Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Beautiful Girls" (season 4, episode 9)

Mad Men - "The Beautiful Girls" (season 4, episode 9)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. The last season will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on September 19, 2010/written by Dahvi Waller and Matthew Weiner; directed by Michael Uppendahl): The three women who board an elevator at the end of two long, disorienting days at the office aren't quite sure who they're more frustrated with and disappointed in: the men in their lives, or themselves. Peggy finally reunites with Abe, the journalist she hooked up with at that bohemian loft party. Their meet-cute goes south, literally, when Abe brings up the civil rights movement and a defensive Peggy deflects from her agency's campaign for a racist auto parts company. When he scoffs at her notion that women are persecuted as well, citing her own professional woes as an example, she abandons their impromptu date; showing up later at her office with a poem titled "Nuremberg on Madison Avenue" does not help his case. Still, her conversation with their mutual friend Joyce reveals an ambivalence on Peggy's part - regarding both Abe and her own place (in this company, and more broadly). Her easily thwarted attempt to broach the concept of black characters for the Fillmore campaign suggests he may have a point.

With Joan's husband Greg heading straight to Vietnam after boot camp, the shameless Roger pursues his old flame - just a few episodes after pontificating about why his duty to fellow service members compelled him to insult Japanese clients. After a gift massage, persistent requests, and the trauma of an office death (more on that in a moment), Joan agrees to a purely platonic dinner ostensibly to assuage her loneliness. Perhaps that's all the comfort she would have sought if the two weren't mugged immediately afterwards; Roger's comforting caresses after the mugger flees quickly turn into something more - with Joan's active encouragement. But she hopes this re-ignition will remain a quick fling rather than a full-on affair. Meanwhile, the last of the trio, Dr. Faye, has - on the surface - the least reason to be upset with a lover. She and Don feel, and indulge, both a deep sexual attraction and emotional connection. The latter is strong enough for Don to trust her to keep an eye on Sally when the little girl flees the suburbs and catches a subway into the city to visit her father. Unfortunately, Faye's interactions with Sally are forced and awkward; she eventually confesses that she's chosen not to have children for the sake of her career and blames this for her lack of rapport with kids. It's a sacrifice she's never felt more acutely than in this moment.

As Betty finally arrives to pick Sally up (the next day!) - the once vaguely childish housewife now glimpsed as a cold, forbidding authority figure through and through - the young Draper races down the hallway in a rage, falls on her face, and breaks down in sobs. It is not Faye but Don's new secretary, the sensitive, shellshocked Megan Calvet (Jessica Paré), who comforts her. And yes, he has a new secretary for a reason. Miss Blankenship died suddenly the very day, indeed the very hour, that Sally arrived: frozen in her seat with her sunglasses on (she was recovering from an eye operation), this Sterling Cooper veteran's demise spreads the black cloud of looming mortality through the bright white office, which the snarky young kids laugh off while both Roger and Bert brood over her obituary. Adding insult to injury, the other secretaries must throw a blanket over her corpse, wheeling her away as quietly as possible so as not to disrupt the Fillmore meeting unfolding on the other side of a glass partition. The clients' backs are, fortunately, against that glass, continuing their indifferent ignorance of Miss Blankenship in death as well as in life. Although they already have plenty of their own reasons, with the full lifespan of ignominious female defeat on display it's no wonder Peggy, Joan, and Faye look so weary when the elevator doors close.

My Response: In such a woman-focused episode, it's surprising to realize how central Don remains: one of the three central storylines revolves around him and the child and old woman whose dramatic moments punctuate the narrative are also in his orbit. Don does not exactly cover himself in glory here, particularly when he presses Faye into service to watch Sally while he handles a business deal and a dead secretary. It's treated as a friendly favor, but they are professional peers as well as lovers and he is relegating her to de facto mother/babysitter. While she tells him he had no right to ask this of her, her distress suggests that she blames herself for being unable to fulfill a role she never sought. Despite this potentially relationship-ending transgression (Don insists her parental insufficiency doesn't matter to him but Faye feels defeated), Don does generally seem to be on an uptick here. Gone is the drunken mess of the season's first half and I don't expect him to return to that tailspin in the remaining episodes. Even if Faye ceases to provide a way out of that darkness, I think I have an idea what will: it will be kind of a brilliant, subtle culmination of many hints along the way. I won't say more than that because my suspicions rely partly on one of the few clips I've seen from later episodes; based on that, I actually should have more definitive expectations - but, well, I'll return to the subject when appropriate.

The fact that, perpetual protagonist Don aside, the episode is largely told from the female characters' points of view only underscores how thoroughly Betty has drifted from its core - the balance of sympathy for this always-difficult character has definitively tipped in the other direction. Aside from the one episode in which she sent Sally to therapy, we are mostly kept at a distance. Given that fact, I like how Waller, Weiner, and Uppendahl handle her this episode, one of many ways the show allows time to transform our perspectives while retaining enough recall for thought-provoking mental juxtapositions. So it is when Betty arrives at SCDP, impressing not just Sally but unfamiliar figures like Meg as a forbidding, almost impossible-to-understand figure: the starched matriarch who comes to us fully formed, clad in her pearls like a coat of armor. We can see and share this viewpoint as an audience even while simultaneously remembering all the doubts, anxieties, and frustrations that brought Betty to this point. By setting itself so far in the past, at the outset of an epoch of change, Mad Men immediately takes on the feel of an origin story. But an origin story for what exactly, for whom? In this moment, a sense emerges - one that has been peeking around the corner throughout season four as Sally becomes more crucial - that this is in a way her origin story, or rather the origin story of the hegemonic consciousness her generation would pioneer. More succinctly, Mad Men bears witness to the birth of the world we know by showing us where it came from.

In the seventies, eighties, and beyond (possibly right up until the middle of the last decade, and we're still in the process of transitioning) our culture was dominated by the baby boomer perspective; its language, its reference points, and (most significantly here) its distanced perception of its own parent's very different ethos. Few if any silent generation members were involved with Mad Men's creation (one of the few, Barbet Schroeder, who directed the Kennedy assassination episode, was paired with a millennial writer). Indeed, many are closer to Gen X than even the boomers and would have little to no memory of the sixties (Weiner himself was four when the decade ended). Sally, present but more an observer than a participant, can serve as a surrogate. And by the end of the series, with the post-sixties world that these writers and directors grew up in fully established, presumably the teenage Sally will be more at home within it than the postwar grown-ups who were completely in control when Mad Men began. For now she's trying to piece together the rules of their arcane world not just as a matter of curiosity but survival: unlike us, she doesn't know what's on the horizon and may reasonably presume that she'll have to accept this way of life rather than rebel - her attempts to run away will only lead her to fall flat on her face. Then again, what's the alternative to that desperate, failed dash and collapse? Follow these rules and eventually end up dead in a chair in her late sixties, the dutiful servant shuffled off (can't disrupt the turning of the wheel in which she was just another cog)? The questions are both generational and gendered, and it's doubtful that, in this moment at least, the three women on the elevator would offer many words of encouragement in response to Sally's wordless perplexity.

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