Last week’s Mad Men was an exercise in subtlety and restraint.
While it is titled “The Gypsy and the Hobo” (for the Halloween costumes worn by the Draper children), I’d like to focus on the exchange between the main characters, as Don can no longer duck the past he’s hidden from his wife for a decade.
The confrontation, impeccably achieved
The long awaited confrontation between Betty (January Jones) and Don (Jon Hamm) twisted my gut into knots, as piece by piece Don answers his wife’s questions, revealing the details of his past. Along with poverty and illegitimacy, the taking of a dead man’s identity. Let’s not forget that revelations of this sort 40+ years ago, in the ultra-socially conscious milieu of the upper middle class – would be devastating in the circles the Drapers inhabit.
Her response – anger, hurt, mistrust. “What would you do if you were me?” she asks. “Would you love you?”
As the conversation wears on, Betty’s anger subsides, particularly as Don speaks of his younger brother’s suicide, and breaks down. He could have helped, and didn’t, fearing his deception would be exposed.
With this more vulnerable Don, stripped of the polished veneer, might he and Betty create a closer bond? Genuine intimacy? Or did he subconsciously fall in love with a woman who would maintain a cool emotional distance, which would enable him to keep his secrets safely hidden? Is she capable of the sort of warmth he found in his most recent mistress?
More kudos to Mad Men’s creators for:
- Cleverly unmasking Don on the night that everyone else is intentionally disguised.
- Brilliant lighting, throughout the disclosure scene in particular; the bright white of Don’s shirt, one side of his face illuminated and the other, in darkness.
- Betty is back lit, but in muted clothing; what we see of her expression is calm, visible, but in filtered light, suggesting the uncertainty of her eventual actions.
- Suzanne’s departure into the night shows the role of the mistress with its ultimate constraints: she is relegated to the shadows, and to walking away alone.
There were nifty character-enhancing moments playing out in this episode, including a few surprises. Among them, another example of idiocy (okay, I’ll be nice – naiveté) when it comes to Joan’s unenlightened and inept husband. He joins the Army, thinking it’s the solution to all their problems.
Joan will once again be caught in his blind backlash. His decision will impact both their lives significantly, yet he never thought to discuss it. (Even Pete Campbell is more forthcoming with his wife.)
Leave it to the Mad Men writers to give us classic Joanie, in all her glorious stand-up style. What’s not to love about this exchange?
Greg: “You don’t know what it’s like to want something your whole life and plan for it and not get it.”
Joanie: “Bullshit!” And she clocks him over the head with a vase!
Another unexpected moment comes with roaming Roger’s restraint as a gorgeous former flame tries to seduce him. Despite plenty of drink, he declines. “I’m married,” he says, and clarifies: “This girl’s different.”
Thoughts on the title and closing scene
The closing scene of this episode is brilliant. Betty is at her husband’s side, even after the revelations of his past. She holds their infant in her arms. They’re standing in the dark, and considerable space separates them. Only the child’s white blanket lightens the impact, like a flicker of hope in the future. Betty’s gloved hands are dark; she may be typical of the era in many ways, but we know her mothering skills are less than ideal.
More layers? Don and Betty’s children are dressed as a gypsy and a hobo. Is Betty the gypsy, ever decked out and lovely? Is Don the hobo? Homeless, wandering, and if not for taking the name of a dead man, would he be invisible?
Or are both characters facets of Don, equally without roots and forced to wander? One may do so with more gaiety and glitz, entertaining and seducing along the way, while the other lives in the shadows and on the periphery. But isn’t this Don? Both showman and a “tramp” – with the ironies in that term that so aptly apply?
In the chilling final moments of the episode, as trick-or-treating continues, a neighbor glances at their children – the gypsy and the hobo – then looks at Don and says “and who are you supposed to be?”
One final reminder
With the next episode, post Halloween, we’re that much closer to November 22, 1963. Camelot comes to an end, and our country’s innocence is over.