A friend once described watching the AMC series Mad Men as an experience akin to reading well crafted postwar American short fiction. I thought that was a little excessive until I actually watched the show, which is exactly like well crafted postwar American short fiction.
That’s not usually my jam. But the accessories are amazing and accessories go a long way with me.
So despite having breathed a sigh of bittersweet relief when the series ended (I loved the show, but it was time – they got out while the getting was good) I still enjoy revisiting it every once in a while. Especially (Surtout) when dubbed en français.
Dubbing is great. Me, I’m obsessed with how the words both fit together and do not fit together. And also amused by how the sound always no matter what seems to have been recorded in the cavernous showroom of a porcelain tile factory, even if the scene itself takes place in a broom closet.
So I’m watching the episode where Don Draper’s terrible affair with the Italian lady downstairs (terrible in the sense that it makes me sad, but fantastic in the sense that the women of the show consistently find new and exciting ways to convey that Don Draper is basically the baggage car of a trainwreck) comes to a screeching and super awkward halt.
We’ve left the scene where Pete Campbell is so beautifully hit on by Mister Puppy-Eyes McDroolster. We’re in the taxi with Sally Draper and her lunatic friend. Sally goes to Don’s building in order to break into the downstairs Italian fancy lady’s apartment. Because you see, Sally has got one heck of a crush on the
son of the household. There’s an unfortunate special delivery of a love letter. She has to intercept said letter. It’s your standard teenage hi jinks. But what happens next is not at all for the PG-13 set.
Sally walks quietly into the kitchen, from which vantage point she discovers her father in freaking flagrante with her manboy crush’s mommy. She drops the keys and runs out. Poor girl was already slated for decades of therapy, but I mean, damn…
The whole beginning of the scene is painfully silent. You wait for her to see what she sees and your blood curdles. And then it happens. And the first words out of Don’s mouth are his daughter’s name. He runs after her, shouting “Sally! Sally!” and he just keeps calling.
But. Here’s what happens when it’s late at night and you watch the dubbed version in French. You pick up on stuff.
Sally or Salie can be a name in French. That works. But sali (same pronunciation) is also the past participle/adjective form of the verb salir. To make dirty. To besmirch. To render unclean. Sali translates to something like “fouled” but it also has a very strong sexual connotation. Not dirty like, Oops I fell in the mud. Dirty like, Oops I just got busy with a stranger in the ladies room.
Dirty like Don Draper.
So he runs through his apartment, through the building, through the lobby, the whole time calling his daughter’s name with this combination of such anger and shame. (It is such a fine piece of acting. There’s panic and regret and love and frustration and absolutely all of it. A Jon Hamm classic.) But at the same time he is announcing his sins. He is crying out his crimes. Sali! Sali!
It is absolute. And total. Perfection.
While he calls her name, he hesitates in the lobby, deciding whether to actually track his daughter down and – what? Explain the whole thing? – or just let her go, and let it lie like all the other unspoken shadows of their relationship.
Don has always held some fairly significant fatherly affection for Sally. There’s an instinct to connect. He wants to grab her and somehow make it right. Sally! Sally! But on the other hand, he cannot actually leave the lobby. Because he is presumably stuck inside the heinousness of his actions. Sali! Sali!
He also wants to offer her an escape. If Don Draper is sali then isn’t it better to let his daughter walk away clean? It’s debatable whether that could ever be possible, that she could ever exit the structures of her life without being mucked up by all the mucky adults around her. Remember all those flashbacks to the young Dick Whitman (the “real” Don Draper) in the Depression era whorehouse, peeking around corners and trying to keep to himself? This is being replayed, except that now his daughter takes the position of the accidental witness in the den of sin. Sally is reprising Dick Whitman. So if Don Draper is sali, he is also Sally. He can see the whole scene through her eyes, because he has seen it before. In that way, Sally becomes one of the few characters who has a connection to Don Draper’s original identity. And as he calls out, again and again, “Sally! Sali!” he is yelling not at her but at himself.
I have zero idea how purposeful this is, although I assume that some of the writers hired to draft all that cutting French dialogue for Megan Calvet and her parents would have noticed.
But it goes so far beyond this scene. Sally Draper’s inheritance is the monumentally effed up world that her parents created between themselves. She is sali from them very beginning. That is her role. To be besmirched and fouled and made dirty by this monstrosity of selfishness into which she is born. And then to be the one who sees it.
Draper. Draper. To cover.
If the adults in her life maintain the resplendent trappings of a perfect cover, the well-washed drapes of a household into which no eyes may glimpse the reality, Sally Draper is the dirty laundry of the whole operation. The linens that simply will not wash clean.
While draper is to cover, draps in French are sheets. Sheets, people. The kind you put on your bed. If you allow for the proper adjustments, her name means dirty sheets.
And if Sally Draper is a victim of / witness to anything, it is other people’s dirty sheets.
I must admit, I always found her to be an irritating character. I’m not sold on Kiernan Shipka’s acting (although she is completely adorable and her eyebrows are bangin’ and I think she’ll grow into a proper actress with time), and Sally is such a total brat for most of the show.
But this totally clinched it for me. The whole thing does not work without Sally Draper because someone has to be the symbolic touchstone. Someone has to convey how truly awful it is. And yes, she is a tremendous brat. But this is because she is always – symbolically or actually – the recipient of the family’s dirty laundry.