"Just pull up on the reins, straighten her out. You can't let her do that." -Betty DraperFor the first couple of episodes of season two, Don hasn't seemed quite himself. If he hasn't quite reverted back to his cowardly Dick Whitman persona, he's still been adrift, and almost distressingly passive. At home, he walks on eggshells around Betty, and can't even perform sexually on Valentine's Day. At work, he barely seems to realize how Duck Phillips seems determined to cut his legs out from under him. And where before we would see him skip out of the office for trysts with Midge or Rachel, now he's reduced to sitting in art house cinemas, trying to look interested in the latest French film import.
"And you don't for a minute think you might be hurting her?" -Arthur Case
"She needs to be told what to do." -Betty Draper
Even his rainy day front-seat adventure with Bobbie Barrett wasn't the Don we're used to. This was Don in the stereotypical female role, with his mouth saying no while Bobbie insisted his eyes said yes, and Don reluctantly whoring himself out to this attractive but abrasive woman(*) in order to save the account and his own skin. It's only when he realizes that it didn't work -- that Bobbie will just keep laughing at him and wrapping him around her little finger -- that he wakes up and does what Betty told Arthur to do to his rebellious horse.
(*) Bobbie superficially fits Don's type as an independent, outspoken woman, but she has a cruel streak that neither Midge nor Rachel possessed. Yet as much as Don obviously dislikes her, a part of him has to be turned on by her to perform in the car, no?
Don's power move -- grabbing Bobbie by the, um, reins and telling her, "Believe me: I will ruin him. Do what I say." -- is at once shocking, hilarious, fist-pumping and stomach-churning. There is so much wrong with what he's doing there, and yet Bobbie's been depicted so awfully, and their brief relationship depicted so bleakly, and our natural tendency at this point in the series is to root for Don to succeed in solving whatever problem's put in front of him, that on some level it plays as the triumphant moment we've been waiting for from Don for three episodes. Once again, Matt Weiner studied well at the feet of David Chase; this is the sort of thing Tony Soprano might have done, in a way that made him more likable, not less.
But Don solving the Jimmy Barrett/Utz problem comes at a personal cost. We still don't know all the details of the emotional negotiations that went on between Mr. & Mrs. Draper after the end of season one, but two deal points seem clear by now: 1)That, as Betty puts it in the car ride home from Lutece, Don try harder to involve her in his life; and 2)That Don cut out the cheating, immediately. Don seemed sincere in his desire to stick to the latter point -- check out the haunted look on his face (beautifully played by Jon Hamm) after Betty gives him the engraved watch -- and yet I have a feeling that this incident with Bobbie was like a dam bursting, and that the distance between the Drapers is going to grow ever-wider as this season moves along.
Which isn't to say things were all Leave It To Beaver even before Don and Bobbie got trapped by the hailstorm. We've seen how cold and controlling Betty has been towards Don and the kids over the last few episodes, and we've now seen two different incidences -- first with the tow truck driver, now with Arthur -- where Betty walked all the way up to the precipice of adultery before pulling back at the last minute. If we continue with the psychiatrist's theory that Betty has the mind of a child, then this makes sense. She's hurt by Don's cheating, and wants to both punish him in kind and experience the thrill of an affair, but really all she wants is the idea of an affair. The real thing is too scary and gross for her. She's having a swell time flirting with Arthur at the stables until he has to go and make an overt play for her; that's when she tries to shut him down by telling him not to ruin the way things are.
And because Betty's not used to men speaking to her candidly, she's not prepared to be told, quite rightly, that she looks "profoundly sad." "No, it's just my people are Nordic" is a funny line and a decent cover, and Arthur undermines his point by using it as a come-on, but he's got her nailed, and it's that as much as his sexual advances that brings back the return of Betty's shaking hands (last seen early in season one) as she struggles to light her cigarette. As Betty sits in that car at episode's end, reflecting on another night of her husband using her as window dressing for a deal -- or, in this case, worse: bait for the leering of a famous drunk -- she can't hide from it anymore. She plays to Don like she's happy to be part of his life, but she's crying because she realizes that, yes, she is profoundly sad, and has no idea how to go about improving this state of things.
The episode's B-story involves the other man at Sterling-Cooper whose wife found out about his adultery at the end of season one, and who cut some kind of deal in between seasons to keep his marriage going: bespectacled, nebbishy Harry Crane. As with Don and Betty, we still don't know all the details of how Harry patched things up with Jennifer, but he does mention that "You told me you wanted me to tell you if I was upset." (Maybe he blamed the one-night stand with Hildy on being depressed over Kennedy beating Nixon?)
Whatever went down, Harry's story here shows us what life is like on the lower rungs of the Sterling-Cooper corporate ladder. Because Harry usually appears in a group with Pete and Ken and Paul, there's this assumption that they're all on the same level, but that's obviously not the case. Ken no doubt got some favorable attention from the bosses after his Atlantic story was published, and beyond that he seems a much more confident and slicker (not to mention more blatantly sexual harassment-y) operator than Harry. Harry's initial reaction to learning of the salary discrepancy is almost like how Pete acted last year about the open head of accounts job: he just assumes he deserves to make more, regardless of what he's producing. But after some sarcastic prodding from Salvatore (who was channeling his inner Joan in that scene) and a fortuitous chat with a buddy at CBS, Harry stumbles on a situation that helps him get attention and a promotion, if not a raise to Ken's level. (And, really, once Roger lied about the salary scale, how could Harry call his bluff without getting into trouble in some way?)
"The Defenders" was a real TV show of the early '60s -- co-starring Robert Reed, a decade before he'd be dispensing homilies to Bobby and Cindy on "The Brady Bunch" -- and "The Benefactor" was an actual, and very controversial episode, that aired on in the spring of 1962 (I have conflicting dates of March 28 and April 28 from TV.com and IMDb, neither of them that reliable about old TV, but either way it was within a couple of months after American Flight 1 crashed into Jamaica Bay). In real life, the episode aired with minimal sponsorship, and CBS claimed that viewer response was 90% positive. Is it that Americans were more open-minded than we would think in 1962, or just that political forces were less well-organized? Either way, a TV show talking bluntly about abortion, and featuring its heroes making an argument for its legalization, was yet another sign of the impending cultural/sexual revolution.
Some other thoughts on "The Benefactor":
• Bobbie is played by Hey! It's That Girl! Melinda McGraw, whom you may remember from such projects as "The Dark Knight" (as Jim Gordon's wife), "Desperate Housewives" (as a personal/professional rival of Lynnette's) or "The X-Files" (as Scully's sister), among others.
• You have to admire Matt Weiner's willingness to proceed at his own pace. After last week's episode set so many balls in motion, this one didn't feature even a glimpse of Pete or Paul, gave Peggy only one line (although the look on her face when she watches "The Defenders" episode spoke volumes about what she might have done about her pregnancy with 20/20 hindsight), and the only hint about the American Airlines story was the shot of Salvatore erasing the Mohawk logo from an ad mockup. Again, anywhere from a few weeks to two months have passed since the events of the previous episode, so Sterling-Cooper could already be in business with American, or Salvatore could just be working on a sales pitch, but either way, Weiner's less concerned with plotting than he is with character.
• The story that Arthur invokes when describing his fiancee's wealth is "The Diamond As Big as the Ritz," an early F. Scott Fitzgerald short story about a college student who crosses paths with an impossibly wealthy man who will stop at nothing to protect the secret of his riches. You can read it here.
• Adjusted for inflation, Ken's $300/week salary in 1962 would be about $2000/week in 2007 dollars, while in modern terms Harry negotiates himself a raise from about $1300 to $1500 a week.
• The Belle Jolie exec who reluctantly turns down Harry's "Defenders" pitch is Elliot Lawrence, who invited Salvatore to dinner -- and then up to his hotel room -- in one of the best scenes in season one. Now that Salvatore has burrowed deep into the closet, note how cold he is to Elliot's innocuous question about how he's doing. Note also Elliot lamenting the fact that he doesn't work for a more progressive company; he's overtly talking about the abortion episode, but there are surely other ways in which Belle Jolie could be a friendlier place for him to work.
• Great throwaway joke/character moment: Roger, post-heart attack, refuses to carry his own cigarettes but thinks nothing of bumming one off of Ken.
• A part of me wishes that they had shown us Don and Bobbie's meeting entirely in that gorgeous two-shot, with both of them in silhouette and the bar set from the Utz commercial looking minimalist, almost black-and-white, as if they were two characters in a Broadway show.
• On the one hand, it's unfair that part of Lois' job description involves lying for the boss when he plays hooky. On the other hand, that is part of her job description, and it was one of many parts that Lois seemed to be terrible at. Plus, this creates the delightful scenario of Joan as Don's interim secretary. Joan already knows things about Don that she shouldn't courtesy of Peggy's big mouth early in season one, and it's not like she has a moral objection to covering for adultery, but it'll be interesting to see how Don interacts with an assistant who's as tough and plugged in to office politics as he is, if not moreso.
• Also interesting that Don complains to Joan about Peggy being good at the secretary job but not wanting it. He seems perfectly happy with her as his copywriting protege, so is this just him telling Joan what she wants to hear, or does a part of him wish Peggy hadn't been so upwardly mobile?
• Did Roger get a new office between seasons? I haven't done a frame-by-frame comparison between the scene where Harry gets his promotion and the seduction of the twins sequence from "The Long Weekend," but this place looked lighter and more cavernous than the old one. It could be the lighting, I suppose. Also, I thought it was a nice touch that Roger either had no idea who Harry was, or at least pretended that he didn't. Either way seems very Roger.
• This is two shows in the same weekend where I find myself discussing Utz chips (admittedly, the other one is an episode of "The Wire" that originally aired six years ago). As with many real brands, "Mad Men" has fictionalized things a bit, as the company was owned and run by the Utz family, not someone named Schilling.
What did everybody else think?