Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Fog" (season 3, episode 5)

Mad Men - "The Fog" (season 3, episode 5)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another 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 20, 2009/written by Kater Gordon; directed by Phil Abraham): Medgar Evers has been shot - the first of several thirtysomething martyrs to the sixties struggle for black freedom - and his name, image, and/or legacy pop up several times in episode 5. Evers' name first comes up in the opening scene, as Don and the very pregnant Betty inform Sally's teacher, Miss Farrell, why their daughter has been asking so many questions about Evers' recent death. Discovering that the little girl just lost her grandfather, Miss Farrell is upset and embarrassed; she called the meeting due to Sally's recent behavior - getting into a fight - as well as those many questions. She later calls Don, after she's had a few drinks, to let him know that she lost her father as a child; he's already hinted to her that he personally understands this form of grief too (keep in mind Evers had three very young children at the time of his murder). Meanwhile, although I don't think Evers is mentioned directly as part of this particular storyline, Pete's push for Admiral Television to target "the Negro market" is buttressed by a growing awareness of the civil rights movement. Pete has a tense, aggressive exchange about the black community's TV preferences with a clearly annoyed (and unsettled) Hollis (La Monde Byrd), the elevator operator; the affronted Admiral reps ask "is that legal?" when confronted with Pete's proposal; and Lane follows Roger's blistering admonishment with a careful suggestion that Pete's idea isn't necessarily bad because "there's definitely something going on." Elsewhere in the episode, Pete is blindsided by an invitation to lunch from Duck, in which Peggy is also a guest of honor. Pete storms out, but Peggy is intrigued by Duck's flattery especially after she goes to Don for a raise and is dismissed because of Lane's recent penny-pinching. "What if it's my time?" she offers with deep-seated melancholy, echoing Duck's own seductive pitch to her. This plot is, near as I can tell, the only one in the episode untouched by the Evers assassination.

The third Evers reference appears in Betty's dream as she floats in an opiate-induced ether while entering labor. After gliding down a sidewalk in what appears to be a gorgeously back-projected sequence (strong, strong Hitchock and/or fifties melodrama vibes here - the lighting and actress' make-up are all deeply evocative), Betty finds herself inside her own home. "Am I dying?" she asks her father, who, clothed as a janitor, mops blood off the floor. Evers sits quietly at the table, Betty's mother applying a salve to his recent, bloody wound and warning Betty, with reference to the slain NAACP leader, "You see what happens to people who speak up?" In the real world, she's being shushed by a brusque nurse who is supervising the birth in lieu of Betty's doctor, loading up the morphine whenever the third-time mother expresses anxiety. Don, meanwhile, sits in the waiting room with a friendly but subtly surly prison guard anticipating his first. He promises Don - as if the man in the shirt and tie is a kind of god - that he'll become a better person as a father. Tension grows through all these elements and we recall the dark conditions of the season's opening scene (and the reminder that the Kennedys are about to lose a baby in the fall)...and then after all these creeping portents, Betty gives birth to a healthy baby boy. Having skirted a cataclysm, in the final moments of the episode Betty wanders into the hallway, following the child's cries into the room where her late father was just staying (indeed, the infant has been named after the old man). The difficulties ahead stretch far beyond any potentially apocalyptic horizon; these complicated intergenerational tangles will only become more tangled with time, developing into either a trap or a chrysalis.

My Response:
With the March on Washington two months away and the tumultuous summers of 1964 and 1965 (and so forth) coming up in future seasons, Mad Men is clearly tiptoeing towards a confrontation with racial politics. Even by osmosis, I'm not aware of any regular black cast members for those upcoming seasons so I'm not sure how far Sterling Cooper will go in diversifying its staff to serve a more diverse clientele; but even in the all-white milieu of Manhattan's advertising industry, the series can't avoid one of the most crucial subjects of the era. Gender too is at the forefront of "The Fog," with Peggy and Betty once again serving as the two poles of what this world will allow female characters to inhabit (thus far). Betty, drugged up enough to miss the birth of her own child, is told by her dream-father, "You're a housecat; you're very important, and you have little to do." It's clear that for her entire life she's never really been prepared to assume any long-term role outside of the home and even there her agency is limited. Peggy on the other hand nurses a blossoming identity - Duck dubs her a "career girl" - but she had to give up a baby, and struggles with finding (let alone maintaining) a relationship. As the white men who define these norms are beginning to expand their approach, African-Americans of both genders and women of both races can only await the beneficence of such outreach rather than define it themselves.

Unless I'm forgetting some elements, this is another streamlined episode, dominated by Betty's storyline (alternating between her dream-drenched delivery and Don's stint in waiting-room limbo) as well as  Pete's and Peggy's intertwining crises - conjoined by Duck but divergent when it comes to Admiral and the botched pay raise. Probably the biggest peek elsewhere comes via Miss Farrell's two scenes; she is clearly being set up as a love interest for Don. Will she spark this season's requisite Draper marriage crisis? If Rachel matched Don's independence and Bobbie mirrored his recklessness, Suzanne may provide the greatest threat yet to the pretty but mismatched couple's stability. After all, her vulnerability is rooted like Don's in childhood trauma, and that's something he's never been able to speak about with Betty. She would also be the first lover rooted in the leafy Westchester suburban neighborhood rather than hard-edged big city streets of New York; a softer siren all the more dangerous for being closer to home. And where will this leave Betty? For some reason, I assumed the creature in her hallucination was an inchworm before reviewing a summary corrected my obvious oversight. Not yet a butterfly, she has glimpsed the thread she must spin if she wants to fly. Yet the metamorphosis may never break through if Betty clenches her protective fist too tightly.

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