They said it couldn’t be done, and yet here we are, pulling into the home stretch of the Great Mad Men Re-Watch. Today, we finish off Season 3, and the next four installments will cover Season 4. And if you’ve been reading along all this time, you’re on track toward earning your Masters of Draperology, right in time for the Season 5 premiere on March 25. So hang in there, class: Graduation Day is in sight!
This is the episode in which Betty finally learns Don’s big secret, and it's revealed to her, amazingly enough, after Don carelessly leaves a key to his locked desk in the laundry. Betty opens it and finds a stack of cash and a box containing every deep, dark secret Don hopes will never come to light. Smart? Not particularly, not for the winner of the Sterling Cooper Humanitarian of the Year Award. It’s somehow fitting that the truth about Dick Whitman should reveal itself to Betty in such a clunky way, since the identity-theft back story was always a little clunky to begin with. Betty returns the box to the drawer and locks it, but the discovery changes everything.
Other notable developments:
– Paul blanks on a good idea for the Western Union campaign, and Don, shockingly, doesn’t verbally annihilate him for it, but sympathizes. Peggy and Don, meanwhile, use Paul’s own truism about his senior moment (“The faintest ink is better than the best memory") to arrive at the best idea yet: “You can’t frame a phone call.” This minor plot is a great example of something Mad Men does brilliantly, which is to dramatize the creative process in a way that feels organic and true, while remaining in service of the characters. It’s a deceptively difficult trick.
– Finally, the folks at the head office in London, in their fatally cheery way, informs Lane of their plans to dump Sterling Cooper, to the delight of his homesick wife. The end game is quickly approaching.
Mostly set-up for the craziness to come.
This is it: The big reveal. There’s something about the way Betty spits out the name “Dick” when confronting Don about the contents of his box of secrets (“Is that you, Dick? Is that your name?”) that has seared the moment into my memory. It’s just so brimming with contempt and betrayal and fury. The ensuing conversation between the couple is just as intense, as Don, hunched over and utterly defeated in his own home, takes swigs of scotch as he whispers the truth to his wife. It’s the first time we’re hearing the story from Don’s lips, too. “All this time I thought you were some football hero who hated his father,” a flabbergasted Betty says. “I knew you were poor. I knew you were ashamed of it. I see how you are with money, you don’t understand it.” Later, she’ll say, “You lied to me every day. I can’t trust you. I don’t know who you are.” In their bedroom, Don breaks down when talking about his brother’s suicide, eliciting Betty’s sympathy.
(What’s most amazing about all this is that Suzanne is waiting outside in the car during this entire exchange, thinking she and Don are headed off on a weekend getaway together. She eventually gets the picture and escorts herself on foot back to the city.)
Elsewhere, Roger is reunited Annabelle Mathis, a newly widowed old flame with a marketing problem: how to sell her Caldecott Farms dog food to a public that's recently learned the stuff is made of Mr. Ed. Over a tipsy dinner they reminisce about that time in their 20s when they pranced about gaily as lovers in Paris, until Annabelle’s father forbade her from marrying him and she dumped him. Annabelle isn’t here for horse meat, she’s here for Roger! And suddenly we see a new side to Roger: the devoted side, as he rejects poor Annabelle (not once but twice! Talk about beating a dead horse!) in favor of Jane.
And in one other memorable scene, Joan gets some sweet comeuppance against Greg, who's blown his psychiatry residency interview. “You don’t know!” he tells her. “You don’t know what it’s like to want something your whole life, and to plan for it and count on it and not get it. Okay?” Which earns Greg a vase to the head, and the accompanying smashing sound is one of the most satisfying sound effects in the history of the series.
Mad Men’s handling of the JFK assassination, which we’ve been anticipating since first seeing the date embossed onto Margaret’s wedding invitation, is masterful. The news doesn’t break until 15 minutes into the episode, leaving some time for life as scheduled: Margaret is still complaining about Jane’s presence at her wedding. Pete has been passed over for a promotion that went to Ken Cosgrove. And Peggy, well, Peggy is carrying on an affair with Duck Phillips. And it's only seconds before she reaches his hotel room for a nooner that we first hear the news, relayed by archival footage of Walter Cronkite.
News soon spreads across the office, and as the staffers cluster around a TV, Don walks into a cacophony of ringing bells. Then, silence. It’s a chilling moment. Later, Carla and Betty weep together in silence at the first reports of JFK’s death. Duck, meanwhile, still sweaty with afterglow, mentions “a news story just as you were coming in” to Peggy and turns the TV back on in time for Conkrite’s quavery-voiced confirmation.
Then there’s that unforgettable shot of Margaret, on the floor in her wedding gown, sobbing uncontrollably as Mona consoles her (how does Mona keep it together so well? Strongest woman on Mad Men? Believe it!) as a maid and a seamstress stand in the background, hands clasped to their mouths. Want to throw a wedding the day after a national tragedy of seismic proportions? Keep the following in mind: The caterers will show, the cake will not. The band will play, but waiters won’t serve. About 50 percent of your guests will arrive.
To add to the emotional devastation, something about JFK’s murder leads Betty directly into Henry’s arms for a kiss. She later tells Don she doesn’t love him, and the episode ends with Don finding solace in his real female counterpart, Peggy, as they are the only two who show up at the office the next day.
Best 'where were you' tackling of the JFK assassination I've ever seen.
The crackling good finale of Season 3 is all about corporate re-shufflings and hostile takeovers, both in Don’s professional and personal lives. Let’s start with the former. Like a heist flick, the principals of Sterling Cooper spend much of the episode plotting a getaway after word gets around (via Connie Hilton, who gives Don the heave-ho) that the company is about to be sold by Puttnam, Powell and Lowe to McCann Erickson—a “sausage factory,” as Don puts it. First Don convinces Bert (“You old men love building golden tombs and sealing the rest of us in with you,” Don snipes), then the pair double-teams Roger (“You sold your birthright so you could marry that trollop!” Bert barks). After word gets out that PPL is being sold too, a betrayed Lane is lured over to the rebellion too with promises of a partnership in the new venture—so long as he enacts his legal right to terminate their contracts and come along with them.
The team-building continues: Peggy is brusquely ordered by Don to join, and to her credit, she turns him down. He’ll later make amends, telling Peggy he sees her “as an extension of myself.” He tries to crystallize her gifts in a slightly cryptic speech that suggests things are about to change drastically following JFK’s assassination: “Because there are people out there who buy things, people like you and me. And something happened, something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone. And nobody understands that. But you do. And that’s very valuable.” Finally, he just tries some old-fashioned flattery, telling her, “I will spend the rest of my life trying to woo you.” That seems to do the trick.
Pete, caught mid-defection, is wooed at home by Don and Roger. They want him for his billable accounts, but also for his foresight in going after things like the aeronautics, teen, and African-American markets. Pete agrees so long as he’s made partner. Finally, Harry joins the team as their TV expert. Of course, they wouldn’t be able to do anything without Joan on board; she hires the movers and instructs everyone as to where the files are located. Next stop: a suite at The Pierre. The whole thing plays out so deliciously—the look on Paul’s face when he sees Peggy’s vacated office the next day is priceless—it gives you butterflies.
That Don can maneuver through all of this knowing Betty has just demanded a divorce makes it all the more impressive. The two worlds collide at a bar, where Roger blurts out what he’s heard about Henry Francis and Betty. Don comes home, enraged, and, handling her roughly, pledges she’ll never get a nickel, or see their kids again. Betty insists on a quickie divorce in Reno, and Don relents. (The scene where they break the news to the kids is particularly rough, as both Sally and Bobby take it badly.) The season ends the way a season should, with huge changes afoot.
On to Season 4!
The finale is a season high-note. Spectacular.
1. What was your reaction to Mad Men hitting the reset button with the formation of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce?
2. Which of the following best describes Don's relationship to Peggy:
a) demanding dad/overachieving daughter
b) coach/Olympic figure skater
c) something else (name it in the comments!)
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