While doing a bit of light research for this review (i.e. I forgot the title) I came across a Salon article discussing critical reaction to the show. The article states that Mad Men has split critics into two main camps: the ones who think its good, and the ones who think its crap. Yes, yes, the article had a much deeper description of the camps, but that’s what it means. The author is firmly on the ‘crap’ side of things. I bring this up not to write a dissenting or contradictory or even an angry fan pitch-forking piece against the Salon article but to make a point about the larger vision of the show. You don’t have to read the article to understand the review, is what I’m saying.
The main criticism of the article is that Mad Men glamorizes the ’60s and the people who live in it. That somehow Don Draper and Bert Cooper and Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell and Peggy Olson come off smelling like roses. For anyone who has watched the show for literally more than ten seconds this is ridiculous; Roger is a drunk, Bert is a racist, Peggy is brutal, Pete is a scumbag, and Don is a royally terrible person. They all hate each other, but need each other, so that they can try and make gobs of money to validate their otherwise empty lives. They’ve pushed away every person that has ever loved them, had misfortune fall upon them, and generally had to scrap and bite and claw and steal and fight for every last inch. And in the end they still have nothing.
All of this is important, I swear. I’m not wasting your time with my fan theories and my English major bullshit. Tonight’s episode of Mad Men highlighted, illuminated and generally drug phospholuminescent paint across the central themes of the show. If you don’t get it after tonight, then I suggest you find another show.
The episode begins with Don sitting alone in a movie theater. He’s watching a movie play in color as cigarette smokes drifts around him. He looks confused for the majority of it; we’ve come it at the end, I presume, but its impossible tell. It’s heartening to see him get out and do things, but then again it’s not like he’s actually doing anything to help better himself. No, when Don returns back to his apartment, he calls Dawn, and badgers her around for a while. To her immense credit, she puts up with him acting like the spoiled brat he was at the end of season six, and gives him a message from Alan Silver, Megan’s creepy agent. Megan, apparently, went all boombox at the bedroom window trying to get a part. She had an okay audition, demanded another, then chased down the director of the piece she was trying to get into, and openly wept in front of him to convince him to cast her. Far from me to criticize her; I’d openly weep if that meant I could get into Hollywood. But it does worry Don, and he hops on a plane and flies out to see her.
There’s an interesting moment when Don gets on the plane; there is a flight attendant on his flight that knows his name. She flirts with him a little bit, to which Don accepts but does not reciprocate. He obviously enjoyed it, though, because we get a shot of his face as she walks away. It’s a very revealing shot, because we see how Don is starting to age. Don has always been a big man, but it was big in the sense of a linebacker or a lumberjack; he had a thin, muscular face. Now he looks round, and sweaty, and a little worn out. Don is aging, and if he loses his looks, he loses a big part of his charm. Don is running out of time.
Back at the office, Peggy is once again shit upon by Lou Avery. Avery is literally the worst boss imaginable; he makes excuses for why never submits things for competition and complains about spending any sort of money. Lou is the kind of boss that just wants to hit the status quo. Don’t rock the boat, Creative Team, just pump out bland ads that offend no one and appeal to nobody. It’s really frustrating because it’s starting to stunt their ideas. They have this ridiculous storyboard that isn’t their best work, but they bring it to Lou anyways because they know he’ll reject it. Don is a jerk, but he is a genius, and the entirety of Lou’s creative talent couldn’t fill a shot glass. You don’t get to be a jerkoff and unimaginative; one or the other, if you please.
BETTY FRANCIS ALERT. Betty and her friend Francine Harrison are at a café of some sorts, discussing Francine’s new work. She is a career woman now, working three days a week at a real estate office. Betty is a little surprised about it; she asks how her husband feels about her work. She says he isn’t thrilled about it, but he likes the money, and Francine likes being out of the house. She doesn’t want to sit around and do nothing all day. Betty then basically insults her by saying that she’s just old-fashioned, implying that she doesn’t think its proper for Francine to be working while she still has children. Whatever Betty; nobody wants to hear your opinion anyways.
Betty’s storyline this week is a bit strange. She goes on a field trip with Bobby (to which she volunteered) and spends the whole time mocking the beautiful teacher/farmers daughter. At one point she even drinks cow milk straight from the udder which is literally the most unhealthy thing you can do ever. Okay, maybe not, but drinking unpasteurized milk is gross and I don’t ever wanna watch someone do it again. Jesus, Betty, what were you thinking?
After the incredibly gross drinking of the milk, the class all sits down for lunch out on the grass. Betty goes to wash her hands, and Bobby trades her sandwich for a bag of gumdrops. Betty is understandably perturbed when she gets back, but she takes a it too far. After scolding him and making him feel like garbage, she puts down her sunglasses and ignores him. She never examines why he gave away her sandwich. He knew that they had two sandwiches, yet he didn’t think she was eating. Why? What would possibly make him think that?
After they return, Bobby is still distraught. Henry asks him what happened and Bobby won’t tell him, so he goes to ask Betty. She tells him that Bobby ruined a perfect day.
NOW LETS PAUSE FOR A MOMENT. Here are the things that Betty did on that field trip: mock her son’s teacher for wearing a blouse and basically called her a slut; stood around with another chaperone-mother and mocked the teacher for not wearing a bra (a nice coda to the anti-feminist “old-fashioned” nonsense at the café); drank unpasteurized milk (WTF MAN); ignored her son for giving away her sandwich, even though he offered to get it back and then offered his food. WHAT EXACTLY MADE THIS DAY PERFECT?!??!!??!?!?!???!?!?!?!?!?!
Betty asks Henry is she’s a good mother, and asks why her kids don’t love her. ITS BECAUSE YOU’RE A CHILD BETTY YOU TREAT THEM LIKE THEY’RE YOUR COMPETITORS YOU STUPID IDIOT. Wow that subplot made me angry.
Back to Don, thank Christ. Don flies out to see Megan, and after a really pleasant reaction they make love in their living room. This peace doesn’t last long, because Megan finds out why he’s here. Don is very patronizing about it, and Megan doesn’t stand for it, calling him ‘Daddy’ when he starts to get too parental. One of Don’s biggest problems is that he treats people (especially women) like children in need of a firm hand, and it’s really pretentious and douchey. Megan accuses him of being with another woman, because she can never get him at the office and it’s always quiet when he takes her calls. Don is forced to tell her the truth, and even though she kicks him out, there is a release of tension. It’s better to be without one another and honest than together and lying.
Don is hurt by all of this, and goes home. He schedules a meeting with a rival firm, possibly to take a job from them. A woman comes up to the table, a woman named Emily Arnett. She says that she knows Don (though he doesn’t recognize her), and tells him what hotel room she’s staying in. Don thinks it’s a push by the rival agency to convince him to come over, but it isn’t; just another random hookup (at least so far). To Don, though, it signals a change. Before, companies would’ve hired ten women to pull him in, to make him a part of their firm. Now, they don’t even think about it. The idea never even crosses their mind.
This sends Don to Roger. They have a great argument over what the other means to man and eventually Roger tells him to come back. Don is a little taken aback, but Roger is serious; he misses Don, and he wants him back. I really missed the closeness the two once had. In the early seasons they had a strong bond that was slowly eroded by work and time and the fact that Roger is willing to go to bat for Don still was really quite touching.
Of course, Roger can’t just snap his fingers and bring Don back; a majority of the partners have to agree to it. Roger calls Don in for a meeting, but when Don arrives, he isn’t there. Don has a really wonderful ‘f*ck yo’ moment with Lou Avery and honestly if the episode had ended right there with Don looking at him like he’s a bad piece of art I would’ve been happy. But that isn’t the end. Don is forced to wait for hours and hours for the meeting of the partners; I think it might’ve been an entire work day. Much of the staff is happy to see him, happy to have him back. Ginsberg, who I find very disrespectful and rude, accepted Don back into the fold immediately. He even showed him some ad copy. The only person who was outwardly hostile was Peggy. She tells Don that they’re doing just fine without him, that she can’t say they missed him. Don, instead of being hurt, just smiles slightly and thanks her. It clearly bothered him but he didn’t let it show. Peggy walks away still angry.
Joan really doesn’t want him back either, though her motivations are a little murkier. I always took Don and Joan as close, but it doesn’t seem that way now. She sides with Jim Cutler against Roger, with Bert serving as the middleground. She clearly has loyalty to Jim for getting her a position as an accounts man, but Roger is her child’s father. She really pushes hard to get rid of Don, along with Cutler, but Roger calls Don a genius and believes that it would be worse to see him for another company destroying their work than it would be to put up with his demons.
So they call a meeting, and call Don in, and they give him a list of demands: no going off script, no meeting with clients alone, no drinking except for the sake of the clients. If he violates those terms, he’ll be fired and his partnership will be absorbed. Now, I fully expected Don to reject those terms, but he didn’t. He actually seems okay with all of them, and at first I didn’t get why. They’re treating him like a child and yet he’s happy. I thought about it for a while, and then I realized something: Don’s already won. He wanted to be back, and he’s back. His goal line isn’t as far away as theirs is. Don is back, and they can’t fire him because he won’t give them any reason to. Don is a brilliant creative mind and once he proves his worth again he’ll be indispensable. Don was facing the Great Wall of China in his way to being a part of the firm again; do they really think that some petty restrictions matter to him anymore?
I mentioned at the beginning of the review that the stuff about the Salon article was important to this episode, and it is. I said it highlighted all the themes of the show, and it did. The article was wrong when it said it glamorized that time period and those people because those people are terrible people and abjectly miserable people. And it’s because they’re always looking for power. The theme (THE CENTRAL THEME OF ALL THEMEZ) of Mad Men is that the power corrupts. Don has no power, but he did once. He’s seen it from both sides. He’s been burned by both fires. Don is humbled and therefore uncorrupted, and now he’s back at his job. He’s smarter than he was before, he’s more honest than he was before, and with Megan in California and the rest of his family with Betty, his only responsibility is to improve himself. If Jim Cutler and Joan Harris and Peggy Olson wanted Don gone, they should’ve never let him back on the ladder.
[Photo via Michael Yarish/AMC]
See you next week.