The Great Mad Men Re-Watch comes to an end today. I hope you enjoyed revisiting these amazing episodes as much as I did. At times they felt like an anthology series of self-contained plays. At others, they felt like brilliantly enacted chapters of a great American novel. They certainly held up remarkably well, as I imagine they will ten and twenty years from now, and beyond—the sign of a true and lasting work of art.
Farewell for now—until Sunday, at least, when Season 5 begins!
This episode centers on two men desperate to outrun their pasts: Don and Lane. In Don’s case, a new account with defense contractors North American Aviation leads to a routine background check, and Betty being confronted at home by two men asking if she has “any reason to believe that Mr. Draper isn’t who he says he is.” The fact that Pete lured in the client after Don abandoned him out in California (I love how patience allows these through-lines to really pay themselves off in Mad Men) makes for a riveting encore of the Don-vs.-Pete face-offs from Season 1. Of course, this time both parties are on the same side, however uncomfortably, and Pete finds himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place, burdened on one hand with the weight of Don’s secrets, facing the loss of a prestigious and exotic account on the other. The tension in knowing that Don might at any moment be sent to jail hangs over the proceedings—there’s no statute of limitations on desertion, as Don reminds Pete—and gives “Hands and Knees” an added, Hitchcockian flare.
With Lane, the past he seeks to outrun is his own father, who lands literally on the SCDP doorstep to demand his son come home. This was the episode that brought us inside the walls of the Playboy Club, a sequence which all but certainly made NBC horny for its own bunny hutch and Don-alike. (Alas, Eddie Cibrian, it wasn’t meant to be.) You feel for Pryce in this scenario, so proudly and defiantly trying to break away from the Oxford-Cambridge existence which once undoubtedly defined his life. But he pushes just a little too far, flaunting his affair with an African-American bunny and getting a hard whack over the head with his father’s cane—daddy then crushes his son's hand with his foot until Pryce cries uncle. (Or father, in this case.) My knowledge of the British boarding school system is limited, but if I learned one thing from all those high school years listening to The Smiths, it’s that corporal punishment is their solution to everything. As Morrissey sings, “A crack on the head is what you get for not asking. And a crack on the head is what you get for asking.”
In this case, Lane was definitely asking.
The surprises keep coming.
The Season 4 endgame began the episode prior, with Lee Garnett Jr. telling Roger that American Tobacco is consolidating its business, and therefore firing SCDP from Lucky Strike. Roger, in desperate denial mode, asks for thirty days to get “affairs in order,” which translates to just thirty days to avoid the unavoidable. In “Chinese Wall,” it gets back to the firm in the middle of the night, and it’s a crisis unlike to ever hit Mad Men. Forget the JFK assassination—the loss of the company’s single biggest account is akin to Armageddon. What’s great about this episode is that it finally gives us a vulnerable Roger, and hoo-boy, it ain’t pretty. I had forgotten about the scene where Roger, feigning ignorance, places a fake call to Lee in front of Don, Pete, Ken, and Bert. Do you know how good of an actor you need to be to pull the wool over Don Draper and Bert Cooper’s eyes? Like, Meryl Streep-good. And Roger, who’s really been performing the part of a businessman his whole life, knocks it out of the ballpark. The scene, like so much of Mad Men, is an emotional parfait, simultaneously tense, funny, and profoundly sad for poor Roger, whose last tether to the power and prestige he flaunts daily has just vanished in a cloud of carcinogenic smoke. It gets sadder though, when he shows up at Joan’s place looking for a distraction-lay, and gets dumped in his moment of need. Toward episode’s end, Jane presents Roger with a box of his newly published memoir, Sterling’s Gold. That’s no accident. Rather, it’s a wink at the fact that you can never quite close the chapter on a life until it’s well and truly over.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, the old saying goes, and it’s fun to see everyone’s survival instincts kick in, however ugly. I think Pete wins the award here, in reacting to news that his wife has just given birth with a smile (I love Don’s petulant, “Congratulations”) and then a reminder that they shouldn’t be late for the funeral service of a competing accounts guy whose business they hope to scavenge. Ad men: They make lawyers seem positively cuddly by comparison!
That the internal operations of a half-century-old ad agency should make for such gripping drama four seasons in is a testament to just how great a series Mad Men is.
Speaking of survival instincts, the big event in “Blowing Smoke” is Don’s full-page ad in the New York Times, “Why I’m Quitting Smoking.” I loved this development, because it felt big and dramatic and unlikely, yet somehow believable. The sequence when Don returns to the office next day is absolutely priceless. Stan’s face says it all: Translation: “You’re either the smartest or dumbest man I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, but either way, damn—you got balls.” The image of the partners waiting for Don in the boardroom, and Don ignoring them and heading directly into their office, is fantastic. And then there’s the actual confrontation, with four giant personalities aiming their missiles directly between Don’s eyes. “You humiliated us by not putting our names on it,” Bert says. “You left us with this hypocrisy!” Don, to his credit, stands his ground, and it seems for a moment like he’s going to have the last laugh when Robert Kennedy calls to personally congratulate him, but that quickly fizzles when it’s revealed to be Ted Cheough putting on a Kennedy accent. (The truth is, we won’t find out in Season 4 if Don’s gamble paid off, though there is a glimmer of hope when SCDP is invited to present ideas for the American Cancer Society’s anti-smoking campaign.) The entire thing is either a brilliant act of self-sabotage, or just plain brilliant—and that’s what’s so great about it. It’s pure Don Draper.
You want to talk about the Butterfly Effect? Try this one on for size: Glen comes over to say a sweet goodbye to Sally, leading Betty to fire Carla for letting Glen into the house, leading Don to ask Megan to fill in as babysitter on his trip to California, leading Don to offer Anna’s engagement ring to Megan and ask her hand in marriage. Would they have succumbed to fate without accidental cupid Glen’s intervention? Very possibly, but as Don puts it, “Did you ever think of the number of things that had to happen for me to get to know you? But everything happened, and it got me here. What does that mean?” Well, it means Betty has evolved into a truly insufferable and awful human being, basically, but let’s not focus on the negative. Don and Megan are in love! It happened on It’s a Small World, somewhere between the jigging Irish leprechauns and the swirling belly dancers of Arabia, and they’re just going with it, ‘kay?
The proposal scene cuts directly into the office announcement scene, and I can’t think of any two other scenes so beautifully aligned. You can almost feel the dizzy love gas following the happy couple like a pink cloud as they skip their way into SCDP, and seeing Don’s various worlds so awkwardly collide (more on that in our handy infographic) makes for great television. Even better is Joan and Peggy’s smoky cabal on the subject, which offers a rare moment of honesty and ease between the two women. “That’s bullshit,” Peggy says, when Joan declares she's learned not to rely on the office for personal satisfaction, and the two giggle devilishly like Wilma and Betty.
So what do we think about this turn of events? It certainly painted the show into a corner for Season 5, but anything can happen between seasons. I’ll say this about Megan and Don, having now re-lived their brief but intense courtship: She’s definitely enchanting, and a healthier foil to Don than any other of his other paramours. Yes, even more so than poor, put-upon Dr. Faye, who always seemed just a little too eager, too hungry, and yes, too clinical, to ever fully seduce Don. My only fear is that the show is as enamored with Megan as Don is. A happy Don risks being an uninteresting Don.
Keeps all the balls in the air, and leaves enough hanging to make you hungry to find out what happens next. And this Sunday, you will.
1. What are your final thoughts on the first four seasons of Mad Men? Anything goes!
2. What are your hopes for Season 5 and beyond?
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