Mad Men: "Seven Twenty Three"
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Mad Men: "Seven Twenty Three"

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Mad Men

"Seven Twenty Three"

Season 3, Episode 7

This week’s episode opens with three teasing images of what’s to come: Peggy, looking spent in bed with an unidentified man, Betty on a couch we’ve never seen practically glowing, and Don passed out and beaten up in a liquor-filled motel room. When next we see each of those characters they look quite far away from those eventual destinations. Don looks untouchable, Peggy remains a whir of professional image, and Betty looks more sour than usual. But they’ll be taken where they’re going all the same.

Sometimes it’s the place in which they’re standing that changes. Betty’s in the process of remaking her living room in high-1963 style. (“Dunbar Japanese-influenced sofa,” etc.). Per the advice of her decorator, she’s leaving room for a hearth, the soul of the home. By the episode’s end she’ll have filled it, however, with a “fainting couch,” a piece designed to aid delicate Victorian women who don’t want their momentary indispositions to take them away from their social lives. Between one session with her decorator friend and the next, Don will accuse her of making his conflict with Roger about herself as, he suggests, she always does. Right or wrong, she’s apparently decided to live up to the accusation. The hearth? That’s where everyone gathers around Betty.

What prompted the change? Indirectly, a water tank. Betty’s neighbors in the Junior League recruit her to help prevent a bit of blight by calling on her connections with Henry Francis (Chris Stanley), the Republican politician with whom she shared an intense exchange a couple of episodes back. One of them knows him already but hands off the meet-up duties to Betty. “It’s not adorable to pretend like you’re not adorable,” another tells her. It’s kind of a curious thing to say. Betty’s cute and always beautifully put-together, but it’s hard to see what makes her endearing to friends.

Betty’s been keeping tabs on Henry and he remembers her. They plan to meet and take a hike to the reservoir and both show up alone, with apologies and excuses for having accidentally-but-not arranged a one-on-one rendezvous. They meet, talk about the area, don’t really make great strides toward stopping the water tank, decide we all have skills we don’t use (including a major in anthropology), and have some pie. After lunch he keeps her from looking at the eclipse and directs her attention to the couch. Soon it’s in her home.

I don’t think we’re done with Henry yet and so far we’re dealing with the implications of what might happen more than what has happened. So for now, let’s just wonder if Henry, a charming man a few years older than Betty, would have had as striking an effect on Betty if he’d entered her life further removed form her father’s death.

Other characters seem, on the other hand, seem already to be sorting through the wreckage of events that haven’t happened yet and might never happen. The same eclipse from which Betty needs shielding has prompted Sally’s teacher Miss Farrell (Abigail Spencer) to lead a viewing party using cardboard boxes as cameras obscura. Talking to Don, she treats their affair as a fait accompli, choosing to interpret what might have been and innocent remark about her summer plans into an invitation to join him for some philandering. Her own tone remains weirdly neutral on the topic. Don presents himself as different from the boozing adulterers around him, someone more prone to play it safe. When she’s not looking, he uses his sunglasses to look directly at the eclipse.

The episode cuts directly to the heart of who Don is thanks to his half-accidental netting of the Hilton account. Hilton’s lawyers want their golden boy under contract. Only Don doesn’t do contracts. It’s a fundamental violation of the rules that he’s set for himself in his quest to remain free. Signing a contract doesn’t just go against his business sense; for Don it’s an existential failing. So, disgusted with Roger for using his wife as a pawn to get the contract signed and unhappy with Betty for playing the part even after telling Roger to go to hell, Don hits the road. Glass of booze in hand, he goes cruising. And feeling generous, he picks up some hitchhikers.

Big mistake, though it leads to some of the most fascinating one-off (I’m guessing) characters the show has ever brought in. The hitchhikers at first appear to be young lovers. Then they reveal that they’re not really in love, but getting married so he can avoid the draft. (True? Who knows? But it adds to the many references to a ramping-up of the Vietnam conflict and its ever-growing importance in the American psyche.) Then coy drug references lead to the appearance of actual drugs, which Don knocks back with abandon. But he’s found his limits. Shortly after renting a hotel room with the couple he’s treated to the beginnings of a peep show, some accusatory hallucinations involving his father, and knock to the skull. The next morning, the amoral drifters have skipped with the contents of Don’s wallet, off to find their kicks elsewhere.

They’re like low-budget versions of the California lives-of-leisure folk Don encountered last season. And like them, they’re a vision of what an unmoored life really means. So Don returns, pushed over the edge by Cooper, after Conrad Hilton the second man to usurp his place beyond his own desk this episode. As the final prompt, Cooper offers two lines that can be read as kindly or threatening (or both at once). “Would you say I know something about you, Don?” sounds reassuring, but it carries with it the knowledge that Cooper knows Don’s secret. “After all, when it comes down to it, who’s really signing this contract anyway?” provides a further reminder verging on blackmail, but it could also be Cooper giving Don an out. After all, Don Draper can walk away from being Don Draper whenever he likes.

Peggy, however, is still in the process of finding out who Peggy is. And apparently she’s someone who can sleep with an old co-worker while flirting with the notion of leaving S-C. While there’s something comical about the newly smoove Duck Phillips, it’s not hard to see why his seduction works. He’s a confident, attentive man. And he’s unmistakably a man after a string of boys. When he tells her what he’s going to do to her, offering a “go-round like you’ve never had,” she has no reason to doubt he’ll follow through. And the next day, their coupling has left her flush and satisfied, maybe for the first time. (Not counting those Relaxicisor panties, I’m guessing.)

There’s a lot to unpack in this episode and I’m not sure I’ll even get to it all. There’s Conrad Hilton and his emphasis on timeliness and a visible Bible. (Cooper will call him “eccentric” without any apparent awareness of the irony.) There’s the rift between Roger and Don, which has widened. (Hell, it’s become an unwritten clause in his contract.) There’s Don’s hallucination father’s hillbilly joke and this accusation: “What do you do? What do you make? You grow bullshit.” Sure, that may just be the reds talking, but the insult says a lot about Don: Deep down, he knows he’s an illusion of a man working in the business of illusion. And there’s the publication of David Ogilvy’s still-in-print Confessions Of An Advertising Man, which hangs over the episode. Finally, there’s the contract itself, and the way the camera lingers on the date as Don signs. 7/23. It’s also the title of the episode. We’re halfway through the season and some major characters have found their turning point. Where those turns will lead remains unseen.

Grade: A

Stray observations:

- Most of my stray thoughts are above, but I can't let this line pass: “Maybe I’m late because I was spending time with my family reading the Bible.”