'Let's Go Someplace Darker': Mad Men Recapped
Damn you, Matthew Weiner: Always making me work on a holiday. It's an apt metaphor for Sunday night's Mad Men, however. I suppose he'd greet my complaint with some paraphrase of Don's afterhours reality check to birthday girl Peggy -- "You're 30-something years old; it's time to get over Labor Day" -- before insisting I hunker down and bring ides for the year's seventh episode. And here I am! It worked.
The seventh episode means we've officially crossed the halfway point of Mad Men's fourth season, which has seriously been born again since last month's makeout session with irrelevance. Sunday nudged it into the entirely new realm of chamber drama; written by Weiner, directed by MM regular Jennifer Getzinger, and orbiting the strange, codependent world of Don and Peggy, it felt more like Scenes From a Marriage than the soapy, sexy, stylish series that keeps piling Emmys on its mantle. You could almost see it coming from the first shot: Harry Crane distributing tickets for the big-screen simulcast of the Cassius Clay/Sonny Liston title fight on May 25, 1965. They were essentially exit passports for him and his chums, giving them something to preoccupy themselves with while Don and Peggy (and eventually another old friend) duked it out in their own glassed-in ring high above Manhattan.
Not that Don didn't want in; he has money on Liston, and he doesn't initially plan to stay late to lock horns over the Samsonite campaign. It's just that Peggy and her Three Stooges of creative -- Stan, Joey and Danny -- brought garbage for their initial pitch, and the rest of their concepts weren't much better. (Cave explorers? A suitcase flung off the Eiffel Tower? Really, guys?) "I'm glad you see this as a place where you're free to fail," Don tells her, the first step in what will become a marathon of scolding. Don can't even fall back on Roger, whose fight night has just been hijacked by Freddy Rumsen and Cal Rutledge -- the Pond's Cold Cream dream team and "AA brotherhood" who'd roped him into a dry dinner before the fight. Don rebuffs Roger's pleas to attend: "I wouldn't be good company."
Roger cracks some obvious line about never having minded that before, but seriously: Don would not be good company. Turns out Ms. Blankenship has an urgent message for him from California, and we all know what that means. Don will place this call himself, thank you very much -- except he won't, because the only thing waiting for him on the other end is the news that the one person who knows and actually cherishes his true identity (Betty and Pete wouldn't count, would they?) has slipped off this mortal coil. Word of Anna's death is a little too heavy for Dick Whitman to withstand at the moment, so he passes the cost along to Don Draper -- who in turn passes it along to Peggy, who does take an awkward phone call from her boyfriend Mark, who's waiting for her at a restaurant where they've planned her birthday dinner. Oh, and her family's there. Surprise! She's just going to be a few more minutes. Ha. Right.
That's neither the first nor the last tense call Peggy will receive on her birthday. Earlier she spoke with Duck Phillips, whom we last saw getting wasted, subdued and bounced at the Clio Awards. That little incident appears to have cost him his job at Gray, because now he's at home in the middle of the day, filling his idle time with drinking and business-card fabrication: "Phillips-Olson Advertising," Peggy's birthday "gift" reads. Flattering! So we're back to the scheming of season three, when Duck plotted to poach Pete and Peggy from Sterling Cooper. But Duck's leverage has waned; setting up his own shop, he has little to offer Peggy but partnership and a Tampax account. When that fails, he plays the old-times'-sake card: "Don't you know you're the last thing that made me feel good about myself?" He needs to see her tonight! Hiccup. Aww! Also: Eww. Peggy has just enough pity to lay him down gently, but not gently enough for Duck, apparently, who has a memory like like an elephant. A self-loathing, divorced, drunk, unemployed and unreasonably entitled elephant, but an elephant nonetheless. You'll see.
So with Don and Peggy having successfully quarantined themselves against the caring society zombies of the outside world, all that's left is to figure out a way to survive. And again, if you've watched any Bergman (and Lord knows Weiner has), they might as well be Scenes' Marianne and Johan, the couple whose dissolution and détente is captured over about five hours of draining, devastating and almost impossibly emotionally precise drama. Here, we get roughly five scenes, starting with Peggy and Don's dead-end brainstorm lapsing into rambling about the Clay/Liston fight. ("'I'm the greatest,'" he mockingly quotes Clay. "Not if you have to say it.") This is interrupted by another call to Peggy from Mark, who gives up the surprise and demands she hustle down to dinner immediately. She agrees and, for what feels like the hundredth time, throws on her overcoat and hat (sound like anyone we know?) and begins to make her exit.
Don isn't happy about it, but then again, Don didn't know it was Peggy's birthday. No sooner do they squabble over who's responsible for her inconsideration than Peggy's out the door, and no sooner is she out the door than she's in a phone booth calling Mark back to say she can't make it to dinner. And no sooner does Mark lose it than Peggy's mother is on the phone telling her what a brat she is. Bottom line: No one asked Mark to arrange this party, and anyway, it's all just a ruse to get closer to her family, whom she generally hates. "It's been nice knowing you!" he barks to Peggy, slamming the phone down.
Back upstairs, Peggy confides to Don that she broke up with Mark. Springboarding off this seeming empowerment, she pushes Don to recognize her sacrifices and contributions -- the messes she cleans up, the ideas she offers, the values she brings to Don's own creative process. Good luck with that, Pegster! "I give you money; you give me ideas!" Don yells. "You never thank me!" she says, tearing up. "That's what the money is for!" he replies. Let's face it: Don wouldn't likely put up with this even if his alter ego hadn't just lost its ballast to a painful, cancer-ravaged demise 3,000 miles away, but such conditions made it virtually impossible for any sort of emotional accommodation beyond yelling after Peggy, "I'm sorry about your boyfriend, OK?" It was a scene for the ages -- the heavyweight prizefight of the year to date, a classic up there with the famous "Wheel" monologue at the end of season one, or last year's "Who is Henry Francis?" showdown with Betty. Just unbelievable writing for two actors who inhabit its dynamics like the rest of us wear our skin.
Pages: 1 2