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Mad Men Watch: A Welcome Distraction

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, order out for some fried chicken and watch last night’s Mad Men.

After two episodes that took in a pretty wide swath of characters, updating and establishing a number of storylines, “The Good News” closed back in to focus on three Mad Men characters: Don, Joan and Lane. It took place on and around the New Year’s holiday—holidays being a theme of the three episodes so far this season, so look out, Feast of Epiphany!—and dealt with the theme of vacation, as each character attempted to escape troubles that are in the end unescapable.

Don Draper left New York for the New Year’s holiday looking for a break, a little restoration, emotional and physical. A little sand and sun in Acapulco, a heart-to-heart with his ex-in-name-only wife and confidant Anna and, he ends up hoping, a little somethin’-somethin’ with his former fake niece Stephanie. (Former fake niece once removed? Divorce and sham marriages make things so complicated!) But upon putting the moves on the young lady in his rental car—which, ewwww—Don learns something as weighty as any trouble he was trying to escape: Anna has terminal cancer and very little time left.

(I will have to take on faith, by the way, that it’s an accurate representation of medicine circa 1964 that Anna’s sister could have learned her diagnosis from her doctor and made the decision with him to hide the news from a terminal patient. Certainly Don seemed about as surprised as I was.)

The news is a multiple blow to Don. It threatens the one healthy long-term platonic relationship he has with a woman. (Ironically, the woman whose husband’s identity he stole and whom he sham-married and divorced is one of the few women in the world that Don can say he’s truly done right by.) It takes away a support he was seeking after the breakup of his marriage; he can confide in Anna because she may know more about who he really is than anyone. She affirms and tries to understand him without judging. She tells him, “I want you to do everything that you want to do,” which is not necessarily something Don has had a problem with, but it really means that she gives him permission to truly be himself—which has been impossible for him. Just as he is having his crisis of identity—”Who is Don Draper?”—the one person who is closest to Don Draper’s formation, the woman who is more Draper than he is, is dying.

I know the California episodes of Mad Men have divided fans in the past (e.g., “The Jet Set”). I like, though, how they provide contrast for the show’s depiction of both Don and the era. As the show moves to SoCal, the palette and the references change. You begin to realize that Mad Men’s distinct take on its era comes largely from being set among the East Coast establishment. So much of what we would normally associate with “a TV drama about the ’60s” is connected or originated in the West, as we saw here: student protests (referenced in the Berkeley sit-ins), surfer music, people smoking grass and referring to it as such.

Moreover, Don is a different person when he’s in California—literally, as “Dick,” and figuratively. We’re so used, I think, to seeing how Don carries himself, like a movable fortress, that it’s hard to remember that it’s Jon Hamm acting. But in these scenes, with Don/Dick in open collars and hanging out informally, Hamm shows the physical lightness that comes over him here; it’s like he’s just shed a 75-pound backpack. With Anna’s news delivered to him, Don has to shoulder a new weight, and he ultimately decides—right or wrong—that the best thing he can do is to carry it with him, just as Anna’s sister told him to. Rather than tell her (which might have been a service he uniquely could provide, precisely because he’s not part of the family), he stays a little longer, repaints her water-damaged wall, and leaves a note, “DonDick & Anna ’64,” like an epitaph and leaves her believing that he’s crying for himself.

Joan, meanwhile, gets her first sustained screen time of the season and it also ends in ambiguous tears. We open the episode learning that she wants to have a baby with Greg (worrying to our favorite chain-smoking gyno that her previous two abortions may cause complications). The question for her is perhaps not what she’s crying about—beyond the finger-slicing that precipitates the breakdown—but what isn’t she crying about? Her anxiety about Greg’s impending (though he’s still in denial) shipment to Vietnam? Her anxiety about a baby? The string of disappointments in life that have led her to this situation? Or is it a simple release from having always to be hypercompetent and in command—taking charge to fire Lane’s secretary on his behalf even as she’s furious with him for denying her time off—and, for once, literally putting herself in someone else’s hands?

Lane for his part serves as the bridge between Don and Joan’s stories, and his personal crisis was probably the least compelling, partly because it occurred offscreen, partly because it was a fairly generic story of marital strife. (The kind of very generic strife that it seems perfectly appropriate that Lane would have, but still.) But the construction of the episode was intriguing, as it revealed, after the fact, that Lane’s hardassed attitude toward Joan (and everyone) was affected by his crisis on the home front. And it was a revelation to see Jared Harris show us the wild man who’d been stoppered up for so long in that proper English bottle, as Don took him out for a boys’ night of monster movies, comedy and whores. There’s something almost childlike about Harris’ performance as Lane—he’s like the class prefect excited and grateful that one of the popular boys has given him a night to be bad.

But it is a vacation, and we see that Lane knew full well that Candace’s “friend” was a hooker. It was a lie, but it’s the thought that counts, and he takes a moment to thank Don for it before he leaves, leading up to maybe the episode’s strongest image, that tableau of the characters back at SCDP, as Joan says, “Gentlemen, shall we begin 1965?” In another context, it might read as a very optimistic line—as Lane said, it has, for all the pain, been a remarkable 1964—but not after the events of this episode. Vacation is over, the morning light is harsh and it is back to business.

A quick hail of bullets:

* Anyone ID the Japanese monster movie Don took Lane to? My guess is Godzilla vs. Gamera, which I believe is period-correct (I was a big fan as a kid), but I may be wrong. Update: On closer inspection I must be wrong—not sure if they ever battled—but in any case I can’t make out which monster picture this in fact was. (Also, nice fakeout: I thought for sure cinephile Don would go for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.)

* As pitiable and loathsome as Greg has been in his past, it offered some nice shading for his character to see him actually competent in his field—even if in as small a thing as stitching up a hand. Joan’s initial insistence on the hospital (“Isn’t there some medical-ethical law against operating on your wife?”) also made me wonder whether she trusted him to do the job right.

* The rose mixup made me laugh as hard as anything on Mad Men in a long time—especially the foul-up being compounded by Lane’s wife receiving flowers with the note, “Joan, please forgive me.”

* Did Don tell Lane, and Candace, that his spare room was off-limits because that’s where his kids sleep when they visit? It’s also interesting to see that he and Candace have something like a relationship beyond face-slapping—a professional relationship at least. (Also, here again I am taking on faith that $25 was the going rate for a night with a hooker in New York in 1964.)

* As in Don’s earlier visit to California, it offers him a brief encounter with the future: in this case Stephanie, a member of a generation whom Don’s business (like Don) covets, but who increasingly has contempt for the consumer ideal: “It’s pollution.” “Then stop buying things.” “Don’t think it can’t happen.” The future may be even more tougher.

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