Monday, October 5, 2009

‘Mad Men’ Monday: Souvenir

*Warning, spoilers ahead from the recent episode of Mad Men*

Whenever I tell people that -- regardless of what they’ve heard about lead character Don Draper -- Mad Men is at its best when it’s about the women, this latest episode will make a great addition to my list of examples, right behind the episode where Betty was shooting the neighbor’s pigeons with a BB gun.

It’s crystal clear that Mad Men is going to go down the Betty Friedan/Feminist Mystique road. Betty Draper not only shares a first name with the author, but definitely suffers from the malaise and disappointment of feeling trapped in the staid life of a housewife, after having received a college education and having led an exciting single life. Everyone told women of her time that what Betty has is what all women should aspire to – a beautiful house in a leafy suburb, money, a successful (handsome) husband, healthy children, household help, nice clothes.

Joan told Peggy in the first episode that if she was lucky, she’d find a husband at Sterling Cooper (like Jane eventually did with Joan’s former lover) and become a housewife. Joan, who wielded authority in a high-powered New York City advertising agency as the office manager (though her ambition was frequently thwarted because of her gender), wanted a life like Betty’s. She found herself a handsome man, a doctor, and became engaged and married him, even after he date raped her when she was at work. Joan planned on “being happy” as an affluent housewife, only her husband’s failure to become a surgeon pushed her back into the workforce where she’s now a manager in a department store and looking quite despondent about it.

However Betty hates her lot in life. She wants to live like Joan again, live in the city, have excitement, have a purpose. Betty seemed thrilled with her work with the Junior League, as it gave her a reason to get out of the house, put on her best clothes, flirt with a man (even receive a kiss from him) in order to get him to do her bidding.

To fly to Rome with Don, to deftly utilize her Italian, to flirt with some men who tried to pick her up and then seduce Don, only amplified Betty’s hatred for her lot in life back in Ossining, a life that’s now about taking the kids to the pool and redecorating the living room. When she returned home, it seemed as though the spell that had been cast in Italy had been broken. And she didn’t like it.

Consider the lead paragraph from The Feminist Mystique and tell me this isn’t where Betty’s headed:

“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – 'Is this all?'”

Betty feeling desired by Henry Francis, by the Italian men, feeling powerful and being able to laugh while men called Don “old” and “ugly” in Italian (given that Don’s such a babe magnet, I’m sure Betty found that highly amusing that Betty was the object of affection) these are things Betty craves, itches that aren’t being scratched, at least not enough for her tastes.

In other stories, the parallels between Henry Francis and Pete Campbell were stark. Both men helped a damsel in distress whom they found attractive and needy and whom they wanted to bed. They both expected something in return for their help, however one was somewhat restrained and let his payment be a kiss, while the other one was a boorish man-child who forced himself on a young, powerless woman who didn’t feel as though she could rebuff him.

While his wife Trudy was out of town, Pete acted like a child, eating cereal in front of the TV while watching cartoons, staying up all night. And he, once and for all, cemented his place in the world of Mad Men as a cad after he pressured a timid au pair – who was frightened he’d rat her out to her bosses for wearing the woman’s dress and staining it – into having sex. You just know that the Peggy thing isn’t over and is going to come back to haunt him.

I loved this episode, for the sexiness of Don and Betty’s Italian sojourn and her Junior League foray into local politics, to the forlorn look on Joan’s face after she saw that Pete found her working in a department store.

What did you think of “Souvenir?”

Image credit: Carin Baer/AMC.

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