Throughout Mad Men, books appear that are a direct reflection of characters or the period they live in. There are books characters are reading in which, in a real meta moment, characters feature that are the templates of themselves.
Mad Men is, in essence, a period piece, and props in any period piece are essential. Viewers will turn on a show if a character glances at a digital wristwatch, is leafing through a copy of Game of Thrones or a is wearing a pair of Jordan VIs.
Just check out the list of goofs people spotted if you’re unsure. Gotta respect the how much people care. Heck, I’m one of them, so I ain’t complaining.
As with the classic lit (see here), fairy tales (see here), and broader cultural books (see here) we’ve already seen and will continue to see, there are those that were written at the time, popular at the time and completely about the time.
Rona Jaffe’s, The Best of Everything (S01E06, Babylon), 1958, is exactly one of those books. It’s the story of a collection of young 20-something females who move to the big city, and try to make it in love and life.
This one’s going to be a long one. There’s a bunch to unpack.
It’s Mother’s Day and Don is reading Jaffe’s book when Betty comes into the room.
- “This is fascinating,” Don.
- “It’s better than the Hollywood version,” Betty.
- “It’s certainly dirtier,” Don.
Betty questions what it must be like for an aged Joan Crawford to stand next to young and beautiful Suzy Parker as if they were the same species.
Read: Crawford, a beauty in her time, is now old. Parker is not. This is so discomforting to Betty.
(As with Exodus, I didn’t watch the movie and am not going to. We have to draw certain lines lest we go too far down the rabbit hole. Here’s the preview. It looks awful.)
Betty is sentimental because it’s Mother’s Day (though she rarely needs an excuse for sentimentality) thinking of her mother remaining beautiful to the end. Betty feels she will age well.
Then Don has this gem:
Mourning is just extended self-pity.
Yikes. Classic Don.
As Don and Betty begin to smooch, this exchange happens, which feels like it comes straight out of The Best of Everything.
- “I want you so much. I’ve thought about it all day,” Betty.
- “Me too,” Don.
- “No I mean it. It’s all I think about, every day. Your car coming down the driveway. I put the kids to bed early. I make a grocery list, I cook butterscotch pudding. I never let my hands idle, brushing my hair, drinking my milk. It’s all in a kind of fog because I can’t stop thinking about this. I want you. So badly,” Betty.
- “You have me. You do,” Don.
Ugh Don. Classic.
This a perfect reflection of a woman’s yearning and man telling her what she wants to hear. It’s always hard to tell with Don. You often get the feeling that he’s convinced himself that what he’s saying is true when he’s obviously lying. He’s an ad man, and he’s good at it.
Here’s how Don follows his night with Betty:
He goes on a lunch date that day with Rachel Menken, grabs her hand lovingly and lays it on THICK. He can’t have her, so he immediately heads to Midge’s for a ravenous hook up.
We all know Betty does not “have” Don, no one does. Rachel also falls for the trap thinking Don may be worth abandoning her defences for in a storyline we can all see coming.
I want him and I want to ignore everything else about him.
Then there’s Roger and Joan’s liaison in the hotel room. Joan, worldly-wise and fully aware of where she exists in, does not fall for Roger’s lines, and rebuffs his, “This has been the best year of my life. Do you know how unhappy I was before I met you? I was thinking of leaving my wife.”
“Roger. I know about as much about men as you do about advertising and I know that the sneaking around is your favourite part,” Joan says.
She knows what’s going on. She knows she’ll find a “more permanent situation” and Roger “will find a new model.”
Then there’s the scene with the lipstick. This scene is so cringy to watch as the office men stand behind mirrored glass gawking, gaffawing, giggling and drooling over the women trying on lipstick, pursing their lips, and staring straight at the glass. Joan and Peggy, naturally, are not like the others and seem to know the game (Peggy will learn more and more).
Joan, knowing Roger is with the pigs, bends over a table giving them all a full show, and then turns and stares straight at Roger. Even if she can’t see him, she knows he’s there, and knows that the rest of the pig men are there with their chuckles and glasses of alcohol.
We feel gross, and it reminds us of Jaffe’s book.
All of this plot is so much more rich if you’ve read the book. The scenes would easily slide into The Best of Everything. Let’s have a look.
The Best of Everything
The book is perfect in Mad Men.
The characters toils in the book are mirrored throughout the series. Pressure to get an abortion, men forcing themselves or manipulating the women for sex, the despicable Mr. Shalimar crawling under a table to check out Barbara’s legs, barren fridges, money troubles, and the general trials of young women trying to make it the city.
Fast forward to S2E03 (The Benefactor), and we get a full-on plot point centred on abortion as Peggy (who by the end of the season has had a baby she discards) watches. It’s a fascinating scene.
Jaffe’s book is a readable, engaging, frustrating and tragic tale.
The characters are toyed with by men throughout and the final chapter is infuriating in its misogynistic undertone. Men dictate the romance for the most part and assault the women, who spend so much of the book yearning for happiness, contentment, love, the ideal.
The tragic and pathetic Gregg, the broken and tainted single-mother Barbara, the insecure and sad April and the hero of them all, Caroline, who is the Peggy: typist who becomes and editor at the publishing house.
Some wind up finding what they’re looking for, one winds up dead and the Caroline winds up having her relationship, life, yearnings and conclusion detailed via reflection by the man who left her early in the book for another girl only to come snivelling back with desire, but….. He can’t-quite-leave-his-life-for-her.
Sorry for the spoiler.
Rachel falls for that one too. Maybe Don will leave his wife, right?
It is a story of secretaries and women and is a prelude to The Group (coming soon), Valley of the Dolls (also coming soon to the Mad Men Reading List), and Sex and the City.
The book reflects both what was expected of a working girl and what many of them desired. It’s a time capsule book and worth reading.
The Best of Mad Men
The book and show pair perfectly.
Mad Men, with its keen eye on writing complex characters full of paradox and meaning, shows us the women undercutting the misogyny and false romance (see Joan above) of the era, while not breaking out of the reality of the time (see Betty). The men are fools at times, but, in the end, are having their fun behind the glass or in the bedroom, while the women struggle to get them to understand their wants and desires (Betty, Peggy, Joan, Rachel…).
What is interesting how similar some of the themes in the book written in the 50s is to a show written about that era.
Babylon is an excellent episode, and The Best of Everything is well placed early in the series, but after we’ve met and began to understand the characters.
The more I think about it, this might be one of the best episodes of the series. It has everything in it. Characters saying and doing incredible things, themes of culture, identity, politics, romance, pain and yearning. The search for Utopia. Joan even drops a Marshall McLuhan quote: “You know what they say. The medium is the message.”
Dang. Nerd shivers Joan, nerd shivers.
I don’t think anyone wants to be one of 100 colours in a box.