(S P O I L E R S)
In which she wanted me to be beautiful so I could find a man. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Just as long form television dramas sometimes pause at the ¾ mark of their season, doubling back a bit on old themes and motifs in preparation for the home stretch, so too did my trimester of Mad Men/Great Gatsby/In the Lake of the Woods also seem to slow down a bit around the time that we watched “Shoot.” During the final class period of each year, I always asked the Sophomores to choose their favorite and least favorite part of the past eight months. The most popular answers for the latter were The Bell Jar (surprise, surprise), the Raymond Carver documentary To Write and Keep Kind that we watched before reading Short Cuts (this one still boggles my mind, as it’s a fairly inoffensive hour-long film)…and writing the second trimester Mad Men essays. We’re talking some 100% all-natural loathing of those essays here. And I understood their frustration. Part of the challenge of those assignments was to examine changing materials through the same basic lens week after week; the repetitive nature and all of its inherent emotional fluctuations was a big chunk of the lesson. And hey, I had to grade them all each week, which wasn’t always necessarily fun. (Okay, the only real fun I had in grading them was the awesome insights of the true believers. And the improvement of people that were working really hard.) But huge life lesson everyone: rewarding work doesn’t necessarily have to always be fun. (Agh, I’m slipping back into teacher speechifying mode. Sorry.)
And to be fair, the other reason why things started to slow down was just as often In the Lake of the Woods. Tim O’Brien’s book is sort of an odd bird in the annals of my teaching career. When I first taught it, most students loved it. I had several who claimed to never read books race to finish it before the rest of the class. But in four years of teaching it at the Sophomore level, its track record was somewhat dicier. To this day, I still know survivors of the Sophomore experience who adore the book. But there are also probably former students of mine who still refer to it as “that stupid book about the guy and his missing wife.” And don’t get me wrong: for as tremendous as the book is, it’s also incredibly depressing. Powerful, yet very very depressing. Stick your head in the oven depressing. I always figured that watching Mad Men each week would at least provide a dose of levity and humor to Woods’s bleak voyage through the heart of darkness. Of course, that might’ve discounted the students who thought that the show was also unremittingly bleak. And did I mention that we read this book during the middle of January in Columbus, Ohio, a time and place fairly conducive to giving up most hope for humanity?
(I won’t go into it much here, if for no other reason than you, my dear reader, probably want to get to more discussion of “Shoot”, but I firmly believe that some of the growing disenchantment with Woods was also due to that much discussed and often true millennial dislike of deeply challenging subject matter. And by that, I mean literature that doesn’t work overtime to make readers feel better about themselves, or reconfirm what they already know. It sounds cliched, but each year of teaching seemed to bring with it more and more students who were increasingly resistant to opposing or unfamiliar points of view. I could be sardonic and say “Thanks parents for instilling a sense of hyper-inflated ego in your offspring.” I could be self-deprecating and say that I’m starting to sound like Roger Sterling in “Red in the Face.” I could also note that a great of deal of my former students are pretty awesome thinkers and human beings. Or I could just shut up and say maybe we’ll get back to this point later.)
So smack dab in the middle of this often dead period of the class lay “Shoot.” Much like “Red in the Face”, it follows an emotionally draining episode with something more self-contained, though no less instructive. And it’s appropriate that this episode is directed by Paul Feig, who would go on to helm Bridesmaids, The Heat, and the upcoming female-centric Ghostbusters reboot. For in large part, “Shoot” deals, once again, with the crushing expectations that society foists upon women, and the residual damage those expectations perpetuate.
Throughout Season 1, we’ve seen a steady recounting of the frustrations that plague Betty’s life. “Shoot” provides us with a quietly devastating encapsulation of them. For the first time, the modeling career that she gave up for domestic life with Don is brought into sharp focus, her stories of shoots in Italy filled with a sense of dreamy elation, her delight at being given a second chance a rare marker of true happiness for her. But even this moment of triumph is marred by the harsh realities of her personal and social standing. Jim Hobart may flatter Betty by calling her “Grace Kelly” and offering her a gig in McCann Erickson’s Coke campaign, but he’s merely using her as a pawn to lure Don to his agency.
The modeling job itself may be an ego booster for Betty, but it’s also a reinforcement of society’s cage, an acid observation on women’s proscribed roles. Mad Men has always been a show that deconstructs the seductive allure of advertising through the seductive allure of its own form. The show’s lush cinematography, production design, and costuming provide such decadent pleasure for the viewer that it can easy to forget how reflexive these features can be. Witness the beginning, middle, and end of “Shoot.” The opening scene depicts an edenic summer tableau, with a radiant Betty trimming the hedges, Sally and Bobby playing with their dog, and their next door neighbor benignly waving to them as he releases his pet pigeons. But by episode’s end, we’ve seen the neighbor threaten to shoot the Draper’s dog after she attacks one of the pigeons, and a once again radiant Betty returning to the yard to fire at those pigeons with an air rifle (as much the move of a protective lioness as a symbolic lashing out at another seemingly free being who must always return to their cage.) The Coke photoshoot is almost a sick, Technicolor mockery of these two scenes, gorgeous, yet completely artificial (there’s a bit of a nod to the doomed symbolism of the McCann shoot in the final scene of the Season 5 finale.) Betty seems to move between worlds in this episode, but she must always portray the perfect mother and housewife no matter what. Even during her session with Dr. Wayne, she admits that her mother only wanted her to be beautiful to ensure her marital prospects, and viewed her modeling career as the equivalent of prostitution (shades of Pete and his father in “New Amsterdam.”)
Don’s role in Betty’s unhappiness is, for once, somewhat restrained. There’s a sense of tragedy in how his courtship of her led to her giving up something she loved, but there’s also an old school sweetness in a lowly fur company copywriter successfully wooing a gorgeous model. He actually supports her choice to model for McCann Erickson, and Jim Hobart’s manipulative attempt to seal the deal by sending him proofs of Betty’s shoot so offends him that he finally turns him down (although that’s a complex scene; more on it in a bit.) When Betty lies to him at dinner about her departure from McCann, he consoles her by telling her “I would’ve given anything to have a mother like you.” It’s another great moment by Hamm, as he drops the standard Don-isms for moment of genuine love, made even more resonant by our knowledge of his terrible childhood, tossed from one unwilling mother to another. But as always, there’s a darker edge to it, as his attempts to convince Betty that she’s a fantastic housewife only last until 1pm the next day, when her returning depression leads to her front yard target practice.
I’m currently in the midst of revisiting Season 2 for the first time since I originally watched it, so some of my observations might be getting a bit muddied from here on out. But watching “Shoot” right after the Season 2’s “A Night to Remember” has given me a new appreciation and sympathy for Betty. In later seasons, she’ll become a remarkably cold person, but in many ways it’s all because of the psychologically traumatic blows inflicted on her in these first few seasons. By “A Night to Remember” (in which she’s once again expected to play the perfect housewife, and a representative for all housewives for the Heinekin campaign), Betty is completely broken, her confrontation with Don (after she can’t find any physical evidence of his affair with Bobbie Barrett) a heartbreaking depiction of a shattered psyche. The tragedy of her arc is that in trying to liberate herself from Don, she ends up becoming him: a damaged and sensitive person who chooses to guard themselves against the cruelties of the world by hiding behind a steely veneer.
Betty isn’t the only woman to deal with nearly overwhelming societal pressure in this episode. Once again, Peggy must run the Sterling Cooper gauntlet, damage coming from all sides. After a dress rip forces her to wear one of Joan’s larger outfits in its place, Paul acidly notes that “She’s having a very bad freshman year” and Ken calls her “A piece of fruit that went real bad, real fast.” And in trying to reassert her dominance in their relationship, Joan chides her as having had too much lunch, and not taking advantage of her sexuality to get ahead. This is one of the first explicit mentions of Peggy’s weight gain, and the cruelty of the office expectations for female beauty is stunning; she might be slightly heavier, but there’s nothing unattractive about Peggy. But like Betty, she also claims a moment of liberation and fires back at Joan, memorably telling her that men like her “because you’re looking for a husband, and because you’re fun…and not in that order.” Joan’s only recourse is to insult her virginity, but Peggy’s refutation of that jibe leaves badass Joan momentarily shaken. It’s yet another chapter in the origin story of Peggy Olson: Career Woman; the killer look in Elisabeth Moss’s eyes when she tells off Joan is like the awakening of a sleeping giant. (There’s also the great moment where Pete, fed up with the boys insulting Peggy, coldcocks Ken at the end of the day…although valor toward women is subsumed by Paul spinning it as a gateway for male bonding.)
But you can’t blame Joan too much. After all, she’s just as much a victim of society’s expectations as anyone. She’s just chosen a path in which she exploits those expectations to her own ends, even though her victories are limited at best. But in an office like Sterling Cooper, limited victories are coveted. Look at Pete’s secretary Hildy. As I noted in the essay for “Red in the Face” she has a great moment when she shoves down Pete’s phallic hunting rifle. But in “Shoot”, she’s subjected once again to Pete’s attempt to be as suave as Don, as he tries to get her to celebrate with the boys and him. Her uncomfortable stare lends the whole things the fetid air of a frat party about to go terribly wrong.
The other great concern of shoot is Don’s recruitment by McCann Erickson. As I mentioned before, the climactic scene in which he rejects Jim Hobart’s advances is one of great complexity. He seems to be genuinely offended by the usage of Betty’s photo proofs as bribe, but those idealized photos also seem to strike a deep psychological cord in him, their existence a sordid reminder of the artificial nature of the Drapers’ marital bliss. As we see throughout the series, Don does have a deep (if often misplaced) sense of loyalty, and his decision to stay at Sterling Cooper is partially motivated by that feeling. But as will become readily apparent by season’s end, working at a small firm, with no contract and little oversight, creates the perfect conditions for a man scared to death of his past catching up with him.
In conclusion, we go to the now-standard odds and ends:
*One of the biggest laughs in “Shoot” occurs during the Pete/Ken fight. As they brawl in the background, Don and Roger emerge in the foreground. Their dry reaction (“Roger: Drop you at the station? Don: Sure”) is priceless.
*Despite being the head of one of the largest ad firms in the city, Jim Hobart would disappear from the plot after this episode, although he would return for a key cameo in Season 7.
*This Week in Pete Campbell’s Preternatural Greatness: Pete devises the canny political strategy in which Secor Laxatives buys up all the non-Nixon television ad space in key election swing states, thus relegating JFK to the radio (where, as Bert Cooper puts it, his pretty face won’t be an asset.)
*”Secor Laxatives. You know I have to talk to those people. They’re not what you’d expect. They have absolutely no sense of humor about their project.” (Pete)
*”But don’t be fooled. You hear Pan Am, you imagine London, holed up at the Dorchester with three stewardesses. The truth is it’s more like a 20-hour boomerang flight so you can make a coupon sing in Spanish.” (Roger)