“Why can’t you just follow the rules?”
That was Pete, helpfully pointing the audience toward tonight’s theme, but also voicing (in a highly conformist, Pete Campbell kind of way) their possible frustration and annoyance with Don and the prospect of watching yet another of his adulterous affairs unfold. It was a prospect that did not fill us with glee, resulting in an episode that felt like way-too-early-in-the-season narrative wheel-spinning.
Look, we don’t expect Don to be a nice guy. He’s a shit, and he’s been a shit all along. We were never among the fans of the show who ever really rooted for the character, except in the sense that we hoped he would find the psychiatric help he so clearly needs. But we never bought into the whole Don-Draper-as-James-Bond hero worship that defines a portion of the show’s fandom. In the earlier days of the show, we admit, there was a bit of fun in watching Don deftly maneuver his way through the world, never allowing himself to be touched by sentiment or slowed down by accusations. But now, after watching all the shitty ways he’s made his shitty life even shittier for YEARS – we don’t find this affair as interesting as we suspect we’re meant to.
We have no idea if other people feel this way. For once, we didn’t follow along on twitter or read any other reviews before writing this one. Maybe y’all thought this was a tour de force, but all we kept thinking throughout the episode was “We’re here again?” Now, Mad Men is populated with characters who are determined to never change, even as the world around them does. One of the most persistent themes in a show sometimes weighed down with themes is the idea that most people never really change and they wind up making the same mistakes over and over again. It’s an idea and philosophy for the show we fully support. But if you’re going to show Don having another affair or flashback to Don’s past again, is it too much to ask for something a little different; some facet that casts it in a different light? Because both the flashback scenes and pretty much any of the scenes with Sylvia could have been inserted at any point in season 1 to 3 and not made much of a difference to the script. The only thing the flashback accomplishes is filling in the blanks on the line Don delivered to that madam last season that he “grew up in a place like this.” That’s an awful lot of screentime just to back up a tossed-off line made a year ago.
Do we learn anything when we find out Don’s stepmother was also a prostitute? It’s not like that one missing bit of information caused lightbulbs to go off over the heads of countless audience members. “Ahhhh. So THAT’S why Don’s so horrible to the women he loves!” We knew this. It’s been reiterated a thousand times.
Do we learn anything when we see Don practically bully Sylvia into continuing the affair, even as she’s expressing some reluctance? Take the cross off her and the entire conversation could be a rehash of similar ones he had with Rachel Mencken in season one. Or Sally’s teacher in season 3.
We’re not upset that Don’s making the same mistakes again. We expected that. We’re disappointed that the creators seem to have run out of things to say about it. It’s early days in the season, of course, and unless everyone behind the scenes at Mad Men suddenly lost all of their creative faculties, we have no doubt that emotional shocks and revelations are on their way, but “Don doesn’t think the rules apply to him” is not exactly a deep thing to say at this point. And illustrating the concept of “Don thinks all women are whores” by having him literally hand Sylvia a wad of cash after sex is almost embarrassing in its heavy-handedness.
And while Pete’s eerie insistence on duplicating the arc of Don’s life is also not exactly revelatory, at least in this instance, they managed to move the story forward, ever so slightly. They did this by reminding us once again that when it comes to be being a put-upon ’60s housewife, Trudy Campbell’s gonna do it her way:
“I am drawing a fifty-mile radius around this house and if you so much as open your fly to urinate, I will destroy you!”
Betty Draper only wishes she had the nerve to utter those words. That was a spectacular moment; not just because it was a funny line and we all love Trudy, but because she so rarely loses her temper with Pete but when she does, she cuts him in half better than anyone. The only downside to this scene was the realization that we’re probably going to see a lot less of Trudy going forward, if she’s really insistent on not being seen as a “failure,” and living what is essentially a long-term separation from her husband.
So, Pete and Don don’t think the rules apply to them, but Don’s much, much better at skirting them than Pete is. Again: this story has been told countless times.
The good news is, we think Sylvia’s a fascinating character. No surprise there, since Don tends to have affairs with fascinating women. The fact that this is literally happening under the same roof as his marriage is what lends it a slightly more dangerous feel than affairs past – and the possibility that all of this is finally going to blow up in Don’s face is the only thing that makes it remotely interesting. A season of him lying to and gaslighting his own wife is not going to make us happy, but him actually having to come face to face with the fallout from his lying (which he never really had to do with Betty, since she just sent him away when she found out about it) is the only prospect of this storyline that interests us. Sylvia’s Catholic guilt at some point is going to rear its head (if it hasn’t already) and at some point, she’s going to have to face up to what her actions are doing to the people around her. She seemed genuinely shocked to discover that Megan’s a real person with feelings, and a wife in love with her husband. And even more shocked to find out that Megan hasn’t drifted as far away from Don as Don led her to believe.
As for Megan, she clearly has some conflicted feelings about the marriage, even if she’s not entirely ready to admit it. Granted, it’s not a crime for a woman to not want to be pregnant, nor does it mean her marriage is failing, but there seems to be an awful lot unsaid between Don and Megan, and they appear to be pointed in different directions, even if neither of them can admit it. To Don’s credit, he is genuinely upset that Megan went through this and tries to be a good husband about it, but it’s clear the miscarriage primarily made him think of himself and his actions (no shock there), and the weight of how he’s screwing up his personal life (again) has him sinking to the floor. Again.
In other news, Peggy is pretending that she doesn’t know how this business works. We cringed when she blurted out all the news about Heinz to Ted. But later, when he approached her about working up a campaign and she offered up some weak feelings of discomfort over it, we didn’t buy it. Not for a second. Peggy’s been in this business way too long to not know how things work and she knew, on some level, exactly what she was doing when she told Ted about Heinz. We suppose there’s a parallel there with Sylvia, who’s doing something she knows is wrong, but pretending to be somewhat powerless against it or unaware of the potential fallout. Meanwhile, she has a fabulous black secretary who’s looking out for her, and an office full of men who don’t much like her and subject her to sexist jokes no creative would ever pull against a male copy chief. So of course this is all her fault and she has to worry about her staff liking her, a concept that never once entered Don Draper’s head.
And finally, she’s (as always) criminally under-utilized in the early part of a season, but Joan got one hell of surgical-laser bitchslap against Herb (“I know there’s a part of you that’s happy to see me.” “And I know there’s a part of you that you haven’t seen in years.”) as well as one hell of a moment storming into Don’s office and pouring herself a drink while spitting out “He’s here.” with as much disgust as she can muster. Because he’s the one person who tried to tell her “You don’t have to do this,” he’s the one person she feels safe enough to let see a little of her anger and disgust come up to the surface.
It seems to us, in light of all this – Don having an affair again, Pete’s marriage winding up where we all knew it would, Joan still having to deal with how she got her partnership, Peggy getting a chance to pitch Heinz after the Heinz rep practically threatened to slap her in a meeting last year - that 1968 might be the year of fallout for these characters; the year when all of their repeated bad behavior or past failures or painful memories are going to haunt them even further until things blow up somehow.
Because there’s a real sense that things are going to blow up soon, isn’t there? And we’re not just talking about the Tet Offensive. Until then… your wig will be ready next Tuesday, ma’am.
[Photo Credit: Ron Jaffe/AMC]