After last week's season premiere served us a two-hour meditation on death, last night's Mad Men was all about sex, which should be a much happier topic as it's the antithesis of death. But with this episode taking place the January after the Summer of Love, the gang is squarely in the winter of their discontent, faced with how sex doesn't just create life, it can also destroy it.
Don Draper was first introduced to us as a man of vices, but over the course of the series it's become quite clear that his bad habits have turned into some hardcore addictions. We know that he's an alcoholic and he's hooked on cigarettes, but his serial cheating was always presented as a byproduct of being trapped in an unhappy marriage to his first wife Betty. Now his sexual behavior—which tends to be socially inappropriate—seems compulsive.
Perhaps "sex addiction" is used a little too much as an excuse for poor behavior in this day and age. But last night we learned a little more about Don's childhood through flashbacks that revealed that after his father's death he and his pregnant stepmother were forced to move into a brothel where she got turned out by "Uncle Mac." And a 10-year-old Don saw it all. That has to be traumatizing.
Roger Sterling's mother always said:
Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.
Psych! That was Oscar Wilde. Still, it's apropos particularly for someone with Don's childhood and lineage—aside from being raised in a brothel during his adolescence, he was also born to a prostitute, impregnated by a john. In every way, Don Draper is the product of transactional sex. It's what he knows. Perhaps that's why he insists on paying for sex, in some form—usually with guilt or other emotional currency—every time. (He gave Sylvia thick wad of bills on last night's episode.) The irony, of course, is that while he's trying to prove his own dominance to himself through sleeping around, he's actually powerless when it comes to sex in the same way that a person is powerless when it comes to any addiction.
But Don is not a sociopath. He knows what he's doing is bad but he just can't seem to stop. (His loyalty to the Heinz Baked Beans guy is demonstrative of his understanding of and ability to be faithful.) It's a lot like smoking. In fact, Don's whole relationship with cigarettes seems to be allegorical for this show. Just like with his marriage and his infidelity, Don's smoking is so hypocritical, considering that full-page ad he took out in The New York Times about no longer accepting cigarette accounts because cigarettes are deadly. It lead to him receiving an award from the American Cancer Society. He contintues to puff away.
As he was in the elevator with his neighbor Dr. Rosen, he realized that he forgot his pack of cigarettes and pressed the button for his floor to go retrieve them. Dr. Rosen said, "You need to stop that nonsense." (It was the second time in as many weeks that Dr. Rosen brought up how unhealthy Don's smoking is.)
Immediately following this exchange Don continued with the other "nonsense" that he knows he needs to stop: his affair with Sylvia, Dr. Rosen's wife.
Last week we saw Don reading Inferno while on vacation. One of the main themes of that text, of course, is sin. The same could be said for this season of Mad Men. One of the hookers in Don's flashback told him to "find [his] own sins." And did he ever. We're likely to see Don cycle through all the seven deadly sins. So far he's got Lust, Envy (coveting what belongs to his neighbor, as in, his wife), Gluttony (which is sometimes interpreted as selfishness), and Sloth (sometimes interpreted as love that isn't strong enough) under his belt through his treatment of his marriage.
Meanwhile, Pete Campbell is doing his part of tackling Pride; he wants to be better than everyone else—or at least look like it. ("It's all about what it looks like, isn't it?" he said to Bob Benson.) Sex is certainly about power for Pete. Trudy has always been just as ambitious as her husband, and viewed his career as as something that they worked on together, since there are so many social aspects to being a successful accounts man. (Remember when they charmed everyone with their choreography?) Unlike the more traditional suburban model of marriage of Betty and Don Draper, Trudy and Pete's relationship was a true partnership. And Pete, who is the lesser of the partners at SCDP was also the lesser of the partners in his marriage. (Mostly, it has to do with his own personality and just being a small person in general.)
Pete had some bullshit idea that having a sex life outside of his marriage would give him the upper hand in his marriage. But Trudy isn't Betty. She's not looking to be the victim. Because being victimized would mean failure, and as she said, "I refuse to be a failure."
In an impassioned speech, she handed Pete his ass and kicked him out, insisting she won't be giving him a divorce. So instead of Pete finding power in his extracurricular sex life, he was basically neutered. Now he has to live in his one bedroom sex flat and worry about things like whether or not he has toilet paper instead of comfortably watching The Tonight Show on a floral print couch.
Over at her new job, Peggy is dealing with the kind of bullshit sexism that was, unfortunately, inevitably bound to happen to such a tough female boss in that era. (Or probably any female boss.) The really shitty thing wasn't that her employees did that, but that her boss Ted Chaough thought it was funny. I don't think Don would've thought it was funny. Perhaps Peggy thinks that, too. Maybe those thoughts are what makes using her insider info about the Heinz Ketchup account so difficult. She has a loyalty to Don that she's not comfortable betraying.
The ultimate betrayal of last night's episode, though, surrounds Don & Megan & Arnold & Sylvia. (Interestingly, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice will be in theaters within the year, while John Updikes' Couples, about a group of promiscuous, married friends, was published in 1968.)With friendships burgeoning between the two men and the two women, Don and Sylvia's affair is getting crueler and crueler.
Here's Megan, opening her heart up to Sylvia about her miscarriage, and her guilt of feeling grateful about it (it was convenient for her career), only to have Sylvia serve Megan some moral judgment on it, making her feel worse. And all the while Sylvia is having an affair with Megan's husband. Megan is the ultimate Soap queen and she doesn't even realize it. These issues will undoubtedly be helpful in her method acting in years to come, though.
When Megan finally shares her secret with Don and asks him what he wants, he tells her, "I want what you want." It's such a load of crap, since earlier in the evening he told Sylvia, "I want you all the time." Don is lying to both women, telling them both what they want to hear. Maybe he learned it from the prostitutes he grew up around. For all of Don's attempts to position himself as the john in his sexual relationships, his behavior is much more similar to that of a whore.
At the end of the episode, after being turned away by Sylvia when he knocked on her maid's door, he approaches his own front door, but he doesn't enter. Instead, he slumps down in the hallway, perhaps too tired to go on with the charade. It's like he was living out Roger's therapy rant about doors, and the pointlessness of everything that we do.
Or maybe he's coming to terms with just how unmanageable his life has become, which happens to be the first of the Twelve Steps to recovering from addiction.