Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 6.9
"Margins, Regressions, and Betty’s Little Smile"
Guest Writer: Eleanor Courtemanche

Monday, May 27, 2013

[The eighth in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 6 of AMC's Mad Men, posted in collaboration with the publication of MAD MEN, MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"Margins, Regressions, and Betty’s Little Smile"

Written by: Eleanor Courtemanche (English)


It might be summer 1968 in the world of Mad Men, but it’s freezing cold outside. Nothing’s worse than being left alone, either at a breakfast table, on the balcony of your posh Upper East Side apartment, or in the middle of a sterile advertising agency. A thug might shoot you as you’re walking alone through Central Park!


We first hear the sirens when Megan fails to interest Don in dinner, and they sound louder and louder until the rock comes crashing through the window of Abe and Peggy’s apartment. Worst case scenario: you yourself are the midnight thug. You knife your boyfriend in the gut by accident, and then have him break up with you in the ambulance before he passes out. No, even worse: you tell your crushworthy boss about your sad breakup and he gives you the cold shoulder, disguised as a cheery admonition to get to work. At least you have your mentor … but then Don closes his door as well, leaving you—Peggy—stranded outside the empty conference room, in the episode’s last chilly image.


In scary circumstances (let’s not forget that Bobby Kennedy was shot in a hotel kitchen at the end of the last episode), people seek shelter. But relationships in this show are a game of musical chairs: someone always gets left out. So this episode is a series of frantic transactions as characters try to maximize their desirability to others while keeping their own choices open. Peggy starts the show as the fulcrum of the new hybrid agency SCDP/CGC: when Ted and Don can’t compromise between their competing margarine pitches, they both turn to Peggy to break the tie. Peggy wins, clearly—Pete’s protestations that he “agrees with Don” only emphasize his total irrelevance in the agency’s power structure. Nobody wants you, Pete! Pete, your only superpower is your massively receding hairline.

So Pete goes to a headhunter, seeking to increase his status at work with an outside offer. Surprise: the headhunter is none other than Duck Phillips, now in a superior market position channeling the desire of others. Duck reveals the episode’s logic of scarcity, but also gives Pete the surprisingly traditional key to all market values: “I used to be you … but I didn’t understand the wellspring of my competence: my family.” He can’t offer Pete anything for the usual ironic reason that Pete actually wants something, that he’s desperate and he’s bargaining from a weak position. He offers him Wichita, but who wants Wichita? Wichita is the Pete of Midwestern cities. Duck tells Pete he can’t get anywhere at work unless he fixes his family problem, which consists in valuing work more than his family. Not being able to fix value in its endless substitution of desire, capitalism requires a supplement to serve as the reason for it all; and Duck diagnoses Pete’s problem by the fact that they’re having a meeting in Pete’s terrible depressing apartment. Pete’s apartment was supposed to give him everything—both family and an endless series of free mistresses—but instead he got nothing but the spectre of aging alone, like his raving, domineering mother, rejected by every nursing agency in New York. With the air of a fairy-tale oracle, Duck tells Pete that “You’d better manage that [your family], or you’re not gonna manage anything.” In this episode, work status ultimately takes second place to success in the so-called “private” world of family love.


But in Mad Men, family life is anything but a stable source of value. Was your head spinning, like mine, with all the doublings and substitutions? Some of these choices follow the logic of buying margarine: you basically can’t tell the difference between the brands. Don and Ted try to figure out whether price or taste is the most important variable, and end in a tie. Megan, for example, has been given a new job as her own twin sister, but her cranky boss Mel says she’s playing Colette the French lover same way she plays Karine the maid. “They keep telling me they can’t tell the twins apart!” Megan complains: “They’re two halves of the same person and they want the same thing but they’re trying to get it in different ways.” Megan, like Peggy, wants nothing more than to please her boss, but you can’t be two people at once. (You want butter, but you have to choose between two kinds of margarine.) When Arlene comes over to condole with and seduce Megan, Megan feels upset by the erasure of the line between the boundaries between co-worker and lover—though we rejoice in the erasure of boundaries between sleazy soap opera (with a lesbian kiss!) and Mad Men’s “high quality” drama.


Eventually, the logic of eternal substitution turns into a logic of scarcity, and too many choices resolve into no choices. Megan fears that she’ll go from two jobs to no jobs. Pete has two apartments, and then no home. Roger starts the episode with two sons, and ends with no sons. First he’s too cavalier with his grandson, and his daughter Margaret banishes him from further contact; then he runs to Joan’s to try to establish a relationship with his actual son Kevin, but is blocked by the presence of Bob Benson who is (!!!) taking Joan to the beach. (In ridiculous shorts!) Then he tries to give her a present of Lincoln Logs for the kid at work, but Joan banishes him, saying that an absent war hero father (Greg) whose image she can control is better than an actual father who comes and goes at will. L’homme propose, Joan dispose.

Wouldn’t it be great if this episode marked the end of male privilege we’ve been waiting for, for so many centuries? If men who get too many choices finally have to pay their debts to women who have too few, capitalists have to pay back their workers, and the power of lèse majesté turns into the cold light of common day? That would be a post-Crash revelation indeed, the land through the looking glass hinted at in last week’s drug fantasy. “Status quo ante bellum,” Arlene says, like a fairy-tale witch: “Everything as it was.”


But you’ve been waiting for me to talk about the episode’s craziest development, which is DON AND BETTY GETTING BACK TOGETHER. Kudos to the writers for keeping us from guessing this was even a remote possibility! Arlene’s ritual Latin incantation whisks away the “bellum” of the divorce, melting Betty’s anger at Don, and turning her back into a golden princess. I first guessed it might happen on the motel porch, when Don and Betty looked so clearly like a matched set of suburban parents. But really the writers set us up back at the gas station, when Don triangulates off the gas station attendant’s frantic desire for Betty’s jeans-clad butt. The gas station attendant is Don Draper’s own earlier self Dick Whitman, eternally excluded by his desperation to succeed. Don seems like the winner by
contrast: he’s figured out how to get whatever he wants without having to pay for it He’s still panicked by his deliberate alienation of Sylvia, leaving him with no substitute wife—and so the writers grant him the supreme boon, of enjoying his own ex-wife as a mistress. My husband started stomping around in rage at this scene, threatening to jump right through the TV and shoot Don for being such an idiot. Don seems to enjoy every privilege – but be careful what you wish for, Don!

It turns out that Betty is the real winner by this transaction. Did you notice January Jones’s three kinds of smile in this episode? First she smiles slightly at the lunkhead who propositions her at the fundraiser, revealing

her pleasure at being sexually attractive. She gives her husband Harry a similar little smile in the back of the limo, refusing to protest at stealing the spotlight from him with her sexiness. She smiles with what seems to be actual jouissance during sex with Don; and then most fabulously of all, cuts him dead with a completely self-sufficient icy smile when he comes looking for her at breakfast and finds her with her husband. She, like Joan, is bargaining today from a position of strength, having an alternative to being eternally devalued by a scoundrel. Don gets banished to a sad and solitary breakfast table in Wichita, at the other side of the restaurant.

Betty’s other moment of power, of course, is her conversation with Don in bed. “That poor girl,” she concern-trolls about Megan, “She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.” The whole interaction rightly terrifies him into scampering back to Megan at the end of the episode, trying to fix their shattered relationship just as Abe tries to board up the broken window. Though I’m not ready to assert, with Todd McGowan, that Don’s agency makes him an ethical actor, he does admit to Megan that he’s been distant. Last week, he similarly apologized to Sally: instead of letting her accept the blame for being left alone in what is increasingly being depicted as a dangerous city for white people, he admits that he left the back door open. He’s been one lucky cat for the whole series, having absorbed the power of two normal men (Dick and Don), so maybe he will get one more chance with Megan.


Peggy and Abe seem to have reached a real reconciliation when he offers to move out of their dangerous neighborhood, and you think—maybe true love does exist! (And please don’t sell your apartment building, because the Upper West Side is going up and up!) But the urban jungle tears them apart in a crescendo of hilarious violence that recalls both the movie Apocalypse Now and the black humor of the famous Lawnmower Scene. Peggy tries to do it all, and fails: since Abe’s hand is bandaged, she has to step in as protector of the home turf, and mistakes her paranoid hippy boyfriend for a house-breaker. In the show’s pitiless logic of equivalences, we have to sacrifice Peggy and Abe for Megan and Don to have another chance at happiness.


Betty’s other crushing line points ultimately to the problem of basing your whole economy on consumer desire. “How different you are before and after,” she muses: “I watch it decay. I can only hold your attention so long.” The logic of marginal utility theory, which founds neo-classical economics, is that value is based not on anything of intrinsic worth(like labor), but solely on the consumer’s desire for the product. (To see an analysis of marginal utility that links it historically to 19th century aestheticism and consumer choice, see Regenia Gagnier’s The Insatiability of Human Wants). But consumer desire decays too: you want an infinite number of Barbie dolls, but after the first, each one satisfies you a little less. That is, the marginal utility of each new conquest, each new purchase, each new seduction, ultimately decreases. This is clearly Don’s emotional trap, from which he’s now trying to escape (with startling lack of imagination) by going back to some safe wellspring of original desire. In the last episode, he regressed to a fantasy of an all-giving Mother, who gives you the soup you want when you want it. In this episode he regresses to the mother of his children, still mysteriously fertile and radiant.


Peggy’s mistake at the beginning of the episode is twofold: first, she doesn’t present a clear third alternative to her bosses’ false dichotomy, but thinks she really is limited to those two choices. More importantly, her failure to choose, though it seems a short-term winning strategy, represents a profound threat to the whole business of advertising. The whole structure rests on creating a new consumer desire where none existed before; if consumer desire fails, demand fails, and then the whole economy stagnates. A woman who can’t distinguish between brands of margarine is completely irrelevant, and hence Peggy is marginalized (even though every single one of her actions in this nutty episode makes emotional sense, thanks to Elisabeth Moss’s daring and nuanced acting).


In “The Better Half” you don’t get real butter, you don’t get true love, and you don’t get Mother—but you do get Bob Benson. Bob is a terrifyingly servile figure who up to now has seemed, like Pete, to please nobody because he wants to please everybody. In this episode Bob is finally useful, both to Joan and to Pete. Joan tells him Pete’s secret need: a nurse for his senile mother. And magically Bob produces a nurse, telling Pete that Joan “is well aware that your well-being is an interest of mine.” In a world where most desires are triangulated, you can’t play the game until someone desires you. As his reward, he gets Roger to say his name (albeit wrongly). Bob will certainly rise swiftly to the top of this organization, but today he is just one step farther away from Wichita.

9 comments

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9 comments:

Sandy said...

I'm so impressed that people can generate such insightful and elegantly written posts on such short notice. (Of course, I particularly liked the stomping husband; it must be hard to watch this show when one strives to be a good partner.) The idea of marginal utility is so useful in understanding a lot of what makes these people so unhappy.

One quibble: I'm not sure I see (a) the connection between Peggy/Abe and Don/Megan or that (b) their breakup was a sacrifice. Abe is finally honest and admits that they are not well-matched; his rejection of Peggy was painful but true. Now we understand why he sadistically made her live in that awful place. But at least he breaks it off, where everyone else in the episode is holding on to one dead shark or another.

Eleanor said...

Thanks for your comment, Sandy! Maybe I'm too close to Peggy, because of the way she smiles when she thinks she and Abe have a future. But it's true that Abe was particularly grandiose in this episode, from his overcompensatory protective impulses toward the neighbors to his demand that Peggy type up his article. Abe has a great future as Howard Beale in The Network .

Jez B. said...

Eleanor what is concern-trolls about? Thanks for a really good blog.

Lauren said...

Hi Eleanor, just stopping in from Columbus, Ohio (the Henry Francis of midwestern cities?) to say, publicly, thanks for the great post.

I will doubtless say more but for now two quick things and one question. First, a shout-out to Phil Abraham--no relation to Father Abraham!--the director of this episode (and a contributor to our book in the form of interviewee).

Second, a shout out to my co-editor Rob Rushing in the sense that I am wondering if he spotted Betty's "This happened a long time ago" as the appropriate variation on the show's favored response to inconvenient realities: "This never happened."

Eleanor, the question is for you. Just wondering if you saw the break-up with Abe coming (perhaps you in fact said so and I missed it b/c of hasty reading with so little internet access since last week). It seems to me to have been hardwired into the last few episodes and central to the show's window on the late 60s.

Oh and Jez I'm sure Eleanor will get back to you with a more precise answer but until then:
http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=concern+troll

More in a few days!

Eleanor said...

Lauren, I didn't see the break-up coming, other than that it's been clear for a while that they were moving in different directions & increasingly incompatible. They ultimately "weren't cut out to be pioneers" in the gender sense at least: her higher salary eventually brought them down.

I was surprised that the UWS was such a dicey neighborhood in the '60s, since I think of it as a paradise of bagel shops and museums. So who gets the brownstone?? Did Abe co-sign the mortgage?

I know the word "concern troll" from the world of political blogs, where it is amusingly used to describe advice given to your enemy that seems really sincere. You're still trolling them -- that is, abusing them & hoping they die! -- but in a way that's hard to catch. When a Republican says "Obama would really be a great President if only he moved to the center and compromised more," or a Democrat says "The Republican party really needs to rebuild itself by reconnecting with its lost Northeastern moderate core," that's concern trolling, whether the actual advice is good or not! When Betty says "Poor girl," I also thought of the phrase "Poor, poor Kathie Lee," used to cover up viewers' Schadenfreude when Kathie Lee Gifford discovered that her clothing company was using sweatshops and her husband was cheating on her. (If I remember correctly!)

Sandy said...

How far up the UWS did Abe and Peggy go? In the 60s, people were told never to move above 86th Street, 92nd St. at the very most.

Peggy's idealism about men is getting shattered right and left: Abe, then Ted, then Don. Join the club, right?

It's interesting that no one has had much to say about Pete. Between last week ("I don't have a chair") and this week's chat with Duck, Pete, like Peggy, is getting whacked left and right, too. One says, "Couldn't happen to a nicer guy," yet MM has no 100% villains and wants us to have some sympathy for all the characters.

Eleanor said...

Sandy, maybe we're being set up for some massive transformation in Pete's fortunes. So many of these characters seem set in their ways, and Pete is the worst. He seems incapable of learning anything about anyone. That's the greatest artistic challenge of this series this season, I think: so much of its aesthetic appeal relies on beautiful repression, but the historical staging creates an intense pressure for change.

What if Pete does something crazy and noble--like throwing himself in front of an oncoming car to save Joan's baby--and becomes an anti-hero like Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones? Don't say it could never happen.

Jez B. said...

Thanks! Interesting phrase.

Lauren said...

I also loved the reference to the hopping husband, Eleanor!

On Peggy: I am thinking this through since perhaps I will end up writing on this in a future blog. I may be imagining too much--this may just be my fantasy of how the show was seeing Abe/Peggy up to this episode. But it seems to me that it's not just her having more money; it's to do with her relation to advertising (as he says, "Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment").

When Abe was first introduced in S4 he disappointed me because I felt as though he was cardboard cutout for certain sensibilities. In this season he started to be a more fully rounded character: I thought his consciousness of himself as someone living in history (which came out in his choice of a changing neighborhood) stood out as genuinely distinct from the Mad World.

Sandy, I don't think Abe was sadistic--at least not intentionally so--though he was certainly quixotic and perhaps (like all Quixotes?) quixotic to an irresponsible degree.

In either case P. was coming from a very different place both socially (as a rising creative on Madison Avenue and individually (as a woman caught up in her positioning vis-a-vis two different male mentors.

I don't cut Peggy as much slack as I think some other viewers sometimes do. So I think you're entirely right that this episode gives her a very rough (albeit humorous) ride and thus forces us to identify with her even if (as was the case with me) we were starting to think Abe was the better human being of the two. I liked the black comedy of the episode a lot; but it does seem to mean that yet another channel outside the Mad World is probably coming to a close and, in a sense, being written off.

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