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"Mad Men": "Love Among the Ruins"

By admin Published: August 25, 2009

I know I am getting to this late. My DVR did not catch it on Sunday night, so I recorded the Monday replay and watched it this AM. And I have thoughts. Oh, I have thoughts.

Even though the episode spent a lot of time with Don, Betty and the dad issue, and on the Madison Square Garden/Penn Station debate, it was all in service of a bigger issue: the role of women in the early '60s, and especially how women were moving from being Betty to being Peggy.

That issue's place in the overarching change in society is set up by the Penn Station story, and especially Don's talk about getting people to embrace the new; and by the date on the wedding invitation for Roger's daughter. Since the wedding will be (we know, though the characters do not) the day after JFK is assassinated, change is going to happen even if the characters and society are not ready to embrace it.

The talk of ancient Rome, for that matter, ties in with the idea that New York is crumbling -- and with the decline of the British Empire. Sterling Cooper's Brit bosses refuse to look to the future, too, by turning down the MSG account. And Gene, Betty's dad, suffers because he cannot escape his memories of the past, putting them in the present day, whether it's his thinking that it's still Prohibition or forgetting that Gloria has left him.

But within all that lies the question of what women can, and will, do, and here even someone like Don proves unable to let go of the past. He and the other men are drawn to Ann-Margret in "Bye Bye Birdie," 21 years old but playing a high-school girl, an adolescent fantasy figure, as Peggy rightly observes; still, the men cling to their adolescent ideas of what women are.

Don, in fact, can be seen as wanting something simpler and more docile in a woman as he studies the teacher dancing, child-like among the children but still stirring something in Don the way Ann-Margret did.

Of course, Don believes in The Man as father-protector, and so he comes to the rescue of Betty over how to deal with her father's situation. It's the right thing to do in the moment, and it gives him a chance to be the hairy-chested superior to Betty's brother -- but it's also an impulsive act, and one that soon enough has unexpected consequences with Gene's nocturnal booze-pouring.

Still, Don is acting the way he expects a man to act. And Betty, who has at times shown remarkable fortitude, is willing to play the helpless wife -- sulking in the bedroom, for instance -- because that is the way she knows to get things done.

In contrast to that, we have Peggy, who is becoming more and more assertive -- and grumpy. (Indeed, she, Don, Betty and Roger all seem to go through the episode in bad moods, although Don, Betty and Peggy find a way out of theirs.) She does not cotton to the boys' club, and is absolutely right that Patio is being marketed not to women who will drink it, but to men. And it's not even spelled out that men in this world might still control the purse-strings, giving at least a little rationale for their behavior. They're not even that thoughtful. It's simply that the men want ads that turn them and their buddies on, regardless of how effectively they sell the product.

Peggy's bolder view puts her at even greater distance from Joan, and causes a brief divide with Don when she speaks up for herself. (Don may admire Peggy's "tool box," but he is, again, more likely to see women in a meeker form. He has had affairs with strong women, but none of those affairs have lasted. To have permanence in Don's life, a woman needs to be Betty more than Peggy.)

But Peggy, rather than shrink, asserts herself in an area where she can dominate -- sexual politics. She could turn into Ann-Margret if she chose -- and that performance before the mirror was terrific -- but she doesn't have to if she wants to fulfill a basic need. Her grabbing the hamburger is and chowing down is not remotely a classic feminine gesture, but an acknowledgment of her own appetite, and her willingness to take what she wants. If the man ultimately proves a disappointment -- not least because he is unprepared for where she wants to go -- that is not her fault. The "fun," in the end, was in the hunt, the control -- she was in a lot of ways being Don Draper, with no regrets.

Peggy's assertiveness echoes in Roger's battles with his ex-wife and daughter over the wedding, and whether he will be allowed to bring his new bride to the ceremony. Roger has no understanding of all that is changing around him; he is used to skating along, but everything is different now, and he has never seen the consequences in anything he did.

If Roger could turn back the clock, it would likely be to when his marriage was intact and Joan was his mistress; he never seemed to have trouble then. Roger has spent his life skating along, and now all the ice around him is thin. Although it's not as explicit as the Betty/Peggy stories, it still points to the increased importance of women in how the show's men run their lives; all of Roger's big issues are wrapped up in women.

Though not for a moment would he think, as was observed of Sterling Cooper in the season opener, that society is a gynocracy. In fact, the whole idea of advertising in this '60s world is to go against that; once again, ads for a product aimed at women are being made for men. If women are thought of at all, they are thought of as Betty. But it's more and more Peggy's world.

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