Before we can dive into a Mad Men filled with themes of rebirth and rejection, of taking command of one’s life or screaming impotently at the wind, we need to talk about the show’s Rory Gilmore/Mr. Belding problem.
For the last three episodes, we’ve been treated to guest stars who aren’t just recognizable actors, but carry some very specific pop-culture baggage with them. The LSD party hostess was played by Bess Armstrong — omigod, it’s Angela’s mom from My So Called Life! The Dow Corning man who gave Don the hard truth about his anti-tobacco letter was played by Ray Wise — hold the phone, it’s Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks! Megan’s gorgeously unhappy mother was played by Julia Ormond — jeebus cripes, it’s, you know, Julia Ormond! And last night, we met Beth Dawes, an unhappy Connecticut housewife, played by Alexis Bledel, i.e. RORY FRICKING GILMORE from Gilmore Girls; and Phil Beachum, the “Head of Desserts” for General Foods, played by Dennis Haskins, i.e. MR. FRAKKING BELDING from Saved by the Bell.
The immediate pleasure of seeing all these fantastic actors popping up in Mad Men is undeniable. But one of my favorite things about this show has been how rarely I’ve recognized any of the actors on it, especially the guest stars. That anonymity has kept the world of the show deliciously self-contained, allowing me to sink that much further into its impeccably appointed period details. To be sure, Bledel (who, for the record, is 30) gave a strong performance as Beth, a deceptively complicated woman brimming with conflicted longing. But watching Rory Gilmore smoking in her bra after getting boinked by Pete Campbell — for a moment, the cultural cognitive dissonance zapped me right out of the show. (It was as if I was seeing a flashback to a dark moment from the life of Rory’s grandmother Emily — the Gilmores do hail from Connecticut, after all.) As for Haskins, he did everything he needed to do in his one scene, but the moment he stepped on screen, I cackled immediately at the stunt casting. Whether my laughter was intended or not, it distracted me from the point of the scene: The fallout of Megan leaving Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
I know, I should get over it — it’s not like every other TV show in existence hasn’t leaned on famous faces for its guest casting. But in a season that is clearly all about the disruptive power of change, I guess I’m just not quite jiving to this particular change in the way Mad Men does business.
Okay, rant over, lest I turn into Pete, a man increasingly incapable of dealing with his life not unfolding as he sees fit. The hour opened with Pete, on the train to work, reading (a book in soft focus that I could not identify — reader challenge!). Howard Dawes (Jeff Clarke), the chatty, blithely libidinous life insurance salesman from the beginning of the season, plopped down in his customary seat across from Pete, singing the banal woes of his diminishing business. Pete, as is so often his custom, affected a patronizing smile, sighed, and cut to what he assumed was the chase. “Look, I already have life insurance,” he told Howard. “It came with my junior partnership. It’s six times my annual salary, and after two years, it covers suicide. So make your pitch brief.”
Howard chuckled, muttering about how he’s certain that policy would only pay out to Pete’s company, not his family, oh, and hey, Matthew Weiner, let me pick up that hint you just dropped. Ever since the last Pete-centric episode — you know, the one where Lane punched him many times in the face — I’ve wondered if Pete was looking to swallow that rifle he’s got stashed away somewhere in his office. And yet again last night, we witnessed yet another stage in Pete’s emotional unraveling. Mad Men is rarely this obvious, so I’m inclined to think now that Pete won’t take his own life. But then I wonder if that’s what I’m supposed to think, and I’m right back where I started. And I love it.
NEXT PAGE: “I used to be like this — just reckless.”