There are a lot of dissatisfied characters on Mad Men, and a lot of characters with secrets, and “Marriage of Figaro” combines the two. The result is an episode that’s mainly about what it means to keep your dissatisfaction a secret, and details the effort and stress the secret-keeping requires, and the pain it causes. At the center are four characters: Pete Campbell, Peggy Olson, Rachel Menken, and Don Draper. Because each of their subplots could be lifted out and turned into a self-contained short story (or short film), let’s look at them one by one.
Pete has been following Don around like a yippy little dog since the pilot, simultaneously seeking his approval and plotting to show him up. He does share one key trait with his nemesis: He’s not happy being married. “I missed you, Draper,” Pete says upon his return from Niagara Falls; the use of Don’s last name is a too-familiar touch, given their power differential. “Then it must not have been much of a honeymoon,” Don says, and the look on Pete’s face indicates that it’s true. When Pete reenters the office, his coworkers press for salacious details. Pete says trysts with the wife are something “a gentleman never discusses.” He doesn’t react to Ken’s reverie about the coat-check girl at “21,” declines an invitation to Lansky’s, citing “plans” with Trudy (Alison Brie), and says wistfully, “There’s going to be dinner waiting for me when I get home.” He is trying to will himself into an emotional place where he can be happy in a lifelong monogamous relationship.
This and other statements amount to implied promises of fidelity. But on the cusp of his wedding to Trudy, Pete felt a woman up at his bachelor party, then spontaneously cheated on Trudy with Peggy. Whenever he sees Peggy, a charge passes between them. Their shared glances are neither sly nor innocuous. It’s a wonder their coworkers haven’t found them out.
Like Pete, Peggy is unhappy in her job and wants something more, although unlike Pete, she’s basically a decent and honorable person who would rather not resort to treachery to achieve her goals.
But much of her anxiety in this episode is about Pete, and the strain of keeping Pete’s secret while he treats her like a second-class citizen because she’s a secretary and a woman in a testosterone-soaked office where Harry Crane kicks off a meeting with a powerful female client by telling a joke whose punch line is a woman’s death.
“I should be on the list for the meeting,” Pete tells her early in the episode, then quickly follows this up with “I’m married now.”
“I understand,” Peggy says. “It never happened.”
A lot of people are having sex, sometimes in situations or configurations that society wouldn’t approve of (Don is exhibit A), and it’s a constant topic of conversation, but the talk is always framed in a particular way. When men talk about it, it’s jokey, with a hostile edge. When single men talk about sex, it’s usually in terms of competition, acquisition, domination, and humiliation. Or it’s with a sense of slightly comical regret at having to take oneself off the market, as Harry Crane and Pete Campbell have done. When women talk about sex, they tend to avoid descriptions of body parts or the act itself, and their language is colored by romantic or matrimonial longing, or by a frisson of danger (circa-1960 American women aren’t as free to talk about, or have, sex—not in this world, anyway).
All this weighs heavily on Peggy, who seems more observant, intelligent, and sensitive than many of her coworkers, both male and female (that’s why the filmmakers gave her that subjective slow-motion scene with all the men checking her out at the end of “Ladies Room” because the interior of her mind is an interesting place to be). She seems shocked by behavior that others accept as a fact of life, as well as by the expectation (spelled out by Joan in the pilot) that she treat this job as a temporary way station en route to landing a husband, having kids, quitting her job, and moving to the suburbs. Pete is the most exciting thing to happen to her since she got here, but also the most shameful. Their secret connection underlines the unequal power dynamic between men and women at Sterling Cooper, as well as Peggy’s anxiety at feeling trapped or constrained but not having the language to articulate why. Elisabeth Moss’s extraordinary expressiveness is never more striking than in the many scenes where Peggy is teased, talked over, corrected, condescended to, and otherwise put in a defensive position. In Moss’s eyes we see glimmers of outrage yoked to intellect, characteristics rarely seen in the eyes of other characters, be they secretaries or executives.
Rachel’s secret is that she feels isolated from nearly everything and everyone, and has developed a crush on Don Draper as a result. Somehow, Don gets her—or at least that’s her impression. She fights the urge to act on her feelings because he’s married, and because something about Don unnerves her. There’s a darkness to him, and a furtiveness. But Don and Rachel have a connection; we saw it during “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” which introduced Rachel in a meet-hostile with Don that resolved itself in mutual curiosity over a dinner that felt like a date. In “Figaro,” Pete notices the connection, and says he’s never “seen Don Draper turn it on before.”
“Something about the way you talk always restores my confidence,” Rachel tells Don at the office in “Figaro.” “I have a deep voice,” Don says. It’s a joke, but David Mamet fans may recall a famous line from his 1987 directorial debut, House of Games, delivered by Joe Mantegna’s cardsharp and master manipulator: “It’s called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.”
Rachel and Don’s “confidence exchange” occurs after Don admits that nobody from Sterling Cooper has visited the store whose renovation they were hired to mastermind. Don rectifies that error by stopping by later in the day. Beneath their conversations lie themes of identity, rootlessness, and self-reinvention in the aftermath of catastrophe, notions that already seem crucial to Mad Men. “The original tenants laid the last bricks the day before the Crash,” Rachel says of her father’s store, now her store (if only in the managerial sense). “Boy, were they in for a surprise.” This part of their discussion is about making a home in the wreckage of a life abandoned by someone else. It’s about how a chance at happiness is intertwined with the idea of the future, as laid out in Don’s Lucky Strike pitch from “Smoke.” Menken’s was a store out of step with the 1950s, a decade in which marketers invented the teenager as a separate consumer class (not kids, not adults); it will be even more estranged from the sixties, a decade driven by youth. Menken’s is entombed by its history.
Don’s dropped cuff link early in “Figaro” sets the stage for Rachel’s gift of a replacement set shaped like knights. Remember that, in the second episode, Don proposed that what women really want is a strong, silent type—the archetype of the cowboy, the knight of American mythology. It’s a stereotype of what women want, and Don eventually abandons it and urges his colleagues to ask a woman instead. Things get complicated when Rachel and Don go to the roof and visit Rachel’s guard dogs, Carla and Leona, and share a kiss backed by a period Manhattan skyline that might as well be a backdrop in a comic-book film. “They protect you, and they listen,” Rachel says of her dogs, a description that also applies to the idealized knight or cowboy.
“What is this?” Rachel asks Don when he makes a pass at her. “Don’t try to convince me that you were ever unloved,” he says with the arrogant certainty of a man who feels unloved himself. Don is taking advantage of Rachel’s distress, but he is also sincere—a contradictory mix of impressions that reconcile themselves through his eyes, which are at once resentful and beseeching, and his voice, which has a ragged edge. She pushes him away, but something in her face suggests that she could still invite him back. In his peculiar, counterintuitive way, Don has gained her confidence.
Don has three secrets. They are, in order from least to most disturbing:
1. He is great at his job, and more thoughtful than most people who are good at it, as we can see by his demeanor in the strategy meeting and the lead-up conversation about the notorious Volkswagen “Lemon” ad. But Don is depressed about being stuck in a sham marriage to Betty—a pantomime of the suburban house/beautiful wife/two kids ideal that every adult in the United States, but corporate executives especially, was required to embrace circa 1960.
In the powder room, Don feels ill at ease. This is a feminine space: perfume, floral pink washcloths, white soap resting in a ceramic hand. He dares not disturb Betty’s universe.
The facade of suburban “normalcy” falls away at his daughter Sally’s birthday party, where Don catches a glimpse of a happy couple through the viewfinder of his movie camera, gets drunk, bonds with Helen Bishop, disappears while fetching Sally’s cake, contemplates suicide at a railroad crossing, and returns home late with a gift of a new dog. This thrills Sally (Kiernan Shipka), but Betty isn’t happy, because she’s the one who’ll have to take care of it while Don’s in Manhattan all day—doing what, exactly? Well . . .
2. Don is having two affairs, one physical (with Midge), the other still largely emotional (with Rachel). In “Figaro” he tells Rachel he’s married. She says she didn’t ask because she didn’t want to know. He says the marriage is something that shouldn’t have happened.
3. “Don Draper” seems to be a construct of some kind, a new life erected atop the rubble of an older one, like Menken’s Department Store. We’ve gotten intimations of that construct before, including the shot of Don examining his army medal in “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” But “Marriage of Figaro” edges it further into daylight in its opening scene, when a man approaches Don on the train and addresses him as “Old Dick Whitman? What are the chances?” At Sally’s party, Francine admiringly describes Don as “That man!” But it is his handsome image that she is admiring, not the man underneath.
In retrospect, the opening train conversation seems like the event that fractures Don’s psyche and leads to his impulsive pass at Rachel, then his drunken misbehavior at Sally’s birthday party, culminating in the scene at the crossing. (The episode is bracketed by trains.) The screenplay is coy about giving up details, but we sense from the terror in Don’s eyes on the commuter train and his increasingly pathetic actions at home that the man was right: Don is not who he appears to be. There’s somebody else in there, and whoever he is, he’s so miserable that it’s a wonder he’s still alive.
Excerpted with permission from Mad Men Carousel by Matt Zoller Seitz.