'Jesus, What a Mess': Mad Men Recapped
Every season of Mad Men has its defining WTF moment. Take Betty's pellet-gun prowess in season one, or Freddy Rumsen's pants-peeing in season two, or last season's Great Lawnmower Foot Severing of 1963. The series wouldn't be the same without these breathtaking, pitch-black detours into Mathew Weiner's id (for better or worse), and the current season of the series wouldn't be the same without its frequent journeys to that well for dramatic reckoning, comic relief and/or the sheer exhilaration of point-blank, old-fashioned shock. And if this year we've indeed seen both the best and the worst of what Mad Men has to offer, then it only fits that we have finally seen its weirdest. But was it worth it?
Haha -- kidding! Of course it was: Ida Blankenship's death was one befitting a character of her surreal stature -- the crossword-devouring, cataract-vanquishing wiseacre busybody who was among the first to help stabilize Don Draper's downward spiral and, as he evinced greater control and initiative over his demons, became the first to shove off to that big secretarial pool in the sky. Miss Blankenship was in fact a victim of her own success, a common casualty among Mad Men regulars, just never quite like... this. I mean, the most we used to be able to expect was Sal Romano getting thrown out of the office for holding his moral ground and rebuffing a closeted (if influential) client's advances.
Now, however, rectitude and duty have a new patron saint in the Mad Men universe: Her work here being done (and her interviews having been given, natch), it's time to let the little ones scuttle off on their own. "She died like she lived," recounted noted obituarist Roger Sterling. "Surrounded by people she answered phones for."
Cause of death, meanwhile? "Don Draper," cracks Stan. That's probably overstating things, but from the start of this week's episode, there was no denying that working for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce's truant prince must have its setbacks. You figure a woman born in 1898 (especially one branded a "hellcat" by no less an authority than Roger) has probably seen just about everything, but like us, a gnawing angst must develop at the sight and sound of Don taking a long lunch, boning Dr. Miller back at home, returning to work and taking a nap. And this just in the first seven minutes of the episode! Sure it's August; initiative slows down with the city. But whatever mojo Don lost last week seems to have returned, and I could feel the whiplash on my couch. I can't imagine what it must have been like at the desk outside his office.
At least Joan is consistent. Not long before Greg was set to return from eight weeks of basic training -- the eight weeks that, along with the copy writers' more chauvinist cruelties, turned her from no-nonsense Joan Jekyll to seething Holloway Hyde -- along came the crushing news that Greg would in fact wind up shipped straight to Vietnam. No NYC furlough, no conjugal layovers, no personal goodbye, nothing. From lonely to forsaken in weeks flat. Her brittle game face cracks in Roger's sympathetic gaze; here he thought he had problems just because he can't find a taker for his book. She wants signatures on an agreement; he delivers them plus sends a double-team of Swedish masseuses for a house-call at the Harris residence. Her guard sufficiently weathered, Joan welcomes them inside. Much pampering ensues, even if it means Roger will lay the romantic pressure on again the next day. "I forgot you can't do something nice without wanting something nicer in return," Joan responds. It's just dinner! Sheesh, Joanie.
Nothing's ever just dinner or just freaking anything in this cosmos, of course. Subtext abides, making the show's explicit overtures of lust, subversion and persuasion all the more welcome. Stan may not be shocked by the "lesbian hijinks" of Peggy and the returning, expository bore-mistress Joyce, but perhaps we are by the time Joyce turns to literally lick a smile from giggling Peggy's cheek. Even more troubling is Peggy's ambivalence toward racial equality -- her haste to throw women's lot in with that of more violently, virulently oppressed blacks, even as condescending hipster Abe Drexler finds his way back into the storyline to lay the truth down, you dig? He falls in love while he's at it, prompted to poetry by this nuanced young woman who still, months after originally defending the advertising trade to him at a loft party, refuses to equate her professional success with a deadening of her soul. (At least she's consistent, too.) Maybe Abe's tribute in verse -- a.k.a. "Nuremberg on Madison Avenue" -- will convince her?
Good luck with that. She tears the work to shreds and makes Abe promise to destroy all remaining copies. "I had you wrong," he mutters to Peggy, crestfallen. At least it wasn't a totally wasted trip; he gets to be on hand when Sally Draper shows up at the arm of a matronly stranger who will scold Don up one side and down the other for letting his daughter roam free on the Metro-North line. Of course it didn't go quite like that, as Betty breezily explains when her furious ex gets her on the phone: The child psychiatrist thought it would "build responsibility" for Sally to walk between camp to home without supervision. "Thank you, psychiatry," Don spits. Betty says something facetious about how "fun" it is to raise an oversexed, precocious, eminently curious 11-year-old, adding that she'll pick Sally up when she's in town the next night.
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