There we were, near the end of our second viewing of the episode and struggling mightily to marry Janet Jackson to Don Draper and come up with a joke about how privacy is his middle name and his last name, it is control, when a sleepy, cranky, thoroughly demoralized Pete snapped at his addled, assassination-upset mother and clicked everything into place for us.
“That happened years ago!”
So much of what happened this episode could have happened years ago. Some of what happened this episode DID happen years ago. From Don & Sylvia’s affair, to Burt Peterson’s second firing, to Don & Ted’s alcohol-fueled dick-slapping contest; this episode was stocked to the rafters with callbacks to previous seasons or subtle echoes of past scenes. Probably the most obvious occurred when Joan walked Peggy to her new office, chatting all the way, until the scene ends with one of them practically doubling over in pain. Sound familiar? And since Bob Benson is the 1954 version of Don Draper, spit-shined and buffed to 1968 college-grad youthfulness, his scene in the Emergency Room with Joan echoed another one both very similar and very different. Don drinking Ted into submission recalls the various times he did exactly the same to Roger, either to bully him into giving him a job or to punish him for flirting with his wife.
But it wasn’t until the news of the assassination broke that we realized why there were so many calls to the past. The second Kennedy assassination – especially in the very early days just following it – was a very eerie time for most of the American public, who felt momentarily like they were stuck in a time warp, forced to watch events repeat and echo over and over again, never getting anywhere, jaws dropped at the grotesque repetition of it all. What a perfect metaphor for this season of Mad Men. We’ve been thinking that part of the reason this season has been so plodding and felt like wheel-spinning is because there’s been no sense in the story of things being written toward an ending. Unless Weiner & Co. make a radical shift in their stated intentions for the series, Mad Men is very near the end of its story. There are only 18 months left to the 1960s at this point. There’ve been a few echoes and callbacks to the past throughout this season – and we don’t think it’s a coincidence that, in everything from attitude to aesthetics, Don & Sylvia’s affair could have easily been inserted into season one or two and not feel remotely out of place. There’s a reason why Sylvia’s clothes are roughly 5 years out of style, after all. But as the sixties and this story winds down and heads toward its conclusion, it’s looping back on itself before then; showing us how things have changed (the Peggy & Joan scene, which was almost an exact reversal of the same scene from season 1) and how things haven’t changed at all (every fucking thing Don Draper does). In other words, Don is a mess and an asshole, and the show is finally at the point where that’s what the story is about. It’s no longer subtext underlining the story; it is the story. Don Draper is, to borrow a beautifully crafted and dead-on phrase, a human tire-fire. The question from now until the end of the story is whether or not he can achieve some form of redemption or whether he’s simply going to keep falling into the abyss. People think the credits sequence of this show is foreshadowing a literal jump off a building, but we tend to think it’s been depicting the decade-long fall and decline of Don Draper. And while we admit the likelihood of Don somehow overcoming the outrageous urge to be an utter shit to the people around him is very, very slim; we like to think Peggy’s the one person in the story who might have a shot at steering him away from disaster. After all, what’s the perfect response to “That all happened years ago?”
A fabulous spray of bullets:
- The dynamic between Don and Peggy has changed dramatically and it’s not clear yet whether Don knows it. Peggy’s coming back a full-on executive, used to throwing her weight around and having people listen when she speaks. Don’s in for a major shock if he thinks he can throw dollar bills at her in the office or scream at her in front of her co-workers. Not only will Ted not put up with that shit, more importantly, Peggy’s not going to. And she’s no longer the former secretary who wonders if she can ever be someone outside of Don’s shadow. She knows she can. She’s proven she can. And she’s not going to wait for Don to realize that. She’ll storm into his office and inform him of it.
- It’s a testament to the meticulous writing on this show that you can have these major character moments that are only accomplished with a few words, or sometimes none at all. Peggy saying with admiration of Dawn, “She’s an excellent secretary” not only touches on years of stories and relationships, it calls back to a scene in season 2 where Peggy dressed down and humiliated Lois for not keeping Don’s secrets like a good secretary should. And when Ted stumbled drunkenly into the creative room, she quietly got up out of her seat and gently pulled him into it. Regardless of whether or not they’ll have a full-blown romance, she clearly respects and appreciates him, and it hurt her to see Don shit all over him.
- While the merger of the two agencies was bound to cause some friction, it’s notable that the accounts team seem to have their shit together, and aside from some momentary griping about pre-paid media buys and the loss of Vick Chemical, they all seem to be getting along like gangbusters. It helps that Roger and Jim are flip sides of the same droll, silver-fox coin. Creative, on the other hand, is going to be a mess for some time, it seems.
- Joan’s not stupid, but she’s kind of emotionally vulnerable at the moment. She knows that Bob Benson was good to her because his head was on the chopping block (witness the look of horror on his face when cranky Burt Petersen set him straight about his prospects), but there’s a part of her that truly loves that someone’s paying some sort of kind attention to her in this goddamn office. We’d like to think she’s got her head on straight enough to think that her clever save on his job is payback enough, but there’s just one problem: She wore green and blue outfits in every scene. Ruh-roh.
- The scene with Joan and Peggy was beautifully played and a wonderful emotional payoff after watching their relationship change so much over the years. If you watch the original scene it’s calling back to, Joan is kind of a snotty bitch to Peggy, but in 1968, she’s warm and thrilled to have her back in the office, chatting with her about how far they’ve come. We hope they can be friends. They’ve been working together on and off for a long time now. When their goals were so different from each other, they were far more confrontational with each other, but now that they’re two women who’ve achieved some degree of power (if not respect), they really need to turn to each other more. We hope Peggy isn’t judgmental about how Joan got her partnership, but we suspect she might be.
- Is it possible we have the capacity to feel sorry for Pete?
- Sayonara, Sylvia. We hope this is for good. We’re pretty sure it is. That’s about as final as a breakup scene can get. And Don Draper sure as hell doesn’t deal with being dumped very well. He went from enormous asshole to scared little boy in a second. It’s interesting how much this affair tended to call back to the one with Rachel Mencken in season one. Like Rachel, Sylvia was defined in Don’s eyes through her ethnicity and religion. Sylvia was about her Italian Catholicness the way Rachel was about her Jewishness. Don even used similar phrasing to describe each woman when asking them their perspective on their backgrounds. Like Rachel, Sylvia called it off with Don when she finally saw enough of his soul to realize it was bad for her. Domination play in sex isn’t a bad thing necessarily. Certainly, many, many people manage to indulge in it and simply have fun with it. But Don’s domination was cruel (taking her book away seemed to be the final straw for Sylvia) and egotistical, and born out of a need to control, control, control everyone around him so that they can’t get a bead on him and figure him out for the mess of a man he is.
[Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC]