“Ladies Room” (season 1, episode 2; originally aired 7/26/2007)
In which everybody needs therapy
(Available on Netflix.)
If Mad Men’s pilot asked viewers to wonder who Don Draper was, the second episode all but insists upon it. Hell, the man’s wife closes one of the earliest scenes by looking over her sleeping husband and essentially murmuring to herself, “Who are you?” The episode makes much of his unwillingness to talk about his past, drawing a sharp line between Roger, who talks easily of his nanny as a child, and the main character. He’s saving up those experiences for the novel he’s planning to write someday, after all. It wouldn’t be good to go around giving them away for free. Don is still the Teflon man, his dazzling exterior allowing nothing to get stuck, and he takes both Betty’s unhappiness and Midge throwing a television out a window in stride. The episode might as well come equipped with a brass band marching down the street, carrying a banner reading, “THIS MAN KEEPS SECRETS FROM EVERYONE HE MEETS.”
“Ladies Room” is a little too neat and orderly, and a little too fond of explicitly underlining its thematic points, all in that very Mad Men way the show can sometimes get when it seems to be so eager of making sure we understand every point it’s trying to make. But that’s fine. It doesn’t need to be an all-time great episode of television—or even as good as the pilot. It just needs to be a pretty good second episode, an episode that assures us there’s a television show here, and we’re in good hands all around. On that level, “Ladies Room” more than succeeds, and the technique it uses to do so is one that would serve the show well going forward: mirroring.
My favorite shot of the episode involves young secretary Peggy, walking into the bathroom to freshen up, another young woman crying off in the corner. The mirrors in the bathroom are situated so that we can see the woman in the mirror on the wall perpendicular to Peggy, but we can’t actually see her, nor can we see Peggy reflected in the same mirror. Instead, we see Peggy looking directly into the mirror over the sink. Though she casts a glance toward the other woman when she enters the room, for all intents and purposes, the two might as well be in entirely different worlds, an effect director Alan Taylor accomplishes through that careful segmentation using the mirrors. But he’s also setting an agenda for the series’ most important female character going forward: The place to look when we’re looking for Peggy’s motivations isn’t in the sorts of places we might expect, in romance plots and in stories where she comforts sad girlfriends. The other woman’s problem goes unresolved. Indeed, we never find out what it is. Peggy is in her own little box, reflecting back at herself. When we want to know what’s driving Peggy, it’s best not to look at the story around her but at the woman herself, who’s almost as opaque at times as the main character.
And it’s here that “Ladies Room” subtly tips its hand toward what the whole series is up to, because the character we’re meant to mirror Peggy with isn’t Joan or even the other young woman in the bathroom. It’s Don himself, her boss but also her weird shadow twin for the episode. We saw in the pilot and again here how people are able to project what they want to see on Don, even though he resists that sort of thing, and now we see how the same thing happens with Peggy. Ostensibly, it’s because she’s the “new girl,” and all of the guys in the office—even Sal, who does his very best checking a girl out impersonation—want to look over the fresh meat. But there’s also an element of her keeping herself at arm’s length. She blushes at sex jokes, and she doesn’t let all that much slip about who she actually is to Paul when he regales her with stories of the office. She’s staying mysterious, and that more or less sounds like the man she works for.
The other important mirror for Don is Betty, who’s suffering through a bout of unhappiness that seems much more like depression, given how unmotivated it seems to be. (Don’s idea of psychotherapy is to tell her about all of the great stuff she has, then smile winningly. It’s a credit to Jon Hamm that this seems like a vaguely possible remedy for what ails her.) Betty explicitly asks herself—and by extension us—who her husband is, and when she tries to ask him questions about his childhood, he rebuffs her not a little coldly. He says that talking about childhood is like talking about politics and religion, which sounds just as bizarre as you’d think it does. Yet when Betty goes in to see a psychiatrist and start trying to talk out just what’s on her mind in the wake of the minor car accident she’s in, she doesn’t know that Don is calling said psychiatrist to find out what his wife told the doctor. Don is the man Betty can never know; at the same time, he’s learning all of her most intimate secrets.
Again, it’s all a little neat, in a way that Mad Men will get from time to time. But it’s also kind of mesmerizing. Even those who’ve never seen Mad Men will be aware that fans get frustrated with Betty from time to time, because her storylines often seem to intersect with the main storyline only haphazardly. And to be sure, in this episode, it’s frustrating to watch the beginning of this story and feel as if every beat of it is mapped out right in front of you. This is going to be a rough story of Second Wave Feminism, it would seem, and it’s going to feature Betty’s life intersecting with another Betty, the author of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan.
This is one of those places where it will be complicated for someone like me who’s seen the whole show to discuss something like this, because so much of what’s disappointing about this storyline in this episode hinges on the imagined storyline to come, the one we think we already know and the one that seems the most blatantly like something stolen from that terrible NBC miniseries The ‘60s. Of course, Mad Men is still teaching us how to watch it at this point in its run, and it’s much more interested in making sure we’re following what it’s doing with Don and Peggy at this point than Betty. To that end, playing off well-worn tropes and types in this particular storyline isn’t such a bad idea, because it keeps us more or less in tune with a story that amounts to “A woman realizes she isn’t as happy as she thinks she should be.”
Because let me tell you, that kind of storyline is murder to dramatize in a visual medium. That “Ladies Room” does as good of a job at this as it does is to be commended, even if it over-relies on visual tricks like Betty’s shaking hands. (Though to that end, I really like the moment when Betty is driving and sees Helen Bishop the divorcee moving into her new home, and that triggers her hands shaking.) Whenever fans of the show complain about Betty in the later seasons—something I’ve done many a time—I want to remind them to go back and watch these episodes, to remember the way that the show introduced her and all of the things that Don was doing to damage her, sometimes intentionally and sometimes just because he wouldn’t have had a second thought that what he was doing could hurt her. Yes, Betty’s storyline doesn’t always intersect with the action at Sterling Cooper, but that’s by design. This is a series about how the main character has segmented his life, and in Betty, we’re already seeing the most potent consequences of keeping someone who should be the love of your life out on an island, then turning to other people—like Midge—for the things you actually want. Don Draper is a man obsessed with images, and this might be his Norman Rockwell.
But what I also like—even trying to view this as someone who’s never seen the show before—is how formless Betty’s depression seems, even to her. Watch that scene with her in the psychiatrist’s office, and the primary emotion one reads coming off of Betty is disappointment. Nobody wants to be depressed, but Betty seems at once upset by having this settling over her and upset by how prosaic and ordinary it is. If she’s going to come apart at the seams, everybody expects her to have both better symptoms and better reasons for doing so, and the number of people expecting that includes Betty. January Jones was the great unknown about this show heading into the second episode, since she mostly had to look pretty in the first one, but she more than manages the feat of making Betty at once sympathetic and oddly unknowable. Mad Men’s favorite trick is to reveal a character’s surface, then immediately see what happens once it starts to unravel, and Jones keys into that straight off.
Another thing we’re getting a glimpse at here is the way that the show uses Don to ask big questions that are supposed to prompt big answers—here, it’s “What do women want?”—and then uses those questions both to interrogate the time period and ultimately deflect them with the sorts of easy bullshit an adman might come up with on the fly. The characters at Sterling Cooper don’t particularly care about what a woman might want. It’s more a chance to toss out some easy jokes, but when Don talks about it with the rest of his creative team, he seems the most open and honest he is all episode. He’s obviously talking about how he can’t understand how to make Betty feel happier, and it’s the one place where he doesn’t try to solve this problem through placating her. But when he finally comes up with what women want at Midge’s apartment, it’s more easy ad slogans. What they want is to pull closer to their man, not anything more emotional or elaborate than that. It’s manipulative bullshit, plain and simple, and it’s not clear to what extent he knows that.
Really, that’s the story of this episode: The ladies room is the one place that the show’s female cast members can be recognizably themselves, but even when they step inside its comforting confines, they’re not going to find someone to stop their hands from shaking, nor is someone going to undertake the very basic and human action of asking them why they’re crying or if they’re all right. But when they leave the confines of that space to talk to the men in their lives, those men can’t help but see them as “the dessert,” as Peggy puts it. Don goes out to dinner with Betty, and he simply tells her stupid jokes, like a 12-year-old boy, and she giggles dutifully, before he goes home and horribly betrays her trust. But when he’s over at Midge’s, the woman he sleeps with because he seems to want something more authentic and “real” than whatever he’s built with Betty, he also treats her like his property, obviously growing upset and jealous when he wonders how she possibly got herself a TV (on which she primarily watches People Are Funny, one of my favorite period details in the episode).
I said last week that the hidden story of Mad Men is one of privilege, of the main characters realizing that the unassailable world of plenty they live in isn’t going to last forever because other people might start to demand their own opportunities, their own pursuits of happiness. The show is already using this knowledge against us, because we live in the 21st century and understand what “the ‘60s” are going to bring (mostly opportunities for terrible NBC miniseries). That’s part of why the Betty storyline in this episode can feel a little weak; we know what’s coming for this character and don’t know how closely the show is going to follow that particular story beat for beat. But watch Peggy or Don in this episode, or watch Paul make his awkward pass at Peggy, and you see another story bubbling under the surface, a story about how before women could demand equal pay or equal rights, they had to demand to be seen as people, too.
- This episode shows us the first appearance of Bertram Cooper, played by Robert Morse, in a great bit of stunt casting (he was the kid in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, which is an obvious influence on this show). Right now, though, he mostly seems irritated by the way that Roger Sterling has instilled a bit of a Navy attitude amongst the men, when he walks in on them forcibly spraying Right Guard in Ken Cosgrove’s armpits.
- Another first appearance: the Sally Draper we know and love, played by Kiernan Shipka. The bit where she’s running around in the plastic dry-cleaning bag is one of the show’s biggest “hey, people sure were different in 1960!” moments, but I don’t mind it as much as some of the others, because the visual is so great. Still, the moment when Jones holds the pause between calling Sally over to her and making sure she didn’t mess up the dry cleaning (instead of making her take off the bag) leans a little too heavily on making the audience feel superior to the characters in the past. (They just didn’t know! Chuckle chuckle.)
- Pete Campbell and Rachel Menken sit this episode out. Pete, for his part, is off on his honeymoon to Niagara Falls, the wettest place on Earth. (The guys get a real charge out of that one.) Roger, however, bemoans Pete’s unimaginativeness in even where to go on his honeymoon.
- Paul’s tour of the Sterling Cooper offices seems at once like Matthew Weiner (who wrote the episode) just wanting to show off his cool new set but also sets up some of the locations we’ll be seeing too little of in the seasons to come.
- This is the first time we get a taste of Paul being a sci-fi geek, a little character detail that will inform who he is throughout the rest of the series. And don’t worry, Paul. You’re going to get several more seasons of The Twilight Zone, but Rod Serling is going to get increasingly tired of the grind and make for some hit-and-miss seasons.
- That’s Anne Dudek, probably best known as Amber on House, playing Francine, the friend that Betty has her gossip session with.
- That’s John Slattery’s real-life wife, Talia Balsam, playing Roger Sterling’s wife in the episode’s first scene.
Spoiling Cooper (do not read past this point if you haven’t watched beyond this episode):
- Okay, so I kind of talked around it up there, but even though I think this isn’t the most promising introduction for Betty’s storyline (which doesn’t really kick into gear for me until “Shoot”), I definitely love the way the show goes against every expected beat of the “bored housewife who realizes she’s unhappy and becomes liberated” storyline in the seasons to come. Betty just gets unhappier and unhappier, until the most recent season.
- Did you know that some women are copywriters, Peggy Olson, who will eventually become the creative head of Sterling Cooper & Partners? I’ll bet you didn’t!
- Things are only looking up for Margaret Sterling. She’ll get to have her wedding shortly after John F. Kennedy is assassinated!
Next week: Don and Betty throw a birthday party, and it turns out to be much more interesting than you’d expect from that description of “The Marriage Of Figaro.”