Slate culture editor John Swansburg joined readers on Facebook on Monday to chat about the third episode of Mad Men’s new season. The following transcript of the discussion has been edited for length and clarity. Read the full conversation here.
John Swansburg: Looking forward to chatting with you guys about episode 503, but a warning: I just got back from drinks with the Mohawk guys.
Neil Hamilton: Not enough Joan!
John Swansburg: I agree. The cast is big enough now that it seems to be the norm that major characters will fall out for an episode at a time.
John Swansburg: What did folks think about the Betty plot line? Julia Turner defended it well in her post, I thought. But I still can't say I love it when the show lingers on Betty.
Melissa de Castrique Thomson: It's hard for me to wholeheartedly agree with Julia's defense of Betty because I'm still mad about Carla.
John Swansburg: One thing I'll say in Betty's defense: Can't be easy having that mother-in-law.
Melissa de Castrique Thomson: I'm wondering about the ramifications of Betty's health scare. It would be un-Mad Men-like to have a storyline like that limited to one episode. I'm guessing that maybe it'll change the dynamic of Don and Betty's relationship? Also, does Henry just hate Don or does he feel threatened by him?
John Swansburg: Good question about Henry's feelings about Don. Saying that "nobody" had called at the end of the episode was pretty stark. Henry eventually lost what patience he had with Don last season; it'll be interesting to see how their dynamic plays out during this one. Certainly if he knew that Betty had called Don with the news of her growth, he'd not have been happy ...
Michelle Bisson: Henry Francis is threatened by Don, and, it seems, for good reason. As much as Betty is capable of having feelings for anyone aside from herself (very limited, as we know), she has them for Don.
Janice Jitchaku Mullaney: The idea that Betty might go from being a cold and heartless person to a warm, loving mother and wife all because she faced her own mortality was worrisome. Betty is the character we all love to hate. However, now that we have seen those feelings surface, we are also forced to realize that somewhere in the complexity of who Betty really is, she knows she is not a good person. Where does she go with that knowledge? That will be interesting to see.
John Swansburg: I agree. As Julia points out, Betty seems to quickly revert to her old childish self as soon as the scare has passed. But maybe it won't be as simple as that.
Deborah Wilker: Insultingly laughable NY accent attempt by Ben Feldman—totally ruined an otherwise good episode.
John Swansburg: I'm excited about the idea of Ginsberg joining up at SCDP, but I thought Feldman was a bit all over the place last night. The accent was a little much, and he was a bit scattered too. Jon Hamm directed last night, and I wondered if his inexperience showed most with the newest character.
David Haglund: What did you think of Hamm's directing generally?
John Swansburg: One moment I found a little on the nose was the jump from Betty's stuck zipper to Megan's decidedly not-stuck zipper. Not sure that was a directorial move, but it was a little easy. I thought bringing in a fortune teller in an episode about a possible terminal cancer diagnosis was also a bit much. But again, that might well be in the script.
Steven Bear Swyryt: Do you really think Megan wants to play colleague? The last 15 minutes of the season opener was her complaining about how she didn't like the office.
John Swansburg: That's a good point. But didn't you get a sense that she wasn't content to just entertain the wife at dinner? She wanted to be a full partner in the business conversation. She might not ultimately decide she likes the advertising world, but she's not going to be like Betty and make polite conversation about children and cooking when out to dinner, I don't think.
Tree Fitzpatrick: I don't think Megan was being genuine when she told Don maybe she shouldn't work there. That chick is a player and always playing. She might be instinctively manipulative, but there she was manipulating Don, seeking to bind him more closely to her. She wanted to be part of the shop talk at dinner this week. She wants to be involved in the game of advertising, of cutting-edge culture.
Michelle Bisson: I think the show is best when it focuses on the office. I found this episode very slow. I also feel like it has lost its way. This season feels like Season 3, my least favorite season, more than seasons 1, 2, and 4.
John Swansburg: I'm with you on preferring the office. I loved the premiere, but I confess I got a little restless during this episode. Even the office stuff was somewhat slack.
John Swansburg: Anyone have a theory as to the significance of Pete Fox, the baseball player whose death Ginsberg's dad mentions? I feel like it's rare for details like that not to have some significance, but a quick look at Fox's career didn't suggest any larger meaning. (He did die on July 5, 1966, so I suppose it could just be a date marker.)
Melissa de Castrique Thomson: Ginsberg's dad's comment, “he was only 57,” struck me as a little ominous. Maybe I'm reading too much into the line because I'm always worried about the health of our elder SCDP partners. But I wondered if that comment and the "death might be nearer than you think" tone of Betty's storyline portend something tragic later in the season. (I'm reaching, I know.)
John Swansburg: Great point! And here I was looking at his total bases numbers ...
Rumors on the Internets: Pete Fox played with Hank Greenberg for years in Detroit. That said, I think Ginsberg's dad said "Red Sox" as a descriptor of Fox, so that might sink that theory.
John Swansburg: This just in! Dave Weigel notes that it's a bit hard to believe that Henry Francis would have thought George Romney a "clown" in July '66.
Edmund Karner: From John’s TV Club post on Don and the teenage girl at the Rolling Stones concert: “He didn’t know how to speak the girl’s language, didn’t seem to grasp that a teenager might indeed know something about psychiatry ...”
I don't think so. That's Don's fact-finding process. That's how he learned about O'Hara in the first place: Don was just a square at the bar talking to some Beatnik. How would a teenager know something about psychiatry? Not just about psychiatry, but how a psychiatrist acts? Don realizes immediately: by seeing one, which takes the wind out of her sails.
John Swansburg: You might be right. He has been out of his element before, but I thought there was a greater divide between him and that girl than I'd seen before at Midge's apartment, say.
Bill Planey: Don was showing us the foundations of his success: He asks questions and he listens to what people have to say. He is deeply curious about human motivation.
Edmund Karner: Yes. And I think he was unimpressed with the girl's responses—I think Don suspects that there's no "there" there when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll. Just insecure kids smoking grass.
Ashley Fears: I've been loving the idea that Don is having to deal with growing more and more out of touch as he ages. Last night’s episode seemed to really exemplify that, from not knowing how to understand how a teenager might relate to the Stones to his own discomfort with Betty’s illness. I actually really loved the direction that last night's episode took.
Miriam Isserow: Don is out of touch, but he has always been a man of the zeitgeist. I think that ultimately he will follow Megan's lead (she's totally au courant) and learn to loosen up and be more part of the ’60s.
Melissa de Castrique Thomson: I think/hope he'll catch up with the times. There's certainly precedent for the former Dick Whitman to adapt when circumstances require it.
John Swansburg: A few trips to Fire Island certainly won't hurt him. I suspect he'll end up catching on too, perhaps because he'll feel threatened by Ginsberg and/or some kind of Ginsberg/Olson outer-borough, young(er) person alliance of creativity.
Edmund Karner: A prediction and a thought: 1) Don will at some point listen to Bob Dylan music, remark about how much he hates Dylan's voice, and then prove to appreciate Dylan's lyrics. 2) I'm so happy Paul Kinsey isn't there.
John Swansburg: Edmund. re: point #2—really? I always loved Kinsey. Such a pompous ass, sure, but great fun. And always mixing it up. But I guess the newly outsized character of Harry Crane is more than pulling his weight in the ass/mixing it up categories.
Edmund Karner: Yeah, don't know why. There's something about him. I hope they reveal the character was hit by a train or lost at sea or last spotted shouting slogans in Red China. No offense to the actor.
John Swansburg: Do you all think that Ginsberg and Peggy will hit it off? Or become rivals? I couldn't quite guess from what I saw last night.
Tree Fitzpatrick: I think Peggy and Ginsberg are going to be wicked fun to watch. As much as Stan challenged her—remember their strip-off in that hotel room, the challenge Peggy won?!—I think Ginsburg will challenge her more. And the way he assumed she was a secretary and even after she clarified that she was the interviewer, he still asked to meet Don. Her instinct was to drop him and then Sterling intervened. So Ginsburg has already successfully manipulated her. He'll do it again and again, I think. Sparks flying.
Ann Gibbon Not sure why, but I had a feeling Betty was lying about the test results. As an earlier post said, it would be strange to have that issue dealt with so swiftly in one episode.
John Swansburg: I've seen a few commenters suggest that. I have a hard time believing Betty would have the presence to lie about that in the moment. She's so frazzled when she first learns of the lump she can barely remember what the doctor told her.
Edmund Karner: Ann, I think there's a damn good chance you're right.
John Swansburg: Ann and Edmund, I'll buy you guys a sack of burgers if you're right. Mad Men loves a twist, but this doesn't feel like the kind of twist the show goes in for, to me at least.
John Swansburg: OK, it's been fun as always, but there's a bag of Bugles here on my desk that I just can't resist any longer. Thanks for stopping by to chat; talk to you next week!