The latest episode of Mad Men, "Dark Shadows", was an episode entirely about competing and competition. I should know-I'm one of the most competitive people around. Last night, after an exhaustive weekend of traveling while under the weather, I considered sticking it out and sitting in front of my computer until past midnight; hacking away and writing about Don Draper and Sno-Ball all because I wanted to compete with the Alan Sepinwalls, Molly Lamberts and Matt Zoller Seitzes of the world of television analysis. When I decided not to write-in an effort to rest and kick my cold-I tossed and turned all night, simultaneously disdaining and appreciating my final decision
I grew up playing basketball and idolizing Michael Jordan. Jordan never let up; he constantly willed and drove himself to be the best because it was an essential part of his being. Now, Jordan's level of competitive fire was pathological and borderline psychotic, but at every basketball camp, function or practice I participated in, there was always someone there who uttered the phrase, "no matter how hard you're working, there's someone out there working harder to beat you." And in many ways, I've lived my non-sporting life that way for better and for worse.
"Dark Shadows" proved that basketball proverb to be true, as nearly all of our characters found themselves directly competing with one or multiple people in their lives. Pete is silently competing with his neighbor Howard over the love his beautiful wife (and there were plenty of men who have wanted to see that side of Alexis Bledel since her later Gilmore Girls year) and openly competing with all the other young advertising agencies who were looking to be a part of the New York Times Magazine article on the advertising industry. Meanwhile, Roger is still competing with Pete at the behest of Bert Cooper and also with the young suitor Bernie who hits on his ex-wife, Jane, at their dinner with the Manischewitz people. We also see our first true glimpse of Peggy's competitiveness with Michael Ginsberg. Even Megan Draper, who normally represents all the admirable qualities we want in a man or woman, becomes competitive with her friend, Julia, over her audition for the pilot for Dark Shadows. Every character is in one way or another feeling the pressure to achieve success or happiness. Or, rather, their perceived idea of his or her own personal success or happiness.
No one is feeling the pressure to be happy more than Ms. Elizabeth Hofstadt-Draper-Frances. On Sunday, Betty returned to the Fifth Season of Mad Men for the first time since "Tea Leaves", which was the second proper episode of the season. Despite all her faults, Betty's absence was certainly felt. In "Dark Shadows", we see her still struggling with her weight, but now she has joined Weight Watchers, which serves as another form of therapy that Betty is always passively seeking. Betty is overweight and self-conscious. When she peeks around Don's apartment and sees how glamorous Megan has made it and then glimpses Megan's own, young, glamorous figure she is ignited with jealousy, self-loathing and a competitive urge-which results in her nearly stress-eating a mouthful of Miracle Whip. When Betty later finds a simple, sweet love note that Don wrote to Megan on the back of one of Bobby's drawings, she is driven to the edge. She attempts to foil Don and Megan's happiness by telling Sally about her father's "first wife", Anna Draper. Though, she tries to turn Sally against Don and Megan, he plan mainly backfires as Megan sees right through Sally's tantrum to Betty's manipulative intentions. Once Megan can calm Don down, Sally is sent back to Rye, with barbs to manipulate her own mother (and further push Sally out to an self-reliant and independent island of existence).
What Betty can't see is that she is living a perfectly happy and normal life. The leader of her Weight Watchers session tells the class that a person needs to fill themselves up not with food, but with their family, their achievements, their own lives. This sort of mantra is at the heart of any therapy, but Betty, like most of us, is unable to look around her and see that she has what has become a healthy marriage with a man who is honest and open with her about his professional insecurities and shortcomings. She has an extremely intelligent and strong daughter who may not completely love her but at least respects her and tries (through Dr. Edna in therapy) to understand her. And she has two sons who are affable and probably better behaved than most boys in the greater Rye/Ryebrook/Port Chester region. Unfortunately, again like most of us are wont to do, Betty focuses on what she doesn't have and tries to undermine Don. Then, at Thanksgiving, she is left with the empty statement that she is thankful that she has everything he wants "and that no one else has anything better."
While Betty is trying to undermine Don's new domestic life, Don is trying to re-stake his creative territory in his own company. Don finally sees how far Michael Ginsberg has permeated all the work SCDP now produces-he now appears to be out producing and outperforming Peggy, Don's chosen protégé and professional "soulmate". So, Don decides to try one of his patented late-night, tape-recorded, brain storming sessions; but the ideas don't come as easily, cleverly or poignantly as they once did in 1960-1964. Instead, Don forces his pitch for Sno-Ball on the rest of his staff and, while using the devil and the play on "snowball's chance in hell" is mildly clever, it is not as direct or universal as Ginsberg's "snowball throwing" series. Don knows this and finally his eyes are opened to the fact that Ginsberg is more than breathing down his neck-he might have already surpassed the best that Don is now capable of. So, Don leaves Ginsberg's presentation in the cab and lands the sale with his idea. Don proves his worth temporarily, but his jab at Ginsberg when he tells him that he "never thinks of [him]", shows that he might be picking a creative battle that he may not still be capable of winning.
There is always someone out there getting better and, if you stay complacent as Don has, you will eventually be beaten and surpassed.