'You're an A**hole, You Know That?': Mad Men Recapped

God, whatever happened to the good old innocent days of smoking, drinking, philandering and account steamrolling we were once so accustomed to on Mad Men? When did all the sexy beatniks turn into junkies? When did cigarettes become so unfashionable? When did adorable Baby Gene turn into a spoon-banging little creep? When did Don Draper turn into Jerry Maguire? Where did my favorite TV show go?

Seriously, what a bunch of pussies. My frustrations with Sunday's episode aren't quite from the same place as those that earlier alleged Mad Men had jumped the shark; the penultimate installment of Season Four was at least confined to New York and featured real people dealing with real problems as opposed to traversing the continent to shove skeletons deeper and deeper in the closet and/or bid farewell to the series' most reliable plot devices. Sunday simply did away with whatever subtlety you hoped might return after last week's this-happened-and-then-that-happened vortex, bringing instead the all the modulated narrative grace of a sledgehammer in the back of the head.

Or on the nose. But I know, I know: What about the recap, jerk? Well, what about it? Let's see if I got this right: Drugs are killing our women. Boys provide drugs. Don renounces drugs. Bert renounces Don. Betty renounces boys. Sally renounces childhood. Henry renounces Ossining. Heinz renounces Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, or at least Don's positioning of it. After all, as the company's rep tells Don: "There's a time for beans, there's a time for ketchup." Or... something.

Anyway, that's about it for Episode 12. I guess I could be more specific -- like how bold and inspired Don's full-page, "Why I'm Quitting Tobacco" NYT gambit was. Right. Let's keep in mind that only, what, seven or eight months ago in story-arc time, Don Draper was the focus of two media profiles (that we know about). The first failed; he was aloof, distant. The second erupted; he had reestablished his swagger and made SCDP the template of the modern, progressive, full-service boutique ad agency. In that time, he entranced Honda, Samsonite, Glo-Coat (and, by extension, the Clio voting committee) and God knows who else with his wizardly wiles. Don was a legend -- a myth among mortals with only that Achilles' heel of his dual identity holding up his inexorable march toward world domination.

So you're (you = Matthew Weiner and writers Maria and André Jacquemetton) telling me that since then Don Draper has lost enough industrial clout and influence to be put in his place by a ketchup executive? ("Let the account boys do this part!") Or that the sultry beatnik conquest of four years ago returns at this moment in search of a heroin handout? ("It's like drinking 100 bottles of whiskey while someone licks your tits.") And that amid the cataclysm of American Tobacco jumping ship and Phillip Morris passing over so much as a meeting with SCDP, Don's strategy is, in Megan's words, "He didn't dump me, I dumped him"? (Which Don denies, which makes it even more eye-rollingly irrational.) As if anybody on Madison Avenue -- let alone the partners who just ponied up a quarter-million dollars and dished out a fistful of pink slips to keep the lights on -- would not only not see through that, but commence account poaching from SCDP as soon as possible? I know it's just a TV show, but if I came to work tomorrow and wrote a big item called "Why I'm Quitting Movies" because this studio or that publicist won't take a meeting with me (yet I attributed it to product that "never improves, causes illness, and makes people unhappy," which is about right), it'd be a punk move that would impress nobody but myself -- at least until I was ashamed, which wouldn't take long.

But in the world of Mad Men, where Don is rewarded with kisses from one (newly fired) paramour, direct appreciation from his ambitious other paramour, qualified respect from his creative second-in-command and the grudging benefit of the doubt by at least a few of his fellow partners, this is some kind of seismic intellectual development. It's also the conceptual culmination of this season's long road to detox: Don's crisis of losing Anna, his slappy-whore fetish, his long and pukey night with Peggy, his exercising and journal-keeping, the long shadow of the Clios and Allison's drunken conquest... That Don forsakes Midge's smack habit at virtually the very moment Sally forsakes Glen's tobacco jones is more than cosmic coincidence. Weiner is grabbing the zeitgeist by the throat and announcing where "The '60s" really begin. And Don's not having any of it.

Think of it this way: Father and daughter stake a moral claim of sorts, a couple of ancient utopian mascots in a miasma of war, assassinations, ethnic violence and now drugs. For daring to disrupt (or at least stand up to, however innocuously in Sally's case) the encroaching social order, they are threatened with being cast out of their respective Edens -- Don from Madison Avenue, Sally from Ossining. When Betty finds Sally with Evil Glen -- who himself is hastening to run away -- the mother scolds her daughter and later floats the idea of moving house. Henry happily suggests Rye, N.Y. "Isn't that where Playland is?" Bobby yelps, drawing yet another obvious contrast to Sally's sophistication. Sally darts off to weep in her bedroom. After all this -- the successful therapy with Dr. Edna, the strides to eat dinner with her mother and stepfather -- Sally's world comes down to a bad influence she respects but resists.

Don experiences essentially the same thing. Kind of. It's a more disingenuous resistance; there is no indication he has any intention of really quitting tobacco himself. Invited to party with Midge (who telegraphs her junkiedom with comments about her "skinny"-ness and further entrenchment in the Village), he sends her husband off with $10 for groceries. But it's not a party that he wants -- it's connection. Intimacy. And when Midge undercuts it by exposing him to her vice, he gets out the only way he can: He buys his exit, first with a $300 check ("What am I going to do with a check?") and finally with $120 cash. In exchange he gets one of Midge's paintings. Back home, in his pensive, solitary woe on the brink of oblivion, he studies it with the same focus Sally tearfully applies to the lanyard Glen left behind after vandalizing her house last Christmas.

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