Don and Betty go out to dinner with Roger and Mona. Don deflects questions about his past both at the dinner, and later at home with Betty. Betty’s shaky hands lead to a low-speed car wreck in a neighbor’s yard, and the medical consensus is that she needs psychiatric help. Don is aghast, since he has provided her with everything a woman could possibly want (except, you know, a husband who is open, honest, and faithful). This causes Don to ponder “what do women want?” Roger provides a most Roger-like answer: “who cares?” Don buys Betty more expensive swag, but she’s still anxiety-ridden, so she starts seeing psychiatrist Dr. Arnold Wayne. We’re introduced to Sterling Cooper co-owner, elderly eccentric Bert Cooper, who pushes Roger and Don to pursue the Nixon presidential campaign as a client. Don’s mistress, Midge, provides an answer to “what women want?”, but it’s only an answer suitable for Don’s deodorant campaign: “Any excuse to get closer.” Meanwhile, Don tries to find out specifically what more his wife could want by calling Dr. Wayne at night to get the scoop on Betty’s first session on the shrink’s couch.
“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” the pilot episode of Mad Men, was a quick and snappy affair, full of walking-and-talking scenes of expository dialogue around the Sterling Cooper office, straight out of beloved shows that debuted in the ’90s, like ER and The West Wing. As I mentioned in my post on that episode’s thread, the pilot was more energetic and straightforward than the show would ever be. With “Ladies Room,” the show settled into the slow, methodical pace with existential overtones that it would come to be known for. It’s quite a shift, as the hour unfolds at a leisurely pace, mostly concerned with the inner workings of Betty’s mind.
Perhaps the biggest signifier of the shift in tone is this episode’s walk-and-talk scene. Rather than a bustling office, with many people coming and going as in the previous episode, this time around we see Paul give Peggy a tour of a mostly-empty office at lunchtime. The feel is completely different, even though the scene still exists for the purpose of exposition–Paul’s explaining the inner workings of Sterling Cooper to Peggy (and us, the viewers).
Something’s bothering Betty in the back of her mind, and whatever it may be, it’s manifesting in the form of shaky, numb hands. It’s anxiety manifesting in a physical form. We learn that Betty has been to doctors for this problem before, and she and Don have mostly chose to ignore the problem. The previous doctor visits confirmed there is nothing physically wrong with Betty, and the couple initially chose to take this as a sign the problem would resolve itself, rather than face the alternative: Betty may need a psychiatrist.
It’s here that Mad Men reveals one of its strengths–this show’s not just a surface exploration of 1960s culture, like so many that came before it. It’s going to delve into what life was really like back then, and part of that is psychiatry had a major stigma at the time. You didn’t need a shrink unless you were insane, or majorly unhappy. Don tries to convince Betty she simply can’t be unhappy, given the life he has provided for her, which can be neatly summed up as The American Dream. The man of the house makes a lot of money in the city, they have the house in the suburbs, with two cars, and a boy and a girl. Since that’s not enough to shake Betty out of “the blues,” Don buys her jewelry and tells to look around at “all this,” The American Dream she is living.
But something is causing great anxiety in Betty’s mind that can’t be overcome with possessions and material wealth, and it’s that she doesn’t really know her husband at all. In the most obvious sign of that trouble, Betty rhetorically asks a sleeping Don who he is, and who is inside there?
“Who is Don Draper?” will turn out to be one of the key themes of the show, perhaps the biggest one. Don’s journey to find that out for himself will take all seven seasons and 92 episodes. But for now, he’s a cipher to everyone. The episode begins with Don and Betty out to dinner with Roger and Mona. As Roger gets more and more drunk, he reveals more about his personal life (including the admission that his daughter, Margaret, had to see a shrink, something Roger half-denies later when sober). But when pressed, Don will only say of his past that he was a baby in a basket, like Moses. We’ll come to find out just how literally true that was, when a later season flashbacks to Don’s birth, but for now he says that to deflect questions of his past and his true identity. Betty later tries to get more out of him, asking him if he had a nanny growing up. It takes a lot of prodding for Betty to get an “of course not” out of Don.
Unable to confront his past or his true self, Don wants everyone to focus on his current self, and the possessions he has that should validate him as a success now, leaving questions about how he got here irrelevant in his mind.
As it turns out, everything is a possession to Don. Mistress Midge is his possession. He demands to know when she got her television, as he knows it must have been from another man, and that’s not acceptable to him. Even Betty turns out to be a possession, as he shows no shame in calling up the shrink, Dr. Wayne, that he eventually allowed Betty to see, so that he can get a download on all her personal thoughts. And, in sticking with the verisimilitude of the times, Dr. Wayne has no problem violating Betty’s confidence and filling Don in on everything.
This is our true welcome to the world of Mad Men. Whereas the pilot episode may have gave the impression of a “James Bond in an advertising agency,” we see here for the first time that Mad Men is actually going to go way deeper than standard television fare.