Status quo ante bellum—everything as it was. Or: HOLY SHITBALLS. SO MANY THINGS TO TALK ABOUT.
Father Abraham had seven sons and seven sons had Father Abraham. Or: OMG YOU GUYS, DON IS SINGING.
Don and Betty. PEGGY STABBED ABE AND I LAUGHED ABOUT IT. Bob Benson. Where to begin?
With Betty, of course.
A gas station attendant looks over at a woman in a literal example of the male gaze. Maybe you enjoy her ass. Maybe you're offended on her behalf. You are watching someone, a man, watching someone else, a woman. It would seem that he has the power in this situation—after all, she can't even see that he is looking at her. She hasn't consented to his stare or his thoughts, whether you think they might be lascivious or appreciative or both.
And then there's you, the actual viewer. Really, you've got control of this situation. You can judge this situation as an impartial, third-person viewer and, more importantly, you can control where this goes. You can turn this entire scene off, and forget about it.
But maybe, somehow, she is controlling you. Whether she notices your stare or not, whether she wants you to look at her or not—that's irrelevant. She's making you look at her, and you can't control yourself. You can't, he can't, Don can't. With her body and her hair and her smile, she pulls you in and controls you in a way that you can't help. Maybe you're the one giving her directions and pouring her a drink and turning off the lights, but she's the one who asked for directions, and held out her cup, and left her door open. This isn't harassment. This isn't unwanted. You have no power here. You're only doing what she wants—what she's making you do.
You can't smile at me like that.
Henry sees Stuart talking to her, leering at her. Later, he says the entire room was staring at her; he demands to know exactly what Stuart said to her. Henry's hand on her face, just this side of menacing. She is meek—meeker than you've seen her, ever. You wait, anxiously, for a blow-up, for violence even, from a man you've never seen lose his temper except once around Don Draper. It doesn't come. Not in the way you expect, anyway. This is a turn-on, a game; Henry is excited. Her submission and stuttering and quietness were just an act, to play with him, to draw him in.
You can't smile at me like that.
You see this odd, sweaty, white-suited man walk over to her as she waits for her husband. You remember Henry approaching her the same way once, a long time ago, when she was pregnant and waiting for her husband. But this man doesn't have any of the delicacy and class that Henry had, even then, even when he was creeping on her pregnant belly. This man looms over her with a bald proposition—plain in wording, ugly in delivery. Insistent. Unwelcome. You wait for her to flash in anger, and she does: "I have three children." But it's not what you expected—it's not anger at all. "No. Look at me. Can you believe I've had three children?" Teasing. Coy. Completely in control.
You can't smile at me like that.
Betty Draper has shed her skin, literally, and is born again—back to the person she was, "again" being the operative word. The bitch is back, and she is marvelous.
(I should add here that I think Betty has grown tremendously. She isn't as much the petty, sheltered child we saw in Season 1, or the vindictive bitch and terrible mother she was to Sally in the later seasons. She's more introspective, more assertive without being horrible, more mature. But what she has finally achieved is the perfect family—Henry, a teenager in revolt who will grow up to be as beautiful as her mother, two cute boys—and status as a coveted trophy wife. She is stable. Her life is stable. That's all she ever wanted, and that's what she returns to. The only difference is that she has cheated on her husband and it didn't mean much to her—she has effectively become Don in that way. Another sort of status quo.)
And then there's Peggy. She touches Ted on the hand, "accidentally". She doesn't speak in meetings. He doesn't want her to. And then there she is, touching him, distracting him, smiling at him—how the hell is he supposed to do his job and perform in front of the client?
"You can't smile at me like that," he says to her, as if this were all her design.
Except Peggy has no idea, the effect she has on him. Betty understands exactly how powerful it is to be a woman. She always has. As much as she unconsciously hates her mother, her mother prepared her well. Peggy is woefully unprepared. She has never let herself care about being pretty, except in secret. Her professional development didn't truly begin until Bobbie Barrett, of all people, made her realize that the greatest tool at her disposal was that she was a woman, not a man. This is something she struggles with to this day—how do you become Don Draper without all the power and privilege of being a man? And at the same time, how do you pursue the goal of Life, the Universe, and Everything—marriage and children, of course—when you're not Betty Draper or Joan Harris, when you're neither a Jackie nor a Marilyn?
It's all a struggle for control, in a world ruled and defined by mad men. Relationships are defined, won, by The "Better" Half. In this episode, the winner is always Betty Draper. Of course, on a personal note, Don and Betty back together again, briefly, is the happiest I've been all season.
Yeah, that's right my pretties. Linger. Go ahead and linger. I'll just shriek my head off over here.
Apparently you guys all called this, but I had no idea this would happen. I was writing just last week about how I thought for a long time that although Don and Betty's story together felt unfinished, their lives were diverging too much and there was too much other stuff happening for the show to continue exploring their relationship.
I was wrong. I'm so excited to have been wrong. Mind you, I don't think we're going back to Don and Betty, per se. This isn't about permanence, or the future. Maybe this isn't even about the past. It's now. "Let's just enjoy this," Betty says to Don. How many times has he expressed a similar sentiment? And now, here's Betty, his past, the symbol of what he believes to be his marital unhappiness—here she is, echoing his own words.
For one night, the Drapers are a family again. Betty plays with Bobby, and she smiles. Don sings. You guys, Don SINGS. AND DANCES. AND SMILES RELUCTANTLY. AND BARELY DRINKS. "Father Abraham had seven sons and seven sons had Father Abraham." The father and the child and the father, again. (Thanks Weiner—we totally missed that message last week.) We've rarely seen Don and Betty play with their kids like this—content, free. And, more importantly, we've never seen Don and Betty together like this. Honest. Uncomplicated. Even—dare I say it?—equals. By remaining only in the present and speaking only of the past, by virtue of having been completely unburdened of the future—since this is just now, since it isn't real—everything is easy. It's just sex. It's just a memory. A ghost. An echo.
"I can only hold your attention for so long," she says. She talks to Don about Don looking at her, seeing her—that was their entire relationship. How he saw her. And in this moment, Betty can speak without any rancour, without any anger for the past. She even expresses sympathy for Megan, her casting couch nemesis. "She doesn't know that loving you is the worst way to get to you."
This whole episode is about how you manage the people close to you. "You'd better manage that, or you're not going to manage anything." It's about Betty perfectly managing her husbands and suitors (past and present); Megan unable to manage either her husband or Arlene; Roger failing to manage any of his children; Pete refusing to manage his mother; Peggy losing complete and total control over all the men in her life.
Indeed, the only person who really seems to be in control this week (aside from my personal hero Betty Draper) is Bob Benson the Bunsen Burner, someone about whom we know nothing.
Let's be real here: the actual main character of this entire show is Bob's pair of shorts.
I was ready to give up and declare him a symbol, and declare our suspicion and cynicism about him a meta-textual morality tale perpetrated by Matthew Weiner, but then kemperboyd cleverly pointed out in SorciaMacnasty's post that in the first episode, Bob told Ken his father was dead, whereas this week, he tells Pete that the well-bred Spanish nurse from Spain nursed his father back to life. WHICH IS IT, BOB? (And what's the deal with the name Bob? Bobby Kennedy, Bobby Draper, the Bobbys at Bobby's camp, Bob Benson...) Perhaps it is a meta-textual tale, but not the one I was thinking of: Bob exerts a control over us this season that is, in many ways, stronger than the one Don Draper ever had on us. We've looked at the world through Don's eyes for much of the series; we never see anything through Bob's eyes. We see Bob through others' eyes. We know less about Bob than we knew about Don even in Episode 1. You want mystery? Forget Don's enigma—Bob is where it's at.
Or maybe the whole point is that Bob Benson is, as SorciaMacnasty posits, actually Don's "illegitimate son by a WHORE. Because, you know, FULL CIRCLE." Which would be hilarious and make all of the whorehouse scenes TOTALLY WORTH IT.
But back to the point. Which is: you want control because you either want to maintain the status quo or change it. Everyone here but Peggy wants to maintain the status quo. Betty and Don go back to the past for a night, and then slip right back into the comfort of their present situations. Nothing lost, nothing gained, because nothing was risked or wanted. Don eats breakfast, alone, watching Henry and Betty—an echo of Eugene's birthday long ago, when Betty looked at him with newfound pity and maturity, saying, "We have everything."
Megan wants Don back the way he was when they were first together. "I miss you all the time," she says—inadvertently echoing Betty, who once told Don that all she did all day was literally wait for him to be home, to be physically near her.
And Don knows he hasn't been present: "You're right. I haven't been here." Don is defined by the presence of his absence. His fascination of negative space all season—Heinz ads with no ketchup, Royal Hawaiian ads with no hotel and no guest—is the embodiment of his past, of his hurtle towards death. Death is the presence of absence. All the echoes in this episode, all the yearning for the past and the way things were, are the presence of absence. The episode ends with someone singing, "Always something there to remind me."
The only person really looking forward is Peggy. Unlike everyone else taking the easy way out through the past, she heads resolutely towards the future. She left Don to escape. She moved in with Abe as a proclamation of independence from her mother and her God. She bought an apartment to be an adult. But as we watch her struggle through all of this, we see what seems like a curious loss of voice rather than a triumphant discovery of such. She's back in Don's poisonous shadow, feeling exactly the way she was before she left. She let herself submit to Abe's every "progressive" whim, only to realize that this isn't who she is, and he despises who she is and calls her "complacent" (ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? A female advertising executive, unmarried, with her own apartment, in the 60s? Fuck you very much, Abe, enjoy your multiple stab wounds). (He says she's the enemy because advertising is basically prostitution, in case you didn't get that last week or all the weeks before it.) She tried to be the bridge between Don and Ted, though she didn't want to, and when that failed, and when Abe failed, she went to Ted—her symbol of optimism and goodness and forward-thinking—and found Don. A willful forgetfulness of philandering, a compartmentalization of feelings, a disregard for her feelings.
Caught between the two men, between all of the opposing forces in her life, Peggy becomes completely silent. Peggy seems to lose everything here—she STABS HER BOYFRIEND and yet is the one most hurt by the end of that exchange, not only dumped but disrespected, devalued.
But is this really loss? My optimism rears its head at the most inappropriate of times. I think perhaps she is shedding all that she doesn't need. What feels like pain now is just the next step forward. Maybe she's the figure on the beach in Hawaii that has shed its shoes and its clothes. The road to heaven is an unpleasant one, but—we've been told so many times—worth it.
In the meantime, though, we're left with a distraught and disillusioned heroine, a woman who never quite seems to win the success and happiness she deserves no matter how hard she works at it, because she's chipping away at an unforgiving world built by men. This is where we are, in 1968 and in 2013: "You can't smile at me like that."
Status quo ante bellum—everything as it was.