Mad Men - Dark Shadows

Mad Men Commentary: episode 509 Dark Shadows

Mad Men has always been, at heart, about identity, and this week’s episode, called Dark Shadows, dramatizes how Betty, Sally, Don, and Roger deal with their specific identity issues, as well as the personal demons that lurk in the dark shadows of their personalities, alert to any opportunity to drag them down.

The episode opens on Betty, as she weighs her food.  She’s taken her mother-in-law’s advice and joined Weight Watchers.  Betty is not a disciplined woman, and she’s taking out her frustration on her family by being moody and serving meals that don’t fill the belly.

When she and Henry drive down to the city to pick up the kids one Sunday, she goes up to Don and Megan’s apartment.  Sally opens the door and lets her in.  Megan is dressing, so Betty lets herself in the apartment and does some snooping around.  As she does, she gets a glimpse of Megan’s putting on a blouse – her body trim and desirable.  Betty’s combination is a mixture of surprise, appreciation, and jealousy, and as the episode plays out, the jealousy will overtake the other two.

Sally is working on a family tree for school.  It’s complicated work for her, with the blended families.  She works on it, one day, in the kitchen with Betty, who is obsessing over Don and Megan, probably comparing their chic apartment to her Victorian era mansion that, with it’s pea-green walls, looks like a school or an insane asylum.

As Betty goes through Bobby’s school work, she finds a picture drawn at Don’s place.  On the back is a note to Megan from Don – “Lovely Megan, I went to buy a light bulb.  When I get back, I’ll see you better.  Love Don.”  Not exactly a Shakespearean sonnet, but that, combined with the image of a half-dressed Megan, drives her as close to rage as she’s capable.

Sally asks questions about the family, and very innocently, Betty tells her to be sure to remember Don’s first wife.  Sally assures Betty that she is included, but Betty drops the A-bomb on Sally – Anna, Don’s confidant and wife of the real Don Draper.  It maybe the most childish thing she’s done, which is saying a lot.  When Sally asks for more details, Betty blows her off, telling her to take the matter up with Megan.

This news confuses Sally, of course, and when she returns to visit Don and Megan, she gives them the full brunt of her put-upon teen angst.  Kiernan Shipka is doing great work this season as Sally, perfectly capturing that phase in a teenager’s life where everything is a painfully unbearable annoyance, and their poor parents fantasize of drowning them.  Or so I’m told.

Meanwhile, Don is adjusting to life at the office PM – Post Megan.  He and Roger and Bert show up for work at the same time, one morning, and Don impatiently holds the elevator for Pete, yelling for him to hurry up.  Pete joins them, a goofy grin pasted across his face.  He has the best kind of good news in the world for a Pete Campbell – something that is both good for SCDP and, most important, elevates his status above the rest, especially Don.

It turns out that a friendship he’s been cultivating with a guy named Victor from The New York Times (the real-life Victor Navasky) is about to pay off with the agency being included in a big piece about the city’s hippest agencies.  The kicker – Victor doesn’t want to talk to Don.  “He only seemed to be interested in talking to me,” Pete says, innocently.  Uh huh.

The news is enough to stir Don into action.  He has Joan gather up the artwork on all of the agency’s recent work, and as he evaluates which campaigns to include as most representative of hip agency’s signature, he notices that his name is not listed on the legend of a single campaign.  Rather, it’s Michael Ginsberg who’s doing all the heavy lifting, these days.  Jon Hamm conveys the sting of that realization in a slight wince that the ever-perceptive Joan picks up on.  “Look at all the work you’ve done as Creative Director,” she says.  “Look at all the voices; all this talent.”  It’s good work from Joan, but it fails to do much for Don.  It’s as if Bert’s admonishment at the end of the Far Away Places episode has come home to roost, and Don finally gets what the Old Lion was getting at.

Joan suggests that he include “The Letter” – the kiss-off he did to Lucky Strike that both grabbed attention and repelled many potential clients.  Don reasons that if they’re going to suffer from it, they might as well revel in it.

And with this, Don is poked half-awake from his Love Leave.  He’s not all the way back, but he’s no longer sleepwalking.

Speaking of the Old Lion, Bert storms into Roger’s office, one morning.  “Get Max Rosenberg on the phone,” he says to Roger.  “I thought your tailor was Italian,” Roger says, the first of many such jokes.  Bert goes on to explain that they have an opportunity to land an account – Manishewitz wine.  When Roger asks why Bert doesn’t just bring it up in the New Business meeting, Bert chides him.  “Don’t you think we’re capable of doing this on our own?”  He goes on.  “Mr. Campbell is very good for our business, but this requires your finesse.  Frankly, your Semitic wife.” He has no clue that Roger and Jane are divorcing, but Roger sees an opportunity to stick it to Pete and agrees to the plan, but not before getting off another bon mot.  “How Jewish are they?” he asks of the Rosenbergs.  “Think Fiddler on the Roof.  Are they the audience or the cast?”

Bert and Roger are to SCDP what the two old men in the balcony are to The Muppet Show, and this is a chance for them to show that they’ve still got it – especially after Pete lorded the Times story over them.

While Bert and Roger are hatching their scheme, Don’s working on re-discovering his inner-Don.  He leaves the kids with Megan one Sunday afternoon (the same one that Betty got her peek at Megan’s boobies), and heads into the office to work on some stuff.  He looks good in his open neck shirt and sweater vest, but he’s got nothing.  He’s marking time, but unlike Betty, he’s a disciplined man, and he makes himself stay at his desk for hours, waiting.

Just when it looks like inspiration won’t arrive, Don packs up to leave.  As he walks to the elevator, he notices a light left on at Ginsberg’s desk and walks in to turn it off.  He looks down, and sees a folder with “Shit I Gotta Do” written across it.  He opens it to find some doodling that Ginsberg has been doing on an account – Sno Ball snow cones.  Don is delighted by the work.  He’s surprised by it.  He laughs at the audacity of Ginsberg’s work.  It reminded me of Peggy’s comment to Stan, when she was considering whether to interview Ginsberg, that she is stimulated by great work.  I think Don is the same.  Good work inspires him, and in this unlikely place, Don gets his drive back.

He goes back to his office, gets out the Dictaphone, and goes to work on brainstorming his own ideas for Sno Ball.  There’s a lot of fumbling, but along the way, he hits upon a vein that seems to hold promise.

Don is like the addict who trades one addiction for another.  Workaholism gave way to a clingy devotion to Megan, and now that she’s gone, he’s scrambling to regain his sense of purpose at work.  And though there may be something to what Joan says of him overseeing the good work that goes on at SCDP, he seems to take little satisfaction in being a manager of talent.

On Monday, Don gathers his creative team to review their various projects, and when it comes time to talk about Sno Ball, Don goes last, giving his Devil pitch, with the snowball’s-chance-in-hell implication.  “Wow, that’s actually good,” Ginsberg says.  Don gives a sarcastic thanks, and Ginsberg explains that what he meant was that after a long layoff from writing, it’s impressive that Don can just flip the switch and produce something so good.  Peggy doesn’t seem quite so enthused.

There’s some interesting stuff going on with Ginsberg this week.  As his list of credits grows, so too does his sense of importance.  He’s getting a little full of himself.

When Roger calls him into his office to help with the Manishewitz account, the exchange is comical.  Roger – “Can you keep a secret?”  Ginsberg – “No.”  (and he’s true to his word)  Roger – “I need you to do some work on a prospective account.  It’ll involve a client dinner.”  Ginsberg – [making a funny face] “And murder!”  Roger – “You’re not going to dinner.”  Erin Levy, who wrote this week’s episode, seems to have taken fiendish delight in feeding Roger one anti-Semitic crack after another – “[Manishewitz] makes wine for Jews, and now they make one they want to sell to normal people…like me.”  Roger wants Ginsberg to sketch out some potential campaign ideas that Roger can toss out over dinner.  He gives Ginsberg until sundown Friday to come up with his ideas.  Ginsberg shrugs off the ethnic slurs, and like Peggy, senses an opportunity to shake Roger down, extracting $200 from Roger’s pocket.  “I’ve got to start carrying less cash,” Roger cracks as the scene ends.

At Weight Watchers, Betty shows up for her meeting and weigh-in.  Betty has the opportunity to give a testimonial on her week, whether it was good or bad.  She stands and tells the other women that she had a trying experience, that she was in an unfamiliar place that caused her to have feelings she wishes she hadn’t felt.  Talk about understatements.  What she left out was that little part about using her adolescent daughter as a pawn in her cold war against Don.

It’s interesting that despite all that has happened to Betty, she remains a little princess.  As other characters have evolved, she stubbornly clings to an identity that causes her nothing but disappointment, especially as she gets older and her physical beauty begins to fade (not to mention the sexual and social revolution that is taking place all around her).  Betty has pretty much banished herself to an isolated castle on the Hudson River, an anachronistic time capsule designed to keep the world at bay.

Contrast Betty to Megan, who at 26 has tried and rejected a career as a copywriter, and has decided to actively pursue a career in the theatre.  Megan could have taken the easy route, with Don to shepherd her through any tough stretches in her career, but instead, she has chosen to go it alone and do what she feels like she was born to do, what she’s dreamed of since she was a little girl.  Megan is perhaps the only character in Mad Men not consumed with cynicism and ruthless ambition.  It’s easy to see what attracts Don.

Even when Megan gets grief from Julia, a fellow actress, she is fair-minded about dealing with the conflict, which really amounts to jealousy.  Julia is uptight about an audition for a new soap opera called Dark Shadows.  When Megan laughs at the bizarre stuff going on in the scene, Julia goes off on her, saying that life at 73rd and Park Avenue must be so easy.  It’s a cheap shot, and Megan calls her out on it.  Julia apologizes, explaining the comment away as a by-product of nerves.  Megan accepts the apology, but the comment seems to have her thinking.

Later, Betty finds Henry frying a steak in the middle of the night.  She apologizes for not feeding him properly, but he’s got other things on his mind as well.  Henry left Nelson Rockefeller to work for John Lindsay, thinking he’d be a gubernatorial candidate, but things haven’t panned out the way he’d hoped.  He shares this with Betty, who is ill equipped to be much help.  “It’s so easy to blame our problems on others,” she tells him, sounding like Chauncey the gardener in Being There, surely parroting some lecture from her Weight Watchers coordinator.  “But really, we’re in charge of ourselves.  And I’m here to help you, as you’re here to help me.”  Again, this is the same woman who uses her daughter to drag her husband down to her level of misery.  But hey, whatever, right?  Henry seems to dig it.

I like the juxtaposing of scenes, because right after this remark from Betty, we get a different kind of usury from Roger.  He calls Jane to ask a favor.  He wants her to accompany him to dinner with the Rosenbergs.  Why?  Because she’s Jewish and needs all the help he can get.  Roger’s a hard guy to stay too mad at, and after some haggling that includes an agreement from Roger to buy Jane an apartment that his family doesn’t own, she agrees to be his wife for the night.

Just as Betty doesn’t think twice about using Sally to do her bidding, Roger thinks nothing of charming or buying anyone who gets in the way of what he wants.  At least with Roger, he makes very little pretense about what he’s doing, which is part of the charm.  He’s as naked as the day he was born, and you either go along (and make a few bucks or get a new apartment) or get left behind.  Either way, he’s getting what he wants.  Remember the 1919 World Series?  The one he saw when he was having his LSD experience?  That’s Roger’s life – one Big Fix after another.

But Roger becomes painfully aware of the Fix, and the big shadow that it casts, during this episode.  First, Peggy lashes out at him for choosing Ginsberg over her for his clandestine account work.  Roger tries to explain that Ginsberg is perfect for the job, which makes her even madder, reminding her of the boy’s club mentality that she’s always up against.  Finally, she tells Roger that he’s not loyal; that he only thinks of himself.  “Were we married?” he asks, not believing what he’s hearing.  He goes on to tell her that in this world, it’s every man for himself.

Fast-forward to the dinner.  Roger charms the Rosenbergs, and their son/heir, Bernie, is infatuated with Jane.  All goes well, and on the cab ride home, Roger reverts to a little boy, asking Jane if she’s going to go out with Bernie.  When she tells him he had his chance, he makes at least promise to continue with the married charade until the account is secure.  His competitive juices seem to be cooking against Bernie, because he gets Jane to take him by her new apartment.  They end up in bed.  The next morning, Roger is dressing for work and confesses to having used Jane’s toothbrush.  She’s downcast.  When he asks what’s wrong, she explains that he’s ruined this place, just like he ruined the last one.  She keeps trying to make fresh starts, but he traipses in and messes everything up, not thinking about her or anything but him.  She doesn’t say it with any malice.  It’s a simple statement of fact.  It hits Roger as an elemental truth, and he cops to the accusation, saying he doesn’t know why he does these things, that he feels terrible.  For once, there’s no funny quip to end the scene on.  Rather, he slinks out of the apartment that will soon be vacant, ashamed of what he’s done.

Pete, meanwhile, is drunk with the anticipation of his crowning glory.  When the Times piece hits the Sunday Magazine, he’ll be officially conferred as one of The Club, the Movers and Shakers, the Big Shots.  He fantasizes about Beth Dawes showing up at the office, wearing only a black fur coat and matching panties, looking for him.  She explains that she’d forgotten all about him until she saw his photo in the magazine and decided that she just had to have him.  Talk about juvenile.  Of course, he wakes up on his couch, but the smile remains.  It’s only a matter of time…

After Pete dreams victory, Don fights for his.  Preliminary art work has been prepared for the two ideas for Sno Ball – Don’s and Ginsberg’s.  Ken, Harry, Pete, Peggy, Stan, Ginsberg, and Don gather to evaluate them.  Ginsberg’s campaign eges out Don, but they decide to pitch them both and let the client decide.  Don agrees and gives the order to move forward, leaving Ginsberg, Peggy, and Stan to gather the boards.  “Look at my works, ye mighty, and despair,” Ginsberg says in a mock heroic voice.  He’s feeling his oats, but Stan brings him back down to earth by telling him to read the rest of Ozymandias, a commentary on the inevitable decline of leaders who, though mighty in their time, wind up just as dead as the most wretched peasant.  The quote is more caution than boast, though Ginsberg gets it wrong.

The day of Sally’s return visit to Manhattan is eventful.  She’s nasty to Don and Megan, and when Don leaves to take the two boys out for some man-time, Megan is left alone with a vengeful Sally, who doesn’t take long to bring up Anna.  This catches Megan completely by surprise.  To make matters worse, Sally accuses Megan of betrayal and lying, topping the insults by telling Megan she’s not special; nor was Anna.  Megan senses Betty’s part in this, and explains that Sally is a little girl and Don’s first marriage was complicated.  “Go ahead.  Dig yourself deeper,” Sally says, hating being called a little girl.  Sally goes on.  “Why did he marry you,” she asks Megan.  “And don’t tell him I asked.  I mean it.”  Megan protests, but Sally cuts her off.  “Ware you going to make yourself cry?” she asks, referring to an exercise Megan taught her earlier.  Hell hath no fury like a disillusioned teenaged girl.

Meanwhile, Betty goes for another weigh-in.  She’s neither lost nor gained weight.  A friend tries to cheer her up, but it’s no use.  The coordinator lectures them.  “The food is just a symbol of all the other things,” she says.  “We should fill ourselves with our children, our homes, our husbands, our health and happiness.”  There’ll be a great callback to this quote later.

That evening, once the kids are in bed, Megan tells Don what happened earlier.  He loses his cool and goes for the phone, ready to read Betty the riot act.  Megan tries to stop him, and he snaps at her.  “And let her keep sticking her fat nose in my business?” he says, answering the question as to whether he’s seen the new Betty.  Megan won’t give in.  “Let it go,” she tells him.  “If you call her, you’re giving her exactly what she wanted – the thrill of having poisoned us from 50 miles away.”  Megan’s truth hits Don, and he calms down enough to hang up the phone and exhale.  Megan apologizes for getting in the middle, though she did a great job in the face of a blind-side.  Don realizes this, and apologizes for his part.  It’s a sweet, healthy end to what could have been yet another ugly chapter in the Don/Betty saga.

As Don and Megan are yelling about Betty, Sally is awakened and hears the commotion.  Snippets of dialogue drift down the hall, letting her know that this is a mess authored by her, by way of Betty.

The next morning, Don is awakened by an early morning phone call from Pete.  It’s the Sunday morning of the big Times piece, but SCDP has been left out.  Instead, the story compares the big-time ad agency execs of the day – folks like David Ogilvy, Bill Bernbach, and Mary Wells – as philosophers.  The story is taken from an actual story that appeared in the 11/20/66 edition of The New York Times.  Pete is freaking out.  What will Beth think?  Don goes to the living room and finds the paper, left there by Megan, who has gone out for bagels.  He finds the story and thumbs through it.  “Why are they picking them?” Pete asks.  “I don’t know and I don’t care,” Don says.  “Maybe that’s the problem,” Pete says with the beginnings of sneer.  “You’re the one who talked to them for an hour,” Don says.  “I thought he was your best friend?  You obviously made no impression.”  Don warms up to his attack, with a little residual Betty anger probably tossed in for good measure.  “You know what?  Don’t wake me up and throw your failures in my face.  It’s Sunday, for Christ’s sake.”  And then he hangs up.

It’s another humiliation for Pete.  How many more can he take before he snaps?

After the call, Don calls Sally to come and deal with the trouble she’s caused.  Don is doing some things that for him, are amazing.  With Sally, he confronts her bad behavior, then apologizes for his part in the secrecy.  He also tells Sally that Betty is only trying to hurt him, which may cross the line, but he doesn’t take any cheap shots.  Instead, when Sally asks if this Anna is the same person from California who called him Dick, Don admits that that was Anna.  He expresses his regret, and tells Sally that he wishes she’d of met Anna.  Sally seems sincerely sorry, and puts up no resistance to Don’s suggestion that she apologize to Megan.

Sally is so chastened that when she gets home and is questioned by Betty, digging for the payoff to her A-bomb, she makes up a lie.  She tells her mom that Don showed her photos of Anna and spoke fondly of her.  Betty excuses her to watch TV, then throws some food on the floor.

On the day of the Sno Ball pitch, Ken, Harry, and Don take a cab to see the client.  As they go through the artwork and get their roles nailed down, Don makes a decision to go with his idea and leaves Ginsberg’s art in the cab.

Later, when Harry returns to the office to wrap up some loose ends, he runs into Peggy, Stan, and Gisnberg.  He tells them that Don landed the account.  When Ginsberg asks which idea was chosen, Harry tells him that Don only pitched one idea – his.  This pisses Ginsberg off, but Peggy and Stan enjoy Ginsberg’s comeuppance.

The next day, Ginsberg catches Don on the elevator as they head into work.  He confronts Don on the pitch, but Don plays it cool.  “I’ve got a million [ideas].  A million,” Ginsberg says.  “I guess I’m lucky you work for me,” Don says.  This gets Ginsberg.  “I feel bad for you,” he tells Don.  The elevator door opens on their floor.  “I don’t think about you at all,” Don says, then leaves Ginsberg alone in the elevator.  It’s a total lie, but it puts Ginsberg in his place.  At least for now.

On the train ride into the city, Howard sits with Pete, as usual.  Howard confesses that he’s only coming to the city on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving so he can spend time with his mistress.  Pete, still smarting from his Times debacle, blurts out that he might just go over to Howard’s and screw his wife.  “Good luck with that,” Howard says.  Then, after a pause, he says more than he knows.  “I guess the grass is always greener, right?”

On Thanksgiving at Don and Megan’s, Don wakes to find Megan getting ready to have friends over for dinner.  The parade is on TV, and it’s unseasonably warm.  When Don makes a move to open the terrace door, Megan stops him, saying there’s a smog emergency.  “The air’s toxic,” she says.  “I don’t want that in here.”

It would be easy to draw parallels to Betty and the near miss from her attempted poisoning, but sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar, right?

Finally, the episode ends at the Francis household.  Just as they are about to eat, Bobby says that they have to all say what they’re thankful for.  Sally gets in a subtle dig by telling him that Betty’s hungry.  Bobby expresses gratitude for his stuff.  Sally scores points by expresses thanks for doing better at school.  Betty lands somewhere between Bobby and Sally by being “thankful that I have everything I want.  And that no one has anything better.”  Please.  Henry echoes her words with a heartfelt “Me too!”

Remember that quote from the Weight Watchers lady?  The one about food symbolizing all the other things in a woman’s life?  Catch Betty’s plate.  While Thanksgiving has come to be associated with gluttony, Betty’s plate is nearly empty.

And with that, Mad Men continues a winning streak of strong episodes.  There’s a sense of both anticipation and dread as the final few episodes of the season loom – anticipation at the thought of seeing how dark shadows are overcome, but dread at the knowledge that another season is nearly over.