Probably because of how high “The Hobo Code” set the bar (plus the extent to which I was jonesing for new episode of Mad Men after almost two weeks—I’d had the luxury of seeing “The Hobo Code” a few days in advance of its broadcast), but “Shoot” struck me as a relative disappointment, even if it still offers plenty to chew on. Despite significantly increasing our understanding of Betty Draper (in addition to further developing Pete, Peggy and Joan), the episode just came across as too much of a standalone thanks to the plot about Don being tempted by an offer to jump ship and join McCann-Ericson.
Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Friday Night Lights, where [spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen the whole season] Coach Taylor actually chose to leave the Dillon Panthers for TMU (though we all know that won’t last), but it never seemed as if there was any possibility that Don would leave Sterling Cooper—nor was there really a compelling reason for him to. As a result, the only real tension came from his mixed feelings over Betty resuming her modeling career, and because we were denied the chance to hear what he thought abut more than one or two aspects of the complex situation, it turned out to be one of the rare times when Jon Hamm’s skill at making Don so magnificently inscrutable turned out to work against the material.
The big question, of course, is whether Betty was ever aware that she was only approached about the Coke modeling gig because the McCann posse wanted to snare Don. Certainly, she spent much of the episode in a dream world of sorts, oblivious to the presumed queerness of both Giovanni, the Italian designer who initiated her into modeling, and the McCann art director. Beyond being restless and flattered, though, it’s clear Betty took the job in large part to give her mom a Bronx cheer beyond the grave.
Betty’s uber-metabolism, which let her eat what she pleased while working as a model in the old days (okay, maybe she was bulimic, but there wasn’t any real evidence) is provided with an intriguing parallel by the way Peggy remains intensely sexually desirable to Pete despite her weight gain. A lot of fan speculation on TWoP and elsewhere centered around the possibility of her being pregnant (creating an opening for a back-alley-abortion story line), but much as I was deeply relieved that Matthew Weiner didn’t go with the obvious and have Pete take credit for Peggy’s copy, I was equally pleased a possible pregnancy was eschewed in favor of a plot thread about her putting on some pounds, which is all the more intriguing for how quotidian (for TV) it seems.
The Peggy-Joan scene was both hugely enjoyable and extremely edifying insofar as it proved just how completely oblivious she’s been rendered by her singleminded focus on getting ahead by sleeping around and playing office politics. The notion that Peggy was trying to get close to Paul Kinsey almost had me doing a spit take. As the show moves forward into the ’60s, my money is definitely on Peggy, and not Betty, being the main avenue down which the show follows the evolution of feminism.
In Matthew Weiner’s Fresh Air interview (which I really need to get around to checking out one of these days), he apparently talks about about Sterling Cooper being an agency that “just doesn’t get it”, and Joan’s perplexed response to Peggy’s ambition reveals that the not getting it isn’t limited to the executives (Salvatore’s big line, by the way, was a brilliant simultaneous example of both the not getting it and the “loud but shy” brand of queer behavior that his would-be lover called him on last week).
I’d been inclined to write off the fan argument that Pete is the one guy at SC who does get it, reading his responses to pop culture (his approval of the VW commercial, etc) as him being contrary for the sake of being contrary, and thereby that he just didn’t have the brainpower to back up his big talk. I was proven wrong by his brilliant idea of having John F. Kennedy “watch Mamie’s funeral” after he recounted the Dartmouth prank to Harry. While I definitely gave Pete insufficient credit for brains, I didn’t overestimate his balls, which were proven deficient by the way he let Harry twist in the wind (or so he thought) by hesitating to cop to his idea, which Bert Cooper left the room believing to be mostly Harry’s brainstorm. Harry has been a pretty low-profile guy at SC in terms of major business activity, despite the huge size of the media department (displayed when Paul took Peggy on the nickel tour of SC back in “Ladies Room), so it’ll be very interesting to see what effect, if any, this has on his status at the office.
Don’s status at the office, of course, is sure to rise in tandem with his salary (that $45,000 a year, by the way, is apparently more than $300K in today’s dollars). After giving Adam Whitman $5000 and then signing his bonus over to Midge, Don could certainly use that $5K bump, but money clearly isn’t the reason he stayed at SC—he could surely have negotiated his way to $45K or more at McCann. The real issue is whether he stayed at SC because a smaller agency offers him inherent advantages (i.e., it’s easier to hide his past at SC), because he wanted to keep Betty from working or because he was pissed off about his wife being used in a ploy to get him to jump ship. A poster at TwoP offers the intriguing theory that Don might have been influenced by the Jackie Kennedy TV spot, if it left him offended by how she was being pimped to boost her husband’s prospects.
In any event, Don’s confession that he’d have done anything to have a mother like Betty is the episode’s most direct reference to Don’s past (unless he was being literal when he told Roger he’d once died in the middle of a pitch!), and given that we’ve seen her complainig about Don’s reticence to discuss his past, that confession may be the largest factor behind Betty’s decision to abandon modeling and throw herself into motherhood. And does she throw herself into motherhood! I thought the Drapers’ creepy neighbor was actually going to kill the dog, setting up a confrontation that would allow us to see Don at his scariest. Never did I expect to see Betty unloading a BB gun at the pigeons in what started out looking like it was going to be an oblique Sopranos-esque ending. It’s a scene which again proves that Mad Men has a much stronger comic element—and that the Drapers’ marriage is far stronger than any viewer could have guessed when the show premiered.
Some miscellaneous points
Not long before Mad Men made its debut, there was a minor flap about a potential product placement deal between AMC and the Brown-Forman Corporation, the beverage company that distills Jack Daniel’s. The actual deal didn’t go through, but AMC apparently decided to include three subtle references to Jack Daniel’s over the course of the season as a gesture of thanks to Brown-Forman for all the advertising they buy on the network, rather than as product placement per se. Tonight was the second reference—Fred Rumsen sends a bottle of Jack to Harry and Pete to congratulate them on the Nixon maneuver. Reference No. 1 was back in “Babylon” when Roy and Don ordered Jack Daniel’s at the artsy Greenwich Village café. This time, the product wasn’t even mentioned by name, but the bottle is instantly recognizable. Surprisingly, the deal didn’t prevent a clearly identifiable bottle of Smirnoff, distributed by Brown-Forman’s rivals at Diageo, from turning up in “Red in the Face”. Chalk one up for historical accuracy: It’s been well established that Roger is a vodka man, and Brown-Forman’s marquee vodka, Finlandia, didn’t arrive in the United States until 1971. While liquor ads are banned on broadcast TV, the FCC seems to have no such policy against plugging liquor brands by name, as Stolichnaya gets a prominent shout-out in the forthcoming premiere of NBC’s Bionic Woman.
I’ve been quite outspoken in my championing of John Slattery, but Vincent Kartheiser is really starting to rival him and Jon Hamm as the series’ acting MVPs. Kartheiser’s demented glee when he explains his anti-JFK plot to Harry is enormously delectable, and while he leaves us with no doubt that Pete is simmering to a boil while Ken and Harry make fun of Peggy’s weight, Kartheiser totally doesn’t telegraph the attack on Ken, which wouldn’t have been a fraction as effective if anyone knew it was coming. More than one fan has commented on Kartheiser’s resemblance to Johnny Depp, in particular to Depp in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, and it would be pretty great if Kartheiser was able to enjoy a Depp-like career after Mad Men has run its course.
Finally, I was pretty stunned when the episode ended with what I believe is the first time Mad Men has used a 21st century pop song, or any post-1960 pop song for that matter. The song in question is “The Infanta,” from the Decemberists’ 2005 album Picaresque. Per good ol’ Wikipedia, “In the Spanish and former Portuguese monarchies, Infante (masculine) or Infanta (feminine), also anglicized as infant, is the title given to a son or daughter of the reigning King who is not the heir-apparent to the throne.” The lyrics describe a ridiculously ornate procession thrown in honor of such a person, and while we know very little about Betty’s past at this point, it has been established that (like Grace Kelly, interestingly) she hails from the swanky Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia. Her family may not have the wealth or power for her to be an Infanta per se, but she’s certainly received a lot of princess-like treatment from others over the years, and the song’s bouncy energy makes it an inspired way to punctuate the scene, regardless of its year of origin.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.