Mad Men, Season 3

Week 5: Are Dream Sequences Ever a Good Idea?
Talking television.
Sept. 13 2009 11:02 PM

Mad Men, Season 3

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Week 5: Are Dream Sequences Ever a Good Idea?

Dear Julia and John:

My chief reaction on finishing this episode was relief that neither Betty nor the baby is dead. Fraysters had been predicting problems with the birth, and the hospital sequence was so freighted with misdirection that I spent much of the hour cringing at the unspeakable prospect of Don Draper as a single parent.

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I blame the dream sequences, which felt a trifle manipulative. Really, are dream sequences ever a good idea? Perhaps I'm just too literal-minded, but outside The Big Lebowski, they almost never work for me. The bloody scrawl of Gene's mop was jarring and portentous (erroneously portentous, it turns out).  But Betty palming (and maybe crushing?) the inch worm, and the apparition of her mother with a black man I presume was Medgar Evers? Pure hokeyness.

This episode marked Mad Men's most sustained consideration of race to date. Evers' murder was a leitmotif from the opening scene in which Suzanne-the-barefoot-teacher says that Sally has been asking about it. The June 12 assassination of the civil rights leader may also have been on the mind of Hollis, the elevator man, when he told Pete, "We've got bigger problems to worry about than TV."

I had figured that if Matthew Weiner and company were ever going to make race an explicit issue, they would do so through one of the characters, like Sheila or Carla—or Hollis, for that matter. But it's nicely in keeping with the narrative strategies of the show that race intrudes on the sterile corridors of Sterling Cooper in the prosaic form of an accounts conundrum.

The confrontation with Hollis showed us Pete at his most odiously reptilian. I love the way Hollis cuts him off at the knees after Pete wonders why, contrary to his research, a Negro might buy an RCA. "To watch TV," Hollis says. But Pete's stopping the elevator is transparently menacing, a straight-up Jim Crow power play, and when Hollis answers his little quip about baseball with an obliging smile, that's not forgiveness. It's just relief that they've reached Pete's floor.

Still, next to Roger ("Da-Da") Sterling, Pete is practically an integrationist. His pitch to Admiral is driven by the numbers: If marketing to African-Americans helps your bottom line, it's time to buy ad space in Jet. But to the beleaguered Admiral execs, popularity with black buyers is a problem. (And if you think this is a "period" dilemma, consider the recent clash between Cristal and Jay-Z.) So Pete's common-sense pitch is actually heretical—so much so that a scowling Roger berates him, saying, "If it isn't Martin Luther King!"

Interestingly, the only Sterling Coop employee who shows Pete any sympathy is Lane Pryce. Dimly aware of the sea changes afoot in his adoptive country ("There's definitely something going on"), Pryce seems happy to sacrifice propriety for the balance sheet. "Pencils, pens, pads, paper, and postage" are costing too much, he observes, later adding that "Pennies make pounds, and pounds make profits." That's an awful lot of alliteration from anxious advertisers placed in powerful posts. You have to love that the moment Pryce goes into McKinsey mode, Don just gets up and walks out.

Of course, the really juicy prospect is that all this cost-cutting might have the devastating, unintended consequence of forcing Peggy Olson out the door. I knew Duck would come back, but I wouldn't have guessed he'd be trying to poach Peggy and Pete. I'd hate to see Peggy leave, but it was heartbreaking to watch her ask Don for a raise. She mentions the passage of the Equal Pay Act, saying, "I don't know if you read (about it) in the paper." Part of me would like to see Peggy turn her back on the boys. But after negotiating a raise to make the jump, do you think things would really be any better at Grey?

The other bit of plot to watch is the reintroduction of Sally's teacher. I loved the opening scene, in which Ms. Farrell recounts Sally's Lord of the Flies persecution of piggy Becky Pierson. Betty says she's heard that Becky is "a bruiser," and we're treated to a jump-cut flash of Sally, a streak of blood (presumably Becky's) smeared, like war paint, across her face. In no time, Teach is nursing a highball and unburdening herself over the phone to Don, leaning against the wall in the curious posture of erotic repose that only Draper's gravelly monosyllables can induce. 

Are we safe concluding that these two will be going at it before the next PTA meeting? Is that why Don tells Betty it was "no one" on the phone? And how will Ms. Farrell contend with Sally's violent tendencies when she's compromised by her dalliance with Don?

I suspect some clues may lie in the most curious encounter of the episode—Don's Johnny Red bonding session with the prison guard Dennis Hobart. This was a rich exchange, but totally mystifying: It seemed to raise questions of Don's honesty (or lack thereof), his devotion to and protectiveness of Betty (or lack thereof), and perhaps even his fears about raising children who will end up "on the other side of the fence"—delinquent products of the loveless, soulless environment in which Sally, Bobby, and now Eugene are growing up. But the conversation was so oblique, and Don looked so positively hollowed out and haggard by the end, that I'm left with more questions than answers.

For instance: Why did Hobart turn away from Don's smile when they passed each other later in the hallway? And I know Weiner is on record saying that "budget constraints are very, very good for creativity," but did it strike either of you that the hospital solarium where Don and Dennis hit the Scotch looks suspiciously like an unused office at Sterling Coop?

One final troubling note to ponder: Did you know pineapple is believed to be an abortifacient?

Patrick

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