Two Guys, a Girl and a TV Set

Three college friends out in the world, filling the void with television…and loving it.

“Wee Small Hours” (Mad Men S3:E9)

Posted by Christopher Moltisanti on October 17, 2009

Last week I said “Mad Men” got back on track after a few entertaining yet cluttered episodes. This week, they took it up a notch. “Wee Small Hours” is the most direct and effective commentary on 1960s American society the show has made yet. The racism, sexism and homophobia running through the show, often beneath the surface, are all brought to the forefront in this episode that’s all about double standards.

There’s the double standard of Sal’s firing. I know I’m not the only one who thinks the situation would have been different had Peggy come to Don with the same problem. The “you people” comment shows Don at his worst (his reaction to Miss Farrell’s comment about MLK’s speech wasn’t much more impressive), proving that despite his tolerance for secrets, his views on minority groups aren’t much different from the majority of people in this era.

Sad to see him go.

Sad to see him go.

Speaking of civil rights, the most classic of all classic “Mad Men” exchanges took place in this episode when the women at the Rockefeller fundraiser mock the South, saying it’s more like 1863 than 1963…just as Carla, dressed in servants clothes, walks over with a plate of food. Bets’ comment about the Birmingham bombing proving the country isn’t “ready” for civil rights was a close second.

But the most interesting example of double standards in this episode was Don and Bets’ contrasting decisions about infidelity. Betty seems to revel in her new power-role as the instigator of an extramarital affair, and Don does what Don does, ruthlessly pursuing a new target who may prove to be more trouble than he bargained for. Slight diversion, but this is actually something that’s been missing from the series. You figure someone who has as many affairs as Don has would run into someone who went a little nuts over him (Tony had about six of these situations–Gloria Trillo anyone?). He was cautious enough, I suppose. He’s clearly lost some of that caution, though, and, as Miss Farrell astutely points out, there’s about a 90 percent chance this turns out disastrously for everyone involved.

Back to my point, though, Betty’s decision not to sleep with Henry and Don’s decision to sleep with Miss Farrell reveal more about society’s contrasting standards for men and women than either of the characters’ moral compasses. Neither have any moral qualms with adultery. Betty says no to Henry because of her obsession with her image. It would be “tawdry” in his office, which would lower her standing in society’s eyes. Don (and, by extension, men), on the other hand, is free to pursue and conquer without regard for propriety. It’s a fascinating commentary.

As we’ve learned throughout the series (and notably during last week’s episode), these characters are all searching for a taste of grandeur–and most of the time it’s romantic grandeur. From Don’s dalliance with Rachel in season one to Betty’s fixation on Henry , they’re constantly seeking. It’s only in the “Wee Small Hours” that these characters let themselves escape the bounds of societal strictures and indulge this quest. And, sadly, all they find is loneliness as they build walls between each other. Don and Betty lie together, thinking of someone else. Sal calls his wife from the park as he prepares to enter the city’s gay underworld.

As usual, a tragic, yet brilliant, installment of “Mad Men.”

A few other thoughts:

# I really like how the writers aren’t afraid to get rid of characters who have run their course. This whole season, Sal’s character has been defined by his homosexuality, and it’s seemed forced. There wasn’t much more to develop, and he was almost turning into a caricature of himself, so as sad as I am for the character, it’s good for the show that he’s going to take a backseat for awhile. But, like Joan, I’m sure he’ll be back.

# Connie Hilton is nuts. Or is he? When he said he wanted the moon, we all kind of chuckled (and, unfortunately for Sterling Cooper, Don did as well). But, while he is eccentric (as Burt so astutely pointed out a few weeks ago), he has a vision for his company that he wanted reflected in his ad campaign. He wanted to showcase Hilton’s ambition, it’s stature and it’s intimate connection to American values. Don’s campaign was clever, but it talked about hamburgers, not democracy. In short, it wasn’t serious enough for Hilton. Maybe Connie’s ideas wouldn’t work in an advertising context, but either way, Don didn’t get him, and that’s rare. Roger was right when he said he’s “in over his head.”


One Response to ““Wee Small Hours” (Mad Men S3:E9)”

  1. What do the two hit TV series Lost and Mad Men have in common?

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