Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Trouble with Betty

My last post on Mad Men’s Episode 9, “Six Month Leave,” noted in passing that the two male-defined roles for women in that universe consisted of “Jackie” the stable homemaker, and “Marilyn,” the fun loving party girl, corresponded to a similar model, as represented by Annie Hathaway and Melanie Daniels, from Hitchcock’s 1963 film, The Birds. A similar Hitchcockian connection happens early in Episode 10, “The Inheritance.”

Realizing that their late family fortune has been squandered, Pete makes an offhand joke to his brother Bud about doing away with their mother. In doing so, he references Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. Based on the real life Leopold and Leob murder case, the film follows a couple of college geniuses who, for kicks, carryout the perfect murder. Though Pete probably didn’t catch the implied homosexuality of Rope’s main characters, the fact that he compares them to he and his brother conjures up the first of what will be a few squeamish images in TI. This interesting and unsettling episode follows the further deterioration of the Draper marriage by exploring the theme of childhood regression and freely alluding to both Alfred Hitchcock films and comic book heroes.

The cartoon element is subtly introduced in the beginning when Pete reads to Don, Peggy, Sal and Paul a list of companies vying for aerospace contracts to meet Kennedy’s challenge of landing on the moon by the end of the decade. SC is sending Pete and Paul to a West Coast convention to meet with potential accounts and sell them on the firm’s ability to help them win NASA contracts. Paul comments that it’s always been his dream to fly in space. Which Don dismisses as “science fiction.”

Later, Betty informs Don, still barred from the house, that her father Gene has had a stroke. Betty mentions that she’s been dreaming of a suitcase. This evokes the image of the empty Samsonite (life) luggage from “Six Month Leave.” Betty and Don reconcile long enough to drive out to Betty’s childhood home. Gene, recently widowed, now lives with his new wife, Gloria. The memory of Betty’s deceased mom hangs in the air and haunts her as did two other dead Hitchcock heroines who tasked their respective male leads; Rebecca from the film of the same name and Vertigo’s Madeline. We also see that Betty has issues with her new stepmother, Gloria.

Mother problems are a staple element in a number of Hitchcock films as varied as Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie. At one point Betty stands in the library staring at a painting of her mother (not unlike a similar scene in Vertigo), when her brother William inexplicably enters the room through a rear window.

Gene clearly is not himself following his stroke. While Don, Betty, William (a childhood picture of him visible just behind his head), and Gloria make small talk in the living room, Gene continuously bounces in and out of dementia. At one point, Gene and Don work on a jigsaw puzzle. Ironically, Gene’s mental condition seems to help him solve part of the puzzle that is Don Draper. He correctly accuses his son-in-law of having “no people.” And in a particularly unsettling moment, Gene mistakes Betty for his late wife, and makes a pass at her by fondling her breast.

Later William and Betty discuss what needs to be done with him. In a remark that will prove significant later on, William cynically suggests that Don and Betty could afford to build a house for him in their backyard. Still putting on a show for the sake of her family, Betty and Don retire to Betty’s old room. He sleeps on the floor. In the middle of the night, Betty crawls off the bed to and initiates a sexual encounter. The next morning, Don, still on the floor (as Betty hasn’t yet taken him back into her bed emotionally), awakens to find his wife’s suitcase (a Samsonite perhaps?) fully packed.

Hitchcockian mother issues again rear up in the aforementioned plot involving the Campbell brothers, Pete and Bud. The two meet with their mother, Dorothy, to cosign some estate paperwork. Pete had mentioned to Bud earlier that, given the trouble he and Trudy were having conceiving, they had considered adoption. This isn’t entirely true, as Pete had only given it tepid agreement to heroically placate Trudy. Somehow, Bud leaked this news to Dorothy, who, not excited at the prospect of diluting the Campbell bloodline, threatens to write Pete out of the will.

Pete angrily gets up and leaves the table. The rough manner in which he puts the chair back is reminiscent of Betty smashing her dining room furniture in “A Night to Remember.” However, Pete chooses to smash his mother instead by informing her that her husband has spent the family fortune.

A subplot involves Paul Kinsey and his African American girlfriend, Sheila. Always the showman, Paul makes a display out of having Sheila visit him at work and even kisses her right in the middle of the office. During her visit, it’s revealed that Sheila plans for her and Paul to go to Mississippi and take part in an effort to register minority voters. Clearly disinterested, Paul uses the California trip as an excuse to put it off. Later, when Don decides at the last minute to make the West Coast trip himself, he instructs Joan to send Paul a memo telling him he’s not going.

At that moment, the SC office is having a “baby shower” for Harry Crane. The idea of childhood regression is further reinforced by the sight of Harry decked out in an over sized baby bonnet. Joan, who was clearly shown witnessing Paul and Sheila kiss and whom I suspect is angry because of that conspicuous display of interracial affection, embarasses Paul by breaking the news about his canceled trip to California in front of everyone rather than by memo. The last shot of Paul and Sheila is of the two of them making their way to Mississippi on a bus with other African Americans. Paul, in a hilarious display of White guilt, is shown defending the integrity of the advertising industry with the ridiculous argument that it’s basically a “Marxist,” and therefore color-blind, profession.

It’s worth noting that Mad Men’s producers must have close ties with NBC. Just as a number of Law and Order regulars showed up in Sopranos episodes, so has the cast of Mad Men and some NBC sit-coms cross pollinated each other. Rich Sommer (Harry Crane) played a potential love interest for Jill on The Office. And Aloma Wright, Laverne Roberts on Scrubs, appears in this episode as the old family maid who consoles Betty.

Finally, there’s a reappearance of Glenn, that weird kid from down the street, whose crush on Betty is more creepy than cute. After he's run away from home, Betty discovers him in the backyard playhouse. Because Glenn is wearing a Pan Am fight bag (Don is about to take airplane ride) and is later dressed up in Don’s clothes, one is lead to believe that he is meant to symbolize Don. But, I would also argue that Glenn could also be seen as a stand in for Betty's regressed father.

Besides the similarity of their names (Gene/Glenn), I go back to William's snide remarke that Don and Betty should build a house in their backyard for Gene. That is indeed where Glenn is found (a child's playhouse, but a house nonetheless). The scene with Glenn seems to suggest that Betty had seen in Don what she had hoped would be a younger version of her father. In the third, and most, awkward moment of this episode for me, Betty and Glenn watch television on the couch and hold hands. Glenn inexplicably tells Betty that he “doesn’t like ham.” This seems like a non sequitor. But from a symbolic standpoint, it could be Betty’s dad telling her that he doesn’t like Don who is played by Jon HAMM.

On the other hand, it's been brought to my attention that in a previous episode Don tells Bobbie that his father's favorite food was ham (h/t Feindosville). This would support the argument that Glenn could also be a younger version of Don who is trying to distinguish himself from his not so loving father.

Betty later flips through the comic books that Glenn has brought with him. On one of the covers we see Superman flying Lois Lane to safety. It’s almost as if Betty has been given a male's view of what a husband is supposed to be. Betty later has a conversation with Glenn’s mother where she reveals the facts about her and Don's separation. Betty states that she’d “float away” if Don wasn’t holding her down.

The last scene shows Pete and Don flying to California (Strangers on a Train).

Pete is wearing a sleeping mask. If the traditional husband's role in Mad Men’s universe is to be a sort of superhero for their spouse, then Pete’s mask certainly takes on a different meaning. The final shot of Don shows him looking out the airplane’s window as sunlight from outside works it’s way up his face. This suggests that his mask is one that he wears all the time.

While Don may indeed be a superhero, that doesn't seem to be what Betty is looking for. Perhaps she has chosen the wrong man.


Feinsodville said...

Really good, thorough writeup. The only things I'd add are:

1) At Basket of Kisses, a few people commented that the whole Gene groping Betty thing was perhaps indicative of incest. Which I don't agree with, because Betty seems way too genuinely concerned for her father's well-being if that were the case.

2) As for the NBC/Mad Men connection, my guess is maybe they share a casting agency or casting director. Have you checked IMDB?

3) In light of racial issues coming to the forefront when they were more or less absent in season 1 (aside from, obviously, the very first scene of the pilot episode), the whole Joan's subtle racism/Kinsey going down south subplot was interesting. Especially since I think it was meant to bring to mind the literal violence such civil rights/voter registration efforts often resulted in, unfortunately. I hope that Weiner & co. explore this further, as it's such a big part of the '60s.

4) The Glenn/Betty scenes were my favorite, I thought. Betty sipping a soda through a straw like a schoolgirl and then holding Glenn's hand were the oddest and funniest of the night. Although I thought Glenn saying he didn't like ham was an echo of Don telling Bobby that his father's favorite food was ham in an earlier episode, and nothing to literally do with actor Jon Hamm. I've always taken Glenn to be a scarily literate representation of the way young men idolize women they admire and/or love before becoming men, and so he would therefore be the opposite of Don's abusive, alcoholic father (who, let's not forget, conceived Don while visiting a prostitute).

Matt Maul said...


1) I agree, I don't see it as Gene and Betty as having such a relationship beyond the normal "crush" a girl may have for her dad

3) Interesting nuance to Joan's character and certainly in keeping with the times

4) I missed the ham reference about Don's father from that episode. This, along with the Pan Am bag and clothes, would tend to support a Glenn as Don interpretation. Because I found it significant that Glenn was found in the "house" that Betty's brother suggested be built for Gene, I tended to see everything through the prism that Glenn was Gene. Of course, "ham" and "Hamm" may just one of those happy coincidences.