For about the first 20 minutes of this week's Mad Men, throughout Don Draper's adventures on the left coast, I was a little confused about where "The Jet Set" was headed. We had Pete and Don wandering awkwardly around the pool, marveling at all the fashionable folk in tailored jackets and swimsuits; Pete awestruck at seeing Tony Curtis in the men's room and grumbling about how everyone's late in L.A.; and Don seeing Betty's face in every woman and pointedly ordering Old Fashioneds. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion out west, in stark contrast to the rapid patter and big moments happening back at Sterling-Cooper.
And then, Don's story took a turn. And then another. And I was about as awestruck and enraptured as I've been this whole season. (And this has been a good season.)
It all starts in a seminar room, where Don is shaken to the core by the latest data about rocketry, and the knowledge that should a nuclear war begin, civilization as we know it could end in a matter of minutes. Later that day, on his way to a meeting, Don runs into a pretty young woman named Joy, whom he'd met earlier, and when she asks him to blow off his business and go motoring off with her to Palm Springs, he finds the offer hard to resist. When she asks, "Why would you deny yourself something you want?"–the kind of question that ad men love to ask, and one that recalls his recent rationalization for buying a fancy new car–Don has no choice. He follows his Joy.
I'm not sure if I can express to you how nervous and excited Don's choice made me. For one thing, it reminded me of the Don Draper who's beguiled me since Season One: the impetuous one, the adventurer, the man with no fast allegiances (no matter what he might say to his colleagues in a boardroom). Also, Don's almost dreamlike journey into the sun-dappled world of the idle rich seemed to follow up on what I was writing last week about The Roger Dilemma. If you're a person with money and charisma and wit–a Don Draper, in other words–then your possibilities seem limitless, even though social convention keeps trying to force you into seeing one choice through until retirement and death. Last season, Don channeled his desires to be someone else through affairs with a beatnik and a businesswoman. This week, he ate Mexican food with a gaggle of the effete.
And yet, just as Don is starting to get seduced by the oversexed Joy's proposal that they jet off to Europe, he's reminded that there's always a cost for fantasy. A man walks in with two small children, about the age of Don's little ones, and bickers briefly with Joy. The details of the situation remain unclear by episode's end–to me, anyway–but its essential meaning rings like a bell. Don may hold an ideal in his head of a life without baggage, but that's an impossibility. There will always be kids tugging at his pantsleg. A courier will always arrive, carrying a suitcase.
Meanwhile, back in New York, the Rocket Age is catching up to the employees of S-C in a major way. Civil unrest in the south is dominating TV news. ("Why do people keep stirring up trouble? It's bad for business," Harry grumbles.) Bob Dylan is playing at Carnegie Hall. And one of Don's "new blood" hires, Kurt The European, has just announced that "I make love with the men, not the women."
But the biggest change underway is initiated by Duck, who under pressure from Roger to "make some rain" has contacted his former employers to inquire about them buying controlling interest in Sterling-Cooper. When Duck introduced the idea to his ex-boss, I was sure he had a hostile takeover in mind, but Roger and Bert seemed excited by the prospect of a buyout, so now I don't know what to think. It doesn't help that Duck's re-entry into the arena of big business has required him to start drinking again. (I can't recall a more clever visual cue than the shot of Duck's hands fumbling with a roll of breath mints on his way into his meeting with Roger and Bert.)
With all of this in the offing in "The Jet Set," the episode opens on an oddly muted and seemingly disconnected note, as Roger listens to his new girlfriend recite her own poetry–and reference Lewis Carroll–as they lounge around a fancy hotel after sex. And yet in retrospect there's something appropriate about it. If Roger and Don are analogues, then it's only fitting that they both dally with arty young women at the same time. And there's also some symmetry between Roger's surprising turn toward conventionality–asking his lover to marry him–and Don The Old-Fashioned Drinker's own return to the past following his heat-stroke-aided trip through the looking glass. Sprawled out on a couch, lost to everyone who cares about him, Don rises to a sitting position, and as the camera frames him in Mad Men's familiar back-of-the-head pose, he picks up a phone and utters the four most shocking words I've yet heard on this show:
"Hello, it's Dick Whitman."
- Y'know, with most TV shows, you're lucky if you get one meaty theme to gnaw on; with Mad Men, there's so much to unpack that there's almost no way to get to it all without writing a dissertation. There's a bunch more to analyze here, but I'm afraid I don't have the time. But you guys surprise me every week with what you come up with, so I'm more eager to read your theories anyway.
-The reaction to Kurt's announcement among the other execs was painful to watch, especially with Sal and Kurt's fellow new hire (and likely lover) in the room. Any thought those two guys may have given to coming out of the closet has just been put aside for a good long time.
-Pete says nothing about Don abandoning him, perhaps because he enjoyed being a poolside bigwig for a couple of days. (Pete's tailor-made for Los Angeles, really.) But I kept thinking about what a different time it was, when business associates didn't have cel phones to keep in touch with each other on a trip.
-When the jet-setters asked Don, "What's your story?" I thought he had the perfect response: "I don't know how to answer that."
-Another great comeback: When Duck says, "I'd be proud to present my accomplishments," Roger cuts him down with, "Good, because I'm at a loss."
-Only two more episodes to go in Season Two, folks. Want to know the title of the finale? "Meditations On An Emergency." Besides calling back to our season-opening Frank O'Hara poem (with a slight change in wording), the title may also be an indication that our Cuban Missile Crisis predictions may well come to pass.
-Peggy's Kurt-fashioned new hairdo yea or nay? (I liked it, myself.)