October 4th, 2009
“But I already did it…it’s over!”
As far as Mad Men episodes go, “Souvenir” was almost obnoxiously low impact. This isn’t to say that the episode was bad, or even uninteresting: rather, instead of seeming like an episode where things are languishing at a slow pace, there are some pretty substantial events (an affair, a trip to Rome) that happen so quickly and naturally in the episode that you almost miss the moment when they go from an innocent fantasy to something entirely different.
There’s a little throwaway line in the episode when we meet up with Joan, when we learn that Greg is searching for a new discipline, psychiatry in particular. The entire episode is essentially one giant lesson in the effects of loneliness, as our our resident emotional (Betty) and emotionless (Pete) protagonists take a leap of faith or two in an effort to find themselves. The result is an intriguing investigation of the summer vacation, albeit from a perspective that doesn’t precisely play to the show’s strengths.
The show has been a bit heavy on Peggy and Don as of late, giving them both quite a lot to do in a fairly major way, so it makes sense for us to start seeing a bit more of Pete. However, I find that there is something almost inhuman about Pete that makes this storyline a tough sell. We don’t really have any sense that Pete is a moralistic person, considering what we know about his past, so for him to become so lonely home alone (with Trudy off on vacation without him) and bribe his way into a German nanny’s pants is not really telling us anything new. As a parallel to Betty’s storyline, where she goes with Don on his vacation and in the process comes to regain some of her relationship with her husband, it was an interesting counterpoint, but the end revelation (Pete being overwhelmed by guilt, and deciding that the solution is that Trudy never go on vacation alone again) didn’t really hit for me. Kartheiser is as good as ever in the role, but this isn’t a likeable character and I didn’t feel much empathy for his seduction of the nanny even considering his inability to express his emotions or control his libido.
As noted, the Betty side of things was more interesting. After using the Governor’s man to get their way with the Resevoir, and then letting him kiss her as she headed home from the event, Betty is flying high in a way that wasn’t being satisfied being left at home as Don jets off to Dallas and everywhere else at Conrad Hilton’s request. But when she travels with Don on the trip to Italy, a bellboy lights her cigarette for her in the lobby and all of a sudden she’s on top of the world in a different way. As she and Don roleplay, her the young Italian-speaking American and he the traveler in town on business for only one night who wants to woo her, she’s getting everything she needs: she’s the centre of attention, still comfortable with Don but playing the field in a way she hadn’t before. The episode ultimately indicates that it was Betty being freed by her extra-marital activities (where Pete was comparatively paralyzed with grief) that gave her this sudden boost, but when Betty returns from vacation she indicates that she’s done getting Rockefeller’s man to help her. When Don lights her cigarette as the bell boy had done, it’s like she’s suddenly viewing home as one big hotel, and the world as her room service.
When she sits down with Sally to explain to her what was wrong with her behaviour, she has it all wrong. Sally, of course, was combining her temper (not unlike her father’s, in some ways) and her observation of her mother. The scene of Betty putting on lipstick with Sally standing in the mirror with her, the former paying no attention to the latter, was quite telling: Sally is emulating her to a tea, and in her mind kissing Ernie and playing that role was something to do. The discussion of a first kiss leads Sally to note that her first kiss is suddenly over, but Betty tells her that a first kiss defines an entire relationship. Considering that she spent the Italy trip creating a roleplaying scenario wherein she and Don got to share a first kiss all over again, it’s clear that her juvenile sense of romanticism remains far more dominant than it should be. She is naive about what, precisely she’s doing, but until the episode’s final moment she’s perfectly fine with that.
However, when Don presents her that little token to put on her bracelet, everything changes. It’s something to remind her not of how great the trip was, but that it was a trip: it was a fantasy that can’t be maintained, two days that won’t matter in just a few moments. Everything they shared there won’t matter once they return home, a home where things are anything but simple. What was supposed to be a chance for her to regain power and control in her relationship was all superseded by a little trinket that Don uses to memorialize a past event Betty wanted to believe was still ongoing. It makes one realize that a vacation, more often that not, can result in a state of euphoria (or a state of depression or anger for those left behind) that will fade away once it ends, giving a false rekindling of previous emotions. Whether it will send Betty returning to her most recent first kiss is yet unknown, but the storyline meandered along at just enough of a pace to keep things moving without things really sticking with me. It might be that she went even further with Captain Awesome, the aftermath of which we never really got to see (and the circumstances of which were never quite investigated as much as we might like), but there’s something about it that just didn’t connect.
And since we saw so little of the rest of the cast, spotting Sterling Cooper only for a brief few moments, it all felt a little slight. Joan and Pete’s meeting was, of course, the episode’s highlight. In that moment, Pete knows that Joan is smart enough to figure out that the dress isn’t Trudy’s, and that something strange is afoot. However, Joan knows that Pete has discovered that she is still working when she was supposed to be heading home to be a dutiful mother and wife, meaning that something is wrong in her own life. Both are harbouring secrets, and as a result their meeting is far more pleasant than it would ever be in an office context, gossiping about moneypenny and nearly devolving to discussing the weather and the local sports team. It was the kind of character dynamic that the rest of the episode lacked when it was so isolated within the two storylines that connected more on a broad thematic level than directly.
- Liking the additional Anne Dudek this season: I think Francine is a really interesting counterpoint to Betty at points, a far simpler character that has gone through many things similar to Betty (adultery, pregnancy) but in a way that always returns to the status quo in a way Betty struggles to.
- Not sure what to make of the idea that Betty’s efforts with the governor’s man are undone (as the Trustees call an emergency meeting) when Betty is in Rome: does this imply that she isn’t capable of balancing both sides of her life without consequences, or simply an example of government bureaucracy being too much for mere mortals to handle?
- I don’t mind when the show just drops us down into these moments, but I wish we had learned more about why precisely Don is being flown around everywhere. I understand that we’re supposed to be seeing it from Betty’s perspective, and as a result it’s as if Don is being ordered around for no reason as opposed to so he can “understand” the hotel experience. It’s a really weird dynamic that I feel needed more of an introduction, Betty’s point of view be damned.
- Pete’s neighbour was awfully understanding of what was bordering on rape – the idea seemed to be that he should take his philandering out of the building so as to limit the general damages, but I was expecting him to deck him or something else in that scene. Just goes to show you how the series enjoys playing with the hypocrisy of it all at times.
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