A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an overly-long post about Sally Draper and how she functions on a symbolic level on Mad Men. One of the layers of meaning that I suggested is that in the early seasons she acts as a sort of mirror, serving as a measure of conscience or achievement for Don, especially as he was dealing with various versions of living a double life. For example, in 2.6 “Maidenform,” Don learns that he’s become a point of gossip among a certain set of women because of his sexual appetite. Seeing his adoring little girl look up at him while he shaves the next morning causes a sort of mini-breakdown. Last night on 6.11 “Favors”, the sentiment of that moment gets repeated but with heightened stakes and consequences.
To recap, Sally and her (annoying) friend Julie are staying with Don and Megan during a school field trip for the Model United Nations. They are the only two girls on the trip, and Betty doesn’t want them staying with the boys, even chaperoned, because, “Like everything else in this country, Diplomacy Club’s just an excuse to make out.” At first she didn’t want Sally to go at all, but the retort,”You hate that Daddy supports my dreams. He doesn’t think that I’m just a pain in the ass” seems to have changed things. That line foretold certain doom.
Fast forward through many scenes of Sally dealing with crushes and boys about as well as any 13 year-old does. Julie slips a letter about Sally’s crush on the neighbors’ son, Mitchell Rosen, under their kitchen door. In a tizzy, Sally borrows keys from the doorman (under the pretense of letting herself into her apartment) and walks in on Don and Sylvia Rosen having sex in the maid’s room. (In her defense, she did knock.) Don and Sylvia panic and Don chases after Sally, but not fast enough to catch her. In the elevator, he looks like he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown or just dropping dead. Sylvia’s lipstick is not his shade. He looks ghostly. When he doesn’t catch his daughter, he goes to a bar and comes home later stinking drunk. Sally won’t meet his eyes.
When Dr. Rosen and his son come to thank Don for the favor he did them by getting Mitchell into the Air National Guard, and thus out of the draft, the scene becomes another moment in which the audience sees what Sally knows, but the adults (now except for Don) do not. As Dr. Rosen thanks Don and tells him that he owes him, the moment is tinged with irony. Sally’s brooding silence practically screams that Dr. Rosen owes Don nothing but a punch in the nose. Then, when Megan kisses Don because he’s “the sweetest man,” Sally runs out of the room screaming, “You make me sick!” Again, Don follows her and in the ensuing conversation, it is hard to tell if he’s concerned about his relationship with his daughter or concerned about covering his tracks.
Sally tells Don, “You don’t get to talk to me anymore,” which is a bratty teenager thing to say, but also pretty significant, considering how often up to this point Sally craved for or flourished under Don’s fleeting attention. Plus, just a month ago, Sally told Don that she didn’t know anything about him. Now, she knows more than she’d like to. Conversely, once more, adults underestimate what Sally knows. The audience knows that Sally knows enough about sex to know what she saw. We’ve been privy to her interrogations of babysitters (“I know what it is…”) and to her walking in on Roger and Megan’s mother in 5.7 “At the Codfish Ball.” From the other side of her locked bedroom door, Don tells her, “I know you think you saw something. I was comforting Mrs. Rosen. She was very upset. It’s very…complicated…” but, even if she says “okay” and lets him leave in the moment, we know that Sally knows better. And Don could be in for it.
I could practically hear glass shattering when Sally walked in on Don and Sylvia for a couple of reasons. First, this encounter signals a looming change in the relationship between Sally and Don, a relationship that has been a significant part of structuring Sally’s storylines, because of the way it influences her relationship with Betty. Yes, Betty is a harsh and unsympathetic mother most of the time, but the real conflict between Sally and Betty began when Don and Betty divorced. Remember the nasty line, “He left because you’re ugly and mean”? It stands to reason that Sally might start to understand Betty’s side of things now that she knows that Don is cheating on Megan, the young, sweet step-Mommy. Her image of Don is shattered. At the start of the episode Don was the hero, but now what happens when there’s no one left on Sally’s pedestal? For Don, who tried hard (well…) to be good, and failed so spectacularly, seeing the disgust on his daughter’s face can’t be a good thing. The teaser for next week shows Betty calling him and ominously saying, “It involves Sally.” I’m on pins and needles to see how this plays out. Don has been on a downward spiral all season and I don’t think he’s ever looked as bad as he did in that elevator.
Finally, the last image of Sally is of her face down on her bed, wearing her plaid dress. I immediately thought back to a pairing of images (below) from 4.12 “Blowing Smoke” and 4.13 “Tomorrowland” that show Sally and Betty in a similar posture. Sally is reacting to moving away from her home just as she starts to make progress in therapy and grow close with Glen. Betty is reacting to moving away from the house in which she and Don were (seemingly) happy for years. Those were sort of watershed moments for the characters. And here we have plaid and prone again. I might be reading too much into this image, but with Mad Men you can’t be too careful.