Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Wee Small Hours" (season 3, episode 9)

Mad Men - "Wee Small Hours" (season 3, episode 9)

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 11, 2009/written by Dahvi Waller, Matthew Weiner; directed by Scott Hornbacher): The characters of Mad Men are reaching either an apotheosis or a freefall, and most of them are recognizing that they can't really tell the difference. Don's whirlwind, largely one-sided bromance with Connie Hilton is wrecking as much as it's building; certainly Don's once-cool demeanor with subordinates has become harsh and surly, as he hurls blame that begins to sound like petty self-protection (born from deep insecurity). Connie expresses wounded disappointment when Don's proposed campaign - "It's Hilton in every language" - feels (literally) too grounded for the old mogul, who wants to (again, literally!) shoot for the moon. If Don thought momentarily that Connie found an equal behind that bar, it's increasingly clear that he wants Don to be a plaything whose resources he can exploit, not a respected junior partner in developing the brand. The Hilton/Draper dynamic is more father/son than even big/little brother, very much tinged by Connie's emotional devotion. It seems clearer than ever that Connie's remarks about an "involvement," "substantial needs," and what to do when "my eye begins to wander" had more to do with his infatuation with Don than with some romantic affair.

A more literal male infatuation develops between Sal and Lee Garner, Jr., the Lucky Strike executive we met back in the series premiere. At that time Lee and his father appeared to be conventionally macho peas in a pod but when he's left alone in an editing suite with Sal, we learn his secret. Lee gropes Sal, who spurns his overtures. A disgruntled and perpetually drunken Lee calls Harry to demand that Sal be removed. Harry chokes, Lee storms out of a meeting when Sal is still present, Roger summarily fires Sal, and Don - knowing much more about Sal's private life than anyone else at Sterling Cooper - confirms rather than reverses Roger's decision. "You people," he grumbles, breaking Sal's heart before offering a handshake and a firm, "I think you know it has to be this way." At the end of the episode, in a phone booth surrounded by hustlers, Sal calls his wife to tell her he's working late and won't be home tonight. Don and Betty also give consideration to betraying their wedding vows, with only Don - as always - taking the plunge. He's been leaving for work early each morning and running into Miss Farrell who goes for a morning jog in the dark. Finally one night he lies to Betty, saying that Connie has called him back to the city before driving to Miss Farrell's in-law apartment instead. After hesitating, she accepts his embraces. Betty, on the other hand, ultimately demures. She begins writing letters to Henry, receives a visit from him (glimpsed by a very uncomfortable Carla), and even holds a Rockefeller fundraiser in her home as both a cover story and an opportunity to see him again (he sends another adviser, much to her disappointment). Finally she goes to his office and he locks the door but she can't go through with the fling: "It's too tawdry," she complains. I doubt she'll feel that way for long.

My Response:
This season has marvelously demonstrated the building energy, the need for a release, that characterized '63, the year that the early sixties transitioned into the mid-sixties. As readers of this viewing diary may have noticed, this subject is something of an obsession for me, and as those who have explored my archives know, it's not a new one. Watching this episode, I was reminded of my "32 Days of Movies" series, which compiled film clips into a chronological tour of movie history. The chapter covering this period - "Tuning In" - was built from several slow-burn clips, usually shrouded in a quiet soundtrack, to more frenetic, music-driven footage from early the following year. Will season three follow a similar structure, ending not with the assassination of Kennedy or a postscript Christmas celebration (a holiday we haven't experienced yet on Mad Men) but with the Beatles' arrival in February '64? "Wee Small Hours" (its own title evoking the weary but nervy mood of Frank Sinatra's hit album from eight years earlier) already suggests that both the cultural and personal impulses - toward freedom and indulgence, toward violent reaction and nervous breakdown - are past the point of being contained.

This trend is obvious enough in the Don/Suzanne, Sal/Lee, Betty/Henry, and Connie/Don involvements, be they consensual or violent, consummated or platonic, sexual or purely emotional. However, there's also a thread of civil rights struggle running through the episode. Suzanne, when she's still nominally just Miss Farrell for Don, tells him that when school starts soon she's going to read Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech to her young students; the Rockefeller Republicans gathered at Betty's house joke about the South being stuck in 1863 rather than 1963; and both newspapers and radio stations blare news of the March on Washington and the vicious bombing of children in Birmingham. In many of these scenes, Carla is a subtle focal point, frequently placed in the background or on the periphery but impossible to avoid in the composition; finally one scene centers her and her point of view. "I hate to say this," sighs Betty as Carla listens to the funeral service for the four little girls, "but it's really made me wonder about civil rights. Maybe it's not supposed to happen right now." Carla returns only the most fleeting of glances but she knows what the others don't or can't admit: once this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out. In some situations this is a good thing, in others it's awful, in most it's destructive as well as liberatory, and in all it's an experience to undergo and navigate as best you can, not a force to be harnessed.

Next: "The Color Blue"Previous: "Souvenir"

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