'Mad Men' review: 'I hate it here. I really, really do'
It was Christmas-time on Mad Men this week, which meant a variety of presents wrapped in bows, conga lines at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and Don losing his apartment keys and his steely control.
Setting a pervasive tone of holiday misery, the new unhappy family unit formed by Henry and Betty shopped for an evergreen tree that won’t graze the ceiling. Glen, the neighborhood boy emblazoned in our memories as the kid who once asked Betty for a lock of her hair (among other eccentric behaviors), was busy being weird, flirting with Sally with his zombie mumble and fingering a bit of braided plastic (a nostalgia totem, to be sure; it seems to have been called a boondoggle, but a reader reminded me of the name I knew them by: a lanyard).
At the ad agency, Don got a holiday wish-list from Sally, who made clear in her letter that she no longer believes in Santa Claus but for the sake of her younger brother, she says she is maintaining “the ruse.” She spells it “roos,” and Don observes, “Too much TV” — yes, the “vast wasteland” was rotting brains back then, although these days, Snooki would not only be unable to spell “ruse,” she wouldn’t even know how to use it in a sentence the way Sally does.
Sally wishes most of all for Daddy to be home on Christmas and we’re off on the evening’s recurring theme: Depressed Don, unmoored from the life he’d made such an effort to create for himself. What the hour needed at this point was a shot of energy, and we got it with…
…the return of Freddy! Yes, 16 months sober, and back to reclaim office space by handing Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce a big present: the $2 million Ponds Cold Cream account. How’d he get it? “The client and I are in a fraternity together,” he says discreetly, and I appreciate the fact that Mad Men didn’t do the obvious thing and have Roger raise his eyebrows significantly to signal to us that he knows Freddy is referring to Alcoholics Anonymous. No, the eyebrow-raising is saved until a bit later, when Freddy refuses a drink in the office from Don, the brows conjoining as if to say, “See here, good man, aren’t you carrying this not-drinking thing a bit too far?”
The company met with the Motivational Research Group, then at the forefront of what we’d now call (and I shudder to even write this phrase) focus groups. The bushwah peddled by these charlatans was delivered by that superb actor John Aylward, though Don only has eyes for his assistant, Dr. Faye Miller (doctor of what, exactly, sweetheart?, Don must have been thinking), who initially struck me as a blonde knock-off of Joan. Once the Research Group passed out samples of the materials they use for consumer research and Don saw the first question — “How would you describe your father?” — bam! he was outta there faster than Carmine Infantino’s Flash.
The night had three big set-pieces:
1. The office party, which Lane wanted to keep to a minimum expense but got upgraded to bacchanal status once the personification of the firm’s biggest client, Lucky Strike, decided to show up. The oily Lee Garner was almost too easy to hate, especially after he humiliated our Roger into wearing the Santa suit. (Nice touch: The next day, Roger and Don are able to joke about this; another TV show would have made Roger furious and/or self-pitying.) The office conga-line, led by Joan wearing the red dress “with that bow that makes you look like a present,” as Roger described it, was beautifully choreographed, especially the long-shot of the line passing behind a couple making out: It was like a lewd Norman Rockwell painting.
2. Don and sex with the secretary. He’d said earlier that he didn’t “hate Christmas — I hate this Christmas.” (Cue Bobby Vinton’s 1964 hit “Mr. Lonely.”) We’d seen a swozzled Don early in the hour, flirting with his neighbor nurse Phoebe as he fumbled for his keys; this time, he forgot them and Allison had to leave the office party to bring them to him. (Great detail: When she tells her co-workers where she’s going, Joey sneers, “He’s pathetic” — one line telling us a lot about this upstart’s attitude toward his elders.) When Allison arrives, drunk Don can’t resist pulling her onto his sofa for a quickie. The next day, Allison is still aglow, but the sober Don thanks her for the keys and gives her her bonus, two $50 bills in a Christmas card. She looks crestfallen; she should be glad Don isn’t so uncomfortable that he fires her. Great acting all the way by Alexa Alemanni.
3. Glen’s home invasion. Is there nothing this little psycho won’t do to win Sally’s heart? Glen found a typically perverse way to respond to Sally’s earlier admission to him on the phone, that she now hates her Daddy-less home, “I really, really do.” He and a pal broke into Sally’s house, messed up the joint with eggs, cereal, jelly, anything they find. The pal was nervous, but Glen maintained a Bad Seed cool. When Henry and Betty arrived home, Henry quickly suspected neighborhood vandals (I doubt anyone today would be as calm about this). Glen left Sally’s room untouched, and with a little gift: that boondoggle thingy. Sally smiled her own bad-seed smile. Kudos to Glen, manfully played by Marten Holden Weiner.
Add Peggy’s grim work relationship with Freddy and her romantic relationship with the joyless, smug Mark, and this episode was quite a work-out. The hour was carefully paced so that almost every scene of bad behavior at the office or in Don’s apartment was contrasted with the supposed innocence of Sally’s melancholy. But Mad Men reminds us that adults act like children as often as they can get away with it, while children often have surprisingly adult reactions to things that provoke strong emotions within them.
Mad random thoughts:
• Lane gets called “Olivier” by Roger and “Jeeves” by Lee — how long before Lane loses it and very politely hangs himself in a tidy office closet?
• January Jones and Betty had exactly three lines this night. Who’s sorry now about going off with Henry?
• Loved that carefully thrown-in moment when Don called Peggy “sweetheart,” and really meant it in the best sense.
• Roger had the night’s best laugh line, as usual. Looking around his blindingly white new office, the silver fox spake: “I feel like, with my hair, you can’t see me in here.”
What did you think of this week’s Mad Men?
Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper in the Emmy-winning ’60s-set drama