Nights to remember
With this episode the writers really concentrated on Betty Draper's character. The title obviously refers not just to a slogan that Peggy comes up with for Father Gill but also to the night that Don would forget and Betty is determined not to forget. This is Don's usual approach. When he has some morally distasteful issue to deal with, he swallows hard and then moves on. And we saw that he advised Peggy to do likewise.
But what about the flip side? What if you are the wronged person? How do you get past this and move on?
An aside, a guy who is a friend of one of my friends has recently come into my life in a very minor way. He carries considerable resentment towards his brother and is currently nursing a grudge about some bluntly insensitive things his brother said to him in a recent argument about politics. The brother tried to apologize but this guy doesn't believe the apology was sufficient. And he may be right; what I have to say here isn't about him.
What struck me as interesting, though, was something the brother said, "Oh well, I'll die unforgiven and you'll die bitter." Again, I have no idea who is right in this dispute but those are the stakes. No one wants to die unforgiven and no one wants to die bitter. And the deeper question is can we solve all our conflicts ourselves? That is, is it enough for one person to forgive and the other person to apologize? It might seem as if it is and it might seem that when there is conflict it is because one of us cannot do the big thing and either apologize or forgive.
The religious view says it is not enough, however. That we need God to be justified. And we need him whether we are the offender or the aggrieved.
The other aspect of being wronged is the one drawn out by the old advice, "The best revenge is living well." The point being not to get reduced to the same level as the person who has wronged you. To not simply "move on" to a position where we are morally diminished by our attempts at recovery. That would be even worse than being bitter.
As we will see, Betty fails on all fronts. That is good because it is consistent with her character. What is really good about this and the following episodes is how convincingly that playes out. Here we are forced to confront Betty as a failed human being but very much as human. We can fault her butw e cannot hate her anymore.
Ridden hard and put away wet
We start with Betty riding and riding hard. She has, we will see in subsequent episodes, multiple motives for this. But even without knowing that, we should know by now that Betty's central problem as a person is her utter lack of self awareness. She does not understand her own motives and actions.
A reasonable argument could be made, although I would disagree, that Don represents the opposite extreme. Matt Weiner and the rest of the writing team would probably make that argument so don't give up just because I disagree.
In any case, Betty promptly, and foolishly, launches an all-fronts war on Don. In the process, she forgets that she does not actually have any hard evidence. If you've ever been there (and these days being the victim or perpetrator of sexual infidelity is an almost universal experience) you will know that there is a stage where you know something is wrong but don't know it in the sense of having proof. Betty saw Don and Bobbie together after hearing Jimmy's accusation and had one of those moments where it all made sense.
And we know, of course, that her suspicions are correct but she does not know this. The show handles this very well. Betty is angry but has nothing specific to accuse Don of having done.
Something the show does not go into much is the Jimmy. He is her primary source of information and no one in their right mind would take anything Jimmy says as solid currency. The man is a nihilistic slimeball. Betty recoils from him when he first introduces the subject but we see that already she is going down the road to becoming like him.
I wonder how the folks at Heineken feel about being so closely identified as a girly beer in this episode?
In any case, the self knowledge question comes up very nicely around the Heineken issue. Don understands Betty well enough to know that she will like Heineken. She is very angry when this comes to her knowledge and accuses Don of having embarrassed her. Okay, we all know that the real problem is the affair and that all these minor irritants she has been saddling Don with are really signs of her frustration; because she is certain something has happened but has no way of getting beyond his denials.
But why is this particular minor irritant the flash point? Because it underlines how well he understands her. A more reflective Betty might notice that what Don knows about her is her character and not specific facts about what she has or has not done. And she might ask herself how it is that she has been married to this man all these years and failed to learn anything about his character. She might also ask herself how well she knows her own.
In the past, I have hammered these points because they were so poorly worked out. What is different this and other episodes close to it is that the writers seem to have finally wakened up to Betty. They seem to have realized that she is not a convincing victim. That the Betty Friedan thesis, while it may make interesting reading, makes very poor drama.
It makes poor drama, BTW, because it isn't convincing when you try to embody it in real human beings. (This is also true of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. The second anyone tried to dramatize it, the falseness of the book became obvious.)
It's an interesting detail that Don looks Betty right in the eye when he sets out to lie to her. That is the mark of a practised liar. But it is also the mark of someone who genuinely means to be something. Do you promise to walk your new puppy every day? You screw up your courage, look your mother right in the eye and say you do. It's also what we do as adults.
It's what you do when you make your wedding vows. No one knows that they will be able to keep their vows. We know we mean to, of course, but it is how we live the rest of our lives that determines whether that is true or not. Which is to say, it's not a factual claim and it's not even a matter of intention. And the scene where Betty walks downstairs and says that she "doesn't want it to be like this" plays on this brilliantly. Don keeps giving the response he would have given at their wedding: "I Do." She keeps making all sorts of wild accusations about his character that only show how little she understands him. This is a very powerful scene.
It's like good television advertising really. In a tiny vignette, we get a powerful look into a failed marriage. We can see how both these characters have failed their marriage and how neither knows how to solve the problem.
By the way, the subplot of Joan and Greg is a nice mirror here. He completely fails to understand her character in the same way that Betty fails to understand Don's.
What isn't so clear is the longer run. Both characters are failing because they are more interested in knowing specific facts about the other rather than knowing their characters. Anyone can lie about their past. Most people do lie and do so for perfectly good reasons. But no one can lie about their character. It is present in everything they do and say. Neither Betty nor Greg seem to realize this.
Father Gill and atonement
It's exceptionally rare to find convincing portraits of Catholic priests in modern drama so it is something of a joy to find Father Gill here. There are flaws in the portrait the biggest of which is his and Peggy's sister's disregard of the sanctity of the confessional that I noted earlier.
That said, there is a good attempt to show a priest trying so very hard to be modern. One of the things that often gets left out of portraits of the early 1960s is the crucial role played by liberal Christianity. We see it here in the Peter, Paul and Mary song that serves as the outro.
This liberal Christianity failed miserably and that is probably why it gets so little attention. Modern secularly inclined people have little interest in past religious failures. Modern liberal Christians don't like to be reminded that their movement has produced a series of unmitigated failures. And modern conservative Christians have little interest in revisiting the battle they have won when they are busy fighting others. So it doesn't get talked about.
But you cannot understand this era without factoring liberal Christianity in. (You could also say that you cannot understand it without factoring liberal Judaism in but the series avoids that issue a little too pointedly.)
And the thing that matters, the reason all these characters need God is because they need atonement. They don't, as Betty says, want it to be like this.
The good news is that the series is back on track. After wasting a couple of episodes just fooling around, the theme that we began on is back front and centre. Let's see how they handle it over the rest of the season.
We get to meet Joan's doctor a little more fully this episode. The writers use the moment to get a great dig in at themselves. Joan asks Greg if it is possible for someone to come out of a coma with an accent they didn't have before. When Greg tells Joan that people don't come out of coma's much, she says:
"It must have happened to somebody, they wouldn't make it up completely right?"And Greg says,
"Probably once. It makes a good story."I think this obviously a dig at their own writing Peggy being unaware of her own pregnancy in Season 1. Yes it has happened but that doesn't make it good drama. Drama has to be more probable than real life.
I'll give a trivial example of this. Because birds do poop while flying it does happen that people get hit with bird poop. It does not work in drama except as low comedy to have this happen. Any time it does, it is just too obvious that the writer made this happen. (This is a lesson that neither Thomas Hardy nor Tiom Wolfe ever seem to have learned.)
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The next episode blog will be here.
(Season one begins here if you are interested.)