Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Souvenir" (season 3, episode 8)

Mad Men - "Souvenir" (season 3, episode 8)

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 October 4, 2009/written by Lisa Albert, Matthew Weiner; directed by Phil Abraham): Now that a contract binds Don to his Manhattan office, he's hardly spending any time there. Connie is sending him across the country to visit what Pete dismisses as "every armpit [Hilton] has." The next destination is a bit ritzier, however; after initially declining, Betty accepts Don's invitation to accompany him to Rome. There they enjoy their spectacular view of the city and especially the romantic allure of their bed. Betty arrives early for their meeting with Connie in a glamorous beehive, black dress, and flashy jewelry, ogled by two eager young men (Federico Dordei and Giuseppe Rausch) who dismiss Don, once he arrives, as a "millionaire American," old and ugly. Treating Don as a stranger but accepting his overtures, Betty invites him to her table and feigns surprise that his hotel room is "so close to mine," causing the locals to leave their outdoor table in despair. The two grin and continue to play this game; there's something sexy about their flirtation for both of them, especially the pretense that it's a purely physical and perhaps even illicit attraction. "I'm in town for two nights," Don chuckles, "I won't get my heart broken."

Back in New York, Pete pursues a more genuine infidelity, kindly offering to help a bashful German au pair (Nina Rausch) by taking care of a dress she's stained. He keeps his promise, discovering to his surprise that Joan has taken a job at the department store where he exchanges the outfit. Only then does the girl discover that his overtures are not so friendly - or perhaps too friendly. Initially accepting her polite demurral (she has a boyfriend, she says), he returns to her apartment and cajoles his way in, pressing himself on her and accepting her weary submission as confirmation she wants him, or simply as a free pass for someone who doesn't really care either way. His later guilt is provoked less by Gudrun's tears than by her employer's (Ned Vaughn's) self-assured tone as he advises Pete to look elsewhere when scratching his seven-year itch, as if he's initiating the younger man into the club of perpetually philandering husbands. When Trudy returns from the Jersey shore, realizing vaguely that something has gone wrong, Pete asks her never to leave him behind again.

For the moment at least, the discontent that settles over the Draper home mostly belongs to Betty. Don offers her a coliseum-shaped trinket soon after their return, but she is not satisfied. "I hate this place," she insists. "I hate our friends. I hate this town." She's not simply missing the worldly glamor of Rome. Betty kissed Henry a day before flying out, when he assisted her community group at a town meeting. No one was around, and he closed the door to her car immediately after leaning in for the kiss, but their spark of connection is now overt. Later, counseling her daughter (who fought with Bobby after he caught her kissing a neighborhood boy), Betty observes, "You're going to have a lot of first kisses. You're going to want it to be special, so you remember. It's where you go from being a stranger to knowing someone, and every kiss with him after that is a shadow of that first kiss." Don's small souvenir is not her only reminder of a strong attraction.

My Response:
"Mad Men Visits Fellini Land" - such is suggested by the time period (8 1/2 received global acclaim in '63 and La Dolce Vita had recently performed a dazzling upset in the notoriously English-only U.S. box office) as well as the horny Via Veneto banter and Betty's swooped, stylish get-up. When I glimpsed a photo of this scene before watching the episode, I wondered which stranger Don had to decided to hit on this time. Instead, this is one of the most enchanting moments the weary, tensely married couple have ever experienced in this series - a delightful encounter in which they treat each other as strangers, first for the benefit of the would-be Romeos flirting with a gorgeous American woman, but later for their own entertainment. That element of playful fantasy also suggests the films of Federico Fellini, but ultimately the grating disappointments and uncanny roleplaying of the Drapers calls to mind Michelangelo Antonioni or perhaps especially Roberto Rossellini, whose Voyage to Italy depicts a foreign couple navigating their difficult relationship as tourists in (southern) Italy ten years earlier. Connie Hilton may motivate the trip, and remain on hand, but in a show never hesitant to delve into the intricate details of business, "Souvenir" resolutely ignores the commercial aspect of their travels to focus exclusively on Don and Betty.

Indeed, when Trudy asks Pete about his day at the office, there's a pointed meta-irony to the exchange; few episodes have skimped on Sterling Cooper material as thoroughly as this one. Only the first few minutes are spent in that familiar environment and the rest of the story is rooted in the Draper house, the Roman hotel, the Ossining town hall, and Pete's apartment. I was so startled by Pete's temporary bachelor life that I initially thought his run-in with the au pair was supposed to be a flashback to a more carefree time, before he had settled down. Everyone seeks an escape from their ordinary routine in "Souvenir," but as Joan's appearance reminds us, such exit plans don't always work out as planned. For Mad Men, of course, this is a temporary distraction, allowing the show to explore certain avenues without confronting some of the most pressing matters onhand: Don's cold war with Roger and the British reorganization of the American office, for example. Having reached the dog days of August, we're also slowly closing in on the eventful months of the late year, from the March on Washington to the death of newborn Patrick Kennedy to the Vietnam coup resulting in Ngo Dinh Diem's death (twenty days before the even more dramatic demise of another head of state). How will these events correspond to the characters' own lives? Meanwhile I'm delighted that Mad Men found space to explore one of the most important elements of early sixties culture with its Italian sojourn; these touches feel a bit like a historical version of how The X-Files circulating its characters through various paranormal phenomena.

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