(S P O I L E R S)
In which, to quote the Godfather of Soul, it’s a man’s man’s man’s world…
In my four years of teaching Sophomore English, I always made a concerted effort to include works both by female authors and which dealt with women’s perspectives. In the spring, we would read a packet of stories by Margaret Atwood, Ann Beattie, and Flannery O’Connor (who, granted, was more concerned with matters of spiritual redemption than with femininity…but you get the point). Almost all of the books we studies focused in some way on the tyranny of patriarchal expectations for women. But the crown jewel of my efforts to feature a feminine (and feminist) perspective was undoubtedly our annual fall reading of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.
A few of my former students, if they’re reading this, have undoubtedly just done a spit take…or at least guffawed a bit. After all, The Bell Jar unit was mildly notorious for how much some students hated it. I actually incorporated my joking summary of the unit into my Parents’ Night patter at the beginning of the year. It went something like this:
“We’ll be reading The Bell Jar. Most of the guys usually hate it, because it’s all about being a young woman. Most of the girls love the first part of the book, because they see parallels to their own lives in Esther Greenwood’s disillusionment with the college acceptance/academic success process. Then they hate the rest of the book because they can’t understand why Esther can’t just take some meds for her depression. It’s a fun experience, even though it’s challenging. And yes, Mrs. Wilson, I would love for you to be my sugar mama and finance my failed writing career.”
(Okay, so it wasn’t always that rehearsed. And maybe I didn’t say that last part. Although, at my final Parents’ Night in the fall of 2014, I did slick back my hair and wore my suit and tie for the first time in my career. I figured that the parents might think I was the suavest motherfucker in the joint. Most of them probably just thought “Oh look, the goofball is trying to dress up. How amusing!” One of my fellow teachers approached me that night and told me that she and a few others wanted to know if I was all decked out because I had lost a bet.)
For four years, The Bell Jar was a staple in my classroom, and over time I grew to appreciate it more and more. True, it probably suffered a bit in class because it directly followed our Catcher in the Rye unit (I was going for a study of the teenage self in that first trimester, an attempt to make the academic, analytic medicine go down with a spoonful of relatable sugar). And yes, each year a good chunk of students absolutely hated reading about Esther’s descent into her personal darkness; a popular refrain was “can’t she just get over it?” But I gradually gained a deeper admiration for Plath’s work because it was oftentimes such a difficult journey.
And, as the introductory essay to our version of the book noted, Plath had a wicked sense of humor. Subtle, yes. But wicked nonetheless. Her withering descriptions of some of her fellow interns at the magazine are like expertly trained penknives launched en masse. And her account of Buddy Willard’s attempt to seduce her by dropping his drawers (“Esther, have you ever seen a man?”) is a hilarious takedown of macho bravado.
(At this point, you might be thinking “So, we are getting to Mad Men, right? ‘Cause I gotta go check Twitter here sometime soon.” Don’t worry, we’re getting there.)
But the primary lesson that I wanted students to take away from Plathworld (we also read her legendary poems “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy”) was more historical than literary. Empathy was always a huge underlying thread in all my teaching (perhaps nowhere more so than in my Literature and Film unit on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the inspiration for sci-fi classic Blade Runner), and with The Bell Jar I wanted the Sophomores to realize just how unfair and repressive the pre-women’s lib climate was for the ladies of that era. This world was totally alien to most of my students, so if any of them made that empathic leap back into 1953, I considered it to be a major victory. And at the very least, I hoped that it would be an important history lesson, and a precursor to larger discussions that we would have just a month or so later. It was The Bell Jar as Chekhov’s gun.
(A side note…and then, I promise, we’ll get into Mad Men territory: during my ten year teaching career, some of my favorite moments were those in which I managed to sprinkle in some cultural reference or terminology that would possibly enrich the students’ lives beyond the main academic structure. My pride and joy was Chekhov’s Gun, Anton Chekhov’s classic axiom stating that if a gun is hanging on the wall in the first chapter, it must go off in the second or third. There were a lot of slightly arcane aspects of my classes that most students, outside of the true believers, filed under Neff is a Crazy Old Man. But Chekhov’s Gun stuck with a great number of them. We’ll come back to it when Pete Campbell strikes a blow against emasculation in Season 1’s “Red in the Face.”)
And “Ladies Room”, the second episode of Mad Men’s maiden voyage and the first proper post-pilot chapter, was the firing of that gun. There’s one timeless question that Don keeps repeating throughout this episode: what do women want? But maybe the question that’s more apt here is “How are women built?” Even though Betty’s unconscious yearnings (and Don’s inability to know them) is the primary focus of the feminine side of the plot, most of the major female characters must deal, in one way or another, with society’s aforementioned patriarchal expectations and how to live up to them.
When Mona Sterling accompanies Betty to the ladies room (the literal version) during their dinner with Roger and Don, she has to help her reapply her lipstick when Betty’s hands start their nervous convulsions. The only conciliatory words Mona can muster are “Look at those lips. Bet it’s not hard for you to hold onto a man like that.” When Betty replies by pouring out her frustrations as a mother, and then drops the key info that her mother died three months prior, Mona’s blank stare clearly establishes that this is territory that good wives don’t discuss…or think about.
It’s nice bit of foreshadowing for the resolution of Peggy’s arc for this episode. Still smitten by her romantic tryst with Pete, she must face an office without him (he’s in Niagara Falls on his honeymoon) and filled with the first extended signs of the rampant sexism and objectification that are part and parcel of a secretary’s existence at Sterling Cooper (and probably in most other 1960-era offices.) Joan, ever the alpha female of the secretary pool, tries to teach her a valuable lesson by exploiting their sexuality to manipulate Ken, Harry, and Dale into buying them lunch (as Ken lewdly notes “Come on, 3 on 2. I know you all like being outnumbered”, which is a sly reversal of the previous scene, where he’s outnumbered by Paul, Harry, and Dale as they strip his shirt off, hold him down on the desk and spray him with Right Guard, Dale chiming in with the equally risible line “Just pretend it’s prom night and you’re the girl.”) But Peggy’s lasting memory of the meal is Ken’s crass come-on (“We could go to the zoo. See what the animals are up to.” Boy, Ken Cosgrove was a real jackass in these early episodes. It’s a bit shocking seeing him again at this stage, as he clearly changes a lot once he’s married. And learns to tapdance while on speed…I mean, B12.) Paul’s articulate and gentlemanly nature when he gives her a lunchtime tour of the office the next day seems to present her with an antidote to all the leering, but when he makes a crude pass at her the next day, it shows that he just has a more refined sense of sexism (after he previously derided the boys as “Hitler youth” and “positively cro-magnon.”)
It all builds up to a climactic slo-mo montage of seemingly all the men in the office walking past Peggy’s desk and ogling her, set to The Andrews Sisters’ “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” The lyrics to the song, which depict a woman pining for a distant lover, serve both as ironic commentary on the crude male behavior on display and reminder of Peggy’s feelings for the absent Pete. She’s so distraught that she retreats to the ladies room (again, the literal one) to cry. But then, a major turning point happens. Earlier in the episode, Peggy sees another secretary breaking down in front of the ladies room mirror, but when she tries to console her, Joan draws her away. Now, when she looks into that same mirror, while seeing another secretary crying off to the side, she takes a moment and stares at herself. And then, in a fantastic bit of subtle acting by Elisabeth Moss (is it any wonder why she and Jon Hamm are so good in their scenes together?), Peggy consciously hardens her features, adjusts her scarf, and leaves the room (as The Andrews Sisters croon “I’m aware that my heart is a sad affair/There’s much disillusion there, but I can dream, can’t I?”) Watching this brief scene now is both instructive and mildly tragic. For here is the moment that Peggy Olson: Good Girl from Brooklyn begins her journey toward becoming the often cold and pragmatic career woman that she is now. It’s not exactly innocence lost (there are hints in the first season that Peggy already has a submerged tough side), but it’s the only way that she can survive in the Sterling Cooper slaughterhouse. She has to learn what Mona infers to Betty at episode’s beginning: that in this mileu, big girls don’t cry.
And speaking of characters whose previous actions are now imbued with a retrospective sense of sadness and loss, “Ladies Room” marks the proper introduction of Betty Draper…and of January Jones, an actress/character combo that would come to be one of the most divisive in the show’s history. As seasons progressed, Betty (much like Peggy) became a much colder figure, one often hated by fans and critics alike. And Jones followed right along in the path of critical opprobrium. Speculation has run rampant: that she’s disliked by the other cast members, that she’s somewhat of a diva, that her sudden pregnancy before the shooting of Season 5 led to Matt Weiner angrily reducing her role and creating the storyline in which Betty’s weight balloons precipitously, that she’s increasingly been written as an ice princess because of a combination of all of these factors.
But watching Jones again in “Ladies Room”, you’re reminded of how incredibly sympathetic Betty was in Season 1. Like Don, she’s living such an idealized existence that her anxiety attacks seem like an unwarranted curse sent down from above. Subconsciously, she understands that something is profoundly wrong with her life, but she can’t come to terms with it. Spotting divorced mother Helen Bishop (another great short term Mad Men character) moving in down the street sets off a panic attack that causes Betty to wreck her car. In a stunning bit of editing, the ensuing visuals do all the talking here, as her mournful face crossfades into Don and Midge getting it on in New York (pictured at the top of this essay.) After their dinner with the Sterlings, when Don slyly rebuffs her questions about his childhood, she handles it with flirtatious aplomb. But then the scene cuts to her sitting wide awake in bed later that night, gently rolling over to her sleeping husband and gazing at his head as she asks “Who’s in there?” (once again, the visuals speak for themselves, as Don’s head crossfades into an opaque office window.) Even when she finally enters therapy with Dr. Wayne, her first responses to him (about psychiatry being like a mechanic looking under a car’s hood, and how she was taught that talking about oneself was bad manners) are rote reflections of Don’s earlier pronouncements on the matter. There’ll be much more to discuss about Betty as Season 1 rolls on.
But in the end, we return to Don’s central question: what do women want? On the surface, he’s angling at the best direction for Sterling Cooper’s new Right Guard account. But for the second episode in a row, we see that he’s once again subconsciously using a prospective ad campaign to answer a burning personal question. “Ladies Room” really hammers home the irony of this tactic, as Don once again rails against the quack nature of psychoanalysis (which, granted, was still being met with disbelief in some swaths of society), especially as it applies to a possible balm for Betty’s bruised psyche. When he asks the big question of the copywriters, it’s an amusing moment, as they’re clearly befuddled by where their boss is going. But it’s also mildly heartbreaking, once again due to Jon Hamm’s ability to play subtle moments so beautifully. His dialogue in this moment is:
“No. Let’s bring it down to Earth. You think they want a cowboy? He’s quiet and strong. He always brings the cattle home safe. You watch TV. What if they want something else? Inside some mysterious wish that we’re ignoring.”
As he utters that final sentence, there’s an ever so slight crack in his voice, a mild glazing of his eyes, a hesitation in his physicality. This scene comes the morning after Betty confesses the car crash and her general state of confusion to Don, and the script and Hamm’s acting chops make it clear that he’s rattled, that like Betty, he also subconsciously realizes that something is wrong with his marriage. As evidenced in the scene where Don finally concedes to Betty’s desire for therapy, they do both genuinely love each other. But there’s so much pre-existing emotional baggage that both are carrying on a personal and societal level; they’re like the high school quarterback and the star cheerleader, pushed together by society’s desire for propagation of genetic perfection.
But the emotional armor that is Don Draper is much tougher business. When he asks Roger the big question, both men end up agreeing that there’s no room to complain when they all have it so good (it’s notable that Sterline flat out denies that his daughter is in therapy, directly contrasting what he revealed to the Drapers in a slightly soused haze at dinner.) And when he finally comes up with an answer after sleeping with Midge (while Betty is at her therapy session!), it’s completely self-serving. As he opines to his mistress: “What do women want? Any excuse to get closer.” Midge’s response (“There’s that ego that people pay to see”) is perfectly Midge-like, both admiring and a pointed jab at Don’s hypermasculinity. Don Draper and his big strong brain have once again simultaneously saved the day in the boardroom and the bedroom. But also once again, that victory is fleeting at best.
A few random notes to wrap things up:
*This episode marks the series debut of the great Robert Morse as Bert Cooper. His first scene is a perfect encapsulation of his character: he dryly chides the boys for goofing around in Don’s office and then shills for the prospective Nixon campaign, but as he walks away we also share Don’s glimpse of Cooper’s sockless feet. Morse brings a deep connection to the ‘60s corporate culture to the role, having played the rags to riches lead role in the 1967 film version of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
*I spoke earlier about the expertly constructed crossfades that lend so much power to the episode’s visual storytelling. Another great moment of editing comes at the conclusion of Don’s first tryst with Midge (in her bohemian studio), when the scene cuts to a shot of Betty plopping fish sticks (the epitome of staid ‘60s home cuisine) down on the kids’ dinner plates. FORM=CONTENT….sorry former students, had to get that in.
*In the essay for “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (which, by the way, is also the song that plays on the carousel during the climactic scene of Catcher in the Rye, the one that triggers Holden Caulfield’s cathartic breakdown), I mentioned how the soundtrack choices for Mad Men are uniformly excellent. This episode marks one of the only times in the show’s run that a non-period specific song is used: The Cardigans’ “Great Divide”, which plays over the end credits. It sounds a bit odd, but the lyrics (with the mention of “the monster growing in our heads” and “as long as we remember/there’s something to forget”) are a tremendous contextual summation of all that “Ladies Room” sets up about these people.