Despite all the hustle and bustle with a merger, this week’s episode of Mad Men manages to hone in on three primary storylines, while treating us to a plethora of little details to absorb. I’ve been waiting all season for this episode, where we’re treated to either Jon Hamm or John Slattery’s directing hand. John Slattery’s episodes usually streamline their focus on particular themes, and arcs, and he did not fail to do so. After all the hopping around with multiple arcs, it was a nice break to come back to an episode where you’re really deeply examining a number of things. There are some things that make me stop to wonder, but nevertheless, we get some intriguing developments.
We’re continuing to see Pete in a losing streak here. First, we see him in his continuing defeats in the office – at the new partners meeting, he doesn’t even have a seat! (Great moment of seeing what everyone’s personality is like based on how they react to this) Then, Pete gets called away because his mother is at his apartment door. We see him dip back and forth between mitigating his mother and his job, neither of which are working in his favor. His brother confronts him about losing the public offering, and also confronts him about what they’re to do with their mother, who clearly is demonstrating signs of dementia, or Alzheimer’s. On top of that, Pete misses out on opportunities to keep a handle on his accounts and his business. Probably significant that his mother is at the root of the problem, yeah? (Remember, this show has plenty of drama and problem with mothers) I’m still not sure what her appearance means, or why she’s really there, but she’s clearly representative of an obstacle that Pete cannot overcome, or handle with grace. Of course, it’s beautifully ironic that the one thing she gets right, Pete writes off as part of her increasing senility and disease, is Bobby Kennedy’s assassination.
After her slight defeat in the announcement of losing Jaguar, and the shocking news of the merger, we see Joan struggling with asserting her strength. Again, we see her face a work-related challenge first: right at the top, her power is immediately challenged by Ted’s girl, who insists on sharing the responsibility of knowing all that is going on. Joan concedes to have a brief acknowledgement with Peggy (an actually funny but poignant scene where they reveal with some fragility the state of their lives, Peggy nervously blurting she bought a place, and Joan only sharing that her son is the “man” in her life) only to reveal a potential health issue. In a moment where she’s caught undone and without her usual grace, Bob Benson charges into the rescue (his random creeping about does have its benefits, it seems!) and assists in getting her to the hospital. His charms are seen at work when he pushes Joan to the front of the list to see a doctor by pretending she drank furniture polish. It occurs to Joan, as she confides with her mother about him, that Bob is saving face for his job in the midst of the merger. Of course, we’ve already seen ruthless Joan, and Joan taking her power to extreme levels. What does she do now that she has the opportunity to exact her power? She saves Bob back. A nice change of pace for someone who was otherwise beaten down do right by somebody in this dog eat dog world. I’m still curious to see what this will do for Bob, but at least we see more how he fits into the universe of Mad Men.
We’ve started to see signs of Don feeling uber macho and domineering toward the end of the last episode, as he traipses in on Ted’s announcement to Peggy about the merger. That smug look on his face doesn’t seem to wipe itself off until he gets into the plane with Ted. But before we even get to THAT point, we see him basically pull out the ruler to measure who’s got the biggest johnson as Ted and Don try to get a new pitch going for margarine, their latest conquest as a merged company. We begin to see the delicate threads of this merger and the different creative styles through Don and Ted, with Ted holding a very traditional, team-oriented writers’ meeting to bounce off ideas. Of course, in this mode of claiming his own, Don applies this approach with Sylvia – he overhears a fight Sylvia has with Arnie (although, the fact that we only hear Sylvia gives me reason to believe maybe the fight isn’t real and it was her excuse to get Don into bed?) and immediately takes advantage of her begging him to bed. He begins ordering her around, telling her not to leave the room, not to answer the phone – he has her under his control. In these moments, he also gets Ted under his control, pretending to compensate for missing the meeting by having the two of them bounce off ideas over drinks. Obviously the drinking isn’t Ted’s style, and he gets Ted to make a bit of a fool of himself in front of the writers. When do the tables turn? Oddly enough, when it rains, and when Pete is called home due to a false fire emergency in his apartment. Ted steps up, and literally takes the wheel by flying himself and Don to Mohawk for their meeting. The tables turn here, with Ted looking cool in his aviators and smug, relaxed smile, while Don struggles to read The Last Picture Show (a significant choice – if not in topic of the book, but if you think of the title itself – this could be Don’s last hurrah as the top dog). From that moment on, there comes a shift for Don too – after he returns from that trip, Sylvia effectively ends the affair. And for the first time, Don’s steely look softens to glossy, puppy dog eyes, as he sees he’s lost control of this situation, too. He comes home to Megan, her voice blurring out and his face souring.
And, lastly, I wanted to point out a few notable symbols and stylistic choices made in the episode. Again, John Slattery’s mastery definitely makes it a little easier to pinpoint these details:
-DOORS! I think it’s pretty significant that Don wanted to keep Sylvia WITHIN doors, a door he controlled the opening and closing to. When we see Don and Sylvia in the hotel room for the last time, we see Sylvia exiting a door – from a well-lit bathroom – fully clothed, and crucifix glaring around her neck. Equally significant? Sylvia walking away from Don as the elevator doors open.
-Dawn – I’m digging a little for the significance in Dawn’s absence. She’s referred to briefly by Peggy, who notes that Dawn is revealing nothing about Don’s whereabouts when Don first runs off to sleep with Sylvia in the hotel room. But why is Don’s phone ringing with Dawn nowhere to be found? Perhaps another sign of Don’s loss of control over a fast spiraling situation? That’s the one thing I can think of. Thoughts?
-Pete’s receding hairline – this is really silly, but his hair is kind of out of control in this episode. Perhaps especially since we see his aging mother, his receding hairline is matching up with the idea of mortality, and Pete’s own age getting the best of him?
-Roger’s one major scene is with Burt Peterson, who also was bagged from the company in the midst of a merger. This is merely a fun callback, and I’m assuming a continuing sign that the merger could possibly only do more harm than good.
-Instead of news dominating the episode as it has in prior episodes this season, the Bobby Kennedy assassination is announced at the end, in a rather quiet manner, with the audio from the TV broadcast lingering through the credits. I wonder what the significance here is – I see it more as a sign of foreshadowing that there’s more defeat and darkness to come. Instead of the characters dealing with the actual news and tragedy, as they already have, we’re haunted by Don’s expression – it’s unreadable, but we know he knows things are changing, and that things are simply not good. Also intriguing is the mix with the song by Friend & Lover “Reach Out of the Darkness” – it’s oddly haunting, the irony of the lyrics with the broadcast of the news.
All in all, a very intriguing week for Mad Men, with some odds and ends to think about for Don especially. Clearly, the merger is a struggle for all parties. How else will the balance be challenged? Looking forward to seeing more next week.