On the heels of a Clio win -- or is that an Emmy win? -- Don Draper sinks lower than ever

By Margaret Lyons
Updated August 31, 2010 at 01:04 AM EDT
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S4 E6
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What does rock bottom look like for Don Draper? There was a scene in ”Waldorf Stories” when it seemed as though Don’s lowest moment looked like a crumpled waitress uniform and a night of accidentally being Dick Whitman — but then he poured himself another brown drink and tried to claw his way even lower. There’s something excruciating about Don’s downfall, especially when contrasted with his professional success, and even more especially when we see how eager and vivacious he once was. Oh, the sweet agony of flashbacks.

We opened on a tense but sunny meeting, with Don and Peggy perched on the couch, as a young Danny showed off his book … of terrible ”cure for the common [BLANK]” lines and ads he had nothing to do with. (Danny here is played by Danny Strong, who will always be Doyle from Gilmore Girls to me. Perhaps he’s Jonathan from Buffy to you. Either way.) ”Aspiration’s as good as perspiration,” he pleaded weakly. Don smirked; Peggy sighed. ”Are we on Candid Camera?” Don wondered as he ushered Danny out of the office. It’s worth noting here that Strong barely grazes Jon Hamm’s sternum. And also that Peggy is wearing a form of plaid, as she so often does. Break out of those confining boxes, woman! Run free!

Peggy tried to bond with Don over poor Danny’s disastrous interview — ”There’s no way he’s 24! I’m 25!” — and tried to take some credit for the Glo-Coat campaign, but Don wasn’t having it. Peggy complained that ”[Don]’s new art director” was a major PITA, but Don again put her down a bit, insisting that she had to learn to work with Stan and not the other way around. Why don’t you hire Sal back, Don? I bet he’d be an easy-to-get-along-with art director.

Roger dictated part of his forthcoming autobiography (please let it be called Sterling, Silver or Roger That) until Don interrupted him so they could pregame on their way to the Clios. Ah, resonance: The characters are heading to an awards show at the very moment the cast and crew are, in real life, at an awards show! (And by the time Mad Men had its 11 p.m. playback, AMC was already airing ”congratulations” bumpers.) As Roger and Don toasted each other, we flashed back to…

Their first meeting! Don was sporting some seriously wide lapels — Nathan Detroit wants his notches back — as a bright young fur-coat salesman, earnestly recommending that Roger buy a mink capelet as a getting-to-know-you present for his newest squeeze. Roger noticed a poster on the shop’s wall; it’s Betty (at her Grace Kelly-est) in a decadent white coat, with the tag line ”Why wait for a man to buy you a fur coat?” Roger called the ad dumb, but Don lit up talking about it, and once Roger gave him his card, it was clear the former Dick Whitman wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

NEXT: Oh Joan, what did Roger do to you?

As if we couldn’t have guessed whom the mink was for. There was Joan, her back to the camera, but still radiating her usual sensuality. Roger had been ”easing into things” with her, so we’re now getting a rough idea of just how long those two had been an off-the-record item. Joan’s hair was slightly different, and I’m convinced her eyebrows were fuller in this flashback, but it’s really Christina Hendricks’ subtle shift in body language that shows just how much younger Joan was then. The gentle way she flits her eyelashes and purrs at Roger — it’s so un-cynical that it’s heartbreaking. I hate that I love her and Roger together, because the truth is that he’s a pretty terrible guy.

The mink wasn’t the only thing in that fancy gift box, though: Don had enclosed his portfolio, which included a Play-Doh pitch with a Noah’s Arc bent. Ah, even before Rachel Menken, Don had a thing for the Old Testament.

Then it was back to the regular timeline, with everyone gathered in the conference room for a pitch for Life cereal. Unfortunately, the cereal folk were late. Fortunately, that meant everyone could get even drunker. Except for Peggy, who was totally burned about not getting to go to the Clios. (Especially because Joan was going. Peggy: The overlooked middle child of SCDP?)

Maybe Peggy’s issues don’t seem so severe when contrasted with the Klan rally that we got in the next shot. Stan, the too-cool-for-school art director, was showing two of the secretaries the famous LBJ campaign ad that featured a Klansmen’s endorsement of Barry Goldwater. (It’s a DDB ad.) He accused Peggy of being repressed — you know, for not embracing nudity (oh, her kingdom for a relaxicizer). They bickered, and Stan seemed like the most obnoxious college freshman ever: You guys, he is enlightened, and your bougie B.S. just doesn’t even enter his zone anymore.

At the Clios, Don and Roger had a, er, ad-wagging contest with Ted Chaough, the annoying guy from last week. Ugh, Ted. Joan and Pete chatted with Ken and the guy from Birdseye, who let it slip that the ”old team” was getting back together — not the whole old team, but Ken at least was heading SCDP’s way. Yay, Ken! ”Judas Priest,” wailed Pete, because he’s the prettiest princess and he won’t share the crown even a little. When he tried to ask Don about it, he got swatted away.

Speaking of the old team — and the members not likely to reassemble — a completely sloshed Duck Phillips interrupted the beginning of the Clios ceremony. Go abandon a dog, Duck. (Perhaps it’s a good thing Peggy’s not here to see this.)

Too bad for her, though, that she was stuck going another round with Stan, who is So Rad he can’t even take off his leather jacket inside. He was throwing pencils at the ceiling, on account of being such a badass. Sure, he didn’t make the daisy ad, but he made the Klan one! Peggy bragged about the Glo-Coat ad, just enough for Stan to tease her about feeling left out: ”Who claps for themselves?” he smirked. Oy, Peggy, this guy is not your friend! Do not go all 10 Things I Hate About You with him. ”I’m going to riff for a few minutes and just sort of speechitize the whole Vicks experience,” Stan said with a straight face.

NEXT: I wanna hold your hand

Back at the Clios, it was time for the best cleansers, waxes, and polishes. Roger reached for Joan’s hand under the table, and my heart totally melted. Then Don reached for her other hand under the table, and I just about died. Joan: Best, or best ever? (Best ever. I assume her little smile at that moment will be made into a .gif any minute now. Do not disappoint me, internets.) And the winner was … Don! He smooched Joan right on the lips for a moment too long and gleefully ran up to the podium. Have we ever seen Jon Hamm smile that hard on this show? It’s sweet, but almost too much; Don’s supposed to have some restraint. That’s his whole thing. Captain Restrained Guy. I guess it shouldn’t be so surprising, then, when the pendulum swings back in the other, frownier direction.

The celebration was short-lived, though, as it turned out the Life cereal people had decided to hear the pitch after all — and were waiting at the SCDP offices. No time like the present, insisted the very drunk Don. That’s something drunk people always seem to insist. ”Fortune favors the bold” and ”I feel like you’re mad at me!!!” are also on that list. As is ”I’m not that drunk.”

At SCDP HQ, Harry was showing off his advance knowledge of Peyton Place episodes. Um, spoiler alert, Harry! Matt Weiner is famously antispoiler, and given how cheesy Harry seems in this scene, it’s hard not read it as an indictment of spoiler culture. Hmm. The glassy-eyed bigwigs returned, took an honest-to-goodness victory lap around the conference table, and decided to get down to business.

Don: Joey, you didn’t start without me, did you?

Joey: No, Don! I would not do that!

Don slurred his way through the impromptu pitch, shushing Joey and nearly barfing. ”I kept thinking about, y’know, nostalgia. How you remember something in the past, and it feels good, but it’s a little bit painful. Like when you were a kid. And Life? That’s a scary word to anyone at any age.”

My grand theory of Mad Men has always been that the person pitching is always deep down pitching him or herself the product. Who needs to mark her man? Peggy. Who needs a way to get rid of blemishes? Pete. Who’s always looking for the comfort of home, but is perpetually ”away”? Don. So this Life pitch is all about Don’s own insecurities. Is it hypothetical mothers who are marveling at how small their children are, or is it Don, the absentee dad who agonizes over both missing and not understanding his children? (Hint: It’s Don.)

But the pitch didn’t quite connect. The Quaker Oats people wanted something less tinged with irony, and then Don kind of lost it, going into his getting-slaped mode of apparently loving humiliation. He started rattling off could-be slogans, and everyone in the conference room (and in their living rooms) cringed at the uncharacteristic desperation of the display. Well, everyone except the Life people, who loved the ”cure for the common breakfast.” Which … yeah, sounds familiar. As Don triumphantly (?) marched out of the room, Peggy, in all her lucid sobriety, chased after him, only to be pushed away yet again. It’s almost like Don is keeping his protege at arms’ length so he won’t have to confront just how far he’s fallen in her esteem. Almost. He ordered her to finish her Vick pitch with Stan the leather-clad dweeb in a ”room with a lock.” Miss Blankenship didn’t think he was joking.

NEXT: Pete, the baby of the family

Pete cornered Lane and demanded to know if SCDP was merging. Lane admitted that he was hiring Ken Cosgrove (yay!), and Pete was livid, claiming that Lane never liked him, and that hiring Ken was a slap in the face. If Peggy’s the middle child here, Pete’s definitely the petulant baby, constantly needing attention and validation, and deriving disproportionate satisfaction from being deemed powerful or in charge. Then Lane Pryce turned on the charm. He took of his glasses, which made him look even more like Truman Capote, and said gravely, ”Roger Sterling is a child.” Oh, music to Pete’s bratty, bratty ears. ”We can’t have you pulling the cart all by yourself,” Lane murmured. Pete fought a little more, but Lane had obviously won that round.

Over at the smoke-filled victory party, Don spotted Faye across the room. ”Mom called, she’s looking for us,” he announced as he guided her away from whatever guy she was talking to. ”What are you doing?” she asked. ”Rescuing you,” Don said. Oooooh, Don. He so wishes that were true that he might even believe it. When he put the moves on her, Dr. Miller had the superhuman strength to resist, cooly suggesting that he was ”confusing a lot of things at once.”

Peggy and Stan, following Don’s orders, were holed up in a hotel room, with Stan flipping through Playboy and casually saying degrading things. How come no one ever does that at Mad Men parties? Peggy hit her limit when Stan said she should be ashamed of her body — WTF, Stan! — and then showed him who was liberated by stripping down. ”You’re lazy, and you have no ideas,” she said. Also, she called him ”chickens—t.” After getting completely nude, she gazed neutrally at Stan: ”Let’s talk coughdrops.” Ten points to Gryffindor, Peggy Olson!

The booze was still flowin’ at the Clios afterparty. And so was Roger’s self pity. ”They don’t give awards for what I do,” he whined to Joan, who scolded him for switching from ”lubricated to morose” and left. (Between that line and her calling a secretary’s behavior ”egregious” a few weeks ago, Mrs. Harris is a walking stack of SAT vocab flashcards.) As Roger watched Don flirt with a brunette, we cut to another flashback to the early days of the Sterling/Draper wonder duo. Roger saw through Don’s ”fancy meeting you here” ruse, but Don sweet talked him into getting a drink. (”It’s 10 a.m.!” Roger marveled. I guess they turned each other into day-drinkers.) Bring on the sage advice: ”My mother always said, be careful what you wish for, because you’ll get it, and then people get jealous and try to take it away from you,” Roger told Don seriously. It was the second time this episode that Don balked at an adapted idiom. He put a blitzed Roger into a cab.

NEXT: Peggy wins a boobie prize, so to speak

Back at the Hotel de Liberated Nudity, a still-naked Peggy was plugging away on the cough-drops pitch, while Stan looked into the middle distance and barely tried to conceal his arousal. Now it was his turn to cave, and for a hot second I thought he and Peggy were going to go at it; instead, he got dressed and conceded that she won. ”[Won] what?” she teased. ”The prize for the smuggest bitch in the world,” Stan shot back. Peggy didn’t look too put off, though: The guy had called her ugly, a dog, more boring than wallpaper, part of the temperance movement … maybe ”smug bitch” was just as nice as he got. I was thrilled for Archie Panjabi at the Emmy’s last night, but it’s hard not to feel like Elisabeth Moss deserves more recognition. She hits so many different notes as Peggy.

Don was getting hot and heavy with the brunette from the party — who apparently won a Clio herself for writing a jingle for ”cake mixes and toppings.” Could she hum a few bars? Boy, could she. She started humming ”The Star Spangled Banner,” and Don’s utterly wasted, blissed out ”oh…okay” would have been really funny, had it not been followed by him barely regaining consciousness in time to answer Betty’s livid phone call. ”I’m coming on Sunday,” he mumbled. ”It is Sunday!” Betty shouted back before slamming the phone down. Don was totally disoriented, and when the camera pulled back, we saw that he was with someone we hadn’t seen before — someone Don didn’t seem to recognize either. Things went from hungover to holy-crap-what-happened when the perky ’60s-Meg-Ryan-waitress called him ”Dick.” Whoops. That must’ve been one insane bender, fella.

And the bender wasn’t quite done. Don splashed some more Canadian Club into a glass and collapsed onto the couch, amid discarded Chinese food containers and his own decrepit sadness, where he slept the sweet sleep of the innocent. Wait, no, the opposite of that. The, uh, depraved coma of the pathologically callous. Only the agitated knocking from a stressed-out Peggy woke him.

Peggy had reason to be alarmed; she’d been trying to call him all weekend to give him the head’s up that he accidentally stole the ”cure for the common breakfast” line from Danny. Don, wrapped in a bathrobe, hugged his arms to his body and struggled to remember the meeting at all. He didn’t remember sending Peggy to a hotel with Stan, and she briefly realized just how far gone Don was that weekend. She wanted him to fix the Life thing. I wanted her enchanting sage raincoat. Wants, wants, wants.

Monday morning. Sun shining. Phones ringing. Stan and Peggy showed Joey their cough-drop spot, and Peggy worked in a dig about Stan’s manhood (10 more points, Peggy!) because the guy so deserved it. Don told Miss Blankenship that he left his award at the bar Friday night.

Miss Blankenship: What’s the category?

Don: Best actress.

Well, I laughed. Don walked into his office to discover Danny cheerfully sitting on his couch. ”Your little friend is waiting,” Miss Blankenship buzzed. Nice timing. Don offered Danny $50 and then $100, but Danny — thanks to his connections with Roger — demanded an actual job. I know, I know! Make him the editor of the college paper.

NEXT: If Ken can come back, what about Paul?

Pete was ready for his showdown with Ken. ”I think you’d be a great addition,” Pete smarmed. He laid down the law in his own slimy way and then hilariously brought his hands behind his head in the most contrived little moment of victory. Of course that’s how Pete thinks powerful people celebrate. I mean, that’s what they do in comic strips … right? His icy gunmetal suit and dark hair contrasted so sharply with Ken’s boyish blond locks and earth-toned outfit I half expected the two to show up in MAD magazine.

Don admitted to Peggy that Danny was starting on Monday. ”Are you kidding?” she snapped. Peggy, we know he’s short, but the guy is standing right there. She was more interested in saying hi to Ken, and we got our millionth voyeurism shot of the episode. Everyone was watching everyone else this week: in mirrors, through doorways, across awards ceremonies — what are we presenting to people? What are we looking at when we look at each other? Whom are we watching, and who’s watching us? Are we just who we’re seen with?

Roger was dictating more of his autobiography when Don interrupted again. Roger gamely handed over the statuette Don had left at the bar, but on one condition: that Don say he couldn’t have done it without him. ”Did I not say that?” Don wondered. ”I was wrong.” Let the record show Don didn’t actually say it, although Roger looked satisfied enough.

We got one closing flashback, filling us in on how Don finally landed his first gig with Roger: Total deception. As Roger stood in the lobby of the old office building, Don waltzed up. Roger tried to brush him off — yes, again — but Don just smiled. ”You hired me,” Don said. Roger was incredulous. ”Yesterday,” Don persisted. ”You said ‘welcome aboard.”’ Alcohol is a hell of a drug, kids.

The two walked into the elevator together as Roger looked skeptical and Don looked hopeful, and we closed with ”Ladder of Success,” by Skeeter Davis:

Once he let me share his dreams

But now that they come true it seems

He doesn’t want my love I guess look there goes my happiness

They’re climbin’ up up up the ladder of success.

What did you think of this week’s episode, Mad Men fans? Still aglow from the Emmy win? Do you miss Bert as much as I do when he’s not in an episode? And if the ”band” is getting back together, does that mean Sal and Paul can come too? Please?

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Mad Men

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