Ah, there’s the Mad Men we’ve been missing.
Believe it or not, even after we take the opportunity to write two different reviews of the show each week, we still find ourselves pondering the previous episode for days after. It seems to us that there’s been quite a bit of narrative wheel-spinning this season and we don’t know if it’s by design or if the show is in a rut. We figured it was either a setup for some major change to come or, sadly, Weiner & Co. might have lost their mojo. We got incredibly annoyed with Don’s “I never loved my children” speech last week because all it did was rehash old ground but it was presented to the audience as some sort of heart-wrenching revelation. And the entire affair with Sylvia feels like lukewarm leftovers of plots from years ago. It seemed to us that Matthew Weiner had fallen a little too in love with Don Draper. He’s a main character who no longer feels like a main character to the audience (who see him as a member of a larger ensemble) but still gets treated like one by the creators. The show gave off the slight whiff of staleness to us this season and we felt it badly needed a good lawnmower amputation or surprise baby to shake up the status quo. What we didn’t expect – at least not this early in the season – was a redux of the seminal 3rd-season finale “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” in which Don and his posse of gangsters blow open the doors of SC and steal off into the night to form a new, leaner agency. Five years later, Don and his nemesis commit an act of mutually assured construction and form a mega-agency without much input from all the people who would be most affected by the move.
Patterns repeat in the world of Mad Men, thematically, narratively, and visually. Peggy and Joan both had babies by partners secretly. Pete seems determined to hit all the beats of Don’s life, from the princess wife in the suburbs to the subsequent divorce after she’d had enough to the seedy bachelor pad in the city. Betty was a model; Megan is an actress. Roger took Don’s secretary as his second wife; Don took another of his secretaries as his second wife. Women who sleep with Pete wind up in the psych ward (Peggy and Beth). And of course, there’s prostitution, which is probably the most persistent theme in the series, affecting characters like Don, Lane, Joan and now Pete with its fallout. So there’s something a little thrilling about watching the creators turn their attentions back to the wheeling and dealing world of small agencies like SCDP and CGC because we know they’re very good, if not at their best, when they play in this sandbox. If you asked the fans for their top ten episodes of the show, we’d wager the overwhelming majority of them would be episodes about office politics or business deals. Enough with Don sneaking up backstairs to schtup the neighbor’s wife. Give us Don all pumped up on testosterone and swinging his dick around the business world. It doesn’t make him even slightly more likeable but he’s a hell of a lot more interesting like this, as opposed to watching him soulfully squint at a ceiling and express regret over his latest adultery or soulfully stare at the floor and express regret that he doesn’t love his children enough. It’s like watching Betty do something cold and child-like. We get it. Let’s either move on or find a new way to say this sort of thing, writers. But until they do find a way to talk about Don’s inner life without making us roll our eyes at the repetitiveness, we’ll happily sit through an episode like this one, where almost every single character got a moment or a line and it felt like everyone was working overtime to give us a real meaty story.
It almost seems like a joke to say it (because you could literally say it about every episode of Mad Men), but there were competing themes here of people going after what they want impulsively and people failing to communicate with each other, causing misunderstanding and potential disaster. Ted and Peggy impulsively grope each other, Don impulsively fires Jaguar, Pete impulsively blows up his marriage as a final blow against his hypocritical father-in-law, Ted and Don impulsively form a new agency.
Don doesn’t change (another major theme of the show), so it’s no surprise that even after all the struggles SCDP has had, he’ll blithely fire a major client without consulting anyone and largely blow off any criticism he gets for it – and this being 1968, and these characters having gone through some major shit in the last few years, he gets a LOT of criticism for it. Loud and public criticism. We’re used to seeing Pete have a temper tantrum in the office, but seeing Joan unload like that on Don was a thing of intense, brilliant beauty. Like looking directly into the sun. Don’s selfish and fatally narcissistic, and if there’s any chance of him ever getting away from his demons and worst impulses, it’ll be because enough people will finally get past the mystique of Don Draper and have the courage to call him on his bullshit, like this.
What we found perfectly brilliant about the story was Don taking Joan’s admonishment – that he never uses the word “we” or thinks about anyone other than himself – and “learning” from it … by doing something equally as grandstanding and impulsive. “We have to get out of here,” says Ted and Don responds “We.’ That’s an interesting word …” Which means he’s really learned nothing except how to fool himself into thinking he’s improved. Just because you can say “we” in a sentence doesn’t mean you suddenly know how to be a team player. For the first time in a long time, Mad Men ended on such a tantalizing note that the next 6 days are going to seem excruciatingly long. How will the rest of the partners react to this latest stunt, in which their entire business is upended once again by Don?
But the other partners aren’t quite off the hook, either. There are constant competing agendas and petty feuds among the top decision-makers at SCDP and Joan, Pete and Bert going off on their own and secretly devising a plan to take the company public doesn’t strike us as very smart, from a managerial sense. We thrilled at Joan’s moment of fury, but if Don had known about the plan to take the company public, there would have been every good reason for him not to fire Jaguar. Similarly, Don assumed Joan would be happy to hear that he’d fired Herb, but that’s only because no one has had an honest conversation about what happened with Herb and Joan, and it’s clear now that it hangs heavily over the management of the company (see: the ongoing problem of Harry Crane) and is affecting business decisions. Not that we would expect any of these characters to say, “Hey, let’s sit down and talk about our feelings regarding Joan’s prostitution,” just that the lack of that conversation is causing ongoing problems. But as the underwriter who was handed the theme hammer this week and told to hit that gong said, “It’s a common mistake to not ask questions when you want something because you’re afraid of the answer.”
A merger with CGC seemed inevitable once Peggy flew the coop, and we felt that the increased focus on the other office this season was signaling such a merger sometime around the finale. The quickness of it took us off-guard, but that’s what made the episode so much fun. And Peggy once again stands in for the audience in the story, because she had the exact same WTF? response that we did. She told Ted earlier in the episode that she used to work with cynical, bitter people and that she was glad to be working with someone strong and nice to her. Then she told Abe that she hated change and wanted everything to remain the same. So it’s no surprise that she is, at best, ambivalent about this news and the possibility of working with Don again; the man who threw dollar bills at her after she saved an account in order to humiliate her. In fact, we’re not sure “ambivalent” is the word. We’re pretty sure she hates the idea of returning to the fold at SCDP, even if it is SCDCC now. But how exciting is this new status quo? Working with one creative director who has mentored her and set her on this path in life while simultaneously working with the other creative director who taught her how to spread her wings and made her realize her worth. Also: kissing. This dynamic is completely upended now. How would Don react if he caught Ted and Peggy kissing? Of course that’s the least of our questions.
How will this new company work? Ted AND Don are creative directors, with Peggy as copy chief? Roger, Jim, AND Pete are all partners in charge of accounts? What about Burt Peterson? Is he coming on board? And all of those baby-faced copywriters Peggy likes to yell at? Or will this be like the time SCDP was formed, and the creators cut the cast in half? Are there going to be mass layoffs after the merger?
Don’t you love that there’s all these questions now? Definitely no mojo lost.
Bullet points, because our fingers are getting tired from typing:
- We almost felt a little sorry for Pete. His father-in-law always was a moralistic asshole.
- We’re even sorrier that Trudy’s likely to be mostly gone from the story, although she makes a nice counterpoint to Betty, who agonized over the decision to leave Don. Trudy’s not having it and she doesn’t need to find another man to marry immediately.
- Nice to see Roger have a major career moment like this. Typically Roger, he got it by sleeping with a stewardess and then getting a GM executive drunk.
- Jaguar came on as an account through an act of prostitution; Vick Chemical was lost as an account through an act of prostitution.
- Was that a FUCK YEAH, JOAN moment or what? That was like watching Khaleesi free the slaves of Astapor.
- Bob Benson just wanders around the office carrying two cups of coffee.
- Don keeps pitching ads this season where you don’t get to see the product.
- Never before have subtitles made us laugh so hard in a TV show. “Listen to this idiot.” We loved Marie this episode. It was nice to see her be not quite so much of a bitch to everyone.
- Poor Megan. She’s really flailing in this marriage, isn’t she?
- Peaches and Herb.
- Ted quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson to Peggy when she interviewed for the job. In her fantasy version of Ted, he’s reading “SOMETHING by Ralph Waldo Emerson,” which is HILARIOUS.
- But not nearly as hilarious as Pete’s pratfall, which may be the Greatest Pete Campbell moment ever.