Don Draper’s a self-absorbed piece of shit, but damn, does he look good when he’s being one.
We’re nearing the end of the season with only two more episodes to go so it’s plot, plot, plot from here on out it looks like. For the first time this season, an episode picks up exactly where the last one left off and Don and Pete check in to their hotel in sunny ’60s California. Cranky because the airline lost his luggage, Don sternly reminds Pete that they’re here to work and not so subtly threatens to fire him if he tries to slack off. You’re an asshole, Don.
Don’s the quintessential ad man, so not only does he respond well to a good presentation, he’ll even change the course of his life over one. Last season, he was so affected by his masterful slideshow presentation for Kodak that he ran home with the intent of saving his marriage. This episode, the threat of impending annihilation outlined in the mirror-image slideshow presented at the convention caused him to run in the opposite direction: as far away from his life and his marriage as he could get. He’s in hobo mode again and he’s toying with the idea of just running away and starting a new life, the very plan that caused the wise Rachel Mencken to recoil in horror last season. “What kind of man are you?” she asked then. Well, now we know.
Don catches the eye of a group of self-described “nomads;” bored, amoral aristocrats straight out of a Fellini or Antonioni movie. Specifically, he catches the eye of the not-so-subtly named Joy. Just like with Bobbie Barrett, he didn’t pursue her; he just stood there looking incredible and let her pursue him. Despite his penchant for reinvention, Don’s a shockingly passive person in his personal life. Almost immediately after admonishing Pete for not focussing on the task at hand hypocrite Don, without any luggage or ties to his old life, is hopping in Joy’s car and off to Palm Springs, where he meets up with the rest of her bored, nomadic clan. Upon arriving at the jaw-droppingly fabulous house they’re all staying in, Don passes out. The in-story reason given for this is “heat exhaustion,” although we can’t help but notice that his fainting spell occurred right after one of these nomads gave him a drink. The meta version is a little harder to parse. Rather than overexamine it, we’re going with the “down the rabbit hole” take, especially since Jane made an Alice in Wonderland reference earlier in the episode when she was in bed with Roger. Don wakes up from his little poolside tumble and he’s in a whole new world where he can be and do whatever he wants.
Glamorous as this crowd was, we thought they were all a bunch of major league assholes and Don’s time with them bored us just as much as any Fellini film has. That was probably intentional. All those scenes positively dripped with ennui. Don fit right in, beautiful and bored as he is.
Meanwhile, back at the office, Peggy makes a move on Not-American Smith and positions herself for an invite to a Bob Dylan concert with him. It’s interesting to note that Peggy is apparently in charge of the creative meeting regarding the Right Guard account. Every single guy in that meeting deferred to her and even went so far as to ask her permission for a lunch break. We’d love to cheer Peggy’s newfound status but we can’t help thinking it’s kind of unbelievable. But we’ll get to that in a bit.
Duck is angling for a partnership but Roger comes right out and tells him it’s not likely to happen since his work at the firm hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. In response, Duck meets with his former London employer to ask for his job back. Mark Moses is doing some great work with Duck’s hidden alcohol problem. We could feel him wanting desperately to take that drink in front of him and when he did, the change was notable but so, so subtle. His belly full of liquid courage, Duck’s entire demeanor changes but only if you’re looking really hard. He pulls out the stops and puts a wild idea on the table: have his former employer buy a controlling interest in his current one and turn over practically all of Sterling Cooper to his control. It’s a bold move and we were surprised to see that both Roger and Cooper were open to it when he proposed it to them. Of course he was full of the same fire that got him through that lunch meeting, since he apparently needed a Lifesaver to cover up his booze breath. If Don doesn’t get his head out of his ass soon, he could be coming back to a Sterling Cooper very different from the one he left. His marriage is in shambles and it looks like his career is coming dangerously close to joining it on the junk heap.
The SC crowd of cool kids make fun of Peggy and Kurt when they find out their plans for the evening. Kurt shuts them all up with the even-we-didn’t-suspect-this revelation that he’s gay. We have to say, the SC crowd’s reaction to this was laugh out loud funny, with the exception being Sal, of course. We said it before and we’ll say it again, only a gay actor could have pulled off the range of subtle facial expressions that play across Sal’s face when he hears the news. He is shocked, embarassed, and heartbroken all at the same time.
But here’s the thing: this show’s underlying theme is social change and they’ve done a masterful job of weaving women’s rights, civil rights and gay rights into the tapestry. The problem is, we think they’re kind of dropping the ball on this a little bit because we’re not finding the reactions of the characters entirely believable. It’s great that Peggy’s in charge but we find it hard to believe that all those men, whom the show has gone to great lengths to portray as completely chauvinist, are so ready to accept her in that role. It’s great that Paul Kinsey is brave enough to enter a mixed-race relationship, but there has been virtually no backlash or demonstrations of racism on the part of anyone in the office. Now we have a man not only declaring himself a homosexual but going further to point out that he has “sex with the men,” and aside from some toothlessly crude comments about “perverts” and “queers” and not wanting to work with or share a bathroom with one, for the most part everyone shrugs and treats it as just another bit of office gossip. We realize that big time Manhattan ad agencies could be fairly liberal about the personal lives of their employees, but this kind of strains belief for us. And we say this as people who came out on their jobs (including one ad agency job) over 30 years later and received cruder responses than that. They did such a good job in season 1 of showing how far women have come since the feminist movement and how hard it was for them in those pre-feminism days but lately it seems like the writers are squeamish about going just as far on other social fronts.
Still, whatever reservations we have about that practically evaporated during the scene in Peggy’s apartment with Kurt. Peggy voiced the lament of all fag hags everywhere: “Why do I keep going for the wrong boys?” and like a good fruitfly, sat down and let her gay give her a makeover. We laughed out loud and cried out “THAT’S what she needs! A GAY!” We would love to see a friendship develop between these two characters because they were totally adorable together. “I fix you.” Too cute.
Back in L.A., Pete’s struggling in the wake of Don’s abandonment but seems to be getting a handle on things. We had to roll our eyes earlier when he introduced himself as Pete Dyckman Campbell to the Viscount. He’s such a poser. On the other hand, we were kind of hoping he’d kick a little ass in L.A. and come back the hero just so he could rat out Don for being such a jerk.
In Palm Springs, Don is in the pool with Joy, looking magnificent since that’s apparently all that he’s capable of anymore. Some other unexplained bored aristocrat shows up with his two children and Don can’t take his eyes off the boy his own son’s age. Then he spends a long time looking at the crack in his glass and we’re wondering if this is going to shock him out of his funk and straight back to Ossining to beg for forgiveness. Of course not. This is Don we’re talking about. This is also Mad Men we’re talking about so once again, they drop a tantalizingly small amount of information at us that has us salivating for more: Don calls someone and says simply “It’s Dick Whitman,” words we NEVER thought this character would utter. He arranges a meeting with this unseen person and, in true Don Draper fashion, rips out the last page of the book Joy’s reading to scribble the address. He uses people and takes whatever he can get from them before moving on.
Back in Ossining, that suitcase that Betty dreamed about last week becomes real as the airline drops it off on the front steps of her house and we once again end an episode muttering the words “Man, we can never figure out where this show is going.” Thank God for that.
[Photos: Courtesy of amctv.com]