Mad Men: The Pursuit of Happiness

Mad Men

Wee Small Hours
Season 3 Episode 9
Will he never learn? With the teacher.

Last week we saw Pete at his most repulsive, Betty at her boldest, Joan at her most proper, and Don at his most beta-male. Don brought home a chintzy souvenir of the Roman Empire’s golden age, which seemed to portend that the good times (such as they were) were over. Yep, five episodes left — and just a few months until JFK’s assassination. This week, the pursuit of happiness leads to all kinds of heartbreak for Don, Betty, and especially Sal.

In late August 1963, with riots on the streets, marchers in Washington, and boots in Vietnam, the righteous American Century that Henry Luce declared in 1941 is in danger. Like Eugene, Conrad Hilton is an old guy fighting for America’s divine manifest destiny. The country is a “force of God,” Connie says, and God speaks to him. “It’s my purpose in life: to bring America to the world, whether they like it or not.” His hotels are an expression of God’s imperialistic (American) will — and God and Connie both want a hotel on the moon (JFK had promised a man there in 1961). Unlike Eugene (who despised licentiousness), the great-grandfather of Paris Hilton is all about exporting the liberating ideal of American plenty: the pursuit of happiness, with a luxury price tag.

Don produces an excellent campaign focused on luxury, but can’t deliver the moon. Is Connie looking for some spiritual, optimistic conception of “goodness” that Don just can’t BS? Connie is angry: “What about the moon?” (driving the metaphor home) and “What do you want from me, love?” (making the paternal subtext more obvious). He seems genuinely scared that he might lose the father he never had. But is Don just too cynical to believe in Connie’s dreams? Or is Connie a deluded pie-in-the-sky crackpot? Either way, American dreams and American realities clash.

Carla listens to an all-white room of self-righteous Yankees complaining about the brutality of the South as if it’s a far-off joke. She hears that an 11-year-old girl and three 14-year-olds were killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church, spurring riots in Birmingham (protected by friends, the killer, Thomas Blanton, wasn’t prosecuted for this until 2001). We hear King delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech, but on Betty’s entrance, Carla turns the station to easy listening. Betty passes the convenient judgment that we might just not be ready for change. She certainly isn’t.

All Betty can think of is Henry, or at least, the man who exists in her gauzy, fainting-couch dreams. She writes absurdly romantic letters on fleur-de-lis letterhead, but soon it’s all too real, complicated, and, Betty says, “tawdry.” When she has to throw a Rockefeller fund-raiser just to cover up for his indiscretion, and then he doesn’t even show up, she hurls a box of money at him (echoing Sal). She doesn’t want a difficult, real-life affair. Does she want real life at all? Or is the everyday too improper for her taste? In any case, Betty’s romp seems to be over: a darker reprise of her go-nowhere flirtation with that stable boy. She’s been lurching from depression to mania, anger to loony romance all season long. Is her character this unstable? Or is the show just inconsistent? (We find Betty to be the least plausible main character on the show.)

By golly, Sal. We’ve seen all kinds of sexual harassment at the office, but nothing like this. In the editing room, Lee Garner Jr., that strapping, drunken Texan, wraps a hand around Sal’s chest and offers everything that the bellhop couldn’t give him. But instead of getting lucky with the Lucky Strike scion, Sal backs away. Lee storms off. When Harry refuses to fire “that Salvatore fella” for no reason, they almost lose a $25 million account. Don, who knows Sal’s secret, sneers, “Nothing could have happened. Because you’re married.” Was he implying that Sal should have gone down on the guy to keep the business? This is cruel homophobia on Don’s part — he even spits out a “you people.” But it’s also another variation on the crass client-servicing relationship, and how Don feels like he’s surrounded by incompetents. Remember what Don did for Bobbi Barrett in that car, and remember the self-disgust with which he washed his hands afterward? Would a younger Don have had a tryst with Lee? Probably not. But he can’t say no to Connie, either.

Sal, whose career had just taken off, gets fired. (See: Weiner’s Law.) After Sal cleans out his desk, we see him in a phone booth, near some dudes who look like extras from Grease. “I love you” are his last words, to his wife, as he steels himself for a night in which he finally confronts his desire. Is Sal finally giving in to his desire because he’s got nothing left to lose? Because it’s the only place he can find comfort or be honest? Because he really wanted Lee? Because why the hell not?

Maybe Sal needs a random hookup for the same reason Don keeps cruising for Miss Farrell in his car. The episode ends with Don in streetwise Miss Farrell’s bed. “I’m new and I’m different,” she says, “or maybe I’m exactly the same.” And that’s exactly where we find Don: making the same mistakes, deluding himself much as Betty deluded herself. We know this when Don asks her if she’s “dumb or pure.” Clearly, Miss Farrell is neither. Don must be talking about a dream of her, a vision of her dancing around a maypole, his own version of Betty’s Victorian fantasy.

If Don has an Achilles heel, it’s always been that he gets high on his own supply. He sells dreams of superficial indulgence, but also buys into them. Maybe Don and Betty aren’t so different. Don tried to live in the pragmatic day-to-day this season, but it didn’t fit his rootless drifter ego. Given the choice between unrealistic fantasies or the real world of Betty and Sterling Cooper, Don will always choose the Cadillac with the roof down, the new girl, the fantasy. In a way, Don is back to exactly where he was at this same point last season (threatened on all sides, running away from his marriage and into a fantasy) and so is Betty (angry, alienated from Don, ending a flirtation). So what’s next? Will this show become the inverse of The Office? Instead of waiting for Jim and Pam to get married, will we just be waiting for Don and Betty to divorce?

Mad Men: The Pursuit of Happiness