Howdy Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce-heads. Will Harris, your usual “Mad Men” blogger, has found himself here in beautiful Southern California and ensconced at the Beverly Hilton, where — as you may have noticed from his numerous posts — he has been covering the twice-annual conclave of the Television Critics Association (TCA). Ironically, especially considering last year’s Conrad Hilton storyline, the beautiful and very pricey Beverly Hilton does not, in fact, carry AMC and so the job has been left to yours truly.
Now, for some reason, whenever I sit in for Will on one of these posts, there’s always something stressing me out. Tonight it’s these weird twinges in my upper right teeth that I’m hoping are somehow normally associated with the new nightguard I’ve been trying out from the dentist and not an early warning sign of a toothy catastrophe of some sort. However, as Don Draper would no doubt remark over an Old Fashioned, we’ve all got our problems And so it is in spades for pretty much all the featured characters on tonight’s episode, which takes place around the New Year’s holiday of 1964-65.
As we begin, Joan Harris is visiting her affable gynecologist, who is concerned that she’ll be able to have a baby when her and Dr. Greg are finally ready. The doctor is wondering what Joan is waiting for as most newlywed females as positively ancient as Joan is would be desperate to have a baby yesterday, or so it seems to the kindly doc. There is also the obliquely referred to issue of not one but two abortions. One of the procedures was apparently performed by doc, though abortion would remain illegal in New York until 1970. An earlier procedure was performed by a woman who claimed to be a midwife. This isn’t great, but Joan got pregnant (and unpregnant) after that and besides, there’s always the wise words of songwriters Jay Livingston and Ray Evans: “whatever will be, will be.” (I need to remember that about my teeth.)
Then it’s off to offices of SCDP where Don is planning a New Year’s get away to Acapulco, which always seemed to be swinging bachelor destination of choice on sixties sitcoms. Speaking of said sitcoms, Harry Crane, now quite the show biz insider, notes a 24 hour L.A. lay over in Don’s itinerary. Why not hang out at the legendary Brown Derby with Harry’s new acquaintance, producer Bill Asher? It’s not mentioned, but William Asher’s new program in ’64 was a sitcom called “Bewitched” starring Asher’s then spouse, the highly underrated Elizabeth Montgomery, as a witch whose magic powers were often employed in helping her advertising executive husband land and retain new clients. Occasionally “Mad Men” has what I sometimes call “McMahon & Tate moments” after the firm on the show — usually when someone saves a presentation at the last second with a sudden inspiration. Don, naturally, will blow off that Asher meeting. This trip is all about freedom, after all.
With the holidays on, there really does seem to be a major lull going on at the office. Joan seizes the opportunity to approach that eternal penny pincher, Lane Pryce, using an offer of fried chicken for lunch to try and soften him up. Her husband, Dr. Greg Harris, will be working over the holidays and she’d like a couple of days off shortly afterward. Lane is adamant. The days off are simply too close to the holiday and there’s simply too much work to be done. “I understand that all men are dizzy and powerless to refuse you,” he says to the ridiculously radiant and curvaceous Joan, “but consider me the incorruptible exception. Fried chicken indeed.” He then tells her not to “cry about it.” This does not go over well.
And, then to the relaxed strains of pre-Sergio Mendes boss nova (Brazil ’66 is still a year away), we are in Los Angeles with Don. Except it’s not Don, exactly, but his secret identity of Dick Whitman. Whitman/Draper is paying a visit to Anna Draper, the widow of the real Don Draper, who died in Korea. If you’ve been watching the show up to now, you’ll note that what should have been a truly uncomfortable relationship is anything but and, indeed, the real Mrs. Draper is probably about the best friend Don/Dick has ever had. No wonder the man we’ll temporarily refer to as “Dick” seems so happy and comfortable driving toward her attractive but modest South Bay bungalow.
He finds Anna there with a broken leg and a story about how she broke it that doesn’t hold water. His arrival is quickly followed by the appearance of Patty, Anna’s somewhat less charming sister, and a new distraction: Anna’s extremely attractive young niece, Stephanie. She is a bright and opinionated college student down from U.C. Berkeley whom Don is careful to establish is “of drinking age.” Anna asks her to stay for dinner, because, she tells her privately, she wants him to meet Dick and “I know you’ve got grass.”
It’s striking how comfortable and just plain nice Dick seems in these surroundings and so is the relaxed and witty dialogue he shares with Anna and Stephanie. He’s happy here, you think. Why can’t he just stay and become a beatnik poet in Venice or operate a burger stand in Hermosa or something? Well, because he’s a guy who just can’t be happy being who he is, if he even has a clue who that person might be.
Dick is not so different from Don and, driving Stephanie back to her mom’s place, he starts making moves on the young girl, though in a gentler and sweeter way than usual. Though we think Stephanie might show an interest in Dick, that’s actually the furthest thing from her mind as she drops a devastating bombshell. The reason for Anna’s broken leg — not to mention, most likely, her early affinity for pot — is that she is afflicted with terminal cancer which has spread to her bones. Moreover, as often was the case in those years, Anna has not been told on the grounds that the knowledge would only upset her. Dick is completely stunned by the news and appalled by the idea of keeping Anna in the dark. Stephanie begs him to keep the secret.
The next morning, he attempts to put on a brave face and decides to extend his stay, making a show of giving a new coat of paint to Anna’s living room while dressed only in a t-shirt and boxers. There is a deeply moving exchange where Don admits that he believes Betty left him because, in more than one sense, she found out who Dick/Don really is. Anna tells Don, “I know everything about you and I still love you.”
These are, of course, the words all of us want to hear from someone we truly love and it becomes clear that, for a guy who was denied parental affection and whose ways with women preclude anything much in the way of trust, Anna substitutes for all that. Conscious of her illness, Don is barely able to contain himself. I had the same problem watching the scene.
Still, an angry encounter with Patty, Anna’s sister, makes it clear that Dick/Don can’t really stay. She implores him to “do the decent thing” though, truly, what the most decent thing to do in a case like this is, I haven’t a clue. Still, does Don even have the right to get that involved in the affairs of this family? “You’re just a man in a room with a checkbook. I’m sorry,” Patty says.
Logically enough, she adds that the longer Don stays, the more likely he is to let the truth slip. It’s a heartbreaking scene when he tells Anna he has to go, though he thought he could stay, without any real explanation. Presumably Dick’s just gotta have fun. Like a loving and permissive mother, she only wants Dick to be happy and cheers him on. Encouraged by her to paint a message on her wall, he writes “Dick and Anna ’64.” I’m almost ready to cry just writing this.
Meanwhile, back in New York, a mix-up in which flowers intended for Lane Pryce’s unhappy wife back in London instead get sent to Joan — and the flowers for Joan get sent to Mrs. Pryce — causes even greater anger. Until Joan and Layne realize the mistake lies with Layne’s secretary and the pair are oddly allied in firing her, granting her pay “through the end of the year” — which is, like, two days away. Harsh, but given the possible damage to Pryce’s very shaky marriage, understandable.
Back at home, Joan has been quarreling with Dr. Greg about when they will spend time together before his military service begins, but Joan slips with a knife and gives herself a nasty cut. We remember how Greg’s apparent incompetence may have led to the death of a surgical patient last year and how that led to his military service. She tries to come up with an excuse not to let him patch up the nasty cut and to head to an emergency room instead. Then we see something kind of marvelous.
Greg may have raped Joan while they were engaged. He might have been a horrifically bad surgeon and an all-around mess of a man, but he’s actually pretty good at the whole bedside manner, country doctor thing, distracting Joan with a dirty, corny joke as he takes care of the cut.
After having a part of his world drop away in Los Angeles, Don is in no mood to party in Acapulco. He winds up back at the office and bumps into Lane, who has not returned to visit his family in England as planned. A bottle of extremely smooth whiskey, presumably Scotch, from Lane’s alcoholic dad begins a drunken bonding experience. Spilling some whiskey leads to a remark Lane can’t possibly understand in which Don quotes a joke Anna made about nearly rolling over a joint while asleep.
The Pryce-Draper drunk also includes watching the Japanese monster opus, “Gamera” (which wasn’t released in the States until 1966 according to IMDb) after Pryce reacts badly to a mention of the Doris Day/Rock Hudson rom-com, “Send Me No Flowers.” Then, it’s off to see a sub-Lenny Bruce comedian and a nice visit with a couple of call girls. While it initially might seem as if Pryce is likely to go into “No Sex Please, I’m British” mode he goes out for the entire evening’s festivities after all, paying his end and thanking Don for the “welcome distraction.”
And then, not long after, it’s back to the office and the conference room. Apparently Pryce has finally found the money for a table as well as chairs. “Gentleman,” Joan says, hosting the proceedings, “shall we begin 1965?”
I have to say that I went into tonight’s episode with some concerns. Watching the first two episodes yesterday getting caught up for this, I was a bit let down by a tone that I found a bit dour even for “Mad Men,” as if Matthew Weiner needed to appease the gods for the fun of last season’s surprising closer. Tonight’s show, however, more than made up for all of that with one of the most blatantly emotional and funny episodes in a show that sometimes seems as afraid of open emotions as its lead characters. We’ve seen Don vulnerable before, but we’re seeing something from him we haven’t seen much of: compassion. The lighter scenes with Stephanie and Anna are sweetly witty. The denouement with Lane Pryce is intriguing. Is this just a one-off, or is it the start of a beautiful friendship?
Great work by Wiener and tonight’s cowriter, Jonathan Abrahams, not to mention the entire cast, with special kudos to Jared Harris as Lane, Melinda Page Hamilton who I hope we get to see again as Anna Draper, and, once again, Jon Hamm. It’s gotten to the point where it’s kind of boring to praise the guy, but talk about running a range of emotions. Geez. It was also nice to see some new colors tonight from Sam Page as Dr. Harris.
And, finally, if you’re wondering about my personal dental drama, a very quick trip to the drug store seems to have at least temporarily mostly dealt with those worrisome tooth twinges. Apparently that sensitive toothpaste stuff actually works. Now, it’s time for an Draper style Old Fashioned with Canadian Club. That should set things really right.