The second installment in Mad Men's Season Five aired Sunday night, and while it was only an hour compared to the premiere's two (and, alas, there was no Zou Bisou Bisou), many of the themes set up in the first episode carried through, including a focus on female-driven plots. But there were some surprises too!
As we mentioned last week, Matthew Weiner seemed to be setting us up for the season of women, women who've become empowered at a greater level than previously in both the era and the seasons of the show. This is to some extent true in this episode, though it's complicated—for as much empowerment there's an equal taking away of that power—and one wonders at times whether Weiner might sort of despise January Jones. Because Jones, aka Betty Francis, is the standout of the episode, but not in the way you'd imagine she'd hope.
The episode starts with Betty, who we didn't get to see in the first episode at all, dressing for a gala affair she's to attend with her husband Henry. She's attempting to zip up her dress—the kids are helping her—she's sucking in—and suddenly we realize that something is off. The once physically perfect specimen of Betty Draper, now Francis, is fat. And not just plump, she's fat-suit-wearing FAT (even though Jones was pregnant during filming, we're doubting this is all natural). Despite what Henry says (later in the episode he tells her she's beautiful and that he "doesn't see it"; she responds, "Your mother is obese!"), Betty is now a caricature, a housedress-wearing, Bugles-eating, couch-sitting, hiding-at-home-and-eating-sundaes depressed middle-aged married lady.This may be her penance, or perhaps her penance is something more. After a visit from Henry's mother, who tips Betty off to the idea of diet pills, Betty visits the doctor who notices a lump on her thyroid. Might Betty have cancer?
More aware of her mortality than we've ever seen her, Betty rushes home, shouting into the creepy old house for Henry. When he doesn't answer, she turns to Don, calling and asking him to say what he always says: "It will be OK." And, after a visit to the doctor for a biopsy and a frightening nightmare in which she's dead (and a bout of rekindled lovemaking with Henry), it is—or so we are led to believe. Because even though Betty gets a phone call at the end of the episode from the doctor and tells Henry she's fine, we don't actually hear that call. Is it too much to suspect that maybe all is not OK, and that this plot device, which actually makes us feel sorry for a character who generally elicits little to no empathy—it also serves to bond her with Don and create a wedge between Don and Megan (who, at 26, Don feels is too young to understand death)—might be too good to pass over this quickly? As Betty says when she gets her call from the doctor, "It's nice to be put through the ringer and find out...I'm just fat." Whether or not Betty has cancer, she's not through the ringer just yet, we'd wager.
Elsewhere with the Mad Women in this episode, Peggy Olson must hire a copywriter "with a penis" for the newly re-won Mohawk Airlines account, unable to take it on herself because of her gender—they'd just use her to fetch drinks, Roger says. And so we get a new character, Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) set up as the real male competition for Peggy, and possibly a conflict-filled love interest down the road. In a first awkward scene with Peggy, he assumes she's a secretary and wants to see Don; she has to explain, directly, no, it's me you have to impress. Ginsberg's also the Jew of the agency—"Turns out every agency has one," says ever-racist Roger—and a way for Weiner to diversify further among his team of players, if heavy handedly so. Furthering the '60s-era diversity we also get a glimpse of Dawn, Don's secretary, the African-American woman hired after Sterling Cooper's Y&R-baiting equal opportunity ad was placed last week. Though she seems more capable than the average ad agency hire, she pretty much just gets jokes about how her name is so easily confused with Don's. So far.
Finally, there's Megan. No dance performances at parties in this episode, but we see again her ability to get what she wants. Don attends a Rolling Stones concert with Harry Crane in hopes of signing the Stones for Heinz. Crane ends up stoned and getting tricked into signing a band called "Tradewinds" instead, while Don talks to a young girl—the daughter of his Heinz client, possibly? and something of a stand-in for Sally Draper—a girl who, for once, is way too young for him; he's fatherly and worried about her. (Subtext: Don is growing up!) The next morning, he is exhausted and depressed about Betty. Megan wakes him up, ready for a trip to Fire Island, and he says he can't go. She's too young to understand. She looks at him witheringly, tells him she understands completely that he went out the night before and now can't go out with her friends, and like that, she wins. 10 points for Megan.
But back to Fat Betty, who our thoughts have been with most consistently throughout the hour-long show. By the end of the episode she's finishing off her sundae and Sally's too, as "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" plays ironically in the background. "Your life little girl/Is an empty page/that men will want to write on," trills on as ice cream is scooped systematically into Betty's mouth. For none of these women, however, is life an unblemished page—not even Sally Draper, who's seen plenty in her 12 years, and who, at the end of the episode, just wants to go watch TV. But that's precisely what makes them interesting.