“Shoot” (season 1, episode 9; originally aired 9/13/2007)
In which Betty almost gets somewhere
(Available on Netflix)
Betty Draper has, in many ways, always felt a bit inorganic to Mad Men. Yes, the show wanted to portray both Don’s work and home lives, but so much of the show is weighted toward work that the home life aspect, even in the early episodes of the show, felt like something slightly tacked on and saved by deft writing, direction, and acting. My usual answer to queries along this line of thinking is that Mad Men would be much less rich of a show if Betty wasn’t around, but it’s also impossible to prove a hypothetical. It’s actually sort of easy to imagine a show that ditches the home life stuff in favor of the workplace stuff, to picture what this show might be if Don’s wife were more of a phantom presence and we spent the time we’ve been spending with her with Joan or Peggy or Harry or one of several other characters who might feel like they’re getting short shrift at this stage of the show’s life.
But then I see an episode like “Shoot,” and all of those concerns fall away. “Shoot” is the Betty Draper episode, in the way that “New Amsterdam” was the Pete Campbell episode and “The Hobo Code” gave us much more insight into Sal’s lonely life. “Shoot” doesn’t just give us a glimpse into Betty’s day-to-day life but also a good deal of insight into her life before Don came along and all of the ways that her mother came to dominate Betty’s life. We’ve heard talk of Betty’s mother before, but in this episode, when her psychiatrist suggests that she’s very angry at her mother, Betty reacts with hostility, which is usually a tell in Mad Men terms that the person making an accusation has hit the mark, at least a little bit.
To look at Betty’s life is to see just why she might carry that anger around. At one time, she had a fun, potentially lucrative life in the city, working as a model and living with her friends. Then, just as quickly, she was married to a copywriter for a fur company and living out in Ossining, where she had a couple of kids and quickly became defined as a stay-at-home mom and housewife. And the person who always thought she should be slim and not eat so much was her mother, who believed that the foremost goal of a woman should be to snag a man, to never have to take care of herself because she had a husband to do that for her. Yes, Betty is particularly childlike in this season, but it’s still heartbreaking to realize how little she’s considered whether she ever wanted the life that her mother, her husband, and society all wanted for her. She’s trapped in a dollhouse of others’ making.
What’s great about “Shoot” is that Betty’s brief glimpse of freedom—by getting to be a model for a Coca Cola campaign being produced by McCann-Erickson—has very little to do with her and everything to do with her husband, whom McCann-Erickson wants to come work for them. Even when Betty says that she’s decided not to be a model any longer, because she just can’t bear the thought of Don coming home to no dinner on the table or the idea of being in Manhattan by herself, it’s a choice she might think she’s making, even though it’s being foisted on her by other people. (Surely Betty must know that her husband opting to stay at Sterling Cooper has something to do with the rapid end of her renewed modeling career, but she needs to preserve the illusion of control, if only for herself.) The first season of Mad Men often places women in close proximity to birds trapped in enclosed spaces. It’s not the most subtle of metaphors, but it gains new life here, when Betty fires upon the pigeons her neighbor keeps. It’s the one act of control she can take, the one time she can be as good of a mother as Don says she is, but it’s also a sort of symbolic murder of herself, of the life she might have had, because she’s “happier” this way.
“Shoot” is mostly famous as the episode where Betty shoots the pigeons, and that’s a great thing to be famous for. But it’s also a great commentary on the way that Betty has become a sort of outgrowth of her husband’s career in many eyes. As mentioned, Betty ultimately loses her modeling career because it was only dangled in front of her as an enticement for Don to take the job at the rival agency. It’s not that Betty’s bad, precisely, but there’s no good reason to keep employing her if McCann-Erickson isn’t getting the package deal. Just like that, Betty’s dreams of renewing her older, more glamorous life fly away, and she’s left sitting alone in the house in Ossining, listening to her kids run around upstairs and shouting to them not to jump off the beds. Meanwhile, her husband gets a big raise and a new vote of confidence from his bosses. And from the way he looks at those photos during his final phone conversation with Jim, Don obviously knows what his decision will mean for his wife.
There are a lot of stories about this time period that portray being a housewife as inherently limiting to a woman, but I don’t think “Shoot” is playing around in that particular sandbox. Instead, it’s interested in the idea that Betty has never had an opportunity to define herself and is, therefore, stuck in a kind of pleasant stasis that is slowly ossifying underneath her. The idea isn’t that staying home with the kids and taking care of the household chores is inherently beneath someone; it’s that this isn’t the life Betty would have chosen for herself first. And even if it was the life she was ultimately best at, she never got an opportunity to even consider others. She’s kept in a box and allowed to get a little sunlight during the day, before being called back to roost. Is it any wonder that the one time she goes away for the day, Polly (a symbol of her husband) leaps up and brings down one of the pigeons, thereby symbolically sealing her fate?
This is also a great episode for Don, however, as he wrestles with the idea of whether to continue being a big fish in a pond he’s slowly helping get bigger or make the leap up to the ocean. McCann-Erickson represents a big leap for Don, and you have to suspect they would have given him just about anything he asked for. Because Sterling Cooper has been the series’ setting, it’s only recently begun to creep in that it’s not the alpha and omega of the series’ advertising world. The accounts it handles are small potatoes, for one thing, with McCann-Erickson handling the likes of Coke and Pan-Am. And I love the dilemma that Jim leaves Don with: At a certain point, he’s either going to have to make the step up to the big leagues, or he’s going to die wondering. It feels almost like a mission statement for the show going forward—especially when Don says no to Jim’s offer. What does this man accomplish staying with Sterling Cooper? Where can he go from here?
The reasons Don doesn’t take the job are many, too. For one thing, he’s got a certain amount of loyalty to his bosses, and he’s got a great deal of creative freedom at Sterling Cooper he likely wouldn’t get elsewhere, even if he were the chief creative guy at those other agencies. For another thing, both Bert and Roger have now indicated to him just how much they need him and just how much they appreciate his work, which is always nice to hear. But there’s also the Betty question, the thought of just how much Don likes having his wife at home, taking care of the kids, safely ensconced away where she won’t be in the city (and potentially interfering with the extramarital life he’s built there). And there has to be just a little bit of fear there as well. We know that Don’s a guy who has an obscene amount of confidence in himself, and that’s mostly justified. But McCann-Erickson might be too big, might be too much. And they’re unlikely to give him the sort of sweetheart deal he has at Sterling Cooper, where he can essentially split at a moment’s notice because of his lack of contract (brought up for, I believe, the first time here). Don has constructed a job with a maximum of escape routes, and that’s not the sort of thing someone who looks for exits everywhere he goes would give up so easily.
He’s also got a team he knows and trusts, somewhat, even if he seems to despise them half the time (and they him). “Shoot” also offers some great moments for Pete and Peggy, particularly when it comes to the former, who arrives at the idea of tipping the advertising time scales in favor of the Nixon campaign by buying up the available ad time that the campaign hasn’t purchased with ads for one of the company’s other clients, Secor Laxatives. It’s an idea spurred by an old fraternity prank of his—in one of those great Mad Men moments where a character tells a story that seems to have nothing to do with anything, then realizes the answer was staring him in the face all along—and it wins the approval of Bert, who finds it a fine, fine bit of political skullduggery. Now, the only presidential candidate whose face the voters in the Land of Lincoln will see is Nixon. No mention of whether everybody in the office thinks it’s a great idea to surround that face with ads for laxatives, but that seems like something they probably wouldn’t consider.
Pete also rises to the defense of Peggy, whose growing figure proves to be a topic of conversation for everyone in the episode. Just why she’s putting on all of this weight is very much a mystery at this point, but it seems to have something to do with how she wants less to be a sex object and more to be someone taken seriously for her work. (As Joan points out to her, nobody’s talking about her writing.) But when her skirt rips, she has to wear one of Joan’s spare dresses—in a nicely understated sight gag—and the guys in the office have a fine time trying to dissect just what went wrong that such a pretty girl could have gone rotten so quickly. And all the while, Pete seethes off to the side, ready to spring up and beat the shit out of someone (who turns out to be Ken Cosgrove) for being an asshole to the woman he… well, does Pete Campbell love, per se?
Of course, all of this ties Peggy in to what Betty’s dealing with out in Ossining. Betty was a chubby child who became a slim model; Peggy was a slim secretary who’s now putting on weight. Both of them are judged less for what they can offer to the world than for what they look like (though, to be fair, that makes a certain amount of sense for a model). Both of them feel constricted by those definitions, though neither is quite ready to put words to how trapped they might feel just yet. Mad Men is one of the great feminist dramas of all time, but it’s a series that sidles its way up to those themes, that takes its time getting to the point where it’s openly talking about how hard it was for women in the ‘60s—and how hard it still is for them in many arenas. After all, there are plenty of places where women are still primarily judged for their physical appearances, despite all of the advances made in other spheres, and this is treated less as a sad reality and more as just the way things are.
But for Peggy and Betty, it’s essentially the only world they’ve ever known. For Betty, it’s a box she sometimes gets to leave, though only when she feels like displaying herself for the camera or for other men Don needs to impress. For Peggy, there are more options, but she’s still seen as ridiculous for letting her chance to land a husband slip between her fingers. (Joan thought she was just doing the writing thing to end up with Paul, after all.) Now, it’s all too tempting to see both storylines as cautionary tales, but “Shoot” makes clear that both women are operating as best they can within a limited series of options. On a grand scale, Mad Men is the story of how those options opened up with time and with women who pushed toward their greater ambitions. But on a smaller scale, it’s also the story of how sometimes, it was necessary to simply grab the kids’ BB gun and take matters into your own hands.
- How weird does that “Polly jumps up to grab the pigeon” shot look? This episode was directed by the great Paul Feig, and I’m not entirely sure that moment couldn’t have been suggested via sound effects, rather than that weird insert shot.
- Jim tells Don that the life of the person handling the Pan-Am accounts is something of a luxurious dream. Um, yeah, and it involved lots of spying.
- This episode gives us our most concentrated dose yet of Jack Kennedy, first with the ad featuring his wife speaking Spanish (and Sal’s offhanded remark of how he’s almost jealous of the future first lady and, thus, thinks women will be as well), then with Bert’s glee at the thought of the candidate having to take to the radio airwaves to win in Illinois. And with that accent!
- Sally’s recounting of her nightmare might be the first sustained bit of acting from Kiernan Shipka in the whole series, and I like how well it teases out just how little Don and Betty are able to figure out what Sally dreamed and what actually happened when Polly ate the birdie.
- This week in musical theatre history: Don runs into Jim at a performance of Fiorello!, a musical about the life of Fiorello LaGuardia that actually won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama but is performed much less nowadays than the show it shared the Tony for Best Musical with, The Sound Of Music. (It also beat perennial favorite Gypsy at the Tonys.) Though I suspect Don would have been bored stiff by any musical he had to sit through, I have to agree with him on Fiorello!, whose attitudes toward gender politics have not aged particularly well and have left a show that’s kind of bland. (That said, I doubt Don gives a shit about the gender politics.)
- This is the second episode in a row where Chris Provenzano gets a script credit (sharing this one with Matthew Weiner). He now writes for one of TV’s other best dramas, Justified.
- Listen to the way Vincent Kartheiser pronounces “Dalmatian.” What an abomination!
Spoiling Cooper (don’t read this section if you haven’t seen the entire series):
- I kind of wonder if the show isn’t going to come back to the idea of Don dying wondering what would have happened if he’d made the leap to a bigger agency in its final season. Clearly, he and the other partners tried to make Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce/Sterling Cooper & Partners into that sort of mega-agency (and succeeded in season six), but it’s also led to a place where he’s been pushed out.
- It is really hard to talk about the Peggy storyline without confirming that, yes, she’s pregnant, simply because that was the first guess a lot of people had back in 2007, and then we all thought, “Oh, come on! It couldn’t be that!” And then it turned into a central part of the show and Peggy’s character, so it turned out okay. It’s still hard to write around here.
- It’s interesting to look at Betty’s arc going forward after this episode, simply because it seems like after she shoots at the pigeons, she begins to take control a little bit more in her life, leading to the surprisingly confident and savvy Betty we know today.
Next week: Don and Roger celebrate “The Long Weekend.”