Mad Men recap: A Swimmingly Good Time
Don gets wet, Betty gets drunk, and Peggy gets dressed down
”It was a nightmare,” said Miss Blankenship, wearing those divinely ridiculous goggles, of her traumatic surgery. ”I was blind. And now I see.”
It’s June 15, a few weeks after Don’s amazing night of healing and grace. The episode opened with him standing alone at the ledge of a pool. (I wonder how many men will consider taking up swimming after this cleanser of an hour.) A lap left Don’s battered lungs in an uproar, but he looked blissfully spent at the end of his workout. When he emerged from the gym it was as if he had regained his senses for the first time since Betty kicked him out. The light was deliciously harsh, the sound of the Stones wonderfully rough on the ears. The smell of summer, corn!, was in the air. As good it was to see Don wash himself clean in the pool, it was almost more encouraging to see those bare feet under his writing table. Don finally looked calm and comfortable in his own skin, daring to put some of his headspace down on the page. ”I’m trying to gain a modicum of control over the way I feel,” he wrote. ”I want to wake up. I don’t want to be that man.”
After that first morning swim, Don practically strutted down the hall to his office. He’s clinging hard to his new routine, swapping Budweiser, coffee, chianti and sody pop for the harder stuff. In the first of two scenes where the sound dropped out, he sat in his office chair looking paralyzed. (Did anyone else immediately think of Tony Soprano marooned on his therapy chair?) It was a brainstorming session at work but the only thing that existed for him was the drink making its way to Peggy’s lips, the bottles on the table, the cool glass in his hand. ”They say as soon as you have to cut down on your drinking you have a drinking problem,” he’d written in his journal. Well, acknowledging you have a problem is the first step I guess. I think I’m right to still feel tremendous worry for Don. The booze seemed to be silently screaming at him throughout the episode. When Miss Blanekship limped over clutching four fresh bottles he seemed desperate for her to remove them from his sight. ”I’m set,” he said. ”And then you’re not,” she snapped back.
Down the hall, the boys were behaving like cavemen. ”I feel like Margaret Mead,” snickered Peggy as she watched Stan and Joey try to bash the vending machine into submission. That Joey turned out to be a first class jackass, didn’t he? We’ve seen him giving Joan lip before but I wasn’t prepared for tonight’s ugliness. Joan stomped into the break room, demanding that her colleagues quit behaving like they were at a keg party. Joey went for the jugular, sneering that she was acting like an old school marm. ”Sorry Mom,” he spat. (And ooooh boy did we learn that that kid hates his mother. ”My mother was a Joan,” he told Peggy. ”She even wore a pen around her neck so people would stare at her tits.” Ladies, run don’t walk from this handsome cancer of a man.)
NEXT: When did we get a vending machine?
Joan called Joey into her office and he left his gang of heathens with a parting image. ”A private spanking, just like my dream,” he said. (I was grateful for Pete’s dopey obliviousness — ”when did we get a vending machine?” — in middle of this tense encounter.) As Stan flattened his bare ass on her office window, Joan tried twist Joey into line. She declared him arrogant. He didn’t hit her with his fist, but his biting words went straight for her kidney. ”What do you do around here besides walking around like you’re trying to get raped?” I think I might have felt as gut-punched as Joan. ”I’m not some young girl off the bus,” he continued. ”I don’t need some madam from a Shanghai whorehouse to show me the ropes.” It was as cruel a moment as we’ve ever seen on the show, especially as I caught myself looking at Joan through Joey’s furious vision. I dare say that for a second I saw what that sumbitch saw, a painted woman of a certain age who knows which of her assets are most valued. Forgive me, Joan.
Just then Peggy bounded into Joan’s office. I’m always so intrigued between the dynamic of these two women. Something about Joan brings out the whiny younger sister with a stomping foot in Peggy. (”I just lost 30 cents in the machine! I’m not calling that number, no one ever answers! Fine, then you give me some LifeSavers!”) And Joan has never really forgiven Peggy for her rise from secretary to copywriter. Still reeling from Joey’s assault, Joan took out her frustrations on the eager puppy of a girl. ”Take the extra steps,” she snapped, fed up with the creatives making careless traffic through her office. ”You can use them.” Aw Joan, low blow. I wonder if she feels bad about those later.
She took her hurt feelings and her old-fashioned white gloves home to Greg. I think that meatball really does love his wife as best as his child-like self can. But he does not know her. He wanted some late-breaking nookie before he headed out to Basic Training. ”What am I going to do? Who am I going to talk to?” worried Joan. ”Talk to your friends at work!” he said with goofy obliviousness. She broke into tears, he slid his hand up her back. He demoralized her once at the office. Without knowing that she’d once again been humiliated there, he said the worst possible thing. ”Pretend we’re in some midtown hotel and we both snuck away for the afternoon,” he crooned in her ear. The last thing she needed right then was participating in some fantasy where she plays the whore.
NEXT: Elizabeth, do you know what you want?
Joan has her way of handling business, often in impressive fashion. After she snatched the crude Tally Ho! illo from her window, she struck down those three boobs on the couch with a blistering curse of their Vietnam fates. ”You will be pining for the day when someone made your life easier.” I was as awestruck as Peggy as she wiped the smirks from those idiots’ faces. But Peggy couldn’t leave it alone, so eager was she to impress Joan and test her own growing influence at the office. She marched straight into Don’s office wielding the offensive picture. He warned her against being a tattle tale but gave her explicit permision to handle the matter herself. She fired Joey’s ass after he made a crack about working women having no sense of humor. (A below-the-belt line used as often in 1965 as it is in 2010.) As Stan bemoaned ”the power of the poontang,” there was a clever cut to Don sitting next to Dr. Miller going over market research. ”You know, these guys may be embarrassed by having some professional tell them what to do,” he said.
I’m not sure Peggy deserved that dressing-down in the elevator. And yet Joan was probably right. Peggy acted on behalf of her own ego. Joan does not want a former underling coming to her defense. She preferred to handle it with clever backdoor manipulation, machinations that preserved her dignity and cleverly swathed sense of control. ”All you’ve done is prove to them that I’m a meangingless secretary and you’re another humorless bitch,” she said before her tone shifted to a scary false sweetness. ”Have a nice weekend. Good night Peggy.” Peggy, the wet blanket according to the dudes, can’t win with Joan. Joan, the window dressing, can’t win at the office.
Away from SCDP, Don had encounters with the three blondes in his personal life. He took Bethany on a dinner date, and endured her bubble gum stabs at manufactured intimacy. If life were a play, would he be a Felix or an Oscar? she wondered. When Betty spotted her younger self across the restaurant, it looked like the chords in her neck might snap. ”Elizabeth, do you know what you want?” Henry asked of his distracted wife. Yes Henry, she’ll have a slab of Don. ”Honey, the party is almost over,” assured Congressman Lindsay’s aide in condescending fashion. And how.
Henry let his wife know that he didn’t approve of her moodiness, and her slurping down her drink, during dinner. (Bethany on the other hand most certainly did approve of her date’s cooler, beautiful ex-wife. I believe it was while admiring Betty that Bethany — good grief — decided to later go down on Don in the back of a cab.) On the ride home, Betty pouted like a disgruntled teenager in the car while Henry played the role of fed-up Dad. ”Shut up Betty, you’re drunk,” he said. The next morning he rammed his car into a box of Don’s personals and then called his rival up at office, demanding a Saturday show-down at high noon.
At the appointed hour Don pulled up slowly to his former house, where his things waited on the curb like junk. Henry, puffed up like a bull, hacked away at the grass in preparation for Gene’s birthday party and didn’t give Don a look. ”When a man walks into a room he brings his whole life with him,” Don intoned over the scene. It was a stunning moment of self-reflection from a man who has lived his adult life running from the fact. ”We’re flawed because we want so much more. We’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had.” Betty has worked overtime setting up a new life for herself. She’s so angry that Don didn’t end up being the man she wanted him (and he himself wanted) to be. The idea that he gets to go on dates with Bethanys and play the role of father on the weekends eats at her. And yet, and yet, she misses him terribly.
NEXT: Happy birthday, Gene
Armed with some semblance of sobriety, bolstered by overhearing Dr. Miller tell her beau that she was never going to learn to cook and he might as well go s#*! in the ocean, Don asked Faye out on a proper date. And he looked so present with her at dinner. (Dr. Miller, I want your dress.) When Faye spoke of her two-bit gangster father, he looked like he was listening to the woman across the table from him for the first time. ”Interesting,” he said. (When has he ever said before to a date?!) The doctor is good at her job. Don can’t help but always give up his jacket, literally and emotionally. In the cab, they got to kissing and Faye was ready to take the plunge. Don gently pushed her back, telling her he wasn’t ready to say good night to her yet. For once, he was going to wait to have sex.
Gene’s birthday was the next day. Don was scared to show, scared to feel unwelcome in his former house amongst his former family, scared to see a little boy ”conceived in desperation, born into a mess,” who has no way of knowing that it was he who once rocked him to sleep as a baby. That morning he went for another swim, this time thrashing to beat the man in the lane next to him. He wants to grind Henry’s face in broken glass but was forced to settle for touching the wall first. Take that, sucka. Wrung out, washed clean, he showed up at to kid’s party. Now there were two large elephants in the room. Unsurpringly, it was the dreariest child’s birthday party ever. But Betty scooped Gene off the floor and handed him pleasantly over to Don. ”Say hi to Daddy!” she said happily. She returned immediately to Henry’s possessive embrace and repeated Francine’s line that they had everything, Don could at least hold his own son on this one day. (Henry looked relieved, but he’s a fool if he thinks her generosity had anything to do with a sense of closure.)
The episode ended with Don holding his son aloft in the air. How young Don looked. How in love. The sound dropped out, as it had earlier with for booze. But instead of staring into the promise of annihilation he was looking up at a higher source of innocence and purpose. There is Satisfaction to be found in this life, despite Mick Jagger’s lament. How right that the credits rolled without any music.
Best line of the night: Oh, of course I want to choose Ray Charless. But I think instead I’m going to give this one up to Francine. ”Oh Betty, you have terrible luck with entertaining.”
What did you all think? Do you approve of the pairing of Don and Faye? Did you have any sympathy for Betty gasping for air and clutching at her cigarette in that bathroom stall? Should Peggy have just kept her mouth shut? When did Harry become a 65-year-old man and whose headshot was that on his office table?