Tuned In

Mad Men Watch: Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, recline on your fainting couch and watch last night’s Mad Men.

The parallel between the three stories in last night’s Mad Men was none too subtle. Three characters are presented an opportunity by a powerful man. And they end up screwed, or wishing they had been screwed, or wishing they hadn’t.

Don. Don’t get tied down. This is the philosophy that Dick Whitman / Don Draper has lived by, both at home, where he’s spent much of his marriage with one foot out the door, and at work, where he’s always worked without a contract (an eccentricity that proved a blessing when Duck tried a power play against him). Now the opportunity that Conrad Hilton has dangled in front of him has precipitated his worst nightmare: being forced to sign a three-year contract, which, as he tells Betty—tellingly, but no less correctly—strips him of his greatest power, the power to walk away.

Don’s situation until now has been wanting to have the best of both worlds: the security and stability of a big office and a steady paycheck, with the freedom of a free agent. He never actually took the step of becoming a free agent, though, which may suggest caution and biding his time, or may suggest that the tied-down life has more appeal to him than he lets on. (He likes its comforts, just not its ties.)

To others in his life—Betty, say, or Bert Cooper—this may seem like selfish B.S. It’s surprising to see that Bert is the one who manages effectively and bindingly to get Don to commit, using his knowledge of Don’s desertion and identity theft. (This move took me completely by surprise, and Robert Morse played it beautifully, laying it down with such velvet firmness I had no idea it was coming.)

There’s a lot about this situation I’m still puzzling out. Cooper and Sterling never seemed to mind Don’s working without a contract before: to them, it seemed like a charming quirk. Why the change now? Is it merely that they really do see it as no big deal—and thus, a ridiculous thing to lost the Hilton contract over? Or do they see what Conrad Hilton apparently saw—that Don had made a powerful friend—and fear him bolting? For that matter—and this is probably the result of watching too many conspiracy shows—could Hilton have intended to set up a crisis, to force Don to leave Sterling Cooper? Probably not, but I’m left to wonder if, contra Don’s statement in the previous episode, he should have been the snake that took the big bite, while he had the chance.

Before all this, Don had his run-in with the draft-dodger/hitcher/robbers, an example of the free life going terribly bad for him, which may have shaken his confidence enough to sign rather than call Cooper’s bluff. The incident—hitting the road before getting drugged, clocked and robbed by a couple of kids—is enough to erase the glimpse of freedom and travel he got through Suzanne Farrell at the eclipse-viewing.

I’d rather the writers had let that incident stand on its own, though, rather than call in the hallucination of Dad’s Ghost to knock Don down. I’m not a fan of dream/fantasy sequences in Mad Men, whether this, Betty’s Medgar Evers dream or Don’s flashback to his birth at the beginning of the season: they do too much telling in a series that’s so good at showing.

Still, this new development left us with a lot to wonder about. Don ends the episode a richer man than ever, with guaranteed security for at least three years, and (supposedly) a shot at partner. And he looks like he’s just been mugged again.

Betty: Meanwhile, Betty is reclining on her fainting couch. If you know what I mean. (Maybe the chaise and the dryer could get together and have some fun sometime.) We’ve seen enough about Betty and her life with Don (both before and after her extramarital hook-up last season) to see why she would be attracted to a man like Henry.

What’s more interesting to me is why she’s attracted and tempted at this point, and in this situation. Certainly there seemed to be a charge between the two of them in the “My Old Kentucky Home” episode. But I wonder if the attraction is less Henry’s power in the situation than her own. That is, she’s meeting him in a situation where she’s not interacting with him as a wife at a party, or a housewife letting a repairman in her home. She’s meeting him as a community activist, someone with an agency and agenda of her own, outside her marriage and her household.

In other words, is Henry’s power the ultimate aphrodisiac here? Or is it Betty’s own?

Peggy. I may need the ladies out there to help explain this one to me. Or perhaps a trained psychologist. Immediately after watching this episode, I asked Mrs. Tuned In why she thought Peggy slept with Duck. (My actual words, I believe, were: “Duck? Seriously? Ew! Duck?”) Mrs. Tuned In could see why it happened: Peggy had never been with a man like Duck before, nor had the chance to. On that level, I could see it. This season for Peggy has been seeking out experiences: a mature, accomplished man—albeit a sad old alcoholic—is certainly a different experience. As perhaps is the offer to give her “a go-round like you’ve never had,” even if it sounds like he’s going to audit a balance sheet.

Another explanation, and I hope it’s not the right one, is that Peggy’s seeking some type of compensation. She’s just been dressed down by Don after having caught him at the wrong time—not for the first time this season—so after that Duck is offering her affirmation. That wouldn’t explain, though, why she wouldn’t take the job Duck’s offering as affirmation (and to advance faster than at Sterling Cooper), unless it’s because the terms Duck is offering aren’t as generous as she’d hoped. Or that she’s only being offered because they need “someone in a skirt.” In that case, though, sleeping with Duck to rebound from a career disappointment doesn’t seem like the act of the confident Peggy we’ve seen so far this season.

I may need to watch that scene again. In the meantime, I put it to you: Duck? Seriously? Ew! Duck?

And now, the hail of bullets:

* I love how prickly Don’s relationship with Connie is. Hilton seems like a man who does not like being denied or joked with, and I wouldn’t blame Don for wanting to be careful about the terms of any business relationship with him. “I don’t know what Im more disturbed by. The fact that you don’t have a Bible, or the fact that there are no family photos.” “Maybe I was with my family, reading the Bible.”

* Good to see that Sterling Cooper is still milking Ho Ho. Also, Pete again seems prescient in seeing Vietnam, in 1963, as a huge opportunity for aviation business. It’s intriguing that in so many ways, this old-money legacy, who has his job entirely for his contacts, is actually the most gifted at seeing the shape of things to come–precisely the talent that no one expects or values in him.

* Loved the visual of all the kids standing with boxes over their heads, waiting to see the eclipse in the camera obscura. I wish I could get that image blown up and framed.

* It seems that one reason that Mad Men has been able to avoid so many ’60s show cliches is that there aren’t many young people in it, and most of the ones it has are white-collar workers or tied to the old establishment. Bringing in the hitchers, like the beatniks in season one, carried the danger of getting into changing-times-cliche territory, but I still liked how the scene played.

* Finally, it was probably clear from my choice of headline that “Sixteen Tons” was a very apt musical note to end an episode about Don getting tied to his job, and thus his life. Though I suppose the original protagonist of the song didn’t get a $5,000 signing bonus and a three-year deal with a noncompete.