I came into this episode having previously watched the first 6 episodes of Mad Men. I was a little apprehensive to jump forward in such a way, but given my exposure to the various circumstances, characteristics and relationships of the characters it was really intriguing to see where they had progressed leading into this final episode of the season.
In this post I’ll attempt to analyse the narrative of episode 13 ‘The Wheel’ and what this says about the characters, making reference to key lines from the episode.
The first of which comes from Pete Campbell’s father in law, Tom; ‘loose lips sink ships’. Now, there are a few ways one could read this but it is pretty obvious that this line could be applied to any one of the characters in the series, especially Peggy. And on this point of character I would like to quote Timothy Stanley, who remarks ‘although the plot and subject matter are important, it is the characters that drive the story’ (Stanley, 2009). Indeed, Mad Men is all about character.
In this instance, we learn that Peggy’s own adaptation of the ‘loose lips’ mantra has resulted in her carrying (presumably) Pete Campbell’s child (the result of a pre-marital drunken decision from the Junior Exec). It also seems that this understanding of the adage has also been the cause for the ship’s of Carlton, Harry and Don springing leaks. At least in the minds of their wives, who have each taken various forms of self-protective action. Francine’s finally wisened up to Carlton’s cheating and begins pondering poison as a coping mechanism. Francine’s pondering leads to Betty having suspicions about Don and confirming in her own mind that Don is cheating too. As for Jennifer, we’re not entirely sure why she’s not letting Harry back in the house if we view this episode alone, I would be interested to see whether this event is referenced in the 6 episodes I have not seen.
Indeed, it seems that the lips being referenced here aren’t necessarily the ones that exist on your face. Crude yes, but a fitting finish to a first series that has always pushed the idea that in this world, if you are a women, ‘you’re not much, so you might as well enjoy it while it lasts.’ Even more fitting is the person who notes this quite early on, Joan. A cunning gazelle in the wilderness of the ’60s amazon.
Underpinning this male/female dynamic dialogue is the way in which males and females predominately interact on a greater level within the Mad Men context – through marriage. And of course, the main talking point is always family. The first few minutes of the episode are devoted to this. On Pete and Trudy having a child. On Don’s unwillingness to join Betty and the kids for Thanksgiving. And a phone conversation between Harry and Jennifer – Harry teetering on the edge of begging her on hand and knee to have him back.
I would like to make note of an aesthetic theme here that flows through the show as a whole when a married couple is conversing. That is, the couple is isolated in a dark room, whether it be in bed or at the kitchen table, and the two of them are the only things properly lit on set. It would seem as though this aesthetic isn’t solely the property of Mad Men. Over at twentysomethingtelevsion, Alex mentions the striking resemblance between this aesthetic and a Gregory Crewdson photograph.
This set up effectively functions to literally highlight the bordering hostility that scores each of these marriages, Betty’s persistent wish for Don to spend more time with the kids or Pete’s desire for Trudy to support him better, albeit a selfish craving (see E06 ‘Babylon’).
Gladly, this episode finally gives us a chance to breathe while watching Betty. Her restraint and pent up frustration is just as infuriating to watch as a cheating husband might be to a non-deluded wife wanting success for her family. So, watching her stare into Don’s eyes and ask him, ‘how could someone do that to the person they love?… doesn’t this mean anything?’, is a welcome sight. Her epiphany couldn’t come sooner, finding out Don has been speaking to her psychologist, and racking the focus of her minds eye to truly see the signs as what they are. Perfume, hotel rooms, ‘something worse’. We do, however, doubt that her path will be a similar one to Francine’s. Despite the ghastly thought of making love being, only ‘sometimes… what [she] want[s]’ and others being ‘what someone else wants’, she seems to understand the greater importance that a family unit holds in one’s life. It is her backbone needless to say, and after all, ‘maybe it’s just him’.
Just as this episode marks a change in Betty it also marks a drastic turning point in the life of Don Draper. Will Dean perfectly summarises our response to this in a blog for The Guardian, ‘We’ve learned the specific facts of Don’s existence over these first 13 episodes – but it’s this one [Kodak moment] that really gives him a heart and soul – and gives us the motivation to root for a cheating, lying, deserter’ (Dean, 2010). While Don does not have the intestinal fortitude to come clean face to face with Betty when she asks him those previous lines, his understanding of his own responsibility to his family clearly shifts and we feel the change. However, it’s forced by his little brother Adam’s suicide. It seems Don is incapable of taking this leap without something so drastic taking place. While he was prompted to call his brother, we can only wonder if a conversation between the two might’ve ended up in any sort of change to Don’s routine. Instead, his brother’s death strips him back. His mind is focused, and his goals clear. He must ‘reach through stone to right here’. He must re-evaluate what’s important to him, and gladly he lands upon family as the answer.
The following scene is touching to say the least. Watching Don flick through photos of his children, his wife, his family, and note this nostalgia he feels – his ‘pain from an old wound’ – is truly mesmerising. Don has finally found a way to stop the ‘carousel’ of his own life, and take stock of the most important things to him. His family. Over at The Watcher, Maureen Ryan notes that ‘it’s not hard to have a sentimental bond with “Mad Men”’ – especially in this moment.
Yet Don channels it through work, the only other thing that could perhaps mean more to him than his family and that feeling he once knew. One wonders whether Don is right in using his family for commercial success.
I would argue that Director Matthew Weiner is telling us that it is not. We are led to believe Don does in fact find his place amongst his family, joining them on their Thanksgiving trip. That by some romantic notion Betty will forgive this man’s indiscretions and allow him back atop his mantle as a father. Somehow, we are so caught up in it all that we are satisfied that this could actually be happening.
That is, until Weiner adapts a kind of Rashomon effect, replaying Don entering into the house, this time his family having already left. Don sits, defeated. The camera dolly’s away from him and his isolation is imminent. Weiner overlays this with ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ by Bob Dylan.
Whether he means not to think about this second ending, one can only wonder. More obviously, one could assume Weiner is making a very specific statement about Don. He might’ve had a change of heart, but he was too late. Or more to the point, he is too late. It is too late to change.
Yet perhaps change is not what we want. Ryan notes, ‘for these ad men, actual truth is expendable and possibly even harmful’ (Ryan 2008). Were Don ever to truthfully understand himself it may be more cataclysmic than a dysfunctional family could ever be.
But we shouldn’t ‘think twice’. ‘It’s alright’, Weiner assures us… being an ad man.