A writer interviews her mom about being a secretary at Playboy in the 60s.
Speaking of “too late”, how great was the way Mad Men did that repeated scene in “The Other Woman”? It’s such a perfect move; you see it once as Don rushing in to be the hero, and you wonder whether it’s enough. Then you see it again with new information, and you realize the Don-as-hero angle was kind of fantasy, like that scene in “The Wheel” where he gets home in time to go away for Thanksgiving with his family…except that he doesn’t. Don’s perspective is a sort of race against time to save the girl tied to the train tacks; Joan knows that she’s already been run over. (And she’s always already been run over, I think; this is probably the most direct time Joan’s ever had to do something like this, but I’m sure it is not the only time sex has been transactional for her.) The conversation didn’t stop just because Don left the room.
(Also since this came up, I don’t buy that this was out of character for Don. Dude has major virgin-whore issues, and since he knows and likes Joan he doesn’t see her as someone you sell. I can see the current “new Don” trying see himself as the guy with integrity in the situation.)
A Meditation on Mailer, Pete Campbell and The Language of Men
“His anger often derived from nothing: the set of a pair of far lips, the casual heavy thump of the serving spoon into his plate, or the resentful conviction that the cook was not serving him enough.” —Norman Mailer, “The Language of Men”
Pete Campbell presents a whole different kind of masculinity issue than does our mainstay Don. From S1E1 Pete’s been a mess of insecurities, all stemming from the essential Pete nugget that he simply doesn’t know very much about people. Wavering between the petulance of a child and the brimming over-confidence of a teenager, Pete is his own worst enemy.
He’s quick to lash out — recall this is not the first time he’s been in a fight at the office. He punched poor Kenny for his indelicate comments about fair Pegs back in season 1! Of course, that might have had something to do with his extreme jealousy of Ken — this comes only a few episodes after Ken gets his first story published in The Atlantic. And he’s become so used to shooting off his passive-aggressive sniping comments and being ignored that when Lane actually challenges him to a fight, he’s floored. He’s not used to being directly confronted or spoken to about much of anything, really.
Here’s Mailer again:
“He became aware again of his painful desire to please people, to discharge responsibility, to be a man. When he had been a child, tears had come into his eyes at a cross word, and he had lived in an atmosphere where his smallest accomplishment was warmly praised.”
Pete has some…issues with recognition and pride, no? He craves it desperately, and yet he’s either so unctuous or so biting that even when he does good work, people are reluctant to reward him. This man, who was so spoiled in his youth, finds that his peers don’t like him at all. When he pitifully says at the end of “Signal 30” that “This is an office. We’re supposed to be friends”, we get the sense that he actually means it. That SCDP holds the only friendships he’s ever known! This coming on the heels of Don telling Megan that the people at work are not her friends only underscores Pete’s essential misunderstanding about other people and his innate loneliness that comes from being excluded.
As decent as Pete has become at his job, he’s never gotten over his puppy love with Don Draper, the man he has been trying to get a reaction as long as he’s graced our screens. When flattery didn’t work, Pete turned to subterfuge. None of it seemed to work very well, but Pete is still giving Don the biggest steak.
“…with his heart aching he lunged toward Hobbs. He had no hope of beating him. He merely intended to fight until he was pounded unconscious, advancing the pain and bruises he would collect as collateral for his self-respect.”
“[He] began to wonder about the things which made him different. He was no longer so worried about becoming a man; he felt that to an extent he had become one. But in his heart he wondered if he would ever learn the language of men.”
So then of course, Pete does get called on his pervasive misanthropy and reflex anger toward the rest of the world. And in every glance and gesture, Pete has always tried to ape the standard masculinity: he tries to dress like Don, he blusters through work drinks living up to Roger, he commits adultery after the both of them. And yet even when he’s embraced the trappings of masculinity, he still can’t connect. He hates himself for it because it’s not what he wants, and Don hates him for it because it seems like such a poor imitation of the thing he himself does. Everything Pete does has an air of forcedness to it, because it just doesn’t come naturally to him — the language of men.
*Footnote by Natasha Simons
PETE!!!! I think he is shaping up to be the best character arc on the whole show, you guys.
Pete Campbell is the best-worst. I’ve been obsessed with his insecure masculinity since he had to return the chip-and-dip.
I mean, I would hope that even people who dislike Betty can admit that storyline (and that fat suit) is an objectively terrible thing to do to a formerly nuanced and interesting character.
NOW SHE’S FAT! NOW SHE EATS TWO SUNDAES!!
It’s embarrassing, Matt Weiner. You’re embarrassing.
Let me elaborate: putting aside any loyalties I have to Betty and the memory of her fascinating character in earlier seasons (because that’s wafted away on the breeze), that storyline served absolutely zero purpose except to hint that Don still has feelings for Betty (calling her “Birdy” for one thing) and vice versa, as clumsily as that was done. (It was mostly just Henry, Don, Megan, and Betty staring off into the distance.)
It’s a weirdly humiliating thing to do to a character who has only ever been about appearances, without giving us really any background as to why she would lose her largely defining hobby. Do you know what I mean? We kept hearing she was depressed or bored, but God, she was that in spades during her marriage to Don, and I didn’t see her getting fat then? And it’s not as if she doesn’t have to “try hard” for Henry, or whatever, because he’s also very handsome, AND, he’s more in the spotlight than Don ever was.
Why did Betty give up her preoccupation with vanity when she would need it now more than ever? Could you, the writers’ room of Mad Men, let us know that? Or did we need just one more scene of Don betraying her confidences to someone because he’s having a boohoo moment with mortality?
I hate this story line. I hate the fat face makeup they have January Jones in. (As a lady who is probably not all that different from Betty size-wise I promise that most women don’t gain all their weight in their chin first; I really feel like she should still have a neck.) I do think that they could have told this story in a way that is true to the Betty we know. I do feel like it is possible that she doesn’t need to “try hard” for Henry because she feels safe with him in a way she never did with Don (which also explains why she’s kind of a jerk to him when he’s the sweetest to her, because she knows he won’t up and disappear the way Don did constantly, but just being married to someone who is less terrible than Don Draper isn’t going to fix all Betty’s shit so all the stuff she bottled up with Don is still coming out). Like, maybe she’s just “fat” because she’s letting herself eat for the first time in her adult life? We’ve seen Betty vomit before but I don’t know if we’ve actually seen her eat? Obviously she believes that all her value lies in her appearance and she’s apparently “given up” (though I really hate the association of fatness and weakness/softness) which is why she’s so hard on herself and why she doesn’t get that Henry still finds her attractive. But all we’ve really seen is “HAHA two sundaes!”
As Michelle Dean’s noted this is a storyline with a lot of potential to explore the politics of diet in the period (and by extension, now!) but we really didn’t see this. Maybe things will get richer and the show will do more with eating and fatness than making it a symbol for sadness and weakness. In season one Peggy’s pregnancy weight gain never seemed this simple even before we knew what it was. (At the time it kind of seemed like the sexual attention she was getting freaked her out so much that she was gaining weight as a way to stop being perceived as a sex object and just be allowed to do her job; in the end it wasn’t the case, but the fact that it felt possible made the pregnancy-plus-denial storyline so much more interesting.) One thing I loved about the early seasons of Mad Men was just how unlikable all the characters were - the acting was great and they were all so beautiful, but these were not people you’d want to be friends with. They were complex, messy, ugly people who were shaped by the society and the time they lived in; you felt for them and were interested in them but you didn’t always like them (except maybe Joan but I think that was mostly Christina Hendricks’ unstoppable charisma). I feel like the turn came when the whole gang founded SCDP (link is to a thing I wrote about it then) and they were a lovable ragtag renegade team of…advertisers? The only person who didn’t come out that well is Betty. I always thought that it was a pretty brave choice to keep Betty unlikable, to show how ugly oppression and abuse can make somebody; but at this point I’m not sure what they’re doing.
Don (thinking): Betty probably wouldn’t want other people to know she has cancer.
Don (to Megan, Roger, all of SCDP, the protesters on the streets downstairs): Betty has cancer!!!
Yes, to me this was the weirdest part of a weird cruel storyline! Don never tells anyone anything! Why does the new Don tell everyone everything? I really am hoping they are going somewhere with this?
What seems to be the most ubiquitous mistake in Mad Men is so frequent as to be invisible: the phrase “I need to.” Modern scripts set in 1960s, including Mad Men, use it constantly: it’s about as frequent as everyday words like “good,” “between,” or “most.” But to say “I need to” so much is a surprisingly modern practice: books, television shows, and movies from the 1960s use it at least ten times less often, and many never use it all. Sixties dialogue written back then used “ought to” far more often than modern imitators do. I checked several movies and TV seasons from 1960 to 1965, and all use “ought to” more often than “need to”; every modern show I could find set in the ’60s does the reverse. Google Ngrams shows the trend clearly as well.
That’s just a statistic, but it hints at something deeper. Even more than anachronism, a core theme of Mad Men is the lost art of personal reserve, self-effacement, and mystery. When Don Draper says, “Tell Jimmy I need to talk to him” in season 2 instead of “I have to talk to him,” it hits a slightly more narcissistic, self-revealing note than it should. A baby boomer might set up a business meeting by invoking his personal needs; but a member of the “silent generation”—particularly one living a double life like Draper—doesn’t talk about himself quite so readily."
This article has likely been posted a hundred times, but I love this observation.
This is fascinating! I don’t super-care about Mad Men not being perfectly historically accurate - it’s a show about looking at the past from the vantage point of now, and the kind of outside-the-characters insight that gives us, and they’ve made some really anachronistic music choices before (remember the Decemberists song they used in season 2?) - but I’m not sure what I think about this.
“It’s her father’s bedroom, and despite Sally and Don being neatly framed between the door jambs, they still don’t occupy the central area of the screen. Technically, nothing does, but scan down and the audience can see what it shortly will, only not from Sally’s perspective yet–the small of Megan’s back and the curve of her hips. Something is coming between Draper and the only woman he loves unconditionally, and Sally can see that something’s ass.”
This post makes me really happy.
Check out this week’s Lives column in the New York Times Magazine. I wrote it. It’s about my relationship with my mother, dresses, and Mad Men. Funny enough, it’s one of the most personal things I’ve written!
Bonus fun facts: my mom loves Mad Men now, but it literally took “watching each episode twice, to get through the bad feelings.” She even considered getting cable to watch this season. For this piece, she had to get fact checked by the New York Times Magazine. She also called me at one point to point out some typos in a draft. She’s really great.
This is a truly fantastic piece. The way Elisabeth brings together her and her mother’s lives through the lens of “Mad Men” — without stretching or exploiting — is really elegant.
I haven’t really been following this series, but someone on Vulture pointed this out and called bullshit and I have to agree. I generally like Vulture and generally don’t think that you need to have a specific identity to be a critic, but I really think that a Buffy vs Mad Men discussion should have been written by a woman. Or at least a man who didn’t repeatedly refer to Buffy as “sexy.”
Buffy the show was like Buffy the girl - she looked like a vapid, tiny blonde cheerleader - but actually she was stronger and smarter and had a way more complex emotional life than anyone could understand.
It’s not that Mad Men doesn’t get women right (I know at least one Buffy writer’s on staff there, even) - that scene where Joan rubs the mark her bra left on her shoulder is probably one of my favourite moments on TV ever - but Buffy means a lot, to me.
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