For two weeks Mad Men turned out episodes that dispensed major plot developments at a breakneck pace. (Well, breakneck for this show anyway.) This week brings a summer idyll focusing almost entirely on the private lives of two couples: Don and Betty and Pete and a (largely absent) Trudy. Not much happens, or at least nothing on the scale of a John Deere-mutilated foot. The Drapers take a trip. Pete pursues an ill-advised intimacy. Most of what occurs in this episode concerns the sort of behind-closed-doors details that neither the Drapers nor the Campbells will speak of in public and which might not even change the status quo of their marriages. Both unions end the episode more or less where they began but, for one quietly devastating hour, the show makes us privy to their uneasy intimacies.
It’s August, a month that finds everyone with the means to leave sweltering New York taking advantage of a mutually agreed-upon vacation month. Sterling Cooper has cleared out, apart from the underlings, and Pete’s in the middle of a bachelor month, having previously established that he doesn’t want to join Trudy on her family’s annual seaside retreat. Don, on the other hand, has stayed busy, traveling from one Hilton property to the next to better understand the needs of his biggest client. (And, in the process, turning their easy rapport into something resembling real friendship, or at least what passes for it in this period before his work has to show real results.) Betty’s busy, too, working late into the evening on the reservoir issue. Everyone looks like they need a break, or at least some air conditioning. (Between this episode and Sal’s eventful hotel room maintenance call, 1963’s HVAC limitations has become a recurring element.)
Pete first finds solace in alcohol (and, briefly, an episode of Davey And Goliath, echoing a shot last year when he settled into watch cartoons after declaring his unwillingness to become a father.) He then turns his attention to Gudrun, his neighbor’s German au pair, whom he spies attempting to dispose of a dress she’s borrowed—and ruined. He first sweeps in to save the day, throwing his weight around a Bonwit Teller store in search of a replacement. (And discovering Joan’s whereabouts in the process. More on that later.) But the nervousness with which he conducts himself at the store suggests what his subsequent actions will make clear: His kindness has an ulterior motive.
What happens between Gudrun and Pete? The camera cuts away from the scene in which they kiss, rather than lingering on it before pulling away to the skyline, as it does with Don and Betty. But we know this: She, at best, entertains mixed feelings about his advances. At worst, she complies as a way of offering a path of least resistance to an inevitable destination. She’s a woman caught in a situation that leaves her little power and whatever goes on between them compels her to empty Kleenex boxes the next day.
Pete presses his advantage without seeming to recognize the ugliness of his actions. (I think whether what happens can be called rape remains an open question thanks to that cutaway.) When his neighbor shows up the next day to give him a warning, it comes more out of annoyance of having to give up a “precious vacation day” than any moral impulse. One of the themes of this episode—and the show in general, for that matter—is the way the social codes of the day indirectly acknowledge sex and indiscretions. Francine knows there’s something buzzing between Henry and Betty and how Betty and Don spent their Roman holiday. Pete’s neighbor knows how men behave when their wives leave town. (“There are plenty of nannies in this neighborhood.”) And, though she was hoping Pete would be different, Trudy knows it too, picking up instantly that he’s cheated on her but becoming mollified when he proposes a solution without directly addressing the problem: “I don’t want you to go away anymore without me.” What’s left unspoken? “Because I can’t be trusted and I don’t like the man I become when you’re not around.”
“When you don’t have any real power you have to delay things,” Henry tells Betty and Betty later tells Don. Poor Gundrun finds herself without power or the ability to delay things. Others have slightly better luck. Walking with Betty after—echoes of Pete—playing the hero with the reservoir cause, Henry starts to exact a price from Betty, lingering in the doorway of her father’s Continental and then kissing her. She cuts the matter short then, sleepless that night, Betty decides to table the issue by accompanying her husband to Rome.
This is January Jones’ episode. Her performance as Betty has always found subtle, unsettling notes, but here she dips into previously unheard registers to play a Betty twice transformed by leaving her element. In the first instance, she comes alive at the town council meeting, lighting up when Henry enters and adding a smile to an ensemble that abandons the stuck-in-the-late-’50s looks she’s tended to favor. Her later transformation looks even more profound, calling on her better-than-credible command of Italian to fit into Rome and remaking her look from the tips of some dangerously high-heeled shoes to the top of an updo seemingly inspired by Trajan's Column. With that look comes a new, carefree attitude as she fends off a pair of Roman wolves, flirts with her “old” and “ugly” husband, and reignites a sex life that, from what we’ve seen this season, hasn’t seen much action in a while.
It looks like a wonderful vacation but vacations, by definition, have to end. And with it, everything that’s made Betty feel young, sexy, and hopeful, has come to an end, too, inviting the return of the sad, peevish, possibly straying Betty of old. As August draws to a close, it’s time for business as usual.
It wasn’t all Don and Betty and Pete and Trudy tonight. There was also:
• Sally: Playing at being married with Ernie, Sally decides to give him a kiss, leading Bobby to mock her and suffer a beating in punishment. Carla tells Betty about the incident leading Betty to show some uncharacteristically tender maternal concern—about the kissing. Sally’s violence—and her general anti-social tendencies—remain unaddressed.
• Joan: Joan resurfaces at Bonwit Teller, which she seems to be managing with characteristic aplomb. Her exchange with Pete embarrasses both. Pete because slender Trudy wouldn’t come close to filling out the size 10 dress he’s exchanging. Joan because she’s back in the workplace already, her husband’s salary alone unable support them. He may even be shifting his focus to, shudder, psychiatry.
• Connie: By golly, he does genuinely seem to like Don and Betty, doesn’t he? Wonder where this is heading?
• I suspect we’ll get into the dark corner’s of Pete’s psyche in the comments below. But that shot of him reading Ebony was pretty funny, wasn’t it?