Don blows off his work trip in favor of a young temptress, while Peggy changes her look thanks to the new man in her life

By Karen Valby
Updated May 11, 2015 at 06:48 AM EDT
S2 E11
  • TV Show
  • AMC

Maybe it’s because I see no room for gloating hedonists like Willy or Rocci or Klaus on my favorite show. Maybe it’s because I believe that Joy is fleeting, like a drug, and shouldn’t be confused with true happiness. Maybe it’s simply because I’ll take New York City over Los Angeles any day of the week. All I know is that after enduring one too many scenes shot out by the Palm Springs pool, I practically cheered when the action returned to Sterling Cooper and the gang caught up Pete on all he missed. “Kurt’s a homo,” announced Ken. In that succinct spirit, here’s what went down on Mad Men last night: Kurt came out over doughnuts in the break room and is now Peggy’s new gay best friend. Peggy lost her ponytail. Duck dove back into the drink with a vengeance after being denied a partnership and before setting Sterling Cooper up to be sold. Roger proposed to Jane after hearing some of her bad poetry. Don ditched Planet Earth to sleep with a 21-year-old nymphomaniac with major daddy issues. What am I missing? Ah yes, the world is on the brink of annihilation.

Let’s start in New York. With Don away on business, the creative team struggled to reinvent the wheel for a Right Guard campaign. (Peggy, that prescient little minx, groaned that short of the deodorant marketing a product to women, they were stuck.) So instead of working, the crew wondered about how their buddy Kinsey might be faring on his getting-out-the-vote campaign in Mississippi. “This day and age,” Peggy, sounding like her prig of a mother, sighed over the broiling civil rights movement. “I don’t know why people keep stirring up trouble,” said Harry. “It’s bad for business. Just another reason not to watch TV.” Oh, kids, just you wait. At this point Kurt, whose gorgeousness I’d never fully appreciated before, revealed that he didn’t own a TV and that his spare time was pleasantly occupied even without the promise of sports games. “It’s a different life for single men,” explained Sal, who didn’t yet know the half of it.

What Kurt does spend his time on are Bob Dylan concerts, and he invited a blushing Peggy out for a night out in the Village. When the gang later teased the two about their date, Kurt calmly proclaimed himself a homosexual. Ken and Harry’s jaws dropped, Peggy put on her I don’t hear you, I don’t hear you, I’m in my happy place face, Joan’s eyes widened deliciously like twin moons, and a stunned Sal, his doughnut frozen midair, looked like he might weep as he watched a man do something he never thought possible, with both ease and elegance. Kurt simply shrugged, clarifying once again for the room that he “likes to make love with the men, not the women.” As Ken and Harry worried over their masculinity, pleading with Joan to call some girls into the room already, Smitty asked them all if they seriously thought Kurt was the only gay man in the advertising world. Oh, Sal, just dive into the donut box already and pull the lid over you.

NEXT: Joyful timesWould that there were another glass for Sal on Peggy’s coffee table. The poor dear, who seemed like she’d already made good headway on that bottle of red, awkwardly suggested that Kurt could give her ticket to a man if he wanted before she just broke down wondering why she had the world’s worst luck with crushes. “What’s wrong with me?” she cried. Then Kurt did what every woman hopes the most compassionate and wise gay man in her life will do for her when she falls into a pit of self-loathing. He gave her a good once-over, frowned over her hair, and promised that he would fix her. Then he plopped Peggy on a kitchen stool and lopped off her ponytail. Kurt, I’ll get us Bob Dylan tickets too if you come over to my house next and advise me on whether low-rise jeans are my friend or foe!

In Los Angeles, the former object of Peggy’s misguided affection couldn’t get a break. Poor Pete is neither rich nor good-looking enough to get any of the tanned jet set to put up with his snapping-terrier personality. Meanwhile Don, who stared with a dreamy and dazed expression as Betty’s doppelgänger passed him by at the hotel bar, was a hot ticket because, as he was told, “you’re beautiful and you don’t talk too much.” After sitting in a Kubrickian white room with other somber men in suits, watching city after city get bombed as the presenter promised “total annihilation,” Don fell for the promise of some easy Joy. “Why would you deny yourself something you want?” the little kitten purred. He stared confusedly after her backside which promised both release and escape, and then hopped into her convertible and fled to Palm Springs.

After Joy unpeeled her dress out by the pool, a sweaty Don rumbled and shook, before crashing wave-like to the deck. When he woke up, it was as if the heat exhaustion had erased his very self, and he was left surrounded by a band of crazies who were considering how best to serve him for dinner. He was neither Dick Whitman nor Don Draper, just a hunk of meat without a past, a man who seemed to give serious thought to the idea of island jumping with just a babe on his arms and a tuxedo in his bag. “What’s your story?” one of the women asked him over dinner. “I don’t know how to answer that,” he said, before Joy decided that what her chile relleno really needed was a side of suck face. In the boudoir that night Don told the young girl that he was 36 years old. “You’re still warm,” she promised, saying just the right thing to a man worried about his very existence, before she climbed on top of him. The next morning Willy glided into the bedroom, laughing over the fighting couple next door. “The humiliations have been spectacular,” he laughed, before sitting down on the bed and marveling over his daughter’s stud.

NEXT: Don’s decline{C}Damn, I’m used to seeing Don fail as a husband. But all those times I would shake my fist at the player, at least I could begrudgingly admire his game. And at least I could always trust that in the office he really was something of a Prince Charming — cool and calm and in control. So watching him blow off the job and jump into that convertible with Joy, leaving Pete in the lurch with a couple of clients, was truly a blow. I have to admit that this was my least favorite episode of the season. Besides the fact that I found that swinging, Pucci-clad band of nomads silly and boring — what I’d give to see Joan level their pretensions down to size — the truth is that I didn’t like Don very much tonight. I’m not even sure I mean that as a criticism of the show either. It’s just that so much of my enjoyment of Mad Men is tied up in the fact that however big of a pig Don can be, I also believe him to be at heart a good man with good intentions; a flawed father who wants to do right by his kids. So when faced with the choice between a topless Joy in the pool and the harsh reality of those two young children whose exhausted father was in an ugly fight for custody, I felt a weird sense of betrayal when Don stared impotently into his half-empty glass instead of hightailing it out of Palm Springs.

Snap out of it, Don! Yes, you’re getting older. You don’t know your own heart. The world is an increasingly erratic and vulnerable place. And so you tumble out of control, grabbing for whatever Joy you can find on the way down. Viewed this way, the whole episode felt like a dramatized version of Mad Men‘s opening sequence. Our hero’s ordered world, structured by his marriage and ambition, held up by slogans and sales pitches for the American dream, is coming undone. Tonight’s final shot of Don, his arm slung over the couch, a cigarette in his fingers as he realizes that he’s come to a crossroads and must now choose his destiny, is an almost perfect mirror to the end of the beginning credits. Dick Whitman is on the move — to an address scrawled on the back page of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, a novel about an American family staring down ruin, polluted with alcoholism, racism, suicide, and women struggling for a voice. We don’t know yet where Dick is going. But Don Draper’s wardrobe of suits, ties, and crisp white undershirts returned home alone in a suitcase, the man himself nowhere to be found.

Best line of the night: “You are drinking sad,” Kurt warned Peggy.

Who do you think Dick Whitman arranged to meet? (Remember it has to be someone who knew him well, and only as Dick, for he needed to explain nothing in that short phone call.) Are we going to be stuck with these champagne-swilling dilettantes for another episode? Wasn’t it a little weird that Pete never brought up the fact that Don abandoned him? Will Jane break Roger’s heart by season’s end? Do you think Kinsey is going to make it back in one piece from Mississippi? Peggy’s haircut — yay or nay?

Episode Recaps

Mad Men

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

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