Marriage and sex bring with them the promise of intimacy, but it often seems like we confuse the former two for the latter all too often. Sex promises the ideal of knowing everything about your partner, and ostensibly, you know your spouse better than anyone else on the face of the Earth, but both are simultaneously facades. When I was a teenager growing up in a conservative Christian church, more energy was devoted to keeping me a virgin than anything else, and one of the central tenets of this drive was that sex opens up such powerful emotions that it can only be dealt with correctly within the confines of marriage, where both partners can give in to those emotions. But sex doesn’t automatically dredge up those emotions. Intimacy does. And, yes, physical intimacy, where you know every corner of your partner’s body, is a part of intimacy, but it’s nothing like the true intimacy that comes from two people knowing each other on a deeply emotional level, knowing the other’s head and heart as well as anyone can understand someone else. Being true with someone else so you can be true TO them is one of the most remarkable feelings in the world, but it often takes an amount of courage few of us possess.
We have little idea what kind of sex life the Drapers on Mad Men share outside of the few times we’ve seen them together. But we do know that the marriage, in some ways, was doomed when the series began. Betty (January Jones) seemed to be permanently trapped in a state of arrested development, while Don (Jon Hamm) was masking huge portions of his life from her—not just his affairs and the other matters that would have immediately angered and shocked her but deeper, more basic stuff, like the fact that he was a poor boy from the sticks named Dick Whitman before an act of happenstance allowed him to assume the life of another man and go about re-constructing himself in another image. Dick Whitman learned how to sell products, but the biggest product he learned how to sell was the image of the confident, handsome Donald Draper. That image was enough to rope in a pretty model, a giant advertising firm and an assortment of others, intoxicated on the very idea of what Whitman-as-Draper was able to sell.
It’s easy to want to focus on the scene where Betty finally manages to get Don to come clean about his past by exposing that she knows what’s in his secret drawer. It’s one of those potent Mad Men moments we as an audience have known was coming since the beginning of the series, and the show plays it almost completely right. But the entire episode was about the ways couples do or don’t build those intimate ties, the ways they either lie or tell the truth to each other. Even the central advertising storyline is about a company that simply cannot be forthright with the public about what’s in their product, lest the public turn on them, then finds itself backed into a corner and having to figure out a way to weasel out of the truth. Like Don, though, there is no backing out of this situation.
Instead of with the Drapers, then, let’s start with Joan (Christina Hendricks) and husband Greg (Sam Page), who are struggling financially, to the point where Joan calls in a favor from Roger (John Slattery), asking him to help her get a job as a shop girl (which pays more than her old job at Sterling-Cooper would). The two are struggling because of money concerns, yes, but they’re also trapped in a situation where Greg simply doesn’t seem to be telling Joan much of anything. It came as a surprise to her that his seemingly sure ascension to the Chief of Surgery position was in any danger whatsoever, and tonight, she learns that his dad had a nervous breakdown he’s never told her about. Since he’s training to be a psychiatrist, his utter failure to figure out how to share his own feelings seems like a potential problem (or he’s going to become the lead of a wacky TNT series about a psychiatrist who has just as many problems in his own life as his patients do), but it’s also emblematic of deeper concerns in the marriage. Greg is a rapist, yes, and that is what’s most concerning to our modern eyes, but he’s also a complete cipher, unable to express just why he feels the things he does, creating situations where he has to assert himself however he can. The rape is the worst example of this, obviously, but he and Joan seem perpetually trapped in this cycle.
The Joan and Greg storyline is essentially a vignette that floats through the episode. Joan helps Greg prepare for his interview. She calls Roger to look for work. Greg doesn’t get the job, and when he says something very insensitive, Joan clubs him over the head with a vase. And then he joins the Army. That’s pretty much it, but in those tiny moments, the story almost functions as an origin story for how Don and Betty came to be separated by such chasms in the show’s first couple seasons. Greg, in many ways, is play-acting a confidence he doesn’t quite have, a confidence his wife just naturally has. And despite her devotion to him, that divide always stands between them, fostering resentment. I’m not trying to minimize the very serious issues of physical abuse we’ve seen depicted by Greg toward Joan on the series at all, but it does seem the series is trying to show that there are other huge problems at work here. (For that matter, the scene where Greg revealed he’d joined the Army was overwritten in a lot of places, particularly as the show tried to shoehorn in a reference to Vietnam in a “Were you paying attention to that?!” way that the show has mostly gotten away from since the first half of its first season.)
The show’s other more minor plotline—Roger reconnecting with an old flame who works for the dog food company that retains Sterling-Cooper for help in overcoming a scandal involving the fact that their products offer horse meat (which Don admits he’s eaten to Roger’s surprise)—offers another subtle commentary on the Draper marriage. Mary Page Keller plays Annabelle, the woman Roger loved before Mona, who moved on. The plot helps humanize Roger, who’s been a little opaque this season, so consumed by his irritation at Don has he been, and it also shows that he is, indeed, very much in love with his new wife, Jane, whom many have assumed was just a late in life fling. Poor guy’s genuinely smitten with her, and this seems like it can only end poorly for him. At the same time, the episode seems to show that the sort of intimacy Roger and Annabelle can have at that late-night dinner conversation about their past and where they’re heading in the future is largely possible because they’re peers. A part of intimacy is empathy and understanding, and it’s hard for that bridge to be built between two people with as much of a gulf between them as Roger and Jane. (You could alternately read Roger’s lost love as Joan, and many have. I’m thinking he’s referring to Jane when he talks about the One, but I am willing to admit I am likely wrong about this.)
But the biggest part of intimacy is honesty, and honesty is the hardest thing to come by. All of human life is predicated on certain lies we tell ourselves and each other to keep things humming along nicely (or, see: everything ever produced by David Milch). This is not a bad system, but the underpinnings of it often seem to go out of their way to encourage us to lie when it’s more convenient for us or when it would help us out. Lying is, in some ways, an intrinsic part of human nature, and one of the biggest lies you can tell anyone is that you will love them forever. You can love someone much of the time. You can even love someone most of the time, but you can never quite promise to love someone forever. It’s more like, I will always have enough love for you that I won’t kill you (and, yes, that’s meant to be sarcasm). Marriage, like most other human institutions, is about a long combination of saying what you really think and feel and compromising with the other person in order to keep things humming along smoothly.
The Draper marriage, then, has always been built on a foundation of lies, so since Don couldn’t ever really let Betty in to see who he was, it made it that much easier for the gaps to grow, for the suspicion and dishonesty to override whatever love was there when the two first started dating. For all of Don’s cheating and Betty’s emotional disconnection, that was the central cancer eating away at their marriage, and when Betty discovered the contents of his secret drawer in the episode preceding this one then didn’t do anything about it, it seemed like the whole thing might be a bomb ticking underneath the rest of the season, like the impending Kennedy assassination has driven a lot of tension as the season has gone on.
Instead, “The Gypsy and the Hobo,” written by Marti Noxon, Cathryn Humphis and Matt Weiner and directed by Jennifer Getzinger, just dives right into this around the episode’s midpoint, when Don comes home, thinking Betty and the kids are away in Philadelphia, with his latest mistress, Suzanne Farrell (Abigail Spencer). Leaving her out in the car, he heads in, where Betty confronts him with everything she knows, he crumbles, telling her the entire story of how Dick Whitman became Don Draper, right down to when Adam hung himself back in season one. There’s very little here that the audience doesn’t already know, and literally all of the tension derives from wondering how Betty will react, but somehow, the sequence works almost perfectly, largely thanks to Getzinger’s intelligent direction and Hamm and Jones’ performances. (The decision to leave Suzanne just outside the Drapers’ front door also helped in this regard, creating a structural time bomb that ultimately didn’t go off but seemed like it would at any moment.) There’s not enough that can be said about the way Hamm flip flops from Don to Dick in what seems like a second with just a shift of his eyes and also not enough to be said for the way Jones non-verbally shifts Betty from angry to skeptical to trying hard to not feel sympathy to actually feeling sympathy. These are two great actors, and this was likely their finest moment.
It’s hard to say where the Draper marriage goes from here. When Don tells Suzanne that she’s out of the picture, he clearly lets her know that she’s not out of it indefinitely. Even though you can see the relief wash over him as he realizes that the truth has, in some ways, set him free, created a situation where he can finally talk to his wife as another adult, all of the lies and philandering have done their damage. I’d like to say that this will be the thing that finally puts Don and Betty on the same footing, that the two of them will now find a way to compromise and move forward together, but at the same time, the series has made abundantly clear that these two have a lot of bad blood between them, and there are no guarantees in attempting to rebuild something that has withstood so much casual damage to its foundations.
That’s the thing about intimacy. It can be the thing that comes along to save a relationship at just the right moment, but it has to be coupled with some amount of good faith. In the case of Don, it was presented in good faith, but only when it was tricked out of him. While I’m hopeful that this new honestly will be the thing that leads to the Draper marriage slowly being patched up, it’s not immediately clear that that’s even possible.
Some other thoughts:
• As I compose this last page of my review, I’m watching this week’s episode and seeing that some of my assumptions above were incorrect. Hopefully, I’ll be able to talk about them in the comments of Luke de Smet’s piece later this week, but I’m also not going to edit my thoughts to make myself look smarter than I actually am.
• Mad Men usually does a very good job of capturing the feel of various holidays, and its evocation of the kind of Halloween where neighborhoods turned into children’s playgrounds was really terrific. I also liked the final line, “And who are you supposed to be?,” directed at Don. It was incredibly on the nose, but in a way that was oddly endearing.
• Similarly, while Don has very often identified himself with hobos throughout the series and his wandering nature would also mark him as similar to the popular conception of gypsies, the title could also refer to Betty, whose free-spirited nature was gradually worn down by the process of being with Don, perhaps meaning Betty was the gypsy and Don the hobo.
• Favorite line: “I can’t turn it off. It’s actually happening!” I’m going to start saying that in my real life, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss).
• As shown by the fact that I’m just talking about Peggy now, the show has laid a lot of cards on the table this season without actually resolving a lot of those storylines. Here’s hoping the tying together of all of these loose ends works as well as it did in season two, but I wonder if they haven’t bitten off more than they can chew.
• If I could ask Matthew Weiner any question, it would be how carefully they plotted out the dates between episodes this season. It sure SEEMS like they’ve been taking carefully calibrated three-week jumps designed to land them at the JFK assassination in episode 12 from the start of the season, but I’m not sure if that was by design. (And this was a point I wrote before seeing episode 12.)
• Finally, Luke will cover “The Grown-Ups,” and then he, some others and I will be doing a special podcast devoted to the season three finale and the season as a whole a couple of days after the finale. Hope to see you there!
House contributing editor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark and co-host of the podcast TV on the Internet. His writing also appears at The A.V. Club and Hitfix.