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Chinese Wall: Truth and Consequences on Mad Men

I'd like to think that we all fall sometimes.

This week's sensational episode of Mad Men ("The Beautiful Girls"), written by Dahvi Waller and Matthew Weiner and directed by Michael Uppendahl, focused on the women in Don Draper's personal and professional life, crafting provocative storylines for Joan Harris, Peggy Olsen, Faye Miller, and little Sally Draper. While it's the latter who physically hits the floor at the end of the episode, there's the definite sense that each of these women not only picks themselves up but keeps moving ahead, their eyes on the future.

For the three adults, the feminist spirit of the 1960s has awakened something in each of them and this forward-facing approach is best summed up when Peggy, Joan, and Faye board the elevator together at the end of the day. All three women have made a specific decision in her own life, one with dramatic consequences for each of them. Entering the confines of the elevator, they face ahead rather than at each other, their eyes staring towards the camera, towards audience, towards the future. Did they fail the tests that they were given? Or did they choose to instead to follow their own rules?

While it's Faye who earlier brings up the concept of the Chinese wall, that information screen that safeguards the flow of intelligence, it's clear that there are a number of walls either toppling down or being built up in this episode. The final confrontation between Don and Sally--the supremely gifted Kiernan Shipka--points to something as insurmountable as the Great Wall itself springing up between father and daughter.

It was only a matter of time before Sally would choose to run away, choosing Don's life in Manhattan over her rigid and icy existence in Ossining. Here, she boards a train in a display of rebellious independence, a chance to surprise Don and force his hand before she pleads her case: she wants to live with him rather than Betty and Henry. Don represents an unrealized ideal rather than the honest reality of what such an existence would mean. He can't care for her, not in any meaningful, real way--he dumps the responsibility of watching her for an afternoon on Faye simply because she's there and a woman--but Sally doesn't see it that way. She sees a life of pouring rum on French toast, wearing his t-shirts to bed, and stopping by his slick office on the way to the zoo.

Sally's attempt to manipulate Don point to just how much she learned from watching her own mother. Her petulance and mischievous smile (such as when Don agrees to order pizza) match up perfectly to the same way that Betty interacted with Don. With her new haircut and more mature looks, Sally is nearly a mirror image for the Betty we saw in the earlier seasons of Mad Men. The gap between their ages has been bridged by a haircut and an atmosphere of lost innocence.

In her childish way, Sally yearns for change. When she can't coax, cajole, or charm her way into Don's new life, she attempts reverting to an emotional response: screaming, kicking, and running. But her fall after screeching through the halls of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce isn't her own. As the women of the office look on, it's not Faye or Peggy who comes to her rescue, but innocent receptionist Megan, whom Sally throws her arms around. Sally isn't just looking for her father but that sense of protection, warmth, and comfort that she so desperately craves.

It's interesting that it's Megan who comforts Sally rather than, say, Faye, whom Sally knows is Don's girlfriend, whether or not he denies it. (She, like Sally, knows where the plates are, as well as that Don has peanut butter in his apartment.) It's clear that Faye is uncomfortable around Sally and around children as well. She might like kids but she doesn't have any of her own, she lacks "child psychology," and she speaks to Sally as though she's four or five years old.

Rather than see that Don selected her because she was there and because he trusts her in his apartment, Faye sees her care of Sally as a crucible by which her relationship with Don will be judged. Is she worthy of becoming Sally's replacement mother? Of segueing into the role of Don Draper's new wife? Don certainly doesn't see it that way; the situation wasn't an audition for the role because he hasn't even considered it. He's not looking to fill that role emptied by his divorce and doesn't see his very new relationship with Faye in that manner. When she fails to calm Sally down, it's not a test to be passed or failed, but rather a last-ditch effort to quiet his troubled daughter, to pacify her in a way that he doesn't know how to or won't do.

But that's not inherently contained within the DNA of this woman, nor perhaps in the two others who gather in that elevator at the end of the day. Each of them has a complicated relationship to motherhood that's only fitting given their professional status within the pre-women's liberation years of the 1960s. Faye has chosen to focus on her career and not on her uterus; Peggy gave up her child to forward her professional stake; Joan was desperate to get pregnant before Greg left for Vietnam.

In their own way, each is not equipped to handle the reality of Sally Draper's tantrum, of the psychic damage inflicted by Don and Betty's divorce. Instead, they huddle around the doorway, watching as Don returns Sally to Betty, a casualty of the war waged between her bitter parents. She's the little girl lost, a bruised young woman, who might have the future ahead of her but is determined to change her life right now, even if she lacks the maturity to see what that life truly is.

In that future for Sally, the possibilities are limitless. While she doesn't know it yet, the women who don't know how to calm her down are the trailblazers who make her future chance at happiness (whether personal or professional) possible. While Cooper regards the late Ida Blankenship as "an astronaut," a woman who was born in a barn and died in a skyscraper, it's Sally who could be an actual astronaut. She can be anything she wants to be in a way that has been denied Joan, Peggy, and Faye. They've fought and clawed their way into the precious power that they've gathered for themselves but it's been a battle, particularly when men like Abe Drexler don't see that they're still being subjugated.

In an episode rife with so much emotional complexity, this week's installment also contained some deliciously hilarious moments as well. If comedy is tragedy plus time, the death of Ida Blankenship was played for its tragic-comedy qualities straightaway. The shock of Peggy discovering Blankenship's demise journeyed into a hysterical sequence in which Joan and Pete concealed her body and moved Ida before the clients saw her corpse.

It's Joan who begins Blankenship's obituary but it's Cooper who finishes it and manages to celebrate Ida's life, as well as the transition from an agricultural America to a thoroughly modern one, barns segueing into skyscrapers, a farm girl dying surrounded by the people she answered phones for.

It may have been a life lived but it was once hampered by what paths Ida Blankenship could have taken, and the vast in-roads that the three elevator-traveling women have made in the time since her youth all the more apparent.

Peggy's decision to protect herself and her career, to chose her pocketbook over her heart with regard to Abe Drexler point to her own priorities. She might be political in her own way (she did attempt to bring up the discrimination issue to Don in the meeting), but Peggy Olsen is not stupid. Abe is just some guy with a manifesto. He might be "interesting soup," but she's looking for a full meal. She doesn't need to be the pot but can be something entirely different. After all, she's already sacrificed so much in the name of advancing her career. Why wouldn't she want to hold onto that?

And then there was poor Joan. I loved that Roger sent over the masseuses to make up for rubbing her the wrong way, but I also knew that these two--with the unfinished business between them--would transition back into something more than work colleagues and old friends. For Roger, Joan was the one who got away and writing his memoirs has reminded him of this in no uncertain terms. There might not be a chapter in his book about his lost love but he can't help but pine for this sad Madonna even as he made his choice to leave Mona not for her, but for Jane.

Joan manages to deflect Roger's advances throughout the episode until they're robbed at gunpoint and Joan literally loses that constant reminder of her marriage: her wedding band. Faced with a brush with a gun, Joan passionately kisses Roger and they make love in that seedy neighborhood. But, later, it's Joan who signals that that's as far as things can go. She's not sorry it happened but she's married and so is Roger. While Joan's husband faces an uncertain future in Vietnam, she's going to do her best to remain faithful to him. While she displayed a moment of weakness, it was also a clarion call to her that it can't happen again.

Which makes me wonder if Joan will finally get the baby she's been so desperate to have, even while she runs the risk of losing her husband in the war.

Ultimately, "The Beautiful Girls" was a lush, lyrical, and emotionally bracing episode that examined the past, present, and future of women in this particular time period. While they might each work in that glittering skyscraper, it's not their names on the wall. Not yet, anyway.

Next week on Mad Men ("Hands and Knees"), an unannounced visitor at the Francis home rattles Betty.


Bella Spruce said…
Another incredible episode and another stunning performance by Kiernan Shipka. Sally Draper breaks my heart. Loved what you said about Faye, Joan, and Peggy not being able to comfort Sally even though they are paving the way for her.
DJ said…
Except Joan, Peggy, Faye, and Megan do give Sally a small service. Notice how, when Sally does her embarrassing faceplant, the director shows them popping out of their offices, their faces filled with compassion. Then, when Betty comes to pick Sally up, they all enter the lobby to watch, knowing their presence would prevent Betty from scolding the emotionally-raw child. And it worked -- you could sense how angry Betty was by the way she was smoking. When the other women came into the lobby, they exchanged glances, and Betty behaved herself, tousling Sally's hair and telling her she missed her.
ItsToasted said…
It might have been Season 2 or 3 but there's a scene at the end of an episode where Don's shaving in the bathroom and Sally comes in and just sits and beams at him.
That's such a heartbreaking scene to look back on now; with the knowledge that the unconditional and innocent love of a daughter to her father is slipping away.
These scenes with Sally are very saddening to watch, and I can't help thinking there's something terrible building here.
Gerard Bocaccio said…
Another spectacular episode of Mad Men followed by another erudite and insightful review here on these pages. There is nothing to add to what you've written except a personal observation. I found myself overwhelmed by a sense of melancholy and sadness at the end of the episode despite the soaring moments of black comedy that were very un-Mad Men like. The performance by Sally is riveting and unpredictable and the perfection of Kiernan Shipka's pitch is heartbreaking inside the larger theme that is Matt Weiner's genius unfolding in front of us; America's loss of innocence and the orderly caste system of its structured society in mid-20th century American life. The nostalgia it evokes is palpable and heartbreaking as we watch that society choke on unfiltered cigarettes and cheap whiskey; its masculinity dying from the inside out so that its feminity might emerge to make sense of the ashes it leaves behind. But to know that the purity of purpose that launched American feminism would be co-opted by the beast that would be Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" of the 1980's only adds to the sadness I feel as I watch this theater play out each week. The women you site and the way they are choreograped in this episode; heroically, uncompromisingly and without judgement; juxtaposed against Ida Blankenship's cruel and anonymous death; her symbolism as a woman of the past blinded by grey tinted coke bottle glasses and a crippled gait to fetch coffee is made all the more poignient by Sally's mournful goodbye to Megan and the seemingly desperate, silent plea that they avoid repeating Ida Blankenship's anonymous life and meaningless death. Add to that the shaming of Betty Draper by these women for her pathetically cruel motherly narcissism in spite of the fact that she is merely the last burning embers of that ordered society; built on secrets and lies, misogyny and a post WWII supremacy that created the false bravado for the last years of a male society built on heroic bullying in defense of liberty, yet uncertain cowardice on the homefront as the inevitability of the changing domestic landscape of our families and the re-setting of the roles men and women would come to play in a more fair and decent society comes to pass. Betty Draper then is an even more tragic figure for me because she is unable to rise above her sphere of influence because she has passed the point of no return and the symbolism of Joan, Peggy and Faye's solidarity in defense of the young Sally as she is led away by this parental role model who will invariably perpetuate the chain of women knowing their place, is made all the more provocative by the foreboding sense that this brave yet unstructured call for help by Sally, and subsequently Don's retruning her to that which she is so desperately trying to run away from, is the final act of betrayal that ultimately will kill her spirit and render her a casualty in the larger class struggle that was playing out in American society 50 years ago. Once again, we are privvy to elevated storytelling by mature writers who continue to elegantly peel back the curtains of our past so that we might not repeat it. One only wishes the pettiness of our current society and its political atmosphere were sophisticated enough to see the folly of its discourse when thrust into the glaring light of Matt Weiner's rendering of this difficult yet liberating period of rebirth for our country and its humanity. It is sad for us that Richard Nixon was given the opportunity to foster a level of cynicism that would crush the hope of this awakening by creating an atmosphere that would foster once again the worst instincts in our culture.
Anonymous said…
I, too, was immediately struck in this episode by how eerily Sally's character morphed into that of her mother. The tone of voice, choice of words, inflection, and, of course, her physical demeanor - all spoke to Betty's influence. (Kiernan Shipka is an actress to be reckoned with, that's for certain). Also, comic relief aside, I was somewhat moved by the death of Ida Blankenship. Having worked for 35 years "answering phones for other people," the sting of that candid obit and her unceremonial demise hit home, even as it made me laugh out loud.

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