In seasons past, the real world has occasionally intruded upon the highballs, sleek threads, and chasms of melancholy that otherwise preoccupy the world of Mad Men. When these events impinged upon the day-to-day lives of Don, Peggy, et. al. (instead of serving as period window dressing), they’ve been banner headlines in the history books, easy to recall 50 years later — the Cuban Missile Crisis, the JFK assassination, Clay vs. Liston.
Then there was last night’s episode. Instead of one cultural event dominating the hour, there were, by my count, at least four, all elbowing for room as they pushed their way into every storyline. And although Major Events like the Vietnam War and inner-city race riots did play a factor in the episode, most of our characters were more preoccupied with — and affected by — comparative footnotes in history: The airline strike of 1966 (which was so important, it doesn’t have a Wikipedia page), and, most potently, the grisly rape and murder of eight student nurses in Chicago.
The effect was slightly dizzying, trying to keep up will all these contemporaneous events on a show that’s often made a point of disregarding them. The point, I think: The increasingly topsy-turvy world can no longer be ignored, except maybe by Don Draper, who was brought low by a nasty bug that forced him to confront — okay, let’s go with murder — his own wicked personal history. If all this historical discombobulation wasn’t enough, the episode also indulged in some of the most abrupt tonal hair-pin turns in the show’s five year history. (And to top it all off, your Mad Men recapper changes yet again?! It’s utter bedlam, I tells ya!)
Let’s start making sense of this humdinger of an episode by starting with Don. It’s July 15, 1966, and Don Draper is sick, with a constant hacking cough that’s exacerbated by his smoking. Riding up to the office together, Megan playfully chose to keep her distance, allowing just enough psychological space for one of Don’s old paramours to come sliding in. “Don, my bad penny,” cooed Andrea Rhodes (Mädchen Amick), a freelancer who had worked for Don’s old firm — and worked Don’s firm body — years before. Quickly, Don set her straight, but Megan’s darkened face made it clear the damage was done. “Look,” Don started, but Megan wasn’t about to hear it. “You look,” she retorted. “You know, there’s some parts of town where we can run into people I’ve worked with.” The statement didn’t seem to register with Don, but it reminded me of when my predecessor, Jeff Jensen, wondered whether Megan’s dissatisfaction would eventually drive her into an affair. Curious indeed.
As they stepped off the elevator, Don tried to placate Megan further, but that wicked cold was sapping his mojo. “You’re making it worse,” said Megan. “I’ll get over it.” And, point of fact, she did. When she found Don hunting for aspirin, she happily tended to his needs and warmly sent him home to rest — no passive-aggressive pout in sight. My biggest fear with this season was that Megan would turn out to be a kind of Betty 2.0, but even more than Faye Miller, she is fast proving herself up to the task of being Don Draper’s equal. When Don yet again brought up the elevator incident, Megan tried not to engage, until Don wondered why she should even care. “Seriously?!” she said with just the right level of incredulity. Megan reminded Don he’s married to her now, and she’s not about to put up with the same womanizing crap he dealt to her predecessor. “That kind of careless appetite — you can’t blame that on Betty,” she said matter-of-factly. Don tried to dodge this suddenly uncomfortable conversation by suggesting that Megan hadn’t let the elevator incident go. But Megan came right back at him. She had let it go — Don’s the one who brought it up. “And all I can think is that you feel guilty, which makes it worse than I thought.”
Hot damn, this woman is nobody’s fool. The exchange also revealed just how much more of himself Don has already given to his second wife than he ever gave to his first. As storytelling, it makes sense that we haven’t seen Don rehash to Megan four seasons’ worth of infidelities — and Dick Whitman sturm und drang. But I would love to witness just a glimpse of how Megan absorbed learning about the complicated man she’d so suddenly attached her life to. (Side note #1: In an episode overflowing with period details, my favorite was easily the glass of rusty tap water Don reluctantly downed while taking his aspirin.)
NEXT: Michael’s pointed pitch, and Don tries to slay his demons