Mad Men: Sex, Lies, & The Recline Of The Roman EmpireS

Last night's episode of Mad Men, "Souvenir," was a meditation on memory, duplicity, role-playing, and the male gaze.



We open in the Sterling Cooper offices, on an unspecified Friday afternoon in August 1963, and Manhattan, for the most part, has emptied out. Even the Sterling Cooper secretaries, as the particularly nasty Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove have learned, are skipping town. "Why is it a man on his own is an object of pity when she's really the one you should feel sorry for?" Pete asks as his secretary leaves his office. Answer: Because it's the early 1960s and you're a rapist asshole?


Mad Men: Sex, Lies, & The Recline Of The Roman EmpireS

Pete, always the unrepentant capitalist, has not given up on his curiosity for - and potential conquest - of the African-American market. In this opening scene, he is seen thumbing through the March 1963 issue of Ebony - strange, since by that point, the September issue, devoted to the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, would have been on newsstands. (A souvenir, of sorts?) The issue, starring a radiant Shirley Bassey, features no fewer than three ads for televisions, none of them Admirals. More interesting than the ad buys, which are dominated by companies shilling spirits, cigarettes, hair straighteners and feminine hygiene products, is the journalism, which speaks to the coming civil rights and women's movements by way of a feature on the then 21-year-old Cassius Clay ("a blast furnace of race pride"), a profile of Eunice Adabunu of Togo (described by Ebony headline writers as a "feminist power"), a short piece on a girls' track coach in Hawai'i ("Chicagoan raps notion that athletic girls lack appeal" - shades of Obama?), and articles on interracial families and the biracial Ms. Bassey.


Mad Men: Sex, Lies, & The Recline Of The Roman EmpireS

"I want to integrate my coffee." That's a quote from Cassius Clay, soon to be better known as Muhammad Ali. Later this month, on August 28, Martin Luther King will deliver his famous 'I Have A Dream Speech' and (continue to) change the course of history.


Speaking of dreams: Back at the Draper household, family life seems to have returned to some sort of uneasy equilibrium. The children are frolicking among the fireflies, Don is passed out in front of primetime television, and Sally, in particular, seems surprisingly interested in taking her big-girl cues from Betty, who leaves behind the drudgery of errand-running for silk scarves and scarlet lipstick.


Mad Men: Sex, Lies, & The Recline Of The Roman EmpireS

The reason for the silk and lipstick? Betty is on her way to a meeting with the Ossining City Council in the hopes that she and the other local Junior League ladies can stop the proposed water tower on the nearby reservoir. When the dashing Henry Francis finally turns up, her expression goes from zero to sexty.


Mad Men: Sex, Lies, & The Recline Of The Roman EmpireS

Speaking of facial expressions, I'm beginning to believe that Francine knows something everyone else doesn't.


Henry's mini-seduction scene beside Betty's father's car - souvenir alert! - was striking for its tenderness. ("Dear God, did I make her happy? Because that makes me happy"? Even I swooned. Where's the fainting couch when you need it?) Despite the fact that she soon runs off to Europe with her actual husband, I have a feeling that this not the last she'll see - or taste - of Mr. Francis.


The attentions of a man decidedly more mature, attentive and powerful than her own formidably talented husband seem to have awakened something in Betty; she's literally dancing. Even Don notices a change, which presents an interesting conundrum: How long will he indulge Betty's own declarations of independence, embrace of her own power and capabilities, or parroting of politics-speak before he goes from admiring to annoyed?


Back in Manhattan, Pete Campbell has made his way to Bonwit Teller to see what he can do on behalf of his neighbor's buxom German au pair, Gertrude, who, as we learned earlier, is bereft after having soiled her employer's party dress. And who's this? It's Joan, industrious and competent as ever - although the smearing of kohl around her eyes can't disguise her inner sadness and shame at being reduced to patrolling the Republic of Dresses...or her marriage to a loser medicine man.


Mad Men: Sex, Lies, & The Recline Of The Roman EmpireS

Roman holiday! Summoned by Conrad Hilton, Don (and Betty) make their way across the Atlantic to Rome's Waldorf-Astoria, where, rather than playing to her weaknesses and vulnerabilities, as she has done so often this season, Betty openly exhibits her shrewd understanding of the power that men wield, and the currency - two dollars for the bellhop? she asks - that comes with it. I especially loved the look of shock and awe on Don's face after Betty, rather than passing the calling Conrad Hilton off to her husband, more than held her own with the hotel magnate.


La Dolce Vita: Later that evening, while waiting for Don and Connie to appear for dinner, Betty hits the hotel bar in her bombshell, best costume of the day. The shock (and awe) waves are palpable...


Mad Men: Sex, Lies, & The Recline Of The Roman EmpireS

...and not just because of the golden beehive, liberally-applied eye makeup or slinky black column dress: Betty's entire carriage and countenance have straightened considerably, and the manner in which she and Don regard one another in this performative moment of faux seduction is stunning, and sexy as hell. Contrast this image - via the post-sex photo up top - of Betty luxuriating the next morning with her look of forced "repose" on her fainting couch a week earlier. Are Mad Men writers setting up Betty for her own Eat Pray Love, 60s edition?


Speaking of sex, on the other side of the Atlantic...


I didn't - and still don't - know what to make of Pete's rape of Gertrude the German au pair, other than that it was a profoundly disgusting, and depressing, moment, and yet wholly unsurprising. (Pete's query to his secretary - "What are you doing this weekend?" - is now, in retrospect less strange and much more sinister, as is his promise to Gertrude by the garbage chute that he is "not going to get you in trouble.") Pete's abuses of power - courtesy of his sex, race and station in life - so often take the form of abuses against women - objects that, like the Bonwit Teller dress, can be stained and returned or discarded with little to no repercussions. (The significance of Pete the rapist returning the stained dress to Joan, of all people, was probably not lost on anyone.) And his crimes are aided and abetted by everyone around him: His male neighbor, whose sole complaint following the assault is that his au pair is now using up all his Kleenex; his own wife, whose growing realization of her husband's infidelities never amount to anything more than a few fluttering eyelids and freshly-prepared fruit salads. "Don't leave me alone anymore," he tells Trudy later, skillfully deflecting blame for his transgressions onto her.


Other moments: Back in Ossining, Betty gazes balefully at the eyesore that is her hastily-purchased fainting couch, then summons Sally for lesson on life, love, and first kisses - "A first kiss is very special. Every kiss after that is a shadow of that kiss. You go from being a stranger to knowing someone" - the first example of sensitive parenting we've seen from Betty in weeks. Will it last?


...probably not.