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Mad Men: “Marriage Of Figaro”

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“Marriage Of Figaro” (season 1, episode 3; originally aired 8/2/2007)

In which Don and Betty throw a birthday party for Sally

(Available on Netflix.)

The task Mad Men set for itself from very early in its run was a tough one. Lacking the sorts of obvious external stakes that drive many of its cable drama cousins, the show was forced to figure out ways to portray interiority, the psychological makeup and emotional lives of its characters, without often resorting to them simply sitting down and telling us how they feel. It’s for this reason that so many people I know have struggled with the show for several episodes—if not several seasons—until everything finally clicks in some episode and they realize the scope and ambition of what the show has pulled off. Mad Men is a show about things like anomie and emptiness, about boredom and frustration and intimacy. It’s a show where the big moment can sometimes be something as simple as a beautiful woman sliding a handsome man’s cufflink back to him when it drops from his wrist.


“The Marriage Of Figaro” has a very deliberate work/home split, following Don Draper in both environments and seeing how he fits (or doesn’t fit) in either one. It’s an episode that opens with a man on the train calling him by a different name—Richard Whitman—and it concludes with him bailing on his daughter’s birthday party because he can’t stand any longer to be within its confines. A lot of shows would have underlined both of these moments in red ink, would have had Don insist angrily that that wasn’t his name or had him blow up at Betty about how bored he is by the whole bland suburban pageant. Everything is communicated visually—including a bunch of things the first-time viewer of this won’t realize until the second or third time through the episode (about which more in a bit)—from the evident discomfort in Don’s eyes when the man on the train talks to him to the way he drinks beer after beer after beer while assembling the playhouse he and Betty are giving Sally as a birthday present.


More than anything, Mad Men understands the importance of tiny gestures. It is a show predicated on the prickly closeness between Don and Rachel when she puts those cufflinks shaped like knights into his shirt sleeves and on the way that Don and Helen sort of lean into each other when they’re watching the kids play at being adults in the playhouse. (The snatches of dialogue we hear from the children are depressingly familiar and make us think of the kinds of home lives they must come from.) But it’s also a show predicated on the inability to find that closeness. Don tries to both be truthful with Rachel and seduce her, but she’s not terribly interested in being the other woman. And later, while capturing home movies with his little camera at the party, he happens upon a very tender kiss that obviously wounds him on some level. He doesn’t understand what it is to give that kiss, to be a part of that kind of intimacy. He is a mystery, even to those who know him best, and while he might prefer it that way, it’s always going to keep people locked out.


Notice, for instance, how in that scene where Rachel takes Don on a tour of the store, she tells him so much about herself—about how her mother is dead, about how she has a poor relationship with her sister, about how her father and uncle built up the store from essentially nothing in the Depression—while he tells her nothing of himself. Every time there’s an opportunity for him to say something meaningful about himself, he takes that impulse and directs it outward, either into easy flattery about Rachel’s beauty or into more of an invitation to learn more about her life and what makes her tick. Rachel is letting Don into the antechambers of her inner self. He’s not close enough to her to get to know the full person, but she’s giving him a degree of intimacy that one would typically give to a prospective romantic partner in an attempt to portray oneself in the best possible light and draw another in. When it’s his turn to play ball, Don simply swats the pitch away.

It’s the same at home. Last week, we got a sense of how unhappy Betty is; this week, we get a much better sense as to why. Yes, we’ve known that Don is a philanderer, but we haven’t known exactly how much Betty knows of that. What we get to see when he goes off to pick up the cake and doesn’t come home until the party is long over (after he’s slept off his drunkenness behind the wheel of his car) is one of the times that he completely lets Betty down. She’s the envy of her friends when it comes to him, as he’s so handsome and seemingly attentive, but deep down, he’s incapable of really knowing what Betty needs or even being able to do anything about it. She can give him a direct request, and he’ll avoid it in favor of doing what he wants to do. The downside of being married to someone who won’t let you in is that what might seem thrilling in the early days of courtship—the way he wants you to tell him all about yourself—becomes maddening when you have to be trapped in the house with it.


Mad Men is interesting because it lets Don be both protagonist and villain in most episodes. When he goes off and ditches the party, we totally understand why he does it. Ed Bianchi’s camera and Tom Palmer’s script deliberately let us into his head as he sits at that party, the day stretching onward and Don just getting drunker, so we understand where his boredom stems from, as well as where his desire to get away from the people who are ostensibly his friends emerges from. Yeah, it’s boring, but he’s also surrounded by things like that kiss, which isolate him even further, for reasons we don’t yet quite understand. But the episode also lets us feel Betty’s anger at him, the way that her hands shake—perhaps with fury—when he’s still not home long after night has fallen, and the quick irritation of Rachel with him when he kisses her then admits he’s married. This is not a very good man, no, but he’s an understandable man, and it’s because the show so skillfully places us in his mindset that it works.

The curious thing about this episode is that it’s pretty much all Don. Both the pilot and second episode had little storylines about some of the other characters—Peggy’s first day at work, say, or Pete’s uncertainty about his upcoming wedding—but this episode mostly eschews those other storylines in favor of spending more time with Don and his essential unhappiness. Both halves of the episode have something approaching a B-story, but neither is incredibly well developed. In the work half, Pete is back from his honeymoon, proclaiming platitudes about the wonders of marriage that could only be made by a newlywed man, and he’s forced to navigate the troubled waters of what happened with Peggy before he married. In the home half, the storyline is less about any particular plot and more about what happens when Helen Bishop—played by Darby Stanchfield, now probably best known for her work on Scandal—comes to the birthday party, complete with present wrapped in Santa Claus paper and a way of immediately cutting through Carlton’s offers to help out her boy adjust to not having a father around to reveal what’s really going on.


It’s the Helen material that’s most interesting, I think, and it’s one of the few places where I think the first season’s insistence on pointing giant arrows at all of its “1960!!!!” elements really pays off. No one at that party has any fucking clue what to do about Helen Bishop, because they don’t have the foggiest idea of how to contemplate what her life might be like. The idea that she goes walking for fun is played off by some of the other mothers as an opportunity to swing her hips around and draw in unsuspecting men, and there’s a tacit assumption that both she and her kids are worse off for not having her husband around. In short, the suburban, well-off wives of 1960 have no idea what to make of a divorcee and single mother. The scene where the mothers stand around the kitchen talking with her about their honeymoons is notable both for suggesting Betty’s life before Don—she went to Italy for a summer after graduating from Bryn Mawr—and for unpacking all of the ways that the women in that room are unable of thinking about Helen’s life through any frame other than the prism of their own lives. This whole scene reminds me of an Alice Munro short story, with the little “unintended” slights that have deeper meanings and the ways that the women are all so comfortable in their own judgment of who Helen must be, while she glides along simply because she has to.

It’s also telling, I think, that the one person at the party Don seems to form a connection with is Helen. We don’t see much of the two of them talking—indeed, we see all of two lines—but by the time that Betty has to go out and interrupt them to remind Don to go get the cake, it’s evident that there’s some sort of rapport between them. Don, on some level, can relate to people who are isolated, because we’ve already seen how much time he spends isolating himself. Thus, Helen Bishop is a natural ally for him in the weird world of the children’s birthday party, where he’s meant to be number one husband and super-dad but mostly just wants to spend his time getting wasted and watching the world pass by. He’s a man who has everything and seems to be willing life to slip by a little more quickly.


The Pete material is fine, insofar as it mostly has to exist to remind us that he’s a character who exists and that he wants Don to like him while Don wants nothing of the sort, but it feels like it’s running counter to everything else in the episode. It makes absolute sense that a show in its third episode featuring an important character who sat out the second would want to remind us of who he is and his connection with Peggy at some length in this episode, but it still feels a little stuck in neutral, where the Don and Helen stories are both quite nuanced. What is interesting is that Pete is the only one in the office who seems to appreciate that famous Volkswagen “Lemon” ad, the only person who can see that it’s not just a waste of money on the part of the car company but is, instead, an attention-getting piece of work that could see major benefits for the agency that put it together and the car company that commissioned it (as it ultimately did). It’s a sly way of the series acknowledging that it takes place in an era where most of us already know how the major stories will end. Sterling Cooper may be a successful ad agency, but it’s not a very creative one, even in the terms of the time.

It’s in that willingness to take the side of those who are about to be swept away by massive change that Mad Men makes its boldest stroke. It’s easy to miss, but in the scene where the women are gossiping about Helen, there’s mention made of how she drives a Volkswagen, and that, ultimately, is what ties Pete into everything else here. Both Helen and that “Lemon” ad are the disruptive elements that the characters can’t quite parse, the things they can’t even open their minds enough to understand, no matter how much the audience at home knows that both are emblematic of what’s to come. The characters on the show are marked by a kind of reluctance to abandon their status quo, even when it’s making them desperately unhappy, because anything outside the status quo is frowned upon. And yet there’s Don, who can stare at that “Lemon” ad for quite some time on the train and offer it the backhanded compliment of saying that it got everyone in the office talking more than they did about their own work, who can also bond with the divorcee in his own way. He may be a man who wreaks emotional havoc everywhere he goes, no matter if he’s starting a relationship or already in one, but something about his reluctance to let people under his skin makes him better able to contemplate other viewpoints. He’s an odd one, but he’s also a great window into a world that’s about to change drastically.


Stray observations:

  • The titular opera pops up on the radio when Don switches it over from the news at the party. One of the main characters in the opera is also a formerly idealistic youth who’s degenerated into a skirt chaser as he’s gotten older. Sounds familiar.
  • We don’t just get our first look at Helen in this episode, but we also get our first look at her son, Glen, who, himself, is played by Matthew Weiner’s son. Both he and his mom will be hanging around a bit.
  • The dog that Don brings home from his train tracks nap is such a perfect Don thing to do. He disappoints everybody, but he also saves the day with the people who count. It’s shockingly similar to the whole Lucky Strike plotline in the pilot.
  • Joan and some of the other women in the office talk about Lady Chatterly’s Lover primarily as a piece of highbrow smut where the pages just fall open to the sexy parts. Peggy wants to read it, and while Joan is at least somewhat adamant that she not do so, I suspect she’ll get more out of it in the end. (And, actually, I suspect Joan got more out of it than she lets on. But she’s not a terribly well developed character at this point, and even Matthew Weiner says that it took him a while to find her voice.)
  • I love the scene where Harry and Pete talk about how all of their sexual desires are sated by their wives in tones that suggest they doth protest too much. Also notable for Harry making the suggestion Don could be Batman, which bears fruit in season six when it is revealed he is Batman. Spoilers.
  • Hey, it’s 1960! update: One of the party guests slaps a child who is not his own for running in the house and spilling a drink. This has always struck me as one of the more egregious examples of this particularly phenomenon, because it has basically nothing to do with anything.
  • The look of smug self-satisfaction on Don’s face in the very last scene is pretty much the most Don look ever. It is not a spoiler to say you will see that again.

Spoiling Cooper (Do not read if you haven’t seen beyond these episodes):

  • I was struck by how much Dick Whitman must have keyed into Rachel talking about how she didn’t have a mother and how she was a very lonely child. Though Don has obviously been attracted to her before, that’s the moment when he decides to kiss her, and it seems it may be because Dick is pulling the strings.
  • Speaking of which, this is the first mention we get of Mr. Whitman, who will be immensely important to the series going forward.
  • So will Glen, who is introduced here with one line (I think) and will spend most of this season crushing on Betty before moving onto a weird friendship with Sally in the seasons to come.

Next week: The story zeroes in on Pete Campbell as he takes a visit to “New Amsterdam.” (And, yes, we will publish one of these the day before Thanksgiving. Come for the review; stay for my explanation of why I will probably always like this show more than Breaking Bad, even if the finale features a King Kong-sized Don singlehandedly winning the Vietnam War like he’s Dr. Manhattan.)