“That’s the job.”
“What’s the job?”
“Living in the not knowing.”
If you were to ask us what our favorite scene in the entire run of Mad Men was, we wouldn’t hesitate to name this one, from season two, where Don walks Peggy right up to a killer Mohawk Airline tag (“What did you bring me, Daddy?”) by connecting with her on a deep and intense level and coaxing greatness out of her. It’s a scene that perfectly defines their relationship and the relationship the show has with advertising; the ways the writers use it to illuminate themes and comment on important personal and familial relationships. Well, they finally managed to top themselves – and how utterly, perfectly poetic that this time, Don and Peggy weren’t connecting over the perfect way to sell airlines to businessmen fathers, they were doing it over the question of how to sell hamburgers to overworked mothers. Instead of Don at the top of his game teaching an eager apprentice the ropes, we had Don at the end of his, well… rope, doing his best to placate an angry and bitter Peggy back into greatness. To end the scene with them slowly and sadly dancing to “My Way” made for the absolute best moment in the entire run of the show. Beautifully written, directed and performed.
We needed this episode. And by “we,” we mean the audience. Mad Men may just be one of the most depressing television shows in the history of the medium, but they really managed to outdo themselves in the last dozen episodes or so. And the creators were asking a lot of the audience to dive right back into a really depressing and downbeat set of storylines at the start of this season. It never needs to be a hilarious laugh riot, but there are times when the show benefits from a light approach and this one came at the exact moment it was needed. Even better, it sacrificed none of its integrity. Don’s life – and Don himself – is still a mess, Peggy is feeling the weight of choices and regrets bearing down on her, Pete is still kind of a shithead, Ginsberg is in an institution, Megan is miserable, and Bob Benson has gone from mysterious cipher to tragic figure.
But is it okay that we cheered at the sight of Bob again? We feared he’d been forever banished to Detroit, never to be seen again. Even better for us, we got more of a glimpse into Bob’s life and a confirmation of who he is, something that many people have been clamoring for if for no other reason than to put any further wild theorizing about the character to rest. He is what we always thought he was: except for the Dick Whitman-esque backstory, a very typical urban gay male of the period. He appears to be “in the life,” as they used to say, and like many gay men then and now, is willing to live a lie in order to make a better life for himself. “We can live in a mansion!” Someone from Bob’s humble (and to him, embarrassing) background, with Bob’s kind of spooky ambition, would do just about anything if life dangled “GM Executive” in front of him as an opportunity.
We’re just glad that Joan shut that pathetic thing down immediately. It turns out she’s also exactly what we thought she was in this relationship: the classic fruit fly. She’s always known he was gay and, like we said last season, she’s the one person in the cast most likely to form a close friendship with a cute young gay guy, having lived in the Village for the entire decade. She’s never had any illusions about what Bob is. You could see her trying to process it for a second, wondering if she’d somehow read this wrong, but the second he kissed her, she backed off completely; just like the time Sal kissed her and she knew immediately that he was gay. We maintain that it’s unlikely that the show will address the Stonewall riots, but if we’re reading the calendar correctly, this episode took place the weekend before. The pointed representation of the abusive cop (“Goodnight, ladies”) and the use of entrapment to get that GM exec arrested were fairly obvious foreshadowing to us. It was abusive cops harrassing gay people that set the Stonewall riots off. And now that Bob’s been rejected by his best gal, who told him he should go out and find love for himself (which: go Joanie), he’s perfectly positioned to be out the night of the riots, cruising or drinking his cares away, like so many gay men were. Like we said: unlikely to be portrayed, but we can dream, right?
Either way, Joan’s not looking for marriage proposals right now, she’s thinking like a partner and an account exec. Bob’s so wrapped up in himself that it never occurred to him that Joan would be concerned about the loss of Chevy, but he doesn’t know her as well as he thinks – and besides, gay men like him (status-seeking, a bit narcissistic -”Does my face please you?” – and conformist) are notorious for never really seeing their gal friends as fully realized people. As for what exactly is happening with Chevy, we kinda got lost around the time Roger seemed to be laughing it off and somehow blaming McCann for it. The big news is, Harry’s a partner now and Joan is furious. We’re a little torn. Harry’s a dick, but he was good to Don last episode, he’s been invaluable to the agency and to be perfectly frank, we’re not crazy about the slightly vindictive way Joan is wielding her power lately. We think our second-favorite moment of the episode was when Don eyed her blowup cooly and said right to her, ” Say what you will, but he’s very loyal.” BURN. Don’s being the good boy, but he’s feeling confident enough to let it slip that he’s not too keen on Joan at the moment. We wonder if this will be one of the relationships Don can’t repair. He got Sally and Peggy back into his good graces, but he doesn’t have the same kind of deep emotional connection with Joan to weather this. They have history and they have respect for each other (or did), but they’re not great, close friends. They might really be done with each other.
Speaking of being done with each other, Megan’s packing up her fondue pot and there’s no way in hell that’s a good sign. As she tears through the closets in the apartment looking for the things she keeps saying she misses, Don finds himself staring at an old newspaper announcing the Kennedy assassination, the exact weekend his previous marriage came to an end; the last time he felt like he does now: defeated, depressed, and desperately trying to hold on to something without knowing why or whether he should. History repeating. Megan sipping that glass of wine as she flew back to L.A. looked more content than she has all season.
Don is incapable of reconciling with Megan and he seems quite aware of that fact. When Peggy asks him what he has to worry about, Dick Whitman comes bubbling back to the surface. “That I never did anything and that I don’t have anyone.” Nobody loves little Dick Whitman. Thankfully, with this episode, Don got something back; something we didn’t realize he’d been suffering from its lack: a close female confidante. After the episode that somewhat mirrored this one, “The Suitcase,” when Anna Draper died and Don and Peggy stayed up all night drunkenly bonding and fighting, we figured Peggy was going to move into that role, but Don married Megan, pushing them further apart and he wound up taking a whole slew of frustrations out on her, ruining their friendship and taking them to this moment. Yet another person angry at Don and another round of apologies and explanations.
But Peggy’s not really mad at Don. She’s upset with where her life has taken her. “What did I do wrong?” she tearfully asks Don, after relaying the story of having to look into station wagon after station wagon of mothers with their children. It was always the great irony of Peggy’s character that she was very good at a job that had her selling products to women nothing like her by trying to get inside their heads and figure out what they wanted and needed. It seems like it’s finally starting to get to her. The way she bitterly referred to herself as “the voice of moms” when telling Don he was going to make the pitch to Burger Chef was painfully telling. “You know that she’s every bit as good as any woman in this business!” Pete exclaims, as a compliment, not realizing that he essentially just called her second class in her job. But this gave Don a chance to not be such a horrible person for once and he gave Peggy pretty much everything she needed in that moment: assurance that she was excellent at her job and that her choices haven’t failed her. It rang hollow, as they sadly danced together, each lost in their own regrets, but if nothing else, he got to be the proud father to her. “Whenever I’m unsure about an idea,” he tells her pointedly, “first I abuse the people whose help I need and then I take a nap.” “Done.” says Peggy warmly, immediately getting the joke – and the implied compliment. Just a fun, warm, poignant scene loaded with history and chemistry. “I just turned 30, Don.” “Shit. When?”
And finally, there’s poor Pete who is, like Don and Peggy, facing up to the consequences of his own poor decisions and what that really means for his life now. In typical Pete fashion he manages to once again blow up his relationship with Trudy (“There’s no place for you in this family,” she says, helpfully pointing out the theme of the episode and serving as a rebuke to Lou’s earlier “It’s nice to see families getting along again!”) and also manages to blow up his relationship with Bonnie. In the end, it was Peggy – because it could only be Peggy – who came up with a solution for everything. “Does this family exist anymore?”she asks. “Are there people who eat dinner and smile at each other instead of watching TV?” Peggy drunkenly stumbled on one of the most revolutionary concepts in modern advertising: the idea that you could pitch products to non-traditional families and to women who had jobs outside the home.
In the end, the circumstances of this account and this pitch brought three people without families together to break bread and to form their own family, for however brief a moment it lasts. And how perfect that it’s these three, who have passed a bunch of secrets back and forth to each other; whose entire relationships with each other are bound up in their shared secrets and experiences. How is that not a family?
And can we just skip ahead to the part where SC&P is a smoking ruin and Draper, Campbell & Olson has just opened its doors to business? Isn’t it time?
[Photo Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC]