Mad Men’s characters constantly scold others for acting childish. But it’s pot-kettle all the way. The characters know they shouldn’t do certain things but do them anyway, because it feels good or because they can’t stop themselves. When a transgression is followed by a penalty, they’re bewildered and angry. They can’t see how one led to the other.
The episode starts with Roger talking on the phone to his wife, Mona, who’s going to Montclair, New Jersey, to tend to her mother, who fell down the stairs. Roger hates that he has to drink milk to soothe his ulcer. He smirks when Bert advises him not to smoke so much because it’s a sign of weakness and talks about the time Adolf Hitler squeezed concessions from the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain by negotiating with him in a place where Chamberlain was unable to smoke for three days. “All I took from that story is that Hitler didn’t smoke, and I do,” Roger says, exhaling defiantly. During a meeting about how to win Nixon as a client, Roger dismisses JFK as “a little boy, too scared to do anything but go on vacation.” Roger’s whole life is a vacation.
Pete, meanwhile, is sick of being treated like a little boy, though most of the time he acts like one. He’s having a crisis of masculinity—not that he isn’t always, but it’s more acute this week—one that’s expressed most keenly in a long monologue delivered to Peggy, whom he keeps sniffing around even though he’s married now and shouldn’t be dallying with her anymore. In this same episode, Pete gets his brat on, fuming at a clerk behind the returns desk at Bloomingdale’s because she won’t refund his money for a duplicate wedding gift (a chip and dip tray) without a receipt. He runs into an old schoolmate, Matherton (Teddy Sears), who’s getting a racket restrung; Matherton insists on calling Pete by an insultingly diminutive name: “Humps the Camel” Campbell. When Pete finally accepts that he can’t get money for the bowl, he agrees to a store credit and uses it to buy a small rifle. He brings the gun back to the office and shows it off, targeting his workmates like a kid, pretending to be a sharpshooter. Later, Trudy berates him for trading the bowl for the gun in a scene that’s staged as an unbroken wide shot: While Pete sits center screen on a chair, holding the rifle on his lap, his wife yells from offscreen like a mother scolding her son.
In another scene, Peggy seems to absorb Pete’s immaturity by osmosis. He launches into an elaborate fantasy of machismo in which he shoots, drains, and dresses a deer, then goes back to his cabin in the woods and gives a bloody piece to an unnamed woman who cooks it in a skillet. (“Let’s all go up into the mountains and hunt and fish and live like men, for Christ’s sake,” a drunken husband blusters in John Cheever’s short story “Torch Song.”) Rather than being appalled by this story, Peggy gets turned on—and orders a ham sandwich and a cherry Danish from the lunch cart.
Don and Roger carry on a feud that escalates with cause-and-effect logic, climaxing with a binge/purge that is the stuff legends are made of. It starts when they go out for drinks at a bar. Don shows Roger up without meaning to. Roger thinks a couple of cute young women are checking them out. “After they turn thirty a light goes out,” says Roger. “I don’t think those two have thirty years between them,” Don says. That’s fine by Roger: He’s still a teenager at heart. But the women are actually checking out Don. Suddenly Roger doesn’t exist. He pouts.
This slight is probably weighing on Roger when he invites himself over to the Drapers’ for a home-cooked meal. Roger lingers far past the point when he should leave. Dessert is a crude but charming cake made by Sally and decorated with an icing gun. Mommy and Daddy, it reads. “Simple, to the point, and colloquial, just like her father,” Roger says. Roger tells a heroic war story in a no-fuss tone that describes his state of mind as “bored.” “ ‘Bored?’ How about scared?” Don says, seeing through Roger’s facade. “That never comes out in these stories.” The evening turns ugly when Roger makes a pass at Betty in the kitchen. “You’ve been making eyes at me all night,” he says, as drunk, horny, insecure men generally say when women laugh at their jokes and pretend to be interested in their blather. The sense of entitlement is overwhelming, and there are also aspects of jealousy and vindictiveness.
Later, in the kitchen, Don reveals that he’s as blind to Betty’s true intentions as Roger was. He says she made “a fool” of herself, and when she denies coming on to Don’s boss, he digs in his heels: “I know what I saw.” “Do you want to bounce me off the walls?” Betty taunts. “Sometimes I feel like I’m living with a little girl,” Don says.
He sort of is. Betty acts like a child all through “Red in the Face” (and on the inside, she is always that; so are her husband, and Roger, and many other characters). Helen Bishop runs into Betty at the supermarket and dresses her down for giving her son, Glen, a lock of her hair. Betty slaps Helen in the face. Describing the incident to her friend Francine, Betty avoids confronting the inappropriateness of her actions and, instead, characterizes Helen as a lonely, isolated, sad person. Francine enables Betty, telling her that a lot of people would like to “take a poke” at Helen and calling her jewelry store job “pathetic.”
Don’s revenge on Roger for the kitchen incident takes the form of an elaborate prank. At lunch, Don eggs on Roger to order heaping platters of raw oysters and wash them down with martinis. Roger: “Did you know they served cheesecake to the Olympic athletes in Ancient Greece?” Don: “So what’s an extra lap or two around the steno pool for us?” He orders two cheesecakes. It’s a he-man consumption contest that Don is fated to win because he seems to have two stomachs, one for booze and the other for everything else. “Drinking milk: I never liked it,” says Don, by way of giving Roger permission to gorge himself while stinko. They rush back to the office to attend a meeting, learn that the lobby elevator is out of commission (because earlier Don bribed the operator to say it was), and climb flight after flight after flight of stairs. Here, as at lunch, Don and Roger are like two boys goading each other to attempt feats of strength; at one point Don offers to run ahead so at least one of them will be on time. Roger stops to find a tie clip that he didn’t lose. He’s gasping like a man who just escaped a house fire.
Mad Men always includes a healthy dose of immaturity. “Red in the Face” exaggerates it for satirical effect, to drive home how the show’s adults often behave like children, egged on by an upper-middle-class postwar society that wants what it wants when it wants it. Roger knows he can’t just keep consuming and consuming, but the adman across from Roger keeps telling him: Go ahead, it’s fine, there’s always room for more, and what are you, a sissy? One more plate of oysters. One more martini. One more slice of cake. We’re adults. We can do what we want.
Back in the office, Bert and Don meet the clients. Roger stumbles in and retches a geyser-strength plume. The splatter noise is deafening, but you can still hear Roger groaning over it. He pitches forward in a close-up. He keeps upchucking in a wide shot. His torso is jackknifed ninety degrees. He could be Godzilla breathing fire on a tank that ran over his foot. The spew is grayish-white and lumpy, the sum total of the milk and oysters and martinis and cheesecake. The show’s prop department deserved a special Emmy for the texture and color of Roger’s puke. It could withstand forensic scrutiny.
The client says he wishes he’d been at Roger and Don’s lunch, but instead they ate with Quakers who had cottage cheese. Roger slumps back on some steps. There’s a white smear at the corner of his mouth and his face is as gray as an oyster.
“Good,” says Don.
They’ll see each other again at recess.
Excerpted with permission from Mad Men Carousel by Matt Zoller Seitz.