28
Sep
2009
Mad Men: Season 3, Episode 7
Seven Twenty Three
Jordan
This week's episode is constructed in a very ethereal way. It opens with a shot of Don lying bloodied on the floor of a cheap motel room, looking pretty defeated. We then see Betty looking angelic as ever, lying on an antique couch, and Peggy lying in bed with an unknown companion. These visions of things to come are reverted to repeatedly throughout the episode, as if to remind us that No matter how far removed these characters seem from those images, by hour's end we'll find them there.

Betty is decorating her living room in the highest style for the early "˜60s (which makes this a perfect time for me to ooze about how great the furniture and the costume designs are on Mad Men. Betty's flower print dress tonight was awesome, and Don's shirt at the eclipse was something I'd kill to have in my closet). At her decorator's behest, she leaves the hearth empty, as that is the place where people gather. This feels wrong to her, but she does it anyway, and is soon meeting with the Junior League in her new living room. The ladies want to stop a reservoir from being turned into a water tank, and they call on Betty's connection with politician and aide to the Governor Henry Francis (Chris Stanley) because she is clearly the cute one in the group (as a friend tells her, "it's not adorable to pretend you're not adorable."). Betty and Francis arrange for a one-on-one exchange (both pretending this was an accident of scheduling) where they discuss, briefly, the water tank, then focus on the skills we all have but don't make use of. Francis gives off a creepy energy toward Betty, but it leaves me wondering if this odd vibe isn't similar to the one I felt Gene giving Sally earlier in the season. Francis is an older man, and his strange, occasionally very off-putting interest in Betty comes hot on the heels of her father's demise. I'm sure we haven't seen the last of Henry, but for now he leaves Betty with a couch, and some food for thought. By episode's end, the hearth has been filled by this fainting couch, and Betty lays on it, the center of the room as she hopes everyone will gather around her.

Meanwhile, Peggy is still contemplating Duck's offer, and the deal is sweetened when he sends her a beautiful scarf. Peggy is not used to being lavished with attention, and it makes her a little uncomfortable. She decides, more as a way to prove her usefulness to herself than to display it to others, that she will pursue Don's newly acquired Hilton account (more on that in a minute) but is gruffly and soundly rebuked by Don, who tells her that she may be good, but she needs to get better and stop asking for things. This sends her running off to Duck for the approval she so desperately seeks, and, none too surprisingly into his arms and his bed when he offers her even a whiff of respect and admiration.

Don, on the other hand is faced with a crisis when he discovers that the lucrative new account he's being offered by his new friend and confidant Conrad Hilton comes with a catch"”in order to sign the account, Don must sign a contract. Don's lack of contract is the very thing that saved him during the PPL buyout last season, and it gives him the power and the freedom he craves. Don has business smarts and knows that being un-contracted gives him power, but to him, this is much more important than that. To Don this is an existential question"”he is being asked to tie himself down, to surrender the freedom that he prizes above all else and agree to be tethered to Sterling-Cooper. Not even the offer that his name may someday be on the door can make Don happy about this. Recall in Season 1 when Don asked Rachel Mencken (my favorite of his many dalliances, and likely his as well) to run away with him. She was too tethered, but he loved the idea that he could leave his life behind. In Season 2, he pretty much disappeared for weeks on a sojourn of self-discovery under the California sun, partly because he needed it, but mostly because he could. And let's not forget his ultimate escape, when he left Dick Whitman behind once and for all in favor of becoming Don Draper, the man of his dreams. It is of central importance to Don that he be able to escape at any given time, yet by episode's end, he has signed the contract that will remove his freedom.

The shots that open the episode not only make for an intriguing way to frame this story, they also symbolize the important progression each character makes throughout the episode. Don lies bloodied on the floor, utterly defeated and without his freedom. Peggy lies in bed with Duck, the only man willing to give her the approval and respect she feels entitled to. And Betty lies at the center of the room, just as she desires to be the center of attention, though she clearly isn't. Don didn't tell her about his contractual disputes (she learned from Roger, in an under-handed move that has alienated him from Don with more finality), and even when Don storms out of the house, she is left with the crying baby, who symbolizes now more than ever just how trapped she is. Betty wants, perhaps naively, to be lavished with love and attention, and instead she is met with indifference and scorn, even pushed to the margins of her empty house by her crying child. Peggy wants to be respected and appreciated for a job she does very well, and when her mentor shuts her down, she goes to someone who can give her what she needs.

And Don wants his freedom, yet is confronted only moments after walking out of his house with exactly what total freedom can mean. The hitchhikers he picks up (besides being yet another reference to the growing conflict in Vietnam) represent the life he could have, if he really wanted it. They are unmoored by anything, free to do what they like, and they do, mugging Don and heading off to find their next adventure. As Don is swept up into their rush of freedom, he comes face to face with a drug induced hallucination of his father (his adopted father of course) who tells him an interesting hillbilly joke (the greater meaning of which I have yet to grasp) and then points out "what do you do? What do you make? You grow bullshit." Don knows that all he does with his days is create an illusion to sell people on products, and that all he's done with his life is create an illusion about who he is as a person. He is a shadow of a man peddling shadows to the unwitting masses, and damn his introspection, he knows it. Don signs away his freedom on "7/23" the date which gives the episode its title. This is the day Don Draper loses his freedom, the day Peggy Olsen finds some satisfaction (or at least some solace) and the day that Betty makes a move toward staking out a position of relevancy in her life. These three characters all had large turning points this week. What's to come is as unknown to them as it is to us, but this episode laid bare the existential angst beneath the surface of these people and showed them what their lives may become, have become, and possible should become. What comes next is ultimately up to them.

Grade: A

Notes:

-"Maybe I'm late because I was spending time with my family reading the bible."

-I didn't get a chance to dissect Conrad Hilton as much as I would have liked to tonight, but he is a very interesting character and I'm sure the weeks to come will afford me with the opportunity.

-"Why can't you stare into the eclipse? What's it going to do really? I stare into the sun every day." A hilarious line, laden with meaning as moments later, Don does stare directly into the eclipse, with only his sunglasses as a shield.

-Ms. Farrell is another character who got ignored in my article. She seems a subtly sad character as most on this show are, open to and experienced with wanton affairs among the father's of her students, but Don is not as easy to read as most men.

-"Didn't we give you an office?" I still love Roger's biting wit, but tonight's underhanded betrayal definitely knocked him down a few points on the awesome scale (and up a few points on the interesting scale). I hope we get a deeper look at what is currently driving him before the season is over.

-Another Sal free episode. It's impossible to judge the show's arc on a week to week basis, so this statement may later prove false, but it seems like his storyline has been dropped over the last few weeks.
Tags: Mad Men
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