Mad Men, Season 3

Week 8: Rape vs. Rape Rape
Talking television.
Oct. 5 2009 12:25 PM

Mad Men, Season 3

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Week 8: Rape vs. Rape Rape

Hey John and Julia,

I never thought we'd see the day when Mad Men became topical, but one subplot in last night's episode resonated with the news of the day. I am speaking, of course, of l'affaire Polanski and the alleged distinction, as posited by the sage Whoopi Goldberg, between rape and rape rape.

Julia, you describe the episode between Pete Campbell and the fräulein from 14C as rape. But John, you didn't refer to it as such in your initial wrap-up. We can all agree that Joan's husband raped her last season—there was no ambiguity there. But the encounter with the au pair was more complicated. Pete manipulated the young woman and weaseled his way into her room. But while she was reluctant to let him in, she did seem, at least to me, to reciprocate Pete's kiss.

Mad Men tends, in the manner of old movies, to imply sex, showing us a passionate kiss and some groping, then chastely cutting away so that we might draw our own conclusions. But last night that standard edit created some real confusion: Did the au pair come around to the idea of fun, spontaneous sex with Pete Campbell (as Peggy Olson did when Pete showed up drunk at her door and made the same aggressive moves back in Season 1)? Or after that initial kiss, did she say no and ask Pete to leave, only to have him force himself upon her? There is also a third possibility: She may simply have succumbed, not wanting to have sex with Pete, but recognizing that in that society at that time, in a foreign country with her job already on the line, she was trapped.

Whoopi Goldberg was exactly wrong about Polanski: His victim's resistance made it a textbook case of rape. But by leaving the episode between Pete and the au pair ambiguous, the writers seem to suggest that in 1963 there was a whole range of sexual encounters between men and women that might not have looked like rape as we think of it today (a violent act the victim physically or verbally resists) but that were deeply coercive and traumatic nonetheless.

One thing is clear: This is Fray fodder the likes of which we've never seen. I imagine there are viewers for whom this encounter was transparently rape and others for whom it seemed transparently consensual. Fraysters, en garde.

I loved Pete's run-in with Joan at Bonwit Teller, in no small measure because it means we won't have to wait until Season 4 to have Joan back in the picture. Joan probably chose her new job carefully, for minimal likelihood of encounters like this. So improbable is Pete's presence there, in fact, that the saleswoman thinks he's lost and directs him to the men's bathroom one floor down.

But how strange that it would be Pete who discovers Joan's secret. Had it been Don, Peggy, or Kinsey—or Jane or Roger—there would have been more riding on the exchange. But Joan and Pete have never had much of a relationship. Mad Men keeps coming back to secrets, and often, to the secret alliances they produce. There's something delightfully transactional about Joan saying, "This never happened." She's assuring Pete that the secret of the Size 10 dress is safe with her, while also making clear that the price of her discretion is his discretion.

When it comes to Betty, I had a slightly different interpretation from the two of you. I loved watching her in action—cold-calling constituents, putting her face on for the big meeting, and, best of all, doing that adorable little twist when she comes home, flush with victory, and says, "We won, we won, we won, we won!"

The catch is, it's not just the victory that's got Betty flushing. And this is where it gets really interesting. In this episode, I think we saw Betty become Don. Outside the house, she was sleek and beautiful and effective: She brought Henry Francis in and saved the reservoir. She kissed Henry afterward, a limited infidelity but one much more akin to Don's infidelities than her quickie last season with the stranger in the bar. It's less raw carnality and more a kind of existential reflex: What if I was somebody else and had pursued a different life? Then she returns home to Don and the kids, unmistakably energized by the dalliance, anything but racked by guilt, and doubly determined to throw herself into the traditional role of parent and spouse. Remind you of anyone?

In Rome, Betty does as Don does when he travels: She flirts with the natives (in passable Italian, no less!) and fantasizes about how different life would be in a country where you can scarcely pull out a cigarette before some swarthy ragazzo is proffering a light. Playacting is all Don does. He walks through life imagining himself in a movie or an advertisement. Now Betty gets to join the fun, and because of her earlier encounter with Henry, she does so not as a subordinate but a fellow philanderer—a sexual equal. Watching them, I had a brief, err, flash forward, to the Ice Storm era of 1973, in which Don and Betty, still tortured by ennui, will be wearing turtlenecks and key-partying every weekend. (And those Italians think Don looks vecchio and brutto now!)

The problem for Betty, as we know from the final sequence of so many episodes of Mad Men, is that eventually the fantasy is over and you end up taking the train home to Ossining and sitting at your kitchen table while the music comes up and the camera pulls back through the empty rooms and you're framed there, like a Hopper painting, in all your disillusioned isolation.

Beer, Riesling, or schnapps?
Patrick