Happy Mother’s Day ladies! Sunday’s Mad Men was Matt Weiner’s gift to Moms everywhere. Regardless of your own maternal shortcomings, you can console yourselves that at least you’re not as bad as Betty Draper Francis.
Really, what can be worse than using your own daughter to drive a wedge between your former husband and his new wife? Telling Sally about Don’s first wife, Anna, and then advising her to ask Megan, secretly hoping that Don had kept it a secret from Megan, just as he had kept it hidden from her. She expected this to cause an explosion in the Megan/Don relationship. Which is almost what happened.
What Betty didn’t count on was that Megan is the “girl who can do everything,” as Peggy astutely noted last week. As the only adult in Manhattan, she was able to calm Don’s fury and prevented him from calling and blasting Betty, which was his initial inclination. Instead, Megan continued to help Don travel down the road to becoming a better person and if anything, strengthened Don and Sally’s relationship at Betty’s expense. Upon returning home, Sally then extracted an exquisite measure of revenge by oh-so-innocently informing Betty that Don had told her all about Anna, adding, “Daddy showed me pictures and they spoke very fondly of her.” Betty knows full well who they are NOT speaking fondly of.
That was a great scene, but the show overall was the least excellent and least demanding of the episodes this season. The portentous title of the show, “Dark Shadows,” forecast the presence of evil and darkness, but it had the feel of a soap opera, which is only appropriate since the title comes from the vampire-based soap opera (see below) that debuted in 1966. (And what a coincidence – and I do believe it was a coincidence – that the Johnny Depp movie version of that show opened last weekend.)
You can make the case that evil actually is afoot in “Dark Shadows,” (the Mad Men episode, not the soap opera). The episode shows how envy – one of the seven deadly sins – distorts our personalities and makes us do things we know are wrong. We see Betty trying to move to her good side in the Weight Watchers’ meetings, but she is still overcome by jealousy and competition. In the first meeting she admits to “feeling a lot of things I wish I hadn’t,” a rare expression of emotional maturity, but after the second weigh-in, she is sour and unhappy that the pound-a-week-losing Judy Schechter has lost more weight that she has.
The theme of competition is pretty heavy-handed in “Dark Shadows.” In the very first line of the show Roger explains to Bert that fishing is competition – not because it’s man versus fish as Bert assumes, but because “it’s man vs. man. The weighing and measuring.” Then in the final line of dialogue, when Betty has to reveal what she’s grateful for at Thanksgiving, she says, really, really pathetically, “I’m thankful that I have everything I want. And that no one has anything better.”
In between those two lines we have numerous examples of competition and jealously. Don and Peggy are both competing with Michael Ginsberg. Don actually stays at work on a Sunday night to come up with a creative idea that is better than Michael’s and then presents only his own idea to the client. Betty is competitive and jealous of Megan, with her lithe figure and glamorous apartment. As noted, Betty is also competitive with the other women at Weight Watchers. Roger is competitive with Bernie Rosenberg, the client’s son who is hitting on his estranged wife at dinner. He’s so competitive that he aggressively seeks to have sex with her at her new apartment. Pete is competitive with all the other agencies and is yanked that SCDP don’t appear in a NYT magazine article on ad agencies (an actual piece by Victor Navasky that appeared on November 20, 1966.)
The only one who is not competitive is Megan. Her friend is jealous of her modern apartment and rich husband, but Megan herself seems supportive of her attempts to land the part on the aforementioned Dark Shadows series. She does admit, when the friend is giving her grief about her fortunate situation, “What do you want me to say, that I’d kill for an audition in this piece of crap? I would. Are you happy?” Admitting to that kind of jealousy seems a healthier and more honest way of dealing with it than lobbing the cutting but passive-aggressive remarks that the other characters make.
It surprises me that there are many viewers who don’t like Megan. She’s been on screen more time this year than anyone else, except for Don himself. Until this year, the second-most important plot-line on Mad Men has been Peggy’s story, which exemplifies woman’s struggle for equality. But the Megan story has gained traction this year – she exemplifies not just woman but the new generation who reject the compromises and cynicism of the previous generations. She’s only a few years younger than Peggy but Peggy is from a different era. It’s no surprise that her last line of dialogue – in response to Don’s suggestion that they open the window to cool off the apartment is to note “The air is toxic. I don’t want it in here.” A perhaps too-obvious metaphor for the rotten world that the older generation has built.
By the way, there really was a “killer smog” on November 24, 1966 that killed 400 people. Hats off again to the Mad Men research department:
Some other observations:
· Many Mad Men episodes are rooted firmly in specific moments in history and deal with broad sociological themes. Not with “Dark Shadows.” The themes explored in this show could have occurred on many other television series set in any historical era. The only thing that tied it to the mid-sixties was Weight Watchers, which was formed in 1963. Those meetings, in which the plump ladies are advised that “we should fill ourselves with our children, our homes, our husbands, our happiness,” could not have occurred like that just a few years later, when The Feminine Mystique had penetrated more deeply into the culture.
· Speaking of Weight Watchers, from 1978 to 1999 it was owned by Heinz! It was probably not in the baked beans division, though.
· Megan, I don’t think Sally Draper needs any acting lessons. The girl is a natural at putting on an act to get what she wants or to manipulate her parents. You are playing with fire if you give her any more tips.
· Henry Francis is unhappy because he “backed the wrong horse” in leaving Nelson Rockefeller’s team to join the John Lindsay administration. In the 1966 election there was a major backlash against Lyndon Johnson (one that paralleled the 2010 backlash against Barack Obama) in which Rockefeller, George Romney and Ronald Reagan all won gubernatorial elections by huge margins. Henry thinks that Rocky will run for president, but Betty is more astute for once in noting that Rocky’s divorce makes him an unpalatable presidential candidate. In fact, Rocky initially supported Romney as the candidate from the moderate wing of the GOP but jumped into the race in February 1968 after Romney faltered in New Hampshire. Although he finished second at the GOP convention, there was no chance that he would be nominated. Of course if backing the right horse is what’s important to Henry, he should be making inquiries right about now with Richard Nixon.
· In Michael Ginsburg’s “Sno Ball” portfolio there are several references to pigs. This refers to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which the protagonist is named Snowball. Here’s a relevant quotation from the book, which might actually interest Betty Draper Francis: “The animals were happy as they had never conceived it possible to be. Every mouthful of food was an acute positive pleasure, now that it was truly their own food, produced by themselves and for themselves, not doled out to them by a grudging master.”
· How many ways can Roger Sterling make anti-Semitic jokes? When told that he needs to meet the heads of the Manischewitz wine company and to bring his “Semitic wife” because they are obviously Jewish, he asks “How Jewish are they? Fiddler on the Roof – audience or cast?” Then in explaining the business opportunity to Michael Ginsberg, he manages to make three anti-Semitic remarks in one paragraph: “They make wine for Jews and now they’re making it for normal people. You know, for people like me. They’re open to everything. It has to be cheap – surprise – but impactful. Bring me a couple of your best ideas by sundown Friday. [pause] I have done a little research.”
Finally, I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, when are they going to start dealing with race relations in a major way? This was a bigger topic in previous years that in this season. They obviously hired Dawn, the black secretary, to make a point, but I just can’t believe that the whole civil rights saga, the most important issue of the sixties other than the Vietnam war, will continue to fly under the radar.
Don’t forget. It’s every man for himself. On Mad Men it sure is.