Mad Men recap: Don kills his past, Joan kills her marriage
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
Don couldn’t go home, though, until he’d gone to a pitch meeting for a women’s shoe company, which would be new hire Michael Ginsberg’s very first time in front of a client with SCDP. “I just wanted to hear the tone of your voice to be sure it’s not as annoying as in every day life,” Don told Michael in a pre-meeting meeting. Some men would be fatally wounded by such a barb, but Michael appeared more concerned that Don might have TB.
I’m probably in the minority on this since his abrasive and loud-mouth behavior is exactly as irritating as it’s supposed to be, but I’ve already got a bit of a show-crush on Michael. I love how oblivious and yet eager he is, and how he earnestly called out his brand-new colleagues for ogling not-for-publication crime-scene photos of the Chicago nurse murders. (Side note #2: Be-bop lesbian and LIFE employee Joyce Ramsay introduced the photos by saying they were of the “dirty nurse massacree,” with a long “e” at the end. Is that, like, a hippie-speak thing?) (Side note #3: She was right, by the way: LIFE did put the murders on the cover.) I also love how Michael thought nothing of slyly pitching the Cinderella-based campaign to the clients that he’d wanted to do all along, even though Don had dismissed it out of hand as a cliché. It’s exactly the kind of move Don himself would have made when he was younger, hungrier, and much more unhappy, and I suspect the reason Don didn’t fire Michael on the spot is because Don knew it himself.
Or maybe he just saw himself in Michael’s pitch, which Michael blithely told Don was the one he really wanted, “in your heart”: A beautiful princess, running hobbled on one shoe through the dark cobblestone street near the castle. She feels a hand on her shoulder, and turns, beguiled by the handsome stranger offering her her missing shoe. “She knows she’s not safe, but she doesn’t care. I guess we know in the end, she wants to be caught.”
With that vivid vignette ringing in his ears, Don stumbled home, barely tossing off his suit and collapsing into bed. Before he knew it: Ding dong! Andrea’s at the door!
I’m going to cut to the chase here: This “Andrea” was the fever-dream personification of Don’s toxic guilt for his serial philandering. In hindsight, I’m convinced that not even this first encounter was real — there was all that business about how she got into the building, and her farewell come on of “It was just sex — it doesn’t mean anything” sounds like the thematic thesis statement it was. But it didn’t hit me that “Andrea” was a figment of Don’s febrile imagination until she came back the second time, somehow eager for some afternoon delight with a man who looked like death waiting in the oven to be eventually warmed over.
But I do believe her story, that Don once slotted the real Andrea in the Lincoln Center loading dock while Betty waited inside. The dark memory was enough to ignite Don’s enfeebled libido, but after having his way with the symbol of his self-destructive shame, he was riddled with even more of it. “It was a mistake,” he whimpered. “A mistake you love making,” hissed Evil Andrea. “You loved it. And you’ll love it again, because you’re a sick, sick—“
Don seized her neck, driving her to the floor, squeezing out his guilt and rage and sorrow and self-pity as she scrambled, punched, and kicked, until the life left her body. Don, sweaty and panicked and half-delirious, pushed her under the bed — the same place that lone surviving Chicago nurse hid from her would-be rapist-and-murderer — and crawled back under the covers. It was at this point that I realized Don was naked, and that Andrea was wearing just one shoe, like the Cinderella of Michael’s impromptu pitch. I don’t think by this point we were supposed to take any of this as real, so I’m willing to forgive the show for slipping into pulp-soap territory usually reserved for True Blood. As (metaphoric) Mad Men demons go, Don’s wandering eye, and prick, have no equal, but I don’t for a second think that this demon’s been slayed. After Megan — bathed in bright redemptive light — woke him, and he realized it was all just a dream, Don told his smart and loving wife, “You don’t have to worry about me.” Which only makes me think there has never been a better time to worry about Don Draper.
NEXT: Sally and the tale of Richard Speck
Meanwhile, Sally Draper was grappling with a monster of a different sort. Her step-grandmother Pauline, deliciously played by Pamela Dunlap, was babysitting while Betty and Henry were out of town. The airline strike meant they were delayed for a day, and Sally was getting antsy under the oppressive yoke of a heartless gorgon who makes her finish her sandwiches and doesn’t let her watch TV all day. “I know your mother has other rules,” said Pauline. “She doesn’t have rules,” replied Sally, accurately.
That wasn’t Pauline’s childhood experience. When she was likely Sally’s age, her father out of nowhere once kicked her so hard, she flew across the room and hit some furniture. “Then he looked at me and said, ‘That’s for nothing, so look out.'” That’s not very nice, said Sally. “No. But it was valuable advice.” Yeee-ikes.
After Pauline kept the details of the Chicago nurse murders away from Sally all day, the head-strong girl fished the newspaper from the trash and read it under the covers with a flashlight. Needless to say, Sally was so unnerved, she snuck up on Pauline demon-child style, appearing suddenly in the doorway with terrified eyes and a lot of questions. “Why did that man do that?” asked Sally. “Well, probably because he hates his mother,” Pauline said with a chortle. She then painted a picture of the murders for Sally that made them only more vivid and lurid and confusing. All those short nurses uniforms, stirring the murderer’s desire. “For what?” asked Sally, wide-eyed. “What do you think? You’re old enough to know.” (Side note #4: For a good, keep-you-up-a-night, no-seriously-it-kept-me-up-last-night-and-from-writing-this-already-overlong-recap read, check out the Wikipedia entry on the scary-sad story of the man who killed those nurses, Richard Speck.)
How on earth was Sally supposed to get to sleep now? For the second episode in a row, Pauline Francis had the cure-all solution for the problems of the Draper-Francis females: Pop a pill! In Sally’s case, Seconal, fabulous medication to be feeding a 12 year old. The next morning, Betty and Henry came home to find Pauline passed out on the couch. “Where’s Sally?” asked Betty. We panned down to find Sally, herself passed out underneath the sofa, and the Mad Men sad oboe told us this was not an endearing moment of step-grandaughter/step-grandmother bonding.
NEXT: Peggy founds the Official Former Don Draper Secretaries Club
Speaking of failed female bonding, Peggy spent the night trying, and failing, to connect with Don’s new African-American secretary, Dawn. Staying late at the office once again — this time to work on a last-minute campaign for airline strike breakers Mohawk Airlines, after Roger dropped the ball and forgot to assign it to Michael — Peggy heard a bump from somewhere else in the office. (Side note #5: Roger’s $400 cash bribe to Peggy to take on the job and lie about when he assigned it is the equivalent of $2,657.53 in 2010 dollars. So, you know, holy crap. And also: So what happens when Roger runs out of massive wads of cash to paper over his problems?) By the by, Peggy creeping through the darkened halls of SCDP was the third horror-style scene to worm its way into the episode, and I’ve got to give credit to Elizabeth Moss for playing the moment as real as possible.
Her discovery: Dawn, sleeping on Don’s couch because it’s unsafe for her to go home, and her brother won’t let her take the subway, “with everything that’s happening in Chicago.” Peggy laughed; Dawn’s not a nurse! Oh, wait, she means the other thing that’s happening in Chicago, the race riots in June. Right. So, anyways, Peggy invited Dawn to stay at her place instead. As Peggy downed yet another beer — “Y’all drink a lot” — Dawn asked her host if she was going to talk with Don about her crashing on his couch. “Naw,” said Peggy, trying hard to be chummy with this woman she barely knows. “I know we’re not really in the same situation, but I was the only one like me there for a long time.” (I loved Moss’ little intake of breath here, masking a burp.) “I know it’s hard.”
So far so good. But then Peggy asked Dawn if she wanted to be a copywriter, and Dawn looked at Peggy like she asked if she wanted to run the company some day. Peggy began gazing into the middle distance. “Do you think I act like a man?” she asked, back at the office, thinking of all the scotch she’d been throwing back and the chummy laughs she’d shared with her work husband Stan, and probably back further to those first hard years where she was taken for granted (and worse). “I try, but I don’t know if I have it in me. I don’t know if I want to.” She sighed, and grabbed her beer again, while Dawn wondered what exactly had just happened.
Later, as she bid Dawn a good night, Peggy suddenly, pointedly looked down at her purse, sitting on the coffee table, still filled with that wad of Roger Sterling greenbacks. The implication: Dawn would steal it. Peggy tried to play off her impulse by clearing the empty beer bottles from the table. But it was too late. Her moment’s pause just sat there, sinking into the room, ruining whatever good feeling these two women had managed to build up out of an already awkward situation. The next morning, Peggy found a note from Dawn, sitting her purse: “Thank you for your hospitality. I’m sorry for putting you out.” Oh, Peggy. Just when she feels like she may have a handle on her life — she’s got a hot shot intellectual boyfriend, after all, who leaves his clothes piled up in her spare bedroom, not to mention the chuzpah to blackmail her boss out of 400 big ones — life rudely intrudes and reminds her just how lonely it is to be a woman sailing uncharted waters into the world of men.
NEXT: Joan, finally, takes out the trash
Joan, on the other hand, has been comfortable swimming in the men’s pool for quite some time, and technically she’ll never be alone again, or at least for the next 18 years — little baby Kevin has seen to that. (Side note #6: Kevin is just about a year younger than Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.) Enter Greg (Sam Page), finally returning from his tour as an army surgeon in Vietnam. Joan was trying her damnedest to play the happy military wife. She even greeted him at the door with a kiss and an upturned leg, and Joanie’s mom Gail (Christine Estabrook) quickly scurried out with Kevin so the couple could “visit a spell.” Does Gail have all the necessities for a few hours out in New York, asked Joan? “I have everything,” she said, turning her knowing gaze to Greg. “And so do you.”
Yeah, not so sure about that. Looking trim and handsome in a bright white undershirt, Greg sat Joan down with a grim face to give her some hard news. She thought he was about to confess to some “over there” indiscretion, and asks him not to — “and if you do, you certainly shouldn’t ask me to hold your hand.” Greg batted away the notion as if his wife hadn’t jumped to thinking the worst of him, and told Joan that he has to go back to Vietnam for another year. We learn later he volunteered to return, and parsing his words to Joan, he never outright said otherwise — she just assumed he was under orders, because who would choose to go back to Vietnam? And didn’t the military promise him one year back home instead of abroad, anyway? “They’re a bunch of liars!” she roared. “Nobody lied to anybody,” Greg said calmly, putting her hand against his cheek. Except Greg pretty well lied to Joan about returning, and Joan definitely lied to Greg about who’s Kevin’s real father. And they were both lying to themselves about what this marriage really was. They are a bunch of liars.
At dinner with Greg’s parents, his mother had no patience for the “painful charade” that they should be happy he’s going back to war. At first, Joan defended her husband, but then the truth finally came out. “You volunteered,” Joan said, her voice ice cold. “They need me,” said Sam, as if Joan and Kevin somehow don’t. Annnnd then in came the accordion player, breaking the tension with a blunt break in tone. If that wasn’t comic intrusion enough: “You know,” said Gail, “Joanie plays the accordion.”
Back at their apartment, Greg and Joan barked at each other in a stilted fight, throwing arguments about WWII that didn’t quite sound natural coming out of either actor’s mouths. (Forgive me, Christina Hendricks.) Greg had barely slammed the door to leave for a drink with his buddies when Gail swooped in with her steadfast advice on what it means to be a “military wife.” But Joan was not having it. “Go lie down,” sighed Gail. “You don’t even know how tired you are.” Gail was right, but for the wrong reason. Joan was tired — tired of the painful charade of her marriage, tired of pretending that her husband is worthy of her.
The next morning, she had barely slept a wink, but she was resolved. Go to Vietnam, she told Greg, “and never come back.”
“I’m very important there!” he fumed. Joan’s eyes narrowed. “I’m glad the army makes you feel like a man. Because I’m sick of trying to do it.”
“The army makes me feel like a good man,” Greg retorted.
And then Mad Men did that thing it does so well and so much better than anyone else. “You’re not a good man,” said Joan, her even voice softly breaking. “You never were. Even before we were married, and you know what I’m talking about.” In an episode preoccupied with missing footwear, this particular shoe was the last and biggest from the show’s early years that hadn’t yet dropped. Ever since the penultimate season 2 episode almost four years ago, even us steadfast fans of Joan have had a hard time reconciling the formidable office doyenne with the woman who chose to marry the man who raped her. To finally see Joan rid herself of this rotted Ken doll was deeply, deeply satisfying, even if it has the side-effect of leaving Mad Men without an obvious connection to Vietnam.
The episode ended with Joan on her bed, wearing pants, and staring into her son’s eyes as her gobsmacked mother slept, a siren cried in the background, and The Crystals’ ominous 1962 single “He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss)” played us out to the credits. And I got my first goosebumps of the season.
And thus endeth my very first Mad Men recap. My resolve to bring all the Doc Jensen insight with half the Doc Jensen verbiage has failed miserably. But what did you make of “Mystery Date,” dear readers? There is certainly a lot to talk about, so have at it!
Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper in the Emmy-winning ’60s-set drama