“The Beautiful Girls”
September 19th, 2010
Based on its title and a number of the discussions which emerged within the episode, “The Beautiful Girls” feels like a particular gesture towards the women who are often central to the series. And yet, because the episode was so fractured, it doesn’t present itself as a sustained glimpse into any of the female characters central to this story. While Joan, Peggy, Faye, and Sally all face down challenges put before them, all of them end up back where they began: trapped in a loveless marriage, apolitical in a political world, face-to-face with tough choices, and a sad little girl living a life she no longer wants to live.
Regardless of the episode’s argument regarding each character’s struggles, the fact remains that the female characters are the heart of this series, and “The Beautiful Girls” comes together as a sustained statement on their centrality if not a substantial step forward in their individual storylines.
When I say that it coasts, I mean to say that the episode is not what one would call particularly even: while it does have a central theme (the challenges facing women at various ages and in various positions), it’s a loose one, and one which does little to unite the various parts of the episode. How do we reconcile Peggy’s fight for racial equality in Southern auto parts stores with Mrs Blankenships tragicomic death? And how does Joan and Roger’s late night mugging/shagging combination fit with Sally’s unplanned excursion into the big city? The episode is disjointed in a way that the episodes rarely are: even though there was a potential unifying element in terms of the Filmore pitch, that pitch does nothing to connect the various elements of the episode together outside of the fact that it was happening when Blankenship’s body was being wheeled off under Harry’s mother’s afghan.
Should we even be looking for a point of unification? I think that shows like Mad Men, which often feature writerly themes that tie everything together, have trained us to consider things in that light, but sometimes life doesn’t work that way: sometimes someone gets run over by a lawnmower, and sometimes a secretary dies at her desk. The episode was a chain of events that no one could have predicted: Peggy didn’t willfully go out with her politically minded suitor, Joan didn’t intend on being mugged, and if Mrs. Blankenship hadn’t passed away it is entirely possible that Faye and Sally would have never met. And yet all of those scenarios awoke something in each of the women, something that they had repressed in their efforts to move on with their careers or their general lives. Peggy avoid politics because she’s in an industry which doesn’t allow them, and where doing ad campaigns for reprehensible politicians would be a thrill as opposed to a conflict. Joan, meanwhile, fights her feelings for Roger because she refuses to give up on the dream she once believed she had found in marrying Greg. And Faye, having chosen to focus on her career instead of having a family, is thrown into a situation of caring for Sally and feels judged by Don (and by herself) for making that choice.
For Peggy, the experience becomes a lesson: she tries to assert herself politically as they discuss the potential jingle, her subversive suggestion of hiring Harry Belafonte her own way of making a point without comparing Madison Advenue to Nuremberg. Joan, meanwhile, chalks it up to a moment of weakness: in many ways, the “Thank God We’re Alive” sex after the mugging actually disrupts the quiet moment of connection that Joan and Roger share earlier in the episode. Without it, Joan and Roger might have regained some of what makes their relationship so meaningful, but that moment took Joan too far, opening her eyes to the transgression taking place. And Faye, meanwhile, becomes the one to dial things back with Don: a day earlier they had been gallivanting and nearly breaking lamps, but now it’s a weekend dinner date and a mutual understanding that despite a supposed lack of labels or expectations there are some things which are simply unavoidable. They are the intrepid women who have made decisions and ascended to positions higher than they might have imagined, only to find that the view from the top simply allows them to see more clearly the struggles they will face in their new positions.
Sally’s struggles, meanwhile, raise two potential options. First, it brings forward the notion that Sally is part of a new generation and part of a family situation which forces her into these adult struggles at an earlier age than is truly fair. There is no question that Sally is older than her age may seem, perhaps due to how fantastic Kiernan Shipka has been this season, but this episode shows how for every moment of maturity (her demeanor as she played housekeeper for her father) there is a moment of childhood innocence (believing the rum to be Mrs. Butterworth’s). Her final moment is so wrenching because it ultimately boils down to a childhood tantrum, and yet at its core is an honest emotion: Don doesn’t go for Faye because his daughter is out of control, he reaches out to Faye because he knows that at the heart of her struggles are legitimate concerns over a living situation that Don knows is partially his own fault. He doesn’t want to face the idea that he scarred his daughter, that in some way he has made her feel these things, and so her tantrum is something that paralyzes him in a way little else can. It also paralyzes her until she falls on her face in the hallway, and it has the precise opposite effect on Sally than it does the people around her: while everyone else thinks about how sorry they feel for this poor child, Sally realizes that she’s still a kid, and that not falling over when running is the kind of problem she should be facing as opposed to such psychological traumas.
However, the other option is that in many ways this struggle never changes: what if, instead of Sally experiencing these struggles too early, all of the other women are experiencing the same struggles later than seems fair? In many ways the sort of identity crisis which Peggy, Joan and Faye all feel is something which begins in childhood, in particular one’s teenage years; while it remains present for all genders, it seems as if it becomes socialized for women. It goes back to the Filmore campaign, really: as Don argued, in advertising you can’t be two things with an “And” in between. You need to be one thing or another, and being both (whether it’s successful and political, a wife and a lover, or a doctor and a mother) isn’t allowed. While these issues have certainly evolved, is the root of these problems not the liminal position of teenagers between childhood and adulthood?
There is no black and white when it comes to each character’s position here: we want Peggy to have convinctions, but we also want her to have a job, and while we might want Joan to separate from Greg do we want to break up Roger’s marriage at the same time? In a perfect world, we want actualization for each of these characters, but they live in a world which is far from perfect. This is the world that Sally is inheriting, but for now Sally’s world is very small: it’s living in a house where she feels like a victim, a world she wants to escape from. Her father’s world seems full of opportunity, and yet “The Beautiful Girls” showed that the opportunity still has limits. We know that Sally won’t inherit quite the same world that Peggy and Faye are inheriting, that women will in fact stand up for their civil rights, but right now we’re just concerned that she will be so damaged by her current struggles that she won’t have the future she deserves.
This is a world, after all, where Mrs. Blankenship’s ascension from a barn to the 37th Floor of an office building makes her an astronaut – it’s a beautiful little scene as Cooper memorializes his friend (and former lover), but it also reminds us that astronauts don’t stop at the 37th Floor. And yet, as the episode ends with Peggy, Joan and Faye riding the elevator together, they are riding down, not up. And then they will ride up again the next day, repeating the process and reliving the same challenges. Much of Mad Men has been about brushing up against harsh realities and reminding us that nothing we can do can change history: “The Beautiful Girls” did some of this, but these characters (even the relatively new Faye) are compelling enough that it feels less like a plenary lecture and more like a tragicomedy that continues a strong run for the series.
- I don’t think I posted about this on the blog, but I had the pleasure of joining Mo Ryan and Ryan McGee for their weekly Mad Men edition of Talkin’ TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast to discuss “The Summer Man” – give it a listen, although I warn you that I crib from last week’s review in many of my comments.
- In said podcast, we discussed Joan’s Greg, and how we all sort of feel like he’s probably going to die. The fact that he is definitely going to Vietnam feels like a definite step in that direction, but if Joan’s life is truly tragic then this would mean he would return home in perfect health, no?
- Roger noted that he had almost died in his office twice – am I forgetting a particularly life-threatening situation outside of his heart attack?
- I have no idea what Rum-covered French toast would taste like, but it does sound a bit delicious and I like neither rum nor french toast.
- I’ve probably read the Nancy Drew book that Sally was reading, but more importantly: Kiernan Shipka would make a pretty great Nancy Drew in a few years, no?
- Fun fact: when I posted about Matthew Weiner’s fight against spoilers back before the season began, someone posted a “spoiler” from the set that Cooper was going to die in Episode Nine of this season. I passed it off as a clever joke, but it got picked up as a legitimate spoiler by the show’s TWoP forum (Warning: link could have real spoilers), and so I found it funny that someone did actually die in Episode Nine.
- Peggy’s mention of Harry Belafonte sent me to YouTube, where I found his performance of “Turn the World Around” on the Muppet Show, which then led me to his performance of the song at Jim Henson’s Memorial Service, which then made me extremely sad.