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Mad Men Recap: The Only Thing We Learn

Christ on a cracker! Five episodes in, this season is off to a banging start, with each episode tighter and more focused than last season. As the show develops, it’s becoming a show about how change does — and does not — happen, both for the characters on this show, the SCDP agency, and the larger culture around them. It is, after all, the era’s ultimate question: How does the sock-hopping segregated America of the fifties evolve into the pot-smoking, divided America of the late sixties? (And why didn’t it change more?) In miniature, the trajectory of Don and Peggy and Betty and Pete is more uncertain: Will they change? Can they? And if not, why? If the last episode explored how rejection can open up new possibilities, this one explores how shame and trauma can accelerate change or hold it back: Sally and Roger act out their personal traumas, while Don and Betty seem doomed to repeat their parents’ mistakes.

The episode stages Sally’s misbehavior and SCDP’s pitch to Honda’s Joan-ogling Japanese businessmen against a backdrop of persistent allusions to WWII and Vietnam, anti-Japanese racism, and the civil rights marches in Selma. Roger blows up — “your new yellow friends!” — because he’s struggling with his memories of WWII and because he just can’t believe that anything can change so fast. “These are not the same people,” says Pete, who makes it clear that he’s not the same anymore and that he’s now a threat to Roger’s ego. “How could that be?” Roger roars. “I’m the same people!”

Just a couple of decades after American internment camps imprisoned Japanese-Americans, Roger’s unbridled racism was common — but Americans were also falling in love with Japanese movies (like Gamera, from last episode), Japanese products, and, yes, gimmicky steak houses. Benihana, where Don and Bethany eat, debuted in 1963 in midtown Manhattan and even took its name from a flower that Rocky Aoki, the restaurant’s legendary founder, says his father found growing after a firebombing. (For my profile of Aoki, whose whole public life was a masterpiece of marketing, see here.) When Joan mentions that her husband may be heading to war soon, it makes the connection between Roger, the Japanese, and the worsening war in Vietnam explicit: In retrospect, we know that our military demonized the Vietnamese in much the same way that it demonized the Japanese. As Roger asks, “Do you want your husband going to some Vietnamese dentist?”

There’s that old Hegel line, “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history,” and it would seem true of Roger and the Drapers, too, as Sally and Don and Betty cope with the wreckage of the divorce. Don acts as callously as his own father (leaving the kids with the sitter and the TV, brushing Sally off when she talks to him). Betty acts as vindictively and violently as her mother (slapping Sally, leaving the nanny to take her to the therapist). Did she really threaten to cut off Sally’s fingers if she masturbated again? Oh yes she did.

And Sally — well, poor Sally. She gets ignored by her father, cuts her hair, masturbates on a friend’s couch, gets caught, and then gets slapped by her mom in front of her dad and stepfather, all before being sent off to four-days-a-week therapy. More than anything, this 10-year-old seems lonely and desperate for a friend (now that Grampa Eugene is gone, creepy Glen may be all she’s got). Her Dad is a cypher: Are those Oedipal issues firing up as she masturbates to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (Dad is something of a spy). Instead of getting the attention she seems to crave, she just keeps getting sent to her room or therapy. “A man is shamed by being openly ridiculed and rejected,” Don reads from his book. “It requires an audience.” Sally craves an audience and an airing of her grievances. She wants to be heard.

Well, Sally gets an audience after her mother shames her — but it’s with a complete stranger. Since Betty and Don have no idea of how to talk to her, and don’t try, they call in a therapist. At best, it’s respect by proxy. But when Betty has the nanny deliver Sally to the therapist’s office, it feels more like punishment, like desperation, like a way of hiding her shame, rather than letting her air it out, giving it the respectful audience she may require. The worse Betty behaves toward Sally, the more we learn about how gruesome Betty’s childhood must have been with a mother who threatened to cut her hair and nailed a nudist magazine to her brother’s door. Her visit to Sally’s therapist uncorks that rancid bottle of issues that’s always threatening to spew out. (In this episode, everyone needs to air their issues: Betty, Roger, and even Don, who blurts out a post-divorce update over sake.) Has Sally really been so different since Betty’s father died? Or has Betty? Isn’t Henry just the attentive father-husband replacement she needed after her father died?

Whereas Betty once blamed everything on her mother, Don is now her new enemy, allowing her to project any and all of her guilt onto him. (“She understands a lot of things thanks to you,” she spits.) Only, Betty hasn’t just demonized Don in the same way that Roger demonized the Japs. She wants blood. “I want him dead,” she says. Moreover, she doesn’t want to admit anything that would complicate her black-and-white version of their divorce. “I don’t want to know about your life,” she spits at the phone. Can Betty ever change if she’s always convinced that someone else is the problem? And with all these threats of finger-chopping and murder, is Betty about to really snap? And what about Don? “Every time Don Draper looks in the rear-view mirror he sees me” is the kind of line that can be read in all sorts of ways — both because Don is vulnerable professionally, and because we never know what Don sees in the mirror. Has Don bottomed out? Is he back on the upswing? In this episode he neither falls down drunk, spills scotch on the floor, loses his keys, screws a secretary, hires a prostitute, nor passes out in the office. On the contrary, he behaves himself on a date with Bethany and hits on the social scientist without making an ass of himself. (Since Don hasn’t blurted out so much honesty to any
woman since Rachel Mencken, we expect he’ll make a play on his colleague before he settles for Bethany.) Moreover, after looking like a pathetic loser in the office, Don pulls off a savvy scheme by playing honest.

Don, the con, is the trickster who’s been thrown into the briar patch on the Honda account: understanding a whole other code of manly behavior would be hard for most. But, really, is anyone better at pretending to be an honorable alpha male? At adopting someone else’s rules as his own? The inscrutable Don Draper (a great use of that hoary Asian cliché) knows that The Chrysanthemum and the Sword wasn’t meant to be read in order to better understand the Japanese: It’s a weapon to be used to fuck them over. This is the world-is-flat vision of how social change happens: pure capitalist self-interest. Don understands that the crucial thing isn’t acting with integrity and honor or obeying their rules: It’s appearing to do so in order to make money and screw the competition. Don wins this one — but is he back in the saddle, or has he settled on a new answer to the question that kicked off the season: Who is Don Draper? It’s hard to say because it’s hard to know if Don is ever really changing, or if he’s donning a new identity for the day. (Meanwhile, from his check to the Japanese, we learn that he lives at 104 Waverly Place, a half-block from the hippies at Washington Square Park and two blocks from the Stonewall Inn.)

Which brings us back to the big question: Will all that shame prevent these characters from moving on — or will it motivate them to change? Shame was a powerful weapon in the civil rights activists’ arsenal. But will the guilt and shame Don and Betty feel about their childhoods ever allow them to change? Or are they doomed to repeat their parents’ mistakes? Will Roger adjust to the shifting terrain around him? Or will he recede as that sonofabitch Pete rises? Is it too late for Peggy to transform or will her new friends help her get over all the humiliation she’s suffered in the office? Is Sally destined to become just like her mother — or her father? For now, let’s just note that this has always been a very cynical show — and that the most disturbing thing about Sally’s new haircut is
that it looks exactly like her mother’s.

Photo: AMC