Suddenly, everyone in the Mad Men world is looking up. Roger watches the sunrise and declares it average, Betty looks into the sun and swoons, Carlton claims to stare at the sun every day, Sally and her teacher huddle together in a camera obscura to watch the eclipse, and Don? Don just needs to slip on his sunglasses because he’s Don Draper, bitch.
Except he’s not and he’s finally starting to realize that he’s not the king of the mountain anymore if he ever even was. We got an interesting segment at the start of the episode showing Don primping and dressing for work. It’s a common theme in the show, the implication being that the people of this world go through life in armor. That implication was still there with Don, but there was something else, something that made Don a little small in our eyes. He likes how he looks. He takes pleasure in it. There’s nothing particularly wrong about that but we’ve never seen that side of Don before; the side that admits to himself that he needs to think he’s a stud. It was a classic setup for the downfall to follow. There have been many times when the show went out of its way to remind the viewer that Don, as suave and in control and devastatingly handsome as he is, is a right son of a bitch, but last night’s episode really hammered that point home. We don’t think we’ve ever thought so little of him while at the same time, pitied him. He was both an asshole and a victim.
The show opened with shots of Peggy, Betty and Don in settings that immediately forced the same questions: where the hell are they and how the hell did they get there? Which, when you think about it, works nicely as an overriding theme of the entire series. It also served to set up a dark tension over the whole show. We were dying to know what the hell happened to the three of them and because this particular episode was so loaded with plot developments, it felt like it took hours to get to the end. You gotta love television that gives you more bang for your buck. It honestly felt like we had watched an entire movie.
Betty, ever the upper middle class suburban wife with a husband whose career seems to get more and more lucrative with each passing day, has done exactly what would be expected of her: she’s hired a decorator and redone her living room, which looked fabulous and every inch of 1963 from top to bottom. Two things happened here that were perfectly in character: 1) Even though this is supposed to be a major part of her role and one of the few areas where she would be allowed and expected to exert control, she nonetheless relies on others (Don and the decorator) to make decisions and 2) She didn’t know what a hearth is or what it stands for. “Why, that’s the hearth,” says the decorator with surprise, “the soul of your home.” How typical that Betty later turned the “soul of her home” into a showplace for a ridiculous and self indulgent item that doesn’t belong there.
At Sterling Cooper, Don shows up to an office all atwitter. Conrad Hilton is sitting in Don’s office, waiting for him. You have to realize, no one ever does that. No one ever gets to sit in Don’s office and wait for him. Worse, Connie was sitting in Don’s chair, forcing Don to awkwardly act as a guest in his own office. He couldn’t control the situation and he was visibly shaken by it, so much so that Connie even had to comment on it. Of course, Connie only made it more uncomfortable for Don by zeroing in exactly on his weak points. He comes into the office late and displays nothing about himself in his office. He is completely divorced from the world around him and Connie knows that. He also doesn’t seem to admire these qualities in Don very much. Nonetheless, he likes Don and he offers Don his business, which results in Don getting an impromptu standing ovation from his co-workers. He’s pleased with the results but his head is spinning over how he got there. He’s asked various times by various people how he managed it and not once did he give a completely honest answer, going only so far as to say they “ran into each other” at a party. He’d rather let his co-workers think he’s a superstud who landed a prime account rather than admit he bonded with the guy by trading stories about growing up poor, without even knowing who he was talking to.
Meanwhile, Betty’s fulfilling yet another expected role by chairing a Junior League meeting in her newly redecorated living room. The Junior League gets a bit of a bad rap for being a hobby for bored upper middle class housewives, but they really were involved on a deep and influential level in their communities. “Real estate,” says Francine in awe, “That’s scary.” They may have tarted it up in “We’re just silly housewives” small talk, but these ladies have an agenda and the contacts to enact it.
We predicted that the suave and slightly inappropriate Henry Francis was going to make a return soon. You don’t put your hand on Betty Draper’s stomach and just walk away. Betty was of course pleased that she had an excuse to contact the guy again. And nothing could have illustrated how secretly thrilled she was to meet him again than the incredible outfit she wore to the bakery. She looked stunning and she knew it.
While Betty’s flirting with flirtation, Don runs into his own opportunity. He finds himself once again having a chat with Sally’s teacher but, in keeping with the theme of this episode, Don’s mojo blows up right in his face. Don always gets women by not pursuing them. He kept the conversation with Miss Farrell light and innocent and she wasn’t going to have it. Granted, she was in many respects a little out of line and she came off a little nuts, frankly. But knowing what we know about Don, can we really say she was all that wrong? Especially since she made the very astute observation that all the men, all the suburban dads she deals with in her job, they all wear the same shirt. Don’s not as different as he’d like to think.
We can’t predict where this thing between Betty and Henry is going. Betty has a history of flirting with men in order to feel pretty and one instance that she’d probably rather forget in which she had a dirty girl hookup in the back of a bar. Here’s what makes this new flirtation so interesting. Betty formerly enjoyed the attention of men that were nothing like Don (her stable flirtation, Jimmy Barrett, even Roger, to a lesser extent) but never allowed it to go anywhere and then hiked up her skirt for a quickie with a guy that was exactly like Don. Henry kind of embodies both qualities. He’s like Don in that he’s smooth and good-looking, powerful and well-dressed. He’s totally unlike Don in that he’s relatively open about himself and has no problem talking about what was apparently a humble background. Would Don ever admit to Betty that he used to move furniture for a living? Would Don shield Betty’s eyes from the sun to protect her? Would Don have gotten Betty so completely that after spending one hour with her is able to point out that Betty is exactly the type of woman who needs a fainting couch? No predictions, but we have to say that Henry is the first guy to look at Betty that could seriously offer things to her that Don can’t or won’t. Except for one thing, of course: “Do you have money?” He doesn’t; not at the level Betty’s used to.
The one thing Don’s got going for him in keeping Betty is that he seems incapable of going through a day without money being thrown at him. Bert, Roger and and Lane meet with Don in Bert’s office to coo over the get of the Hilton account. Don tries to act all cool about it but his superiors have a little bomb to drop on him that unsettles him. The Hilton people are going to need him to sign a contract with Sterling Cooper in order to proceed with business. One of the things that defines Don is that he’s set up his life in such a way as to be able to run away from it at a moment’s notice, like he did once before. He’s at his heart a hobo. His lack of a contract has played into several different storylines before but we could tell as soon as it came up (and Don could tell it too) that he wasn’t going to be able to Don his way out of this one. He tries, though. “I’ll give him my word,” he offers, and he knew as soon as he said it that it wasn’t going to be enough. Still, he won’t commit.
He has no choice, though. The partners for once put the squeeze on him. Roger goes to Don’s office to try and convince him, but their relationship is nonexistent at this point. Don barely even acknowledges Roger at all. And poor Peggy once again chooses the worst possible moment to assert herself to Don and receives the brunt of his anger and frustration. We have to say, while there was some truth to what Don said to Peggy, it was probably the ugliest we’d ever seen him. He used to get angry with Pete for being too impatient and nakedly ambitious, but he really tore into Peggy – and he picked a pretty lousy time to do so. Peggy pretended like she wasn’t considering Duck’s offer – she and Pete had another terrific scene that once again illustrated how comfortable and intimate they still are with each other – but we know that deep inside, she’s still flirting with the idea.
Who wasn’t flirting this episode? Don and Connie, Don and Miss Farrell, Betty and Henry, Peggy and Pete (because for all their anger and history, every scene they have together is loaded with chemistry) and, in one of the shockers of the season, Peggy and, of all people Duck Phillips.
Could we have predicted their tryst? Hell no. Does it make any sense? No less than any of the other hookups on this show. Sure, it was a shock, but this is the second time this season Don was nasty to Peggy and she responded by going out and sleeping with someone unexpectedly. Granted, this hookup was wildly different than her bar pickup, where she was the aggressor and the alpha. For the first time, Peggy submitted to something and someone who was far superior to her. She fumbled through some awkward sex with Pete but she never encountered a man who could say to her, “I want to take you to that bedroom, lock the door, take your clothes off with my teeth, throw you on the bed, and give you a go-round like you’ve never had.” Now THAT is an invitation. We can’t predict where this is going to go either but we suspect that Duck doesn’t really feel anything for her and is simply trying to take one more thing away from Don.
Having failed to convince Don at the office, Roger does something that’s typically inappropriate: he calls Betty at home and tries to get her to intervene. Betty, for all her faults, really knows her husband in a way that no one else does and it’s something that’s making Don increasingly uncomfortable. She tells Roger that Don is going to do whatever the hell Don wants to do. Normally, she’d be right. When Don comes home and she confronts him about it, she is on FIRE. There haven’t been any “yay, Betty” scenes this season until now. Don tries the old tack of dismissing her. ” It doesn’t concern you.” But he’s not dealing with the meek Betty of season one anymore and he angrily tries to explain it to her. “I have all the power. They want me, but they can’t have me.” Which gives her the perfect opening: “You’re right. Why would I think that had anything to do with me?” Yow. Go, girl. Not willing to stop there, she takes it all the way to where it needs to go: “What’s the matter? You don’t know where you’re going to be in three years?” Faced with someone who gets him better than he likes, he does what he always does: he runs.
Honestly, we’ve seen Don do a lot of shitty, irresponsible things before, but they really didn’t pull any punches last night. They showed just how shitty and pathetic he really is as he drunkenly drives his car and picks up two hitchhikers, downs a couple phenobarbital, and winds up in a hotel room with the both of them, fucked up out of his mind. While he was dancing with the girl and then later sitting on the bed while the two of them made out, for the very first time, Don looked old. Worse, he looked old and weak. Don’s dead father shows up in a drug-induced hallucination to voice these feelings to Don. He’s a liar and a bullshitter and he’s worthless.
The next morning Don and Peggy both show up at work wearing yesterday’s clothes and looking frazzled and worn out. Don waves off the curious looks regarding his busted up face with “Fender bender,” but when he gets to his office, he finds that once again, someone who has control over him is sitting in his chair. He doesn’t even try to explain his face and Bert doesn’t even care, if he even noticed at all. “Would you say I know something about you, Don?” He used this exact line on Don once before when it was becoming obvious that the “doorways to power” were opening up to Don and this scene made a nice callback to that one. Don is succeeding tremendously at his job, but with each new opportunity his power over his own life is decreasing. Bert, for all his eccentricities, is every inch the hardcore objectivist Randian and he will use his power over Don if and when he can. He’s held onto this secret for a while now and picked the perfect moment to play his card. Don, defeated, signs the contract.
Later, he goes home to find his wife looking ridiculous on her newly purchased fainting couch. He doesn’t ask where it came from, she doesn’t ask where he’s been. Even if they do take any notice of each other, they just don’t care. “I signed it,” he says. And that’s all that needs to be said. Betty got what she wanted, Roger, Bert, and Connie got what they wanted, and Don slowly walks up the stairs, the only one who didn’t get what he wanted.
[Pictures courtesy of amctv.com]