SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, pop in your earplugs, put on an old Beatles movie—maybe you should invite your dad and your girlfriend!—then catch last night’s episode of Mad Men.
It is not a revelation to say that Mad Men is a show about secrets. But it has never been as much about secrets as “Hands and Knees,” an episode that seemed constructed toward the end point of getting several characters in a room, each of them knowing a secret story—in some cases more than one—and not being able to reveal any of them to one another. The situation would have been obvious even without the show at long last using a Beatles song, closing aptly with an instrumental of “Do You Want to Know a Secret?”
And where much of the run of the series has looked at the fallout of secrecy in Don Draper’s life, this episode further asked the question: is it always better to come clean, or is it sometimes best to keep it hidden? Here’s a look at the stories, scored to the musical stylings of those loveable British moptops The Fab Four:
Help! When Don Draper was younger—so much younger than today—he assumed the identity of a soldier killed in Korea. The deception dogged him for years, but he had seemed to escape its fallout professionally by confronting Pete in season one. And though confessing to Betty (among other things) ended his marriage in season three, it at least freed him to start exploring the question, “Who Is Don Draper?” this season.
But with the Defense department asking questions in connection with the North American Aviation deal, Don now needs his old adversary Pete Campbell like he’s never done before. Jon Hamm, who brilliantly scraped bottom with Don in “The Suitcase,” plays him in a new level of misery in this episode as the encroachment of his past sends him into a full-blown panic attack. Hamm brings the childlike fear back onto his man’s face as the old reflexes kick in, the self-preservation, the instinct to run—and the vomiting, again with the vomiting, as if Don could somehow purge himself through his own mouth.
Oddly enough, Pete—who tried to bring Don down with his secret earlier and despises Don for it now—complies in the end, not only making the huge contract going away to preserve Draper but taking the blame for it himself. Perhaps Pete sees, pragmatically, that while he resents “living with Don’s shit over his head,” it does him no good at this point for Don (and maybe SCDP) to go down in flames. Though one has to wonder if Trudy’s talk with him—comforting him with how good their lives are now—reached him in some way as well.
It’s ironic, however, that Pete had his heart-to-heart with Trudy by way of refusing to share with her the secret that was burdening him. (A secret she seems to suspect at first has something to do with her, perhaps recalling Pete’s fling with / rape of the au pair last reason.) But at least he’s honest enough to tell her that there’s something he’s not telling her.
You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away: Lane, meanwhile, discovers that openness is not the cure for everything, as he introduces his Playboy-bunny girlfriend to his visiting father, who dismisses her politely and then canes him across the skull for it. It’s interesting that the episode never explicitly clarifies whether (as Lane accuses), his father is upset that his girlfriend is black; in fact, Lane almost seems to be hoping his father will react with racism, as though that would make the confrontation easier for him. But whatever his father’s feelings about that, Lane’s acting out unleashes a reaction like something out of Kafka’s The Judgment, as the seemingly mild-mannered old man rises up brutally in patriarchal fury and brings his son to all fours, demanding that he get his house in order. (A Strong performance by Jared Harris, by the way, whose oddly brash, almost giddy behavior through the episode belies—we see in retrospect—the fear he must have felt over his father’s reaction.)
She’s Got a Ticket to Ride: Joan, meanwhile, finds herself alone on a train, having gone to Westchester for an abortion* after conceiving a baby with Roger after their mugging. I’ll admit I was disappointed with this storyline, simply because it played into the old TV/movie fallback of having one-time sex lead to an immediate pregnancy. (As it did already with Pete and Peggy. And curiously, Joan had had to go to some effort to try to conceive with Greg, while Pete had had problems making a baby with Trudy as well. Apparently on Mad Men, guilt is a powerful fertility aid.) As much of a device as the pregnancy was, though, nice work by Christina Hendricks here, showing the force of will with which Joan maintains her outward composure, first in dealing with Roger—and insisting on going alone, perhaps so as to stress that this means nothing bigger for their relationship—then in meeting the mother of the very young-looking teen daughter in the waiting room, and not being able to admit that she’s not there with a daughter of her own.
*[Though, as commenters have pointed out, we don't in fact know she got the abortion.]
Treat Me Like You Did the Night Before: Roger, meanwhile, gets another, quite different relationship bombshell dropped on him, as Lee Garner Jr. takes him out to, essentially, divorce him after decades handling Lucky Strike. The potential effect on SCDP is obvious—how many times have we been told that Lucky Strike is the majority of the firm’s billings?—but the effect on Roger is physical and immediate. “You’re trying to kill me,” he protests to Lee, with increasing pathos in his voice, and it seems he’s not speaking figuratively. After pleading with Lee for 30 days to try to make some rain, he reaches into his pocket and pops a pill, looking drained, tired and ancient. And what’s up next for him—sitting behind his desk drinking vodka straight, while desperately calling names from his Rolodex (one of them, it turns out, now dead)—is not likely to boost his health.
I’ve Just Seen a Face: Looking at Don’s budding relationship with intelligent, grown-up Faye last week, I asked, “will he ultimately be overruled by the Don Draper who wants a Megan?” Sure enough, and unsurprisingly, given what we know and have seen of Don, he closes the episode looking with soft eyes at the new girl on his desk. Faye’s worries from last episode—in which she felt she “failed” the test of surrogate-mothering Sally, who pointedly sunk easily into Megan’s arms after falling in the hallway—may be justified. It seemed at first that Don’s crisis has brought them closer together. Faye is in many ways just what Don needs here. She knows enough (from her father) to know that Don is not having a heart attack; she knows enough of people to see what kind of reaction he’s having, and why; and she has enough presence of mind to suggest (wisely or not I don’t know) that his best recourse may be to lawyer up and plead for clemency.
Don responds by telling her the truth, or a slightly cleaned-up version, of how he came to be himself. (And is it just me, or did a see a hint of what-have-I-gotten-myself-into in her eyes as he spooned her?) Yet I have my doubts whether Don can be with a woman with as much knowledge of him, and therefore as much power, as Faye has. There is still the Don who wants a Betty, pretty, mothering, soft—and, in Megan’s case, a little subservient and lacking confidence. Is it her naturally clear French skin that catches his eye at the end of this episode? Or the fact that, whereas Faye has seen him at his lowest, he still has a power advantage over Megan—even after he nearly got caught for desertion, she spent the episode abjectly apologizing to him?
In all, this was one of those Mad Men episodes whose mechanics seemed a bit too out in the open; it really did play almost as if the writers had conceived of a brilliant set piece—all the SCDP partners in one room, having an argument informed by several secret subtexts known only to us—and then worked backward from there. But the episode definitely sets up some season-finale-scale conflicts and questions for the final few episodes. Will Don turn to Megan for comfort? Will SCDP be able to find a new, big, Lee Garner (or Connie Hilton) sized fish? Tomorrow never knows!
Now for the hail of B-sides:
* While I had issues of the mechanics of “Hands and Knees,” credit to it for not falling into another TV cliché, the one in which a female character asserts her ability and right to choose abortion but manages somehow to decide to keep the baby, nearly every time. (The rare exception last season being Friday Night Lights.)
* Likewise, the dynamic between Roger and Joan was interesting; Roger kept veering between being supportive and upstanding and saying something unintentionally awful. (“We avoided a tragedy,”* “So you want to keep it?” “No, of course not,” however he actually meant it, was probably not quite the phrase for that moment. Though perhaps not quite as indecorous as the doctor’s lecture at him in front of Joan: “You’ve used this woman. And you’ve ruined her.”) *Wrong indecorous phrasing: “tragedy” was actually Joan’s line, sorry.
* I know a lot of Mad Men fans have been down on Betty and the use of her character lately. But it was refreshing to see her have a phone conversation with Don that (however short-lived the feeling) did not end in acrimony (when Don called to tell Sally about the Beatles tickets, I reflexively expected Betty to have a problem, but she was uncomplicatedly happy). And the interrogation with the G-men was nicely handled: “Would you describe him as a man of integrity?” “We divorced.”
* It seems absurd that, even on basic cable, a show as adult-themed and frank as Mad Men should have to bleep the word “fuck.” The FCC does not regulate indecency on cable channels, including basic cable, so the decision is made by the individual network, usually out of concern over the reactions of sponsors or carriers. (Or the audience, but how much of the Mad Men audience, seeking out an HBO-style drama, would have cared?) The bleeped “fuck” (if Mad Men has done this before, I’m forgetting it) took me briefly out of the scene, and although I don’t much like substituting “screw” or what have you, that might have been the better of poor options here. (Clearly, “fuck” and not “screw” is what Roger would have said in the moment, though.)
* It didn’t take much to identify secrets as the theme of this episode, but Matthew Weiner’s actual use of the most appropriate Beatles song triple-underlined it. Interestingly, Mad Men often selects period-precise music for the closing credits—suggesting that they would have used a song from “Help!,” just out in August 1965, but instead went with the irresistible “Do You Want to Know a Secret” from 1963.