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Running in the Dark: Searching for the Moon on "Mad Men"

Mad Men has always succeeded at creating some indelible and powerful images but this week's episode ("Wee Small Hours"), written by Dahvi Waller and Matthew Weiner and directed by Scott Hornbacher, featured one in particular that eloquently summed up the episode as whole.

Heading into work in the wee early hours after being awakened by Connie Hilton, Don spies Sally's former teacher Suzanne Farrell (Abigail Spencer) running alone in the dark. It's a gorgeously shot sequence in which Don sees Suzanne almost glowing like a beacon in the darkness, in full sprint, tearing away from some unseen demons. If that doesn't sum up Don's state of mind right now, I don't know what does.

It seems like each of the characters on Mad Men this week seem to be running toward or away from something. Set against the distant backdrop of the civil rights movement in the South, this week's episode finds Don under attack from Hilton, Sal cornered in the editing bay, and Betty engaging in a flirtatious dance with Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley). But whether they'll keep running or reach their ultimate destination remains to be seen.

The most upsetting storyline this week had to be poor Sal's. Having finally found his niche as a commercial director, Sal is shocked when Sterling Cooper's client Lee Garner Junior (Darren Pettie), the Lucky Strike scion, makes a pass at him in the editing bay. Despite the fact that Sal declines the blatant proposition and wants to maintain his closeted status, Lee Garner quickly moves to have Sal fired from Sterling Cooper, demanding that Harry be the one to pink-slip him immediately. (Not sure why he demanded this of Harry rather than, say, Pete or Roger Sterling, but perhaps he wanted to keep things even more hush-hush.)

When Roger learns about the conflict (or just Lee Garner's distaste for Sal), he moves to have him fired. But that's not even the traumatic bit. Despite their understanding of each other, it's Don who is even more mercenary about the entire encounter, basically stating that Sal should have prostituted himself in this situation, regardless of whether he wanted to or not. It's a shockingly casual attitude on the part of Don but then again Don has shocking casual ideas of sexual propriety to begin with. That Don believes that Sal should engage in sex in order to satisfy a client and keep him happy is just mind-blowingly wrong ("Lucky Strike can shut off our lights") and speaks volumes about the difference in their belief system, particularly when it comes to making their clients happy. I felt especially gutted later on when he lied to Kitty and said he was working at the office. I don't think he can bring himself to tell her that he was fired, especially given the circumstances surrounding his departure from Sterling Cooper. Poor, poor Sal.

Don himself seems to be running towards a very dark place in recent weeks. After his cutting dismissal of Peggy a few episodes back, he shocked me again with his handling of Sal's situation. Granted, Don's under an inordinate amount of stress from demanding hotel magnate Conrad Hilton, but his attitude towards those who work for him ("Now that I can finally understand you, I'm less impressed with what you have to say") has turned from critically supportive to just plain hostile.

I was impressed in the first half of the episode by the level of trust that Conrad Hilton has in Don, saying that he is like a son to him, "more than a son" because he knows that Don came from humble roots unlike his own well-heeled children. But Hilton is more than just a perfectionist. He's an eccentric who demands the stars and the moon (quite literally) of Don, expecting him to join him for a drink in the middle of the night or create a campaign for the Hilton hotels that blows him out of the water. "When I say I want the moon, I expect the moon," Conrad tells Don. And he means it. Especially in 1963 when the literal moon is tantalizingly in reach. In disappointing Connie, Don has once again disappointed his father (or father figure, anyway). More than anything, it's what sends Don running into the arms of the pure Suzanne, a woman who is transfixed by Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and who represents a sort of Platonic ideal for Don.

Suzanne's feelings about the civil rights movement seem inimical to those of Betty. Despite the lambasting of the South during the impromptu Rockefeller fundraiser, Betty expresses her true colors to Carla later on, saying, "I hate to say this but it’s really made me wonder about Civil Rights. Maybe it's not supposed to happen right now" after hearing a radio report about the Birmingham murders of four black girls. Is it freedom in general that has Betty so doubtful? Or is it that her own feelings about equality are not as progressive as she originally thought? After all, when she corrects Bobby about his attitude toward Carla, it's not because she deserves respect but because, as Betty says, Carla works for her and not him.

But Betty has other things on her mind. Her recent trip to Rome with Don awakened all sorts of desires; her dismissal of his Colosseum-charm points to the fact that she doesn't want a souvenir but rather wants it all. But this week it seems as though Betty is more attracted to the fantasy than the reality. She begins writing Henry Francis secret letters, revealing her true feelings, engaging in a written love affair that's more chivalrous than overtly sexual. (Hell, she throws that cash box at him when he fails to turn up at her fundraiser, itself a cover story to divert Carla and Don's suspicions.) But when faced with the opportunity to consummate their affair, Betty declines, saying it's "tawdry." She wants the emotion, the romance (as glimpsed in the opening dream sequence on the fainting couch), but she doesn't want the cheap reality of motel trysts or locked offices.

There's a nice symmetry to Betty and Don's attempts at infidelity. While Betty opts to hold onto the fantasy, Don makes an effort to claim Suzanne and turn his fantasy into reality. He's aware of how things will turn out between them ("So what?" was his answer to Suzanne's admission) but he doesn't care about the consequences or the inevitable ending of their affair. Every run, after all, has to end sometime.

Next week on Mad Men ("The Color Blue"), the firm celebrates a milestone; Peggy and Paul compete on an account.


greebs said…
Even sadder for the Sal storyline - it seemed like the phonebooth he was calling from was in a gay park or something where men were illictly meeting up (at least that's how it appeared). This is not going to end well.
Hadley said…
I hope this is the end of Henry (although, knowing this show, it's almost certainly not). I've always been impressed by Mad Men's casting and Henry is the first character that I just haven't believed in. Specifically, I don't believe that Betty would be interested in him. It's not a physical thing--the two of them just lack any kind of chemistry and, because of that, I'm finding their storyline to be pretty ho hum compared to what else is going on in the show, which is too bad because Betty has always been one of my favorite characters!
piemaker77 said…
The Drapers were in fine form this episode with Betty's ridiculous comment to Carla and Don's inexcusable behavior towards Sal. That Don actually fired Sal was devastating enough but his attitude towards him was what was really shocking. Now Sterling Cooper is minus Joan and Sal? Not good!
Anonymous said…
Totally agree, I was really shocked at how Don handled Sals situation.

What is the deal with Conrad Hilton? He seems a bit...mad (as in crazy not angry).

Yea the Ice Queen wants romance and emotion but gosh, have we seen her ever show any emotional state besides “bitchy” and “disappointed”?
Barbara said…
I felt a little shocked at the end of this episode--at Don's behavior, at the depths of Betty's narcissism. But I also experienced a shred of sympathy for her. Whereas Don was able to escape his reality in his tryst with Sally's teacher(who seems pretty smart and realistic despite giving in to Don's passion)and even Sal was able to retreat with a lie and what seemed to be a cruise in the park (I agree, Greebs),"poor" Betty remained entrenched in her misery. Too straightlaced to give in to the tawdry, too childish to respond as an adult, she turned her back on her way out.

And wasn't it a sort of poetic justice that Don, who found fault with Sal for not giving the client what he had wanted, was himself called on the carpet for not giving Hilton the moon? Does a stinging slap to the spirit equal the loss of face and career? No, but it did feel a little like a karmic payback.
Amanda P said…
I think one thing to consider about Don's attitude about "prostituting" for the business is that Don did EXACTLY that with Bobbie in Season 2. She had all the power in the relationship and used it to get Don. If Don can take one for the team, then I can understand why he would expect the same of Sal (or Peggy or anyone else in the firm). I'm not saying that it's RIGHT, just comprehensible.

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