Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mad Men: "Three Sundays"

Image for article titled Mad Men: "Three Sundays"
Image for article titled Mad Men: "Three Sundays"

One of my favorite Season One Mad Men episodes was "Marriage Of Figaro," the bulk of which took place in and around a Saturday afternoon birthday party at the Draper home, as Don got bombed on beer to deal with the soul-crushing nothingness of another inane weekend in the 'burbs. There was a strong note of "Figaro" to the sublime opening 20 minutes of "Three Sundays," which splits its attention between how three of our regulars spend their last day of rest before another work-week rolls around. Don and Betty, getting back into the groove after last week's collaboration on saving the Utz account, spend the day fooling around, drinking cocktails, attempting some lackadaisical parenting and listening to Bing Crosby on the hi-fi. ("He makes everything sound like Christmas," Don notes, not entirely approvingly.) Peggy sweats her way through mass, then chats up the charming young priest when he comes over to her folks' place for Sunday dinner. And Roger has a meal with his wife, his grown daughter, and her fiancé, whom Roger is trying to convince to have a traditional wedding.

The episode takes its time explaining how all these pieces fit together into the larger story. For the most part, they're just presented as little slices of life, in which the small gestures–Roger pining for the old ways, Peggy taking pride in the way her career aspirations impress an unattainable man, Betty getting cranky over her son's bumbling–resonate based on what we already know about the characters, while also deepening our understanding of them. It's all so masterfully restrained. It's the kind of storytelling that made me fall in love with Mad Men in the first place: prepared, and confident in what it's selling.

The "Three Sundays" of the title doesn't just refer to the three employees of Sterling-Cooper, but to three actual consecutive Sundays. On the second Sunday–Palm Sunday, as it happens–Don and Peggy are back at the office, working on an accelerated pitch to American Airlines, while Roger dallies with a prostitute. And then the third Sunday, Easter…well, that's what gives this episode its beautiful button, so I'll get back to it a minute.

So what's going on here? In terms of the overall narrative arc of this season, this episode is all about American Airlines. The pitch meeting gets pushed up, the whole of Sterling-Cooper comes in on a weekend to get their ducks (and their Duck) in a row, and then, on Good Friday, they get the worst news the world has seen since the first Good Friday: their liaison at American has been fired, and now their pitch is being heard largely out of courtesy. Even worse, for we the home viewers: We don't get to hear Don's pitch. (And based on the teaser he gives us while standing in his leisure clothes in the middle of the bullpen, it was going to be a pitch for the ages.)

In terms of the themes of this season though, "Three Sundays" picks back up on the concept of what it means to grow up and take responsibility. For Don, it's all about how he'll answer Betty's persistent charge that he discipline their lying, accident-prone son. Don's reluctance drives Betty nuts, until she flat-out asks him, "Do you think you'd be the man you are today if your father didn't hit you?" And of course the answer is, "No." But since Don isn't always that comfortable with the man he is today–aside from the web of lies he's woven, which he apparently thinks is a tradition it's okay for his son to carry on–he doesn't necessarily want to be the monster his father was.

(In further Draper progeny news, Don's daughter is still mixing drinks for the adults; and after a long Sunday of watching her pop take charge down at the office, she serves herself a cocktail and sacks out on the couch. More bulletins coming on this as events warrant.)

For Roger, the notion of being a responsible adult male has to with taking chances and taking charge. "I want everything I want," he says to his paid escort–which is an easy thing to say when you've got the money to back it up. And after the American Airlines pitch goes pear-shaped, Roger gives Don a little speech about how failure matters less than the attempt, because it's daring great things that makes us feel alive. "Don't you love the chase?" he smirks at Don. Again though–an easy thing for him to say when he can get "everything I want" with a wad of cash. How much thrill is there in that chase?

But the most complicated tale of parenthood and responsibility this week involves Peggy, who is resented by the Sterling-Cooper secretaries because she gets paid more than they do, and gets to pig out at the buffet while they have to wait their turn. And Peggy is resented even more by her sister, because their mother seems to respect Peggy's achievements more, and has apparently forgiven her for having a baby out of wedlock. (Peggy's sister must've skipped Sunday school the week they told the story of the prodigal son.) Which leaves Father Gil (well-played by Colin Hanks), who learns about Peggy's past and responds by handing her an Easter egg and whispering, "For the little one." Cut to black. Roll credits.

I'll leave it to you all to speculate in the comments about the meaning of that enigmatic final line. Me, I've been kicking around ideas about Easter as a time of rebirth and forgiveness, and thinking that the egg might symbolize a second chance, or perhaps a token of understanding regarding how deeply wounded people can be, and how they can pass the wounds on to their children (whether they mean to or not). And since I spent much of "Three Sundays" fretting about the children of Mad Men and sweating out the various parenting choices, the gift of the egg really got to me. I started thinking about the ghosts of the past, and how fathering and mothering lingers. It's a lot like how Father Gil describes the presence of The Pope in Rome. You don't get to spend time with the big guy, but, "You know when he's in the building."

Grade: A

Stray observations:

-Everyone loves Lutèce.

-What a time it was when rebranding an airline included redesigning the menus and picking out new China patterns!

-So, Bobbie Garrett is back for the second week, and her husband Jimmy is apparently returning next week. Looks like they're going to be regulars this season, and since they make me uncomfortable, I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. (Probably a good thing…a little squirming is good for the soul.)

-Great dry Roger line, to the dude from Gorton's: "Love that frozen scrod." I have to wonder, though: Do the people at Gorton's folks mind being portrayed–even fictionally–as whoremongers? (I also have to wonder: Does Ken's knowledge of the escort industry explain why he pulls down such a big salary?)

-I like how Peggy's mom endured Father Gil's casual grace, then asked for a proper one (which was a variation on the pre-dinner prayer I've heard nearly every night I've spent under my parents' roof). I also liked Peggy's comment about the impenetrability of the pre-V2 Catholic mass: "The sermon is the only part that's in English, and it's hard to tell sometimes."

-Don Draper does not go to church.