In many ways, this season of Mad Men, thus far, has gone in a slightly heavier direction: the Civil Rights movement, Don’s issues in his new marriage, the increasing bickering between Pete and Roger, Betty’s near-illness and the impact it had on both her and Don; the heaviness went a little too far in the third (technically fourth, but all intensive purposes) episode, which isn’t to say it was a horrible episode, it just wasn’t at the same level the first two were.
The standout performance was definitely Christina Hendricks: after being largely marginalized in the first two episodes, Joan returns to the forefront, in an almost epic battle with her husband. His decision to voluntarily return to Vietnam for another year sparks an anger in her we haven’t seen very often; an anger so deep it threatens her marriage at the core (I’ll believe it’s over when they say and show it’s over, after all it is a drama). While in the big picture of things it may seem selfish, and in a way it is, she is right to assert that her husband is also a father and needs to be there for his son; her own childhood serving as a reference.
The idea of Don running into an ex-lover, with his second wife on hand, is brilliant. The ripple effect of that, including Megan putting into perspective that Don cheated on Betty while they were married, and how that effects her, would have served enough for the show, and after that random encounter in the elevator, I thought we’d have some great scenes and banter between Don and Megan, regarding what Don actually does around women, and what he thinks he’s doing. However, we are only served one scene, which looking back is more of a red herring, as opposed to the deep man vs. woman discussion I thought was coming. Don’s mysterious dream sequence, complete with him strangling his ex-lover to death, to me violated one of the tenets of the character: even when he’s not Don Draper, Don Draper is still Don Draper: when Don breaks down in season four after Anna Draper dies, he makes it fashionable to cry; when he starts controlling his drinking, he makes it cool to start controlling your drinking; him going nuts and killing, let alone hurting, a woman takes him out of Don Draper territory. Even if you look at it, as I do, of him purging his inner demons about being monogamous for the first time in a while, it could have been handled better. I’d say it was done for shock value, except that Mad Men does not do shock value.
The subplot of Don dressing down Michael Ginsberg, after Ginsberg makes a serious error in discussing an abandoned idea in front of an executive, is one which works well, in particular because it is done in one short scene, is well-acted, impacts the rest of the story, and most importantly because it shows how powerful Don is. Perhaps one reason the scene sticks to me is Aaron Staton’s acting: he doesn’t say a word during Don’s “every sentence I say ends with ‘or else’ speech, but looks at Ginsberg with a “I told you so” face that says more than Don’s threats ever could.
The subplot of Roger bribing Peggy to come up with a new idea for the Mohawk executives, the continuation of his battle with Pete, is amusing, especially since the two of them always have great scenes together, even though it is rare they have them. The idea of Peggy working late, and frightened by the rape case in the news, finding Don’s african-american secretary spending the night there, and the two of them clicking, is something special; the subtle racial moment, where Peggy is concerned about her purse, makes a better statement about the times the show is in than the ad guys in the first episode water bombing civil rights protesters.
I thought the subplot involving Sally and Henry Francis’s mother, Pauline Franchis was quirky but good; it is a moment that had been in the works since season four kicked off, when it became apparent the two of them lived in two very different worlds that had been fused together. While I do not condone the use of sedatives to alleviate juvenile insomnia, there is a kindness in the deed her step-grandmother does that shows that underneath they have more in common than one may think; the image of Pauline brandishing a knife whilst Sally sleeps underneath the couch, as Betty and Henry try to figure out what happened, was kind of funny, and touching too.
The only problem I have with this episode is Don’s dream sequence, which granted is a small portion of the episode, but it hangs over it like a dark cloud. Jon Hamm, to his credit, plays it as well as it can be played, and the scene is pretty short, but it is so out of place it doesn’t work.
My rating: 4.0/5.0