Week 8: Roman Holiday
Mad Men, Season 3
Week 8: Roman Holiday
Talking television.
Oct. 4 2009 11:05 PM

Mad Men, Season 3


Week 8: Roman Holiday

So that's what Joan's been up to. It was reassuring to learn that we haven't seen the last of Ms. Harris, and I'm sure Bonwit Teller's Republic of Dresses, as Pete calls it, has rarely known such a competent leader. It was fun watching her make Pete's problem disappear as only Joan can, and not before letting Pete know that she knows something is up: "It must run small," she says of the dress in question. "I don't see Trudy in a 10." Yet Joan's assertion that things have "never been better" was less than convincing. It was dispiriting to see her reduced to processing returns at a department store to support her abusive husband, who apparently is in the process of switching his specialty to psychiatry. And you thought Betty's shrink was a creep.

While I'm pleased to have Joan back in the mix, I couldn't help but wonder how the writers of Mad Men will manage to swing the action back over to Bonwit Teller. Sterling Cooper could land the account, I suppose, but if I were Don I wouldn't want to ask Rachel Mencken for a reference. I spied an Hermès counter in the dress department—maybe it's someone from Grey who will have business there next. ...

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.


Whatever plot twist the series devises, I hope it's less contrived than having Pete go on a dry-cleaning errand in the hopes of getting a little danke schöen from the neighbor's au pair. I enjoyed the montage of Pete taking his shirt and tie off over his head, eating cereal while watching children's television, and dozing on the couch—Pete Campbell is … Home Alone!—but I wasn't much taken with this subplot. It struck me as a little cheap not to let us know the circumstances of Trudy's absence until deep in the episode. Alison Brie has a significant role in the new NBC series Community, which made me wonder whether this was a hastily devised setup for Trudy to leave Pete at some point down the road. Then again, you'd think the whole your-husband-fathered-a-child-with-a-secretary thing could work in a pinch.

Mad Men is a series about lying—its characters are constantly lying to one another, to themselves, and occasionally to the American consumer—but there was an unusual amount of deceit in this week's episode, as if it were simply too hot out to tell the truth. Pete asks Gertrude, the au pair, why she doesn't just put the soiled dress back in the closet and blame the stain on the kids; when she refuses, he takes it upon himself to make up another story about the dress so he can get it replaced. Confronted later by Mr. Lawrence, Pete lamely denies anything happened, sounding not unlike Sally Draper denying that she kissed Ernie Hanson. Recounting for Don the Junior League's victory at the town meeting, Betty explains that "a man from the governor's office" pointed out that the water tower project was approved based on a finding that the drinking water in the area wasn't safe, "which is a lie, it's not true at all, not even a little, they just made it up." Which, of course, is itself a lie—Betty knows that Henry Francis' letter from the governor's office is little more than a stall tactic devised by a man who has taken a very personal interest in the issue.

Henry, like Pete, gets a little something in return for his efforts, but the physical encounter he shares with Betty again has the effect of pushing her into the arms of her husband. In the blackface episode, the Henry Francis belly rub was followed by the scene of Don and Betty kissing in the trees at Roger's club. This time around, the brief make-out session in Gene's Continental is followed by Betty asking Don if she can accompany him on his business trip to Rome. Once there, we see Don and Betty like we've never seen them before. How often do you suppose these two shower together back in Ossining?

The highlight of this episode for me was the scene in which Betty, fresh from the Hilton beauty salon—looking stunning, almost unrecognizable from the jetlagged housewife of just a few hours earlier—takes a seat at an outdoor bar and parries—in Italian!—the advances of some louche locals. Enter Don, who sits down at the table next to Betty's and, pretending he doesn't know her, begins his own series of come-ons, which to the chagrin of the Italians, are far more successful. (Patrick, did the sequence at the bar remind you of this, which, I think you agree, is one of the great love scenes in contemporary American cinema?) 

There was something at once sweet and utterly insane about Don and Betty's little charade. Sweet in the sense that they seemed, for a moment, to be completely happy in each other's company. It felt like a glimpse of what the courtship between these two beautiful people might have been like (though I suspect Don was a little less forward the first time around). Insane in the sense that, in the season premiere, we saw Don use a version of this routine on a business trip to Baltimore—with a blonde who was not his wife. In the sense that we know Don is trapped in a much higher-stakes game of make-believe his wife knows nothing about. And in the sense that, as we learn at the end of the episode, Betty is desperate to escape her real life. Her Roman holiday, and the fantasies she and Don play out there, only make her desperation more acute when she returns to Westchester.

Julia, I'm eager for your analysis of Betty's discourse on first kisses. Also, do you take her at her word that she's done getting help from high places?

Asti Spumante per favore!