“The Gypsy and the Hobo”
October 25th, 2009
“Where do you want me to start?”
Writing these reviews has been a strange experience this season, as the critics are all receiving screeners which means that by the time I get to the episode on iTunes (no cable/satellite provider in my province carries the channel) I’m invariably late to the party. As such, you see that I resisting using perhaps the show’s most “on the nose” final line in its history, as Carlton asks Don who he is supposed to be for Halloween as he takes Sally and Bobby out trick or treating. It’s the kind of line that everyone has already jumped on, to the point where I will simply acknowledge it was a clever reminder of the act he’s been playing for the better part of his adult years and move on.
What’s interesting about “The Gypsy and the Hobo” is that we’re now at the end of October, which means that the series’ handling of the single most important event of 1963 is just over the horizon. What’s most interesting at this point is how concerned the show is with the past during a time when we, as the audience, know how concerned they should be for the future. What the episode depicts is how it is only at a point of desperation, when you see everything in front of your eyes melting away, that you truly turn to the past in a way that is both vulnerable and enlightening. It is only when you see no future ahead of you that you’re willing to open the pandora’s box of the past, or in this instance unlock a drawer.
It makes for an enormously compelling episode that demonstrates how moments you thought would be explosive turn out to be the exact opposite, while moments which may have normally been handled with grace turn into a vase over the back of the head. Such is Mad Men, and such is a pretty damn fine episode.
I want to start with Greg Harris, who we as an audience despise in a way that has us cheering when Joan turns and smashes a vase over his head in response to his claims that she couldn’t possibly understand what he’s going through. His inability to decipher the fact that his current life situation, having done everything he was supposed to without doing it well enough to succeed, in many ways mirrors Joan’s own expectations for their marriage, a doctor in his prime turning into a rapist and a failure in just over a year, is yet another example of how he has failed her. Not only that, but Joan had her own experience with a similar phenomenon at Sterling Cooper, having been ideally suited for a job in the growing TV department only to be shuffled away from the job and back into her Officer Manager role based entirely on stereotypes. She, more than perhaps anyone else on the show, knows what it is like to go through what he is going through, and yet there he sits complaining bitterly after botching an interview for which she had trained him. As such, the vase to the back of the head, the kind of moment that keeps you on the edge of your seat during a show that rarely explodes with that sort of violence.
What I found interesting about Greg’s storyline here though, beyond Joan’s awesome vase to the head, was that he is proving to be quite versatile for the writers. When he eventually decides to enroll in the army to become a surgeon, a light bulb goes off: Vietnam has been mentioned a few times in a somewhat contrived fashion, but in Greg’s decision to enlist we have our first real connection to the coming storm of sorts. It implies that Joan will be staying with him, which is frustrating for us as viewers who would rather see him rot for what he did to her, but I’m willing to put up with it if it gives us a glimpse into the impacts of what was one of the defining conflicts of the era. And, on top of that, Greg’s mock interview with Joan was a fine example of one of the show’s central themes. Faced with his career crisis, and preparing for the interview, he digs into his past to discover that his father once entered into therapy, a fact he never shared with Joan (or really anyone, it seems). He explains that the furniture business was bad, and his mother left the house for a while, which had his father seeking guidance. While he eventually tanks the interview, unable to turn his past into a future, it shows how there are things which only surface (or which you only let surface) when you feel you have no other choice.
The same storyline is at the heart of the arrival of Annabelle Mathis to Sterling Cooper, a blast from the past for Roger. She’s a client, at the end of the day, with a dog food company that’s been singled out as using horse meat despite it being the primary component of all other dog foods. As a result, her family’s business is dying, and widowed she goes to Madison Avenue looking for a new marketing strategy and to reconnect with Roger at Sterling Cooper in particular. It’s an interesting storyline because you can tell that these people haven’t spoken to each other since their own Casablanca moment as they went their separate ways, not so much out of love as they were out of each other’s lives. Now, with her husband dead and her business in shambles, she goes to Roger in an effort to ensure a future by reconnecting with her past, perhaps believing that fixing a mistake in her past (that she would have never admitted was a mistake until she became desperate) could fix the rest of her life at the same time. When Roger’s advice is the same as everyone else’s, to change the name of her company and give up the past for a fresh start unhindered by research and heralded for its taste dogs love, it’s her past falling apart in front of her eyes, a romantic evening (that she doesn’t remember) the only evidence of her futile attempts to use the past to fix the future.
It’s a theme that all culminates in the scene that to some degree came out of nowhere, even when it has been building for three seasons. I never thought we’d get what we ended up getting, Don Draper standing in front of Betty with his eyes glazed over as she asks for the truth behind what was hidden in that drawer. What made the scene so disarming was how strangely it came to be: Don, still in his carefree mode with Suzanne, is planning a weekend away without any sort of subterfuge from Betty, while Betty was at Gene’s sorting out the division of his estate. And yet one conversation with her father’s lawyer, Milton, drives Betty to do something I never expected. Milton’s advice to her is that her hunch that there are other women isn’t enough, and that considering Don’s wealth and power she could be on the streets with nothing, not even her kids, should she attempt to divorce him. It’s a cold dose of reality, one which Betty bottled up last week (when Don called her about the dinner and she was forced to avoid the confrontation) and which some part of me, underestimating her, felt she would bottle up again. But when Don walks into what he thinks is an empty house in order to pick up some things for his trip with Suzanne, he finds his two children running up to the door, and Betty waiting for him. They are going to have the confrontation we’ve been waiting for, and it’s going to be about as stunning as one would expect.
It wasn’t, though, how I had imagined the scene playing out. Perhaps it is just habit, but I had expected for Betty to almost be the victim in the situation, for her prying into Don’s life to unearth some sort of anger in him that makes his past a violent weapon against her. But instead, Betty is the aggressor in this situation: she makes demands, something the character has rarely done in the past, refusing to let him get away without opening the drawer and not once balking at her lack of comprehension of the information within the drawer. She even argues that some part of him wanted her to know about what was in the drawer, considering that he left it in their house and knew that she could bring in a locksmith any time she wanted. She essentially argues that deep down, despite all of his efforts to keep his hidden life a secret from those around him, some part of him purposefully left those keys in his housecoat and wanted to share with Betty the details of his past. And to my surprise, we discover that the idea of Betty knowing any one part of his life puts the entire future on hold: the past he has been holding onto for so long comes out, as Betty is patient enough to hear as he tells of his time in Korea, and the life (and wife) he inherited.
Those scenes are a stunning piece of acting from January Jones and, especially, Jon Hamm. It’s unfortunate that the rest of the episode was a bit light on Don, because this is an Emmy reel waiting to happen. When he tells of his time in Korea, you can see him begin to grimace, but when Betty asks about Adam everything breaks down. You can see the vulnerability where before there was a stoic commitment to guarding this secret, and the opening scenes of the premiere with Don barefoot in his kitchen imagining his own birth are thrown into full view. His life story is a tragedy so deep that, when told out loud, it breaks down even the unflappable Don Draper to the point where he becomes neither Dick Whitman or Don Draper but some sad man caught between the past of one and the future of the other. He’s given up his past to the person who he knew couldn’t handle it, pointing out that there was no good time to tell your wife that she’s marrying a bastard child who stole a man’s identity and who lives a lie every day of his life.
And yet, what we see in the end is Don giving up parts of his act in order to try to redefine his relationship with Betty. Where Greg and Annabelle both find that the past proves unhelpful at best and damaging at worst, Don finds that they actually make Betty more balanced than she was before. Her opinion of him has changed, but in a way it has helped her understand him better, a transparency that drives Don to leave Suzanne in both the literal and metaphorical cars and to take time to reconnect with his family. Before, Don probably would have let Betty take the kids trick or treating on her own, just as Betty might have let Don take Sally and Bobby while she watched over the baby. However, now, both have reason to stay close to the other, Betty reconsidering his every move from a perspective that is less paranoid than it is wary and Don afraid of losing the life he’s built now that someone knows his secret. It all plays out without that explosion one might expect, and without anything actually changing: Betty learned that her husband has been wearing a Halloween costume his whole life, and yet it actually seems to make her more comfortable (feeling more a part of his life, often separated from her entirely) than it does driving her away.
It’s all a very subtle evocation of some key themes in this universe, and deftly handled by all involved. The episode wasn’t the most comprehensive, fairly neatly dividing into these three storylines as it were, but at its heart was acknowledging how important the past can seem, and how its importance is called into question when it emerges in the present and is thrust towards the future. It’s the ideal episode to enter into the final two hours of the season, as we’re reminded of what the season has established to this point while being reminded (by Vietnam, by the end of October arriving) that we’re closing in on what is bound to be interesting. There’s a point where Annabelle says that Roger is living life as if a character in someone else’s novel, and that fictional reality is about to be shattered by more than just a surfacing past.
- As always, a great comic beat in the middle of an otherwise dramatic episode: as Don asks Peggy to “turn off” the focus group when the dog owners react angrily when they learn the dog food is Caldecott Farms, she responds incredulously with “I can’t turn it off, it’s actually happening!” I love naive Peggy, and literal Peggy, so her ignorance to Don meaning the sound was a whole lot of fun.
- I don’t quite know how Joan feels about Greg joining the army. On the one hand, he’s right: it provides financial security, and at this point there’s no war going on which makes it a safe bet. However, a surgeon in the army is far from being an actual doctor, and Joan’s drop in status from a doctor’s wife to a soldier’s wife isn’t exactly what she could consider a step up. Her quest to get a job, perhaps acknowledging that his attempts to get into psychiatry would even fail (although more training was a justified reason as well), runs through Roger and reminds us that she is good at what she does, and that Roger cares enough about her (as another part of his past) for him to try to good by her.
- The scene of Suzanne finally, what seemed like a good hour or two later, leaving the car and walking off with her suitcase, was enormously sad, the kind of scene that makes you realize that all of Don’s mistresses are going to end up like this. She fell in love with him, wanting more than he could offer, and while it didn’t make him run away as it might have with others it did make him that much more guilty when Betty discovered everything, pushing Suzanne out of the picture.
- Love how Betty sits silently as her brother realizes that because he has no money, he has no way of buying Betty out of the other half of the house and thus no way to be able to live in it as he wants – she’s very happy about that, beneath her anxiety over Don.
- As always, other critics have this one covered: check out Sepinwall, Goodman, Roush, Phipps, and Ryan.