Summer, you old Indian Summer
You’re the tear that comes after June time’s laughter
You see so many dreams that don’t come true
Dreams we fashioned when Summertime was new
You are here to watch over
Some heart that is broken
By a word that somebody left unspoken
You’re the ghost of a romance in June going astray
Fading too soon, that’s why I say
“Farewell to you Indian Summer”
— Tommy Dorsey, “Indian Summer” (1938)
I don’t know if the title of Mad Men episode 11 was intended to be an oblique reference to the song quoted above, but given the series penchant for dual meanings in episode titles, I’d be surprised if it weren’t. While “Indian Summer” obviously refers to the unseasonal heat wave afflicting New York during the episode, the undercurrent throughout the story emphasizes unrequited longing and dashed dreams.
For the first time in the show, the story doesn’t really have much to do with Don Draper, at least not directly. He plays a supporting role here, a secondary character, as the focus pulls back more to include much of the ensemble cast – specifically the female cast. Don we see more as the other inhabitants of his world do: As an enigmatic, mercurial figure, impossible to pin down or even to understand. Although he figures into the frustrations and unrealized hopes that dominate the story, the emphasis clearly lands on how difficult life is in Mad Men‘s world for those who aren’t wealthy white men; indeed, those difficulties stem largely from the privileged and rich.
Take Adam Whitman, who puts in a second and final appearance here, putting on a suit to mail a parcel to his half-brother Don before kicking a chair out from beneath his feet. He hangs himself, alone and unwanted in a tenement, still loaded with the cash Don gave him as a payoff to go his separate way. Rejected by his sole surviving relative, Adam gave up. And while Don had his reasons to push Adam away, this suicide sets the tone for “Indian Summer”: People like Don gets what they want, heedless of the needs of others or the havoc it wreaks on their lives and emotions.
Betty Draper lays at home alone, reading magazines in bed by lamplight, as Don carouses with his new mistress Rachel. Neglected and lonely, Betty longs for romance so much she nearly invites a traveling salesman into her bedroom. After Don rebukes for her letting a strange man into their home – never mind that he was selling air conditioning, something Betty doesn’t benefit from at home in the sweltering autumn heat the way Don does in his downtown office – she takes comfort in fantasies of the salesman as she leans against a shuddering, unbalanced washing machine.
Yet while Rachel may have Don’s attentions, she isn’t much happier than Betty. As much as she’s attracted to him and enjoys their affair, she’s also far too realistic to feel complacent about their future. But Don deflects her concerns; “I don’t think about it,” he says. “I’m exactly where I need to be.” That’s easy for him to say, of course; he has a loving wife and family, the respect of his community, and Rachel amounts to a little something on the side that he can walk away from whenever he likes. As an unfashionably single woman bound to a certain degree by tradition and family, however, she has far more to be concerned about, but her new lover can’t begin to comprehend why she’d be concerned. More to the point, he doesn’t care to comprehend.
In fairness to Don, he’s not the only one who heedlessly leaves the others in his life discomfited and unhappy. Roger does much the same, willfully returning to work shortly after his heart attack against doctor’s orders in the hopes of instilling Lucky Strike’s management with confidence in Sterling Cooper’s ability to handle the account. His condition – up to and including his myocardial relapse – leaves both his wife Mona and his mistress Joan emotional wrecks.
Ultimately, only Peggy Olson seems to be able to channel existential languishing into personal advancement. Though she’s very much an outsider in a man’s world, which couldn’t be clearer for the unkind circumstances under which she lands her next major writing assignment, she pushes through and rises to the occasion with talent (and a certain degree of unflappability, abetted by obliviousness). Her break results from a bunch of men sitting around puzzling over a feminine health tool and snickering at Peggy’s weight gain, but she runs with it and impresses the executives, most importantly Don, who increasingly seems to regard her with something of a mentoring mindset. Never mind that opportunity comes in the form of snickering frat boys who make an unkind connection between an exercise device and her newfound heft; she seizes it anyway and excels.
As Don rises to partner as a matter of corporate expediency – can’t leave Lucky Strike anxious, after all – Peggy begins to rise through ambition and talent. She storms out of a disastrous blind date with a delivery truck driver who chastises her for her pretentiousness in aspiring to be leave behind her Brooklyn roots and become part of the Manhattan elite. “Those people are better than us,” she says of her would-be peers, “because they want things they’ve never seen.”
There’s no small irony in the fact that the product that offers Peggy her break, the euphemistically named “Passive Exercise Regime,” is essentially a female sexual device masquerading as a weight-loss product. It’s literally a machine, as Freddie Rumsen observes, designed to take the place of a man, which is precisely the path Peggy has started upon: Breaking through Sterling-Cooper’s glass ceiling and performing duties that until now were only seen as fit for men. She, too, wants things she’s never seen.
The parallel between the P.E.R. – which Peggy renames “The Rejuvenator,” then “The Relaxercizer” (the Latin roots of “rejuvenate” making it too highbrow a name for Don’s liking) – and Betty’s heat-flushed moment of relief in the laundry room isn’t coincidental, either. The ’60s were a time of sexual liberation for women in America, but here we see the show’s two leading ladies channel liberated sexuality into a different kind of personal liberation. For Peggy, it’s the cornerstone of a career; for Betty, her fantasy is the first time she’s admitted to herself that her relationship with Don isn’t satisfying her… and not just on a physical level. Her failed return to modeling awakened Betty to an important part of herself, and she’s come a long way from the trembling, repressed car wreck of a house wife we saw in the early episodes.
Meanwhile, while his coworkers ascend through luck, pragmatism, and talent, Pete Campbell commits mail fraud by stealing Adam’s parcel from Don’s desk, determined to ascend through whatever means possible.