Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mad Men: Ladies Room (1.2)

Even before the episode fades out on a lingering shot of an oven, Sylvia Plath weighs down heavily on the character of Betty Draper. Betty leads the superficially ideal existence for '60s females: a carefree wife and mother, pristine homemaker, married to a successful businessman, and affluent enough to have hired help to take care of the dirty work. She spends her days cooking and cleaning and yakking with friends, waiting for the time in which she can pick her children up from school, and preparing her husband a meal for his return home from that big job in the city. But there's an anxious temperament slowly creeping into Betty's life, manifesting itself as a series of hand spasms along with a tendency to break down in bursts of nervousness and fear. One of the largest themes in Ladies Room is the idea of happiness, and how it should be so easy to experience... once you reach a certain point in your life or consume enough material riches. It's an idea that crosses beautifully with Betty herself, somebody so outward in joy, but rapidly crumbling beneath the surface.

While she's suffering, Betty hasn't yet hit that wall of negativity just yet. She's very much at this point a woman longing to be closer to her husband, her emotions ever-present and not yet entirely numb. She works almost like a flickering lightbulb, pro-active about her desire to enter therapy and talkative and romantic in public, but susceptible to completely shutting down. There's this uneasy cross of dueling feelings, too: somebody sunny and light and living in beautiful suburban surroundings, but plagued by thoughts of death. Her mother's recent passing is still playing on her mind, while she can't help but think of permanent scarring being a fate worse than death after Sally is a little banged up in a small car accident that she causes.

There's already so much to her character, and it's a successful narrative move to explore the world outside of Sterling Cooper so early in the series. The suburban scenes are heavy on the conformity and rigid conservative agenda of the time, but also uniquely feminine, a neat counterpoint to the male-driven world of advertising.

Gender themes play into both additional subplots, never more perfectly depicted than in the advertisement-of-the-week involving male deodorant. Deciding to promote the product to women instead of the men who actually use it, the biggest question in the offices of Sterling Cooper is "what do women want?"; a tangible thing that'll make them reach out and purchase a can while browsing in the grocery store. Despite his commercial smarts, Don's grand epiphany here is this hilarious answer to the above question: "Any excuse to get closer". Heh. So something that initially appears appreciative and respectful of feminine desire and female needs... quickly becomes all about men once again.

Of course, in Ladies Room itself, it's Paul Kinsey who seems most connected to that tagline. While Peggy is left uncomfortable and embarrassed by the male gaze and the brutal misogyny of the co-workers who initially take her out to lunch, Paul appears to be one of the good ones. He's respectful, treats her well, gives her the tour around the office that nobody had thought to give her already, and seems to just want to be a friend. Until, that is, he traps her in his office and proceeds to stick his tongue down her throat. With that, Peggy is left brutally aware of how she is seen, and how she'll need to protect herself from here on out. She still seems to hold a candle for Pete, so she's clearly stricken with some form of insanity (hee), but she's getting there, regardless.

While this episode explores gender politics so wonderfully, what's most impressive is how it sets up one of the major themes that recurs throughout the series: the idea of possession, and how much peace and happiness can or should gravitate from that. We get repeated discussions here all about how people should feel, versus the feelings they can't help but have but believe are somehow wrong. Every episode of Mad Men eventually folds into this concept, and it can't help but become incredibly resonant. A


- The only female present this week totally in charge of her own destiny, Midge seemingly represents all women at one point or another. She's flawed, but aware of it. Confident, but pleading. Loud and explosive, but also quiet and tender. It's no surprise, then, that she spends most of the episode changing in and out of different wigs, trying on each personality.

- There's an interesting point about feminine compassion versus steely coldness, another exploration into characters discovering or going against their traditional gender roles -- so Mona doesn't at all respond when Betty tells her of her mother's recent death, while Peggy can't help but ask if a weeping secretary in the bathroom is all right. But in an indication of her own identity crisis, Peggy eventually decides to follow Joan's lead, and hide her sympathy the next time she encounters any kind of female vulnerability.

- "Think of me as Moses, I was a baby in a basket" -- Don is still reluctant to discuss his past, particularly his lack of wealth as a child.

- The Nixon campaign is once again a running storyline, so big that it's caught Bertram Cooper's attention. Ah, and his lack-of-shoes is briefly glimpsed, but brilliantly lacking any explanation.

- This week's "Look how wacky those olden days were!" gags are stuck in the suburbs. Francine is of course puffing away on a cigarette while pregnant, but it's Betty's reaction to Sally running around inside a plastic dry-cleaning bag that gets the laugh of the episode: she's more concerned about the clothes presumably pulled out of it and tossed on the ground than her daughter potentially suffocating in it.


Roger: I had another nanny originally. German girl. Round face, enormous bosom. My parents got rid of her after the Lindbergh baby.

Don: I can't tell you about my childhood. It'll ruin the first half of my novel.

Roger: We live in troubling times.
Don: We do? Who can not be happy with all this?

Don: I can't decide if you have everything or nothing.
Midge: I live in the moment. Nothing is everything.

Joan: Look, dear, I don't know you that well... but you're the new girl, and you're not much, so you might as well enjoy it while it lasts.

Guest stars
Rosemarie DeWitt (Midge Daniels); Robert Morse (Bertram Cooper); John Slattery (Roger Sterling)
Writer Matthew Weiner Director Alan Taylor

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