Mad Men – “Wee Small Hours”

madmen2“Wee Small Hours”

October 11th, 2009

“I can’t do this all by myself”

Sally’s teacher, sitting in Don’s car in the middle of the night, says that she is going to read her new class “I Have a Dream” on the first day back to school. However, she also indicates that they already know it: I don’t think she’s insinuating that they’ve heard the speech, but rather that there is something in child-like innocence that embraces the image of a dream and of a better future.

The entirety of “Wee Small Hours” is not about civil rights at all, but it is about characters confronting the demons in their past in an effort to move into the future. For Don Draper, a new relationship begins to mirror an old one, and for Salvatore Romano a long-standing response has suddenly put his career into jeopardy. And then there’s Betty Draper, wide-eyed and naive to the point of childhood, and let applying her innocence less to an understanding of Dr. King and more to a petulant child who wants what she can’t have but then doesn’t want it once she has it.

It’s yet another installment in a compelling but slow-paced series of episodes, ones which feel designed to show these characters searching the depths of their emotions and not quite sticking the landing, so to speak.

Don’s relationship with Conrad Hilton is an element of the season that here finally reached its breaking point in terms of remaining all that interesting, although by design – at exactly the same moment when Don begins to grow tired of the late night phone calls and the mixed signals, we begin to grow tired of them as well. There is something inherently fascinating about this relationship on paper, a well-known businessman (and eccentric) taking over Don’s life in an effort to either drive him into working for him or simply use him in some capacity. However, in practice, the relationship goes as most of Don’s do, eventually devolving (or evolving, I guess) into a paternalistic relationship that only makes Don feel inadequate all over again. One moment, in the middle of the night, Hilton tells Don that he’s more than a son to him; the next time we see him, he’s horribly disappointed with Don’s work on the campaign, suggesting that he asked for the Moon and Don didn’t take him literally. Don ends up feeling so emasculated by the experience that he shifts from trying to please Hilton to using his penchant for late night phone calls as an excuse to head to the home of Sally’s teacher and seduce her.

She is right when she points out that he’s never done it like this before, so closely mixed his home life and his extra-marital activities. He’s had affairs, of course, but they were affairs that were born more out of his work than his family, a distinction more important than perhaps he realizes. However, in this instance, the damage that drives him to this point is family-related, stemming from his tumultuous past, so it’s perhaps most logical to him if he finds solace in someone who is related to images of childhood, who shares an innocent view of the world while remaining wise to his intentions. Don is being reckless in this situation, without question, but it’s an effort to regain control of something in his life. That final shot of Don holding her in bed is not some sort of post-coital pride or anything else: it’s Don needing someone to hold, needing someone to feel close to while he’s being pushed away by the other people in his life.

The scene with Salvatore and Don chatting is intriguing for us because we know that Don knows, and that Don passes judgment although not in so many words. His only suggestion is that Salvatore keep it out of his work, to some extent, and yet here we are with Don more or less suggesting that he should have had sex with Lee Garner Jr. if it had kept all of this business from emerging into the open. Sal was doing what Don told him, in some ways, staying true to his marriage and to the facade he puts on every day. However, in doing so, he risked the client, making Don essentially question whether “you people” can possibly function with subterfuge in this business or any business. Sal gets punished for denying himself what he most desires, a situation that drives him to call his wife late at night from a dark park, likely cruising now that he has no job and no fancy commercial direction job to hold him back.

Betty’s dalliance with Henry is the kind of storyline that feels the slowest if only because Betty has been here before. In Season One it was the washing machine, and in Season Two it was both the mechanic and eventually a consummation with Captain Awesome in the back room at a bar. We’ve seen Betty go down this road before, and in this instance all we saw was Betty’s attempt to maneuver within the relationship. She, like Don, wants to be in control, but she wants the thrill of having Henry come to the house to see her (after all, Don wants nothing to do with the fundraiser). She becomes a petulant child when she sits waiting by the door for Henry, and all but brushes off his boss in the process. When she heads to his office, it’s to throw a cash box at her for slighting her so dearly, but he was only being logical: she’s married, and he can’t just show up at her house. Of course, his plan goes to pot when Betty refuses to continue the relationship once she realizes that it can only happen behind closed doors.

It’s highly hypocritical, when you think about it: she loved when they were being clandestine with the letters, and the idea of them meeting under her own roof made her extremely happy, but the office is disgusting and a hotel room would be tawdry. I don’t think it’s as simple as to say that she isn’t capable of having an affair (after all, she did go through with the altercation at the end of last season). Rather, it’s as if she wants to have complete control, and wants to be able to have it be part of her home life. For us, Carla’s knowledge of the Henry’s visit is a ticking time bomb, but Betty tells Don about her scheme she concocted (which even Henry didn’t think she’d go through with) and tries to take control of the message. It’s like Betty has decided to become her own Public Relations department, and she gets off on it: she loves the idea that she is the puppetmaster and Henry is the puppet, so the second he tries to exert his power she revolts.

At various points, other characters find themselves stuck in the middle of these conflicts. Carla, simply arriving for the afternoon, finds Betty and Henry chatting in the hallway in a way that is less than polite, and is now forced to harbour a secret she wants nothing to do with. Harry, who in his witless fashion receives Garner’s request and does nothing about it, has no idea what Sal’s secret is and yet ends up seeming like an idiot in the process (not to mention Roger and Pete as the account men not quite sure what is going on). Even Don’s relationship with Hilton (which Roger asserts is the employment equivalent to an affair considering how distracted it has him) begins impacting the creative team when the campaign they pitch Don is attacked even when it uses his own tagline. Yes, these situations are frustrating for Don, Sal and Betty, which ultimately drives them to fall into old habits that are either unfulfilling (Betty), adulterous (Don) or socially unacceptable (Sal). But they’re also starting to affect the people around them in a way that is far more dangerous: we know Betty can sit at home and play the housewife, and we know that Don can pull off an affair, but we don’t know that their universes can support it.

I think the episode’s major problem is that, in headlining Don, Sal kind of got minimal coverage of what is a pretty huge life event. He’s the kind of character that can’t handle this kind of event: this is his first time really engaging with these types of feelings, and he is the most emotionally damaged when he hits the episode’s equivalent of rock bottom. He’s the one who I’m worried about, whereas this has happened so many times with Don and Betty that I kind of shrug my shoulders and wait until things hit the fan. One of the season’s problems, if not a major one, has that we’ve been down these roads before, and the storylines for Don and Betty here weren’t a huge help with that. However, what’s happening with Sal is far more interesting and has been long building to this point, so to see it ultimately sidelined (if still highlighted) here was a bit disappointing.

The season’s biggest issue thus far, for me at least, is a lack of bigger issues. Early episodes seemed to err too close to history in some ways, but the issue right now is that the London takeover has all but disappeared for the last few episodes as Conrad Hilton takes over. And, until this episode, Hilton hadn’t really interacted with anyone outside of Don, so it seems almost distracting. We haven’t returned to Peggy and Duck (not that I’m in the rush, but still), we haven’t returned to Moneypenny, and we saw only a brief glimpse of Joan. The show has a lot of balls in the air, but the implication here is that the characters are more interested in their personal lives than their professional ones: last week’s episode was about a weekend, and this week’s episode spent more time in Sterling Cooper yet only when it affected Don or when it was Salvatore’s new job (which doesn’t offer the same office sensibility). It’s not that this results in an uninteresting show, as this was undoubtedly compelling and well-made television. However, I find the show most interesting when it offers thematic parallels between the public and the private.

A solid outing, but definitely read to head into the home stretch of the final set of episodes.

Cultural Observations

  • I think seeing the episode so soon after “Souvenir” almost hurt it: it made it seem like more should have changed when it didn’t, and since I wasn’t as enamoured with that episode as some others I think I went into this one from a different perspective.
  • Pete attempting to smoke and failing miserably was two things: first, it was hilarious, and second it was another sign that he’s ahead of the times in terms of the health risks involved.
  • Also on the humour scale was “Now that I can finally understand you, I am less impressed with what you have to say.”
  • Hilton’s rash speech about communists and about implying that Hilton is a way for America to take over the world with their godliness was a whole lot of ideology for Don to be able to handle: he managed it pretty well, only to have the moon get in the way. That “You’re my angel” line is going to take some time to sink in, it has some strange implications.


Filed under Mad Men

2 responses to “Mad Men – “Wee Small Hours”

  1. Pingback: Catch Up on Mad Men Season Three | Tired and Bored With Myself

  2. Pingback: Catch up: Mad Men – Season 3 | No Flipping

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