Lately when I’ve been talking to others about his season of Mad Men, I’ve mentioned how I think this is one of the best, if not the best, season the show has produced in spite of the fact that it’s been so light on plot. As of last week we were nine episodes in and the show had yet to spell out what the overarching story of this season would be. If last season, for instance, was about Sterling-Cooper buckling under the yolk of their new British overlords, what was the big story this year? I couldn’t point to one. But if sacrificing narrative momentum meant more sustained mood pieces like “The Suitcase” and “The Good News,” then that’s more than okay.
This week was, on the other hand, all about moving the story forward. Quickly. Maybe too quickly. “Hands And Knees” puts the pedal down on the narrative momentum, delivering a plot-filled hour with little breathing room. It’s a thrilling episode, and almost certainly a necessary episode to keep the show moving along, but also a rushed one without some of the ruminative depth we’ve come to expect from season four.
That said, it made me rethink my theories about this season. “Hands And Knees” pulls the strings on a number of plots that have been featured persistently throughout the season, even if they’ve been unfolding largely in the background. Roger and Joan have been flirting all season. Last week’s encounter could have been a one-night stand (emphasis on stand) but it’s had unintended consequences, both in the form of Joan’s pregnancy and in some obviously rekindled feelings. Lane’s marriage has been falling apart since the season premiere—longer than that, really—but only now do we realize how rotten it’s gotten.
We’ll get back to all those, but let’s talk about Don first. He’s settled so comfortably into life as Don, and lost virtually everyone who ever knew him as Dick Whitman, that it’s easy to forget the thin ice on which he skates. Don’s secret identity has always been Mad Men’s most outré element, and one it occasionally seems to forget, just as Don does. Here it resurfaces in a way that spooks Don like we’ve never seen him spooked before, thanks to some security clearance requests he signed without noticing.
Just seeing Don react the way he reacted was unnerving. He’s lost his cool, but never to the degree of having a shirt-ripping panic attack. Has he grown complacent and let his guard down? That he only now thinks to set up a trust fund for the children—and, significantly, Betty—suggests that he never thought the day might come that he’d have to leave Don Draper behind. To hold on he has to trust three different people: Betty (who discovered his secret by force), Pete (who discovered it by accident, then tried to use it as leverage) and, surprisingly, Dr. Miller, to whom he confesses his double identity with the weariness of a sigh.
How each reacts, and interacts with Don, proves telling. Betty, stays true to her ex-husband despite, the best I can tell, having nothing to gain and much to lose. When she tells him this, we see the first hint of warmth between them we’ve seen all season. Pete gives up years-in-developing account for the sake of Don’s secret. But lest we think he’s changed greatly from the callow kid who tried to blackmail Don before, he suggests that it’s only Don’s usefulness to the company that’s keeping his mouth shut. “I don’t have to live with your shit over my head,” although he knows he really does. At least for now. Faye, on the other hand, remains surprisingly calm. That Don tells her in the first place, and that she responds the way she does, suggests their intimacy has deepened considerably over and between the last few episodes. It seems like a grown-up relationship, even if one that’s supposed to remain secret.
And secrets, in case you missed it and didn’t recognize the instrumental version of one of The Beatles’ early hits that played over the credits, tie together all the plots tonight. Don’s dwarfs the others, at least in scale, but secrets burden everyone this week, even those who want to bring them out in the open. Lane, it turns out, has been seeing a black Playboy Club hostess (Naturi Naughton, late of the semi-popular early ’00s act 3LW). When Lane’s father (W. Morgan Sheppard) arrives with the command to get his house in order, Lane at first hints at a relationship then flaunts it, trying to get a rise out of the old man by both making his extramarital affair clear and tweaking his father’s likely racism. He gets a terrifying reaction that gives the episode its title then ends the episode toddling off to England without fully explaining why, one secret taking the place of another.
Then there’s Joan and Roger and Joan’s secret pregnancy, which they agree they should bring to an end. After getting a referral—though not a handwritten one—from a doctor of Roger’s acquaintance, Joan takes a bus to get what would be her third abortion. But does she? We only see her waiting—and having a conversation with a mother accompanying her teenage daughter that prompts Joan to lie about why she’s there—then riding the bus back to New York. She tells Roger she’s had the procedure, but there’s a narrative gap there and I’m not sure what’s missing.
Finally, Roger holds tight to a secret that could bring the company down: the defection of the Lucky Strike account, which still makes up a massive amount of their business. He has 30 days to… what? Buffer SCDP against the loss? Win Lucky back? I’m not sure he knows either, or that the answer lies in that Rolodex of long-neglected contacts, some of whom have died. (And, thus, get torn up and tossed.)
That’s a lot left hanging, and yet the episode ends on a moment of curious grace. Don scores tickets to the Beatles at Shea. He gets to make Sally happy for once. And then he lingers on the endlessly apologetic Megan. I’m not sure it’s lust that draws his gaze there, however. Here’s a nice young woman who thinks, after all the chaos caused by what she probably thinks is a simple clerical error, everything’s settled and right. Maybe he’s jealous of her ignorance.
• Lots of frayed ends this week, so let’s get to them.
• Speaking of possible secrets, Harry seems awfully eager to get back to L.A., doesn’t he?
• Weird to see Betty sewing. Am I right in saying we’ve never seen anything like that before? Is she making an effort to pick up some domestic skills?
• Sally clearly remains unhappy with her father even a few weeks after last episode’s disaster. The Beatles tickets may just be a Band-Aid.
• What was the deal with Roger’s conspicuously muted out “fucked up”? It was almost as if the show was planning to air the “fuck” but AMC lost its nerve.
• Here’s a big question: Does anyone else get the sense that Don won’t be able to survive another identity scare? I don’t mean physically. But is it possible that he’ll in some way be forced to come clean?
• More Don business: Faye now knows more than Peggy, despite Don lowering his defenses for Peggy like he has for few others.
• Don was not flagged because the FBI saw no signs of Red leanings, which were all they seemed care about unearthing. He probably could have gotten away with it even if SCDP had kept the account.
• “This is the tenderloin of your distress.”
• “And there’s another thing I don’t want to know.”