April 22, 2013
In the context of a wedding, “to have and to hold” are words that call a marriage to arms, words that demand a promise of loyalty. In this week’s episode of Mad Men, everyone is dealing with their own ability or inability to be loyal. At the forefront is Don, who wants to be loyal — to Vinegars, Sauces, and Beans, first and foremost, and to Megan as a bit of an afterthought — but on both accounts, he fails. He is constantly gambling with his relationships.
There are all kinds of betrayals in this episode. Kate, Joan’s visiting friend, betrays her family just to feel something. Dow Chemical has betrayed its clean American image by selling napalm to scorch the Vietnamese. Scarlet has betrayed Joan with the simple act of having Dawn punch her time card so that she can go out shopping.
And then there are the larger betrayals: Peggy has betrayed Stan. Worse, she’s taken Don’s very words — ”If you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation” — and used them in battle against him. She’s rewarded with Don’s angry stare, and with the much less subtle middle finger from Stan. “I think I see a friend,” he says as he passes by her.
And Harry Crane brashly betrays Joan. “I’m sorry my accomplishments happen in broad daylight,” he says when he busts into the partners’ meeting. How dare he! But that’s the crappy reality: Harry is gambling everything for something bigger, but with the power of a man, he can gamble in the daylight. Joan has gambled too, but as a woman her games had to take place in the dark, and her payoff is tainted. (As a side note, someone has betrayed Joan by telling Harry how she got her partnership. Absolutely all of my money is on Pete.)
Megan is also taking a huge risk; she’s choosing something she wants over the wellbeing of her marriage. In return, she gets Don’s accusation that she’s a whore (“You kiss people for money. You know who does that?”) and a good old lonely dressing room cry.
Finally, there’s Dawn, who risks a lot in this episode. Her choices, though, are the most limited: first, she’s forced to choose loyalty either to Joan or to Scarlet. Then, she must choose to be loyal either to a company where she feels hated or a friend who makes her feel alone. She ends up with Joan’s backhanded punishment — the keys to the supply closet and the time clock.
Mel and Arlene, the power couple in charge of Megan’s soap opera, have been married for 18 years. What’s their secret? Well, they’re swingers. Is loyalty only possible with a caveat for cheating? That seems to be the case with Don, who ends the episode hiding from God in Sylvia’s bed. She tells him that she prays that he’ll find peace, but at this point that seems far away. He’s pushing Megan away so that he can — what? What is it that he’s reaching for?
That’s a big question for me in this episode. It’s not that it’s anything new, of course, but as we come to this same issue again and again, I’m losing hope for Don. What will make him happy? Certainly he’s not planning to marry Sylvia; certainly he can’t stay with Megan. And we’ve seen the train wreck that is Single Don. Sylvia seems right to pray for him.
At the ketchup presentation, Don’s campaign is suggestive and Peggy’s is clear. Don’s ad counts on the customer’s loyalty — he’s not even showing them the bottle, he’s just assuming they’ll remember. It’s tantalizingly incomplete. Peggy, though, is saying what she means: there’s only one ketchup for you. Peggy is suggesting monogamy. Don is flirting.
That might be the fundamental difference between those two — but then again, Peggy’s done plenty of flirting herself. Still, Peggy’s self-assured air seems pure, whereas, knowing what we do about Don, his is starting to fray a little. In the race for King/Queen of creative, Peggy may be on the way to passing her mentor.
But back to loyalty, to the idea of sticking by something. Everyone in the Mad Men universe has gotten something that they want and no one knows what to do with it anymore. In this light, “to have and to hold” sounds like a challenge — a burden — as opposed to a blessing.
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