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Friday, 16 of April of 2021

Mad Men – “The Beautiful Girls”

“It’s a business of sadists and masochists. And you know which on you are.”

Joan lets in the mobile spa, Roger's gift to her.

Christina Hendricks in thick-frame glasses and pajamas? It’s like they know what I think about before I go to sleep at night.

I feel like I’m biologically and socially unprepared to fully address the issues brought up in this week’s Mad Men but I’m going to try my hand at it anyway. Feel free to correct my misguided views in the comments.

The title of the episode would lead you to believe that it’s just another day at the office for SCDP which is filled with the extraordinarily beautiful every day (except for Ms Blankenship, who was chosen specifically for who she is). It is, instead, much like the movie Beautiful Girls, an inspection of women in their position but, unlike that movie, this episode focuses more on the position of our leading ladies in the light of their time, particularly during the civil rights movement that continued without them.

So we look deeper into the lives of Joan, Peggy, and Faye as well as, and maybe most importantly, Sally Draper as well as Ms Blankenship (in a way). It is their success and the assumptions made about their success that this episode wants us to scrutinize and, even if some of their actions are irrational or seem unmotivated and inorganic (namely the scene with Joan and Roger in the bad neighborhood), it all has direction, precedent, and, at the very least, a little bit of simple symbolism.

And it all starts with another clash between Peggy and the anti-establishment.

Abe, the guy Peggy shares a smooch with at the Warholian party during “The Rejected”, resurfaces. Abe and Peggy have some conversation at the bar until it turns against her profession again. When Peggy brings up her accounts like Vicks and American Tobacco, she also mentions Fillmore Auto Parts. Abe knows the company and discusses how there’s a boycott going on due to the fact that the southern arm of the company isn’t too keen on equal employment. He asks her how she can work for a company (and industry even) that caters to a client that supports these kinds of ideas. Her naivete informs her response: obviously, if this were true, SCDP wouldn’t work with these kinds of people. Therefore Abe must wrong about the boycotts. But he’s not wrong. Peggy just assumes that she wouldn’t be part of something that supports something so against her ideals. Though Peggy isn’t exactly a revolutionary and the rhetoric has never really done anything for her before, the blind faith in her company (read: Don Draper) never prepared her for being a part of something that, to her, is ethically wrong. She’s aided many bad things in her career as Don’s protege but doing business with racists is where a lady has to draw the line. The conversation continues into Peggy discussing something more personal to her: women’s rights. Abe, unshielded from the superstructure of industry but still blinded by the patriarchy in which he still participates, uses sarcasm to laugh off her concerns, suggesting in jest that they march for women. Abe contrasts her “easy” existence to the far more difficult one of the racial minorities.

The assumption that her success came easy for her is an interesting one, especially since Peggy feels like she fought her way to where she is and, despite her being the shoulder onto which Don cries, she feels her position is tenuous at best, ripe for male takeover at any moment. So making light of her burden, as a female working in a world dominated (and held onto tightly) by males doesn’t impress her. Abe is kind of a bohemian clown here, not necessarily representative of the more eloquent of counter-culturalists but has enough of a grasp on the superstructure (though is blind to the patriarchy that benefits him) to put some cracks in the professional foundation Peggy has laid. Her devotion to Don and SCDP might be shaken a little bit here.

Abe’s continued advances, where he tries to make up for insulting her workplace and then her burden as a female in a penis-driven environment, only deal more damage as he compares her industry to a religion (a system that lulls the masses into obedience) in which she is not a priest (a member that understands the system, is entrenched in it, and is culpable for its follies) but merely a congregant (a sheep willed to do the bidding of the system but able to duck out when she realizes how flawed the system is). Let’s face it Peggy: as far as kissing dudes go, you’re batting 0 for 4 in this series. Pete is the biggest winner in your lot. Dark days for you.

What Peggy’s story does is tint everything else in the episode with the light of female burden in the workplace. The show focuses on the career-driven woman, particularly Peggy, Joan, and Faye. But of all the women at the office that day, the two most interesting are Ms Blankenship and Sally Draper.

It didn’t take long for Don to concede to his desire to see Faye naked and they even start off the episode with a clandestine meeting at Don’s. This is the inevitable conclusion to Don’s seduction, beginning with his squinty-eye-in-the-breakroom after learning Faye is not really married. But their fling is about to take a dramatic turn from all his other flings. When Sally Draper turns up at Don’s office, Don charges Faye as the de facto woman-in-his-life to take care of her, babysitting and, eventually, trying to get her to behave. Faye, as a woman that has put her career first and her domestic life on hold, has trouble dealing with the latter situation. She is unsure of her maternal instinct and, even though she’s wondered when she could meet the children, she never assumed she was take on a motherly role as she stands. You can chalk her up to the career-driven stereotype for now: a woman who feels she is unbalanced in the worlds of domesticity and her profession and can’t handle a tween. Understandable. There wasn’t any Justin Bieber at the time to ply her with.

Joan’s story is a little more interesting. Her storyline this season has dealt with her husband going to war (a definite as of this episode) and leaving her behind. I’ve mentioned in previous reviews that her connection with Greg is very different from her connection to the men in her office (namely Roger) and, the absence of Greg might encourage Roger to come in and fill the vacuum (so to speak). Joan has maintained faithfulness to Greg despite numerous disappointments in their marriage and joint-aspirations but the death of Ms Blankenship (probably a reminder to Joan of what her future might hold) wills them together for dinner and a walk home. Their chemistry is obviously still there, nothing more electric than when Joan calls Roger’s wife, with a smirk of sarcasm, “the woman behind the man.” Joan is very good being the woman behind the man. She is strong, independent, and powerful at work but her home life is, more or less, traditional for the time and she is there to support her man. Unfortunately, Greg is kind of a hack. She is used to a different caliber of man: accomplished, experienced, strong, not as whiny. As Greg tries to find his way to that end, Joan has it right in front of her in Roger, despite their marriages. This is where it gets a bit tricky for me.

On initial watch, I saw Roger and Joan get mugged and then do it in an alley together right afterward. The motivation to me seemed a little off. I understand that Roger helped spare their lives by conceding to the mugger calmly. But was that enough to seduce a married Joan Harris? But you have to look at it a little more metaphorically to fully understand their motivation. The mugger stole their rings. Greg is far, far away, quite possibly never to return (I still think he’s going to get shot in training camp) while Roger is dizzy and powerless to say “no” to Joan. Without their rings, they are themselves again, not the stronger halves of weak partnerships. Joan has always been what Roger wanted and Roger, now that she has experienced chaining herself to impotence, is what she actually wants, at least in the light (or darkness) of the high-adrenaline moment after having a gun pulled on you.

But, like I said, Sally Draper and Ms Blankenship make this episode. Ms Blankenship, particularly poignant throughout this episode (the quote at the top is hers), proving, once again, you are at your most eloquent and thought-provoking on your dying day. Besides her little nuggets of wisdom throughout and her connection to Bert Cooper (“No, it starts with an “L.” “The hell is does.”), most importantly is what she represents to people at the office. Clearly, being Don’s secretary provides a certain amount of fame but she never came off as a very popular member of the SCDP family but, after she’s gone, she marks pivotal moments for many of the characters. Peggy actually panics (eliciting the hilarious scene where Peggy unintentionally reiterates what Don has already told Sally Draper. “Do not come out of there!” “I know!”) and looks anxious. Meghan starts to cry (okay, some moments are not so pivotal), Joan looks the most rattled by staring at her abject, and Bert Cooper, who was just doing a crossword puzzle with her and is the oldest on staff, has nothing but kind words to say about her. Ms Blankenship represented every woman in that office in her upward mobility: Cooper mentions she was born in a barn and made it into a skyscraper. “She was an astronaut.” For a woman of her time and her age, that was being successful. By being Don’s secretary, she made it.

And then there is Sally Draper. Continuing her role as being one of the most interesting characters on the show and demonstrating the most character development in the series, Sally Draper shows up at SCDP and Betty decides it’s Don’s turn to deal with her. Obviously, Sally finds her environment to be crushing and unhappy so, understandably she wants to live with her “fun” dad. As harsh as Don can be, his leash is far looser than Betty, her sharpness devastating to Sally’s still developing self-esteem. When she’s with Don, she’s able to play house. She makes him French toast, though topping it with “rum” thinking it was syrup since the bottle looks like Mrs Butterworth (I say “rum” because a bottle of alcohol that looks like Mrs Butterworth is usually Frangelico, a hazelnut liqueur — though I’m no alcohol expert). The go to the zoo. Don is fun family man. He is understanding about her growing up, that kids get into trouble and push boundaries. It seems like at first she is looking for a less harsh household but the episode ends with something a little more simple than that (and somehow more devastating).

When Betty comes by the office to pick up her daughter, Sally refuses to go. Instead, she bolts down the hallway and falls flat on her face. The only people around to see it are the principal women in the office (Megan, Peggy, Faye, and Joan) plus Don. Megan is nearest so she picks her up and Sally immediately hugs her tightly and long enough to make a point. Betty is not affectionate to her children, especially lately as she descends into an angry spiral of melancholy. Betty might as well be a wireframe mother in a Harry Harlow experiment. Sally finds contact comfort with Megan (and, Noel points out, it’s probably made easier by her being a brunette) and a pit in your stomach forms when you realize that her parents have been so absent in her life in that respect. Don being physically absent and her mother emotionally has taken an indescribably toll. It’s no wonder she acts out.

When Sally is turned over to Betty in the lobby, they stand on one side of the room while the other women of the office stand against her, all women of feeling and warmth saddened to send the young girl into the grips of Betty’s coldness and hidden brush strokes. The women of SCDP are modern and strong while Betty still struggles with that role, living in the shadow of her traditional mother and resistant to spoil her child. Sally obviously wants to red-rover to the progressive world Don operates in but is, for now, trapped in Betty’s prison, at least until Don can get his life together (which will have to be long after he crashes and burns nuclear).

To end, I glossed over the race relations angle of the episode so here are some quick thoughts on it.

  • Peggy’s faith in her company and industry is shaken a little bit by ethical quandary. Is it their responsibility to deny a client in order to make a statement for them to change their policies? When she poses this to Don, his response is to be expected: essentially, they aren’t in the business of changing companies, just how an audience perceives them. Peggy’s assertion early is the idealistic version of Don’s. She assumes that their industry passes no judgement, that everyone has a chance to be heard. Don’s version is also that everyone has a chance to be heard as long as they have the money to pay for the best message. While Peggy believes in a level playing field, Don, who has to make more difficult decisions, knows the playing field isn’t equal but isn’t in a position to deny clients due to the company’s ethics. As Pete said earlier in the season, they’re trying to build something here.
  • I mentioned earlier that Abe is not the most deft representative 60s counter-culture but enough of a taste to get Peggy’s gears cranking. His view on the world descending into revolution, his perspective on race relations, and his blindness to patriarchal oppression lead me to believe he comes from privilege and honestly feels the cause but is just regurgitating the rhetoric. I can’t be sure if the writers intended his arguments on social problems to be biased in this way or if the writers are actually biased like this but I want to believe the former.
  • Minorities in the white-washed world of Mad Men are few and far between so, when a person of color shows up, you take notice. Here, a black man mugs Roger and Joan in a bad neighborhood. Is this just a coincidental casting decision or the intended antipode to Abe’s rhetoric? Probably the former but what point are they trying to make if it’s the latter?

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