I’ve been waiting for a more office-centric Mad Men episode and I finally got one; it was everything I’d hoped it would be.
Honor and forgiveness were the underlying structure of “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.” Betty’s inability to forgive anyone for anything, Don’s brilliant bid for the Honda execs’ honor, Joan’s assurance to Roger that times have changed since World War II, Roger’s wounded outburst, “Since when is forgiveness a better trait than loyalty?” Don might even be starting to forgive himself, as he no longer passively accepts Betty’s barbs and opens up to Dr. Miller about his children.
Don Draper has been an increasingly pitiable figure; tonight, we got to see why he still deserves his quarter of the company’s name. The man who lets no one know him shows that he understands exactly what makes others tick, even on an international level. Allowing his competition to believe he was making a full television spot, then feigning a resignation from competition because the Honda crew failed to honor their own standards was brilliant.
On a more superficial level, the faux ad campaign gave us one of the most memorable Mad Men images we’ve seen this season: Peggy driving in circles on a blank gray stage on her little red Honda. It’s also delicious for us to know just how important Honda’s automotive division will be in the not-too-distant future. Roger was more wrong than he knew, and Joan’s reassurance to him that what he’d fought for made the world a safer place was a generous gift for her to give him. Roger’s the old guard; this won’t be the first episode of the season in which he seems shockingly out of touch, I suspect.
It was also encouraging to see Don open a window, however small, into his life. The simple declarations he made to Doctor Faye over sake–that he missed his children, but didn’t know what to do with them and was relieved to drop them off–were more self-revelatory than anything we have heard Don say to anyone but Anna. Don’s a troubled guy, yet it’s impossible not to feel some empathy for him and hope for some warmth and light in his soul.
Betty, by contrast, has all the warmth of a pit viper. Instead of causing empathy, she might inspire pity as she hastens to paint the right picture of her own childhood and parenting for Sally’s psychiatrist. However, the way she takes out her own issues on Sally–threatening to cut her fingers off, telling her that “you don’t do that in public, you don’t do that in private,” giving Don the expected “river of shit” about Sally’s impromptu haircut–destroys any sympathy I could feel for her. She couldn’t even take her to the doctor, instead leaving it to Carla.
Maybe it’s just me, though, and others see Betty as a beleaguered and damaged soul with a difficult child? Part of the joy of Mad Men is wondering if others see the subtleties or even the broader brush-strokes in exactly the same way. Still, the way she falls all over herself to assure her shocked neighbor that “I would have done the same” in her treatment of Sally can only emphasize the essential nature of Betty–conformity above all else.
As for Sally, cutting her hair is something anyone who has ever been a tween would understand. Flicking the bean in a semi-public environment, though, makes me wonder if Sally isn’t more in need of the nice redheaded doctor than even Betty believes. It’s hard not to see Mad Men through a modern prism and fail to appreciate just how surprising that would’ve been. Sally’s ignorance about sex and masturbation is profound; what’s more shocking is that Betty is barely better-informed or comfortable with the subject than her pre-teen daughter.
I want to hate Henry. He lives in Don’s house and coddles his simple-minded ex-wife unbearably. I should find him an odious twerp, yet his kindness toward the Draper kids and willingness to cajole infantile Betty into treating Sally with a modicum of consideration makes him impossible to loathe. Both Henry and Don cried out at Betty’s slapping Sally; that melted my Henry-hating heart just a little more. I wonder how long it will be until Henry finds his big blonde doll of a wife is no longer so easily managed with soft words.
Despite Sally’s issues and Betty’s cruelty to her, the overall episode still had more frothy humor than bleak anomie. It was good to see SCDP–even one in which Roger and Pete reveal how dysfunctional that work relationship is becoming–as a hot property with stellar talent again. Don deserves to have his moments of brilliance, especially in the office.
It’s good to see that not every episode of Mad Men needs to brood. Sometimes a snickering boob joke or woefully bad secretary is just the right amount of fluff to stuff around more serious subjects.