September 13th, 2009
“He’s never where you expect him to be.”
When it comes to Mad Men, titles are often a sign of a major theme in an episode, often the only real quality an episode has (with most remaining light on plot in favour of atmosphere or thematic importance). But I don’t think there’s been a title in a while that has seemed so expansive, so all-encompassing. “The Fog” could mean any multitude of things both in terms of what we already know about character relationships and in terms of new develops in the span of the episode, which leaves us critics fumbling to decide just what direction we’re going to take it in.
For me, I think the moment where the title really connected with me was when Don was chatting with his prison guard friend in the Solarium and tells him an anecdote that a nurse told him when Sally was being born. “Your wife’s on the boat, and you’re on the shore.” And while it was never explicitly stated, there’s a fog between those two locations, and Mad Men is essentially a show without a lighthouse. Betty, stranded out on that boat and struggling through a difficult birthing process, comments in her crazed state that Don isn’t where you expect him to be, that once the fog lifts he’s disappeared or gone off somewhere else. While she views this in some ways as an abandonment, for Don it’s about being restless.
Much of “The Fog” is about Don Draper’s own self-awareness or lack thereof, finally admitting to himself that for all of his problems in the past he is the one on solid ground while Betty, and Peggy, and Sally are out on boats struggling to maintain course in the midst of a growing storm. He’s the one who has everything and who can help guide them safely into the years ahead, but the problem is that he is distracted: by women, by his job, and by his own insecurities buried deep beneath the surface. If he is the one in charge of climbing up the lighthouse steps to break through the fog and win the day, the boats are going to crash on the rocks.
Dream interpretation was never particularly my forte, but I think that Betty’s various dream sequences are really a solidification of what we’ve known all along. Betty’s first dream, walking down a street in a dress and coming across a young caterpillar, is pure child-like innocence, but her next dream has her transforming from a young child into a pregnant one. That pivotal line, as she tells her mother that she “left my lunch pail on the bus, and I’m pregnant” is a Freudian wet dream, but Betty has always been that way. She’s always struggled to deal with her mother’s death (here as she awkwardly stands over an African-American while chiding Betty for her poor decisions), and now she has her father’s to deal with as well. In her delirium, she sees Gene mopping the floor, and in her dream he’s doing much the same. The Betty who stands pregnant is the same one who enjoys the caterpillar, the child having not escaped her in any form, and when she emerges from the haze we discover that Betty was wrong all along: it was actually a boy, a boy she names Eugene.
What works so well about Betty as a character is you never know just how far she’s advancing in any particular moment. She was quite lucid while giving birth, bringing to the surface her apprehensions about Don, but naming her son after her father is more sentimental than psychological, and there’s every chance she’ll be in worse shape now than she was before. When she wakes up from the fog, in other words, she looks as groggy as you can imagine, and a simple baby name isn’t going to be simple enough to change anything. January Jones knocked the episode out of the park (giving herself a bang-up Emmy submission for next year in the process), which isn’t surprising but really does hammer home just how good this cast is when these big moments arrive.
But really, the episode was more about Don than it was about Betty, at least for me personally. His entire life has been about creating a smokescreen, about using the shroud around him to operate under the radar and survive accordingly. But here, we start to see that the fog is lifting: Lane begins to see Don’s evasion of bureaucracy (walking out of the meeting early) as a cocky sense of security (which he used in order to keep Duck from taking over), and perhaps most importantly Peggy calls him out for being so comfortable in his life, having absolutely everything, which causes him to reevaluate everything. Don has never precisely allowed himself to be happy, nor does he ever think in those terms: he works as hard as possible to maintain this perfect sort of life, but yet underneath he’s tormented. So when Peggy sits in front of him begging for a raise so that she doesn’t have to seriously consider Duck Phillips’ offer, baring her soul to Don about the secret that only he knows the truth about, he’s become responsible for yet another person in a way that he’s not entirely prepared for.
That’s really the worst part of Don’s double life, the fact that nobody else is able to see that sense of vulnerability. The prison guard whose wife is in labour at the same time as Betty tells Don, as he leaves, that he’s an honest man (something he says he knows a lot about, since he works at a prison and all). Of course, we know this is entirely false, perhaps more false than the man could imagine, but I think that’s what pains Don most of all. He is fooling people, and in the process more and more people are counting on him. He talks about how he doesn’t throw ball enough with his son, and we saw last week that he honestly has no idea how to handle Sally’s grief. He and Betty’s meeting with the teacher was a fine example of the way Sally and Don really did nothing to deal with her grief: she didn’t miss a single day of school, and they didn’t inform her teacher about it so as to be able to prepare her for that reality. For Betty, this is a symptom of her pregnancy and her own child-like selfishness, but for Don it’s because he’s so focused in controlling and organizing his own life that he really doesn’t know how to care for his daughter in the process.
Don ultimately didn’t want all of this responsibility, didn’t want to feel like he has all of this pressure. It’s not that he didn’t want to help Peggy when she gave birth and needed guidance on what to do about it, or that he doesn’t love Betty or Sally, but rather that he has trouble balancing obligation with how he really feels. He lies to Betty about who was on the phone because it was Sally’s teacher, sharing a moment about their early childhood experiences with death that reveals a vulnerability in Don’s past that he hasn’t shared with anyone else. We saw Don fall in with Rachel in the first season as a way for him to be with someone with whom he could share things and with whom he could reveal his vulnerabilities, and perhaps the teacher is another such outlet. At the same time, is that really taking care of the people who he realizes do rely on him, who can see through the fog that he’s in a position to assist them and just can’t pull it together? It’s not that he’s incapable of doing it, as we see him cooking a late night snack and endearing himself to his daughter quite well as they bond over the properties of eggs – he just doesn’t do it very often, scared of being too close to a family situation that reminds him of his own? I don’t even know, getting into Don’s head is just a whole can of worms.
The scene with Peggy was perhaps my favourite in the episode for how it brought together the more tragic parts of her story. She takes a lunch with Duck Phillips, returned from the grave wearing a turtleneck and everything, because she’s upset with her pay and how her secretary treats her, and all Don can suggest is that she get a cheaper secretary so their pay grades are further apart. In that moment, Don is having to negotiate his own desire to help Peggy with Lane calling him out for not particularly being a team player, and his way of doing it is giving up any sort of personal connection. But Peggy sees the little booties, and thinks back to when she could have shamed Pete Campbell into marrying her, when she could have had a son of her own that she could have held and for whom someone like Don would have picked up booties. She’s thinking about what she missed out on (family, purpose) in order to sit at this job with no future while anyone and everyone (including Duck) is telling her that this is her time to shine, to emerge and break through in a new way. And while we don’t want Peggy to leave Sterling Cooper because of how familiar it is to us, part of the show’s tension is that Duck is right: Sterling Cooper is never going to change, and for someone like Peggy the sky is the limit elsewhere…potentially. At the same time, she’s only in the position she is in because of Don, and while he can’t get her anywhere further that doesn’t mean that she’s find the same kind of mentor and supporter in the outside world (especially not in Duck, who we know has motives beyond picking up some talented employees for his new agency.
Some part of us expects that Pete will take the deal and run, considering that qualities like loyalty aren’t normally considered to be high on his to-do list. However, if you look back, you’ll remember that Pete was one of the people who kept Duck from taking complete control (although falling under his wing at least initially), so he goes into that meeting with a lot of skepticism. Duck is right about Pete too: he’s stuck sharing a job with someone he feels is beneath him, and his new ideas (including here his idea of appealing directly to an African American market for Admiral television) are not lining up with the men in charge. It’s funny that a week after the ethics of taking candy from a baby (in other words, money from a rich trustee) were debated with all seriousness, advertising directly to African Americans is treated with such distain and outright dismissal from Sterling and Cooper. Lane, who is only concerned with the bottom line, thinks it’s a fine idea, but it’s clear that he’s not going to be able to make such changes at Sterling Cooper without a changing of the guard (an inadvertent British pun, I assure you). Pete is trapped with new (logical) ideas in a time when that isn’t allowed, and he has reason to bolt as well. However, he also has reason to stay for the own connections he’s made there (Don might not feel the same way, but he certainly looks to him as a surrogate father figure), which puts the future of Sterling Cooper (and its less than smooth transition into a different advertising age) into the spotlight.
Overall, it’s certainly the most plot-heavy episode of the season yet, bringing Betty’s pregnancy to an end and introducing Duck into the mix as a bit of the past returning to complicate the present. The season to this point has been the aftermath of last season, its effects lingering on the characters months later, but there’s a sense now that the threats are new, and that the events that transpire from this point forward will be a different sort of challenge. And for Don Draper, he’s still in the fog struggling to figure out how he can stay on top of this masquerade of a life he lives – he may have been able to fool the prison guard, but he isn’t fooling Betty, or Peggy, or to a certain extent Sally. And what Don does when he stops fooling people (or, when they stop fooling themselves in some instances) is something we haven’t seen a great deal of, which should make the remainder of this season quite interesting.
- I don’t think I’ve groaned more in a long time than when the Elevator operator told Pete that “Every job has its ups and downs.” It was a really intriguing scene, with Pete meaning so much well and just being far too awkward for it, but that line nearly drove me up the wall. I did enjoy how, in the end, Pete kind of wins him over, calling him out for claiming he never watches his T.V. when he must enjoy a baseball game every now and then.
- I enjoy that Don never thought to bring alcohol to either of Betty’s earlier labour periods. It seems like such a Don Draper thing to do, but perhaps because it’s so much a part of that side of his persona he avoided adopting it in his personal life.
- It is never explicitly discussed, but interesting to see that Salvatore’s expense receipt from a business trip he and Don took is $12 more – could this be Don assisting Sal in indulging in a different side of his identity, or simply a sign of Sal’s high class tastes and Don’s more frugal nature? It is also never mentioned if this is the trip to Baltimore, in which case the extra money could be the tip he gave the bellhop.
- There are some actresses that it takes you a while to place: meanwhile, I wasn’t even looking at the screen and knew that Yeardley Smith (the voice of Lisa Simpson) was playing the nurse at the hospital.
- “Our worst fears lie in anticipation” is a really interesting and false statement from Don: he’s so caught up in his past and maintaining a lie that he can’t anticipate big changes, and the real fear for these people is the unknown of Kennedy’s assassination which is preparing to destroy the social fabric of the nation.
- Glad to see Anne Dudek back as Francine, if only for a brief moment.
- For other reviews, check out Alan Sepinwall, The A.V. Club, James Poniewozik, Maureen Ryan, and Tim Goodman.