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The Faintest Ink: Perception and Affliction on "Mad Men"

Do we see the world as others see it? And do we see ourselves as others see us?

These two questions form the basis of this week's sensational episode of AMC's Mad Men ("The Color Blue"), which revolved around Don's ongoing affair with Sally's former teacher, Suzanne Farrell, and Betty realizing that she doesn't know her husband at all.

The question of perception first arises from a conversation between Don and Suzanne in bed as she recounts how an eight-year-old student asked if the way he sees the color blue is the same as she sees it. Don has a pat answer that speaks volumes about his leveraging of advertising to persuade people to believe one thing or another but it's a profound puzzle of a question straight out of the mouths of babes. Are we colored by our experiences? Do those perceptions, whether it be of color or character, shape our understanding of the world around us?

Better still: what happens when the scales fall from our eyes and we see things not as we once perceived them but in their true color?

Don and Betty's marriage has been built on a house of cards, a series of lies that Don constructed to hide his true identity. But with one minor slip-up--leaving the desk drawer keys in his bathrobe pocket--he allows Betty entrance to his sanctum sanctorum, the depository for his true self that contains details about his former life. Unaware just what that shoebox holds, Betty places aside puzzling family photographs ("Dick and Adam"), Dick and Don's dogtags, the deed to Anna's house, unaware of what they truly are, and is shocked to discover legal documents that point towards Don's first marriage to Anna Draper. (What she doesn't realize is that the truth is even far worse than she could imagine at this point. Don wasn't married but the man whose identity he stole was.) It's a brutal and heartbreaking moment that plays out with a suspense worthy of Hitchcock's Rebecca.

Betty knows that she's caught her husband in the biggest of all lies; a line in the sand has been crossed and what she's learned can never be unlearned. She waits up for him at home, shoebox on the table, waiting to confront him about his past and get some answers but he never comes home. Reluctantly, she attends the 40th anniversary celebration of Sterling Cooper and perhaps sees Don for the first time as he truly is: a charming liar.

Can their marriage ever be saved now? Will the knowledge of Don's past propel Betty into making a disastrous decision? That remains to be seen but things have changed, perhaps irrevocably, between them.

The notion of perception carried over into the episode's other subplots as well. Don's latest inamorata, the lovely and gold star-laden Miss Farrell, has a brother Danny (Prison Break's Marshall Allman) who suffers from seizures. Booted from a series of jobs due to his uncontrollable "fits," Danny is looked after by Miss Farrell, who finds him another position as a janitor at a VA hospital in Massachusetts.

But Danny's world is colored by perceptions as well. He states that people treat him kindly until he has a fit and comes to, having urinated on himself, and people stare at him like he's from another planet. But so too does Danny suffer from his own misguided perceptions; he sees the world not as a place of opportunity but as a series of dead ends. He convinces Don to drop him off on the side of the road but Don gives him a boon: his phone number and the instructions to call him should he truly need him. Is it the righting of the scales for Don who looked the other way when his own brother Adam needed him most?

Likewise, Paul Kinsey finally sees Peggy in a new way after she saves him in a pitch meeting with Don, inventing a beautiful and fitting spot for Western Union right on the spot. For Paul, struggling to retrieve his perfect idea after a night of masturbating, drinking, and chatting with the janitor Achilles, it's the veritable light bulb above his head. Having accused Peggy earlier of earning her role by wearing a dress and being Don's favorite, it's a true moment of clarity in which he finally sees that Peggy is a superior copywriter as she transforms his Chinese proverb, "the faintest ink is better than the best memory," into a true message.

We can transfer our own fears onto the world around us, just as Danny does. But so too do Don and Betty, each concerned that their respective dalliances are now telephoning them at home. Was it Miss Farrell who hung up after Sally Draper answered the phone? Was it Henry Francis? Or was it just a wrong number after all? Could it be that their guilty consciences are making them paranoid? Or should Don be concerned by the risks that Miss Farrell is taking, boarding his train, perhaps calling him house?

Lane's wife Rebecca (Embeth Davidtz) sees Manhattan as a filthy, noisy place that "isn't London, isn't even England," whereas her husband sees it as a land of opportunity and riches. But even he is shocked to learn that London plans to sell off Sterling Cooper to the highest bidder. It seems that even in the world of advertising, a fatted calf is too tempting not to sacrifice.

The testimonial then that Roger gives to Don at the episode's end, in which he fabricates an honest friendship between them and speaks of "the man who will stand alongside me for the next forty years," takes on a tragic mien. If things continue apace, there will be no Sterling Cooper forty years hence or, perhaps, forty days hence. But with the country about to change in unexpected and shocking ways, perhaps it's a reminder that no institution--whether it be a marriage, a corporation, or a nation--is safe from a stark reminder of the unpredictable nature of the world.

Next week on Mad Men ("The Gypsy and the Hobo"), a former client returns to Sterling Cooper; Betty takes the kids on a trip; Joan and Greg plan for their future.


Bella Spruce said…
I'm very nervous about Don's relationship with Miss Farrell as it's too close to home (literally). I think that definitely could have been her who called and hung up. She speaks as though she's not trying to interfere with his life but I think there's more going on and things are going to get very tricky for Mr. Draper between Miss Farrell and Betty, who's just discovered his secret shoebox. Hell hath no fury...
Giulie Speziani said…
In regards to Peggy and Kinsey, I took the scene with Don and the telegram meeting in a different way. Kinsey's face looks more like defeated, as Peggy once again uses him as a jumping board to a better campaign. His face was classic since he's the one that thought of the Chinese proberb and was kicking himself for not putting it into good use.
SzuSzu said…
G.P. - Kinsey's face looks defeated because he has just realized that Peggy is really better than him. She is more than decorative; she's good at her job.

As for Miss Farrell, I think we are seeing "Fatal Attraction" in the making. Her tracking Don down on the train is just the beginning. Of course it was her on the phone; he said he would call and he didn't. Her motive is revealed in her "I don't care about your marriage. . . " speech. She is nuts in a certifiable way.
johnjwatts said…
Jace, I really enjoyed reading your recap on the episode. It was very well written.

Peggy flatout saved Kinsey, but I dont feel she did it out of despite. Since she knows Don on another level, she knew what Don's reaction would be if he told the truth. Kinsey has a whole new perspective on Peggy now...RESPECT.

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