Mad Men characters often feel trapped. This episode is about that sense of confinement, and the potential downsides of escape. “Shoot” starts with Betty and her kids on the front lawn, watching a neighbor release pigeons from a cage, an image that subtly answers an image from “Babylon”: Roger Sterling giving Joan Holloway a caged bird as a heartfelt but unfortunate symbol of their relationship. Later in “Shoot,” the Drapers’ neighbor releases more pigeons, and their dog, Polly, bites one out of the air.
The former model Betty, nicknamed Birdie, is at the center of this episode. She fantasizes about abandoning domestic drudgery and being prized for her beauty once more. In this episode she gets to shape and name her dissatisfaction: She wants to be something other than what she is now, something closer to what she once was, before she married Don and became a housewife. What’s the alternative? “Just sit and smile and let it go until you’re in a box?” There’s no wiggle room in a coffin.
Betty’s dream of escape momentarily comes true when she books a modeling job for Coke. Unfortunately, the gig came about because Jim Hobart (H. Richard Greene)—the head of McCann Erickson, which handles Coke—compared her to Grace Kelly while at a performance of Fiorello!, then hooked her up with the job to entice Don to McCann. “You’ve done your time at the farm teams,” Hobart tells Don during the Fiorello! intermission, “Yankee Stadium is on the line.”
Don lets Hobart believe that he wants to be free of his small-time employer, but he’s really just angling for a raise. If his Sterling Cooper job is a cage, it’s a gilded one. Don’s comfortable in it because he built it himself, to let Don be Don. He can fire clients, show up late for meetings, and carry on like an arrogant, oversexed rock star and get away with it. Plus, moving to a bigger agency might make Don more prominent and require him to sign a contract, scenarios that identity thieves tend to avoid. But a subsequent conversation between Don and Roger suggests that Don does feel stir-crazy sometimes, not at Sterling Cooper specifically, but in the business they’ve chosen. “If I leave this place one day it will not be for more advertising,” he assures Roger. “What else is there?” Roger asks. “I’ve worked with a lot of men like you, and if you had to choose a good place to die it would be in the middle of a pitch.” “I’ve done that,” Don says. “I want to do something else.”
Don’s about-face understandably irritates Jim Hobart. He’s courteous to Don about the snub, but retaliates by firing Betty. (The ad director tells her they’ve changed direction and are looking for an Audrey Hepburn type.)
The episode ends with the demoralized Betty in dutiful wife mode, serving Don a green bean casserole. She says she’s decided (again) that modeling is not for her: “What am I going to do, run around Manhattan with my book, like some teenager, making a fool of myself?” Don tacitly congratulates her on her maturity, and throws in some flattery of her maternal qualities to sweeten the moment: “I would have given anything to have a mother like you, beautiful and kind, filled with love like an angel.” Angels are pure goodness. Angels exist to look out for other people. Angels have no needs of their own.
Pete feels creatively thwarted as well. Ken Cosgrove got a short story into the Atlantic Monthly based on its merits. Pete’s ended up in Boys’ Life only because his wife leaned on an ex-boyfriend in publishing. Pete chafes at being categorized as a glorified pimp. He can’t make a creative suggestion at the agency without having it shot down by another coworker, usually Don. Harry bonds with Pete over the firm’s failure to appreciate its fine minds equally. “Who knew that college was going to get me out of the army and into laxatives,” he says of the Secor account, maybe the most dependable but least glamorous of the firm’s many undesirable income sources. Pete comes up with a devious but inventive plan to use Secor to prove the firm’s worth to Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon, whom Bert wants as a client: They’ll flood the airwaves in battleground states with Secor ads to tie up airtime and keep JFK’s ads off the air; any JFK ad that does air will lead voters to associate JFK with colonic regularity. Bert says, “Nicely done,” though at first we think he’ll reprimand Pete or even fire him. “I didn’t think you had it in you,” Roger adds. Does Pete’s scheme count as “creative work”? Maybe not in the sense that he dreams about—but it’s a victory, and it lets him be snotty to Don and get away with it.
There’s a secondary but related theme in “Shoot” about the difficulties women face when they try to break free from the expectations of others. Peggy is mocked in the office for her sudden weight gain (Ken calls her “a piece of fruit that went real bad real fast, and no one ever got to eat it”) and even rips her skirt bending over, which sets the stage for a humiliating rescue by Joan, who is so often delighted by Peggy’s missteps and small humiliations. “I’m the first girl in this office to do any writing since the war,” Peggy tells Joan. “Writing?” Joan says. “Is that what this is about? I thought you were doing that to get close to Paul.” Joan torments Peggy with an ugly piece of gossip: She heard that Peggy was only being considered for an account because the client’s wife thought a woman who looked like Peggy wouldn’t be a cheating risk. Peggy and Joan’s spat here gets at an ugly fact of life in male-dominated workplaces that don’t let many women hold positions of authority: that sense that, as per the catchphrase of the fantasy film Highlander, “There can be only one.” The more that Peggy accrues successes that Joan could never attempt, the more Joan treats Peggy as a threat to her primacy. “You’re not a stick,” Peggy pushes back, weakly, when Joan belittles her figure. “You’re hiding a very attractive young girl with too much lunch,” Joan replies, a line that would be a coup de grâce if Peggy didn’t follow it by summing Joan up in language that turns her own value system against her: The men at Sterling Cooper “think that you’re looking for a husband, and you’re fun, and not in that order.”
The abuse directed against Peggy in “Shoot” includes one notable point of crossover between her ongoing storyline and Pete’s. Peggy’s arc is mainly about escaping the confines of secretarial work, where she’s expected to be a nurse-mother-lover to men and to worry about her body, face, and clothes. Pete’s arc finds him straining against repressive conditions at work and distress at home, where he struggles to be a respectable husband even though he’s a selfish white-bread punk with a fidelity allergy. When Ken calls Peggy a lobster (because all of her “meat is in the tail”), Pete sucker punches him, an act that would seem chivalrous (though crude) if it didn’t so clearly arise out of Pete’s irritation with life in general. For all his wounded protectiveness toward Peggy, Pete treats his own secretary, Hildy, abominably, tormenting her in a roomful of men for not being pretty enough.
The episode’s conclusion shows Betty walking onto the Drapers’ lawn with a BB gun and shooting at her neighbor’s pigeons: Birdie shooting birdies. On the soundtrack, Bobby Helms sings “My Special Angel.” The lyrics seem to taunt Betty: The singer is a man describing a woman he has defined in entirely abstract terms that are only about her kindness, her goodness, her ability to soothe him and make him feel loved, sent from heaven “to watch over me . . . through eternity.”
There is no escape.
Excerpted with permission from Mad Men Carousel by Matt Zoller Seitz.