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The Fainting Couch: Gilded Cages on "Mad Men"

Not all prisons have bars.

This week's episode of Mad Men ("Seven Twenty Three"), written by Andre Jacquemetton & Maria Jacquemetton and Matthew Weiner and directed by Daisy Von Scherler Mayer, proved that power is an arbitrary construct and that we can fool ourselves into believing that we have control over our lives when in actuality, we're victims of causality and subject to the whims of others.

Don Draper believes himself to have power over Bertram Cooper and Roger Sterling so long as he doesn't sign a contract. Without his signature on a piece of paper, he's free to throw tantrums and retain some semblance of authority over his two partners. After all, he can walk at any time. He's not married to the company or to Cooper and Sterling. One false move and he can take his considerable talents elsewhere. Which is the very definition of power, no?

Except that Don Draper has been backed into a corner. The deal with Connie Hilton should have been cause for celebration but it's brought Don nothing but aggravation and exasperation. First from the partners and Hilton's lawyers, who want Don locked into Sterling Cooper for three years... and then from protege Peggy Olson who asks to be placed on the Hilton assignment and gets an earful from a wrathful Don.

Don's never been one to keep it in his pants, sexually or professionally speaking. Just as he's attracted to the notion of bedding Sally's latent hippie teacher Miss Farrell, so to force him to sign away his freedom is like asking the world to stop spinning. Despite his protestations, some things never change.

But while Don believes he can stonewall Cooper and Sterling and make the contract issue just magically go away, he doesn't anticipate two things. For one, I don't think Don ever expected Roger to turn to Betty for assistance in getting Don to sign the contract. I thought that this was such a breach of confidence and propriety, especially given the tenuous nature of Roger and Don's relationship at the moment and the fact that we shouldn't forget that Roger once hit on Betty in her home. It was beyond the pale, really. Is it Betty's anger towards Don that seals the deal in the end? Hardly. As Betty says, Don will do whatever Don wants to do, regardless of the consequences. (Look at the way he casually swigs from his glass while driving and picks up a couple, only to be attacked and robbed by them. Again: power is mirage.)

And that's typically the case but this time there's a sword of Damocles dangling over Don's head in the form of Bert Cooper. In a fantastic payoff to a dangling plot thread from Season One, Cooper reminds Don that he knows the truth about his identity, dropping a hint about his assumption of Don Draper's life and stating that it really wouldn't be him signing that contract anyway. Checkmate, Don.

I'm glad that Pete's reveal about Don came back into the story at such a crucial moment for Don. And it is an utterly crucial moment, with the title of the episode reflecting the date that Don signs away his freedom to Sterling Cooper.

It may also be the date of Don's undoing. In his castigation of hungry Peggy Olson, he propels her quite literally into the arms of Don's enemy, Duck. While Peggy wasn't initially open to Duck's overtures (even going so far as to attempt to return his gift of an Hermes scarf), Don's rage towards her proves that she needs to plan for her own future, for her own freedom from Sterling Cooper. The question, however, is whether Duck wants Peggy for herself--for her mind and her body--or whether she is merely an instrument to be used against Don in Duck's ongoing vendetta.

I knew that it was Duck that Peggy was in bed with in the opening minutes of the episode and wish that we hadn't gotten those non-linear glimpses of Don, Peggy, and Betty at the start of the episode. The reveal of the two of them in bed together would have been shocking enough without us waiting for it at every turn. I'm extremely concerned about Peggy's future. There's been no real sign that Duck intends to honor his offers of success (he turns down her request for a copy chief position) and their dalliance further clouds the issue. Or could it be that with that very moment, Peggy has gained the upper hand? That remains to be seen.

Likewise, Betty is drawn back into the orbit of Henry Francis, an adviser to the governor whom she turns to for... Well, the cover story is that she is speaking on behalf of the Junior League and opposing a water tank on the site of the reservoir but really she's addicted to the sense of frisson that she experiences from stepping outside of her role as wife and mother, relishing the sensation of being an attractive conquest to a powerful man.

Despite the encroaching women's movement on America, Betty is drawn backwards in time to an even more restrictive time, to the Victorian era, where women were so physically and socially strained that, feeling overwhelmed, they often had to lie down on fainting couches. It's Henry who recounts the purpose of the fainting couch but it's Betty who purchases it and puts in right in front of the hearth, which her designer described as the "soul of the home." If that's true, then what should we make of Betty's decision to include a symbol of male domination and feminine control in the very heart of her familial home? Is it a subversive gesture or an independent one, reinforcing her desire to step outside the bonds of marriage? Hmmm...

Next week on Mad Men ("Souvenir"), Don takes Betty on a business trip; Pete helps a neighbor in his building.


Bella Spruce said…
I agree that having the "tease" of Don passed out on the floor, Peggy in bed, and Betty lying on the fainting couch kind of undermined the rest of the episode. Those images were exciting at first but it didn't take long to figure out how each of them got to that moment so I felt like I spent most of the episode just waiting for obvious conclusions.

I did, however, love the scene between Peggy and Pete about the gifts from Duck. I love how awkward and yet familiar their conversations now are. It's fascinating! I also loved the storyline of Betty and her fainting couch, as well as Cooper's use of Don's secret to get him to sign the contract. Great payoff!

So, a lot of great moments but, overall, not my favorite episode.
ewench said…
Thanks for the review. That WAS an awesome plot thread payoff with Bert referencing Don’s past, I had almost forgotten he knew about it.

Was Don in such a rage when Peggy asked him about the Hilton account mostly because he was frustrated at the contract issue and took it out on her?

I am thinking Duck’s motivation for his romantic move on Peggy is simply another tool to draw her in and not a sincere interest in her that way at all.

I have had warning bells ringing since Duck contacted Peggy as well and yes his vagueness about possibly being copy chief just made them clang more loudly.

It really makes me sad how hard underpaid Peggy has to fight for every scrap of respect and responsiblity – I am in my mid 40’s and had echos of those attitudes in some of my first jobs but nothing so brutally blatant - it’s truly a reminder of how grateful women need to be for how things are now.

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