Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Shut the Door. Have a Seat" (season 3, episode 13)

Mad Men - "Shut the Door. Have a Seat" (season 3, episode 13)

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 November 8, 2009/written by Matthew Weiner, Erin Levy; directed by Matthew Weiner): A chapter, perhaps an entire book, has finished. A new one is ready to begin - indeed, it already has begun, in style. Several relationships end emphatically in "Shut the Door. Have a Seat" while others nearly end, and still others begin or resume. And yes, as expected, one of those dissolving relationships belongs to the Drapers. Betty will marry Henry (when Don finds out about their romance, from Roger, he becomes temporarily threatening, only to back off by episode's end: "I want you to know I won't fight you on this," he calls to her from his new temporary office - and home). Don will move to the city - we see him carrying his bags into a new apartment building just before the credits roll - and...then what? He's landing on his feet more smoothly than he once suggested he would, but whether it's good or bad that the future is now completely wide open, wide open it is.

Don also "breaks up" with Connie, who matter-of-factly informs him that McCann Erickson is about to buy Putnam Powell & Lowe and he doesn't want to do business with them, so he and Don must sever their professional relationship, at least until they "try again sometime." Don, realizing he's been a "toy" for Connie to play around with and cut down to size, doesn't seem too eager and the imperious, egotistical Hilton scolds him for complaining that he wasn't able to do what Connie himself did. The meeting is beneficial to Don in several ways, informing him of the tumult to come and also sparking the entrepreneurial chutzpah that saves the core of the company even as the company itself goes over the cliff. Don, Roger, and Bert ask Lane to fire them so that they can be released from their contracts and move as many clients as possible to...Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Doesn't have the same ring to it, but I suppose "SCDP" will have to do going forward.

They bring with them - to a hotel room that will serve as temporary headquarters - Pete (for his visions of future markets), Harry (for his TV knowhow), Joan (for her organizational/resource expertise), and, after some initially brusque demanding and then some humble pleading, Peggy (for the sensitivity with which she understands the consumer's deep emotional needs - if Don once told her she wasn't an artist, he now seems to be taking it back). When the rest of the gang returns to the building on Monday and discovers the SCDP team's offices stripped clean, they are shocked; Paul's reaction to Peggy's absence is particularly pointed. Their loss is their colleagues' liberation. After a difficult year Don has broken free - of a marriage he didn't want to escape (even though he probably should have) and a working situation that he probably did (even if he couldn't articulate it). The times they are a'changin'.

My Response:
I've long expected - at times even grown impatient waiting for - the Draper divorce. I mean, I literally knew this was coming just from cultural osmosis but I think even if I hadn't, it would have seemed inevitable. How could a show so determined to capture every sixties trend not want to detonate its Eisenhower era nuclear family? More importantly, the picture-postcard life of Don and Betty, despite some happy moments (their wonderful if short-lived Italian sojourn serving as the last of these), has always been wrapped in a terrible, aching sadness and frustration. Each in their own way has been all surface, unable to reveal their inner selves to each other or themselves, always desperately performing who they thought they were supposed to be, distrusting, longing for, and lying in turn. This is obviously true of Don, whose philandering, hidden past, and self-indulgent distance bears the lion's share of responsibility for the marriage's failure. But it's also true of Betty in more subtle, at least initially less self-conscious fashion. This comfortable home has been a trap for both of them, a place to watch their dreams die and their fears strangle one another.

Surprisingly, the handsome dark-haired businessman and the impeccably pretty blonde housewife, the couple who "looked like the figures on our wedding cake" according to Margo Sterling, were never really designed to thrive in a state of mid-century suburban domesticity. Don is a classic urban striver, rising from desperate rural poverty to navigate the fast lane in cities that externalize the frenzied mental life he's always known, even as a boy on a farm. And Betty's trajectory was arrested when she met Don; she longs for the world of wealth and prestige - even as he received raises and promotions, Don's moneygrubbing profession never quite provided her the proper milieu. And so both move on. There's a distinct, vaguely uncanny quality to the family meeting in which Don and Betty, dressed more casually (and thus more familiarly) than their usual stylized get-up, tell the kids he's moving out. This is a very recognizable dramatic touchstone in cinema and TV since the seventies and eighties...if much of early Mad Men has been ensconced in a nostalgic frame that distances us from the period onscreen, this scene starts to sneak in a quality of "wait, this is actually the time we still live in, or at least a recent past that even younger viewers can remember." And so the past becomes the present. At times Don and Betty will miss these days now that they're safely gone, but somehow they could never fully enjoy them as they unfolded. If I feel relieved to see them let this go, I think they do too.

While I expected the divorce, the scrappy reorganization of Sterling Cooper (Draper Pryce!) was a delightful surprise. In fact it's just the story element necessary to offset the downbeat parts of "Shut the Door. Have a Seat." The first season ended in bittersweet fashion, as Don fantasized about coming home to a festive, glowing family holiday only for reality to sink in as he returns to a cold, empty house. The second season ended with weary, tentative resolve as - nuclear crisis averted - Don and Betty held hands over the table, brought back together for the moment by her pregnancy. Now they are finally apart for good, but the mood isn't melancholy thanks in large part to the Billy Wilder-esque antics of the SCDP gang. After a season that hasn't shirked from presenting the ugly, brutal side of capitalist conquest, much of episode 13 plays like a love letter to Horatio Alger. For thirty-nine episodes, we've watched these characters with a mixture of exasperated affection, jaundiced disgust, and sneaking sympathy; it's a mild shock to find out just how thrilled we are at their triumphs, and how readily we bask in the glow of their camaraderie (...for now). This is an artfully-executed finish to a very strong season, but I'm most excited to find out what comes next.

Next: (season 4 premiere) "Public Relations"Previous: "The Grown Ups"

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