Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Marriage of Figaro" (season 1, episode 3)

Mad Men - "Marriage of Figaro" (season 1, episode 3)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Most days (except Saturday) I am offering a short review of another episode until concluding the first season. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on August 2, 2007/written by Tom Palmer; directed by Ed Bianchi): Don is mistaken for "Dick Whitman" by an old Army buddy while commuting to work, although his reaction suggests that perhaps this identification isn't a mistake at all. This is the last we'll hear of that name throughout the episode, though its disorienting aura hovers over the rest. Don continues to pursue...er, conduct business with Rachel, who rejects his overtures when she discovers he's married. This interaction is noticed by Pete, who has returned from his honeymoon smugly complacent with married life (Peggy pretends to understand his self-assured "of course our little fling is over now" flippancy while hiding her hurt). On the other marital extreme, the neighborhood divorcee Helen Bishop (Darby Stanchfield) shows up for the birthday party of one of Don's children and engenders a mixed reaction; some of the wives gossip about Helen behind her back and, to her face, exhibit barely concealed scorn, while their husbands ogle, flirt with, and perhaps even proposition her. Don's casual interaction with Helen is more subtle, and, her reaction (and Betty's) suggests, more successful. When a concerned Betty sends him out to pick up a cake, Don - who's been drinking all day - hangs out under an overpass in his parked car before returning to an empty house that night with a puppy to cover for his dereliction of duty. This streak of irresponsibility beneath the sturdy veneer is noticed by several characters throughout the episode, and frequently (though not universally) admired, as only the deviancy of an alpha male can be: "Don Draper, you are a first-class heel, and I salute you."

My Response:
Many characters in this episode act as if, and perhaps even believe, they are sure of their place and - perhaps more importantly - the place of those around them. Pete, a few days after his wedding, coasts confidently on his deep, abiding knowledge of the married state. Rachel guides Don through the somewhat fusty environs of her department store, where she wants to boost business but is also clearly proud of her and her family's history in the building. Away from the city, the suburban kitchen clique are absolutely certain of the rightness of their world, especially as it is defined by those who aren't part of it (not just Helen but the Jews of Boca Raton). Their husbands grin knowingly at Helen's situation as well as their wives' hostility, as if this impotent awareness lends them a greater worldliness. And so, almost by default, the stars of the episode are those who aren't at all sure of their place: Peggy, Helen and especially Don (in "Marriage of Figaro," one of the admen muses, "Who knows anything about that guy?"). Accordingly, through their eyes we begin to see the cracks in the more superficially stable facades surrounding them. If the first episode reveled in the sharp maneuvers of the working world while the second immersed itself in the subtle aches of the domestic sphere, "Marriage of Figaro" strives to explore both; we spend both a work day and a day off at Don's side (instead of viewing the professional through Don and the domestic through Betty). Incidentally, I just stumbled across the information that Don is a veteran of the Korean War, not World War II. I suppose this is intended to make the character seem a little younger (although Jon Hamm was thirty-six when he shot this episode; in 1960 terms that's plenty old enough to have served in "the Big One"). Perhaps it's also meant to place Don in a more ambiguous generational situation...not quite firmly rooted in the social cohesion of the all-out war effort, nor weaned wholly on the comfortable largesse and casual cynicism of the late fifties and early sixties. I'm not sure this distinction is necessary (exploring the modernity and uncertainty of the Greatest Generation was a potentially more compelling hook) but it's nonetheless interesting the creators want to make this historical gesture at all.

Next: "New Amsterdam"Previous: "Ladies Room"

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