Mad Men: Marriage As a Full-Contact Sport

Photo: Courtesy of AMC
Character from Mad Men
Show
Mad Men
Episode Title
The Benefactor
Season
2
Episode
3

If Mad Men’s last episode collapsed the distance between home and office, this one utterly obliterates it — and moves everyone’s spouses into office cubicles. In the last episode, Pete’s father died and left him craving a stronger father figure, and Peggy clashed with her Catholic family. So of course this week the show ditches both Peggy and Pete, while the other admen bring their wives into the ring for a series of face-offs that posit fifties marriage as a full-contact, tag-team cage match.

The Pitch
If love is a battlefield, you better pick the right woman to watch your back.

The Campaign
Following the second season’s success-emboldened Drama for Everyone policy, the unfamiliar name at the bottom of this week’s ticket is Harry, the nice-guy copywriter. (Remember him? Roger Sterling doesn’t.) Harry gets his own story line when he opens up Ken Cosgrove’s paycheck and finds that Ken is pulling $300 a week to his measly $200. So Harry huddles with his pregnant, adoring wife, and she gives him the old pep talk, urging him to demand a raise pronto. With his wife at his back, Harry furiously works an angle — pitching a controversial legal drama with an abortion hook — to Belle Jolie lipstick. And it works. Harry becomes the head of the office’s new, one-man TV department. ("Mad Men goes to Hollywood" must be soon, right?)

On the top of the ticket, there’s a three-way rumble between the Drapers and two new couples: On the set for a new Utz potato-chips ad, drunken pitchman Jimmy Barrett goes blue, maligning an overweight woman as the Hindenberg and Pinocchio’s whale. But that plus-size woman happens to be Mrs. Schilling, who is casually referred to as Mrs. Utz, since her husband Mr. Schilling owns the salty-chip empire. When the Utzes threaten to pull their account, Don has make peace — or lose the account. First off, he cruelly fires the secretary who didn’t cover for him (and wasn’t properly trained to be a good office wife). Then he confronts Jimmy’s wife-manager, a classic femme fatale in crimson and fur. Mrs. Barrett brushes Don off, dominates the conversation, and then makes a pass he can’t refuse (Don can get it up again! He’s coming back!), deflowering Don despite his weak protests.

When Don gets home, he literally scrubs his mouth out with soap before sitting down with his happy family. Still more vulnerable than the invincible version 1.0 of the first season, Don makes squeamish sounds over the phone to Mrs. Barrett, who brushes him off again with a line Don might have said once: “I like being bad and then going home and being good.” Mrs. Barrett suggests that Don arrange to sacrifice his wife, bringing her along to a meeting so that her drunk comic husband might ogle and flirt. Don sets it up: “I need you to be shiny and bright,” he tells Betty, “I need a better half.”

Meanwhile, Betty is testing her commitment to Team Draper. Previously, she’d considered trading sex for car repair. Now she finally gets her alone time with the cute young horseback rider, who lets her know that he’d like a roll in the hay by employing a pitch so pathetic it could only work on Betty: “You are so profoundly sad.” After rejecting his advance, Betty trembles her way out of the stable. At home, she scrubs herself clean, just like Don.

Of course Betty shows up for dinner with the Utzes and Barretts. But the comic just hits on Betty — and won’t apologize to his portly patron. So Don and Mrs. Barrett have a powder-room showdown. The wife has consulted with a contract lawyer and lays down a threat: $25,000 cash, or her husband refuses to apologize and Don loses his account. But threats always bring out the most vicious side of Draper — who finally seems like he’s springing back to life. Draper shoves a hand up her dress and between her legs, threatening her: “Believe me,” he says, “I will ruin him. Do what I say.” She does.

The Early Results
No matter how sleazy Mrs. Barrett may be, the final showdown is one of Don’s cruelest moments yet. Yes, it works, and, yes, it proves that Don is regaining some of his dissipated chauvinist powers. But if this is what it takes for Don to remain dominant, will we really want to watch this kind of manhandling every week? And will Mad Men really keep these wives involved? Or is this just a sop to critics who have complained that the show relegates women to the sidelines as much as real offices did in 1962? -Logan Hill