Good news, Mad Men fans! Not only is our favorite show back tonight with a new episode–and a very good episode–after what feels like forever, and not only is it the newly anointed Emmy-winner for Best Dramatic Series, but while doing research for a story last week, I discovered something encouraging. After debuting this season with over two million viewers, then dropping to just over a million by Episode Four, Mad Men's numbers have been steadily creeping back up. Episode Eight was up to 1.8 million, which is hardly smash hit territory, but is definitely movement in the right direction. (And after the Emmy, there's a good chance that this week's episode will get another spike.)
Now for the bad news: Marilyn Monroe is dead. Exactly why this is bad news–and how the characters react to it–drives what "Six Month Leave" is largely about. The title refers to poor Freddy Rumsen, the office joker, who suffers an unfortunate bout of drunkenness just prior to a big meeting with Samsonite, and subsequently gets canned sort of. Roger and Don take Freddy out to dinner and an off-the-books casino, and explain that he's to take a leave of absence to dry out. And when that leave of absence is over? He should just stay left.
Is this a sad story? Well is Marilyn's story a sad story? Roger rolls his eyes at all the secretaries who take the news of Marilyn's suicide personally, spending the day sobbing together in little klatches by their desks. (All except for Joan, who takes it lying down on Roger's office sofa.) The women are shaken because a woman so popular–a woman they gossiped about and to some extent modeled themselves after–obviously felt so alone. But Roger has no sympathy. She was rich, and beloved, and she couldn't hold it together. Boo-hoo.
And as much as Roger may feel for Freddy, the man is responsible for his own downfall. The fact that Roger makes this pronouncement while sharing a mid-day highball with Don is telling–as is the fact that Freddy is hardly the only person at Sterling-Cooper seen in a prone position in this episode. In addition to the aforementioned Joan, both Pete and Don are caught dozing on their respective couches in separate scenes in "Six Month Leave," and though there's no implication that either of them are drunk, it's clear that in some ways there's little to distinguish the behavior of the people who are thriving at S-C from those who are on their way out. Even Freddy accepts his ousting with relatively good grace. He knows he had a sweet set-up, and he didn't respect it enough. He understands the way things work. (Nevertheless, I'm going to miss that zipper-fiddlin' bastard.)
Meanwhile, back in the 'burbs–in the home from which Don has been exiled for his own indiscretions–Betty is fading fast. She too is prone for a lot of this episode, and drunk, and as depressed as the late Ms. Monroe. None of her attempts to drag herself out of her funk are working: Not defrosting the freezer, not cutting new shelf paper, and not toying with country club stable stud Arthur Case. If there's a glaring weak spot in "Six Month Leave," it's Betty's storyline, although I did take some perverse glee in the way she manipulated Arthur and one of her more annoying friends into a compromising situation, and I appreciated the few brief glimpses we got of how this separation is affecting the kids. Still, I've never liked the "Will Betty have an affair too?" tease this season, and I feel like anchoring her arc this week to that question kept the very real and very frightening prospect of her clinical depression from achieving its maximum impact.
In fact, because of all the Betty business I was wavering a little on this episode until the final 15 minutes, and its string of knockout scenes, starting with the literal knockout of Jimmy Barrett by Don. (A punch-up that Don refers to as a "real Archibald Whitman maneuver.") There follows a series of refreshingly upfront conversations: Freddy bids farewell to Don, while asking, "If I don't go into that office every day, who am I?" Then Don confesses to Roger that he's been kicked out of the house and really doesn't feel all that bad about it, which prompts Roger to give a little speech about women, and then head home and dump his long-suffering wife for Don's secretary. (More on this next week, I think I have some thoughts on what this development says about Roger, but I want to mull it over some more.) Finally, Don channels the cold-blooded Roger–and not, you'll note, the far warmer Freddy–when telling Peggy that she's about to be promoted, and won't her allow her even a moment's sentimentality for the man who first spotted her talent .Don fought for Freddy to stay, and he lost. Time to move on.
But that doesn't mean Don's going to allow Freddy to become a laughingstock–no matter how funny it was that Freddy pissed himself before passing out, then walked out of the office with squishy shoes. When the bullpen gang start cracking jokes about fainting being "a full Freddy Rumsen" and refer to their old pal as "a real whiz," Don reprimands them. (And given Don's past, there's an added layer of meaning when he mutters "Just a man's name, right?" as he fumes.) Yes, there are parallels between Marilyn, who passed out and never woke up, and Freddy, who passed out and never returned to his job; and there are parallels between the way the characters deal with it. In both cases, the women get upset, and the men get wise.
-No matter the situation or the era, "swordfish" is always the password.
-Don seems to show a swell of pride upon hearing Peggy react to the death of Marilyn by noting that at least they didn't drop her name in the Playtex account, as they'd wanted to. Business before sentiment–that's our Peg.
-Roger offers a pale word of encouragement to Freddy about someone else who took the cure: "He only drinks beer now." I also enjoyed Roger's casual cruelty when he told Freddy he had to go the can: "Want to watch how I do it unzipping the fly and everything?"
-Did you catch the Revolutionary Road trailer, which looks like it takes every "lives of quite desperation" domestic melodrama/comedy of the '50s and '60s and synthesizes them into one über-narrative? I don't mean that as a knock, necessarily. I have qualms about director Sam Mendes, but he does have a knack for tapping into how certain tricky emotions should look, and that's something a filmmaker can do that novelists generally can't--even novelists as skilled as Richard Yates. Still, Mendes is also damnably unsubtle. No matter how the movie turns out, it should make for an interesting point of comparison with Mad Men.
-I love the idea that Don wants to pay ringers to drive up the numbers in the office blood drive. I also love his explanation as to why the blood drive matters: "This is for mankind, Kinsey also, there will be women fainting."
-"And put some posters up! I can't believe I have to tell you guys that."