Mad Men last night was Roman Holiday x Revolutionary Road ÷ Pete and a German Girl. Not a whole lot happened, and it seemed like the sole purpose of the episode was to remind us of Betty’s and Pete’s relevance, as they both get top billing for what feels like the first time this season.
It’s late August, it’s hot, and everyone is on vacation. That is, except for Pete who is stuck at home, and Betty, who is campaigning for her reservoir project while Don travels the country visiting Hilton hotels at Connie’s behest. His people call Don at home to tell him his latest destination is Rome, and Betty—still reeling from her reservoir victory and celebratory kiss with Creepy Belly Feeler—decides she wants to come along. Betty really takes the old “When in Rome…” adage to heart, showing off her fluency in Italian and getting herself all dolled up in the latest Italian fashions. She and Don do a little stranger role-play, have a bunch of sex, and seem like they actually like each other for at least a little bit. Then Betty comes home and hates everything again.
Meanwhile, with Trudy out of town Pete reverts to bachelorhood by watching cartoons, throwing his clothes everywhere and diddling a neighbor’s nanny. And that is more or less all that happens. Sure, the episode didn’t have the spectacular pacing of last week, but it certainly showcased the complexities of Betty and Pete and why they matter in the grand scheme of Mad Men.
The episode highlighted the fact that Pete Campbell really is progressive and conservative, a lout and a charmer, an innocent boy and conniving man all at once. His seemingly contradictory, and even at times hypocritical behavior works because the push and pull of his character rings so true. In this case, I don’t believe that Pete wanted to help the German au pair replace the ruined dress just to get into her pants—I think he was bored and genuinely thought he could help someone out of a jam. Later on, once the problem is fixed, I think he’s simply still bored and figured he had a decent shot with her and went for it.
I’ve always thought Campbell was kind of a douche, but I do find it both realistic and compelling that he seems to be waffling between an outdated, Sterling Cooper way of thinking (bullying a saleswoman with no compunction about it; blaming his wife for his own infidelity) and a more modern point of view (feeling actual guilt about the entire nanny incident; reading Ebony in his office). It pains me to say it, but he’s kind of the future of Sterling Cooper (ironic since he and Trudy can’t have babies!) and any foray into Pete’s world is important to the show.
Which brings us to the Betty portion of the recap. The lull in action of last night’s episode allowed for some really great (and one not so great) Betty moments. First we have Creepy Belly Feeler coming to the rescue for the reservoir project at a town meeting attended by Betty, Francine, and some other Junior League lady. In a rather stilted moment afterwards, Creepy Belly Feeler walks Betty back to her car (Grandpa Gene’s Lincoln, which seems important though I’m not sure why) and kisses her. At home, a super-ecstatic Betty does a little dance in the kitchen, and when Don walks over to give her a hug you can actually see the joy drain out of Betty’s face. She then places her hand on Don’s chest as if to push him away, and her distaste with their life in that moment is unmistakable.
So she uses the timeless cure-all of a change of scenery to pull her out of her misery, and it seems to work. In Italy she not only seems happy, but also seems like she is both in love with and attracted to Don. It was quite astounding to see Betty blossom while away from her roles as housewife and mother. Charming everyone with her Italian and relishing the advances of Italian men, Betty seems more in her element here than she ever has before. Is it all that surprising? Of course not, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t deserve to glimpse the stark contrast between Betty Draper stuck in Ossining and Betty Draper flourishing in Rome.
So it’s no great shock that Betty immediately returns to her unhappy, maladjusted ways the second she and Don come home. What is surprising, however, is that she articulates it. After discussing the trip with Francine, Betty mopes up to the bedroom with Don, who wants to start in with the stranger-in-the-cafe role-playing again. Betty, however, wants no part of it and actually says, “I hate this place. I hate our friends. I hate this town.” That was a bit too April Wheeler for me, and I think out of character for Betty. We know she’s unhappy; we certainly saw it quite clearly in this episode. But she’s never supposed to say it, because Betty is all about appearances and propriety, and it seems unlikely to me that she would rock the boat with a statement like this, even to Don in the safety of their bedroom. Besides the fact that she’s horrible at managing her feelings, I find it hard to believe she’d come right out and say that she hates her life. But she did, and it’s out there, and I don’t know what to think. Of course, if Betty—the benchmark for all of the female characters on the show—can be honest for even just a fleeting second, then maybe Joan and Peggy can drop some truth bombs of their own.