Mad Men, Season 6

Peggy Olson Leans In
Talking television.
April 8 2013 1:28 PM

Mad Men, Season 6

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Peggy Olson leans in.

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Elisabeth Moss.

Frank Ockenfels/AMC.

Paul, Seth:

Hanna Rosin Hanna Rosin

Hanna Rosin is the founder of DoubleX and a writer for the Atlantic. She is also the author of The End of Men. Follow her on Twitter.

If we are going to rank characters according to hair drama then I have to start with Betty’s jet-black do. But of course, this is the least interesting way in which Betty goes black this episode. Is it possible we’ve gone this far in our conversation without digging into the teenage rape fantasy Betty spins in bed with Henry? She suggests to her husband—about her daughter’s teenage friend, whose violin-playing he has just admired—“Why don’t you go in there and rape her?” And then, despite him blanching, Betty keeps going—“I’ll hold her arms down.” “I’ll stick a rag in her mouth” so she won’t wake the boys—and the cherry on top, delivered in her prim housewife best: “My goodness! You’re blushing.” WHAT?

I know what we’re supposed to think about this little exchange. Here is Betty reaching a new low: perpetually childish, simultaneously over-identifying with and alienated from whatever nymph happens to be closest to her at the moment, laying the groundwork for an American future of Texas cheerleading moms.  But—forgive me, goddesses of feminism—I found myself admiring Betty at that moment. At least Betty was doing something, cutting through the fog with her own jagged brand of knife. There she was, facing a life of going to bed in that dismal quilted housecoat, with Henry reading the newspaper and paying her pallid compliments, and she chose at that moment to channel the filthy mind of Philip Roth. (Portnoy’s Complaint was published in 1969, by the way.) In my mind this was the verbal equivalent of Betty shooting the pigeons in Episode 1. It was bizarre and uncalled for—but at least it came from somewhere deep and twisted, a place Henry will never visit.

In an interview with Vulture, director Matthew Weiner said: “This whole season is about an attempt to deal with returning to your basic problem, which is that you are you.” But there are more and less tedious ways to deal with that basic problem. And in this episode, at least the women chose the less tedious ways. Betty tries out a little dirty talk, ventures into a downtown hovel full of hostile teenage squatters, dyes her hair black.  Sally leaps into teenage obnoxiousness. Peggy—I can’t say enough admiring things about how hard Peggy is leaning in. But the men in the episode are retreading the same old ground, dealing with Matt Weiner’s “basic problem” by getting mired in it.

The episode is called “The Doorway,” after Roger’s brilliant monologue on the couch. And couldn’t you luxuriate in Roger talk all day?

“What are the events in life? Like, you see a door. The first time you come to it, you say, ‘Oh, what’s on the other side of the door?’ Then you open a few doors and then you say, ‘I think I want to go over a bridge this time. I’m tired of doors.’ Finally you go through one of these things, and you come out the other side, and you realize that’s all there are: doors! And windows, and bridges, and gates. And they all open the same way. And they all close behind you. Look, life is supposed to be a path, and you go along, and these things happen to you, and they’re supposed to change your direction, but it turns out that’s not true.  Turns out the experiences are nothing. They’re just pennies you pick up off the floor, stick in your pocket, and you’re just going in a straight line to you-know-where.”

But it’s just talk. Betty and Peggy are walking down new paths, changing directions, but not Roger and Don. Roger is having the same old girlfriends wash up at the funeral, having the same old drunken tantrums (and those two were edging close to Freddy-Rumsfeld-pee-yourself territory at that funeral). The late ‘60s was a time when men were permitted to acknowledge that they had an inner life and emotions. Psychoanalysis became popular that year, and as I learned from a recent visit to the aircraft carrier USS Midway, that was about the same time that the military added “morale officers” to check on how soldiers were feeling.  Stoic heroism was fading, to be replaced by sideburns and sensitivity. But watching the men explore that new terrain is like watching a baby learn to walk in Peggy’s high heels. Roger, who must be in his 50s, has for the first time in his life the revelation that his mother plays an important role in his psyche. We are supposed to feel pity for Roger at that moment but Paul, what I am picking up from you is a hint of disdain.

Don, meanwhile, is walking around with a blank look on his face, letting his newly unleashed subconscious yank him around. In his Vulture interview, Weiner denies that the Hawaii ad Don makes for the hotel chain is a sign of Don losing his mojo. (He calls it an “amazing ad,” in fact. Seth, you agree?) But whether the ad’s good or bad, it’s definitely a sign of Don failing to see what’s bubbling up from his dark matter. At least Betty can articulate her wicked fantasies. But Don walks around obsessed with death and everyone knows it but him. So there it is, splayed out on the page, clear enough for two thick hotel executives to spot.

And that soldier’s lighter that showed up in his bedroom? Did he end up with that lighter by accident? Or did his subconscious steal it? “I had an experience,” he says about his vacation. “I just can’t put it into words.” Don is moving through life without any animating force in charge, a mute employee of his former self. Even his affair is no fun. “I want to stop doing this,” he says. He wants to be the kind of man who can be married to a smart, independent, almost famous woman like Megan, a woman who doesn’t really need him. But he can’t. He can’t because he’s Don.

Now let me indulge for one moment in praise of Peggy. For the whole of the show we have been fed one idea of what a creative genius looks like, dark, brooding, given to sudden fits of inspiration. But now we have Peggy, who embodies a woman’s way of working. “I know what you’re thinking,” she tells her underlings, that they can just stand around and let her, the genius, come up with the winner idea. But she lets them know right away that that won’t fly. Peggy works by working, putting in long hours, even on weekends and holidays. (Her lecture on the difference between distinct ideas and execution could be Malcolm Gladwell’s next book). At SCDP they put their feet up, pour another round and the work happens in the cracks. At Peggy’s office the rhythm is the opposite. She’s always sitting at the desk with the papers in front of her, and when a little time wasting and flirting transpires it comes as a surprise. (Seth, going back to our conversation on the DoubleX gabfest the other week, is it possible to have an office spouse in a different office? And didn’t that scene make you miss telephones? On IM and Gchat, you can never eavesdrop on what the other side is doing.)

And Seth, what did you think about Don’s comical admiration for Dr. Rosen? Will he be showing up again soon to remove some of Don’s body parts?

People will do anything to alleviate their anxieties,

Hanna