“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” was set mainly in the workplace. “Ladies Room” goes outside the office, letting us see more of the characters’ private lives and developing them as personalities apart from Sterling Cooper. As written by Matthew Weiner and directed by Alan Taylor, it is also the first fully formed example of Mad Men using symbolism to complicate its stories rather than tie them up in a bow. Every scene is filled with images, gestures, or lines that seem to have a single, easily graspable meaning, but become richer when another scene comes along that builds upon them, or opens them up.
Look at the first scene: a double date with Roger Sterling, his wife, Mona (Talia Balsam), and Don and Betty Draper (January Jones). The episode starts with close-ups of a waiter’s hands cracking an egg and squeezing a lemon over a Caesar salad. “Put another egg in it,” says Roger, seated next to Mona. When she balks, he insists that one egg is good, two is better. They’re seated in a red booth, not too different from the one where we first met Don in “Smoke.”
Roger brings up his childhood nanny, reminding us that the Sterlings and Drapers belong to a social class that can subcontract parenting when it wants to. Roger says his nanny used to make fried chicken for him to take to school, and that he used to have another nanny, a German girl with an enormous bosom, but his parents got rid of her after the Lindbergh kidnapping case. The scene is a great showcase for John Slattery, an actor who excels at playing elegant raconteurs who are aware of their ridiculousness and play it up to disarm their listeners. It also further defines Don as a mysterious man who apparently grew up lacking the things that his tablemates have.
But much more so, the scene is the beginning of an episode that’s as much of an argument, or an examination of arguments, as it is a story. The juxtaposition of a stolen baby and two cracked eggs tells us which thematic roads we’re about to travel down. “Ladies Room” is mainly about women’s self-images and life choices, and how both are shaped by ideas of what men and women should be. Why do we want the things we want? it asks. Is it because we really want them, or because we’ve been conditioned to believe that we should?
Now look at what the next scene does to the talk about nannies and eggs, aspirations and class consciousness. The instant that Betty and Mona get up to go to the ladies’ room, our ears prick up, because this room gives the episode its title. But the ladies’ room is more than a room and more than a phrase. It’s a prism revealing new facets of the action. You can read the phrase “ladies’ room” in terms of rigid gender segregation: one washroom for women, another for men. You can look at it in terms of feminine “secrets”: The ladies’ room is where women go to “fix their faces” and have private conversations about men. Or you could read it as a comment on how trapped Mad Men’s women sometimes feel, even though they might not think of themselves that way.
In the washroom, Betty seems ill at ease in her flawless skin, and there’s an undertone of fear to her cheerful remarks. She says she’s having trouble getting her hands to work. Mona helps her with her face, and the ritual underlines the effort that goes into maintaining the pristine facade of femininity that Roger and Don value; Mona says Betty’s lips help her “hold on to a man like that.” In the restroom, we get the episode’s second appearance by “nannies,” this time in the flesh rather than in dialogue: the African-American washroom attendants. They wait on the white women in near silence, then complain about the trend toward smaller purses (which cuts into their tips, because the bags aren’t big enough for billfolds).
Don is the only person who won’t share. “I can’t tell you about my childhood,” Don says. “It would ruin the first half of my novel.” We surmise that he probably didn’t have a nanny and doesn’t want to say so. Most of the people at that table have, or have had, nannies. And the washroom attendants remind us that they still do. They are still being babysat.
Betty tries to get to know Don better, to make him seem more real to her and their marriage more secure. She married a phantom. “Don doesn’t like to talk about himself,” Betty tells Roger and Mona. “I know better than to ask.” “I think I may know more about your wife than I know about my own,” Roger tells Don after the spouses have left the table, which is funny now that we know Don’s wife doesn’t know much about Don. Driving home, Betty says that she likes seeing Don “like that.” “You were sitting on my good side,” says Don, turning a comment about his behavior into a joke. Betty is terrified: of losing Don specifically, and of being alone generally. She remarks that Roger gave Don “an invitation to confide,” but Don says he was raised to think that talking about yourself was “a sin of pride.” Betty’s remark in the car was yet another invitation to confide, but again Don declined. Later, Don sleeps, and Betty sidles up next to him and asks, “Who’s in there?” (She’s looking at the back of his head.)
These are subtle moments, and they seem fleeting, but there’s loneliness in them: Don’s as well as Betty’s. They are married to each other, but you wonder how well they know each other.
The scene fades to white, and the white becomes the pebbled glass of an office partition. Peggy walks into the frame and is joined by Joan in what feels like the second leg of the tutorial journey that started in the pilot. Approving Peggy’s clothing choices, Joan tells her that accessories are next. The word accessories has at least three applicable meanings here: the items of non-clothing that define a woman’s “look”; the lifestyle accessory, such as a boyfriend or a husband or children, or one of those houses in the suburbs that Joan craves; and the criminal variant: “accessory after the fact.” “For two weeks I’ve been telling people I have a job in Manhattan,” Peggy tells Joan as they enter the ladies’ room. Joan marvels at Peggy’s optimism, or naïveté, which overwhelms Peggy’s knowledge that she’s at the “bottom of the food chain.”
There are two mirrors in this scene. One is the bathroom mirror into which a crying secretary weeps as Peggy looks on. The other is the secretary herself, a human mirror of the miseries that other women in the episode grapple with.
In Don’s office, Harry (Rich Sommer), Sal, Ken, and another copywriter, Dale, unpack cans of Right Guard aerosol deodorant. “A modern deodorant for a modern man,” Ken says, starting a Don Draper free-associative hype-fest. The testosterone is thick; in the next scene a fireball flares behind the glass of Don’s office door. Ken’s coworkers test out the can on him, pinning him on the table in a mock gang rape. “Let’s pretend it’s prom night,” Dale says. “You’re the girl.” Bert Cooper (Robert Morse), cofounder of Sterling Cooper, grabs Don away, trying to get him to work on the Nixon campaign. Don objects on the grounds that even though Nixon doesn’t have an ad agency, his campaign manager seems to know what he’s doing. Echoing language used in the Right Guard gang bang, Don asks why they should chase a girl who doesn’t want to get caught.
Paul Kinsey is the only man in the office besides Don to treat Peggy like a human being, and to try to avoid piggish language when he’s around women, but we can’t be sure of his motives. He’s polite to Peggy at her desk, inviting her to lunch, then accepting her “no” graciously (“Toodle-loo!”), but later, when he gives her the tour of the office, he moves in for a kiss, looming over her. He wants to close the door and do it on the couch, and when she resists, he asks, “Do you belong to someone?” (Any woman who doesn’t “belong” to a man can be “taken.”) “I think we’ve misunderstood each other,” Peggy says on her way out. “But there is someone else, right?” says Paul, still not getting it.
The pressure weighs on Peggy. After her encounter with Paul, there is a shot of the back of her neck (a touch of Draper-cam) that makes us feel like a vulture perched on her shoulder. Peggy considers going home early until Joan shows up to complain that Peggy mistyped her letters. Peggy mistyped Joan’s letters because she did them after lunch, and the lunch was with the boys in the office, who speculated on how quickly she’d put out and under what circumstances, and even implied that she’d do it if they paid her. It’s hard to hit the right keys when your hands are shaking. The language the men use around the women is casually degrading. Its jocularity doesn’t mask its contempt. Each workday brings a hundred tiny assaults and smiling assertions of dominance.
“I’m from Bay Ridge; we have manners.. . . Why can’t they just leave it alone?” Peggy asks.
And here we see a difference in perception between Peggy and Joan. Where Peggy is a burgeoning sixties woman, Joan has absorbed the mentality of the 1950s and doesn’t seem inclined to let go. Peggy bucks against the status quo. Joan enforces it.
As Peggy retypes the correspondence, we hear the Andrews Sisters singing “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” A low-angled shot looking up at Peggy makes it seem as though the ceiling is closing in on her. She’s trapped at this desk, in this office, in this role. The scene shifts into a slow-motion anti-reverie, a rancid parody of bliss. The dogs of the office drift past Peggy, sniffing her out. We’re reminded again that, in this world, ladies don’t have as much room to maneuver as men. More often, they’re pinned to chairs. Peggy’s anxious expressions confirm that the office can feel like a prison, or a zoo.
Things aren’t much better in the domestic sphere that Joan wants to graduate into. The scene with Betty and her pal Francine (Anne Dudek) includes some of the same diminishing, self-loathing language that Joan lays on Peggy. Francine asks Betty if she might challenge the current PTA president who is obsessed with nutrition, “although you wouldn’t know it to look at her.” “Francine, you’re terrible,” Betty says, grinning; it’s a two-woman sewing circle, and their needles are sharp. A big part of Betty’s fear, which manifests itself as physical illness, comes from worrying that her seemingly ideal marriage to a handsome husband and great provider is built on a foundation of sand. That’s why the talk of the divorcée Helen Bishop (Darby Stanchfield), who has just moved into the neighborhood, rattles her so; not for nothing does Betty say in the car that lobster Newburg and vodka gimlets should “get a divorce.” Moments after seeing Helen for the first time, Betty loses control of her hands and crashes her car. “Is she an old lady?” Betty asks Francine at lunch. “Divorced,” Francine replies—same thing, as far as they’re concerned. Francine says “divorced” condescendingly, but there’s a hint of pity: Helen has a nine-year-old boy and a baby. “That’s awful,” says Betty. “All on her own?” “Can you imagine worrying about money at this point in our lives?” Francine asks. “No,” says Betty.
The image of the “traditional” American family, heterosexual and white, is central. “Ladies Room” studies it as one might a sacred text. The episode glamorizes the constructed image of the Eisenhower-era, Leave It to Beaver–style nuclear family by showing us beautiful people with beautiful homes and clothes and cars, as if they, too, were fantasy objects, things that other people dream of having. No matter how critical the lens, you can’t photograph beauty in a beautiful way and not make the story feel just a bit like an advertisement. At the same time, though, Weiner’s script undermines the glamour by showing how people cling to the “traditional family” image out of fear, in a faintly tribal way.
There is talk that Helen’s presence in the neighborhood might lower real estate values. Even Don doesn’t understand why an unentangled life might be pleasant for a woman; as independent-minded as he is, he’s absorbed messages about what women should be. During another afternoon tryst with Midge, Don spies her new TV and wants to know who gave it to her and won’t let up until she tells him. She throws the TV out the window, a spontaneous gesture of contempt for Don’s nosiness but also for the assumptions behind it.
There’s a lot of talk of health and well-being, of the emotional and psychological kind—as well as about how women’s health worries were dismissed in the sixties. Betty tells Don that her physicians could find no evidence of physical ailment, but that one of her doctors recommended she see a psychiatrist. “He said it could be a nervous condition,” Betty says. “Nervous about what? Driving?” sneers Don. Acceptance of psychiatry didn’t really begin to flower in the United States until the 1970s, and even then it was the object of half-deprecating jokes in Woody Allen films, New Yorker cartoons, and on The Bob Newhart Show.
Later, Betty wonders if she really needs a psychiatrist, and Don says, “I always thought people saw psychiatrists when they were unhappy. But I look at you, and this, and them,” he says, indicating the children, “and that,” he says, touching the face that he admires so much, “and I think, are you unhappy?” “Of course I’m happy,” Betty replies. “Well, that’ll be thirty-five dollars,” Don says. “You’re welcome.” While this is outwardly a tender, funny scene, there’s a lot of fear in it. Don fears that his wife is unhappy or sick and cannot be made well. Betty fears that her husband is a mystery to her, that their marriage is a mystery to her, that it’s all fragile, that it can be taken away at any moment, and that she might end up like Helen Bishop.
The pitch meeting for Right Guard is a drama of uncertainties. It drives home that to talk about what men and women want is to enter a realm of constructed desires. Sal shows Don a mock-up of an ad exploiting the astronaut craze. Paul Kinsey says it’s “shiny,” that it’s “from the future, a place so close to us now, filled with wonder and ease.” “Except some people think of the future and it upsets them,” says Don. “They see a rocket, they start building a bomb shelter.” “How did you get there?” Paul wants to know. “I don’t think it’s ridiculous to assume we’re looking for other planets because this one will end,” Don says, carrying his household unease into the office.
Shifting gears, he offers, “We should be asking ourselves, what do women want?” He’s articulating the question every man on the show should ask every once in a while for kicks, to get out of their comfort zone, to see themselves as women see them. Dale suggests adding a chesty alien girl, and Don cuts him off. What Don wants to know is, what would make a woman want to buy this deodorant for a man?
The slack-jawed look on every other man’s face confirms that Don has struck a nerve. Not only do they not know what to say, they don’t know what to think. Don seems close to a breakthrough. He sits for a moment, then takes a drag off his cigarette.
But what he comes up with isn’t a flash of insight. It’s a turning inward, and it could be another reaction to the drama at home with his unhappy wife.
Don says women want a cowboy. “He’s quiet and strong. He always brings the cattle home safe.”
Then he catches himself, and has a near-breakthrough.
“What if they want something else,” he asks, “some . . . mysterious wish that we’re ignoring?”
Excerpted with permission from Mad Men Carousel by Matt Zoller Seitz.