I’m not sure exactly where to start, so I’ll start by saying this: last night’s episode of Mad Men was deceptively simple, I think. I’m pretty sure that it gave us a road map for the second half of the season, but I’m not entirely sure that I can read the map quite yet. There are parts of it that seem clear – Megan’s exit from the workplace looks as though it foretells her larger exit – but I wouldn’t be at all surprised that if by the end of the season, everything we thought we could expect has been turned on its head. That’s what Matthew Weiner does best.
You guys are probably sick of hearing me gush about the writing prowess of Weiner and his staff every week, but it’s difficult to take an episode that needs to fulfill a lot of structural and narrative purposes (namely, getting as on the path to the season finale) and ensure that it’s still emotionally resonant. Usually writers are adept at one type of a script or another – shows that do emotion and character portraits really well often fumble when it comes to moving the larger story forward, and shows that tick right along, narrative-wise, often leave us with flat, predictable characters to populate their universes. Mad Men falls into neither trap, and it’s having perhaps its best stretch of episodes ever.
This week we started with Pete, which always gives me a bit of a sense of foreboding. Pete, despite his occasional career victories, is generally a character that you can rely on for a depressing, soul-sucking downward spiral. The fact that it was raining outside when we joined him on the train, talking to an insurance-selling commute buddy about the buddy’s new city apartment (and city mistress), didn’t bode well. Indeed, it rained for almost the entire episode.
The salesman’s tales of his amply bosomed mistress hit Pete right in the sweet spot; as we know from the Pete-centric episode a few weeks back, he’s deeply unhappy with his suburban life and Trudy’s easy transition into a more clever version of Betty Draper, and he’s grasping at absolutely anything that might make him once again feel like the city-dwelling hotshot that he always was in his own head. Whether or not Pete was ever actually that guy is up for debate, but he’d like to get back to seeing himself that way eventually.
Speaking of people trying to get back to their roots, the scene at the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce opened with Megan scooting into the front office phone booth, apparently afraid to discuss the subject of her conversation in front of the firm’s other employees, and perhaps most importantly, Don. She shouldn’t have worried, though; the rest of the creative department was occupied in the conference room, making a very successful pitch to a cologne company who was desperate to get a Beatles tune in their ad.
Pete, for his part, arrived to the office to find good news. A new client had sent over two sets of skis for him, despite the fact that Roger was the one who had been wooing them at dinner. The sporting goods company had apparently requested that Pete handle their account, and instead of being passive-aggressive and snarky while delivering the news, Roger seemed perfectly serene. The combination of his LSD trip and newfound bachelor status seems to have reminded Roger that he doesn’t actually like working, and that he gets paid no matter what, so he seems newly happy to let Pete do all the heavy lifting.
Of course, all that meant that Pete had to comically lug two ski sets home on the train at the end of the day, and there was perhaps no better way to highlight his slight stature and utter lack of athleticism. He did manage to get them all the way to his car in the station’s lot, though, where he ran into the stranded wife of his affair-having insurance friend, who just so happens to be Rory Gilmore of the early-2000s WB delight Gilmore Girls. She had locked her keys in the car, and by that time, it was clear to her that her husband didn’t intend to come home from the city.
Pete gave her a ride home, and then he, well…he gave her a ride. By the time they were in the driveway, she had all but admitted that she knew what was going on at “their” apartment in the city, and Pete followed her into the house to “make sure she wasn’t hysterical.” She knew he was coming – she stormed in and pretended to be mad that he followed her for a moment, but she hadn’t closed the front door behind her.
The next thing we knew, they were both working out their loneliness and suburban ennui on the living room floor and Rory Gilmore was telling Pete that none of this could ever happen again, even before he had the opportunity to wipe her lipstick off his face and put his patented Pete Campbell Blue Suit™ back on. Naturally, Pete wasn’t going to give up so easily, and Rory Gilmore’s speech in the car about how she can’t help but make eye contact with and worry about hobos wasn’t actually about hobos. Not for the audience, anyway. She might have thought she was talking about hobos.
While all of that was going on, Peggy was back at the office, working like the busy little beaver that we all know her to be. Megan, on the other hand, was skipping out on the late-night session because Don had beckoned her for dinner, but didn’t we see her send him home earlier? We did. When Don called the office shortly thereafter to ask Peggy where Megan was, it became clear that Megan had played them both, but particularly Peggy. When Don called again later, Peggy got really nervous about having to lie to him, or even about having to participate in someone else’s lie, and she picked up the phone, yelled PIZZAHAUS for some unknowable reason, and slammed it back down. Peggy can’t deal with this kind of ambiguity, you guys. She’s a nice girl from Bay Ridge.
Back in the office the next morning, Peggy cornered Megan in the bathroom and she spilled the beans about where she had been the night before when she pulled Peggy into her double-cross. I had hoped that she was some sort of communist spy or something, but the truth was far more mundane (and far more logical for her character) – Megan is an actress, you guys, and she just needs to act. She had gone to a callback for a role in a play the night before, and she was too nervous to admit to Don what she actually wanted to do.
At first, Peggy was upbeat. She told Megan what a great job she had been doing, and that she knew it was hard, but it soon became clear that despite her apparent talent, Megan just wasn’t interested in having a real job. After all, why should she be? She has a rich husband and daddy issues to work out. At that point, Peggy became angry, as if Megan’s impending exit from the office was some sort of referendum on the worth of everything she had worked to accomplish. Megan took the express bus from secretary to copywriter by marrying Don, while Peggy had to walk the entire way, and when Megan got there, she decided it wasn’t good enough for her.
Peggy and Megan went straight from the bathroom into a Cool Whip strategy meeting, where Megan had no problem playing both the budding copywriter and doting wife. They’ve set up the pitch so that Don and Megan will act out a scene as a couple that will eventually appear in a commercial, and Megan’s skill is undeniable. When Peggy pointedly asks her whether she and Don are going to appear in the commercial instead of just the pitch, Megan shrugs it off, citing a lack of interest. She might be able to pull off the whole actress thing after all.
While Peggy was silently seething, Pete was out front in the phone booth, apparently unable to stop himself from calling Rory Gilmore for even 24 hours after banging her on the floor of her house. He asked her to come in the city to see him that day, and Rory, sensing that she had a Stage 5 Clinger on her hands, declined his invitation and reminded him of all the ways in which doing so puts her in danger and gives him additional power.
Pete, of course, doesn’t like to hear that kind of talk. He wants everything he wants, exactly when he wants it, and he and Harry ended up back in his office, complaining about women and their tendency to make their own decisions about when and where to have sex and who to have it with. Pete seems to abhor the entire concept of sexual consent, a fact that shouldn’t surprise anyone who remembers him raping the German au pair a couple seasons back. In fact, not only does he abhor it, but it makes him feel hopeless and adrift in a world so large that its constantly reminding him of his own insignificance. Also, Harry Crane is apparently packing heat. Do with that information what you will.
That night at home, Megan finally found the nerve to tell Don that she had been on an audition and that she didn’t want to work in advertising anymore. Unfortunately for Don, this newfound bravery occurred in the middle of the night, and Megan shook him awake to give him all of her news. They discussed her thoughts about acting and copywriting and how she was having all these FEELINGS about everything, and Megan decided that she wanted to leave the business, and naturally, Don said that was ok.
Was it ok, though? Probably not. The perceptible change in Don’s tone, plus the close-up on his unsleeping face once Megan laid down, indicated that this may very well be the beginning of the end. All season, we’ve been waiting for the tipping point that would hasten the return of Old Don and the beginning of his first extra-marital affair, and I’m pretty sure that this was it. Megan’s omnipresence at both work and home kept him on the straight and narrow; it was like an alcoholic being at a perpetual AA meeting. Now that she’s going to be out of sight and out of mind, doing something that Don regards as neither interesting nor worthy of her talents, I don’t think it’ll be all that long before Megan morphs into Betty v2.0 and Don returns to the Old Don that we all remember.
At work the next day, it took Megan and Don no time to put the new changes in place. While Megan was making her tearful announcement to the creatives and fielding questions about acting (and shoes?) from Ginsberg, Don was having a very terse, very pointed conversation with Joan. The great thing about Joan is that she sees the subtext in everything, and she made sure to inquire about whether or not Megan would be disappearing entirely. Don said that she wouldn’t, but even he didn’t seem entirely convinced. Neither was Joan.
It was lunchtime before we knew it, and Don convinced Megan that she shouldn’t even come back after her farewell lunch with the secretaries; instead, he’d just bring her box of stuff home at the end of the day. He ushered her into the elevator perhaps a bit too quickly, and considering the long, lingering kiss she gave him, it seemed like Megan subconsciously knew that perhaps she was saying goodbye to more than just the office she had worked in for less than a year. She was afraid to admit all this to Don for a reason. After he sent her down in the elevator, the doors didn’t close over the shaft, leaving Don staring down dozens of floors of dark, deadly nothingness. METAPHORS, Y’ALL.
With Megan safely out of the office, Joan and Peggy met at the watercooler to discuss the day’s developments. Joan, of course, wasn’t surprised that Megan was leaving, she was merely surprised that it was her decision and not the result of an inability to do her job. Joan knows men like I know expensive handbags, and she remembered that Betty had been a model that Don had met on an ad shoot. Those are the kind of women Don marries, even if this one had looked different at first blush. Joan clearly wouldn’t miss her.
One spot where Megan’s absence was immediately missed, though, was the next day’s Cool Whip pitch. They did it in the company’s development labs, where Saved by the Bell’s Mr. Belding presided over the tastings and watched the pitch. Don threw Peggy into Megan’s spot, but he had apparently declined to rehearse with her beforehand and the entire thing was a disaster. Not only is Peggy not an actress, but she doesn’t have the natural chemistry with Don that Megan always had. She’s the girl who yells “PIZZAHAUS!” when she’s trying for misdirection, not the girl who gets onstage in a minidress and sings a cute lil’ French song to her husband-boss in front of all her coworkers.
Don was predictably angry, but Peggy didn’t let him get away with it. Not only did she call him out for not bothering to practice with her, but she (correctly) accused him of taking out his anger with Megan at her and told him to shut up, and even though the entire diatribe was insolent and insubordinating, Peggy was so right that all he could do was quietly take out a cigarette. For perhaps the first time in Mad Men history, a Cool Whip scientist told him that he wasn’t allowed to smoke.
And then, of course, there’s the issue of Pete. Freshly rejected, he ran into Rory Gilmore’s husband on the train home and feigned an insurance emergency to get himself invited over for dinner. Pete Campbell is the reason that stalking laws are written, ladies and gentlemen. Once Rory realized he was there, she excused herself from the meal with a “headache,” but not before Pete handed her something – a piece of paper, a hotel key, I’m not sure – that indicated a later rendezvous between the two of them. Naturally, Rory didn’t show up and Pete was right back to feeling like the old guy in the back of Driver’s Ed.
There’s a little light at the end of the Pete tunnel, though. Remember how I said earlier that Rory’s hobo soliloquy wasn’t really about hobos at all? Insofar as Pete’s not really a hobo, at least. The next time that Pete and Rory had occasion to interact – another commute home from the train station – they caught eyes through the windows of their respective cars and Rory made him a little condensation heart. She’s just as desperate for the attention and validation as Pete is, and now that he’s sufficiently proved him much he wants her (remember, she made him say it during their first encounter), she’s ready to be caught. Things may be looking up yet, at least for Pete, and at least in the sense that he may have found someone as desperately narcissistic as he is.
For Don, on the other hand, things are going to hell in a hand basket. Fresh off being publicly dressed down by Peggy, he came home from his first full non-Megan day of work to find her leaving for an acting class. Not only would the classes put her firmly back in her old world of downtown bohemians and blaring Beatles music, but it would leave Don at home alone and to his own devices several nights a week. In a May-December romance, that kind of constant division isn’t good for relationship morale.
Uptown at Don’s, the Beatles were blasting too, but he was having a hard time getting comfortable. Comfortable in his chair, in his flashy apartment, with the new, modern music. As far as I can remember, this was the first time we’ve seen Don truly alone in his apartment. Or anywhere, for that matter; both at home and at work, Megan has thus far been a constant distraction from his old habits. Don eventually shut off the Beatles record halfway through and went to bed, but my money is on him finding some other way to occupy his energy in the not-so-distant future.
- Stray Observations:
- I’m pretty sure that the inclusion of nearly an entire Beatles song at the end of the episode and over the credits means that the show won’t have budget to license any more songs for the rest of the season, so all of our credit music from here on out is going to be a production assistant humming.
- At the top of the episode, Pete made sure to mention that his life insurance policy covered suicide after two years. Exactly how long has Pete been at SCDP? Are we getting close to that part of the policy coming into effect? I’m pretty sure that all this Pete suicide stuff is just a red herring, but I still find it interesting.
- Rain, rain, go away. I’m pretty sure that this is the first time in Mad Men history that the weather has served as a purely thematic element. It didn’t figure in to the plot at all – no one got inconveniently stranded anywhere because of the weather – but the dark, dank tone permeated the show.
- I’m not sure that I really love the far-reaching effects that the LSD trip is having on Roger’s personality. It was cute for an episode, but it’s starting to feel like a convenient solution to the Roger problem now. Of course, one could make the argument that he’s in a much better mood now because he kicked Jane to the curb, not because the LSD changed his outlook in perpetuity.
- Cool Whip, which is a product that is meant to mimic something that it could never hope to replicate, is the perfect product for this episode, not to mention the season as a whole.
- Between Alex Mack, the dad from Clarissa Explains It All, the mom from My So-Called Life, Rory Gilmore and Mr. Belding, I’m pretty sure that Matthew Weiner is stunt-casting to amuse and delight those of us ages 25 to 35.
- I’m kind of hoping that Rory Gilmore goes Fatal Attraction on Pete instead of the other way around.