“Nobody knows what’s wrong with themselves. Everyone else can see it right away.” —Stephanie
First off, hello. Your regular Mad Men reviewer Keith Phipps will be off for the next three weeks, and I’m taking over Week One (Noel Murray and Todd VanDerWerff have the next two, respectively), so apologies upfront for the lack of continuity. I know Keith would have plenty to say about at least one development—Don and Lane’s trip to see Gamera, which he just reviewed on DVD earlier in the summer. Still, I’m excited to dig into this wonderful, tonally dexterous episode, which continued a confident start to the season and welcomed the very dramatic year of 1965 in characteristically muted style.
Last week, Don Draper had hit rock bottom. He’d lost his wife, his house, and his kids; he was holed up in a bachelor apartment (so conspicuously manly, in fact, that this week, Don jokes, “I think Norman Mailer shot a deer over there”), where his only regular company is a prostitute who slaps him around; he was drinking heavily, enough to where even the underlings at the firm were joking about how pathetic he’d become; and he lowered whatever standards he used to uphold by sleeping with his secretary, and then callously disregarding the emotional fallout. He left that episode a pathetic shell of a man, and an even lousier excuse for a human being, because his suffering wasn’t private, but extended to a woman who’d shown him little but kindness and loyalty.
So it makes sense that Don would retreat to the restorative dreamland of sunny California, where he can both be himself (Dick Whitman) and indulge in sensual misadventures while far off the New York City grid. That first shot of Don in a convertible, zipping down the coastal highway, immediately recalled “The Jet Set,” that great moment-out-of-time episode from late in Season Two, where Don breaks off from a business trip to cavort with a new group of acquaintances. But in tonight’s episode, the ironically titled “The Good News,” California winds up dragging him further into despair, as the one person who knows him, accepts him, and loves him for who he really is turns out to be stricken with metastasized bone cancer.
It had been suggested before tonight how important Don’s relationship with Anna Draper had become, if only for providing him with a welcome, non-judgmental retreat from the stresses of his life in New York—a life built on falsehoods that Anna accepts, thus giving him a place where he can be candid. Don is never more relaxed or at home than with Anna, and their scenes together have a lightness to them that’s owed to Don’s freedom to be himself around her and Anna’s salty, irreverent sense of humor. When Don finds out about Anna’s cancer—from the very, very young and attractive co-ed Stephanie, who he of course tries pitifully to seduce—it’s devastating news on its face. But it’s also devastating because he’s asked to keep Anna from knowing about it, thus violating the candor at the heart of their relationship.
The scenes between Anna and Don after he knows about her condition are as heartbreaking as anything the show has produced. And they’re all set up by an exchange they have earlier, when Anna expresses regret for Don’s divorce from Betty. (Don: “I could tell the minute she saw who I really was, she never wanted to look at me again.” Anna: “I’m sorry she broke your heart.” Don: “I had it coming.”) Don needs someone in his life who sees him for who he is and doesn’t look away, and he’s losing that in Anna. So we’re left with the devastating sight of Don trying to spend some extra time with her, painting the wall while she rests her brittle leg; and then, later, the two of them literally leaving their mark. I said that Don had hit rock bottom last week; this week, with Anna gone, the bottom drops out.
This week’s other major player was Joan, who enjoyed her first significant screen time this season. And we’re reminded yet again of how far Joan has come since we first knew her—or maybe how much more we understand her power, confidence, and savvy. The episode opens with Joan at the gynecologist, who advises her about getting pregnant now that she’s off the pill and actively trying before her pitiful husband leaves for Vietnam. Expecting the creepy way male physicians of all stripes treat their female patients on this show—Betty’s psychiatrist leaps to mind—it was a relief to see this one taking a sanguine view of Joan’s “procedures” and actually help her talk about her options.
Perhaps she should marry her gynecologist, but the surgeon she has at home is still a tool. So, too, is Lane at work, who refuses to succumb to her suggestive way of asking for a little time off to work on conceiving a child. (“Breast? Thigh.” Credit Lane for his almost superhuman resistance to her charms, though not for the humiliating way he makes a show of it.) At this point, a child seems like the sole product Joan’s marriage to Greg could possibly yield, and even in that he seems determined to disappoint her. (“Just keep marking off the days on the calendar while we keep planning for our future,” she says.”) When he moves to stitch up her sliced finger, Joan has the same reaction I’m sure many of us did—that Greg, a surgeon so unskilled he has to flee to a war zone to practice, wasn’t up for the job. To her surprise, Greg knows what he’s doing, but that’s all he knows: His thoughtless remark comparing his job to hers (“For me, this is like filing papers is for you. I do it all the time.”) just proves how little he cares to learn about her. If there’s one thing connecting Don’s story to Joan’s this week, it’s the need to be around people who understand the real you.
Joan’s failures at home stiffen her resolve to assert control over the workplace. Her anger over Lane’s mixed-up “forgive me” flowers winds up getting turned on his secretary—the two practically fight each other for a chance to fire the poor woman—but it needed to be expressed one way or another. Joan recognizes more keenly than most that women are constantly having their authority challenged in the workplace, so she lets it be known that she’s got a seat at the table and she’s to be respected, if not feared. It was great seeing her take her place at the end of the episode, the glue holding this whole ragtag operation together.
Finally, how fucking great were the scenes with Don and Lane? Both slinking into work on New Year’s, deposited by their newly failed marriages. Their bender was something to behold, especially seeing the buttoned-down Lane come way the hell out of his shell. The movie theater scene was a highlight—the punchline of seeing Gamera instead of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, plus the passed flasks and boorishness of the two dudes yukking it up—and the shot of Lane moving the steak over his crotch and screaming, “I’ve got a big Texas belt buckle. Yee-haw!!!,” was fine shock value. That Don makes a habit out of nights like these—his prostitute knows her way around his kitchen—is a reminder of his sorry state, but it’s good pick-me-up for Lane. And a good pick-me-up for a very sad, very strong episode of Mad Men.
• Tough words from Don’s secretary Allison, when he asks her what she’s doing and she doesn’t realize he’s asking about New Year’s. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I’ll be here until the bitter end.”
• Witty reference to the Berkeley sit-ins from Stephanie, a student there. “I agree with that they’re doing, but somebody has to go to class.”
• If Keith were here, he’d hit you with the cultural/thematic significance of the song Don and Stephanie dance to at the bar. I’ll leave that to you.
• What a magnificent shot of night turning to day as Don sits smoking on Anna’s couch.
• Anna on the possibility of aliens: “I started thinking of everything I know is true, and how flimsy it might be.” And then, “I know everything about you and I still love you.” That’s the last time Don will be hearing such a thing from anyone, poor bastard.
• Taking down pencils from the ceiling—still a Joan-of-all-trades.
• No Betty this week. I’m sure that will make some of you very happy. No Roger this week, either. I’m sure that will make some of you very unhappy.
• “Though things have been precarious financially, it’s been a magnificent year.”
• Gamera was the right choice for Don and Lane without question. But be sure to see The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg if you haven’t: It’s one of my five or six favorite movies of all time, and I believe it’s Keith’s all-time favorite period.