Mad Men 5×09: “Dark Shadows”

My mom once told me that she can understand where Betty Draper is coming from (we had this around the start of Season Three, hence the “Draper”) because my mom was born about the same time as Sally and grew up with it.  Of course, my mother was the fourth children of eight, and her parents had no money.  The Draper children come from a more privileged background than my mother did.  I’m not saying that automatically should make Betty nicer as much as I’m saying.

Still, though, in “Public Relations”—another Thanksgiving episode!—Big Mama Francis tells Henry that Sally and Bobby are afraid of their mother.  And we know now that Grandma Pauline is not a maternal role model.  To have her criticize Betty’s parenting is like the kiss of death to any argument that Betty is a good mother.

I’ve seen quite a bit of Betty-love online, and I can’t sympathize with Betty.  I couldn’t in any season, on her path from child-in-an-adult’s-body in Season One until now.  Season Two Betty was probably the most sympathetic incarnation of Betty—her mini-nervous breakdown, kicking Don out, and then wondering about having an abortion were her greatest character moments. Since then, she’s had some okay moments, but she’s just become cruel.  And now she’s fat and still cruel.  I don’t think the show is making a joke out of her weight, per se, but when she saw Megan naked and booked it to the whipped cream, I wanted to say, “Really?”   I don’t disagree with her Weight Watchers venture or her miniscule serving sizes.  If anything, those made her more sympathetic—who wouldn’t lash out at everyone if that was their Thanksgiving dinner?  The whipped cream was a cliché; a perfect distillation of the way the show ends up treating Betty.

I’m getting tired of Betty as The Vengeful Ex.  She asked for the divorce right around Thanksgiving of 1963, meaning it’s been three years since she divorced Don.  The head-games are getting old.  I don’t think that the show excuses Don’s behavior and not Betty’s—Don isn’t exactly portrayed as infallible to say the very least.  She reads a note from Don to Megan and decides that the best thing to do would be to crunch her celery and plant the seed of doubt into Sally’s head about her Don and Megan’s trustworthiness.  I feel like at every turn, the writers just make Betty more and more fucked up, undoing any work toward her character becoming sympathetic.  In “Tea Leaves,” after the emotional roller coaster of the cancer scare, she snapped at Henry when he told her he loved her.  In this episode, we have a great moment that shows her and Henry together .  There’s never an explanation at the bottom; it seems to boil down to “that’s Betty’s personality” and wait until the next time she abuses her kids or something.  I don’t think there’s anything that exciting below the surface of Betty, either.  And, of course, it would feel cheesy if she just blurted out the problem and everyone lived in harmony for the rest of their days.  The more her motivations to be nasty involve Don, the less invested I become as a viewer.

Sally becomes an unwitting pawn in Betty’s head games—or at least unwitting for the first part of the episode.  It’s pretty scary to see shades of Betty in Sally.  It was a pretty sudden switch; her tongue was sharp when she went toe-to-toe with Megan and then with Don regarding Anna Draper being Don’s first wife.  But turning around and sticking it right to Betty was terrifying and great.  I used to hate Sally and now I love her.

The other major plot point has to do with Don slipping creatively.  I do like that this episode shows how hard he works on advertising itself; this was apparent in the first season in episodes such as “The Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Ladies’ Room,” and “The Wheel,” but since around that time Don continues to be preternaturally good at his job.  Sure, Don has had failures with clients, but I can’t remember feeling that the conference room magic of Don’s presentations is ever diminished by the client’s opinion.  The viewer is always set up to believe that whenever the client doesn’t like a campaign, it doesn’t make Don’s work any worse; it just makes the client wrong.  (My mind is half in Westeros right now, so if you can think of a counterexample, please comment below.)  Don went too far last season in “Waldorf Stories” when he tried to pitch to Life Cereal on a wing, a prayer, a Clio, and an incalculable amount of booze.

Up until this season, Don’s heir to the creative throne was Peggy.  Last season (and at the end of Season Three), Don and Peggy had spats over her work, but it was presented more as Don being a Mean Old Drunk than necessarily an issue with Peggy’s work.  But with the Heinz debacle, there can be no mistake that Peggy might be losing her touch.  (Has she had a good campaign since then?  I don’t think so.)  This episode shows Don actually working for a campaign.  And it’s a campaign for young people in a season where we keep being reminded that Don Is Old.  Seeing Don riff on the “sin” of Pepsi Snowball was painful enough, but then the sleazy trajectory he takes was even worse.  This was the time when I’ve enjoyed Don swinging his dick around the least.  By which I mean, the lines were great when Ginsberg confronted him in the elevator, but the act itself of “accidentally” leaving Ginsberg’s campaign in the cab was very un-Draper.  Back in Season One, in “New Amsterdam,” he tries to get Pete fired for Pete pitching an idea to a client and thus ruining Don’s.  And while Don and Ginsberg are both in the same department (and, if Peggy’s complaints from Season Four are to be believed, credit for an idea or copy is a murky issue at SCDP), it’s still a dirty thing to do and Don knows it.  This isn’t as perversely enjoyable as Don’s tumble into alcoholism in Season Four.  It just feels…dirty.

I’m really enjoying the show’s treatment of Roger lately.  I’m especially excited that Roger is still going to be at war with Pete, but it’s going to be Super LSD Roger.  I always love watching Roger bust out his Account Man finesse.  I love Sad Roger feeling bad for ruining Jane’s new apartment.  I loved Roger finally acknowledging he has to keep less money in his pockets.

Pete, in the meantime, thinks he’s going to get written up in the Times, we have to endure a sexual fantasy about it (of course, it involves Beth).  And then he doesn’t get written up.  Last weekend I think I was under the spell of Alexis Bledel’s eyes.  This time around, I was struck by how terrible her acting was.  I hope it was just that it was Pete’s fantasy.  Stop hiring pretty, wooden actresses, Mad Men!

And….no one really cares about Megan being an actress.  Her scene with her friend auditioning for “Dark Shadows” seemed like a throwaway.

The season’s dénouement begins with poison in the air.  IN CASE YOU DIDN’T GET THE METAPHOR.

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