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'Mad Men' Mondays: 'The Beautiful Girls'

What's up with the show's cursory treatment of civil rights?

This is the new column in TNR’s weekly series of "Mad Menepisode recaps. Caution: It contains spoilers. Click here for last week's review.

Where to begin? With a eulogy for the dearly departed Miss Blankenship, erstwhile hellcat, whose every raspy one-liner was comedy gold? Or perhaps we should start by saying that Joan and Roger’s post-mugging clinch was both lamely contrived (a near-death experience on an L.A. backlot street leading into a kiss—how very daytime soap) and also truly sexy. Or maybe we should kick things off with yet another paean to Peggy, whose intellectual jousting with her would-be suitor, the radical journalist Abe Drexler, proved, yet again, that she's got more integrity than any other major character on the show—and is more open-minded to boot.

Let's start instead by calling "The Beautiful Girls" an imperfect but satisfying episode, almost as strong an ensemble piece as "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword" and "The Summer Man." It had its theses and its points, but it came at them obliquely. It wasn’t swinging for the fences like "The Suitcase," which focused mainly on two characters, Peggy and Don. The tone was fairly light overall, and the disposal of poor Miss Blankenship's body was a great bit of silent comedy-style clowning, small in the frame and nearly wordless.  But one can't dismiss the hour as "just" a comedy. The mugging was realistically frightening, charged with the possibility of lethal violence. (It also tested middle-class liberal pieties; the robber who took Joan’s engagement ring was black.) There were many purely dramatic scenes, including the office conversations between Joan and Roger (with Joan maintaining that although she didn’t regret their clinch, she won’t be repeating it) and Faye and Don's argument when Don thoughtlessly pushes Faye to mother his runaway daughter because she's the only available woman around. 

What was the episode "about"? The fact that one can’t instantly answer that question was a compliment to screenwriters Dahvi Waller and Matthew Weiner and director Michael Uppendahl. One could say the hour is about the plight of women in early 1960s America as they assert their independence within confining, male-dominated social structures. The final, equalizing image of Joan, Peggy and Faye standing in the same elevator car (going down, alas) seems to invite that reading. So does Miss Blankenship’s comment about Faye (“It's hard the way she breezes past me. She's pushy, that one. I guess that's what it takes”) and the charming but overwritten and awkwardly-delivered monologue by Peggy’s friend Joyce (Zosia Mamet, David Mamet’s daughter) comparing men to soup and women to containers. (There are times where “Mad Men” monologues sound like perfect audition pieces for young actors when they should just sound like people talking.)

“I'm not good with kids,” Faye tells Don, after he again presses her into child-care service and then compounds the insult by unthinkingly asking her to fix him a drink. “It feels like there was a test and I failed it,” she says. I don’t think she failed it, but it was definitely a test. And although she accepted Don’s apologetic hug, there was a chill between then, as well there should have been. Part of the reason Don is a subpar dad is because he (and his even colder fish of an ex-wife, Betty) keep subcontracting the care and feeding of their kids to other people. Many people of their social class did that, but only men felt it was their birthright—and in this episode he treated an accomplished professional colleague as if she were Dr. Babysitter. (Faye made it clear that it wasn’t the idea of looking after his child that offended her, but that he gave her no choice but to do it.) The scene where Sally made French toast for her bachelor father—with rum instead of syrup—was charming, but it had a queasy undertone. Don doesn't just need somebody to mother his children, he himself craves mothering. Sally, who's seen plenty of examples of Don's paternal incompetence and man-child selfishness, slips into that role with unsettling ease.

In the end, though, I wouldn’t boil the hour down to a meditation on feminism or anything else along those lines. “The Beautiful Girls” isn’t a gender studies term paper, just a portrait of a particular time and place that happens to include three professional women. Peggy, Joan, and Faye all get pushed to conform to the desires of men they find attractive, and in the end they all assert themselves—but in a way that’s right for them personally, with no implication that any self-respecting woman should do exactly the same thing.  They get to own their mistakes as surely as they own their successes. That’s not feminism. It’s humanism. It’s part of the same storytelling impulse that summoned great emotion from the sight of neglected brat Sally finally getting what neither of her parents seem able to give her—a hug—and that turned Miss Blankenship’s death from an occasion for classic Don Draper double-takes into a bonding session between Bert and Roger over a woman they’d both slept with, and who meant a great deal to them. “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper,” Bert said, struggling to define her in an obituary. “She’s an astronaut.”

You could also say the episode was about civil rights in a wider sense—a topic broached in the bar conversation between Peggy and Abe, with whom she'd locked lips at a beatnik party in "The Rejected." Abe pushes Peggy to justify working for an ad agency that's doing business with Fillmore Auto, a Boston-based company that's being boycotted in the south over its racist hiring practices. "Most of the things Negroes can't do, I can't do either, and nobody seems to care," Peggy says. And when Abe points out that Sterling-Draper-Cooper-Pryce has no black copywriters, she replies, "I'm sure they could fight their way in like I did. Believe me, nobody wanted me there."

I like how this scene allows for the possibility that both characters can be right and wrong at the same time. Peggy is drawing a false equivalency between a middle-class white woman’s struggles and the struggles of the descendants of former slaves. (She's also forgetting that there were no black secretaries at Sterling Cooper, and for all the humiliations she suffered in that job it's hard to see how she could have elbowed her way into copy writing without it.) Abe, meanwhile, has a touch of beatnik drama-queenery about him—he titles a prospective article “Nuremberg on Madison Avenue"—but he’s also an honorable man who won’t let Peggy’s sloppy thinking pass just because he wants to bed her. At the same time, Peggy’s comparison isn’t totally off-base. White women circa 1965 aren’t getting shot, hung, and attacked by dogs for daring to assert their equality. But there is discrimination, and Peggy deals with it every day. She’s right to be offended when Abe seems to brush off the indignities she’s endured.

In last week’s recap, I wondered if Season Four’s glancing references to the civil rights movement weren't a red herring, and whether the show’s true interest instead lay in women’s rights. With just three episodes to go, that suspicion looks as though it’ll be proved correct (unless Weiner and company rally by building the season finale around President Lyndon Johnson issuing his executive order enforcing affirmative action, and I really hope they don’t). If the season ends up having focused mainly on feminism, however, that will beg the question of why Weiner thought it was a good idea to make the civil rights struggle an atmospheric detail or a metaphor for something else. The only black characters on this show have been domestics and elevator operators—and now a mugger. Even if you take the show’s upper-middle-class white milieu into account, the arms-length respect paid to African American sacrifice feels like an evasion posing as an acknowledgment. The topic is so rich, and still so emotionally powerful, that treating it as a looming presence and nothing more is dramatically risky. Whatever “Mad Men” is doing here, it had better pay off.

Matt Zoller Seitz is a contributor to Salon and the founder of Slant's “The House Next Door,” where he has written extensively about “The Sopranos” and other series.