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Limit Your Exposure: Truth and Consequences on Season Premiere of AMC's "Mad Men"

Don Draper has been an enigmatic figure throughout the two seasons of Mad Men that have aired so far.

He's taken the approach in his life that his identity is a fluid construct that he can shift at will. Don Draper himself is a front, a mask appropriated by Dick Whitman that has become somewhat comfortable to wear. But still, there are echoes from the past, ghostly reminders of his life before his transformation into the stylish and slick ad man that he appears today.

On the third season premiere of Mad Men ("Out of Town"), written by Matthew Weiner and directed by Phil Abraham, several truths bubble up to the surface over the course of a few days in the life of Don Draper. Secrets have a way of spilling out in the most unexpected ways and Don is no exception to this rule, facing some hard truths on the occasion of his (real) birthday. But he's not the only one who's exposed in this installment of the lush period drama.

You read my advance review of the third season opener last week, but now that the episode has aired, we can get down to talking about specific plot points in the gorgeous, evocative, and gripping season premiere. So pour yourself a Manhattan, slip off your London Fog raincoat, settle down in front of the ant farm, and let's discuss "Out of Town."

I think it extremely wise of Matthew Weiner and Co. not to immediately address some of the shocking plot points glimpsed in the second season finale, most notably Betty Draper's one-off affair with a handsome stranger in the back room of a bar (after she learned she was pregnant with her third child) and Peggy's decision to tell Pete that she secretly bore his child and gave it away. Both were two of the most surprising developments in a season overflowing with them but rather than deal with these head-on, Weiner smartly pushes them into the darkness for now to let them marinate for a while.

What is immediately clear is that several months have passed since we last saw the staffers of Sterling Cooper. Joan Holloway, raped on the floor of Don's office by her golden boy doctor fiance last season, is pushing certain occurrences out of her mind. Despite the time jump of several months, nothing has outwardly changed for Joan in her engagement. She's still planning to wed her rapist, still wearing her engagement ring, and still looking forward to leaving Sterling Cooper behind in a few months' time.

Elsewhere, Betty Draper is now far along in her pregnancy, with a daughter, she believes and she and Don seem to have forged some sort of rapprochement between them. At least for now. But despite things being relatively calm on the home front, Don is tormented by some inner demons on the eve of his actual birthday (or more precisely Dick Whitman's birthday). The third season opens with a waking dream sequence in which Don, boiling a pot of milk for Betty, envisions the circumstances of his birth: the childless frustration of his father and his adoptive mother, a trip to a prostitute for his father which leads to his conception, and his actual birth, in which we learn that Dick's name is in fact not a blessing but a curse offered up by his dying mother in her final breaths, in which she promises to boil her former client's, uh, genitals in hog's fat.

It's a distressing development that's at odds with the homey environment of the Drapers' kitchen and Don standing at the hob warming some milk for Betty. But he quickly puts aside his dark thoughts with the ease with which he removes the "skin" atop the heated milk. It's nothing but detritus to be stripped away and cast off.

It's a lesson that we've previously seen Don teach to Peggy: it's so easy to forget sometimes, to put the darkness out of your head. But these things have a nasty way of coming back to bite you later on. But compartmentalization is Don's specialty; just look at the way he tells an engaged flight attendant to forget her fiance for the night. "I've been married a long time... You get plenty of chances."

It's Sal who nearly takes one of those chances. On a business trip to Baltimore with Don, Sal is tempted into acting upon his true nature and fulfilling his homosexual desire, despite his marriage to the saintly Kitty. After complaining about a broken air conditioner, Sal is wordlessly propositioned by a bellhop and the two begin a dance of desire that's cut short by a fire alarm.

This encounter would have shaken Sal enough (he's excited and nervous at the same time) but he's spied with the half-dressed bellhop by Don as he comes down the fire escape with his inamorata. The look of shock and horror on poor Sal's face as he realizes he's been brutally, unexpected exposed in front of Don is tangible. This is, after all, the 1960s and his exposure as a homosexual would have had horrific consequences on his career and his public life.

What Don witnessed through the window seems to be destined to remain a secret. Following their meeting with London Fog in Baltimore, Don and Sal jet back to New York when Don says that he has something to ask Sal. Thinking it's going to be about what he saw, Sal swallows nervously. But Don knows better than to expose another man's private life, instead pitching Sal a concept for a London fog campaign with the tagline "limit your exposure."

It's a firm reminder for them both of the secrets they keep and the need to be discrete. Is this the end of Sal's dalliances with men? Or just the beginning of a new direction for his life? Only time will tell, but the encounter seems to have--for the time being--united these two disparate men in a bond. What happens on business trips would seem to remain on business trips.

Back at Sterling Cooper, the staffers are attempting to adapt to a new way of life in a new regime, overseen by the officious British financial officer Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) and his oily right-hand man John Hooker (Ryan Cartwright), symbols of their new British overlords back in London. It's clear that Pryce has his own management style, pitting Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove against one another for the now-vacant head of accounts position, a rivalry that looks to only get uglier as the season progresses.

Joan has her own vendetta to contend with, one that pits her against Pryce's "personal secretary" John Hooker. It's an opportunity for her to demonstrate her power in the office (in a way she was unable to do with her attacker) and put Hooker in his place, reminding him of who is truly in charge at Sterling Cooper. The way that she positions him into place to take a beating--after offering up Burt Peterson's deserted office as a place for London superiors to use whilst they're in town--is a thing of beauty. Joan hasn't lost any of her sparkle or dangerous wit in the time since we last saw her and I can't help but feel some sexual tension brewing between her and John Hooker, despite their animosity towards one another. Hmmm...

As for Peggy, she's settling into her new role as Sterling Cooper's sole female executive. She now has her own office, her own secretary, and has kept her new hairstyle and wardrobe in place. While she doesn't share a scene with Pete, there's bound to be a major reveal of just what went down between them between Season Two and Season Three at some point. But Peggy has studied at the feet of Don Draper himself and the secrets that lurk in her past remain buried deep underground while she continues to climb upwards, remaking herself into a female version of Draper himself.

Peggy's baby daddy Pete would seem to have resolved the differences in his marriage to Trudy, given their difficulties last season. But the two seem happy... That is, until Pete realizes that he hasn't been made Head of Accounts (not quite anyway) and will have to share this position with Ken. His venom upon realizing this is a clear indication that Pete hasn't really changed. He wants what he wants when he wants it. And his serpentine nature will likely win out over Ken's easy charms. The drink he shares at the end of the episode with Roger and Cooper speaks volumes about whether or not he'll fit into the new world order at Sterling Cooper. Which leaves me very worried about poor Ken Cosgrove...

The episode itself is structured around two births: Dick Whitman's and Sally Draper's. As Don, Betty, and Sally settle into the cozy, comfortable confines of the bedroom, Don recounts the circumstances surrounding Sally's birth as he's haunted by his own. But Don is first and foremost a consummate liar and a master rationalizer: asked whether the stewardess' pin in his luggage is for her, Don tells Sally that it is and then promises her that no matter what, he will always come home.

Is it the truth that Don speaks or is it a subtle foreshadowing for a future in which Don won't actually come home to Betty and the kids? That remains to be seen but we're left with the indelible image of a man living a double life, one that can't withstand the harsh glare of exposure. And one which he'll seem to protect with all of his heart.

Best line of the evening: "She's taking to your tools like a little lesbian." - Betty re: Sally Draper.

Next week on Mad Men ("Love Among the Ruins"), Betty's father pays a visit to the Draper residence; Sterling Cooper staffers field a highly specific request from a client; Roger makes arrangements for his upcoming nuptials; Peggy is personally affected by an ad campaign.

Sneak Peek Mad Men Episode 302 "Love Among the Ruins":

Comments

Piper said…
Jared Harris' Lane Price is a fantastic new addition. I'm really looking forward to seeing how his character fits in (or doesn't fit in) at Sterling Cooper.

That scene on the airplane between Don and Sal was priceless.
Cassandra said…
I was impressed by this episode for many reasons. I'm glad that none of the issues from the end of Season Two have been neatly resolved. We have yet to see the consequences of Peggy telling Pete that she had his baby or Betty having a one night stand or Joan remaining with her rapist fiance. Obviously, all of these things will continue to be explored in Season Three.

And I am glad that Don has remained true to his nature. In spite of everything that happened between him and Betty, he still strays the first chance he gets, jumping into bed with an attractive stewardess. (And seems to do so without even a hint of guilt!) To think that Don would mend his ways and become the perfect husband just wouldn't be believable. I don't think he's purposefully trying to hurt Betty but leopards, even ones who change their names, don't change their spots.
Giulie Speziani said…
I'm really interested in the dynamics between Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove. It seems that Ken got the better half of accounts, I can only anticipate how this will grate on Pete's ego now that they're in competition with each other.
. . . which we learn that Dick's name is in fact not a blessing but a curse offered up by his dying mother in her final breaths, in which she promises to boil her former client's, uh, genitals in hog's fat.


How do we know this is true? The entire sequence was something that Don imagined in his mind, as far as we know.
essaybee said…
In Dick/Don's origin story we see a lot of secrets that must have become exposed in order for him to know about them. Did his father get drunk and tell him about the prostitute (what was it? $1.85?) Did the midwife tell Dick as revenge on the father for blaming her for the deaths of his other children?

So, limit your exposure can apply to those exposed to unpleasant truths. He was damaged by the knowledge of his birth circumstances, and he thinks people are often just better off if they don't know the truth. That's why he doesn't tell Betty his real name and story. Why hurt her? That's why he won't tell Sal's secret. Keeping the secret is an act of kindness?
justjoan123 said…
I don't think "jump" is the operative word to describe Don's encounter with the stew. She makes all the running; he can barely commit to taking off his clothes, and when the fire bell sounds he is Johnny-on-the-spot, ready to go-go-go. I would say he played harder to get than the girl expected, and that signals to me a desire to try to remain faithful, even when the flesh is weak.

No one has mentioned Betty's continuing, atrocious behavior to (new) Bobby. Just a grunted "out?" However amusing she finds Sally, Betty is consistently nasty to the sweetest little boy ever. Good thing the new baby is a girl.
No one has mentioned Betty's continuing, atrocious behavior to (new) Bobby. Just a grunted "out?" However amusing she finds Sally, Betty is consistently nasty to the sweetest little boy ever. Good thing the new baby is a girl.


Bobby could be annoying and lying little brat. He proved that in at least two Season Two episodes.
I don't think "jump" is the operative word to describe Don's encounter with the stew. She makes all the running; he can barely commit to taking off his clothes, and when the fire bell sounds he is Johnny-on-the-spot, ready to go-go-go. I would say he played harder to get than the girl expected, and that signals to me a desire to try to remain faithful, even when the flesh is weak.


Yet, at one point, the stewardess was about to back off, herself. And Don encouraged her to go on with the assignation, claiming that it was his birthday. Some faithful husband.
So, limit your exposure can apply to those exposed to unpleasant truths. He was damaged by the knowledge of his birth circumstances, and he thinks people are often just better off if they don't know the truth. That's why he doesn't tell Betty his real name and story. Why hurt her? That's why he won't tell Sal's secret. Keeping the secret is an act of kindness?


Am I really supposed to believe that someone told him that he was named after his father's sex organ?

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