Souvenir gives us a different look at Don and Betty’s marriage, and it happens in the context of what has gone before. What I mean is, this episode is fully integrated with the trajectory that these two have been on all along, especially in Season 2.
In Meditations in an Emergency, Don came home. We saw him in California, we saw him with Anna; we knew he arrived there unsure if he would return to Betty. Certainly, what he said to Roger in Six Month Leave made him sound willing to walk away. We can believe that Anna’s advice turned him around; “The only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief you are alone.” I think this is the pivotal quote for Don Draper: husband, this season.
Consider: At the end of Season 1, Don fantasizes about a magical reunion, but ultimately keeps himself alone and apart. By the beginning of Season 2, whatever peace he has made with Betty is isolating rather than uniting. There he sits, “being good,” and not feeling a thing.
The Don of early S2, behaving by the skin of his teeth, is not the Don of S3. We keep seeing him kind of integrated with his marriage; spinning a fantasy for Betty, posing for a family snapshot, showing up at school when there’s a problem. And no, I haven’t forgotten that he cheated in Out of Town, but even the tenor of that cheat is different. In S1 he says to Rachel, “I’m married,” and he’s saying it’s a problem, and he’s saying it’s a burden, and he’s saying somehow he’ll get out of it. In S3 he says to Shelley, “I’ve been married a long time,” and he’s saying, and I will stay married, he’s saying, married people cheat. Not a laudable sentiment by most people’s standards, but a significant shift.
The point is not that he’s a good guy; clearly he’s often not. The point is that he’s changed, and he came home because he wanted to be married. To Betty. He wanted to stop believing he was alone. In Out of Town, he said to Sally, “I will always come home.” That’s exactly what he wouldn’t and couldn’t say before.
But that whole scenario is different for Betty. Don spent Meditations in an Emergency trying to come back to Betty; Betty spent it trying to have an abortion. (I do think if her old doctor had consented immediately to an abortion, she’d have had one.)
It took Betty most of S1 to figure out she was unhappy, and it wasn’t until S2 that she got really angry (although the anger has been there all along). She spent S2 learning to be apart from Don, finding out, in fact, that it “really wasn’t that different” without him there. Prior to finding out she was pregnant, and at the same time that he was deciding to return to her, she was deciding she was done. Did she choose to stay because she decided she wanted the baby? Because she was afraid to “float away?” Because it was all too overwhelming? We don’t know. We do know that she’s only grudgingly in this marriage and she’s still angry (as evidenced by her rattling the locked drawer in Seven Twenty Three). Pregnancy ultimately kept her married, whereas Don was going to choose marriage regardless (if given the option).
In Out of Town, she fantasized that she wanted it all to be perfect, and so Don spun her an imaginary vacation. As long as he holds her and spins fantasies, she can be happy. Don is so interested in Betty in Souvenir. Watch his face”he never takes his eyes off her; he watches her delight after the board meeting, her every move in Rome, and when they get home.
In Souvenir, the fantasy becomes real; they go on a beautiful, if brief, vacation to a magical place. And in that fantasy, they love each other. For Don, this is what he’s been wanting, this is what he’s been working for. My wife is happy! We make love! It’s like it used to be! Yay!
For Betty, not so much. For Betty, the fantasy is only a reminder that she doesn’t like the reality.
When I first saw Betty’s bitter reaction to the gift of the Coliseum charm, I couldn’t understand it. It seemed so arbitrary and sudden. But it has everything to do with where Don and Betty started, before this trip, in their perception of their marriage.