Betty tries to hurt Don, Sally tries to hurt Megan, Roger tries to hurt Pete, and Don tries to hurt Michael — so everyone got hurt

By Adam B. Vary
Updated May 14, 2012 at 11:12 AM EDT
Credit: Jordin Althaus/AMC
S5 E8

Last week, while I vented about all the famous faces that have been distracting me on Mad Men, just a quick scan of the message boards revealed that a single face has been driving many of you to distraction: Megan’s. (For some, I quite literally mean her face. Strange that I never read anyone making fun of Pete’s odd teeth.) At the risk of losing all of you completely before I’m even through the first paragraph, it’s no secret that I started this season feeling defensive of Megan against the haters. Beyond just enjoying an optimistic woman who’s sharp as a tack and so different from the cynical, deathlessly unhappy citizens of SCDP, I really loved what she meant for Don as a new beginning. But, yes, by last week, I admit I’d grown a twinge sick of her too, and was grateful that she was finally leaving SDCP so Don could finally get back to doing what he does best: Advertising, and being an a–hole.

Oh, and did he ever. Not only did we get a major dose of the old Don Draper attempting to roar back into fighting shape last night, but Betty finally returned! And we got a juicy Sally story! And a juicy Roger story! And Pete ruined Gilmore Girls for everyone! Filled with self-serving dirty tricks masking (what else) gnawing, chronic insecurity, it was a motley stew of an episode, with moments for just about every character except for the AWOL Lane Pryce. So let’s start with the woman whose been AWOL herself this season: Betty.

We opened with what appeared to be a daily breakfast ritual for Betty: Burnt toast, carefully weighed cubes of cheese, and a grapefruit. (A fair number of carbs in that diet, but I digress.) In the months since we’d last seen Betty wolfing down her daughter’s dessert, it seems she’d committed to changing the course of her life (and body), and joined Weight Watchers — likely one of the very first Weight Watchers, which had only just been founded by Queens housewife Jean Nidetch in 1963. (Fun fact! In the ’80s and ’90s, Weight Watchers was owned by Heinz.)

At her first meeting of the episode, Betty was preoccupied. Yes, she’d lost half a pound, but she reluctantly told her fellow watchers of weight that the week before, she’d “had a very trying experience.” She didn’t give any details, but we already knew what she was talking about: For the first time, Betty stepped inside Don and Megan’s apartment, where she A) Saw their stylish and fabulous Manhattan high-rise home (in contrast to her gloomy gothic castle in Rye); B) Saw Megan through a window in just her bra — young, beautiful, thin; and C) Saw Don’s young, beautiful, and thin second wife lovingly kiss all three of Betty’s children goodbye. As Betty described it in her meeting: “I was in an unfamiliar place, and I saw — felt — a lot of things I wish I hadn’t.” When she’d gotten home that night, the first thing Betty did was race to her fridge and squirt a giant wad of whipped cream directly into her mouth. I admit, I guffawed pretty hard, but was cut to the quick by how Betty handled her moment of weakness. The old Betty would have gulped down the mouthful of whipped cream and then brooded over her guilt. The new-ish Betty immediately spit it out, ashamed, but not a slave to her feelings. Yet.

NEXT PAGE: “Fat” Betty: Just as vindictive as skinny Betty

The new-ish Betty was also, like Don, trying hard not to make the same mistakes in her second marriage that she’d made in her first. When she found Henry frying a late night steak (“I can’t eat fish five times a week”), Betty pulled up a chair and apologized for her diet forcing him into the situation. Henry gently admonished her that he wasn’t up late preoccupied about her problems; his boss, John Lindsay, the Republican mayor of New York City, wasn’t going to run for president in 1968. “I got on the wrong horse, Betty,” he sighed.

“It’s so easy to blame our problems on others, but really, we’re in charge of ourselves,” she responded. “And I’m here to help you, as you’re here to help me. We’ll figure out what’s next.” She may have been simply parroting her Weight Watchers talking points, but it was also maybe the most mature thought Betty’s ever expressed on the show, and a damn fine definition of a healthy marriage to boot. It’s a relief to see that even Betty is capable of growth, however infinitesimal.

Of course, Henry’s idea of helping for Betty was to enable her to cheat on the one thing she says she wants to commit to doing, while feeding her like she was still a kid. Betty’s declaration of mutual respect and support, meanwhile, was also the literal antithesis of the episode, as Betty herself proved the moment Don unwittingly slid back into her life.

As Sally worked on her family tree project at the kitchen table, Betty sorted through Bobby’s homework and stumbled upon a drawing of a bleeding whale with harpoons sticking out of its side. On the back, she found a note from Don to Megan that stuck a harpoon directly into her own heart:

Unable to eat her feelings anymore, Betty lashed out instead at the very first victim to catch her eye: her daughter. “You know what, don’t forget your Daddy’s first wife,” Betty almost spat at Sally, who was immediately and understandably confused. What first wife? And why hadn’t Megan told her about Anna? “I don’t know why Megan didn’t tell you,” said Betty, her voice dripping with ice. “Ask her.” We’d been prepped for the ghost of Anna Draper to return thanks to the “previously on Mad Men” that played before the episode, but the meanness of this moment still made my stomach do a somersault. People may grow, but that doesn’t mean they’ve changed.

Betty’s plan, however, backfired, in more ways than one. I’ll get to how in a bit, but when Sally came back from her next trip to Don and Megan’s, she did not have the report her mother had been hoping for. First, came praise: Sally had gotten an A+ on her family tree. She was turning things around at school. Good for her! Oh, and, by the way, what did Don and Megan say about Anna? “Daddy showed me pictures,” said Sally, with a knowing look that chilled me even more. “They spoke very fondly of her.”

It was a delicious moment of comeuppance that was both satisfying and very sad. “We should fill ourselves with our children, our homes, our husbands, our health, our happiness,” the Weight Watchers instructor told Betty, and Betty, bless her, appeared to know this, to hear these words, even as she also knew that somehow what she had was still not enough. “I’m thankful that I have everything I want,” Betty said at her family’s Thanksgiving. “And that no one else has anything better.” Woof. And then Betty took her one, and only, bite of stuffing, and her face melted, as waves of pure happiness washed over her. Say what you will about January Jones, but that was a killer piece of acting.

NEXT PAGE: Don embodies the devil, in more ways than one

Like Betty, Don was also unexpectedly threatened by a younger, sharper quasi-replacement, after unwittingly coming upon dashed-off documents not meant for his eyes. It all started after Pete announced that a reporter from the New York Times Sunday Magazine was doing a story on hip ad agencies (“hep” corrected Bert, hilariously), leading Don to put together the best of all their recent campaigns. It was fascinating to see the actual ads we’d only heard about this season — “If you can find a less expensive way to fly to Lake Placid take it”; “Search for a Prince until you find a Butler” — which looked authentic and really smart. Don seemed to realize just how smart at the same moment he realized how many were penned by Michael Ginsberg. “Peggy really got buried with Heinz,” mumbled Don, but he really seemed to be thinking, “Wait, who’s this kid I’m only now realizing has written all this great material?”

That weekend, while working alone in the office, Don happened upon Michael’s workspace, the desk light still on, trained on a folder as if like a spotlight with the label “S— I gotta do.” Curious, Don flipped through it: It was all ideas for the (now discontinued) Pepsi Sno Ball, and they were odd and funny enough that the caused Don to laugh, and for the first time all season, ignited his brain — and his sense of healthy competition. He blew off dinner, and seeing his kids home with Betty, and instead brainstormed at his desk, into a dictation machine. After a few fits and starts, he hit upon an idea, that started with a familiar idiom that had Don flirting with his old, darker self. “A Sno Balls chance in hell,” he thought out loud. “They don’t melt. They’re refreshing for the damned. They’re sinful. The Sno Ball is the sin that gets you into hell. They’re sinfully delicious.” He paused. “Jesus, not that.”

The following Monday, Don was ready for the pitch meeting. First, Peggy’s idea, a witty take off of New Yorker cartoons that had three guys trapped in the desert thinking of water, and the fourth imagining a Sno Ball. Don was unimpressed. “What’s the line?” Peggy tried to keep from frowning, and said what I was thinking: “Doesn’t need one.” Next up, Michael, who said with a target audience of children, the joke had to be big and brash: “Hit me in the face with a Sno Ball,” with a series of figures kids hate getting hit with a real snow ball, like a cop, business man, Indian chief, maybe a pig — a non sequitur that had everyone laughing. (A telling detail: The first person Michael had sketched getting hit with a snow ball: Adolf Hitler.) Finally, Don gave his pitch, with the devil holding a Sno Ball thinking, “Yes — even me.” What I loved most about these three pitches is that they were all good, but they also appealed mostly to the person giving them: Peggy’s to twenty-and-thirtysomething bohemian/intellectuals, Don’s to fortysomething adults maybe too familiar with their own vices, and Michael’s to kids and kids-at-heart. It’s no shock that I personally liked Peggy’s the most, but thinking about who was actually going to eat Sno Balls, Michael’s was the one that made the most sense.

Michael knew his idea was the best, and he could not help but insult Don by praising his idea: “It’s damn impressive you could not write for so long and come back with that. It’s good to know.” When mock-ups of Don and Michael’s ideas were shown to the other departments, everyone liked both equally, but leaned more towards Michael’s which was funnier. Again, Michael — a man seemingly incapable of knowing how others perceive him — did not know to hide his pride and self-satisfaction. Had he played it cooler, Don may not have “accidentally” left Michael’s idea in the cab en route to pitch the idea to Sno Ball.

Nah, Don still totally would have ditched it. When he found out, Michael was incredulous. Even though the client did buy Don’s idea, how dare he not even show them Michael’s pitch! The next day, fidgeting with anger, he tried to confront Don in the elevator. “What do I care?” he sniffed, before channeling Jimmy Durante. “I’ve got a million of ’em. A million.”

“Good,” said a cool-eyed, stock still Don, winding up for his right hook. “I guess I’m lucky you work for me.” Reeling, Michael got reckless, telling his boss with unvarnished contempt, “I feel bad for you.” And then Don went for the low blow: “I don’t think about you at all.” KO. But as we followed Don out of the elevator and into the office, it was plain as day that Michael had started living rent free in Don’s head. Michael started the season simply happy to have a job, but between all the new, strong ads now in his portfolio, and his predilection for irking all of his coworkers, I wonder how much longer his employment at SCDP will last.

NEXT PAGE: Roger calls on Jane for help, but the price is a steep one

If Michael does end up parting ways with SCDP, I will forever be grateful to him for the scene where Roger cajoled him into doing some off the books work on pitching Manischewitz wine. “It will involve a client dinner,” explained Roger. “And murrrrderrrr,” said Michael, slinking back into Roger’s giant swivel chair. That is the love-him-or-hate-him Michael Ginsberg, perfectly distilled: Brash and ironic and completely out of place in Mad Men‘s world — and hilarious. And mirth only continued from there, with Roger contributing his fair share of bot mots:

“The brand is Manischeviz.”

“You assume that I’m Jewish.”

“Stop talking.”

“[The idea] has to be cheap — surprise — but impactful.”

“You know Don. Tall guy. Short temper.”

Roger eventually explained that he needed Michael to help land this account without Pete ever being the wiser, but he still needed to shell out $100 (and another $100 after the dinner) to get Michael to do it. That’s half the bribe Roger paid to Peggy for her under-the-table work on Mohawk (“I’ve got to start carrying less cash,” mumbled Roger), but after Michael’s swelling ego led him to blab about the job to Peggy, Roger had to endure Peggy tearing into him on the elevator for being so selfish. The recurring elevator motif was amusing — especially given last week’s spooky empty elevator shaft — but I’m dubious that in the mid-1960s, elevators were a kind of confessional box where employees could openly insult their bosses. “You are not loyal,” said Peggy, seething. “You only think about yourself.”

“Were we married?” Roger barked, in a rare flash of anger that shifted into the episode’s central theme. “Because you’re thinking about yourself too. That’s the way it is. It’s every man for himself.”

Roger also had to bribe his soon-to-be-ex-wife Jane into being his date for the Manischeviz dinner, since the whole reason Bert handed him the business was to take advantage of Roger’s “Semitic wife.” (Again, loved Bert’s reaction to the news Roger was divorcing Jane: “Already?” That Bert, always with the mot juste.) Jane’s price was a fair shade higher than Michael’s. She wanted a new apartment. For one, Roger’s mother was her landlord (!), and for another, her current place “has a lot of memories and it’s painful to be here.” Roger, as he does whenever anyone asks him for money, folded quickly.

The dinner went perfectly. They loved Michael’s idea — a bus ad with a picture of the legs of the people on the bus, all with bottles of Manischeviz under their seat — which Roger pointedly did not claim as his own. Jane looked stunning, as always. And then there was the matter of the clients’ grown son, a strapping chap who was delayed for dinner thanks to his yacht and had no problem throwing a great deal of attention Jane’s way. (Question for yacht people: Is yachting something one does in New York in November?) All it took was a young, rich man flirting with Jane to ignite Roger’s libido. He managed to talk his way into Jane’s new apartment, and have his way with her, blasting right past Jane’s tepidly expressed hesitation.

The next morning, however, Jane made her unhappiness clear: By sleeping with Roger in her new place, it was no different than the old one. “You ruined this,” she said. Roger’s face fell. “You get everything you want, and you still had to do this,” Jane continued, echoing Peggy. Roger seemed truly penitent. “You’re right. I don’t know why I did that. I feel terrible.” My colleague Ken Tucker didn’t buy this scene, but I think Roger really does want that LSD trip to have changed him, make him freer but also less of a callous cad. So does this final scene suggest that Roger’s psychedelically enhanced vigor has been deflated? Or do you agree with Ken, that Roger left Jane’s apartment “with a triumphant grin on his face”? Perhaps it’s both?

NEXT PAGE: Sally finds her inner Betty, and she ain’t pretty

When we last saw Sally, Roger’s selfishness had also rudely pushed her further into adulthood, an unnerving trajectory that continued last night. Sally was hard at work on a family tree project for school, something she devoted a great deal of care and thought to, an attempt to organize her increasingly fractured family. Her father had shown little interest — he hadn’t even bothered to get her the colored pencils she needed to complete it. No one had yet explained to her why her dad may not be attuned to a need to know one’s ancestry. “This is irritating,” she said, a charming approximation of the way adults speak. So it was left to Megan — more a big sister or best friend than a stepmom, who was happy to teach her stepdaughter how best to conjure fake tears — to help Sally suss out her own history.

But then Betty had to go and hand Sally a poison pill, one she meant for her daughter to deliver straight to Megan and Don, but instead Sally swallowed whole herself. Betty’s biggest miscalculation, I think, was that Don had hid Anna Draper and all she represented about his past from Megan, just as he had hid it from Betty. Sally, of course, made no such assumption, so her anger at her father for keeping her in the dark about his secret first wife briskly curdled into snotty contempt for Megan for betraying their relationship. “You acted like you were friends with me, but you really do whatever he says,” Sally hissed at Megan. “And guess what, you’re not special, and neither was Anna.”

If there was any hurt embedded in Sally’s words, she did an awfully good job at smothering it. Megan was doubly stunned, first at the fact that Sally even knew about Anna, and then at the spiteful person suddenly asserting herself with such venom. It was bracing, seeing Don and Betty’s worst traits — his cutting churlishness, her callow pettiness — come to roost so potently in their daughter. “So why did he marry you?” she spat at Megan, who evaded the question by telling Sally she should be having this conversation with her father. “I don’t want to. And don’t tell him I asked. I mean it.” She paused. “Are you going to make yourself cry?”

Thankfully, Megan will not tolerate toxicity in her home, be it the smog looming outside her window, or the mean girl pod person who suddenly sprouted on her couch. She did tell Don, who immediately blew his top and tried to call Betty. But Megan, the only actual mature adult in this entire scenario, wouldn’t have it. “If you call her, you’re giving her exactly what she wanted,” she said firmly. “The thrill of having poisoned us from 50 miles away.” Sally, who’d woken to their argument, looked chastened as she grasped that her mother had just been using her to get at Don and Megan. But that didn’t stop Sally from being bratty all over again when her father confronted her the next morning, cutting off his lecture with a sneery “Are you done?”

Don also paused, reeling for a moment at how adolescent his little girl had become. He explained Anna further, and then Sally remembered. “Is she the woman whose house we went to in California? The one who called you Dick?” Kids — sometimes, they absorb more than we think (or care to recall from our own childhoods). “Yes,” replied Don. “And I really wish you’d met her.”

That openhearted confession appeared to be enough to crack Sally’s brittle shell. Like that, she changed allegiance, throwing Betty’s plan back in her face with words designed to evoke maximum damage: “Daddy showed me pictures, and they spoke very fondly of her.” Like I said earlier, this chilled me to the bone. For four-and-a-half seasons, I’ve fretted over how Sally’s tricky childhood would shape her, but I wasn’t prepared for the sharper edges to draw blood.

Meanwhile, I’m also still recovering from Pete’s daydream fantasy of his (nonexistent) New York Times Sunday Magazine profile drawing Beth Dawes to his office wearing a black fur, white pearls, and very little else — I’ll let y’all dissect that tart little arc yourselves. And then there’s the episode’s title, “Dark Shadows,” i.e. the cult gothic soap opera that premiered in the summer of 1966, the show Megan’s friend auditioned for, and the show that just happens to have been adapted into a major Hollywood production that premiered this weekend. I’ll leave it to Matthew Weiner to speak to how intentional this synchronicity really was, but I wonder if hardcore Dark Shadows fans would appreciate Megan dismissing their beloved series as a “piece of crap.”

So what did you make of “Dark Shadows” (the Mad Men episode)? Were you happy to see Betty again? Did you find Sally’s behavior as unnerving as I did? Speaking of cattiness, did you catch Jane’s dismissively referring to Joan as “a professional something”? With so much unrest between Peggy, Michael, and even Harry, did you get the feeling that some sort of mutiny may be brewing? And how many of you were maybe a bit surprised to learn that Stan was familiar with Shelley’s “Ozymandias”?

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

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