One of the very last images we see in “Dark Shadows” is Don, standing in front of that great expanse of windows in his apartment and staring at the smog clouds that enveloped New York during the Thanksgiving of 1966. This shot comes right after Megan’s warning about the smog- “the air is toxic. I don’t want that in here.”
But, like anything on Mad Men, this smog cloud is more than just a smog cloud (just like last week’s empty elevator shaft was more than just an elevator shaft). And the big meaning behind it all is revealed immediately afterwards, when we dissolve from the Draper family Thanksgiving to the Francis family equivalent. All episode long, Megan’s been feeling the sting of how unpleasant the former Mrs. Draper can be, even referring to her as “poisoning us from fifty miles away.” It’s only at the end of the hour that her apartment’s finally been cleared of all that ill will, and naturally Megan’s on the defensive, whether it be from metaphorical toxic clouds or real ones.
But there’s a whole lot more than this going on in “Dark Shadows,” so let’s continue on after the jump.
Yes, the Draper household is definitely feeling Betty’s wrath, but Megan isn’t the real victim here. Besides some hurt feelings and an argument with Don, she doesn’t really suffer any major wounds, and ends the episode preparing for what will probably be a reasonably happy Thanksgiving.
The real victim here is Sally. She’s reached that age where you see yourself as an adult even though you’re not quite there, and every decision you make impacts the person you’ll end up becoming when you finally reach adulthood for real. And sadly, every decision Sally makes in “Dark Shadows” reflects only the worst qualities of each of her parents. She shows off all of Betty’s worst qualities once she gets Megan in her sights. While it’s understandable that Sally gets upset when people don’t tell her the whole truth because they think she’s just a kid, it’s just so hard to sympathize with her when she’s being so awful to everyone around her. It’s the same thing that’s happened with Betty over the course of the series as Don treated her so terribly for such a long stretch of time. However, it’s difficult not to see Betty as a villain when she acts so unpleasantly herself.
And even though Sally finally makes amends with her dad and her stepmom (something done more graciously than Betty ever did), she also starts to flip-flop, showing off some of Don’s less than stellar qualities.
Check out the way Don and Sally patch up their argument. Yes, Don finally tells Sally the truth about Anna, and some of what they say is very sweet (Sally realizing that she stayed in Anna’s house previously, and Don saying he wished they could have met), but during the entire conversation, the two of them are standing perfectly straight and staring at each other from across the room. Don’s never been that good at confronting his feelings, and framing this apology with a big empty space between him and his daughter gives the impression that Sally might grow up with this same failing.
And then once Sally’s back with her mother, we see that she’s mastered the Don Draper specialty- the perfectly timed, perfectly honed, ugly insult. Sally’s description of going over old memories of Anna with Don and Megan was not only more or less made up, but was also the exact right thing to say to hurt her mother. Add her little swipe of “she’s hungry, Bobby,” when the family’s waiting to start dinner, and we get a glimpse of a Sally who’s already honing her ability to push her mother’s buttons.
Although it’s hard not to think that Betty deserves it. She’s certainly more sympathetic than she’s been in previous seasons with her cancer scare and her weight gain storylines (this is especially true whenever food’s actually onscreen- her steak-chewing moment with Henry and her sad attempt to swallow that tiny Thanksgiving dinner stand out as being very sweet and very sad, respectively), but she still decided to put her daughter through some serious emotional harm just to get back at Don.
That’s a major theme in “Dark Shadows-” one character using another for personal gain. It happens across the board with nearly every character. Roger uses Jane to get a Semitic edge with a client, Jane uses the dinner as leverage for a new apartment, and then Roger uses that apartment for a romantic night with Jane, regardless of how she’ll actually feel in the morning. Roger and Bert use the Manischewitz account to get the run-around on Pete, Roger uses Michael Ginsberg for the same account (regardless of how Peggy will feel when she finds out), and Don torpedoes Ginsberg’s Sno Ball campaign to give himself the advantage.
That poison smog might have some symbolic significance with Betty, but it’s definitely present in the halls of SCDP as well. It may take a little time to reach Betty Draper-like levels of unhappiness, but the seeds are definitely there- as of now, I can’t think of a single character that’s happy with his or her standing in the office. Maybe Stan. But he doesn’t really get a lot of in-depth character work, so I’m not sure how much that counts.
But let’s backtrack just a little bit- back to Don and the Sno Ball campaign. Don claims to have gone with his own idea for Sno Ball because he prefers to go in with one idea.
That’s probably true. But there’s no mistaking why he chose the devil over the snowball in the face. Ginsberg’s idea was better. Ginsberg himself is faster, and he’s more in touch with what’s hip and what the increasingly important youth market wants. Don, on the other hand, is starting to resemble a big lumbering dinosaur more and more with each passing episode. When he turned off the Beatles, it was like he gave up on ever trying to understand the younger generation, and when he pitches the “Sno Ball’s Chance in Hell,” he just sounds startlingly out of touch. The idea itself isn’t bad, but it feels like something that should have been pitched to children ten years before. It’s a safer and easier (and frankly, less interesting) campaign than Ginsberg’s.
Really, the only time that Don feels like the Don of old is with his “I don’t think about you at all.” As Sally has learned, that’s the classic Don Draper insult. Short. Brutal. Completely unexpected. But right now, if Don really wants to hold on to his position at the top, he’s got to be creative in more ways than just his insults.
We’ve only got four Mad Men episodes left this season, and like any good season of Mad Men, I have absolutely no idea where this season is headed. Where do you folks at home think we’ll be ending season five? And what did you think of “Dark Shadows?”