By Ken Tucker
Updated August 23, 2010 at 08:11 PM EDT

I don’t think there’s ever been a more obvious Mad Men episode than the one that aired last night, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” which deployed many time-period cultural cliches without freshening them with the series’ typical sprinkling of post-modern pixie dust. But that doesn’t mean the hour itself was cliched or tired; indeed, I am liking the new sitcommy side of Mad Men at least as much as the wonderful wrist-slitting side that appears whenever the blonde hair of either Sally or Betty glows onto the TV screen.

One thing that’s always held me at arm’s length from Mad Men is creator Matthew Weiner’s iron-fisted control-freakiness, which expresses itself as a distancing device, a merciless didactic streak, an insistence upon making every knotted tie, every glimpsed book jacket, every ashtray, carry the weight of Great Symbolic Importance. For whatever reason — the simple pleasure of success, perhaps? — Weiner and his writers are currently constructing scenes that aren’t afraid to be silly for our amusement, or bleakly uncomfortable just because, well, sometimes life is bleak and uncomfortable, not because Life Is An Existential Crisis Numbed By Cigarettes And Johnny Walker Red.

I don’t know why Don Draper hasn’t already fired Miss Blankenship, but I hope he takes his time before doing so, because whenever she wandered in as though she was a honking-loud refugee from a Totie Fields stand-up routine, or a period sitcom such as The Beverly Hillbillies, Blankenship brought some vibrant coarseness into the solemn offices of SCDP. Along with Roger Sterling, who went on a fine tear of his own this week, Blankenship is the character most likely to cut through the show’s sometimes mummifying mannerliness.

Similarly, the night’s primary business plot — Don and company making a pitch for the Honda account — peaked with Draper’s “big risk” trick of fooling his chief competitor into thinking SCDP was shooting a commercial for which it never had the budget. By the time we reached the lovely long-shot of Peggy putt-putting a scooter around and around an otherwise quiet, white sound-stage, the hour had achieved a peak of energetic cleverness. Add all the properly researched details that were nailed neatly into place (Don wouldn’t know how to use chopsticks in Benihana; Top Cat would indeed be airing as a prime-time cartoon; little Bobby would use the word “Mongoloid”), and add a Joan-is-really-stacked joke from the Japanese businessmen you were just waiting for, and it hits you: Weiner is, for the moment, not about denying us the obvious, he’s reveling in it, for the better.

In regard to the angst-inducing aspects of last night, I hope the now-tired, post-SNL, reflexive criticism of January Jones as a stiff actor ceases after her marvelous work in this episode. She’s fully up to the challenge of playing cruelty (slapping Sally for the kid’s compulsive hair-snipping), rage (that foyer argument with Don when he dropped off the kids was a feat of fantastically compressed viciousness), exhausted vulnerability (cradled in the arms of Henry). And the session with “Dr. Edna,” while, again, unusually undisguised in its subtext — oh, I get it: Betty is talking about Sally, but she’s really talking about herself! — was moving precisely because it was so unguarded, so free of irony, especially the moment when, finally left alone for one blessed moment, she smiled fondly at a doll house full of family and comfy little pieces of furniture.

As for Sally, poor, poor Sally: Getting all hot ‘n’ bothered by watching David McCallum’s Illya Kuryakin in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. — why, I’ll bet if Betty was more of a TV-watcher, she’d have been vulnerable to McCallum’s blond-Beatle good looks, too. Sally’s head is her problem: Not just as the site of mild disfigurement (I kinda thought her improvised new ‘do was cute for a kid her age, very Moon-Spinners-era “Hayley Mills,” as the abashed babysitter/nurse put it) but as the place where she’s piling up secrets, and misinformation about “doing it” (Glenn’s indelible phrase from a few episodes back).

Just as Don is enduring with a big sigh the embarrassment of Miss Blankenship, so is his daughter heaving a resigned sigh at the embarrassment of having her psyche probed by Dr. Edna. And it’s the show’s other doctor, Faye Miller, who has the cure-all for both: “If you love her and she knows it, she’ll be fine.”

It’s precisely that sort of simplicity and directness that is serving Mad Men so well this season.

What do you think of Mad Men so far this season?

UPDATE: Sharp readers have pointed out that Top Cat was in prime time only during its 1961-62 season, so it’s unlikely Don’s kids and the baby-sitter would have been watching it at night. As for the suggestion that the McCallum clip was from The Twilight Zone and not, as I wrote, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I’ve been vindicated by reader “Lawrence Skantze” has pointed me toward U.N.C.L.E.’s “The Hong Kong Shilling Affair” episode; I’ve embedded the relevant scene. Thanks to all!

Follow: @kentucker

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Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper in the Emmy-winning ’60s-set drama

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