Mad Men, Season 3

Week 9: Lamest Affair Ever
Talking television.
Oct. 11 2009 11:05 PM

Mad Men, Season 3

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Week 9: Lamest Affair Ever

I have a dream. A dream that one day, Mad Men will again take place in the offices of Sterling Cooper. Last week, we languished in Rome and the Campbell residence. This week, Betty took a jaunt to Albany, N.Y., Don and Connie bonded at the Waldorf Astoria, and teacher Suzanne had a late-night highball in her apartment above the garage.

But the highlights, as usual, were the few moments that took place at Sterling Coop: Don's meeting with Peggy and the creative team in his office ("Give me more ideas to reject"), Connie's shocking dismissal of Don's international campaign (which failed to account for Connie's proposed Hilton on the moon), Don's suggestion that Sal should have encouraged Lee Garner Jr.'s advances ("Lucky Strike could shut off our lights"). These scenes were vivid and—crucially—surprising. The rest of the episode lingered on two plot lines that can't surprise us anymore: Don's pursuit of teacher Suzanne and Betty's infatuation with Henry Francis.

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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Am I wrong, or are these the two most boring affairs in Mad Men history? So much prickly preamble, not nearly enough fun! I did enjoy comparing Don and Betty's styles of flirtation, though. Betty fantasizes about Henry on her fainting couch, then writes him a letter (she's a lefty!) and savors the one he sends in return. When he shows up on her doorstep, she's shocked by the breach of propriety, and when he finally moves to consummate their attraction during her visit to his office, she can't go through with it—it's too "tawdry." She wants an affair, but a 19th-century one.

Teacher Suzanne, meanwhile, has beguiled Don with a sort of meta-flirtation—flirting about the fact of flirting—that's downright postmodern. We first saw this during the eclipse episode, when Suzanne sidled up to Don only to rebuff him as soon as he started to turn on the charm. "You're all the same—the drinking, the philandering. This happens a lot." That's some confounding repartee for a woman whom Don has pegged as some kind of naive wood sprite. This week, Don asks, "Who are you? Are you dumb or pure?" Either way, he seems to like being kept off balance. But when he pops over to her garret for a late-night booty call, there's no real excitement, either on Suzanne's part or the viewer's. After warning him that it's a bad idea to tomcat around so close to home—good point, teach!—Suzanne succumbs. Yawn.

Also in play this week were several key moments in the civil rights movement. Don and Suzanne listen to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech; Betty's Junior League friends discuss the import of the March on Washington; and Carla and Betty speak about the Birmingham church bombing. (Indeed, Betty calls the attack "horrifying" and offers to give Carla a day off, as though being upset by racist violence were like having a case of the sniffles.) Some of these references felt a bit on the nose: When Betty's Junior League friends clucked about the uncouth South, the shot carefully juxtaposed them with the sight of Carla in a maid's uniform, answering the door and taking coats. Subtle.

But I liked that we saw more of Carla. The relationship between Northern white women and their black help during the civil rights movement is relatively uncharted territory, and it feels as if Mad Men might be able to tell us something interesting about the era by examining Carla's exchanges with Betty and her role in the Draper household. Carla is nearly silent and completely essential; she knows way too much about the Drapers, but she can't be allowed to know everything. The fundraiser Betty throws is a bid to see Henry Francis, but it's also an effort to quell any questions Carla might have had about the stranger in the front hall. And I loved the moment when baby Gene cries, Carla offers to get him, and Betty, unmoving, distracted by a letter from Henry, says "Would you?"—as though she and Carla are friends, as though Carla could possibly say no. That line tells us more about race relations in 1963 than hearing MLK on the Cadillac radio.

I'm interested to hear what you gentlemen made of Don's daddy issues. Two weeks ago, he was conjuring drug-soaked visions of his own father; this week, Conrad Hilton tells him he's "like a son." Don seems to bask in the attention, enjoying Hilton's late-night phone calls and complimenting him on his romantic visions of global (and lunar) American conquest. Then, Conrad turns on him, rejecting the proposed campaign, going so far as to say, "I'm deeply disappointed, Don." When Don protests, he adds, "What do you want from me, love?" Was it this fatherly scorn that drove Don into Miss Farrell's arms?

And what are we to make of Sal's pink slip? Another beloved character down. What's Sterling Cooper without Joan or Sal? I was surprised to see Don take such an expedient tack in his final conversation with Sal; I thought he might protect Sal since he knows Sal's secret, the way he protected Peggy in Season 1. Instead, he castigates Sal and then throws him under the bus. I thought Don was suggesting that Sal should have let Lee Garner seduce him. But there was a lot going on in that scene. Did you read their conversation the same way?

I expect the moon, boys,
Julia

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