“I’m thankful that I have everything I want, and that no one else has anything better.”
Betty can’t just be happy. She can’t just have what she wants. Having what she wants doesn’t feel good. Instead, what feels good is having what she wants at the expense of others. It’s a mean-spirited way to live, and no amount of window-dressing can make it sound nicer. “Selfish” would be an improvement. She lacks self-awareness to such an extent that she can say the above as a sincere expression of gratitude at Thanksgiving. The Internet is full of Betty haters, and I don’t consider myself one of their number, but this aspect of her character cannot be explained away, softened, or justified. It’s just nasty.
I know what you’re thinking. You thought I’d open with the “Every man for himself” quote. Clearly, that’s the, or a, theme of Mad Men Episode 5.09: Dark Shadows, and it’s also something that Matt Weiner has been talking about in the media. Because Weiner is so secretive about what’s to come on the show, when he releases a quote or a theme, it spreads like wildfire in the blogosphere.
Yet “Every man for himself” only takes us halfway on our journey. Don could have pushed hard for himself without ditching Ginsberg’s work in the cab. Betty could work to lose weight and be a supportive wife without trying to destroy Don’s new marriage. Pete could pursue Beth Dawes without taking a shot at her husband. (Check out Pete’s delightful Beth fantasy in the video below, and don’t fail to notice that Pete can’t fantasize about sex without fantasizing about power and recognition as well.)
So, it’s every man for himself, sure, but it’s also about crushing the other guy in the process, and the notion that success just isn’t as much fun unless someone is under your bootheel. I don’t think many fans love Jane Sterling, but her plaintive realization that she’s been defeated by Roger touched me: “You get everything you want, and you still had to do this.” That, as much as Betty’s Thanksgiving gratitude, is the real point: Winning in this show’s world is hollow unless someone else loses.
What are the major plot lines this episode? First is Betty: Her weight struggle, and her competitiveness with Megan. Then comes Don and his competitiveness with Ginsberg. Then there’s Roger, who is competing with Pete for business and with Jane for a sense of ownership. Others are swept up into various competitions: Peggy versus Ginsberg, Pete versus Howard, Julia versus Megan. These people compete not only for themselves, but because they specifically and pointedly resent what others have.
I doubt fans will love this episode. There is, first of all, the Betty backlash to contend with. I think her character was absolutely compelling this week, but she usually sets off an Internet Comment Shitstorm. You heard it here first. It was also kind of a difficult episode. It didn’t have a lot of BANG WOW moments: I mean, sure, Megan in a bra, Beth in nothing at all, but no hand jobs or blow jobs or fisticuffs in sight, so maybe people will feel shortchanged. I also think seeing this kind of nastiness can be wearing; it feels petty and so you come away from it like Sally at the end of last episode; “Dirty.” The “killer smog” at the end of the episode really happened, and it also serves as a symbol for the creeping toxicity of these cutthroat shenanigans. It makes it hard to breathe for all of us, and I suspect some portion of the audience might react negatively. [Click through to the next page for more…]
A second, connected theme is secrecy, and people being outed. This is threaded throughout Dark Shadows: Secrets and the ability to expose secrets represent power, and power is what our characters compete for. Nothing is more insidious than Betty’s “sweetly” mentioning Anna Draper to Sally (watch it below):
In Betty’s version of self-revelation at her Weight Watchers’ meeting, she’s so vague as to border on meaningless: She says merely that she experienced something that upset her. What upset her was another person’s happiness. Don and Megan have a magnificent apartment, and Megan has a young, beautiful body. Betty can barely contain how awful this makes her feel. Inadvertently finding a love note from Don to Megan puts her over the edge: It’s simply not okay for them to be in love, for Don to be sweet to Megan, for the Draper apartment to be more beautiful than the Francis house. (By the way, Megan is wrong about the distance; it’s 25 miles from Rye to 73rd and Park.)
Betty setting up Sally to ask just the right question to create havoc reminds me so much of Betty setting up Sara Beth in the Season 2 episode Six Month Leave (Betty has an Episode 9 pattern, I guess). She manages her feelings by making others suffer, this time in an episode where the Weight Watchers leader talks about stuffing the feelings you can’t express using food. Betty wants to feel differently; swallowing the mouthful of canned whipped cream and then spitting it out is a perfect encapsulation of that YES NO YES NO feeling; wanting and not wanting, stuffing and letting it out. She offers just the right kind of support and wisdom to Henry even while spreading her poison.
So, Betty tries to use outing someone’s secret as a weapon, and we get a sense of that with Jane and Ginsberg, too: Jewishness is a secret you have to keep in Roger’s social circles, a secret Roger required Jane to keep. Now he expresses power over her by pushing that secret out of the shadows. Roger wants Ginsberg to keep a secret and he says no; Peggy kept a secret for Roger, and each was paid for it (although Peggy was paid a lot more). Whoever holds the reins to a secret is ahead in this “doggy dog world.”
Some additional thoughts:
- Henry wonders if he “bet on the wrong horse” for nothing. It seems like Betty is wondering the same, and Henry is that horse.
- It looks like a senility plot might be in Bert Cooper’s future. Correcting “hip” for “hep” makes him seem amusingly out of touch, but not knowing that Roger and Jane are divorcing could be a bad sign.
- Betty really enjoys food this episode: Whether it’s her meager breakfast, or a bit of steak, or a tiny bit of Thanksgiving dinner, she chews with gusto. In past seasons, when thin, she barely ate at all. Allowing herself or not allowing herself to experience pleasure is a whole motif with this character. At least chewing is some kind of start.
- On the other hand, I feel like the chin appliance gets in the way of January Jones’s ability to use her face expressively.
- Okay, fine, I said I wouldn’t, but I’ll give quote of the week to this: Peggy: “You are not loyal. You only think about yourself.” Roger: “Were we married? Because you’re thinking about yourself too. That’s the way it is, it’s every man for himself.”