(S P O I L E R S)
In which there’s not gonna be a cake. Am I the only one who knows that?
“My God, the suburbs! They encircled the city’s boundaries like enemy territory, and we thought of them as a loss of privacy, a cesspool of conformity and a life of indescribable dreariness in some split-level village where the place-name appeared in the New York Times only when some bored housewife blew off her head with a shotgun” —John Cheever, Esquire, July 1960.
It should probably come as no surprise that John Cheever, the Ovid of Ossining, the Chekhov of the suburbs, made a brief cameo appearance in my Sophomore English curriculum. Aside from being one of the most accomplished, lauded, and prolific short story authors in modern American literature, he also served as an early litmus test/object lesson for my students. Midway through the Catcher in the Rye unit that kicked off the year, I supplemented the weekly Salinger reading with Cheever’s devastating short tale “The Swimmer”, ten or so pages (depending on the format) of the most expertly constructed, mournfully poetic chronicling of one man’s annihilation of his life that you could imagine. If you haven’t read “The Swimmer”, stop right now and go do so. No, really. It’s fantastic. (Most of my former students in the audience are keeled over laughing right now.)
Okay, you’re back? Cool. So yes, the story of Ned Merrill and the steady, brutal stripping away of all his illusions is, quite possibly, one of the saddest works of American short fiction in the canon. Remove yourself a bit from the pure plot mechanics and you’ll also see that Cheever was at the height of his stylistic powers with “The Swimmer.” The famed opening line (“It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying “I drank too much last night.”) could be a summary of his entire literary career, and of a certain strain of booze-soaked 20th century American fiction that still holds many readers in its sway (check out Olivia Laing’s fascinating The Trip to Echo Spring for a trenchant analysis of the alcoholism that joined the careers of Cheever, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, Tennessee Williams, and John Berryman.) And the way that Cheever skillfully weaves together the visual symbolism of the story, how subtle hints of inexplicably changing weather methodically build toward the desolate late autumn landscape of Ned’s soul, leaves the reader shaken and dazed when he finally ends up at the door of his abandoned homestead.
I wanted the students to see that if you broke down even a story this short into its individual parts, you’d find that months and months of work could go into crafting such a sleekly designed misery machine. So we’d usually spend almost an entire class period tearing apart “The Swimmer”, looking for the foreshadowing strewn throughout, picking up on the subtle changes in Ned’s physical strength, charting the hints of doom that Cheever increasingly places in the neighbors’ mouths at each successive stop in Ned’s voyage along the Lucinda river. I also used this tack for the first two pages of The Great Gatsby, which for my money are two of the greatest pages in literature, so densely packed with allusions and foreshadowing, the story of Nick Carraway’s life in miniature.
It probably shouldn’t surprise you that a lot of the Sophomores were…um…not very enamored of these days of granular analysis. And I got it: when you’re 16 years old, spending 45 minutes picking apart a story about an aging alcoholic in 1964 (or an enigmatic single guy in 1922) isn’t exactly what you dream about at night. Rest assured former Sophomores: when I first read “The Swimmer” during my Junior year of college, I was mildly befuddled too. My ultimate hope was that some unfamiliar heavy lifting so early in the year would be good training for the analysis that they’d be required to pursue for the rest of the year (and for the rest of their academic careers.) Many a Sophomore was probably just confused about why we were spending so much time talking about drunks.
(A good chunk of the students I knew over the years thought that I was a major stoner, mainly because I love psychedelic music. One or two privately swore that I was on LSD. I later learned that one in particular thought that I was a major cokehead…because sometimes I rubbed my nose a lot…due to my seasonal allergies. All of this, despite the fact that I was one of the most straight edge adults in the building, something I professed to them on several occasions. Nevertheless, these bits of misguided speculation actually endeared me to a certain segment of those students. Somehow, I had become the adult Ferris Bueller. Oh well, someone has to be the righteous dude.)
After the sprawling plot threads of Mad Men’s first two episodes, “Marriage of Figaro” serves as a much more streamlined affair, focusing mainly on the dichotomy of Don’s home and work life. And it’s haunted by the ghost of John Cheever (it’s no coincidence that the Drapers home is smack dab in the middle of Ossining, NY.) Although years of biographical study have shown Cheever’s opinion of suburban life to be more shaded than he often let on, his famous Esquire quote (featured at the beginning of this essay) on the banality of that life still holds much wickedly humorous weight and power. And it encapsulates the general state of malaise that Don (and, in some ways, Betty) feels during Sally’s birthday party, as he slowly realizes just how rotten this dream life really is.
(In my final year of teaching, I dove deeper into Cheever’s biography than I had previously, bringing to light how his deeply repressed homosexuality only added to the existential split in all aspects of his life. As part of this exploration, I read the Esquire quote to the students, which I followed with a gleeful and ironic “HA!” Their blank stares were amusing. Somehow I hadn’t put two and two together: many of these students lived in the Columbus versions of Ossining. It was the only life that they really knew. We’ll touch on this in more depth in the essay for Episode 4.)
There’s a gorgeous moment early in the episode when Rachel Menken concludes her tour of the department store by taking Don to her favorite spot: the roof (much like he repackaged his seemingly inferior self for greater mass appeal, he’s also trying to repackage Menken’s for a wider audience.) There, with the picturesque Manhattan skyline as a backdrop, Don kisses her for the first time. It’s another example of how the show deftly plays off of audience expectations built by decades of movie lore. The way the shots are composed and the soft lighting are straight out of a classic romantic drama, and Don again ably plays the role of the suave Cary Grant figure. (It’s also notable that Rachel tells him that her mother died in childbirth, as we’ll soon know that Don’s prostitute mother also died as he was born; the two outsiders find yet another bond.) When they join together, it’s a downright exhilarating experience. It’s also Don starting on his third romantic interest. And when, in a moment of admirable restraint, he tells her that he’s married, Rachel’s rebuke knocks the breath out of him. Even his attempt at drawing her back to him, in which he tells he that he knew what he wanted from the moment she stormed out of their first meeting, is a pure fantasy; as Rachel reminds him, he stormed out of the meeting. Once again, Don is pitching himself with an idealized version of reality.
(We’ll talk more about this as the season rolls on, but this bit of business is a reminder of the multi-faceted power of Mad Men’s formal and narrative aesthetic. The show is both a gorgeous, seductive representation of refined romantic cool and a complete deconstruction of that same state of mind. The rooftop scene makes you swoon while also reminding you of just how amoral Don can be. Just as Henry Hill’s ascension through the mob in Goodfellas is both a thrilling flight of fancy and a brutal indictment of the lifestyle, so too is Don Draper’s journey both exceedingly cool and exceedingly repulsive.)
After this aborted romantic interlude, Don’s home life can only be a disappointment to him. The day of Sally’s birthday party begins with a few tender moments between father and daughter, but once the guests arrive, the rot begins to set in. The neighborhood men are generally crass and sexist (Carlton Parker, husband of Betty’s pal Francine, marks his series debut by smarmily hitting on Helen Bishop minutes after she arrives at the party.) And the women are even worse, as they spend most of their time cattily tearing into Helen, both before and during her arrival. When they ask her why she walks around the neighborhood at night, it’s like they’re asking why she has a third arm.
Much like Midge Daniels, Helen Bishop is another Mad Men character who, though she only appears in five episodes, makes the viewer yearn for more of her presence. Darby Stanchfield ably captures the full range of Helen’s proto-feminist leanings, including a charged sex appeal that’s embedded in her confidence. In her rebuke of Carlton’s advances, her sarcasm is so icy and withering that she almost makes it seem like she’s serious (the second time in this episode that a female outsider puts a man in his place.) When she joins Don on the back porch, two outcasts are once again joined together. “Interesting crowd in there” she entreats him; his reply (“same crowd out here”) reflects the tableau from several scenes hence, when the kids playing house parrot their parents’ nasty arguments (proving that the adults truly are just kids with more money.) For a moment, the audience is led to believe that Don is about to plow through his fourth woman (as are Betty’s friends), but he’s dispatched to get the birthday cake. And these two reflective loners never have a romantic moment.
It’s the birthday cake appointment that brings Don full circle, both in terms of his plot arc and his life. For the beginning of “Marriage of Figaro” is the first time that we hear the two words that will forever change the course of Mad Men and lend it a power far beyond that of a ‘60s corporate procedural: Dick Whitman. At this point, the train passenger who seemingly mistakes Don for his old Army buddy Dick seems like a throwaway moment. But in retrospect, it’s the first look at the real man behind the armor of Don Draper. And with that knowledge in mind, the rest of the episode also gains in power, as we realize that much of what we see on the homestead is Dick looking through Don’s eyes with mounting disappointment. As he records the party with his 8mm camera, the grainy recorded images switch from kids running through the house to adults caught in slightly awkward moments (including Carlton and Francine after she rebuffs him.) Don as naughty voyeur is a humorous sight, but when he comes upon Joyce and Andy locked in a clandestine kiss, he’s reminded of his clinch with Rachel from the previous night…and that Joyce and Andy are seemingly the only couple at the party who are genuinely still in love.
After his brief meeting with Helen, a depressed Don picks up the cake, but then drives past his house on the way home. Eventually, we find him late at night, parked at a railroad crossing (in another great crossfade, pictured at the beginning of this article, of Betty leaning forward to cut Helen’s Sara Lee cake as Don, in his car, wakes up. The All-American couple are as close as a kiss, yet miles away from each other.) As he balefully stares into the distance, a passing train is reflected in the car window. At season’s end, we’ll see the tragic moment when Dick Whitman fully committed to being Don Draper, in which he stayed on the train as the body of the real Don was presented to his family as Dick. For now, Don manages to salvage his reputation with the kids by bringing a dog home for them (much to Betty’s chagrin.) But just as the trains keep on running, so too does the momentum of his past and the distorted flow of his present. And they can only be ultimately headed for a collision.
A few random notes to close:
*The first shot of the episode is of the groundbreaking Doyle Dane Bernbach advertising campaign for the Volkswagon Beetle, in this case the ad calling it a lemon. It marked the beginning of counterintuitive marketing, a concept that’s integral to the modern advertising industry’s widespread co-option of irony. The Sterling Cooper brass hates the campaign, but once again Pete has a preternatural understanding of its effectiveness. It’s notable too that during Sally’s party, the men covertly insult Helen by ragging on her choice of a VW Bug as her car, noting that the lack of a backseat means that she’ll have to pick up a midget hitchhiker to get some action. Classy.
*In my Sophomore curriculum, this episode coincided with the chapter of Great Gatsby featuring Nick’s first visit to the wild bacchanal of Gatsby’s famed party. Most of the students picked up on the parallels between Gatsby’s shindig and Sally’s birthday party: the glossy exterior, the slight sense of confusion, the absent host, the heart of darkness that’s slowly revealed as the part wears on.
*This is also the first episode in which Don’s coworkers take note of his mysterious charisma and charm. Pete is jealous that during another botched meeting with Rachel Menken, Don saves the day by flirting with her. And when he wonders how Don does it, Harry notes that no one knows anything about him, that for all they know, Don could be Batman. Let’s see…Bruce Wayne….dual identity….early childhood trauma of losing parents…hmmm….
*Mad Men’s humor is often underappreciated, but this episode makes great use of the lighter side of these characters. In particular, there’s a great running bit about the Chinese couple planted in Pete’s office as a practical joke, which ends with Don escorting Rachel to the elevator only to be met by a chicken. “New junior executive” Don dryly quips.
*And finally, in the “Ladies Room” essay, I completely forgot to mention my favorite Plath line, from her poetic patriarchal takedown “Daddy”: “Every woman adores a fascist.” I once had a graduating senior pay tribute to our Bell Jar time together by putting this quote on her senior yearbook page. And boy, does the line serve as fertile ground for the male-female relationships throughout the run of Mad Men.