Keith: We’re going to break with the usual TV Club format this week. I have Mad Men blogger emeritus Noel Murray in town for the big Inventory book signing this week so we’re going to talk about this week’s episode Crosstalk style. And there’s certainly no shortage of material to cover. Where last week brought us “Souvenir,” a great plot-lite/tone-heavy episode, “Wee Small Hours” pushed forward several different sub-plots. It also pushed us further ahead in time, or at least across some important thresholds. “Souvenir” took place in the depths of summer but here summer has started to give way to fall. History continues its insistent pull forward as well. Playing out in the background: The March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom and the Birmingham church bombings. (Also: the ascent of Goldwater.) Playing out in the foreground: The idealistic beliefs of Miss Farrell and the mounting difficulty Betty has not talking about race with Carla. (Also: some Republican outrage at segregation and a concern that the push for civil rights has arrived too soon.) And with each episode we move a little closer to the Kennedy assassination, an event we know will change this world irrevocably. (Though I’m not even sure the series will portray it.)
But that’s the big picture. Much of the episode maintained a tight focus on characters whose interactions have moved based the boundaries of the social norms. Don and Connie talk on the phone at all hours. (Especially the wee small ones.) The older man claims the younger one as a son, then becomes yet another father for Don to disappoint. Betty and Henry have an epistolary romance whose banal exchanges don’t square with the erotic fantasy that opens the episode and lead to an encounter that Betty cuts short when she notices its luridness. Lucky Strikes heir Lee Garner, Jr. (first seen in the series’ first episode and not, apparently, a real-life guy) forcefully comes on to Sal who pays the price for behaving like a professional. And, finally, Don and Miss Farrell meet twice in the middle of the night, beginning an affair with the second meeting despite Miss Farrell’s insistence she “knows exactly how it ends” and Don’s momentary reluctance when she points out that he’s never done his straying so close to home before.
Lots to talk about, obviously, and I’ve barely touched on any of the above. Noel, what should we talk about first?
Noel: To me there are two main themes in this episode, running closely together: dreaming and wanting. In fact, dreaming has been a recurring theme this season. The first episode of Season Three began with a flashback that was more like a dream sequence, and now “Wee Small Hours” begins with an actual dream sequence, with Betty reclining seductively on that damn couch. And of course there’s another big dream afoot here: the one Martin Luther King described in his speech in Washington. Nothing’s ever insignificant in Mad Men, but I found it especially telling that this episode ends with MLK eulogizing those four little girls killed in Alabama, and Betty confessing to Carla that the whole incident has “really made me wonder about civil rights,” and whether the country’s ready for it. Similarly, her flirtation with Henry—and all the machinations involved—is romantic in the abstract, but seems increasingly impossible when as they start to hash out the logistics. There’s a strong sense in “Wee Small Hours” that a “dream” in real life is a lot like actual dreaming: strange, elusive and unsatisfying. A lot of restless motion and no actual progress.
Wanting, on the other hand… that’s different. At the start of the episode Betty characterizes Conrad Hilton’s attitude towards Don as being like their newborn baby: “I want what I want when I want it.” Hilton bends Don to his will by catering to Don’s dream of having an honest-to-goodness father figure, but in the end their relationship is jeopardized because what Connie wants is impossible. (“I expect the moon.”) Same with Henry and Betty. When she lays out for him all the places where they can’t have sex, he sighs, “I don’t know what you want.”
Which brings us to poor Sal, who is told by Harry to give their Lucky Strike client what he wants, but refuses when the client makes it known that what he really wants is some editing room action with Sal. When Sal refuses—in part because Sal’s become an expert at refusing, but also because Mr. Lucky Strike is a creep—he gets fired, because that’s the easiest course for Roger and Don to take. But also because Don can’t believe that Sal wasn’t up to something in that editing room. (“You people,” he clucks, in one of the most disappointing Don Draper moments ever.) There’s definitely a double-standard at work between what Don expects from others and what he expects from himself. Don’s certain that Sal transgressed, because gays can’t help themselves. But at the end of the episode, when he knocks on Miss Farrell’s door, he’s clearly following Connie’s advice: “God speaks to us; we have an impulse, and we act on it.”
What else did you notice? A lot about hierarchies in this episode too, yes? Who has the power, and who can speak truth to same?
Keith: You’re on to something with that last point. Witness Don talking to Peggy and the two Smiths about their campaign ideas. The one Peggy presents is poor. The two Smiths have a workable but dull idea. But Don’s dismissal is world class: “Now that I can finally understand you I’m less impressed with what you say.” He’s usually to the point but rarely this mean and it continues a trend of Don talking to Peggy like an underling rather than a student. (Did anyone else see the look she gave him as she left the room during Don’s private confab with Connie as significant? Does she have an eye on the Sterling Cooper exit door?) On the other hand, when he complained about having to do everything himself, I thought the show was making a point about him letting his creativity flag as he got lost in the duties of management. Then he emerged with a pitch that looked like a true Draper original. Hierarchies be damned; when he has to get his hands dirty, he still can.
When he encounters someone who’s his equal or someone he can’t command, however, that’s another story. Don and Roger have a brief, fierce clash this week, a probably preview of clashes to come. But it’s Miss Farrell who fascinates him. She won’t be bossed around. His usual seduction tricks don’t work. And she’s so full of these strange… ideas. “Are you dumb or pure?” he asks as she talks about reading her kids King’s “I Have A Dream Speech,” whose lessons she believes they already have in their hearts. She may be the only lover Don’s taken so close to home, but she comes from some place he’s never imagined.
Funny you used the phrase “poor Sal” because “poor” has practically become his first name in my head. He lost his job—a shocking turn for the show and one that doesn’t look easy to reverse—and lost it because he’s gay… though not in a way that might be expected. And now he’s lying to his wife about his job and his sexuality and cruising what looks to be a dangerous stretch of New York park space.
But you’ve covered that already, Noel. And Betty too. So what of the other uneasy coupling: Don and Connie. Connie’s eccentricity came to the fore this week as he mixes paternal feelings, Prohibition hooch, religious musings, and American exceptionalism. It’s the lattermost that seems closest to his heart, or closest to how he behaves. Like the America he imagines, success has given him a sense of superiority and rightness. He’ll take by force what he can’t break down with charm, Marshall Plan style. He’s not Howard Hughes, but clearly he’s found a similar sort of lonely madness at the top.
To circle back to your original point, in an episode largely concerned with power and how it gets exercised—and its limits, as in Henry’s inability to carry out an affair begging to happen—he’s an extreme case. Power corrupts. But it also doesn’t satisfy. Someone gives you the world and you want the moon.
Noel: True. And I think what ultimately disappoints Hilton about Don is that he so cleverly turns Hilton’s vision around, making it the inverse of what he demanded. Hilton talks about spreading The Gospel According To America around the world, so that everyone will want to be like us. Don modifies that to a campaign that makes the rest of the world palatable to Americans. Don’s method will likely accomplish Hilton’s ultimate goal more effectively. But it’s not as fervid as Connie had hoped. He remembered Don once saying that, “America is wherever we look; wherever we’re going to be.” Don, though, doesn’t remember saying that, and when he tries to convert it into a workable campaign, he renders it prosaic.
We spent so much time kicking around the themes of this episode that we never really talked about whether we liked “Wee Small Hours.” Myself, I think it’s one of the best of the season, because everything’s so tightly woven, down to the tiniest moments and lines of dialogue. Shortly after we see Connie say Don is like a son, we get Betty being bossed around by the matronly woman Henry sends in his place to run the Rockefeller fundraiser. (“You begin, dear,” she says condescendingly to Betty after Betty tells her to start her speech whenever.) And while we’re considering who gets to tell whom what to do, we get the spectacle of Harry Crane being told by a client to fire someone he has no power to fire.
But mainly I was impressed by how well “Wee Small Hours” worked Dr. King into the fabric of what the episode was about. You mentioned Miss Ferrell planning to read King’s “I Have A Dream” speech to her kids because what he has to say is something “she believes they already have in their hearts.” It’s interesting how she phrases that, though: “I think they already know it; it’d be nice for them to hear an adult say it.” If the disconnects between Don and Connie, Betty and Henry, and Sal and Mr. Lucky Strike prove anything, it’s that adults don’t always do so well when they assume that others are on their exact wavelength. And thus do dreams get deferred.
Stray observations (Noel):
• Hilton describes what he wants from an ad campaign as “a little bit of wow, as one of my ladyfriends used to say.” I wonder if the ladyfriend in question is Zsa Zsa Gabor, whom Hilton was married to from 1942 to 1946?
• Pete knows he shouldn’t smoke, but under peer pressure he does anyway. His subsequent five-minute coughing fit is the comic highlight of an otherwise somber episode.
• I know that Conrad Hilton and Suzanne Ferrell are real, because other characters have seen and reacted to them, but nearly everything about Don’s reactions to those two this season have been dreamlike. Just little things—like Connie offering Don “a drink from prohibition,” or Miss Ferrell jogging at 4 a.m.—almost seem like they could be happening in Don’s mind.
• Boy, Carla picked up on what Betty and Henry were up to pretty quickly, huh? There’s a lot in this episode about what people know about each other; see also Don’s awareness of Sal’s trysts, and how they inform his decision. “Limit your exposure,” indeed.
• Adding to the dreamlike quality: the storms rattling windows both in the city and in the ‘burbs.
• It’s no wonder that Mr. Lucky Strike figured out that Sal might be gay: that ad he directed couldn’t have been much more homoerotic.
• So when Sal tells his wife he’s working late and heads down to Rough Trade Row… do we think that’s the first time he’s visited that corner of town?
Stray observations (Keith):
• Every time Connie starts going on about religion, I can’t help but think of his great-granddaughter’s fervent, short commitment to God during her jail stint.
• All of Betty’s scenes with Carla felt charged, both by Carla’s obvious knowledge of why Henry was there—never mind the face-saving fundraiser—and the inability to ignore the racial politics of the day. Does Betty correct Bobby because she wants Carla to stay silent or out of some awakening social conscience? (Probably not the latter, actually.)
• More on Betty: Have we ever been this privy to her inner life? And was anyone else a little surprised to discover that it’s not a particularly rich environment? Both her opening dream of Henry and her correspondence with him seem uninspired. It’s not that she’s not a bright woman. (An anthropology degree and that better-than-passable Italian all confirm her intelligence.) But it seems like there’s little to her beyond the woman we see on the surface. She has some secrets, but no hidden depths.