Unsurprisingly, we have much to say about last night’s intense episode, but one thing’s for sure: Jon Hamm locked up his Emmy nomination.
The theme was names and how names hide the truth. Only a show as brilliantly intricate as Mad Men could get away with the analogy that horsemeat=truth, but they pulled it off beautifully. There was definitely a lull in the midpoint of this season and we complained as much as anybody that the Draper marriage was becoming played out, but they needed to lay that groundwork for the emotional bomb drop that was to come. Whatever lull we were perceiving is long gone and we’re left each week asking “Best episode of the season, or best EVER?”
But for really reals this time: we think this is the best episode ever. As in, in the history of the show. Full stop. Don and Betty sitting down to have that conversation is something that other writing teams would have at least saved for a season if not a series finale. There was this unreal, dreamlike feeling hanging over the whole thing of “I can’t believe they’re saying this.” But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Betty is on her way to Philadelphia to settle her father’s estate (but really, she’s assessing her own financial affairs to see where she stands without Don) and she’s taking the kids with her, possibly for the week. It’s the week of Halloween 1963 and history with a capital H is waiting for them all, little more than 3 weeks in their future. She’s still playing at the old Betty here; the child like Betty who pouts but doesn’t confront. “You have no more money,” she challenges Don, knowing damn well that he has a ton of it locked in his desk drawer. Because for Don, what’s in that drawer is private, and because for Don, “private” is something so locked away that he never has to think about it (“It will shock you how much this never happened.”), the stashed money never even enters his mind and he looks at Betty puzzled and unthreatened.
Back at SC, we get some very welcome business-based drama and the best storyline yet for Roger Sterling. An old flame and an old client come back into his life and gives us just a little more backstory on Roger, more than we were expecting, actually. He was a rich kid slumming it in Paris in the ’30s, eating in cemetaries and dancing while people jumped out of windows. But Roger is in a far different place now and won’t accept Annabelle’s fantasy Casablanca version of the story. “That woman got on the plane with the man who was going to end World War II, not run her father’s dog food company.”
Annabelle is trying to salvage the good name of her father’s dog food company, which has been hit with the bad publicity of having its main ingredient, horse meat, revealed to the public. “I’ve eaten it,” says Don when she explores relativism in the context of animal flesh. And because of his dirt-poor background, we have no doubt that he has. But it’s of a much larger theme. Annabelle is hung up on the power of her company’s name and she refuses to change it. Don and Roger both attempt to get her to change her name, Don in particular by arguing that in essence names are meaningless. Don Draper is the name on the label of the can; Dick Whitman is the horse meat inside.
But all of this was really a masquerade for Annabelle to get back into Roger’s life somehow. She was painfully humiliated both times she propositioned him. Turning her down while she was drunkenly throwing herself at him was one thing, but when she said to Roger the next day “You were the one,” and he coldly answers, “You weren’t.” we winced. That’s an ouchie. But you know? We had a newfound respect and affection for Roger this episode. He’s been portrayed alternately as a douchebag and a joke for so long now, it was nice to get a little of the humanity behind the smirk. As cold as he was with Annabelle, he was also surprisingly tender with her. He told her what he needed to tell her, but he did it gently.
Meanwhile, we get a (also very welcome) peek into what’s going on in Joan’s life. One thing about Joan’s marriage, it’s not what we consider a happy one by any means, but like all the marriages on this show, you can sort of see how it works and functions. As they sit in their surprisingly fussy and feminine apartment, Joan (who, it can never be forgotten, was raped by her husband back when), is ever the dutiful, supportive wife, competently coaching her childish husband for an interview. Greg has never been anything but a series of red flags to the audience that he’s not a good choice for Joan and his revelation of his family’s history of mental illness was as big a red flag as we’ve gotten yet.
Having set up these two subplots, we were in perfect position for a long overdue Roger/Joan Pas de Deux, and we were treated to a great one. “You want to be on some people’s minds.” “Look at you, figuring things out for yourself.”We, like so many fans of this show, foolishly try to predict what actions these characters will take next and what fates might befall them, but we forget that the writers of the show know these characters much better than we do. Having Joan call Roger to find her a job just made damn good sense all around. There’s already been speculation online that when Roger turned down Annabelle, he was really thinking of Joan as The One, but honestly, we’ve watched it three times now and we don’t get that impression at all. He feels great affection for Joan and probably, like she does, wonders what might have been, but for whatever reason, he seems particularly committed to Jane, whether from true love or because socially, he’d never get away with dumping or cheating on his young bride.
Back in Ossining, Don and Suzanne are living in their little over-the-garage fantasy, but Suzanne is entertaining more ambitious dreams of openly dating Don and even though she tries to cover it up with “Don, I swear I’m not talking about our future,” that is EXACTLY what she’s talking about. They both know it and they both know it’s not going to happen that way. It’s important to note how often the fact that Suzanne has been down this road before is mentioned. It’ll come into play later.
Greg fucked up yet another job opportunity and Joan is treated to his anger. But even the supremely confident and in control Joan Holloway Harris has her breaking point and when Greg turned on her and snapped, “You don’t know what it’s like, to want something your whole life, to plan for it and count on it, and not get it,” well. That was all she wrote for Mrs. Harris’ patience and Dr. Harris was treated to a good dose of Joan fury. Rather than bore you with long-winded examinations (too late, we know), here’s what we wrote in our notepad while watching the vase crack across Rapey’s skull:
Big letters, all caps, stars, exclamation points and underlining all included. It was a great moment for the character. We don’t know what’s going to happen in her future – Will whoever Roger called offer her a job? Will she go back to SC if it gets sold and the Brits pull out? Is Greg going to Vietnam? – but we know she handled the sudden shift in her status quo in perfect Joan Holloway manner. When he told her about joining the Army, you could see the gears in her head working overtime to process the information and come up with a suitable response.
Back in Philadelphia, Betty is dealing with her childish brother and her father’s attorney, who unfortunately for her, can’t look at her as a client and instead treats her like a daughter. “It’s a lie so big, Milton,” she pleads when he counsels her to stay in her literal sham of a marriage, but he can’t even fathom a world where a woman has every right and reason to walk away from her husband.
Don, meanwhile, is planning a trip with his girlfriend. Nothing illustrates just how careless Don has become than the image of leaving his girlfriend parked in his car outside his house. We thought when he misplaced the key to his drawer he was slipping a bit, but this was a pretty reckless move even for him.
And just like that, he walked straight into his own personal horror film. The acting Hamm did in these scenes was off the chart, but that first look on his face when he realized his family was home, that was a look of pure terror. Then, when Betty looked him in the eye and said “You know I know what’s in that drawer,” everything went out of him. Don Draper evaporated in front of our eyes and for the first time ever, Betty Draper met Dick Whitman.
Seriously, we couldn’t believe it was really happening. The stark lighting and the look of sheer fright on Don’s suddenly old and haggard face, really did give it an almost dreamlike, almost horror movie feel to it. Are they really having this conversation? Are they really saying these lines we honestly didn’t ever think these characters would ever say? “Is that you? Dick? Is that your name?” “Are you thinking of what to say or are you looking at that door?” “Where do you want me to start?”
And how amazing to see Don so completely defeated and flustered, all the swagger, all the weight of being Don Draper, suddenly gone, and he’s fumbling on the floor for a dropped cigarette. Betty, for her part, handled the entire thing perfectly. She couldn’t help but come from an emotional place and there were times where it sounded like her fury might overwhelm her (“You’re a gifted storyteller.”), but she didn’t give an inch and she didn’t allow herself to be derailed or confused or intimidated. She had the ultimate trump card – SHE KNOWS ALL ABOUT HIM – and that gave her all the power in the situation. She revealed both the silly, romanticized idea she had of Don (“All this time I thought you were some football hero who hated his father.”) and the bluntly honest, brutally classist view she always secretly held of him (“I see how you are with money. You don’t understand it.”). She could have been vindictive and nasty to him (although she did manage to remind him that she knows just how much she can damage him: “Isn’t that against the law?”), but instead, she just wanted to be let in. She just wanted to KNOW. Finally. All of it.
And so she pushed, mentioning Adam’s name when we were sure Don was going to keep that part to himself. Again, we’ll let our scribbled notes tell the tale more efficiently:
Seriously, bitches. Don Draper cried. Big snotty tears too. And in front of Betty. That is fucking seismic.
And of course, hanging over these wonderfully tense scenes is the biggest tension of all: Don’s girlfriend, who in the past has demonstrated a tendency to be a little blase about the boundaries, is sitting right outside in his car. It’s a testament to the sad state of the Draper marriage that the girlfriend in the car is only incidental to the real issue of Don’s identity. For us as the viewer, the bigger drama was going on in the house. There was definitely the fear that somehow Suzanne would be discovered and a precarious situation would explode into a hopeless one, but the groundwork had been laid that Suzanne knew her way around the block when it comes to affairs with married suburban fathers, and we were fairly sure she’d get the message and excuse herself from the scene as quietly as possible. After all, revealing the affair would have as much potential of destroying her life than of destroying his. When Don called her the next day to explain, she asked fearfully, “Do I have to worry about my job?” We forget how much she was risking in this affair. By the way, it’s notable that even now, with everything that happened, Don wasn’t completely writing off the affair yet. We’re in a new era in the Draper marriage, but this show makes it clear again and again, that people don’t really change.
At breakfast that morning, Sally notices something pass between her parents but she can’t figure it out, we can’t figure it out, and even Don can’t figure it out. Where do they stand now? The only answer comes that night as the Draper family – full as it is with both hoboes and gypsies – goes trick or treating. “And who are you supposed to be?” asks Carlton jokingly to Don. But Don neither laughs nor looks away. Instead, we see his face close-up, older, and raw, a bit unsure of himself; a version of Don that is completely at odds with what we’ve seen before. They could quite literally go anywhere with this character right now and that makes for some intensely and unusally gripping television.
Plus? We are DYING for a Betty Draper/Anna Draper face to face. Oh writers, we know you’ve given us quite the dessert buffet with this episode and we should by all rights be too full to ask for anything more, but please don’t make us wait until next year for that one!
[Pictures courtesy of amctv.com]