Mad Men, Season 3

Week 5: I Am Woman, Hear Me Defend This Episode!
Talking television.
Sept. 14 2009 2:08 PM

Mad Men, Season 3

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Week 5: I Am Woman, Hear Me Defend This Episode!

Dear John and Patrick,

I guess it's up to me to defend the caterpillar and the bloody mop. I'm ready! This was a weird and wonderful episode of Mad Men, one that used a host of new strategies—some more successful than others—to show us just how awful it sometimes was to be a woman in 1963 and, more particularly, how awful it was to be Betty Draper.

Julia Turner Julia Turner

Julia Turner is the editor in chief of Slate and a regular on Slate's Culture Gabfest podcast.

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I'm surprised you two dismissed the hospital scene so hastily. You both described it as so powerful it affected you physically: Patrick cringed; John flinched and averted his eyes. I, too, watched with visceral dread, forgetting to breathe at times. It takes some doing to create responses so strong, and I loved the episode's creepy, surreal, Hitchcockian portrait of giving birth a half-century ago. The brusque nurse, the surfeit of drugs, the ordinary mishaps—this pen's out of ink!—that seemed to bode ill: All served to underscore Betty's terror and her feelings of powerlessness and abandonment. It's not a subject you often see treated in such detail. Maybe this is my second X chromosome talking, but more than any other incident in the show's span, these scenes gave me a real shiver of there-but-for-the-grace-of-decades-go-I.

And I didn't feel jerked around when we learned that mother and baby survived the ordeal.

Perhaps that's because I didn't feel relieved, either. To my mind, Don's spooky conversation with Dennis-the-loquacious-prison-guard posed a question with no clear answer: Is it worse to be born into the loveless Draper home or never to be born at all? Met with the sight of Betty's healthy baby, I felt one sort of fear subside, but another, darker dread rushed in to take its place.

As for the dream sequences, for the most part I thought they worked. With this episode, the writers who've made Betty such a bratty, unlikable ice wench all season have given us a reason to sympathize with her and a view into her twisted mind. The dreams showed us Betty as she imagines herself—a cross between a child and a Disney princess—and helped explain why she's so dissatisfied with life in Ossining. I didn't think they were hokey. The scene with the caterpillar, in particular, was beautiful and strange, recalling the woodland scenes in Disney's animated fairy tale films—films in which getting married is the end of the story. You never see Sleeping Beauty up at night with a screaming child. Betty now finds herself in uncharted territory—what was supposed to be happily ever after—and is bewildered by the lack of autonomy, freedom, and respect she finds there. Don is mobile, "never where you expect him to be," she tells Nurse Ratched. But Betty is stuck. "I don't want to be here," she says.

The one false note, I think, was the inclusion of who I presume was Medgar Evers in Betty's second dream sequence. I don't believe that his murder would have made much of an impression on Betty's self-absorbed psyche, no matter how many questions Sally was asking about it. (I was also surprised that Betty knew so much about the Hebrides; maybe she's been reading To the Lighthouse?) But the kitchen confab with Mom and Dad was effective in conveying how trapped Betty feels; as she sees it, her only option is to shut her mouth, pipe down, and "be happy with what you have."

I also wondered if this foggy hallucination may have changed Betty's attitude toward motherhood or helped resign her to her lot somehow. When I first watched the episode's final scene, the one where Betty pauses in the hall en route to the crying baby, she seemed full of dread and loathing. But when I watched again, I picked up on an earlier exchange between Betty and her neighbor Francine. Francine tells Betty she should have had Carla stay; Betty replies that she wanted to give Carla a break since she'd been away from her family (uncharacteristic considerateness and generosity there, I thought). And since baby Gene will be given formula, not "the breast," it seems likely that Carla, not Betty, would have been the one to tend him in the night, if she'd been around. Are Carla's reprieve and that pause in the hallway actually signs of Betty recommitting to her family in some way?

Finally, we've got to note that Sally's teacher isn't just a light-footed, fatherless lush with loose bra straps; she also shares a name with perhaps the most famous American ballerina of all time, George Balanchine's muse, Suzanne Farrell. Balanchine was supposedly both inspired by and in love with Farrell, who joined his company in 1961. But he was married, and Farrell is said to have spurned his advances, marrying another dancer. Somehow, Sally's vulnerable wreck of a teacher didn't look likely to do any spurning. If Don does pursue her, we'll have two interesting firsts in his known sexual history: an affair in his hometown, and an affair with a needy woman. Midge, Rachel, Bobbie—these women were tough cookies who didn't need much care and feeding. But Suzanne seems to appeal to Don's softer side, the part of him that's curious about his own childhood, still suffering the pain of losing his own mother at his birth.  Things might be about to get touchy-feely…

I like your turtlenecks,
Julia