Season One, Episode Three: “The Marriage of Figaro”
If art is meant to hold a mirror to modern society and force us to reflect on the real world by abstracting life through a stylized — sometimes entirely alien — view, then Mad Men wears its intentions on its sleeve. By focusing on American family and business in the context of the world of the 1960s, it basically refracts the world we live in through a prism of wool flannel and endless cigarettes. And the show’s ambition, as well as its preferred methodology, was clearly proclaimed as early as the third episode, “The Marriage of Figaro.”
Taking its title from the opera by the same name (the sequel to The Barber of Seville, best known to contemporary Americans thanks to Bugs Bunny’s Oscar-winning performance), “The Marriage of Figaro” explores married life and condemns it as a sham. Fittingly, given the story behind the opera whose passage underscores Don Draper’s vaguely voyeuristic journey through the sexual politics lurking beneath the surface of the adults’ conversations at a neighborhood birthday party. Marriage and a quiet life in the suburbs has been sold to everyone in Mad Men‘s world as the American dream; and yet, that existence seems to make everybody involved miserable.
Betty Draper gazes at her husband with her friend Francis, who playfully drools over Don’s rugged physique. Betty accepts her friend’s flirtations with Don as the compliment they’re presumably meant to be, but as the two women watch him through the window there’s an unshakeable sense that he’s as far out of his own wife’s reach as he is Francis’. Meanwhile, two different men tell jokes that amount to “Oh well, my wife is dead.”
Only Pete Campbell seems to relish the idea of marriage, having just returned from his honeymoon gushing about what a changed man he is; he’s quick to remind Peggy that their premarital fling was a one-time affair. She agrees, but unhappily, and there’s a clever bit of costuming that lends to the tension of the scene: Both wear almost identical shades of blue, making them appear to be two parts of a pair. When Pete preemptively rebuffs her, it contradicts the visual information and heightens the viewer’s simpatico with Peggy’s look of shaken disappointment. Later, she happens upon some coworkers giggling over a dogeared copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover (which is actually a more effective reflection of the times now than it was when this episode was first aired in our post-Fifty Shades of Gray world). This ersatz book club meeting prompts Joan to remark (amidst condescending barbs aimed at Peggy) that the book “is a testimony to how people think marriage is a joke.”
Later, one of Don’s neighbors indicates suburban domesticity and remarks, “We got it all, huh?”
“Yeah, this is it,” Don replies, unconvincingly, after a moment’s hesitation. Meanwhile, he’s plowed through an afternoon’s worth of nonstop beers before upgrading to hard liquor — and one gets the impression he’s only at home begrudgingly, having been rebuffed by potential mistress Rachel Menkin upon her learning of his marital status. Don spends a Saturday prepping for his daughter Sally’s birthday party, but his mind is clearly on the cufflinks Rachel gave him before their would-be affair went awry: A pair of medieval knights.
Don proves to be anything but chivalrous, however. He goes through the motions of assembling Sally’s playhouse in time for the party, engages in small talk with his neighbors, but when he’s sent away to pick up Sally’s birthday cake he never returns. Instead, he sits at the railroad tracks watching the commuter train go by — the same train line, one assumes, where the episode and its real mystery began in the first place.
That question hovers over the episode, the complement to the eponymous theme of marriage’s desolation, and an echo of the question from the first two episodes. Who is Don Draper? “The Marriage of Figaro” opens with a stranger recognizing him on the train and calling him by the name “Dick Whitman” — a name to which Don responds, albeit even more evasively than usual, and which leaves him looking every bit as rattled as he was going in to Sterling-Cooper’s near-disastrous Lucky Strike meeting. Who is Don Draper?
“Nobody’s ever lifted that rock,” one of his coworkers remarks. “For all we know, he could be Batman.” But no; while he may have a secret identity, Don only dreams of being a millionaire playboy.
By far the most precise bridge between the not-so-halcyon 1960s and the current century comes in the form of Helen Bishop, the neighborhood divorcée. Previously seen in passing just long enough to cause Betty to have a breakdown, Helen makes a proper appearance at Sally’s birthday party, where she’s regarded as strange and dangerous by the wives. And for good reason: The husbands see her as fresh meat to be pounced on at the first opportunity.
But Helen doesn’t fit in because she’s a modern woman, not a proper ’60s housewife. She’s a single mother; she exercises for the sake of exercise; she wears pants rather than a dress; she drives a Volkswagen Beetle (both the car and its famous “Lemon” ad are repeatedly derided by everyone throughout the episode save Pete Campbell, who already is being recast from Don’s ambitious rival into Sterling-Cooper’s voice of young America); and she quietly shames one of the neighborhood husband’s transparent attempt to get into her pants by feigning concern for her son. And despite being spurned both to her face and behind her back by the other Ossining wives, Helen saves the party by providing a frozen cake when Don never bothers to return with the one Betty ordered from the bakery for Sally.
In a sense, Don is a victim of salesmanship as much as anyone on the receiving end of the advertisements he creates at his day job. He’s been sold the line that settling down with a wife and kids on a quiet street is the be-all and end-all of life, but he’s like a ghost in his own home, not at all the commanding presence he represents in his office. The entire episode feels both cynical and enigmatic; who is Don, and why should we feel any sympathy for him when he celebrates his daughter’s birthday by vanishing in a drunken haze? He wins Sally’s heart back easily enough by bringing home a golden retriever to become the family pet, but his utter disdain for Betty’s feelings is reprehensible. And the episode ends right on the nose as the song “P.S., I Love You” — love as an afterthought — plays over the credits.
We still don’t know who Don Draper is, but now we know for certain he’s kind of a jerk… and not just to Pete Campbell.