Season One, Episode Two: “Ladies’ Room”
“What do women want?” The question looms over Don Draper’s head for the entirety of Mad Men‘s second episode, “Ladies’ Room.” He’s bewildered by the fact that he’s given his wife Betty everything, and yet she still suffers from anxiety and depression. Surely, Don rationalizes, there’s something she wants that she doesn’t have… but what could it be?
In a lot of ways, “Ladies’ Room” is primarily about Betty, who barely even appeared in the pilot episode; yet in a sense, it’s a definitive glimpse into what makes Don Draper tick as well. Betty represents Don’s family life, and we see more of that here than of the professional life explored at such length in “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
“What do women want?” Don voices the question aloud several times, but none so crucially as in a pitch development meeting for aerosol shaving cream. His team comes up with ideas designed to appeal to masculine tastes; sci-fi enthusiast Paul Kinsey is particularly enamored with their use of astronauts to emphasize the futuristic, space-age appeal of this new patented shaving cream delivery system. Draper, however, isn’t swallowing it — because women, he realizes, are the ones who will be shopping for the product. For them, astronauts are ridiculous and the future is filled with fears of the atom bomb, he postulates. So what is it that will convince women that this product is for them?
This is the other facet of Don’s so-called genius as an ad man. Besides his skill for desperate off-the-cuff improvisation, he also comes across as thinking a step ahead of the rest of his team, of exploring things from unexpected angles. That’s because his work isn’t simply work for him; it’s therapy. Just as his “You are OK” speech was secretly directed to himself, his questions about the expectations and desires of women are about Betty, not shaving cream. He’s not a visionary so much as intensely self-involved.
But his team doesn’t realize this, because no one has any real insight into his life. He never talks about himself, discusses his feelings, or shares details of his past. He’s good at deflection, at coming up with a clever quip to take others’ attention off himself. He feigns modesty. But really, he’s intensely private — so private, in fact, that even Betty knows nothing about his life. Therein lies the problem.
“What do women want?” He ponders the question for most of the episode, all the while denying Betty the things she most desires: Security, stability, confidence, and a confidant. Don has provided her with a living, a nice house and car, happy children, all the things society told men of that era they were expected to give their wives. He’s a success by any metric. But he offers Betty no intimacy. He tells her nothing about himself, gives her no outlet to voice her fears and sorrows, and casually cheats on her with a woman who regards her own invisible role in Betty’s life as an act of cruelty.
And even if Betty isn’t aware of Midge, she knows, deep inside, that Don isn’t faithful. She suffers a mild nervous breakdown when she drives past the house where her new neighbor is moving in — a young, pretty woman not unlike herself who happens to be (horror of horrors) a divorcée. As she glances at Helen Bishop struggling to drag a massive moving box up her front steps, Betty sees a possible outcome for herself: Single, stuck with two children, forced to work to make ends meet. She loses control of her car and crashes into a birdbath in a neighbor’s yard. Don, unsurprisingly, uses this as an excuse to criticize Betty’s driving, failing to realize that in a very real way the blame lays squarely on him.
“What do women want?” Don is right in saying that the future frightens some people, but for his wife it’s not borne of atomic terror. It’s because she’s so desperate to connect to another human being that she drunkenly confides in her husband’s boss’ wife about the recent death of her mother. It’s because Betty sees her marriage as so unfulfilling and uncertain that she panics at the sight of a single mother (but for the grace of God). Her greatest fear in the wake of the accident isn’t that the children could have been hurt, but that their daughter Sally could have ended up with a scar, forever destroying her chances of finding the happiness that somehow eludes Betty. Because clearly that happiness comes from being with a man, and a man wouldn’t want a woman with a blemish, right? That’s what society says — what the ads her husband creates say.
In the end, Don takes a decidedly masculine approach to solving Betty’s dilemma. Hers a problem to be fixed by throwing resources and money at it. He recoils from the idea of psychiatric medicine, saying it would be better to let someone “open the hood and poke around” — to him, Betty’s troubles are no different from those of the car she banged up. In the end, he buys her a delicate and expensive bracelet watch in a hope of cheering her up and clearly is taken aback when the gift doesn’t instantly ameliorate her depression. Unable to simply buy her happiness, Don instead resorts to subterfuge: He calls her therapist, who happily ignores any concept of medical ethics to provide Don with a full report on Betty’s couch trip.
“What do women want?” Betty’s misery throughout this episode is counterpointed by Peggy Olson’s second week at Sterling-Cooper. She’s a girl who has literally nothing; she’s fallen for Pete Campbell, who currently is out of office on his honeymoon. She’s the low girl on the office totem pole, and the staff’s interest in her seems entirely to revolve around the question of who she’ll bed first — a fact her boss Joan is quick to remind her of. Even Kinsey, who seems so friendly and forthcoming, only extends his hand of friendship and camaraderie as a gambit to get under her skirt. This is perhaps her most crushing realization; for a few days, she felt like she’d found a genuine friend, but no — her connection with Kinsey was an illusion, and she’s still at the bottom of the pecking order, eye candy for the junior executives until the next new girl comes along.
And so Peggy takes the first small step to becoming the next Don Draper by keeping her personal life a secret. Kinsey realizes she’s already slept with someone in the office, but she deflects the question of “with whom” and attempts a retreat from the office. Joan intercepts her, though, and tears what little of her self-esteem remains to shreds, forcing Peggy to retreat to the eponymous ladies’ room to let out her frustration and humiliation by crying. Before she can break down into tears, though, Peggy sees another lady from the steno pool already weeping in front of the mirror, and it steels her resolution not to become just another victim of Sterling-Cooper’s hideous office culture. She straightens up, collects herself by adjusting her scarf, and returns to her desk. The scarf is a meaningful touch, as Joan suggested she begin wearing one on her first day on the job. Peggy is willing to play by the office rules and outwardly accept her place in the pecking order, but she clearly doesn’t intend to let those things define her.
“What do women want?” Don ultimately finds himself vexed by the question, so he retreats to advertising homilies. “Any excuse to get closer,” he decides at last, mentally jotting down his new shaving cream slogan as he idles in bed with Midge. “There’s the ego we pay to see,” she smirks, and there’s a remarkable amount of truth to both their words: Don’s solution is smug, and yet it’s not entirely wrong. What Betty wants is to get closer, but not in the physical sense of a closer shave. She wants emotional intimacy, to feel like she has a place in Don’s life — or in fact to understand anything at all about his life. Don, however, remains oblivious, because that’s simply not what men are expected to do. Where Peggy accepts the role culture has placed on her, she refuses to internalize those rules; Don, on the other hand, can’t see beyond them.