Thursday, July 1, 2010

The best revenge is living well

It's our national holiday in Canada today, something I should have thought of before promising to deliver deep thoughts on the resolution of Season 2 today. The following may be a little scattered and I apologize but I am bashing it all out because I will soon be seriously embroiled in barbecue and drink-mixing responsibilities. I won't around here for the rest of the day.

The virtues of mad men
More Meditations in an Emergency
There is an interview somewhere on the web where Matt Weiner says that Betty was a child in season one and an adolescent in season two. He said that during season two when he presumably thought he could make her mature to a stage something like young adulthood for season 3. Well, we've all seen Season 3 so we don't have to pretend: he failed.

That said I think this season is his finest hour with her. I see myself in her behaviour here. I don't see any part of myself that I am very proud of but I know these responses.  Many years ago, in a relationship now long over, I found myself the victim of infidelity. I suppose most people do these days. In any case, Betty's behaviour strikes me as just the sort of adolescent stupidity that we should be willing to forgive in others.

Like a pregnant teen
We learn Betty is pregnant. I think we are also supposed to surmise that she has known this herself for a while. The hard riding session of a few episodes now takes on a different light. Betty is behaving very much like a teen here. Upon first getting into "trouble", she goes into a mixture denial and hoping for some sort of deus ex machina salvation. The hard riding was done in the hope of triggering some sort of miscarriage. And we see that she immediately goes riding again even tough her doctor tells her not to this episode.

But why does she have casual sex with a complete stranger? Well, I my (cynical) guess is there were three semi-conscious desires driving this, only one of which is worth any serious comment.

Let's get the two not worth talking about out of the way;
  1. She has anonymous sex because everyone including the staff on the show wanted to see Betty get it good for purely prurient reasons.
  2. She has anonymous sex because the writers were feeling guilty that they couldn't let Sal have the sex scene he would have in any credible story because they know the audience wouldn't accept any actual gay sex so they shot the scene Sal should have had with Betty.
There is a third possibility that makes moral and psychological sense to me. And that is simply that this is the way a lot of people who have been wronged on behave.  It's as if some weird aspect of us on being hurt compels us to lower ourselves morally to the same depths as the person who hurt us.

It's definitely got a revenge motive to it but it is a kind of revenge that always fails because it lowers us while not having the desired retributive effect. Of course, if we thought it through ... but, as the toast the guy in the bar offers Betty,  "To not thinking about things." I think we do it, as paradoxical as this may seem, to have an excuse to avoid having to seriously confront our moral lives. in different ways, Betty, Pete and Peggy do stupid things to others this episode.

Peggy and Pete
Pete's attempt to hurt carries the richest irony. Mr. Insensitive says something purely to hurt another and she is so wrapped up in herself that she misses it

There must be a name for the literary device wherein someone speaks the literal truth and the person they are speaking to takes the meaning as something else. Something like that happens in this episode. Pete and Trudy are arguing about whether he should accompany her to her parents summer place while the missile crisis plays out. Here are the key lines:
Trudy says: And yes I love my parents and they love me. Do you? If you did, you'd want to be with me.
Pete says: You're right.
And he, we realize although she does not, means just what he says. He doesn't want to be with her and he doesn't love her. Trudy either doesn't catch it or chooses not to catch it.

This sets him up on a  weird collision course with something going on in Peggy's life. She is also seeking atonement and reconciliation. Father Gill, who has been doing things very well up to now, blows it by telling Peggy that she could go to hell if she doesn't seek reconciliation. Peggy says she doesn't believe God is like that and leaves. But she still needs to tell someone. So she tells Pete.

It's one of the oddest confessions you'll ever hear. For starters, it isn't true. Peggy was in denial about her pregnancy first season and continued to be so even after the child was born. Here she lies and tells Pete she could have used the pregnancy as a way to make him marry her. Besides which, Pete was already married so she could not have used it that way even if she had been rationally capable of doing so, which she wasn't.

So the whole confession is a lie from start to finish. So, why does she say what she says. The only explanation that makes sense to me is that, like Betty, she is acting like an adolescent. She is seeking not reconciliation but to hurt Pete. When she puts her hand on his shoulder at the end of it and says, "Sorry Pete," she is not apologizing for  anything at all. She is savouring the pain she has caused.

Don and only Don gets it right
Okay, I realize that many, many people will disagree with me here but I think Don is the only character in the show who shows real virtue consistently (followed by Roger, a point I will return to). No, he isn't perfect and his serial infidelities are a serious character flaw. We also should hold his poor marriage against him. Marriage is a serious thing and we saw last episode that Don's reasons for marrying Betty were not good.

But Don Draper is fully committed to being Don Draper. He is not just playing this part but determined to become it. That is what real virtue is. There is real pathos here. Don does have virtue and he has spent it all on this worthless woman. It's a mistake we all might have made. I came close once but avoided it. I wonder what is like to be Don sitting there at the kitchen table after Betty tells him she is pregnant and having to realize that the only reason she has taken you back is because she needs someone to take care of her again. What is it like to realize you're the only morally mature adult in your marriage? I'm sure glad that's not me.

The painful irony that arose from Pete's comment that he'd follow Don into combat back in Season 1 has now been reversed. At the time it was irony because we were about to discover that Don, back when he was Dick Whitman, was exactly the guy you wouldn't want to follow in a crisis.  But he isn't Dick Whitman anymore. He is Don Draper now.

Climbing up on my soapbox, that is how I think we all should live: pick the character you want to be and become him. Forget all this nonsense about being who you truly are inside. Instead we should pick the outside we want to be and then figure out how to fill it.

And, no matter what life does to us, the best revenge is living well. Doing what Don does here—trying to make his marriage work anyway—is always better than the cheap responses that Betty, Pete and Peggy indulge in. Even if we don't get what we want, even if we suffer and our spouse leaves us anyway, we ourselves will be better for making the virtuous choice.

Season 2 blogging begins here.

The next entry on this episode's will be here when there is a next entry.

(Season one begins here if you are interested.) 


  1. "Instead we should pick the outside we want to be and then figure out how to fill it."

    I agree completely but with one caveat. You're talking about basically well-integrated people who, maybe because of circumstances, might choose to re-invent themselves, pick someone as a role model and then strive to emulate them. The people in Mad Men, I think it is safe to say, are not well-integrated, in fact they are quite the opposite. Don Draper picked the outside he wanted to be, as far as I can tell based solely on looks, wealth, and social standing, but has no clue about how to fill it. Assuming the identity of a dead man, his treatment of Adam, and his myriad infidelities are symptomatic of that. If he had any idea he would have seen what a child Betty was and never have married her. But emotionally he is almost as much of a child as she is, what you see as virtue I see as playing a role and, in part, a reaction to his own upbringing. Is he a work in progress, of course he is as we all are. And hopefully he will learn from his experience with Betty and begin to figure out how to connect the dots by looking inside himself. The same can be said of Pete and Peggy, something is missing at the very core of who they are, but to a lesser degree than Don. The only person who comes close to well-integrated is, I hate to say it, Pete's wife Trudy. She figured out his infidelity and dealt with it with grace and dignity. Because she knows and loves who she is at her core, and she genuinely loves Pete. She doesn't see her identity as Pete's wife, nor is she trying to find it in a career, she already had it before she met Pete. Contrast how Trudy handled Pete's infidelity with how Betty handled Don's. People can change who they are, but not simply by buying a stylish wardrobe and learning how to be witty at cocktail parties.

  2. "Doing what Don does here—trying to make his marriage work anyway—is always better than the cheap responses that Betty, Pete and Peggy indulge in."

    How quickly you forget. In Season 1 Don was ready to--begged--Rachel Mencken to run away to California with him when he thought Pete Campbell was going to expose him as Dick Whitman to Bert Cooper. For the first time she saw his innate shallowness and cowardice, she even said "how can you just leave everything, your children?" Yet if she had said yes he would have done it in a heartbeat. And Rachel, wisely, ended the affair.

  3. You write: "what you see as virtue I see as playing a role".

    And that is a very good way of putting it. That is exactly where we differ. I think virtue is a matter of playing a role (which, not incidentally, is also the way Aristotle saw it) The modern way (meaning the post-romantic way) says there is a "real me" who exists outside of the roles we play. I think we are our roles. The roles "Man", "older brother", "husband", "writer" and "Catholic" are what define me. Those roles are what I am. There is no Jules outside of those roles. (Of course, it then follows that we have to be very careful about what roles and role models we pick for ourselves.)

    Yes, Don has all sorts of problems but I think the show also shows us how he develops as a character and a as human being. He never entirely overcomes his flaws (and neither do I) but we see him getting better at being Don Draper as we go along. I will try and say more about this in the intro to season 3 on Monday.

    As to Rachel, you are absolutely right. Don does just want to run away at the end of Season 1 and Rachel does wisely see that in him. But note what happens next: Rachel runs away from her problems and Don stays and faces his. And that pattern repeats in Season 2: he wants to run away but does not and returns to face his problems. But, Roger, Betty, Pete and Peggy also just want to run away from their problems too and comparatively speaking Don is the one who handles the struggle best. Not perfectly by any stretch of the imagination but I think we can learn from him. That is the wonderfully subversive thing about the show ... but I'd better stop or I'll steal all my own thunder from Monday's post.

  4. "The roles "Man", "older brother", "husband", "writer" and "Catholic" are what define me. Those roles are what I am."

    That's right, but they don't tell me if you are good, honest, true to yourself and others, mentally sound, well-integrated, etc etc. The roles you speak of are the outer shell, those other characteristics is what fills out the roles. Draper's flaw is that he thinks that the outer shell--husband, father, successful ad exec--makes a whole person. He believes his own press or what he would like others to believe about him, and can't figure out why he is unhappy or blames others for his unhappiness.

  5. "Rachel runs away from her problems and Don stays and faces his."

    As I recall, Rachel was written out of the script after that last encounter with Don. We don't see her again until Season 2 or 3 when Don and Bobbie Barrett run into her and her husband at Sardi's.

    Don stays, but he doesn't face his problems, he continues in the lie that he is living with the help of Bert Cooper who says "Who cares?" Only when Betty pries open the desk drawer, finds the divorce decree between Don Draper and Anna and pics of Dick Whitman, and confronts him with it does he finally confess to her, but only because he's forced to, she's cornered him. And, if you'll recall, that all happened while the hippie schoolteacher he had been banging was waiting for him in his car outside his house for him to come back. When he doesn't return after who knows how long, the hippie schoolteacher gets out of the car and walks home in the dark, which was one of the most poignant scenes in the series.

    There's an expression "Crazy finds crazy" in other words healthy people don't connect with sick people, at least not for very long. Betty and Don were attracted to each other's shells or roles, and made certain assumptions about each other based on their shells. He assumed she was a mature adult, she assumed he was honest with her. They were both wrong (surprise surprise) but how adolescent is that?!

  6. Rachel runs away. It goes by quickly so it's easy to miss. The very next episode, Bert tells Don that he has been talking to Mr. Mencken and that she has taken time off to go on a round-the-world cruise.

  7. That's right, I had forgotten that. Still, I don't think that's running away from her problems in the same way Don would have been if he had gone to California with her. He would have left his wife and children to avoid dealing with what he thought would ensue if Bert Cooper hadn't given him a pass. She went on the cruise presumably to get over or heal from her relationship with Don when she realized there was no future with him.