Features » May 12, 2014
Mad Men: Season 7, Episode 5: The Tragedy of the Nipple in a Box
As Ginsberg suffers a breakdown, Betty finally has a breakthrough.
Before Betty can be kinder or more respectful to anyone else, she has to respect herself enough to realize that she is capable of thinking independently, and she doesn’t need one more shitty husband to think for her.
First things first: We lost Michael Ginsberg last night. What we saw, at the end of this episode—a man in the middle of a psychotic break, being carted away on a stretcher with restraints—is not something it is easy to come back from in the year 1969.
This story most often ended very badly back then, particularly for men in Michael Ginsberg’s specific position. And while the shock of that ending—the blood, the gore, the fucking sliced-off nipple in a gift box—is one of those wild out-of-nowhere bursts of violence on Mad Men that reads as comic (remember, if you will, the sad story of the in-office lawnmower) the truly disturbing thing about the episode is that a very frightening and sad story has effectively been disguised as comic relief the entire time. Ginsberg is in the midst of a psychotic break for the entire episode. We just think it’s funny, right up until it’s not.
But something else happened last night, too. Something good, something that we’ve been waiting on for a very, very long time. In the same episode that we lost Ginsberg, we saw Betty Draper finally start to wake up.
Let’s start in the office, where the computer has been installed. Standing outside of the transparent glass office where they’re housing the computer, there’s Ginsberg, who is shouting, at the top of his lungs, at an inanimate object. He wants the computer to stop humming, because it’s not happy. His co-workers stop by and tease him: Oh, that wacky Ginsberg, always having outbursts. Remember his tirade about the couch last week? How he thought his couch was “full of farts?” He’s an emotional guy; it’s funny. He turns around, and he tries, in the only language he has available at the moment, to tell them: It’s not that. This is not normal.
But it’s just Ginsberg, so they walk away. Somebody has found Lou’s secret comic strips on the copy machine, and for a while, it’s all anyone can talk about. They don’t pay attention (and we don’t pay attention) when—at the meeting where everyone is making fun of Lou—Ginsberg is there in the background, poking at the radio, muttering to himself about how something has been done to it, things are getting worse, this is another sign that something has gone wrong. Trying again, in the clearest language that he has without access to lucid consciousness, to tell them that something has gone terribly wrong.
We cut away. Don is having his requisite weekly drama: Anna Draper’s niece is pregnant in California, and he’s sweet and paternal with her, and tells her to crash with Megan until he can come out to see them both. Megan is with her new best gal pal, and being very flirty with her, setting up one of the most exploitative and needless things Mad Men has ever done to one of its female characters. So Don is going to California.
Meanwhile: Betty is getting ready to host a neighborhood party.
Back in the office, and Ginsberg has stuffed cotton in his ears. He’s taking physical measures, but what we see is wacky Ginsberg doing his usual slapstick comedy. He creeps out into the empty office and sees Lou and Jim Cutler having a conversation behind the glass of the computer office wall. He can’t hear them, and the shot in which the camera scans back and forth, finding their lips, is a shot-for-shot remake of the killer computer HAL 9000 reading lips in 2001, figuring out that the astronauts plan to shut him off. Last week, everyone (including me) was talking about the over-the-top 2001 references. But that movie didn’t come out in 1969; it came out a year prior, in 1968. And listen to the story Ginsberg is telling: There’s a machine, an evil computer that wants to kill everyone, and they have to shut it off. So you tell me: Is Mad Men sloppily referencing 2001? Or did Ginsberg see a movie? Did Ginsberg hear a story about a computer somewhere, and did it match with the coincidence of a real-life computer and the story his brain was already telling him—something horrible is happening right now, be afraid—to the point that, in his own point-of-view shots, we’re not entirely clear on the boundaries between that story and his real life?
Back to Betty’s party. She’s talking with the neighbors, who are so impressed with Henry, the big Republican state senator. They’re talking about how wild kids are these days, and also Vietnam. Betty perks up: “I don’t know that the two things are unrelated. First the kids start protesting, then everything is up for grabs.” Everyone shuts her down: She’s saying they should stay in Vietnam, and no one wants to stay in Vietnam, not even the president. Is she saying that Henry doesn’t support the president? She’s tanked the conversation and storms off, in grand Betty style, to sulk alone in her bedroom until the night is over.
But no one heard what she actually said. Just like Ginsberg, Betty is right, but she’s right about the wrong things: The kids have started protesting—and publishing The Feminine Mystique, organizing women’s rights marches, advocating equal pay laws and forming the National Organization for Women. In three years, the kids are going to try to ratify a constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights to women, and in four, abortion will be legal. Everything is up for grabs. The only one not grabbing is Betty. She’s telling the truth, but even she doesn’t quite hear it yet. She will.
Back to Don and Megan. Don has learned that Lou and Cutler are wooing Philip Morris behind his back, and that the they’re treating him horribly in order to pressure him into quitting—since his anti-tobacco New York Times ad, they can’t land any tobacco account with Don at SCP. Meanwhile, Megan has kicked Don’s pregnant niece out of the apartment, and lied about it so that she can give Don a super-hot threesome with her new lady friend. There is no reason for this scene to exist. It’s an embodiment of all the worst things about Matt Weiner’s characterization of Megan—a sloppy, half-written receptacle for whatever soft-porn straight-guy fantasies he’s got cooking at the time—and it serves no purpose but to make a bunch of cavemen hoot on Twitter about how Draper totally pulled the threesome, right brah? High five! Don also makes the sort of big heroic move (barging into the Philip Morris meeting to win them over) we’ve seen a hundred times before, and it gets less interesting every time we see it. It’s not a great week for Don or Megan, so let’s move on.
Because Ginsberg is at Peggy’s apartment. He can’t work in the office, the machine is there. He has to work here, with Peggy. (“It’s Saturday,” Peggy tells him. He doesn’t know where he’s supposed to be, or when, right now.) He’s afraid, and Peggy is a safe person. Peggy liked his work, Peggy hired him, and when they first met, he told Peggy that he was a Martian. What he meant was “concentration camp survivor”—just like right now, when he says “the machine,” what he means is manic swing or schizophrenia—but she listened, and she cared. So he tries, again, to speak to her, in his only available language, the metaphors that the disease forces on him: The machine is turning people into “homos,” he tells her. The machine is making him want to do things he knows he doesn’t want, like sex with Stan, or Peggy. “Homos” sounds awful in 2014, and people do laugh, but what Ginsberg’s saying has nothing to do with being gay, or even with sex. Listen to what he’s saying, his Martian dialect: He knows he’s not thinking clearly, and he doesn’t think he’s able to make his own decisions, which scares him, because he might do something really out of character. What is happening to him “makes men do unnatural things,” he says; “there’s this pressure in my head like a hydrogen bomb going off.” He’s being as clear as he can.
But he pushes too hard, he insists on sex with Peggy, and the safe, smart thing for Peggy to do is to get Ginsberg out of her house immediately. So she does. It’s Ginsberg’s job to find a solution. He’s in a state where men do unnatural things. So he does.
And here’s Betty, also dealing with the consequences of her language. Specifically, Henry Francis, who lays out exactly what he wants from Betty: a pretty object that makes him look good at parties. He comes into the room, blusters about his importance (“I’m their elected official”) and her nerve in bringing up political matters, makes it clear exactly who he thinks Betty Draper Francis is, and what she’s worth. He screams it into her face: “From now on, keep your conversation to how much you hate getting toast crumbs in the butter, and leave the thinking to me.”
Now here’s Ginsberg again, looking happy, walking into Peggy Olson’s office. He’s very sorry for his behavior. He does “have feelings” for her. (Remember this: The last thing Ginsberg did, as a free man, was tell Peggy he loved her. When he was more afraid than he’d ever been in his life, he went to Peggy, who already knew he was a Martian. Lots of this is Ginsberg’s illness. Sex was part of the illness. But I don’t think Ginsberg loving Peggy was ever less than real.) But he was out of line. Something horrible was inside him—data waves, bad data—and he had to get it out. So he wants to give her a little thank-you present.
You already know what’s in there. He’s sliced part of his chest off—that’s how desperate he is to make it stop. And now she’s on the phone, and now he’s in the stretcher, and now Michael Ginsberg is gone.
Here’s what happens, after this, for men like Ginsberg: If he recovers, the world is set up to make sure that it doesn’t last. He’s a single, childless man from a working-class family with only one elderly relative: There’s no family money or support network, in the event that he can’t find work or care for himself. Given that his co-workers just saw this happen, Ginsberg is not likely to find work easily. Men like Ginsberg usually end up homeless, or in prison, because mental hospitals are closing at an epidemic rate in the 1960s, and can’t take in most of the people who need them. So men like Michael Ginsberg live on the street until they die of exposure or break a law. Think about Michael Ginsberg: He was funny. He was smart. He was the best writer there, and everyone knew it. He is now very likely to freeze or starve to death, alone, on the streets of New York. This is quite possibly a death sentence. And we were laughing the whole time.
There has to be some joy in here. Over at Betty’s, we seem unlikely to find it. Sally’s back home, she’s broken her nose playing with a golf club, and Betty, as usual, is unloading all of her own trauma onto Sally. She pays Henry’s abuse down the line almost word-for-word: “You’re lucky Henry is so important,” she tells Sally. (Henry said: “I’m their elected official!”) And: “You can’t be trusted out on your own.” (Henry said: “Leave the thinking to me.”) Henry gets to play the saint and be shocked by Betty’s cruelty in front of the children—though we now know that he has no problem with inflicting the exact same cruelty on his wife when no one is looking—but it’s Sally, actually, who jolts Betty awake. She tells Betty that Betty’s only accomplishment is her “perfect nose;” without her pretty face, she wouldn’t be married, she wouldn’t be rich, she’d be “nothing.”
Betty realizes that even her own daughter is clear on this: She has no value to Henry outside of being a pretty face at the parties. Her interior life is worth nothing. Don’s abuse was leading to this, Henry’s control was leading to this, Francine’s job was leading to this, but Sally’s nascent feminism— though it has very little sympathy for Betty—is what finally pushed her here. The next time she sees Henry, she unleashes on him: “I’m tired of everyone telling me to shut up. I’m not stupid. I speak Italian.” Everyone uses the language they have available at the time. “You’re sorry you forgot to inform me what I’m supposed to think. Guess what: I think. All by myself!”
And there it is. At the precise moment that Michael Ginsberg is losing his mind, Betty Draper Francis is reclaiming hers. She’s screaming it, as loud as Ginsberg was screaming about the computer. And she should be screaming: She’s needed to say this since the first episode of the show. She’s needed to say it her whole life. This might be the one thing Betty Draper can say, to finally rescue herself from being such a bitter and toxic person. Before she can be kinder or more respectful to anyone else, she has to respect herself enough to realize that she is capable of thinking independently, and she doesn’t need one more shitty husband to think for her.
It’s a huge thing for her to realize, and it’s dangerous too, which is why Henry—like every controlling man throughout history — tries knocking it down right away with a little nasty sarcasm: “You’re so smart. Why don’t you run for office?”
She pauses. She sizes him up. “You know what, Henry, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she says. “But that’s a good idea.”
I don’t know what Betty’s going to do, either. If she keeps to the insight she had in this moment, a whole lot of things will become possible. This week, one character lost his lucidity, and another gained her lucidity. This was their story, so I like to think that Ginsberg’s final statement was a message to Betty, as much as anyone: Get out while you still can.
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Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributor. She is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady