope of answers, of finality, of solution. But there isn’t a solution to Betty’s current problem, one that is for not a policy of avoidance.

She has Carla to talk to, but she even tries to ignore any advice that she might be willing to offer about her own marriage. The reason is quite clear: Betty isn’t concerned about her marriage, she’s concerned about herself and what this means for her. It would be much more selfish if Don wasn’t clearly doing exactly the same thing, but for Betty this is so new and alarming that it’s hard not to empathize with her predicament. When she eventually sets up Arthur and Sarah Beth, she isn’t getting back into any kind of social game: she’s pawning a needy friend off on a needy leech of a man, hoping that if the two of them find love (or adultery, considering his fiance) they will stop requiring her to appear as if she cares about anything but deciphering the puzzle that is her own life. In a way it’s very Don-like: sure, it isn’t quite cutthroat, but there is something very calculated about the move that demonstrates there might be hope yet for the independent Betty.

Whereas, by comparison, Don isn’t much himself in this episode, caught in a trap of hypocrisy that clearly challenges his own efforts to hide in the (relatively) public spotlight. Now, I don’t know if I necessarily buy that Don is actually relieved to be living in the hotel. This is primarily because I refuse to believe he isn’t still roused by his own speech in “The Wheel,” but also because it’s clear that relief does not actually offer what it implies when it comes to Don Draper. I think that he likes the act: whether or not he also loves his family is perhaps up in the air for some (although I’m of the mind that he does), but there’s no question that he likely equally enjoyed playing the part, having another role to play to make him seem more normal and more hidden.

The difference between Don and Betty then is that Don is much better at making appearances: as Betty notes in their one face-to-face meeting in the episode, he’s supposed to be able to talk his way out of any situation, to convince her to take him back in as many words. However, Don’s never been great at spinning his own life: the only time he’s done so was when, through work, he stirred enough emotions in “The Wheel” to create that sense of compassion. Instead, he tends to avoid it altogether: he places false fronts over those parts which are most damaging, choosing to never discuss them with anyone. And while Betty is generally quite naive, and as a result Don has spun many webs of lies in order to convince her to stay within their pleasant (and false) life, this is a new problem: Don doesn’t really know if he wants to so quickly return to those days, just as Betty doesn’t know how she wants to handle whatever it is she’s fought her way into. He doesn’t know if he wants to keep spinning this particular web, and she’s just discovering what life might be like without one.

Of course, in Don’s case, this creates conflicts at work: he defends Freddy Rumsen out of loyalty, but also because he knows that he’s made mistakes in his own life and wouldn’t want just one of them so clearly defining him. There’s a slight fear there of his current situation escalating as Rumsen’s did: a pattern of behaviour, clear to everyone, suddenly becoming a problem based on one event, one moment in time where you lose control (of either your bladder or your libido). He actually begins to buy Roger’s bullshit, this line that Rumsen is better off with this time away from everything, even when he knows that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. In reality, Don should be concerned with whether his separation with Betty might work the same way, that it will be this leave with no hope for reconcilation, but he seems more concerned with the uncertainty and insecurity of waiting for the other shoe to drop than as to which way it might.

We get to see more of John Slattery’s Roger Sterling this week, our first real showcase for the character since the season began. He, Freddy and Don out on the town boozing gets some good lines and some interesting little moments, but ultimately Roger’s big moment is when he shows his hand and reveals that, based on Don’s opus about living life to the fullest, he should follow love and run off with Jane, Don’s secretary, who have likely been in a relationship ever since Jane kept her job even after Joan fired her. What works about this is that he’s doing what Don can’t: unlike Don, who notes that he has no other love and therefore no easy option to abandon his drama with Betty, Roger is carefree and willing to take that risk, to truly live life in that youthful fashion. Don has spent the entire season worried about keeping hold of that balance, told to watch his eating and drinking habits, but Roger has already had two coronaries and is tired of playing it safe.

The theme goes further, really, about this idea of taking what life gives you and running with it. At Sterling Cooper, a blood drive has everyone woozie and hoping to succeed. There’s a thread about how it’s a competition, everyone fighting for as much attention as possible, but it’s supposed to be about saving lives. It’s a really base example of public story (Harry calls the papers about their generousity, not their competitive spirit) differing from the internal motivation, which considering the nature of advertising isn’t exactly something new. What it offers, though, is a lesson for Peggy: just as the Red Cross isn’t going to not accept blood which is given under pretenses beyond saving lives, it’s kind of tough for her to turn down a promotion because of how it was achieved, in this instance through Peter being a tool.

That Peggy succeeds where Rumsen didn’t is no surprise, and it was great to see her immediately stand up for Freddy considering that, as she notes, he was the one responsible for picking her out of the secretary pool in order to work as a copy writer. But you can see that moment of realization as Peter, being as smarmy as he’s been in a while, runs down how he really did her a favour, and how she should be grateful for it. Yes, it’s cruel, but she should: she now is in charge of multiple accounts, which means that Duck actually asks her about her opinion of a cartoon turtle before he gives it the OK.

But what must frustrate us most, if not Peggy, is Don being such a hypocrite as he more or less tears Freddy apart to Peggy as he gives her the promotion. We get to see that side of Don that is usually so good at changing his story, of buying into what is a cruel and career-ending decision as if it was simply logical, and not just the machinations of Pete Campbell and Duck Phillips making a power play. Peggy isn’t quite to the point where she can buy into so wholeheartedly, spreading the word to everyone who will listen, but she knows well enough to accept the fate put before her, especially considering that she might have lost it all if not for Don’s intervention after her pregnancy.

Overall, Mad Men is the kind of show that makes even relative holding patterns seem utterly fascinating: even without any major revelations until the final decision by Sterling, it felt like we were digging still deeper into this world, something that the show seems to do with such ease. How the show handles our latest revelation, returning Sterling to the center of our narrative, remains to be seen, but forgive me for being optimistic.

Cultural Observations

  • Purg3 over at NeoGAF makes a good point about one of Pete’s comments to Peggy, that in effect all he had taken away from Rumsen was his name as opposed to his life. It raises the fundamental hypocrisy in Don’s decision that much clearer, considering his own identity problems in regards to his name. Of course, Pete is right: Rumsen can start over in another city, but he’s starting over with a whole new life. I loved the scene as Rumsen explains his father’s globe game, questioning why anyone would ever want to live anywhere but where they live now. It’s clear that Don and Betty spent the entire episode thinking this, and Rumsen’s limited world view makes his departure that much more tragic.
  • Speaking of Don’s identity issues, his decision to punch Jimmy Barrett (which, finally) is something he classified as “pure Archibald Whitman,” who he passes off as an old drunk he knew to Sterling. Of course, he’s speaking of his father, and one wonders whether he continues (as he did a few weeks back with the new car) to flash back to his past in an effort to find some solace for the future. I do wish we’d see more of it, but I can understand the value and the allure of those emotions being hidden from even the audience.
  • One of my favourite lines in the episode was that Roger isn’t able to bring Cooper into the discussion of Rumsen’s firing “due to his thing with germs.” I love that the very idea of someone urinating themselves is completely incomprehensible to the engima of a man that is Bertram Cooper.
  • It’s a small scene, and eventually becomes bigger with the urination, but I loved the “Launch Pad” runthrough, in particular Salvatore’s “blah blah blah” instead of actually practicing his pitch. It’s also telling that Peggy’s first instinct is to protect Rumsen, not to take over, but it is Salvatore (if my memory serves me right) who actually pushes her to do his work (And she’s the one who talks to his secretary). Of course, since Pete is the one who tells on him, he gets to tell his version of the story and come out looking like someone willing to play ball, if not someone you’d want on your team.
  • And since this is our first episode since, congratulations go out to Mad Men for picking up the Emmy for Best Drama Series – with episodes like these, I’d have thrown something at the TV if it had gone any other way.

4 Comments

Filed under Mad Men

4 responses to “Mad Men – “Six Month Leave”

  1. I thought this was the best ep of the season. I love how the Marilyn Monroe storyline goes on in the periphery, all around Sterling’s “she was a stranger” line all funneling into the way the ep took great lengths to either tear down people’s identities (Freddy), expose them (Sterling), or confirm that they are indeed who we know them to be (Don, loyal to a fault, Peggy, pure hearted, Pete, right as always and ruthless).

    And as always, best write up of the show on the web.

  2. Howler

    Beautiful write up, good sir. I loved your examination of the episode. A very good companion piece to the episode itself. I recently discovered your blog, but I love reading it. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on LOST as the new episodes start later.

    Keep up the good work,
    Howler

  3. Pingback: Catch Up on Mad Men Season Two | Tired and Bored With Myself

  4. Pingback: Catch up: Mad Men – Season 2 | No Flipping

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