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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

a few thoughts on ‘Mad Men’: “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”

I was left puzzled by this episode immediately after I watched it. Not a bad kind of puzzled, but the kind of puzzled that had me turning it pleasantly over and over in my head, thinking about how the seemingly disparate things going on in this episode — Sally’s acting out, the competition between SCDP and CGC — were connected. Or if they were.

And then it finally struck me this morning: It’s all about manipulation.

First, Sally. Her manipulation may not be deliberate… or at least not all of it is. Poor kid, caught at her friend’s sleepover having naughty, naughty thoughts — probably her first! — and the friend’s mother walking just as she’s figuring out what those thoughts are all about. (Someday Sally will know that Illya Kuryakin had that affect on a lot of girls and women!) Of course she couldn’t have arranged to get caught and have her friend’s mother freak out — though Sally probably should have known, at that point, that her mother would freak out even more.
God, I hate Betty (thought of course I realize that she’s probably very typical of the era). If only Betty had made light of it, let the kid know it’s all perfectly normal. If only Betty hadn’t also gone ballistic at Sally’s homemade haircut — which almost certainly was a provocation on Sally’s part, though perhaps not a conscious one, both against her mother’s lookism and against her father, for abandoning her even as he’s supposed to be spending time with her.

But Betty thinks Sally’s behavior is deliberately intended to punish her. Even if that’s true, how cruel and selfish of Betty to make it all about herself, and not about figuring out what is going on in the kid’s head. Even her decision to bring Sally to the shrink is, it seems, more out of a fear that Sally will embarrass Betty, not out of any genuine concern for the child’s welfare.

This is not a word I use lightly, but… What a bitch Betty is.

Sally may be glad someday for Henry, who so far appears to be far better at appeasing Betty and making her see sense than Don ever was.

(Oh, and is Don’s friend Bethany another Betty in the making? He likes those regal blondes, doesn’t he?)

But all of Sally’s shenanigans and upsets are nothing compared to the outright asymmetrical warfare Don launches against CGC, the rival ad agency. He really is a genius, with his sneaky plan to convince the other guys SCDP is breaking the rules of the competition with Honda in order to get them to break the rules. It’s more The Art of War than The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, and it’s brilliant.

Oh, and about The Chrysanthemum and the Sword… It’s a book by Ruth Benedict published just after WWII and meant to illuminate the Japanese character for American readers. I haven’t read it, though I’m tempted to now (it’s still in print [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]) What’s particularly interesting to me in light of how Sally’s saga plays out is that it explains the differences between how a culture like Japan’s, which operates on shame, differs from a culture like the U.S.’s, which operates on guilt.

Then again, we don’t know if Betty’s attempt to guilt Sally will work. And the Japanese guys had no shame in openly staring at Joan’s impressive bosom. So perhaps the book is full of shit.

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