Some Mad Men episode titles are more difficult to decipher than others. “The Beautiful Girls” (written by Dahvi Waller and Mattew Weiner, and directed by Michael Uppendahl) is, as it turns out, all about the girls. At one point, in a scene near the end, the episode could almost be a Fellini film, with Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in the Mastroianni role, as seemingly every woman in his life parades around him.
The primary challenge for “The Beautiful Girls” is to be as much about the women themselves as it is about how they relate to the men. Mad Men sets this challenge out for itself; after the parade-of-women scene, Don is removed from the equation and the episode closes solely on the women. Joyce (Zosia Mamet) returns and gives a rather inane speech (sort of sounding like a Salinger character, or something) to Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), where she compares men to vegetable soup and women to the soup pot, saying, “They heat ’em up, they hold ’em…they constrain them,” before adding, “but who wants to be a pot?” I’m not sure why vegetable soup is Joyce’s preferred metaphor, but with the final shot of Joan (Christina Hendricks), Faye (Cara Buono), and Peggy together in an elevator, it’s clear that we’re supposed to see the women of Mad Men as the soup, rather than the pot.
Nearly every female cast member shares some piece of the plot this week (Trudy is the biggest exception). Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) runs away from Betty (January Jones) and winds up at the SCDP office, hoping that she can live with Don rather than with Betty. Distraught over her husband’s deployment to Vietnam, Joan accepts a date with Roger (John Slattery) and, after the two are mugged, has sex with him in an alley. Peggy is courted by Abe (Charlie Hofheimer), an idealistic, hipster writer who lectures Peggy about SCDP client Fillmore Auto Parts’s racist hiring practices; the courtship ends badly, as Peggy is not willing to sacrifice her career for a political cause—as Abe had assumed she would be because she looks “so earnest.” Faye’s relationship with Don becomes more serious, and she struggles with the prospects of becoming involved in his children’s lives. Even old Miss Blankenship (Randee Heller) is given a significant role, as she answers a few calls, delivers a few lines, and then, well, dies.
Sally’s untimely entrance roughly corresponds with Blankenship’s untimelier exit, as Don is called from his meeting with the Fillmore brass twice, first to deal with runaway Sally and second to tend to Blankenship’s body. Together, Sally and Blankenship represent a generational passing on the outskirts of the world Peggy, Joan and Faye inhabit. In writing Blankenship’s eulogy, a distraught Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) says that, “She was born in 1898 in a barn, she died in the 37th floor of a skyscraper; she’s an astronaut,” while Roger has a different take: “She died like she lived, surrounded by the people she answered phones for.” Either way, Blankenship’s demise is a sharp contrast to the image of precocious Sally taking her seat in her father’s desk chair, and looking as if she damn-well owns the place (credit Shipka’s preternatural screen presence for this).
Sally arrives at the office after skipping out on her therapy session and catching the train to Manhattan. She doesn’t have the money for the fare, so she winds up being brought in by the elderly woman who rescued her. “Men never know what’s going on,” the woman tells Don, who naturally takes issue with being chastised. Yet the woman may be more right than she knows, as later, after Blakenship dies, Don looks at her body and comments, “She seemed fine just a minute ago.” In reality, the last time Don saw Blankenship, he was storming by her desk, angry about Sally’s arrival and with his mind on the meeting with Fillmore. “I don’t want to hear it,” Don says to Blankenship, “just make sure she doesn’t leave that room.” But Blankenship offers no response, no cantankerous barb highlighting just how old and out of touch she is. We don’t even see her at all, beyond a quick shot of a white tuft of hair from behind. Rather, the camera lowers to her desk level, seemingly from her perspective, and sits disconcertingly still as the phone rings, over and over, with no one answering. In all likelihood, Don just barked orders at a dead woman and then stormed off without noticing.
For the most part, Don really doesn’t know what’s going on at all. He’s oblivious to his daughter’s deep-rooted desire to live a more liberated lifestyle, and he also seems unaware that he’s pushing Faye into a domesticated relationship that she seemingly wants no part of. In a way Sally and Faye present a similar problem for Don. Sally feels stifled by the domesticity of homelife at the Francis residence. She dreams of breaking free and rebelling; she’s looks like a natural sitting in Don’s office chair, she’s thrilled by the idea of soaking up Manhattan culture, and she cooks french toast with rum. Sure, her hatred of Betty is the catalyst for her issues, but at the same time Madison Avenue would clearly be a more apt habitat for her than domestic life with Betty.
While Sally seems hell-bent on breaking out of domesticity, Faye is reluctant to enter into it. Rather than having a family, she’s instead built a very successful career for herself. And while she’s not adverse to the idea of meeting Don’s children, she’s nonetheless worried about doing so, and the last thing she wants is to play any sort of mother figure. She’s even reluctant to accept Don’s implied invitation for her to establish a more permanent presence in his apartment. After seemingly getting his drinking under control and his life back on track, Don appears ready to return to some sort of status quo. The women of his life, however, seem to have ideas of their own. He just has a little trouble noticing.
While Don struggles with his personal life, Peggy is forced to confront grander issues of society when her drinking buddy Joyce tricks her into a date with Abe, who chastises her for working on the Fillmore Auto Parts campaign. Much like her showdown with Joan after firing Joey, there’s a clear duality to Peggy’s perspective. On one hand, maybe Abe’s right, and Peggy should be above working with a racist business like Fillmore. Certainly from the audience’s perspective in 2010, any such association is reprehensible. And it is in 1965 too, as Peggy recognizes when she brings the issue up to Don (“Our job is to make men like Fillmore Auto, not to make Fillmore Auto like Negroes,” Don responds, which Peggy seemingly accepts).
Though at the same time Peggy is inevitably going to get a whole lot more done forging her own professional path than she would serving as Abe’s muse (want proof? Look no further than Peggy getting Abe his drink after he fails to catch the bartender’s eye). Regardless of the morality of Peggy’s continued involvement with Fillmore, the message is that she’s not interested in being the “pot” to Abe’s “vegetable soup.” She has trouble identifying with Abe’s perspective, and, in a different way, with the plight of African-Americans (remember how young she was when she began her career at Sterling Cooper—so much of her perspective is based on the insular world of the firm), while Abe is woefully ignorant of the social barriers that continue to face women. Abe sees Peggy as a blank slate for him to project his own ideals, but, like Faye and Sally, she also has radically different ideas.
Abe makes the same mistake relating to Peggy that I feel many Mad Men viewers make. So many of us are eager to read her as an agent of social change, and judge her arc based on its significance to the social upheaval of the 1960s. Essentially, we’re seeing her as the “pot”; we relate to her based on her own relationship with the broader patriarchy, and maybe there’s some merit to this (as I argued last week, Mad Men presents a world where each character is a multitude of identities fragmented among the perspectives of all the people he or she knows). But “The Beautiful Girls” reminds us that Peggy is not some simple repository for our ideals; like everyone else, she is a self-interested character with her own goals, desires, and ambitions. Her arc isn’t about whether she’s right or wrong to work with Fillmore; rather, it’s about her making her own choices, her own mistakes, and being her own—for lack of a better term—“soup.”
Given its subject matter, it’s expected that much of Mad Men is ultimately viewed from the male perspective. Joan’s relationship with Roger, for example, has always been portrayed in terms of Joan being Roger’s extramarital affair, and in terms of Roger pursuing Joan and inappropriately flirting with her. And it’s only natural that this is the case, as it’s likely how the relationship would play out in a 1960s workplace, and it’s how Roger himself views the relationship. Much of Joan’s storyline in “The Beautiful Girls” follows that script: Roger makes a show of being there for her through a tough time, though for the most part he’s simply trying to position himself closer to her. But the situation is subverted after the pair are mugged in a dark street, as a frantic Joan takes the initiative in kissing Roger and telling him not to stop as they proceed to have sex in a side alleyway. The next day, she’s not interested in Roger’s apology, she simply wants Roger to understand the reality of their situation. This isn’t a matter of female empowerment or of modern women standing up and asserting themselves, it’s simply a reminder that Joan is as much a self-interested actor in this situation as is Roger. This is true of all the women of Mad Men, beyond any notion of social progress.
The changing face of America is a ubiquitous presence in Mad Men, yet at the same time it always takes place in the margins. The characters must react to it, and change in the face of it, but it is never their primary motivation or their primary concern. As this episode deals with women of drastically different generations, it makes sense that the surest signs of social movement are seen in the margins: As Sally makes her way into adolescence, it’s obvious that her future prospects are different than those of Miss Blankenship. But Joan, Peggy, and Faye are too busy making their lives work to concern themselves with what they mean in the grander terms of American history. And yet those terms will invariably be projected onto them.
Joan can’t have sex with her boss without bringing to the fore the sexual politics of a deeply patriarchal workplace. Faye can’t worry about balancing her highly successful career with the added responsibility of dealing her her boyfriend’s kids without bringing into question her role as a woman. Peggy can’t break in to a male-dominated field without somehow becoming responsible for the entirety of ’60s social change. It’s easy for a political man to be a person who happens to be political, but for Peggy to be political immediately defines her as such and makes an issue out of every way in which she relates to her social and political milieu. At one point Abe pompously tells Peggy that she’s “political whether [she likes] it or not,” without realizing that that’s true for Peggy in a way he can’t understand.
In working with this theme, Mad Men is dealing with one of the primary troubles it faces as a character piece. From the pilot episode on, it has been incredibly easy to read Peggy—and, really, all of the show’s women—as a political presence. And she is a political presence, but so is everyone else—as Abe would remind us. The 1960s transformation of America is the “pot” that “heats,” “holds,” and “constrains” the characters. It finds its way in through the margins and the gaps in floor boards, permeating and informing every episode. But it’s not the “soup”; Mad Men is first and foremost about the characters, and that is something that is easiest to lose sight of when dealing with the female characters.
Rather than focusing on the rise of feminism, “The Beautiful Girls” portrays something that is difficult for Mad Men to portray precisely because of the rise of feminism: Whatever their historical importance, these are imperfect, contradiction-laden characters trying to run an ad agency. History is secondary.
• I feel terrible for laughing as much as I did at poor Miss Blankenship’s fate. But dammit, the background image of Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) hauling away her body, wrapped in the blanket a frantic Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) complains his “mother made,” while Don uncomfortably struggles through the rest of his meeting with the Fillmore people, is a hilarious sight gag. Have we ever seen a television series have this much fun with a redesigned central set?
• It is confirmed this week that Cooper no longer has an office at the firm, suggesting that he’s mostly retired. But with no family, he still enjoys hanging around the office, doing the crossword with his old love Ida Blankenship. Depressing.
• I love the moment after Blakenship’s death, when Peggy frantically asks what they should do, and a dumbfounded Don simply looks to Joan, who of course takes it upon herself to deal with the situation. It’s the same Joan-of-action we saw in “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency.” I can’t help but feel she’d be a whole lot more effective in Vietnam than her husband.
• I love how laughably terrible Faye is with children, but Buono oversold her awkward exchanges with Shipka a tad.
• I’m not sure how to define it, but there’s something so incredibly natural about Elisabeth Moss’s performance, particularly in her exchange with Abe about Goldwater. Abe, disgusted that Peggy would have found it “spectacular” to write an ad for Goldwater, asks, “Did you vote for him?” “Of course not,” Peggy replies, in such a brilliantly loaded manner that it expresses just how odd it is to Peggy that Abe would so readily attach her work as a copywriter to her political beliefs.
• So, is Megan (Jessica Pare) abnormally great with children, or is Sally just more receptive to women who don’t look like her mother?
• “She looks so chubby in the pictures!”
• “Do not come out of there!” “I know!”
Luke De Smet is a freelance writer based out of San Diego, who spent way too much time obsessing about movies and television while growing up in rural northern Alberta, Canada. He’s currently attempting to avoid movies and television long enough to take up surfing, but is failing, miserably. You can follow him on Twitter.