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Jimmy Barrett as the Wise Fool of “Mad Men”
*This post began as a comment on another post but I thought I’d expand and see if others were interested.
In rewatching Mad Men recently, I found myself struck by what a pivotal role Jimmy Barrett plays in some of the biggest moments in the series by forcing both Betty and Don to snap out of their denial and self-delusion and actually see Don’s womanizing in the clear light of day. While there’s much to applaud in Patrick Fischler’s brash, uncomfortable performance, there’s a way in which Jimmy’s loutishness and showbiz tackiness obscures his social significance.
In my view, Jimmy represents a sort of comic archetype sometimes called the Wise Fool. This is usually thought to originate with the Roman playwright Plautus’s wise comic slave character Pseudolus, but can also be seen in the schlemiel of Jewish folklore, many Shakespearean characters but especially The Fool from King Lear, and modern examples like Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm. In essence, these characters are – in some way – outsiders in the social milieu that they inhabit, sometime by dint of status (race or class), sometimes simply by personality. As a result of this outsider status, the Wise Fool can speak truths that others cannot because they would pose far too much social risk to a more conventional person.
In our initial view of Jimmy Barrett, we see him through Don’s eyes as someone loud and obnoxious who causes problems. He is a foil to Don, so we can’t help but dislike him a little at first. His comic style is abrasive and brash when compared to the smooth, Groucho-esque witticism and double entendre of Roger, the only other major comic character up to this point. But in truth, even Jimmy’s initial insults of Edith Schilling of Utz demonstrate this social role, albeit in a rather cruel way. In the scene, Jimmy does not randomly verbally abuse some passing woman or crew member, he specifically targets an obese, wealthy woman being led in obsequiously by a Sterling Cooper executive. Jimmy’s Hindenburg reenactment, while quite mean, is ultimately comically punching-up (a overused and somewhat odious term, I know, but one that applies here) and a form of forbidden truth telling. Because of the Schilling’s extreme wealth, people wait on Mrs. Schilling as if she’s the Queen whereas Jimmy exposes the fact that the first thing anyone would notice when meeting her would be her enormity. Again, a rather cruel sentiment, but one meant to express the inexpressible truth of social interactions, to bring everyone down to the same level of human meat we truly are beneath our various put on airs. Also, Jimmy plays his joke largely to the audience of crew members, suggesting a class dynamic—working class people laughing at the gluttony of the wealthy.
Don cannot see the value or meaning behind Jimmy’s truth telling because, for him, Jimmy is just someone with creative talent (which Don respects) but who happens to be unable to control his impulses- a characteristic that Don detests. For Don, forbidden truth telling makes no sense as his whole life is built around a series of deceits and clever obfuscations. These are necessities for him. At the point of his relationship with Bobbie Barrett, Jimmy’s wife, in season two, Don and Betty’s relationship is being held together primarily through mutual denial and self-delusion. Betty has already told her psychiatrist that she knows of Don’s philandering, and Don often only barely conceals it from her (washing only his right hand and mouth out in the kitchen as soon as he comes in the door), but neither is willing to make a move that could throw both their lives into disarray.
Jimmy changes this entire calculus by confronting Betty – and eventually Don – with the truth. Jimmy’s role here, as at other times, is something like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes. You can argue with Jimmy’s approach but he understands one thing profoundly: if you put off and deny an unpleasant or uncomfortable thing, you will simply prolong your pain rather than avoiding it. Jimmy exposes Don and Bobbie’s relationship to Betty, but in some ways this isn’t the right term. He doesn’t show Betty something that’s hidden from her, but rather demands that she opens her eyes to what is plainly in front of her. He pushes Betty to drop the WASPy, repressed facade she’s constantly maintaining, and she hates him for making her do it.
Some have claimed that Jimmy’s dressing down of Don for sleeping with Bobbie represents a kind of hypocrisy because of the way Jimmy hits on other women but this portrays a misunderstanding of how Jimmy interacts with women in the series. Don pursues other women in a way that is calculated and sometimes manipulative in order to lure them into bed with him. He wants to present a sort of cool and apathetic image to get something he wants from them. Jimmy’s way of hitting on women is something more like self-parody and also plays into the Wise Fool theme. He dotes on Betty extravagantly and foolishly at dinner, flattering her so excessively in a way that would never genuinely attract someone to him. This is more harsh truth-telling. While this is unspoken in polite society, the presence of an extremely beautiful woman will, for a huge percentage of any room, become the single most important mental focus for most of the evening. Speaking this truth might be boorish and sexist, but it also exposes the deeper and more insidious sexism inherent to the society in which Mad Men exists. However, sexist Barrett’s approach might appear, ultimately, he is unconventional and thoughtful enough to put his wife in charge of managing his career- a power dynamic that most men in 1960 would’ve found intolerable.
For better or worse, Jimmy’s approach to comedy and truth-telling holds a mirror up to people. This is always complicated because people simultaneously have a desperate desire to see themselves in the way that others truthfully see them, while also having a deep fear of what they will find when this truth is laid bare. In his interaction with Don, Jimmy notes that Don got Jimmy “everything he wanted” while all Don got was Bobbie, and “lots of people have had that.” He also exposes Don’s weak character in pointing out the tawdriness and selfishness of carrying on an affair with another man’s wife, telling Don he is “trash” and that he knows it himself.
Don often seems to delude himself that his womanizing is a sign of masculine ruggedness, a sign of his flawed genius and spontaneity. Jimmy shows him that actually, it demonstrates a lack of character, a pitiful sign of weakness. By showing Don that he has been unwittingly manipulated by Bobbie through sex, Jimmy holds up a mirror to Don and shows him how, far from making him strong and masculine, his philandering shows a fundamental weakness. With both Don and Betty, the self-loathing Jimmy makes them feel is turned outward: Betty spits naked antisemitism, telling him that “you people” are “ugly” and Don punches him in the face. In both cases, they are forced to look a the ugliness in their own lives and they simply misdirect their anger toward Jimmy.
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