Believe it or not, Will Harris has made a quick jump across the pond to the UK on a super secret mission of entertainment reportage this week. No word if he’ll be in communications with the 21st century descendants of Saint John Powell, Lane Pryce, and the rest of Sterling Cooper’s British overlords. As a result, however, I’m allowed one more whack at this whole “Mad Men” recap thing this week.
So…Don’s lies are becoming more transparent than ever. He arrives for dinner one night and is dutifully given his drink by Betty. She asks him if he’ll be sleeping at home and the answer is no. More work he says. Betty simply accepts that he commuted all the way from Manhattan to Connecticut, only to return to the office later on. This is apparently a regular thing these days.
Soon Don is in bed with the alluring Suzanne Farrell, lest we forget, daughter Sally’s teacher. This episode is entitled “The Color Blue,” and they have a discussion about a boy in her class who wonders if the blue that he sees is the same blue that everyone else sees. She told the boy honestly that she didn’t know. Don’s answer is, not surprisingly, a lot more cynical. Some of us might see something different, but we’d rather keep the differences to ourselves. I wonder what Don will think of the “do your own thing” meme coming a few years down the road.
At work, presumably the next day, Don complains that a commercial being staged for him has a pause in it that will ruin the impact. Peggy Olson, who was playing the lead role in the dramatization, comes up with a simple and effective way to streamline the commercial. Don’s happy and Peggy’s happy. Paul Kinsey, who dreamed up the initial version, is not and goes into full whine mode. It’s not pretty.
Meanwhile, back at the Draper residence, Don’s stops in to deposit apparently all of the $5,000 in cash from the signing bonus check Lane Pryce dropped by his office with the rest of the enormous emergency escape fund he keeps locked in his desk. Then, it’s off for beddy-bye with Miss Farrell, but things take a weird turn as her younger brother pops in unexpectedly, in need of help and a meal. She pushes Don to meet the embittered young epileptic. It’s another shadow of Don’s tragic relationship with the younger brother he abandoned twice.
Back in the city, Don’s ex-surrogate older brother, Roger Sterling, and boss emeritus Bert Cooper discuss a 40th anniversary party for the firm they once owned. The aging Mr. Cooper dreads it and Roger is unhappy about it as well; he’ll be forced to heap praise on Don, who is clearly no longer his buddy. The upshot is that it’s Bert Cooper’s party and he can beg off if he wants to – except it’s really not.
Then we have a scene that will definitely be a new exhibit in the “Betty Draper is a mean mom” case that the esteemed Mr. Harris has been building all season. This time, an innocent question from young Sally after she picks up the phone and the person on the other end hangs up causes her suddenly aggrieved mom to snap, “My goodness, Sally Draper, try not to take everything so personally.” As delivered with real anger by January Jones, it comes across as one of those inexplicable parental reactions that kids throw back at their parents decades later.
Of course, the real meaning of the incident is Betty’s perhaps repressed knowledge of Don’s new affair and her own contradictory flirtations with power broker Henry Francis. By the end of the episode, we get denials from both Francis and Miss Farrell that either of them was the mystery caller. It’s possible we’ll never find out who it was, but it sure makes a nice symbol of the hidden guilt of both Drapers.
Back at the office, the key account of the week for both Peggy and Paul is Western Union, the once gigantic telegraph company cut down to size first by the telephone and later by faxes and e-mail. Peggy efficiently works out her ideas, such as they are, on a Dictaphone. She is interrupted only by a single, ladylike burp. Meanwhile, Paul decides to drink his way to inspiration. Then, out comes what appears to be a soft towel for which I can only imagine one use. When a wank proves no more effective than booze, Paul calls out like the big baby he is for Peggy, never mind his past hissy fit. However, after narrowly avoiding catching him en flagrante masturbo, she has long since left for the evening.
Instead, he winds up chatting with a janitor named Achilles, as in the mythological hero of Homer’s The Iliad. The old gentlemen remarks that in his extended family the name is so common that if you call it out, nearly every head turns. For whatever reason, this leads to a flash of inspiration and Paul remarks that he’ll sleep well tonight. He drinks some more and passes out in the office, without writing a word down…And awakes the next morning in a panic and being driven to distraction by his secretary, Lois Sadler, apparently having kept her job after accidentally dismembering a superior a few episodes back via runaway tractor. This makes Sal Romano’s departure last week all the more unfairly ironic. Apparently splattering the office with a coworker’s blood is a relatively minor sin, but failing to have sex is a major one if it threatens a crucial account. Follow the money.
On the not-at-homefront, Don’s involvement with Miss Farrell is becoming more fraught and a little strange as she follows him onto his train briefly. The habitual womanizer is uncomfortable but also seems thoroughly absorbed by the beautiful teacher. In many respects, she’s the opposite of Betty. Down to earth, in love with her job as a teacher, capable of real joy, and not completely self-absorbed. This leads to a strange scene between Don and her brother who he is supposed to take to a new job in Massachusetts. At the young man’s insistence, Don winds up dropping him off in the middle of nowhere instead of taking him to kind of menial job that people with epilepsy were apparently once relegated to. Again, I find it impossible not to think of Adam Whitman here.
The past comes back in an even more direct way, however, when Betty finds the key to Don’s desk and does the obvious. The wads of cash are no shock at all compared to the papers, family photos, and other material that may certainly lead her to the conclusion that Don hasn’t always been Don — and then there are those divorce papers from the wife of the original Don Draper. The episode ends with Betty grudgingly keeping up appearances and keeping the matter to herself for now. She is, however, dropping some pretty big hints that something is extremely wrong, but Don clearly doesn’t want to know.
There’s a different kind of drama as Lane Pryce is tasked with ensuring that Bert Cooper change his mind and show up at the party. The overlords will be selling Sterling Cooper and he’s still a key part of the package they want to put on display. He is able to persuade Cooper to appear by appealing to his old man’s vanity; if he’s not there, everyone will think he’s sick. But, before this, Cooper delivers the most memorable and strangest line of the episode in response to his very British style of persuasion. “You really pore the honey on, then you lick it off.” It’s a zinger with a definite “eww” factor.
One interesting side aspect of this new development regarding the sale of Sterling Cooper is that Lane seems genuinely upset by it. Never mind that it may allow him to return to London and perhaps save his marriage to his terminally homesick wife. Possibly, Lane doesn’t entirely want it to be saved. Perhaps he’s got just a bit of Don Draper in him.
Also, Paul Kinsey lives to posture another day. Coming to a meeting with Don with absolutely nothing prepared and believing he’s lost possibly the best idea of his life, he is clearly chastened. (After so much booze and a wank? Probably, it was crap.) He finds sympathy first from Peggy, who is too forgiving and says the same thing has happened to her. More surprisingly, he gets a similar, and very funny, reaction from an initially furious but then completely sympathetic Don.
Paul’s quote of a Chinese proverb “The faintest ink is better than the best memory,” leads to one of those sudden bits of inspiration born of misadventures where, on rare occasions, Sterling Cooper becomes the offices of McMahon & Tate from “Bewitched.” The Western Union campaign is “You can’t frame a phone call.” Suddenly Don is Mr. Positive Guy Boss as he prepares to go to the big anniversary shindig (and secret sales exhibition) accompanied by his lovely and entirely suspecting wife.
And now is the time on the “Mad Men” recap, where we throw out the random thoughts….
* Tonight’s episode, like several this season, was credited to Kater Gordon and creator Matthew Weiner, who shared an Emmy a few weeks back. If you’ve been following the entertainment press much lately, you likely know that Gordon, who was promoted from being a writer’s assistant last year, had her name on numerous episodes, and shared the Emmy, has now been let go. I’m no expert on this, but that seems like an unusual trajectory. It’s definitely attracted attention. Usually, the only writers who get this much ink are showrunners.
* I wonder if anyone is going to start combing through The Iliad to see if they can figure out what Paul Kinsey’s inspiration might have been. I looked at some quotes and found numerous lines that could apply to “Mad Men,” but nothing that would make a good ad for telegraph services.
* It’s quite late as I finish this and I’m not really sure what to make of tonight’s show other than that it was as open to interpretation as usual and completely absorbing despite some moments that, on reflection, feel a bit contrived. Clearly, though, things are accelerating, but just where they are all going is not something I’ll dare speculate on. I will say that last season’s final episodes had a slightly surreal feeling to them, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened again.
* Finaly, I want to conclude with praise for Robert Morse’s work as Bert Cooper in “The Color Blue.” There was a touching sadness mixed in with the witty vitriol of the old, Ayn Rand-loving, soap-opera watching cynic tonight. Morse is an actor we’ve been too much deprived of since his sixties career peak, and his presence on “Mad Men” has been a brilliant touch throughout. Tonight’s performance was as funny as usual but also incredibly poignant. Wonderful work.