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'Mad Men': What's in a name?

October 26, 2009 |  9:51 am

Donbetty

It’s not a question you expect to be asking your partner after several years of shared life, but yet, there in the dull lights of their Colonial-style kitchen, where Don and Betty have sat eating countless meals, Betty found herself inquiring with genuine curiosity.

“What's your name?”

Not “When will you be home tonight?” “Can you talk to Sally?” or “Chicken salad or Swedish meatballs?” but simply, “What's your name?” As if they had met five minutes ago. In some ways, introductions were apropos. Betty, meet Dick Whitman, son of a dead prostitute and half-brother of suicide Adam. Dick changed into Don but he’ll always be a blood-deep hobo, a psychic gypsy.

It’s a wonder, what with Suzanne waiting in the car, that Don didn’t bolt right then, plunging headlong into a life of wandering with no ties to anyone, carrying Suzanne along as long as she could stand it, but maybe eventually landing out in California or wherever he could carve out a new life. It was the eve of Halloween -- a time for masks, discarded or new.

In Episode 11, “The Gypsy and the Hobo,” Betty finally confronted Don about the box of secrets she found last week. Given the dedication to slow-burn plotting that “Mad Men” tends to stand by, it was surprising to see this trump card played so quickly after its introduction.

Then again, no matter how much of a calculating princess Betty may be, she’s not the kind to sit on information for too long -- and she recognized her lack of options. The family lawyer barely batted an eye at the news that Don has led a secret life. His parting words of advice for Betty were for her to “go home and give it a try.” Words he’d tell his own daughter, mind you.

Roger Sterling also had a busy week managing his own blasts from the past. Bringing in Annabelle Mathis, a seasoned business maven who wants Sterling-Cooper to turn the tides against her father’s pony-gristing dog food company, allowed us to see more sides of Roger. He’s not just the wise-cracking, embittered, on-his-way-out perma-cad -- he’s the wise-cracking, embittered, on-his-way-out perma-cad who once had his heart smashed to pieces.

He met his one-time-Parisian-adventurer for a swank, French dinner but the set-up was obvious: Get Annabelle drunk and savor her frustration when he rejects her advances. The next day, after the focus group participants balked at their dogs lapping up the horsey chow and Don recommended ditching the company name, the two had it out after scattering the secretaries from the break room. Even after all these years, Roger wanted to wound the one who had so easily wounded him.

Quick aside: When Smitty naively wondered at the phenomenon of dog owners actually describing themselves when describing their pets, Don’s smart-alecky counter line was priceless. “Is this your first group?” Don sneered. That’ll teach our favorite ad-boho to silence the novice chatter next time.

Whatever inflictions Roger wanted to beset on Annabelle, he doesn’t feel the same about Joan. If anything, Joan’s a kindred spirit, a fellow survivor he wants to help usher through a dark passage in her life. Their phone banter was nicely played -- touched with significance but not overdone.

This episode was especially successful for weaving together three storylines that each felt substantial on its own. At times, “Mad Men” can seem too piecemeal or drifty, even as it doles out scenes of vivid poeticism, but in this episode, the three stories -- Joan and Greg, Betty and Don, Roger and Annabelle -- had their own rich tension.

In Joan’s world, we got another batch of troubled Morse code from the trenches of her dour marriage to the rapist-cum-failed-surgeon whom we love to hate. After Joan gave him sterling advice on how to interview, he responded curtly: “This isn’t a beauty pageant.” Greg is prepared to undercut her at every turn -- whether that’s twisting her feminine strength into some throwaway or making major life decisions like joining the Army without discussing it with her.

How much more will Joan take? We finally see her snap, if only temporarily, and smash a vase against the clod’s head. As he slunk into the room the next scene, no one was sure whether he’d have roses or a vase of his own. Instead, he had news about a life in the Army where they might go to West Germany or Vietnam -- you know, if that whole thing is still going on after his training.

Will Joan find herself stationed somewhere outside Saigon, tying tourniquets with her teeth, administering sage comfort to the dying mama’s boys on the line? Even Kinsey would be impressed with that.

For us, she’ll always be traipsing around Manhattan, in wool dresses with her hair upswept, sizing up the competition in the madding crowd.

“The Gypsy and the Hobo” was a reiteration of one of the guideposts of “Mad Men” -- that while the show is ostensibly about men, it’s the women who are the most formidable and deep characters. We all know Joan is a pistol not to be toyed with, but even Annabel handled her dose of karma with more dignity than most. Suzanne, who finally abandoned the car for a lonely walk home lugging her suitcase, would have had every justification to lash out at Don, if only for spoiling her fantasy, but she takes his call and tearfully asks if he’s OK. It turns out Suzanne isn’t going to go psycho on Don. Is it wrong that I’m a little disappointed?

For all their work, it was still Betty who had one of her best showcases yet, subtle though it was. As Don is leaking out the details of his past sordid life, looking alternately like a scared child and a grizzled, foolish man, Betty is practical in her reserve and pointed critiques but not uncaring. Her statement that Don lied to her every day is undeniably true, but when she heard about Adam, how he killed himself at least in part because Don would not acknowledge him, her compassion comes through. She told him that she was sorry and she gently, tentatively rubbed his back. In many ways, it was the best mothering we’ve seen Betty ever give. It was a familial love, pure and simple -- the kind that dictates that no matter what your mother, daughter, son or father does to disappoint you, that you will love them unconditionally.

-- Margaret Wappler

Related stories:

Episode 10: The boxes that bind

Episode 9: Frisky business

Episode 8: 'The Souvenir'


Photo: Don and Betty sort through the box. Credit: Carin Baer

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