But before we go down that depressing road (or just across the hall, to the service elevator/ garbage area) let's start with the action that was surprising, delightful, and full of wicked humor-Don and Betty living out their Dolce Vita moment in Rome.
Betty's transformation suggests Jackie Kennedy's trip to Paris as First Lady in 1961, when she so knocked out the hard-to-charm French with her ability to speak their language (both sartorially and verbally) that President Kennedy joked, "I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris -- and I have enjoyed it!"
Yup, the girl with a passport and a dream has pulled out another talent she doesn't otherwise use as a housewife in Ossining -- she speaks fluent Italian. But can we talk about the third character to emerge in the travelogue: Betty's Trevi-Fountain-like hair? I mean we know she likes getting help from high places, but I was expecting to find some recirculating pumps buried inside, so we could get a performance of the dancing waters, and perhaps a light show. Were those Corinthian pilasters on the sides happy to see Don? The top looked like the junction of Three Croissants, in case anyone gets hungry, although there were bread sticks on the table. Ba bump.
"If I were that cigarette in your mouth I would die of happiness," one local Romeo offers by way of pick-up -- and despite the overly Marge Simpsonesque build-up on top, she indeed looks gorgeous in her mod earrings and black fringed dress. And perhaps her hair is her fortress against invaders. Her response -- a combination of wit and fluency -- flattens the guy. With the updo still erect, she and Don role-play as strangers meeting for the night, something he is particularly adept at. The locals call him "bruto" or "ugly," something he's clearly not. Rather, it alludes to the "ugly American" and the underside of all that Hilton business, building luxury hotels so that Americans can feel at home- avoiding the local customs and smells-- anywhere in the world. Hanging over the entire trip of course, was the memory of Betty's dad having Sally read him chapters from "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." What we're interested in here is the word that Sally tripped over while reading "licentiousness."
In this sexy place, the action between Betty and Don is, to use a Paris Hilton term, "hot." Conjugal heat -- who knew? It's a relief to watch Don and Betty like and love each other. He treats her with respect and the physical attention he gives his mistresses. She obviously is a different person here, and follows him into the shower in the morning.
Having signed his contract, however, the reality is that Don is now leashed to Connie. (Earlier, Pete mentions that he's had him travel to "every armpit" in America.) Still, the ad revenue from three New York hotels would hardly cover such an extravagant use of his time (or that Mr. By Golly would merely be interested in seeing how they enjoyed room service.)
Let's go back to the office, where precious little time is spent. The episode opens on a steamy Friday evening, with Pete Campbell reading Ebony magazine with his feet up on his desk. Obviously, he hasn't given up on his integrationist pitch for Admiral. While that might be admirable, reading a pop magazine to figure out race relations is where his attempt at enlightenment ends. A weekend alone turns him into an angry, entitled, lost boy. He's shown blacking out, slurping cereal and watching cartoons like an overgrown toddler in his Park Ave apartment.
By contrast, in her suburban kitchen in Ossining, Betty's a delight, all fired up over her work saving the reservoir. Suddenly she's alive, competent, and, most surprisingly, not complaining. Don is the lethargic one, lumbering in and out of sleep and the kitchen in his T-shirt, a jet-lagged bear. When a call from Mr. Hilton's office interrupts her do-gooder cold-dialing from her kitchen wall phone, she reminds Don that Rome is much superior to Dallas -- a reminder of the national disaster that's just three months away.
But for now she's all about saving the planet, and on her way to the evening town council meeting, she even wears a scarf around her neck in a ring -- like a sophisticated Girl Scout. The belly feeler shows up, and uses his power to stall the proceedings. "There's a saying in politics," he tells her and nosy neighbor Francine after the hearing. "When you have no power, delay."
She's a grateful, beautiful Breck girl, and he walks her to her car, her dad's Lincoln, the heavy family talisman that she drove there for "luck." To me, Henry Francis was coming off like a creepy old guy. He forces his head through the driver side window -- which felt like a violation of her sacred daddy's-girl space -- and kisses her. She kisses him back, but I think that's good-bye, which also means adios to her sudden civic conscience.
She goes home flushed with victory, and does a cute little "we won we won we won" dance for Don. She recounts the story, referring to him obliquely as "a man from the governor's office." But the guilt -- or her loss of attraction -- with Francis motivates her to go with Don to Rome.
Back to Pete, who, while throwing out the garbage in the servant's area of the building, finds the German girl crying. She's trying to stick a fancy dress into the incinerator.( Some sort of tremendously tasteless Holocaust joke there?). "I have zis pahty and I bahrrow her dresz," she explains, and it got stained, so she's trying to incinerate it.
Pete tells her, "I don't think you're thinking clearly" -- i.e., you're not being devious enough! Why not blame it on the kids? When that doesn't work, he decides to go to Bonwit Teller to return it himself. Which is all an elaborate device for bringing back Joan! If hair is an indicator, she's either crestfallen or simply moving forward with the times. (But it's still a thrill to see her and hear her voice.)
Standing in front of an Hermes sign, Joan disappears his problem with her usual super-human level of competence, though she's obviously not in a good way. "I get my pick before they get put out," is her excuse to Pete for working in the dress department. And she tells Pete that Greg is switching his specialty. Like a punchline to a perverse joke, she's says he's going into "psychiatry" -- and boy do the writers have it in for shrinks on this show. In the end, it's clear that she knows that the dress is way too big for Trudy, but she assures Pete that "this never happened" --which is exactly what Don told Peggy about her breakdown after having the baby.
Pete brings the virgin dress back to ze zaftig Fraulein, and she thanks him by giving him a chaste kiss on the cheek. Pete goes back to his apartment to drink, and returns to the girl's door in the middle of the night for payback. "I went to a lot of trouble to solve your dress problem," he says. (The scene was reminiscent of the night he showed up at Peggy's apartment, although that was apparently consensual. She ended up getting pregnant.) It was ugly, and Gudron's "master," Pete's neighbor, calls him out on his behavior, not because it's wrong, but because it troubled his wife. Pete ends up petulantly telling Trudy that he doesn't want her to go away without him anymore.
At the Draper home, (or "residence" as Betty says when she answers the phone) there's a whole subplot of Sally forcing herself on Ernie, her playmate, mirroring her mom's behavior. She kisses the kid and angrily screams at and whomps her brother. Betty seems better as a mom, and gives her a speech about the importance of first kisses. (By the way, does anyone have an idea about why Don can't listen to Carla talk about Sally's temper?)
Don presents Betty with a gift, a gold charm, a souvenir of their time in Rome. It seems to remind her that she's treated like a trifle. Sounding very Revolutionary Road, she says, "I hate this place! I hate our friends! I hate this town!"
Don responds with an appropriately despondent look.
Who's got the stomach for this? I never thought I'd say it, but where is Duck when you need him?