By Andrew Johnston
AMC's press mailing of the Mad Men pilot included a note asking critics not to reveal Don Draper's "secret" to readers. Naturally, on my first viewing, I kept wondering what the heck the secret would be. Don's response when Roger Sterling asked him if he'd ever hired any Jews ("Not on my watch!") had me inclined to think Don was a member of the tribe who was "passing" as a WASP, and that may yet be the case given the mysterious origins that are referred to in the opening scene of "Ladies' Room" (the way he compares himself to Moses in the opening scene could certainly be construed as a hint in that direction). Of course, AMC was referring to Don being married with kids ("I saw that coming a hundred miles away," my ex-girlfriend said, and I probably should have as well), and the heavy emphasis on Betty Draper (January Jones) in the second episode reveals a good bit more about where the series is going.
"Ladies' Room" evokes The Sopranos, where Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner made his bones as a dramatic writer, in a number of ways: Simply by merit of being a housewife--and a woman whose comfortable lifestyle is the result of her husband's morally dubious career path--Betty is, obviously, the series' closest analogue to Carmela Soprano; inevitably, her behind-the-wheel panic attack (and subsequent treatment by a psychiatrist) also brings Carmela's husband to mind. But there's also a more subtle influence: As was often the case on The Sopranos, the episode title has a number of meanings—both Betty and Sterling Cooper's newest secretary, Peggy, spend time in literal ladies' rooms, but the title could just as easily refer to the kitchen where Betty trades gossip with her neighbor, or to the psychiatrist's office (since therapy is clearly seen by Don et. al. as something that's only for women), Don's mistress' apartment (where she makes the rules), and the Sterling Cooper steno pool (governed by a complex all-female pecking order that Peggy is clueless about, in part because she has little concept of her effect on men until the end of the episode, notwithstanding her tryst with Pete Campbell last week).
The housewife whose personality is smothered by suburban peer pressure is, of course, one of the biggest clichés there is. I'm inclined to think, however, that what's stifling Peggy isn't suburbia per se but rather her marriage to Don, who clearly sees emotional repression as both a virtue and one of the main reasons alcohol exists ("Maybe your wife is just a better drinker," Don tells Roger after his boss says he probably knows more about Betty than he does about his own spouse). We'll obviously get to know Betty better in the weeks to come; in some respects, the most important thing about her plot tonight was simply that it reveals she'll be having her own major story arcs as the series progresses and that the action won't unfold strictly from the POV of Sterling Cooper employees.
Insofar as doings at SC are concerned, one of the most interesting aspects of "Ladies' Room" is how it presents Don as seriously emasculated. To be sure, he's the alpha dog where Pete, Paul, Salvatore et. al. are concerned, but he quickly rolls over when Bert Cooper (one of my very favorite characters on Mad Men, even though he only has two brief scenes in the first four episodes) orders him to develop an advertising strategy for Richard Nixon, whether the GOP's 1960 presidential candidate likes it or not. Similarly, Don unblinkingly follows Roger's example vis-à-vis his boss' philosophy that women's problems are something you deal with by paying other men to handle the situation. One could even argue that Betty has Don by the short and curlies merely because she's capable of making him ask what women want.
That age-old question is raised in the scene where Don's team presents their Right Guard ideas, a scene that will surely strike some as laden with irony that plays to the cheap seats. I don't see it that way: Right Guard was introduced in real life right around the time Mad Men takes place, and the ideas that Don is pitched seem exactly like the sort of thing that real ad guys would have come up then. Similarly, there's nothing eye-rolling about Peggy's discussion of her salary—to dismiss that scene as audience pandering is to say that nobody in 1960 ever talked about money (likewise, the bathroom attendant's line about decreasing purse sizes threatening her livelihood is by no means unrealistic given the way actual trends were going at the time). Having period characters comment on the world around them isn't necessarily equivalent to making jokes at their expense or urging viewers to congratulate themselves for living in a more "advanced" era.
One difference between today and 1960 (and between 1960 and the late sixties) that the pilot skipped over, but which surfaces this week, is how the Mad Men era is one of the last times in American social history when younger men strived to appear older rather than vice versa. The main vehicle for this observation is Paul, who the episode establishes as another of my favorite characters. Weiner et. al. are clearly taking advantage of Michael Gladis' astonishing resemblance to the young Orson Welles, and it works like gangbusters (I thought Gladis might have been asked to gain weight to emphasize the resemblance, but friends who saw him onstage a couple of years ago tell me he had a fairly pudgy face even then; I forgot to ask them if his voice was as Wellesian as it is here...and man, do I wish I could have found a photo of Gladis smoking that pipe!). We don't spend a lot of time with him, and even then we mostly see a façade he's mounting to hopefully score points with Peggy, but there are plenty of throwaway lines that make me love the guy—his affection for radio (pretty obviously a tribute to Welles), his mortified reaction to Peggy's disdain for science fiction and his thinly-veiled contempt for his job all really make me want to see an episode devoted to him. Given that Weiner & Co. are already writing to Gladis' strengths just two episodes into the series, it seems inevitable that he'll get some time in the spotlight—but not until after Don receives heavy scrutiny next week, and Pete Campbell the week after that.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.