Monday, December 10, 2012

Mad Men: Marriage of Figaro (1.3)

Whether we like it or not, marriage usually arrives as a construct, or an idea that we feel we need to buy into. But something that feels decidedly modern is the ability to pull the idea of marriage apart, and wonder if it's truly the be-all and end-all of everything. What Marriage of Figaro does so well is depict the early '60s anxieties created by marriage, as well as exposing the hypocrisy that so easily exists within the confines of a legal union between two people.

Sally's playhouse folds heavily into that theme. Don spends much of the episode putting it together, following instructions and making it look nice and pretty for the benefit of others. But it quickly becomes stress-inducing. He gets more and more wiped out on beer, and ultimately flees his daughter's birthday party for a night of lonely pondering. Not only does it work so well as a metaphor for a very specific kind of marriage, the type born out of preconceptions and self-interest rather than anything truly romantic, but also says a lot about Don and his past and what is already confirmed as his dual identity -- a war veteran bumps into him on the morning train, recognizes him as 'Dick Whitman' and briefly reminisces about their time together in battle.

Sally's birthday party is the backdrop for a hotbed of marital hypocrisy this week, the neighborhood couples gathering together and quickly becoming walking cliches of post-wedding sadness. The husbands are lazy and distracted by shiny new objects of lust, while the wives hide away in the kitchen and talk about children and baking, never allowing their facades to totally fall away. Dropped into all of this is Helen Bishop, a single mother who stumbled her way into an invite. The men at the party instantly see her as an attractive conquest, one of them immediately offering his 'services' as something of a drop-in father figure, which... ugh. But the women are no better -- Helen representing wildness and danger, a threat to their picture-perfect community. She also walks around the neighborhood a lot, Helen saying she does so to clear her head and manage her thoughts more than anything else. But the girls can't rationalize it. Surely she needs to be walking somewhere? Like into a married man's bedroom, probably.

Don is also at a crossroads, but there's no surprises with that. He is growing ever closer to Rachel Menken, talking intimately and kissing on the roof of her store. But Rachel is a very modern kind of woman, attracted to him but unwilling to be locked away in a box as a secret mistress. She represents the coming changes, gender soon a little less huge an obstacle to overcome. And she wants a relationship based on love and attraction, not something marred by betrayal and secrecy.

But it's a very masculine trait, the desire to keep things in boxes. Pete has returned from his honeymoon, surprised by how much he is enjoying time with his new wife and looking forward to coming home to her. He outwardly expresses to Peggy that their night together was a one-time thing, but soon after compliments her on her appearance, seemingly interested in keeping a spark there. So it's a story unsurprisingly about male dominance, Pete wanting to have Peggy when he wants her, keeping her sweet despite projecting a lack of interest. And Peggy is young and naive at this point, too blinded by the romantic ideal of sex that she assumes that they're in love now. It's horrible.

Nobody here is particularly happy, or genuine. The lone voice of sense is Joan, proclaiming marriage a joke that she has zero interest in. It's harsh and controversial, even more so back in 1960, but suddenly feels so brutally true a statement in an episode full of marital disappointments and the illusion of romantic success. It's Mad Men to a tee. A


- The copywriters don't seem to understand Volkswagen's "Lemon" campaign. It's smart and simple, vague and ambitious. For the time, very European and unusual. Don doesn't like it, and doesn't understand why they wouldn't have used a celebrity or a commercial image, but he does recognize that it means something for their industry... considering they've all spent so long talking about it.

- I loved the whole discussion about Lady Chatterley's Lover, the secretaries gossiping about how erotic and socially important it is, Joan dismissing it as underwhelming, and Peggy eager to read it for herself.

- Helen Bishop is fantastic, confident enough to trample all over the ladies' attempts to undermine her, and so socially aware that she knows exactly how certain men will try and take advantage of her. Instead of buying into the 'father figure' offer launched at her, she goes out of her way to freak him out in retaliation. She also finds it far easier to talk to Don... both of them strangers in a strange land.


Pete: It's good to be back, Draper. I missed you.
Don: Then it must not have been much of a honeymoon.

Rachel: Something about the way you talk always restores my confidence.
Don: I have a deep voice.

Harry: Draper? Who knows anything about that guy? No one's ever lifted that rock. He could be Batman, for all we know.

Guest stars
John Slattery (Roger Sterling)
Writer Tom Palmer Director Ed Bianchi

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