Last Sunday’s Mad Men episode features the interplay of short-sighted self-centeredness and unappreciated helpfulness. As helpful characters like Bobby, Henry, Dawn, and Harry get disregarded and/or harmed, self-absorbed characters demanding their way, like Betty, Peggy, Jim, Roger, and at first Don, sabotage themselves. But unlike the others, Don changes course during the episode and avoids the worst possible outcomes.
Nearly always self-centered, Betty presents a full-blown example of self-absorption. She gives Francine a dirty look behind her back after Francine describes her new lifestyle as a part-time working woman, presumably because Francine’s new outlook is no longer the same as Betty’s and is more aligned with a lower social class. Dirty looks of that sort were socially acceptable, even admired back then. Generally, the thought behind it was, “You’re weird.” But the result is that Betty distances herself from a friend.
On the field trip to the farm with Bobby, Betty critiques the teacher for her braless outfit, possibly because bralessness, which was promoted by the women’s liberation movement at the time, was intended to empower women regardless of social class. This challenges Betty’s understanding of women’s power as deriving from their husband’s money. And with Bobby, Betty is so annoyed at not getting to eat her sandwich during their picnic that she doesn’t even think to appreciate or compliment Bobby for his sincere concern for the girl he gave the sandwich to. Bobby, for his act of kindness, is blamed for ruining Betty’s day, which in turn ruins his day. Yet the thing that had originally motivated Betty to chaperon the class excursion – her desire to feel like a good mother, a beloved mother – is lost precisely because of her inability to get over herself. Later, when Henry takes Betty’s self-pity seriously and tries to help her both face herself and appreciate the love that she has, she shrugs him off like some random background noise.
At the office, Dawn works hard to help multiple people, including Don when he calls. Although she explains to Don that she’s busy, Don demands that she personally deliver supplies to his apartment and then commands her to place a call to Megan’s agent for him – leaving her feeling unappreciated. Meanwhile, Don’s self-important vocal demeanor and disregard for Dawn’s predicament get him nowhere because, out of necessity, she puts him on hold. Then there’s Peggy, who wins no friends with her “pity-party,” whining about not receiving a Clio nomination for her bizarre Rosemary’s Baby-based ad. Further, she shoots herself in the foot by offending Don with her pompous and demeaning claim that he was not missed, when in fact Don is about to return as a colleague that she’ll probably have to collaborate with in the future.
One of the best examples of the self-focused attitude that produces self-sabotage occurs when Jim Cutler calls for Harry Crane to join him in a client meeting to save the client. As usual, Harry employs a combination of his considerable knowledge and his well-practiced smooth-talking skills to help the company, in this case by at least keeping the client mildly interested in Sterling Cooper’s “computer.” But what does he get for the help he offers? After the meeting, Jim not only doesn’t appreciate Harry’s assistance, but he reams him for stretching the truth, lying to the client. Later, in Bert Cooper’s office, Jim announces that he wants Harry fired, whereupon Roger exercises his executive privilege and tells him it’s done. As they bask in their egotistical highs, these two corporate big shots unwittingly position their company for huge revenue losses, since without Harry, their television ad department will be gutted.
Finally, there’s Don. After making his demands to Dawn at the beginning of the show, he actually starts thinking about others quite a bit. At first he’s tipped off by Alan Silver that Megan isn’t doing well emotionally and needs some anchoring. Yes, he visits Megan under the pretext of wanting intimacy, but nonetheless, his visit is based on genuine concern for her and a desire to help that she in no way appreciates. Megan wants to know Don misses her, but when he sincerely says he does miss her, she rejects the message, thus sabotaging her own emotional needs. Although it’s understandable, she’s too involved in her own inner world of self-pity and righteous indignation to listen and connect with Don at that point.
Later, Don spends energy watching and listening to others, responding with some level of respect and consideration. This happens when he calls Megan to apologize, although she doesn’t appreciate it. We also see it when Don waits in the office for Roger to show up, and when he sits with Mike in the creative lounge and helps him work on an ad. In fact, Mike may be the one soul to appreciate Don’s helping hand. And Don’s approach continues during the Partners’ meeting when he’s invited back to work on a conditional basis.
Although Don may not feel highly successful in this episode, he clearly has a partial success: Megan is still talking to him, and he has an office to go to again. This may be a direct result of his willingness at this point to think beyond his immediate, self-involved inner world.
What’s next? Will Don take another step forward? Or will he backslide?
Watch Mad Men on AMC this Sunday at 10 p.m. ET to find out.
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