On ‘Mad Men,’ You Can’t Have It All, But You Can Still Wonder If Other People Do

On 'Mad Men,' You Can't Have It All, But You Can Still Wonder If Other People Do
On 'Mad Men,' You Can't Have It All, You Can Still Wonder If Other People Do

The article below contains spoilers for “To Have and to Hold,” the April 21, 2013 episode of “Mad Men.”

It seems that women still cry in the bathrooms of Sterling Cooper Draper. Back in the first season of “Mad Men,” new secretary Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) walked past someone weeping every time she headed into the ladies’ room — though she looked in the mirror and squared her jaw and silently vowed that she wouldn’t be one of them, that’d she be tough and modern and able to play by the office’s difficult and ever shifting rules. Now Peggy’s a copy chief at another agency, going up against her old boss and mentor Don (Jon Hamm) for the Heinz ketchup account she learned from a conversation Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) surely figured was off the record, while Joan (Christina Hendricks), the former queen bee of the admin department who once banned tears from the break room (“It erodes morale. There’s a place to do that, like your apartment.”) is now an SCD partner herself. It’s Dawn (Teyonah Parris) who’s the outsider freshest to this Madison Avenue world, and who sees that “everybody’s scared there” even as she wants and needs to hold on to her position. It’s no easy bargain to strike.

“To Have and to Hold,” which was directed by Michael Uppendahl (a series regular who’s helmed seven past episodes) and written by Erin Levy, was a stronger episode than the season’s first two, and gave us the show’s first real look at Dawn after introducing her last year largely as a way to show off other characters’ attitudes with regard to race. The diner conversations between Dawn and her soon-to-be-married friend Nikki (Idara Victor) outlined how Dawn is even more isolated in her workplace experience than the female characters making early forays into the male-dominated ranks of the agency.

As she pointed out, it’s just her and a shoeshine man on a subway train otherwise full of white people by 72nd Street, and her apparent social invisibility extends even to run-ins with those she knows from home, who give her nods but don’t stop to talk. She has to navigate an even more complicated social landscape than Peggy did in those early days, but she’s also driven by need, by her apparent conviction that she’s not going to be able to meet someone and get married. Working instead of being a wife doesn’t seem to be for her a question of liberty so much as one of necessity.

Those two things needn’t be exclusive, even in the era, but this episode of “Mad Men” outlined how they might seem that way to some of the characters, particularly Joan, who was paid a grass-is-always-greener visit by an old friend named Kate (Marley Shelton) who works at Mary Kay but is looking to move on. The married Kate was also in search of a wild night out, and Joan indulged her in a heartbreakingly conciliatory fashion, helping her friend flirt with a waiter at a restaurant and later hooking up with a pal he summoned with neither reluctance nor enthusiasm. That striking scene, taking place in a downtown bar playing Serge Gainsbourg, unfolded in one long shot, the camera closing in on Joan on her perch on one side of a sofa as she asked her temporary beau how his friend has described her, more to see what he’d say than because she actually wanted to know. “He said I’d want you,” he claimed, though it’s entirely possible he was summoned with a less vague promise of easy sex.

There’s something terrible and tired to Joan’s graceful acquiescing to the will of others in that sequence, just as there was in her giving Dawn more power as a punishment. She’s always been the character with the finest grasp of social undercurrents and how to flow with them, to use them for momentum, but her showdown with a petulant Harry (Rich Sommer) in the office (“I am tired of your petty dictatorship!”) seemed to leave a lasting wound when he brought up what she did to land the Jaguar account. It’s something that the partners were willing to ask of her at the time — a betrayal that still resonates for the character — but that others are clearly happy to fling back in her face after it was done. “I’m really not you, am I?” Kate asked as the pair woke up in their clothes, hungover. “Why would you want to be?” Joan responded, and at that moment she really seemed to mean it. The power Joan has always found in her desirability seems, for now, to have been drained away, and her place at SCD is hardly offering the same affirmation.

Megan (Jessica Paré), the character who does have it all — except for her perpetually dissatisfied husband’s fidelity — also ran up against social mores when her character was given a love scene on her soap opera. Don’s actions at the episode’s end, his showing up on set to watch the scene and then starting that fight in the dressing room (“You kiss people for money — you know who does that?”) were harder to parse than Joan’s, and harder to take in general given our knowledge of Don’s past and current behavior.

It’s believable that he wouldn’t want to see his wife kissing another man, or more pressingly to have her be seen doing so by a TV audience, but he also works in advertising — artifice for the job is part of his day-to-day life, and the nature of the scene, with its silliness and the surrounding crowd, was hardly threatening. (Nor were the offers the night before from Megan’s swinger co-workers.) His attack on Megan instead seemed like a power play, like him pressing an advantage rather than being genuinely outraged — and he’s too smart to allow himself actual anger over a soap opera bedroom scene, which would be the worst type of hypocrisy for a compulsive adulterer.

Coming after Don’s brush with Peggy outside the hotel room in which Heinz had been installed, his unfair indignation seemed all about control, about the shift between both his former protege and his spouse striking out on their own rather than succeeding because he’s allowed or enabled them to do so. And in general Don has always liked to be wooed, to be wanted but free to move on whenever he likes.

After the last episode’s high-minded talk about sticking by Raymond Geiger and the baked beans and vinegars account because he was their original client, Don still showed up in Pete’s (Vincent Kartheiser) apartment to talk to the ketchup rep, lured by the idea of being the only one to get a chance at the account. His displeasure in seeing Peggy with Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) wasn’t just about being placed in competition with the woman he sometimes taught, it was about having to go up against anyone.

Don’s a guy who has no trouble going from calling his wife a whore for playacting at embracing another actor on camera to tumbling into his waiting mistress Sylvia’s (Linda Cardellini) bed while needling her about whether she prays for absolution after he leaves. Her clear-eyed answer, that she prays for him, doesn’t offer him any solace — though that’s not why he’s there. Don’s the one standing in the way of his own happiness, and his knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to find a solution. He may enjoy freedoms many of the other characters have no chance at, but that doesn’t mean he knows where to go.

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