Mad Men Mondays: What is going on?

During the third season of Mad Men Feministing writers will offer some of our thoughts on feminist moments, scenes, and themes in the new episodes in order to start a discussion about these topics in our community. *WARNING: Lots of spoilers follow.
(Apologies for the column being delayed again. I (Jos) had technology issues that made it impossible to put together yesterday.)

Peggy and Duck. Kinsey: “I know a nooner when I hear one.”
Ew. Just ew on the Duck/Peggy thing. More ew with Kinsey. -Samhita
Gotta say, I kind of love the term “nooner.” And that our girl Peggy is lured to the hotel with promises of a Monte Cristo sandwich. But I will never forgive Duck for unplugging that television. I have to wonder what story Peggy will invent to explain where she was when she found out Kennedy was shot. Gross. -Ann
“Wow, the president’s been shot. Better unplug the TV so depressing news doesn’t get in the way of teh sex.” -Duck -Jos
Margaret’s wedding.
So painful to watch, why did they go through with it? -Samhita
You have to love that when she found out about the assassination, Margaret is more concerned about it ruining her wedding than anything else… -Jessica
Margaret: “She said in India if the wedding doesn’t take place at the appointed time they burn the bride.” Mona: “Just because she went to India doesn’t mean she’s not an idiot.”
I believe they are referring to the cultural practice of sati that had long been outlawed at that point and happened when women were widowed they were thrown into the funeral pyre with their deceased husband, not on their wedding day. Other than being sexist, it was often even more tragic because wives were often much younger than their husbands. But that is irrelevant. They flattened the cultural history and reality of sati in India to demonize and scare Margaret into marriage, basically saying, we are just as sexist as those backwards Indians, so please don’t think twice (at least I would like to think that is what the writers were doing with that). -Samhita
Roger and Jane fight.
This entire episode seemed to be about men infantalizing the adult women in their lives. Roger yells for Jane like she’s his maid, and then scolds her like a child. (In fact, it’s a repeat of the tone he just took with his own child on the phone.) Although I gotta say, it feels very satisfying to see how Roger’s fantasy life with a much-younger wife has not played out at all like he’d hoped. I really loved seeing Mona in a position of strength and power throughout this episode. Lioness, indeed! -Ann

Don wakes up to take care of baby Gene. Betty: “I thought you’d left.” Don:”I’m here.” Betty: “I see. Well thank you.” Don: “I’ve done it before.”
Wow, what a gift Don is giving with his mere presence. *eye roll* I mean, I’m glad he’s trying to turn his life around and all that…but I’m not feeling giving him cookies for managing to be a decent dude for a hot five minutes. -Jessica

The assassination of President Kennedy.

Outside of the remarkably different ways the characters reacted to the assassination, this also obviously marked a change for the whole show. Pete’s wife doesn’t give a shit about him staying at his job anymore, or putting on airs and going to Margaret’s wedding. Roger wants to speak to Joan, the one who got away. Betty realizes she doesn’t love Don and needs to change her life. Most interestingly to me, though – was how the writers used the assassination to demonstrate how disconnected Don is from the people in his life: He walks into the office, totally confused as to what is going on while everyone else is watching/listening to the news; he continually tells Betty that everything is going to be okay, almost refusing to process what’s happened. Similarly, when Betty watches Oswald get shot, Don is in the other room. Now he’s not just distant from his family, he’s distanced from the world and what’s going on in it. -Jessica

Betty and Carla learn Kennedy has died.

I thought this was a really interesting moment – Betty is sitting on the couch, watching the news. When Carla hears the news as well, she goes over and sits on the couch – this may seem a small thing, but Carla’s status in the house isn’t one where she can just go and chill on the furniture. Visually, for me, it marked how in the midst of this tragedy – everyone, even if for a moment, was equal in their grief. -Jessica
I loved this shot of the two of them on the couch. For me, it was probably the most powerful scene of the episode. Tragedy is certainly a unifying force. -Ann
Not only does Carla sit down next to Betty to cry, but she pulls out a cigarette as well to comfort herself. -Samhita
Don: “Why are the kids watching this?” Betty: “What am I supposed to do Don? Am I supposed to keep it from them?”
Don actually tried to be a parent a few times in this episode, taking care of baby Gene and at least recognizing Sally and Bobby needed some protection from the immediacy of the assassination and help processing what was going on around them. This was so bizarre to watch because Don wasn’t terrible at taking care of his kids. It just took Betty learning his secret combined with Kennedy’s assassination for him to actually bother stepping into this role. Don only parents when he absolutely has to. -Jos
Roger calls Joan.
Roger goes to Joan when he needs to express a real emotional reaction to someone who understands him better than he understands himself. I’m critical of the idea of soul mates, but in the context of this fictional TV show… -Jos
Lee Harvey Oswald is shot. “What is going on?”
One of the things I love about Mad Men is how slowly the action and plot builds. When Betty loses it after seeing Oswald murdered, she’s not merely expressing her confusion and fear about the national news. It feels, to her, like an extension of the recent upheavals in her own life (her father’s death, the birth of her child, the discovery about Don’s past). -Ann
“What is going on?” could be a title for this season. The world hasn’t made sense to any of our characters since it didn’t end because of the Cuban missile crisis. Betty has represented a failure to understand the civil rights struggle going on within the US. The workings of Sterling Cooper changed in ways no one understood or expected as a result of selling the company. All the characters have been through personal upheaval that throws off their expectations for their lives – to name a few, Joan doesn’t get to be the surgeon’s wife, Pete doesn’t get to be head of accounts, and Betty doesn’t know who she is married to. And now the president has been shot. Betty is simultaneously developing a consciousness around her unhappiness with her life, which can throw a person off completely, and living in a world that makes less and less sense to anyone. -Jos
Agreed, Ann. The quiet and understated moments in this show are incredibly well written, directed and acted, but for me, it’s outbursts and momentary losses of restraint that make the show as satisfying as it is. Betty’s “what is going on?”, Joan’s vase-smashing, even Pete Campbell’s dorky little victory dance, serve as powerful reminders that as alien as 1963 might sometimes look, these characters are deeply human, and not that different from us. -Chloe
Betty and Henry Francis.
I’m not sure I get this romance. Does Betty like him for him, or because he’s not Don? Likewise, it seems like he is in love with the idea of her, but doesn’t know a whole lot about who she really is. (He wants to take her to her favorite movie, but doesn’t know what it is until she tells him?!) Generic romance = gross, although I could see it being slightly more charming when presented as an alternative to Don’s lies and deceit. But I’m still not sure. Betty just doesn’t strike me as a politician’s wife, although her growing feelings for Henry could be a metaphor for her political awakening. -Lori
My theory is that Henry could be anyone. Betty is looking for a way out of her marriage, and she clearly does not see single motherhood as an option. (Remember her reaction to the divorced mom down the block in season 1?) No, the only way she can escape Don is by finding another man. And Henry meets a lot of Betty’s needs: he’s powerful, stable, wealthy, and seems devoted to her. Though I have a suspicion that if she bites the bullet and leaves Don for Henry, her new life might not be all that different from the old one. -Ann
To Henry Francis marrying Betty can be something he wants to do. He doesn’t have to take it that seriously – he might even tell Betty he wants to marry her to get her to sleep with him. To Betty, unemployed and without marketable skills we are aware of, marriage is both oppressive and necessary. Suddenly the power dynamic between these two has radically changed – Betty may need him very soon, and he gets to decide what to do. -Jos
All very insightful points. But more importantly: most passionless kiss ever. -Chloe
Betty: “I want to scream at you for ruining all this. But then you try to fix it and there’s no point. There’s no point Don.”
Such an on point articulation of Betty’s reaction to last week’s conversation. Betty wants to yell, express rage, but Don is too good at managing communication. He is trying to fix the marriage, but everything was a lie to Betty so there’s nothing to fix. Betty knows she has to keep her thoughts on the big picture of their marriage, not one night of Don checking on baby Gene. And she knows her pity for Don can’t trump her own needs. These are major feminist revelations. Betty might be the most widely disliked character on Mad Men. I certainly don’t think we’d be friends in real life. But watching her slow feminist awakening over the course of the show and seeing that accelerate over the past two episodes due to her person experiences this season has been the most compelling aspect of season 3 for me. At the beginning of the show Betty was self-centered in a way that hurt others, especially her children, and did her little good. She is still a complex, flawed person and this includes still being the kind of mother who does nothing when her kids see the Kennedy assassination on TV. But she is starting to move from an illogical “me me me” attitude to actually identifying, articulating, and acting on her needs. -Jos
Betty: “I don’t love you.” “I kissed you yesterday. I didn’t feel a thing.”
Dang, this was so harsh. I don’t care what Don has done in the past, I felt bad for him during this scene. It seems like his worst nightmare is coming true: the person closest to him has found out who he really is- and is rejecting him. -Lori
A friend I was watching with commented at this moment, seeing Don’s face, “He really loves her and needs her.” I think the second part of that statement is true. But to Don, Betty could be anyone. What matters to him is the stability of his home and personal life. That it’s a controlled environment where love and acceptance (but no demands) are waiting for him. Betty saying she doesn’t love him is throwing a wrench into Don’s status at home. And given recent goings-on at work, where he has been undermined while trying to hire Sal’s replacement and feels disempowered after signing a contract, he is losing the one area of life where he still feels totally in control. -Ann
I was so happy watching her say this – it was almost as if she was realizing it for the first time, herself! It’s harsh, for sure – but no more harsh that Don lying to her about everything, cheating on her, being an absent dad, crappy husband, etc. Betty found her voice and I’m stoked. -Jessica
Lori, I agree, but his dismissal of Betty’s thoughts quickly lost him my sympathy. Why is it that even though “the whole country is drinking,” it’s only the womenfolk who are too “distraught” to make important decisions? In the aftermath of the assassination, Pete essentially decided to leave Sterling Cooper, and the rationality of that enormous decision wasn’t questioned for a moment. It didn’t occur to Don that Betty’s love for him has been fading for months, and that she has simply reached the breaking point she’s been moving toward for quite some time. To him, she’s a flighty and irrational woman-child – something of a theme for this episode. -Chloe
I just wish that it didn’t take Betty finding out about Don’s humble beginnings for her to “find her voice” and recognize her “fading love” for Don and have all these great and empowering feminist awakenings. I know there are a million reasons for her to feel as if she no longer loves Don, but I wish things had gone down differently where we could be more sure that the circumstances of his birth and his rough childhood didn’t play a role in her change of heart. -Lori

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

Read more about Jos

Join the Conversation