Last week I mentioned that I usually found Don’s romantic relationships with women not named Betty among the less interesting aspects of the show and a couple of commenters took me to task for that opinion, one of them referring to it as “more strains of sexism from this site.” The notion of sexism at The A.V. Club is a bigger topic than this post. (Briefly: As editor I guard against it so complaints like that particularly trouble me.) But I did want to clarify that comment to make it clear that I found the women Don sleeps with among the less compelling aspects of the show particularly in comparison to the care and complexity it invests in its other female characters. Exhibit A: Tonight’s episode.
Let’s start with the worst good example: Miss Blankenship. R.I.P. She’s been a divisive character amongst Mad Men fans. I know some of you found her a one-dimensional punchline machine, and you’re not necessarily wrong. To be fair, she provided several different types of punchlines, but she was undeniably there for comic relief and the show made her death into another sort of joke. (And a funny one, too. The sight gags going on behind the Fillmore family as the staff tries to dispose of Don’s secretary and her belongings were especially inspired.) And yet death gave her some dignity. Roger, who shared a past with her, looked especially stricken, but it’s Bert Cooper who waxes lyrical at her passing. “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She’s an astronaut.” In other words, she came a long way, baby.
Some of that, of course, was the way history swept her along. Miss Blankenship was born into a very different world than the one she left. So are we all, but “The Beautiful Girls” puts a special emphasis on the way things have changed for women in 1965, and the ways they’ll continue to change in the years to come. We never learn why Miss Blankenship ended up alone and in contact with virtually no one outside the SCDP staff—beyond Roger’s Queen Of Perversions line, I guess—but she was doubtlessly given a different set of choices than those presented to other women on the show, and different from those Sally Draper will face when she grows up.
Maybe “choices” is the wrong word. It’s the one Fay uses to describe how got to her late thirties childless but accomplished. But where Fay talks about choices, Peggy talks about limitations. After Joyce leads her into an unexpected date with Abe, she at first recoils at the notion that the nice Fillmore family could be racist then turns the discussion to women. “Most of the things Negroes can’t do, I can’t do either,” an opinion that takes Abe by surprise. It’s a false equivalency for the reason Abe points out, and for others. But her gripes are legitimate, even if downtown progressive types like Abe—and the counter-culture of the later parts of the decade—couldn’t see them at the time. (We’re still seven years away from the first issue of Ms., to choose one landmark.)
Peggy’s often tough to read and she’s especially tough this episode. I get the feeling that she was as naïve as she seemed about Fillmore Auto Parts—a fictional company the best I can tell—when talking to Abe in the bar. But where is she at the end of the episode? She drops Harry Belafonte as a possible jingle-singer just to see what reaction it raises and gets treated with condescending chuckles that suggest she doesn’t know how things work in the South or Boston, for that matter. But does she accept Don’s line about their business being to support Fillmore? And should she? Clearly, on a moral level Don’s wrong in every way. But I’m not even sure he’s making good business sense. Boycotts are bad publicity and it’s not like public awareness of the Civil Rights Movement is particularly low in 1965. Then again, that Dean Martin quip is the effort of a man grasping to come up with any point where black musicians and white musicians intersected. Here’s a question: Would consciousnesses be higher at SCDP if Paul Kinsey worked there?
Meanwhile, Joan faces some contemporary problems of her own with Greg shipped off to Vietnam, which, as Roger succinctly puts it, is not good. All the women are aware of it while the men, if Roger is representative, don’t seem to notice and Joan, as always, puts on a brave face. “People love to say that,” she responds when Roger says it will be okay. (We’ll get an echo of that line at the end of the episode when Sally offers an even less tactful rejoinder.) Her guard down, she goes out for dinner with Roger at the diner they used to go. It’s now catering to an older clientele—to their eyes at least—in a neighborhood that’s been hit hard since the last time they visited.
They get mugged—Roger knows exactly what to do—and make love in a tucked-away corner. Having nearly died, witnessed death, and sent a spouse off to war they grasp at a little bit of life. I don’t think Roger necessarily planned that. Of course he didn’t plan the mugging, but while I doubt he would have turned down a chance to sleep with Joan again if it presented itself, I don’t think that’s what he was after that evening. There’s something deeper between them, even if it’s been put in dry dock by their marriage to others.
The final shot of Peggy, Joan, and Fay (who is starting to develop into a more interesting character, let me add), says it all without any dialogue. Here are three women of roughly the same generation, all in quite different places in their lives and careers, each of those places more or less unimaginable to the generation before. (Joan’s would be most imaginable. Though a married woman of her age, particularly one with some obvious, if undefined, power around the office would have been even more of a rarity.) And what’s to become of the next generation?
Maybe Sally’s not the best example. She’s got some problems specific to her own life. Despite the levity that preceded it, everything about Sally’s sub-plot is a heartbreaker, from the willfulness she’s developed as a defense mechanism against her mother—and by extension, the world—to the smile she wears while curled up on the couch. But nothing’s so heartbreaking as her explosion in the SCDP office. She wants to stay, but she can’t stay. But because she’s still a kid, and a kid in the middle of a terrible situation, all she can think to do is scream and run and, inevitably, fall, a fall witnessed in horror seemingly every female SCDP staffer, who then group around her in concern. Here’s a girl getting a bad deal, and however different they might be from each other, they feel for her. At one point or another, they’ve been her.
• Until the end of the episode, Don remains clearheaded and good-humored throughout the episode. He’s swimming. He and Fay are getting along. Though he’s angry at how she got there, he’s happy to have Sally with him. Then it all goes to hell and he takes a drink.
• “That’s not a strategy. That’s two strategies connected by an ‘and’.” True enough. But was anyone else surprised by how mouthy Ken felt free to be with Don in front of clients? And, even though he had a series of understandable distractions, did anyone else think it odd that Don signed off so quickly on the campaign? It’s a good compromise. Maybe he just saw that and wanted to move on.
• How long will Megan last as Don’s secretary? Should we take some bets?
• “Do you remember me from yesterday?”
• Does Peggy really have to worry about anyone publishing, or even reading, “Nurmeberg On Madison Avenue”?
• Off-topic but tangentially related: Here’s an artifact of unabashed institutional sexism I found on Buzzfeed while writing this.
• Things I love about this show, item #53: The way it lets Abe witness Don’s brusque treatment of the woman who brought Sally to the office. That’s Don at his worst, but of course it confirms every awful opinion Abe has of Madison Avenue and all it represents. These characters’ paths may never cross again, but they’ve got that meaningful moment.