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A Doll's House: The Chrysanthemum and the Sword on Mad Men

"A man is shamed by being openly ridiculed and rejected."

On this week's fantastic episode of Mad Men ("The Chrysanthemum and the Sword"), written by Erin Levy and directed by Lesli Linka Glatter, we see how symbolism is in the eye of the beholder: what one man sees as a vase of chrysanthemums is another man's symbol for death. What a mother sees as her daughter attempting to punish her is a cry for help. Or it's none of those things at all, but a burgeoning sexuality or effort to explore and to understand.

Or it's just an attraction to The Man From U.N.C.L.E..

We can parse the meanings from others' behaviors but we always apply our own patina of understanding to the symbols we take in. Sally's behavior isn't of a wanton nature; she's not on a path of destruction, despite Betty's claims that her daughter is "fast" or is picking up things from Don's "whores." She's a normal girl dealing with normal things, particularly after her world came crashing down around her following her parents' divorce.

That dollhouse that Betty so admires in Dr. Edna's office is an illusion. It's a house without a wall on the outside, letting us peer into another world. Betty sees a perfect family living inside, everything in its proper, ascribed place. But what we might see are lifeless dolls, unable to think for themselves, unable to express their rage, frustration, lust, until someone else comes along to give them meaning.

In other words, we see what we want to see. Just as Don's competitor Ted Chaough believes that he sees Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce breaking the rules and shooting a commercial in order to land the lucrative Honda account, Roger sees not dollar signs but dead army buddies, not businessmen but ruthless Japanese villains, and Betty sees not her own childhood reflected back at her but evidence of her own imperfections.

In an interesting twist, it's Henry who seems to be the sole carrier of parental knowledge here, able to see much of Sally's behavior as not abnormal but completely normal. "Little girls do this," he says to Betty after Sally chops off her hair, "even those not from broken homes." Henry, as the parent of a now-grown daughter, has seen all this and more. Despite their physical similarities, Sally is not Betty, though the latter seems to want to place her on a similar path, lying to her about her own girlhood tendencies and threatening to cut off her fingers, just as her mother did to her.

The lines have been drawn in the former Draper household: while Bobby runs to his mother and throws her arms around her, Sally is withdrawn, aloof. There has always been a simpatico spirit between Don and Sally and Betty goes so far as to push the two of them into the same category, into being recipients of her somewhat sublimated rage. Rather than console and confront her daughter rationally, Betty acts out irrationally, slapping Sally in the hallway simply because she cannot slap Don. While it's supposedly Sally she's furious with, Betty moans, "I want him dead" as soon as Don leaves. The mark she leaves on Sally's cheek is meant to ricochet to the girl's father, really.

For her part, Sally Draper is attempting to find her own way in the world. The doll's house she once lived in has been knocked on its side. In attempting to make herself over, she's attempting to thwart her mother's expectations for her and to attract her father's attention. Sally first expresses disapproval that Don is going to meet Bethany for dinner at Benihana and leave her with neighbor Phoebe. Later, she hacks off her hair in an effort to transform herself, to feel "pretty." She assumes--incorrectly--that something is going on between Don and Phoebe and then attempts to remake herself in the nurse's image, scissoring off her locks to give herself short hair. ("You have short hair and Daddy likes it," she says.)

Betty's response is to punish Sally, even as Henry advises rewarding her. In other words: paying attention to her and giving her encouragement, transforming the situation into something positive (a trip together to the hair salon) rather than something negative. But Betty, for all of the change in her life, can't transform her rage and frustration into something pleasant; it's been so deeply sublimated her entire life that it erupts into inappropriate behavior. (Like mother, like daughter.)

Sally is curious about sex and sexuality. We see this both from her questioning of Phoebe and to her response to watching The Man From U.N.C.L.E. but no one is guiding her or talking to her. And she can't talk to Betty about it because Betty won't confront these touchy subjects, even though she herself went through just what Sally is going through. ("You don't do those things," Betty screams. "You especially don't do them in public.") Don's question to Betty--"boy or girl?"--is a valid one but Betty fails to see the distinction. Sally's curiosity was inward rather than external; Betty sees only whores and fast girls.

But Betty also can't see herself. It's fitting in a way that it's a child's psychiatrist who finally gets Betty to open up, not only about Sally, but about the pain and loss in her life, about the breakdown of her marriage and the death of her father. Both Sally and Betty were deeply affected by Gene's death, though it takes the gentle coaxing of Dr. Edna to allow Betty to admit it openly.

In going to consult Dr. Edna, Betty sees the woman as a possible cure for Sally's abnormal conditions, rather than as a sounding board for herself as well. Witness how easily Edna is able to get Betty commit to coming to see her--in the guise about talking about Sally--whereas she fails in getting her to see a psychiatrist of her own. (Betty is, however, put at ease knowing that Edna will keep both sides of the ongoing conversation private from the other party.)

"I feel like Sally did this to punish me," she tells Dr. Edna. But that in itself is a symbol of misplaced anger too; Betty's reading of Sally's behavior fails to take into account her own punishment of Sally to get at Don. A misplaced slap, a cool attitude. Their every interaction is a bitter reminder to one another of what they've lost.

In a room full of toys, it's the first time Betty can be honest and it's the first time we see the ice thaw in a long while. She admits to masturbating as a girl, she admits to feeling the agony of her father's death, and--though she doesn't say it out loud--she admits that her life hasn't turned out how she imagined it. It was never as easily as moving those dolls around that open house, after all.

Roger, for his part, can't let go of his own past. His anger at the partners for even considering doing business with the Japanese speaks volumes about his anger at his World War II adversaries and in himself. While his rage is directed at the Honda executives, it takes Pete to see what's really going on here: the negotiations are symbolic of a larger issue at play. Should Pete have successfully brought in this account, the agency is less dependent on Lucky Strike... and therefore less dependent on Roger himself.

While Roger lunges at Pete for having the temerity to suggest such a thing, Don intervenes... and agrees with Pete. His efforts to wrap himself in the American flag was a smokescreen to divert from the true issue. Just as later his story to Joan about his dead war buddies is an effort to make Joan feel sorry for him, despite the fact that her husband is about to ship out to Vietnam. She urges him to let go, reminding him that he made the world a better and safer place through the sacrifices he and his friends made twenty years earlier.

She has to believe that, after all, because her husband is standing on the same precipice that Roger had all of those years before. While he attempts to engage her sympathies, Joan urges him to stop feeling sorry for himself. The scene in beautifully shot by Glatter, as Joan and Roger are positioned in front of the window, two vertical lines dissecting their tableau, depicting the separation between them, a chasm that widens even more as Joan steps out of the scene.

Don, meanwhile, fails to see that Lane has given his little "stunt" his blessing, preferring to see that they acted without the partners' knowledge, though Lane makes it clear that he had to have allowed Joan to book studio time (at which Peggy drove around an empty set in circles). But Don's stunt does work: not only is CGC put out of the running but SCDP lands the Honda account (or at least the future Honda automobile account) because Don played up the sense of honor that the Japanese hold so dearly. By failing to hold up their own rules, they invited dishonor. Don's understanding of the symbolism land them the account. It's a matter of deciphering the meaning behind the shifting symbols.

Likewise, Faye admits to Don that she uses a fake wedding band in order to discourage "distracting conversations" from men at work. The ring is a symbol of attachment; by using it she wards off prospective admirers without uttering a word. But while Faye comes clean to Don, he too opens up to her. Her psychiatrist's couch is the narrow break room at SCDP; her notepad a bottle of sake left as a joke. But Don unveils a harrowing truth about his relationship with his children: that they are intense when he watches them, that he is relieved when he drops them off, and that he then misses them. The cycle repeats itself over and over. He does love his children but can't express it; what Betty sees as disinterest and irresponsibility is a host of conflicting emotions.

Emotions that all of them either bottle up or turn to the bottle to avoid facing. It's the chrysanthemum in the room, the specter of death, the symbology that they can't quite face up to. The call to California goes unanswered, hair once shorn can't be immediately repaired, and the hard truths of life can't always be confronted. One can only hope that Sally Draper finds solace in talk therapy and that she, as the symbol of a new generation, finds herself able to discuss the things that her parents are unable--or unwilling--to say aloud.

Next week on Mad Men ("Waldorf Stories"), Peggy clashes with her new creative partner; Don pitches under unusual circumstances.


Annedreya said…
Insightful and excellent review - the best I've read on this episode. I'm so glad to find someone who doesn't just write "Betty annoys me, end of story". Betty and Sally may be fictional characters but thousands, maybe millions of women in both generations lived out similar experiences in this country during those times. Their behavior, their expectations, their experiences are beautifully captured and described by this show. And thank you for recognizing that there's great emotional depth to their story.
Katherine said…
Wow. Your review of this episode is spot on and was a great pleasure to read! I love the character of Sally Draper and am continually impressed by the way the show makes her a three dimensional character, bravely exploring what it was like to grow up in that time period with parents like Don and Betty. I feel for Sally and am glad that she now has someone to talk to, even if it is a therapist!
The Rush Blog said…
Betty sees a perfect family living inside, everything in its proper, ascribed place. But what we might see are lifeless dolls, unable to think for themselves, unable to express their rage, frustration, lust, until someone else comes along to give them meaning.

You're describing EVERY MAJOR CHARACTER IN THE SERIES. Why you are attributing these characteristics upon Betty, I do not know.

Have you even consider the possibility that Betty's rage has a lot to do with the fallout from her marriage to Don and her discovery of his deception . . . which affected her emotional state during the ten years of her marriage?

Or does this society have some kind of hang up when it comes to motherhood . . . fictional or otherwise? It seems so to me.
Annie said…
@The Rush Blog It's Betty who sees the dollhouse so not sure what your deal is. He's captured her impulses perfectly and the scene is based around Betty and not anyone else. Yea all of that has to done with Betty but that's what everyone has said the last 4 seasons.
Gerard Bocaccio said…
This is an exceedingly thoughtful and provocotive point of view. It's not a review, but an accomplished analysis of theme and character. I watch the show with the kind of enthusiasm as I once did for The Shield because it too operates on multiple layers of subtext that rewards the loyal viewer while never dismissing someone whose dialed in that one night. However, in reading your piece I was reminded once again of how challenging episodic television is to the collaboration between creator, writer and director as it relates to complicated writing and multi-layered filmmaking. It seemed obvious to me that Matt Weiner and Erin Levy had enough time to really mine the episode of its story, character and metaphor. However, Lesli Linka Glatter was never allowed the same luxury of time and therefore, missed some of the beats you describe in your writing. Your detailed observations land as I read them, but were less impacting for me as I watched the episode. I thought some of the choreography and the choices to stay in two shots when a moment would have benefitted from the kind of close up that takes you inside a character's insecurity were probably the by-product of schedule and a lack of time. Unfortunately, some of this soaring metaphor, particularly the last beat of the episode when pushing in slowly would have inforced the fact that Betty is paralyzed by the reality of her crumbling dreams, suffered too. Now all of that said, Lesli is an accomplished director and my subjective opinion is nit-picking in the context of what's available to viewers. But when this show works, it operates at an insanely high level of artful expression the way Vermeer painted or Shostakovich composed; sublime, unnerving, revealing and undeniably riveting in spite of the fact that one often turns their head away. So the bar is high. Mad Men works when the balance between Don and Betty is achieved and after a few episodes this season when I felt that balance was off, it was great to watch an episode mine the endless well that is their relationship. Imagine this show without commercials!
Sarah T. said…
Question. At the end of the successful meeting with the Honda men, why does Don write a check for $3,000? What did I miss?
Jace Lacob said…

The $3000 was the amount that the prospective agencies could use in creating their campaigns. By signing over the check back to the Honda execs, Don withdrew from the competition and returned the budget.

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