SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, grab your copy of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and watch last night’s Mad Men.
I celebrated my first Mad Men night off the clock Mad Men-style–with a cocktail–so for that and reasons of general sloth I will keep my thoughts brief and go straight to the hail of bullets. This was simply one of the most beautiful and moving (and yet also funny) episodes of Mad Men yet, even if nothing dramatic happened in it. (This is the last of the episodes I got in advance, and you may see by now why I was puzzled that Weiner and company were so worried about spoilers in them.)
The episode bounced among several stories, but essentially it weaved together Peggy, Roger and Joan, each trying to find their way to to next stage in their lives:
* “I’m Peggy Olson. And I want to smoke some marijuana.” I’m really hoping to find ways to work that into conversation in the coming week.
* That passive-aggressive encounter between Joan and Jane: Joan might as well have been exhaling ice crystals as cigarette smoke!
* By the way, as dispiriting as it may have been to see Joan married to the fiance-doctor who raped her, it’s good to see her asserting herself in their relationship. “I don’t want to have a fight right now!” “Then stop talking.” That said, seeing him starting to be proved not just a heel but an incompetent–and seeing her brilliantly salvage the dinner party playing “C’est Magnifique” on the accordion (after the revelation about Greg’s “bad result” on the pneumonectomy), it’s that much more clear she’s too good for him. And judging by her look at him on the last line, she at some level must know it too.
* Pete and Trudy can cut a rug! One thing Mad Men gets right that shows about the past often don’t, is to remember that the past is haunted by its own past. 1963, after all, was no father (in time anyway) from the 1920s than we are today from 1969 (here in the summer of Woodstock nostalgia and Beatles Rock Band). In Mad Men, previous decades are also present: here, both in the innocent Charleston, and Roger’s racist serenade.
* Speaking of that dance, it’s odd to realize that—as creepy and broken as Pete seemed at the beginning of the series—he and Trudy have what seems, in some ways, to be the most functional marriage on Mad Men. They know each other’s steps. And note Ken’s reaction to the impression his rival makes on the dance floor: “I’ve got to bring a date next time.”
* It’s interesting to go back to that “Old Kentucky Home” performance, by the way, and see the mixed reactions of the guests—most laughing, some heartily, some politely; Pete (of all people) seems disturbed, and the incident sends Don running for the bar.
* Don’s Old-Fashioned-mixing conversation with Connie, behind the bar, is one of those classic Mad Men scenes in which nothing happens, but everything gets said. The old man recalls looking in from the outside on rich people’s parties as a boy. (In the territory of New Mexico, another part of the haunted past.) “It’s different on the inside,” he says, which sums up Don’s experience in this world.
* Kinsey’s showdown with his drug-pusher college mate (who looks and sounds like someone got a time machine and kidnapped a pre-Risky-Business Tom Cruise) was a wonderfully turned scene.
* “Just don’t get pregnant…” “If Greg becomes chief resident…” Who thinks Joan’s going to get pregnant? And who thinks Greg’s going to become chief resident?
* The subplot with Sally, grandpa and the stolen five dollars could be read a lot of different ways, I suppose, but one upshot of it is that Sally and the old man share a secret: that he has more marbles left than everyone else gives him credit for.
* The confrontation between Peggy and Olive—the Feminine Mystique Era career woman and the traditional secretary—is one of those things that could play really stereotypically. So it was a blessing that Elisabeth Moss got to play it high, which complicates our read of it. Peggy’s in a state of clarity about her work, but is she seeing Olive’s motivation clearly? Is Olive afraid for her? Is Peggy’s reassurance of Olive that she’ll be fine an act of generosity or self-centeredness?
* In the denouement of the garden party, there were two echoes of the season one episode “Red in the Face”—Jean Jane seems to get overaffectionate with Don (as when Roger hit on Peggy Betty) and gets ill (as Roger did on oysters when Don took his revenge).
* So the Albany aide who put his hand on Peggy’s Betty’s pregnant belly—flirtatiously, and seemingly with some electricity: was he just there to give the show an excuse to talk about Nelson Rockefeller dropping out of the running for the 1964 election?Or is it true what Grandpa said to Sally about their bedtime reading, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “Just wait. All hell’s going to break loose”?
[Update: Sorry for all the typos. Rushed typing. And the aforementioned cocktail.]