A close textual analysis of Mad Men S01 E13 “The Wheel” – the scene where Don comes home from work the day Francine has confided in Betty that her husband, Carlton, has been cheating.
The scene opens on the dining area. We see through the window and panels of glass in the front door that it is night time. Betty sits in her quilted white robe at the foot (or is it the head?) of the table with her back to the camera. She is softly illuminated by offscreen tungsten lighting from both sides. The overhead light remains off. The camera is at her height. Despite being sat at the dining room table, the scene feels tense and void of the homeliness usually associated with a wife welcoming home a husband in the kitchen area. There is no food – only a bottle of red wine and smoke drifting from a cigarette Betty inhales vigorously.
We hear a rustling as the front door opens and Don enters the scene. There is no lighting in the door alcove. Don is dressed in his work clothes – the darkness of his suit, hair and overcoat merging with the darkness of the doorway and contrasting with Betty’s white robe and blonde hair.
Don stands tall and the camera rises to his level. In ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’: Historicising Visual Style in Mad Men (2011), Jeremy Butler notes that within the Sterling Cooper office complex, the commanding stature of the admen is often confirmed by shooting the characters from a low-angle. Don, especially, is ‘master of any space he enters’ (p.63). Despite Betty being positioned lower than Don, the viewer is allowed an eye-level view – thus diminishing the disproportionate view from below at work, and beginning the process of positing Don as less threatening when at home.
As Don steps into his home he takes off his overcoat, greets Betty by her pet name and kisses her on the forehead. There is a sense of intimacy and familiarity, yet Betty remains silent. However, she does not go unnoticed by the camera as we see her casting glances at Don. Is she relieved he has come home? Or is it more surprise? Is she wondering what’s kept him back so long? Is she quietly planning what to say? In Suggestive Silence in Season One, Maurice Yacowar notes that the first season of Mad Men is entrenched with suggestive silence, and he draws attention to the fact that what’s explicit is often of less importance than what’s implicit (p.87).
Betty finally breaks her silence, asking gently why, at 9.30pm he didn’t just stay in the city. Although this could be mistaken for concern or understanding, we know that this is Betty’s way of airing her suspicions and introducing her confrontation of (and warning to) Don – articulated or not. Betty’s mention of the time, without consulting a watch or clock, indicates that she’s been waiting there for hours, overly aware of the minutes passing between the time Don should’ve been home and the time he actually walked through the front door.
Don remains standing as he speaks loudly and formally to Betty about the need to continue his work from home. At this, Betty becomes passive-aggressive, bringing up a previous argument about Thanksgiving. She is chastised by Don and we watch her change tactics, apologising for her anger and instead seeking sympathy for the terrible day she’s had – again, a method of introducing the confrontation/warning. As she speaks she looks straight ahead at no one and nothing, until a sudden tilt of her head as she averts her eyes and demands (albeit coquettishly) that he sit with her.
Don pacifies his wife and does as he’s told. As he sits at the table he and Betty are now at the same height and the camera lowers to its original position. The closer proximity of their bodies allows Don to speak in softer tones, emphasising the fact that he is now at home speaking to his wife, and not at work conversing with a client.
As Betty begins telling Don about Francine’s disclosure that Carlton has been cheating, the conversation is depicted through shot-reverse shot editing. Medium close ups position both characters onscreen and illustrate their interaction and body language throughout the (disguised) interrogation. Then at particularly pertinent moments, where Betty’s words are loaded with double meaning, we see close up shots of Betty and Don. These shots really emphasise the fact that the words being spoken are only a minor part of this conversation, as the implications run much deeper for both. Betty pauses intermittently throughout her story, holding strong eye contact with Don, challenging him to confess. With a crinkled forehead and eyebrows raised, Don returns eye contact for a moment, but then wavers, revealing more to Betty than his carefully considered words.
Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (as cited in Borak, 2012) talks about post-structuralist feminism, detailing the passive role of women onscreen and highlighting the camera’s tendency to linger on the female body as spectacle rather than narrative progression. Whilst the camera is certainly hungry for Betty, her prolonged onscreen silence serves to undermine Don’s delusion of superiority. His command of language allows him to sell ideas during a pitch to client, yet during this exchange with Betty Don’s silence speaks louder than words.
The lighting on both Betty and Don’s faces also serves to deepen the undertones of the unspoken conversation. Both characters are partly illuminated, the light falling across their faces in a traditional Rembrandt style – again, a stark difference to the harsh fluorescent lights that illuminate the business world of Sterling Cooper. The darkness across Don’s face re-establishes what both the viewer and Betty already know – that there is an element of mystery to Don, that what you see isn’t all that you get. And the darkness across Betty’s face amplifies the fact that there is a darker meaning behind her telling Don the story of Francine and Carlton.
The close up shots also serve to posit the characters within their environment. Behind Don we see uniformly-patterned masculine wallpaper, and we see the front door/window area – his means of entering the house, but also his means of escaping it. Behind Betty we see the family home – the lounge room furnished comfortably and warmly lit with lamps. Butler demonstrates how Mad Men saturates its small-scale frames with ‘exotic apprehensible details’ such as ‘Betty Draper’s dressing gown…bric-a-brac on shelves…and [the] ashtray’ (p.59) in order to gain viewer acceptance that we are in fact witnessing a slice of 1960s life.
Betty speaks to Don of the bond that love and children is supposed to create between a married couple, alluding to Francine and Carlton, but leaving Don with no doubt that she is addressing him directly as she says “Doesn’t this all mean anything?” – the choice of “this” rather than “that” bringing the conversation hurtling from Francine and Carlton’s house to right in there, unavoidably in front of them.
Betty has made her point and is emotionally in control of the situation, so Don reasserts his authority the best way he can. He ends the conversation by standing, reintroducing his powerful physical presence into the scene, and squeezes Betty’s shoulder as he departs, telling her to bring the wine. As Don stands, the camera rises again, and for the first time in the scene the stretch of silence is supplemented by non-diagetic sound in the form of a slow and dramatic string instrumental that carries over as the scene cuts.
Borak, J (2012) ‘Don Draper is Kind of a Sexist: A Post-Structuralist Feminist Analysis of Mad Men’s Season 5 Poster’, blog, 9 April, Remotely Interesting, viewed 8 October 2012, < http://remotelyinterestingtv.wordpress.com/2012/04/09/don-draper-is-kind-of-a-sexist/>.
Butler, J (2011) ‘’Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’: Historicising Visual Style in Mad Men’, ed. Edgerton, G, Mad Men, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, London, UK, pp.55-71.
Yacowar, M (2011) ‘Suggestive Silence in Season One’, ed. Edgerton, G, Mad Men, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, London, UK, pp.86-93.