The Threat and Thrill of Poison
Dear Kathryn (“with a K”),
At first I was a little bored by this episode; it didn’t feel like all that much was happening. But then I realized that things weren’t moving because we were instead getting a full, fairly detailed narration of the tension that is going to lie at the heart of every story from now on – the poison that hovers outside the safe spaces. Perhaps the show’s title, “Dark Shadows,” should have clued me into this from the start! But this tension between the threat outside vs. the safety inside was played with in numerous ways – Megan’s reference to Betty poisoning them from 50m away, her concern about the toxins in the smog, and Betty’s sad realization that while she’d had a good week with her Weight Watchers friends, “in here,” she’d had a bad week with everyone else, “out there,” perhaps even the references to the Devil…And so with this theme established, we saw the threat Ginsberg poses to Don, and the almost Betty-like move that Don pulled to avoid that threat. We saw the threat of a younger man who could nab Jane, and Roger’s realization that his selfishness is at the heart of his own sadness. We saw Pete’s fantasy and explosion about Beth on the train – indicating that that story is not going to fade away. And, most exciting of all – we finally got to see Meghan and Betty in the same room…and feel the type of tension that you’d need a damn sharp knife to cut. And I think that’s where I need to start!
We’ve all been waiting for this Meghan/Betty story to erupt – and while it didn’t erupt last night, we got to see how solid Meghan and Don really are (I never imagined Don would write a note so sweet), and the lengths to which Betty will go to try to invade that marital happiness. I noted how gracefully Meghan moved around the apartment, so comfortable in her own skin (not even noticing herself being noticed semi-nude), while Betty knocked a lamp as she tried to move through the space. This echoed the introduction of Betty into this season where, as you noted, Meghan slipped easily into a dress while Betty battled furiously with a zipper. But in the end, it was Betty’s declaration that she has everything she wants, and no one’s got anything better that intrigued me – cruel though it was, she really seemed to mean it. So what did she see in the new Draper life that made her think it was no better than hers? Did she realize that Sally has told a small lie about the photographs (and on that note, we always mention how Betty-esque Sally is, but that completely unnecessary tiny lie was pure Don!) or did she see something I missed there? Did you? Or, perhaps, the line was simply a reminder of the pathetic, childish place Betty finds her joy.
In addition to this tension between inside safety/outside threats, I want to mention two more themes that surfaced that I found particularly interesting. First, we’ve mentioned and I’ve written elsewhere about the ways reality, fantasy and delusion all blend into each other quite seamlessly this season. So far these transitions have focused mostly on Don (the elevator shaft, the murder sequence, etc…), Roger (the LSD trip), and perhaps Lane (the fantasies about Delores, the girl in the wallet). Tonight added Pete to these games with the Beth fantasy and, in so doing, I think, firmly established him among that old guard. Megan and the young ones follow their dreams; Don, Roger and now Pete wallow in them. So what I’ll be curious to see is which side Peggy will join – will we see her enter fantasyland in the weeks to come, or will her frustration (and our recent knowledge of her pact with Cosgrove) boil to the point that she’ll break free and find herself something new.
And second, we’ve followed much in the way of visual cues through costuming this season, but this episode really focused its visuals on the importance of food. We had the snowball – utterly fake food, just like last week’s cool whip – as the campaign of the day. We had the centrality of the Thanksgiving feat (and when did we jump from each episode taking place on a day in July to so late in the year?!) – a feast that Meghan prepared, but we didn’t see her eat, and which Betty savored with that creepy chewing in the closing shot. Indeed, the focusing on her chewing throughout evoked fully the static tension of the episode for me – pause here and do violence to what you hold. Of course, we had Weight Watchers, which at that point in time was only three years old. And we had Peggy constantly situated in relation to a meal – eating a white-bread sandwich when she found out Ginsberg was working on Manichewitz (something I can’t imagine a Manhattanite woman eating nowadays!), withholding sandwiches from Roger in the elevator out of anger, and then ordering food gleefully when she found out Ginsberg had been screwed. I’m not sure what all this food did – did it mark out the territories of battles to come? Did it remind us how consumer tastes are changing in this moment? Was it simply a curious historical reminder of how eating habits (and dieting habits) were changing so drastically in this period? I’d be curious to hear what you think, Kathryn, and our readers too!
On that note, I’ve been going on far too long – can’t wait to hear what you thought! I’m glad, though, that Roger finally realized, he really does carry too much cash!
I’m glad you focused on the Megan and Betty encounter and Betty’s attempt to poison the new Draper residence from her own Dark Shadows-esque Connecticut mansion (and how much clever planning had to go into timing a historical reference to the original Dark Shadows camp-soap-opera the same weekend Johnny Depp’s and Tim Burton’s remake came out?!). We’ve focused a lot on how much the world is changing around Don Draper and it was good to see the second Mrs. Draper struggle with a new social order she can’t quite understand. It isn’t just that Megan slips into fashionable new clothes without struggle, but she moves effortlessly in a stylish New York world that Betty, like Beth and so many housewives around her, finds threatening. That this sleek new apartment also houses real love and intimacy, witnessed by the adoring and off-hand note Don left for Megan that accidentally fell into Betty’s hands, is just too much for Betty to bear. But Don is right when he tells Sally that Betty’s real goal was to strike at Don and Megan’s happiness, because she surely assumed that the new Mrs. Draper would not already know Don’s full history. Her little world has changed more than she can imagine and it has thrown her for quite a loop.
Not that this disequilibrium is an excuse for her mean-spirited prank. Using Sally as the go-between to sock one to Megan and Don was a new Betty low and even if Sally wasn’t the intended victim, she certainly got caught in the cross-hairs. Watching Sally try to figure out all these adult machinations was heart-wrenching enough – kids caught in adult situations is just tough. Watching her put those machinations to work – realizing she could play Betty right back with her own embellishments about family story time around the picture album – was chilling. I really do think Megan is her friend, but I’m not sure Megan is going to have enough influence to overcome the life-long lessons in manipulation Sally has been learning at her mother’s side.
Even if I thought Betty was the bad guy in that scenario, Don had his own all time low in the workplace. We’ve commented on how little Don seems to care about his work and worried that he’d care even less now that Megan wasn’t around, since his only moments of creative energy on the job were when they played as a team. As he puts together a portfolio to send to the NY Times he starts to notice how much of Ginsberg’s work is winning all their pitches. Maybe it can all be explained by Peggy getting buried in Heinz and Don’s own “love leave” but Ginsberg is taking them both to school. Wandering the office late at night (and when have we seen Don at the office past 5 p.m. this whole season?), he clearly is thinking about Ginsberg a lot, whatever he tells him in the elevator later. Discovering Ginsberg’s creative sketches for the Snowball campaign sends Don back to his dictaphone and an even longer night of less than inspiring brainstorming. The devil sketch Don comes up with isn’t half-bad, but come on, how many kids walk around thinking about the phrase “a snowball’s chance in hell”? Will most of them even get the joke, however much they like devils in cartoons? Since he arrived on the scene, Ginsberg’s been a competitor with Don. Only Don just woke up enough to realize it and his response was far from graceful. When he left those sketches in the cab I audibly gasped: this is not the Don Draper we know. The Don Draper we know really would exist above his inferiors, unthreatened by their success and more than confident about his own. This new Don is turning out to be more of an ass than Roger ever was, but something tells me Ginsberg is going to be more skilled than Pete at his own comeback.
What it all seems to boil down to is envy. The older generation (in age or temperament) doesn’t understand the new generation, but in a new way this lack of comprehension is accompanied with real envy. I think you are right to connect this envy to the role of desire and fantasy. Just like we saw last week, Roger and Don can’t really grasp the idea of Megan “following her dreams” – this is a new way to talk about one’s life and not a way they understand. That doesn’t mean they are happy in their own much more proscribed lives. It is just that sublimation, deception, and fantasy have been the main means unhappy people of their class and social position seem to work out this malaise. Where Megan and Ginsberg just go for what they want and get it, with what at least appears to be far less subterfuge and angst. What Don should worry about is what it will look like when Ginsberg goes after his dream.
One final thought: while it does seem Beth will make another appearance, in fantasy or reality, seeing January Jones back in action really drove home how amazingly she captures the childish, manipulative, constrained, and constraining attitude of a stunted housewife. I’m not sure anyone can do it better.
I feel like one of us should say thank you.