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Mad Men: Sally Forth

Last week, Gene dropped dead, Sally went bonkers, Sal went Broadway, and Ho Ho got hosed. Now we get the season’s most satisfying episode yet, which brings Pete, Peggy, Don, and Betty to the brink of major turning points in their lives — and brings one old friend back into the fold.

The Pitch: Everyone needs options.

The Campaign
Here’s a sick joke: How does Don get into a woman’s pants? He tells the truth.

At a meeting with Sally’s cute, appealingly unstable instructor, Miss Suzanne Farrell, the teacher breaks down. To console (and possibly charm) her, Don admits that he had family die when he was young, too. (The last time he was this honest with a new acquaintance? Rachel Menken.) Then Miss Farrell calls Don at home, drinking and distraught, blouse unbuttoned and bra strap dangling, to confide, “I don’t even know why I’m calling.” Don smiles, then tells Betty the call was from "no one." Remember how Don said he’d just come from work the day Sally was born? Now he’ll remember flirting with his daughter’s teacher before his third child’s birth. This show is all about progress.

And here comes the baby. At the hospital, Don’s job is done, says the nurse who wheels Betty away. (He spends the wait drinking Johnny Walker with a prison guard who, like him, badly wants to be a better man — but maybe can’t be.) Betty informs the nurse she won’t be breast-feeding and that all she’d eaten that day was toast, cottage cheese, pineapple, and Life Savers (which says, of course, so much about her). Once they inject her with Demerol, things get trippy. Her first hallucination involves her father, and then a wonderful vision of suburban bliss in which she is, notably, all alone. Then she’s in the hospital blurting out, “Where’s Don? He’s never where you expect him to be. Have you seen him — have you been with him?” Ouch. And then she’s in her kitchen with Dad mopping up blood and telling her she’s a house cat, Mom weirdly stroking Medgar Evers’s head and chastising, “See what happens when you speak up?” — and Betty, flustered, saying, “I left my lunch pail on the bus. And I’m having a baby.”

This peek into Betty’s subconscious is fascinating, but it doesn’t reveal much more than we expected of a woman who has actually become less sympathetic as she endures each new trial. There are almost too many adult things that Betty cannot bear to face, even in her dreams. No matter how awful and disassociated Betty’s labor appears, in some way it does seem to sync with her desire to avoid unpleasant realities at all costs.

But the baby’s healthy, despite all that blood her pops was mopping up. Only Betty’s so blotto she initially thinks it’s a girl. Then she names him Gene, to Don’s chagrin. When she gets home, we discover that Betty, who could barely handle two kids with help, now will take care of all three by herself. Expect the Medgar Evers–obsessed Sally to get much worse.

Back in the office, Pete gets a cloak-and-dagger phone call from Duck. After Duck’s goose was cooked by Don at the end of last season, we thought we’d never see him again. Now dogless and wifeless, he’s surely raging at the unfairness of how it all went down. (How could he have known that Don didn’t have a contract?) He’s likely looking for revenge by headhunting two of Sterling Cooper’s best young talents, Pete and Peggy — though he oversells with his pitch about sitting on velvet pillows surrounded by riches. (Also: Did Duck wear a turtleneck to be down with the youngsters, or is it a sign that he’s starting fresh?)

We were surprised to see Pete’s sense of privilege (noblesse outrage?) get in the way of making money, until we realized it smartly mirrored the subplot about how Admiral doesn’t want to sell TVs to black Americans, even if it would help the company’s bottom line. Pride takes all kinds of toxic forms. Last week we wondered when Sterling Cooper would take notice of the Civil Rights movement. Turns out that Pete is indeed willing to have a real, honest conversation — or mini-focus-group — with the only black person he knows: Hollis the elevator operator.

Peggy has been rushed through the motions this season, but she’s also changing faster than everyone around her. Her scene in Don’s office, which reveals her to be more direct and focused than anyone else, is brilliant, from the sight of her fondling a knit baby boot, to her calm, practical explanation of equal pay. Don marshals a lame excuse — his budget squabbles with Pryce — but he could get her a (now legally mandated) raise if he chose to. So when Peggy tells him, “I want everything you have,” it’s tragic on so many levels. When she walks out of Don’s office, that offer from Duck must sound better. In the real world, would there really be a way for Peggy to get ahead at Sterling Cooper, where most of the guys still think of her as little more than Don’s secretary? If we trusted Duck, we’d say she should jump ship immediately.

The episode’s final shot — Betty in the hallway, shrugging, before going to her wailing baby — is acutely ambiguous. Betty said she wanted everything to be okay when the baby comes. Now that little Eugene (?) is here, we’ll have to see — but Betty’s Demerol dreams tell another story. Don’t worry too much, though: Miss Farrell says it’s going to be a beautiful summer.

Early Results
Some of this season’s episodes been seemed choppy and overstuffed, but this was beautifully written and packed with fascinating details — elegantly balanced and wildly ambitious. A few of our favorite little moments: The sad, pathetic way the prison guard refuses to meet Don’s glance when they meet again; the shot of Sally’s bloodied face; the pan in which Don disappears in the hallway; Pete’s clueless scene with Hollis; Roger calling Pete Martin Luther King; Pryce’s penny-pinching hectoring; the subtext of Pete telling Peggy, “Your actions affect me.”

A few questions: Weiner has made some bold and uncomfortable choices over the last few episodes: using the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk as a complement to Sally’s rage, and now Medgar Evers (whom Sally has been asking too many questions about). Is it exploitative to use a man who bled to death in front of his wife and children from a gunshot wound as set dressing for Betty’s privileged, Demerol-addled psychosis? We think it is — and yet, there’s something unsettlingly effective about that dream logic. Also, if this wasn’t the best childbirth scene you’ve ever seen on TV, what was? We can’t think of any better. And finally: Whose return was more satisfying — that of Duck, or of the scarf-gobbling Xerox machine?

Photo: Carin Baer / AMC