Not long ago, my friend Chris Hart posited that, insofar as it has one, Don Draper has become the ‘villain’ of Mad Men. Rarely has that seemed so true as this week. Lost in his constant existential turmoil, Don has always been self-centred, so intent on his own bitter self-discovery that those around him always take second place. This week, though, Don’s actions towards those around him seemed like they could have been motivated by nothing more than pure malice.
Oh really, Roger Sterling? Not all surprises are bad? In the real world maybe, but this is Mad Men, where everything that happens to everyone is bad. If you really think some surprises here are good, just ask Don Draper. Or Sally Draper. Or, for that matter, Pete Campbell.
“I’m in charge of thinking of things before people know they need them.”
Rarely has an episode of Mad Men been so light and fluffy, and (almost) devoid of the usual gloom and portents that characterise the show. And rarely has an ep had a title so literal, as this week saw Don, Roger and Harry jet off to LA on business, while back in New York, Joan tried to get more involved in the business herself – as opposed to just office admin.
“We’re both two halves of the same person. We want the same things.”
“The Better Half” – a self-deprecating phrase often used by husbands in the 60s to describe their wives. Ironic, really, considering the second place wives always took to the ‘Master of the House’. Here, it meant that and more in a thoughtful, incisive episode of Mad Men that examined the characters’ relationships with their families and their partners, and asked, just who is the ‘better half’?
“When you start something like this, it takes a lot of convincing. It’s all about whether or not the other person has as much to lose as you do, because you want to be able to trust them when it’s over.”
This week was one of those rather surreal episodes that Mad Men does so well, with a disjointed, hallucinatory feel that mirrored the perspective of the protagonists in its main plotline. Having found prestigious new clients Chevrolet to be demanding and impossible to satisfy, the staff of… whatever the newly merged agency is called pulled an all-weekend brainstorming session. OK, we’ve seen them do that before, usually with the aid of prodigious quantities of alcohol. This time, though, at the urging of new partner Jim Cutler, they were doing it with the aid of some pretty hardcore stimulants. The results were as messy – and as entertaining – as you’d expect.
Not surprisingly, this week’s Mad Men concerned itself with the aftermath of last week’s surprise merger between Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and Cutler, Gleason and Chaough. Like any merger, it meant that suddenly there was much duplication of work, and fear of redundancy stalked the offices of… what should we call it now? Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Cutler Gleason Chaough? That’s a mouthful even as an acronym – SCDPCGC. I think Lane Pryce’s memorial namecheck may be first for the chop.
“Just once, I’d like to hear you use the word ‘we’. Because we’re all rooting from the sidelines, hoping that you’ll decide whatever you think is right for our lives.”
After last week’s thoughtful tussle with history, it was back to business with a vengeance for this week’s Mad Men. With Matthew Weiner scripting solo for the first time since the season premiere, this week saw the fortunes of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce on some kind of insane rollercoaster, as Big Decisions were made by sub-cliques among the partners who surely should have checked with the others before making them. As ever, it turned out to be (by a very lucky combination of circumstances), Don and Roger who came up smelling of roses, while the ever-unlucky Pete Campbell saw his stock both at work and at home go plunging.
“This is an opportunity. The heavens are telling us to change.”
Usually, in Mad Men, history just rumbles along in the background, its social mores informing our characters’ motivations, its events occasionally prompting semi-important plotlines. Every so often, though, history leaps up and slaps the narrative across the face. Seasons 1-3 were like that; 1 building to Kennedy’s Presidential victory, 2 climaxing with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and 3 ending with the shock of JFK’s assassination. Last week, I wondered whether this season might be building up to climax with the assassination of his brother Bobby. Instead, it took me by surprise with a Big Historical Event right in the middle of the run – the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King.
“If you don’t like what they’re saying – change the conversation.”
This was the first episode of Mad Men this season in which Matt Weiner had no writing credit – and it showed, in a definite change of tone from his usual portent-laden melancholia. Instead, it came off more like the soap opera it basically is, beneath the existential trappings. Appropriate, given that one of the major subplots involved Megan’s work on the fictional soap opera which gave the episode its title.
“Now I understand. You want to feel shitty – right up to the point where I take your dress off.”
Never a show with a straightforward approach to dialogue or characterisation, Mad Men this week took its usual obfuscation of motive and events to new heights, in an episode directed by Don Draper himself, Jon Hamm. The ep was ostensibly another of those juxtapositions between Don and Don-wannabe Pete Campbell, showing their failings both professionally and socially. But, even more than usual, grasping what was truly going on relied on interpreting the Unsaid as much as the said.