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'Mad Men': 'The Souvenir'

October 5, 2009 | 12:27 pm
Betty

Step aside, dapper gentlemen of Sterling Cooper. “The Souvenir” was Betty’s episode to shine – if only for that updo, a soft and sweeping tower of golden blond hair. She could’ve wandered onto “La Dolce Vita” and elbowed Anita Ekberg off to the side. In fact, Betty’s whole being seemed to glow in the Roman moon. She was like some underwater creature, floating at the bottom of the ocean, undiscovered till now.

Don only sees her power sometimes. When bilingual Betts (and hey, maybe she knows French too) talked politics with him in the kitchen, his eyes lit up, dazzled by her savvy. He saw a rare side to his wife, probably one that came out more in their courtship but is buried all too often these days in preparing chicken salad sandwiches and gossiping with Francine. Henry Francis sees her depth too, but Betty probably won’t let him get any closer than that Cadillac kiss.

When Betty and Don return from Rome, Carla informs them that Sally freaked out on Bobby after he teased her for kissing Ernie. Betty sits down with Sally and, in one of her few moments of mature, sensitive parenting that we’ve seen on-screen, Betty tells Sally what is special about kissing. It’s where you go from a stranger to knowing someone, she says. Every kiss after is a shadow of that first kiss. A lovely explanation to be sure, but she also wedged in “You don’t kiss boys; boys kiss you.” Third-wave feminism, come wash this silliness away!

Of course, eventually Betty wakes up in her Ossining home and realizes that not even Don’s trinket – a sparkling mini-Colosseum for her charm bracelet – will keep the magic intact. They pretended to be lovers on an international tryst, but now it’s back to baby Gene and late nights of not knowing where Don is, with only wafts of cigarette smoke and red wine to keep her company.

“The Souvenir” also brought us plenty of Pete Campbell. This episode didn’t do much to obviously further any larger plot – it was more like a drift of scenes, humid and charged with secrecy. Like the August air in New York, it lulled the viewer into some sort of stasis that had more to it than it maybe first appeared. Strange things can happen during a heat wave, when the city is half emptied out.

Pete, bored with his “Davey and Goliath” cartoons while the wife is away, stumbles upon a sobbing au pair trying to stuff a stained dress down a garbage chute. As soon as Pete said he could help, ladies everywhere shuddered. Everyone knows this breed of guy – there are no real favors in Pete’s world; if he does something for you, you owe him. So it was no big surprise to see Pete pressure Gudrun into what was likely sex. (Something tells me Pete didn’t have a crisis of conscience right after that first kiss.)

Only Pete could figure out a way to subtly blame his wife for his affair. “I don’t want you to go away without me anymore,” he says to her over dinner. In one way, his request makes sense. Pete recognizes that he simply doesn’t have the strength or control to behave himself when she’s gone. On the other hand, it isn’t exactly taking responsibility for your behaviors or actions. In fact, when Ed Lawrence, the au pair’s employer, takes Pete to task for upsetting Gudrun, the conversation between the two neighbors barely has more tension to it than if Lawrence was telling Pete he was tired of his dog barking all night. It’s just one of those things about apartment living, ho hum – sometimes your neighbor manipulates your au pair into sex. What a hassle!

This episode’s best scene was easily the moment when Pete brings in the Bonwit Teller dress for exchange. What a stroke of brilliance to make Joan the manager. Of course, she being the ace detective she is, knows Pete’s lying through his teeth about this dress. Size 10? Trudy? No way … but Joan makes things easy on him and gives him a brand new one. Her mentioning that Greg would be possibly pursuing psychiatry was appalling. That is a guy you don't want anywhere near your mental health.

Seeing Joan was something like seeing a ghost. Her complete absence from the last episode was a smart move. Already her identity has mutated – her hair and makeup were just different enough to conjure the feeling of time passing in the way that carries us away from the memories of people we once saw every day. “This never happened,” she says to Pete, and a tacit agreement seems to pass between them. Pete will also keep her secret, but her comment carried little shivers of something else. It’s almost like Joan herself never happened — she’s already so far away from us.

That kind of sensation is at the fulcrum of “Mad Men.” One day someone can seem so familiar to us; the next day so strange. Betty and Don, for instance, have this flow between them in so many ways -- from Rome to Ossining -- and then there’s the great continuum of the self. As much as we can’t fully know our partners; our own selves carry vast reservoirs of mystery as well. There are certain pools of depth we may never discover in ourselves, but they are there, waiting to be found out.

— Margaret Wappler

Photo: Carin Baer

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