Sterling Cooper has won the Menken’s department store account. The team comes up with a great plan, but lose credibility in Rachel Menken’s eyes when she realizes that no one from the firm has even been to her store, a wrong that Don is happy to right. After getting the tour of the store, Don goes in for a kiss from Rachel––then tells her he’s married. Rachel won’t be “the other woman.” Sterling Cooper can keep the account, but she doesn’t want to deal with Don, fearing they won’t be able to resist each other. Dejected, Don spends a weekend in his suburban home, and pulls a “magnificent bastard” stunt during Sally’s birthday party by disappearing after going to pick up the cake.
It’s been my long-held belief that Mad Men’s sixth episode, Babylon, is its first truly great episode. For newcomers that are having a hard time getting into the show’s glacial pace, sometimes devoid of traditional plot, I tell them to hang in there until finishing that sixth episode. If they aren’t hooked by then, the show will probably never click for them. But episode three, The Marriage of Figaro, approaches the greatness of Babylon. It’s certainly the first episode that lets us into the characters’ lives without exposition; we know these people and their place in 1960 life now. With all the table-setting done, Matthew Weiner and company are ready to set the characters free and see where they land.
The previous episode established that “who is Don Draper?” will be one of the key themes of the series, and The Marriage of Figaro starts off by immediately complicating that question. Riding the train to work, an old Army buddy approaches Don but calls him “Dick Whitman” instead. This is the first time that name is mentioned in the series, and Don’s interaction with the man from his military past gives us a few clues. First, “Don Draper” may not be his name at all; at the very least, he was known by another name during his time in the military. Second, we see he has no problem coming up with lies to sidestep the issue, right on the spot. He quickly comes up with a phony career when asked where he’s working. He seems relieved when the old acquiantance says he works for IBM in upstate New York, and he realizes he won’t be running into him all the time in Manhattan.
While last episode showed that Betty was not fulfilled with having every part of, The American Dream, The Marriage of Figaro makes the case that Don is not happy with it either. The title comes from an opera, playing on the radio during the birthday party for Sally that takes up a large part of the episode. The opera’s story concerns a young man who marries and seems to have it all too, but fights his unhappiness by continuing to chase women. Don’s unhappiness with the sterility and insularity of suburbia leads him to do the same. In the previous two episodes, we’ve seen him spend a considerable amount of time with mistress Midge, and trying hard to flirt with a mostly unimpressed Rachel Menken. But Rachel admitted that Don charmed her at the end of the pilot episode, and here she lets her guard down even further.
Sterling Cooper has won the Menken’s department store account, despite Don’s boorish behavior in the first hour of the show. When it becomes clear that no one from the firm has even visited the store while drafting the Menken’s campaign, Don is the first to volunteer to right that wrong. Rachel gives him a tour of the store, opening up to Don with personal details along the way. After revealing that her mother died while giving birth to her, Rachel talks of a loneliness growing up that has led to her passion to make something of herself and the department store. We’ll come to find out that Don has plenty in common with Rachel, and he’ll reveal some of that to her in future episodes, but for now, he drops conversation and goes straight for a kiss.
Afterwards, Don realizes he has to tell Rachel one important thing about himself: he’s married. She feels the passion for Don that he feels for her, but she won’t play “the other woman.” Sterling Cooper can keep the account, but she doesn’t want to deal with Don directly.
This leaves Don back with his “perfect life” back at home. Waking up on a Saturday that will see the neighborhood coming over to celebrate Sally’s birthday, Don goes outside to construct one of Sally’s gifts, a playhouse. His shed refrigerator is stocked with cans of beer, and he’s close to downing a 12-pack before he gets the playhouse put together. And this is before the guests arrive, and the mixed drinks start.
After a few more drinks, the titular opera on the radio, Don takes a hard look at his life around him through a home movie camera. He sees one bland, homogenized couple after another in his house. The one outlier, divorcee Helen Bishop, is the subject of ridicule and mockery when the married ladies are alone in Betty’s kitchen. Helen represents a threat to their status quo, not only by being a divorcee, but by being an independent woman who walks the neighborhood with nowhere to go, just because she likes walking. The “hen house” of Betty and her friends probably imagine the walking is just so she can shake her hips and advertise herself as an available woman. Their contempt for Helen is barely veiled. When Betty sees her alone with Don, the two of them enjoying a cigarette together outside, Betty’s had enough. She sends Don to pick up the birthday cake from the bakery.
Don, too, has had enough. Maybe he’s too drunk to keep driving, or the thought of going back to that suburban nightmare of a birthday party is too much of a buzzkill. Either way, he doesn’t come back in time with the cake. He sits in his car, dreaming of Rachel, and what can’t be.
In the end, Don saves the day with Sally by coming home with a dog, Polly, as a final birthday present. Sally has forgiven Don for not coming back with the cake, but Betty’s pain is beyond words. She literally doesn’t know what to say to Don as she leaves him, the kids, and the new dog in the living room and heads to bed.
Roll the closing credits, and…welcome to the world of Mad Men, where beautiful, wealthy, and healthy people have it all, but are still suffering from an awful existential malady.