Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "A Night to Remember" (season 2, episode 8)

Mad Men - "A Night to Remember" (season 2, episode 8)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review an episode of season two, possibly followed by each episode of season three. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on September 14, 2008/written by Matthew Weiner & Robin Veith; directed by Lesli Linka Glatter): Betty's encounter with Jimmy has pushed her already shaky confidence in Don (and herself) over a cliff, so it only takes a relatively innocuous incident (a couple, perhaps) to trigger the Drapers' incipient marital crisis. When Betty hosts an "around the world" dinner party and selects Heineken as the drink of choice, Duck - the guest who almost didn't make it - chuckles. He and Don had a dispute at the office over whether housewives would be drawn toward a display highlighting the beer's refined aura, and he's amused that Don was proven correct in his own home. But Betty is offended that Don thinks he knows her so well (and perhaps more offended that he nailed it), and this insult finally pushes her to confront him with the Bobbie situation. Don, of course, adamantly denies the affair and after Betty fails to find even the slightest piece of evidence, she seems to agree with Don that they "don't want to lose all of this." The next day, however, sitting on the couch and watching sitcoms with her children, Betty encounters the Utz ad featuring Jimmy talking about "a night on the town turned ugly," and "Am I crazy? I don't think so!" It's the final straw. She calls Don to tell him not to come home and he spends the night at the office. This is clearly the most important plotline of the episode, but there are a couple significant shifts for other characters too. Peggy is pressured into crafting a pro bono pamphlet with a church dance; the blue-haired ladies don't like her tagline and Father Gill not only fails to back her up but, after taking advantage of her office space, obnoxiously presses her on spiritual matters. Joan, meanwhile, is enlisted into Harry's TV department, reading scripts for soap operas. She realizes that she loves the assignment before being disappointed to discover a not-nearly-as-talented young man filling her spot a few days later.

My Response:
When something's gotta give, the giving is a relief no matter how messy. The Drapers could of course go anywhere from here - back to the uncomfortable status quo, toward a deeper understanding of one another, or plunging into the widespread sixties phenomenon of middle-class divorce. No matter what happens, this feels like a significant moment. The episode opens with Betty riding her horse hard; will she decide that if Don is entitled, so is she, and return her young riding companion's overtures? I was impressed with how this blow-up, a long time coming, unfolded: making Duck the inadvertent catalyst (even if something else would have come along) is absolutely perfect. And the Utz payoff plays just right too. Indeed, what's impressive about the writers' and director's handling of the Draper drama is how, rather than ascend to an explosive climax, the relationship appears to simply collapse from a thousand subtle subversions (given its multitude of eccentric, revealing two-handers and sensitivity toward female characters struggling alone with the role they're supposed to play, this episode is perfectly suited for Glatter). I also liked the bottomless ambiguity of Don's response to Betty when she comes down to awaken him from sleeping on the couch. I realized, as he tells her how much this family and this home means to him, that I don't actually know if I believe him. And I'm not sure if Don himself knows whether he's telling the truth. Certainly, given his childhood, a stable domestic life has to hold emotional significance for Don (or rather, Dick). But does he really love Betty? Really? I don't think so. We can never forget how the series began, by dwelling for almost the entire episode on Don's freewheeling city life before finally revealing that he had a wife and kids too. Don can protest all he likes, but he has the soul of a bachelor and whether or not you salute him for it, he's a first-class heel.

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