A review of last night’s “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as I give you a closer look at my walking stick…
“Get rid of it.” -Don
“Hands and Knees” ends before we get to see Don take Sally to The Beatles’ famous Shea Stadium concert, but the credits are accompanied by an instrumental version of the band’s “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” – as apt a closing song choice as the show has used, given the number of secrets poisoning the atmosphere at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. And the episode’s answer to the question posed in the song’s title seems to be a definite “no.”
Most obviously, the ghost of Dick Whitman comes back to haunt Don again when it eludes his and Pete’s notice that the North American deal will require security clearances for the top creative people, and Pete has to flush a $4 million account (and take the blame for blowing it) to protect the man around whom everything at the agency revolves. ($4 mil is nice, but no Draper = no agency, no matter what a panicked, drunk Don tries to tell Pete.)
But when Don and Pete enter the partners meeting near the end of the episode, they’re far from the only people in the room keeping something from the others. Lane’s not revealing the real reason he’s going back to London, nor how unhappy he is to be doing it. Joan’s concealing the abortion she had after her post-mugging tryst with Roger got her pregnant(*), and Roger in turn isn’t letting anyone know that in 30 days, the firm will be dead in the water without its most important client in Lucky Strike. The only one in the room who doesn’t seem to be keeping something to himself (other than what Dr. Lyle Evans did to him) is Bert Cooper, and that’s only because he’s a figurehead who has nothing to do, and therefore nothing to hide.
(*) “Mad Men” perhaps unintentionally functions as a great advertisement for safe sex. Peggy gets pregnant the first time she has sex with Pete, before her birth control pills have a chance to work. Betty gets pregnant with Gene from a spontaneous roll on the floor of her childhood bedroom with Don, and here Joan, who we know had gone off her protection to have a baby with Greg, instead gets pregnant from Roger.
In talking with Trudy about the nature but not details of the Dick Whitman problem, Pete rails against those who “just walk through life, dragging their lies with them, destroying everything they touch.” Leaving aside the hypocrisy of the rant, given the things that Pete has kept from Trudy, it still feels misguided. He’s right to resent Don for needing him to kill the North American deal, but he also seems to envy Don for not feeling guiltier about who he really is and what he did in Korea, when we see throughout the episode how crippling that weight still is, even 15 years later.
This was another fantastic Jon Hamm showcase, maybe good enough to at least make him think twice about “The Suitcase” as his Emmy submission. I still think “The Suitcase” has more versatility, but the physical work he does here – first in showing the world closing in on him after Betty tells him about her interview, then in playing the panic attack at the apartment (and that beautifully-framed shot of Don looking very old and green in the gills as he studies his reflection) – is really remarkable, and either this or “The Suitcase” may be enough to finally get some awards love in a non-Cranston year.
This is a far bigger deal for Don than when Pete found out, because Pete was just a little weasel who wanted to use the information to get a promotion; at best, Don could outmaneuver him (as he did with Bert Cooper), and at worst, he could go hobo and Pete wouldn’t care enough to send the authorities after him. But these G-men are the real deal, with enormous resources and no hidden agenda, and should they happen to stumble across Dick Whitman while conducting a routine hunt for Communist ties, he’s in big trouble, and he knows it.
Don tells Faye that he’s tired of running, but he also dismisses suggestions from both her and Pete that he could try to face the music and hope that 15 years would mitigate the crime. The thing about this particular secret is that it’s one Don can never really escape. Dick Whitman is dead as far as the US government and military are concerned, so he’s Don Draper until he either dies or goes to prison, always looking over his shoulder, waiting for someone else to come sniffing around his story.
And even though it was clear how much he wanted Betty to still love him after she learned the truth, and how relieved he always was around Anna Draper, he seems less pleased than he should that Dr. Faye has accepted the truth (or the abridged, slightly self-aggrandizing version of it he told her). There’s a strange distance between them in the final scene, and after Faye leaves, Don finds himself really noticing Megan for the first time. Is Don so filled with self-loathing that he now intends to treat Faye like the famous Groucho Marx line about how he’d never want to belong to a club that would have him as a member? And having crossed the secretary barrier with Allison, will it be that much easier for him to take his lawyer up on the advice about what to do with Megan?
Though most of the episode’s main characters are metaphorically on the hands and knees of the episode’s title, begging for someone to get rid of their massive new problem, Lane is the only one who literally ends up in that position, thanks to a shocking blow from his father Robert’s walking stick. Like Don, Lane has been running away from his life – not changing his name, but choosing America over his family, and then attempting to rub his father’s nose in it with a trip to the Playboy Club to meet his “chocolate bunny” girlfriend Toni. Both Robert and Toni can tell that Lane is showing off for them, and Robert coldly and violently orders his son to come back to England to resolve things one way or the other with his wife and son. In that moment, with Lane crumpled on the floor of his apartment, forced to call his father “sir,” we see where the PP&L organizational man – the man St. John Powell could count on to follow orders without hope of reward – came from, and as much as Lane fancies himself a mighty, hedonistic and progressive American, he’s still capable of being cowed by British authority figures. And he’s too embarrassed by what happened to admit to the other partners what happened.
Joan and Roger were able to keep their original affair a secret from everyone but Cooper, and their back-alley love-making might have remained the same way were it not for the biological evidence of it growing inside Joan. Roger suggests that she could fuzz the date and fool Greg into thinking the baby was his, but what we know but Roger doesn’t is how paranoid Greg is about Joan’s sexual experience and the men she’s around all day at work. Clueless as Greg is in so many areas, I don’t think this detail would elude him, and Joan doesn’t want to suffer his wrath again.
And yet there’s that moment in the deli where, for a half-second, Joan seems to be willing to contemplate a life where she keeps the baby and loses Greg. Roger is offering his usual half-assed proclamations of love(**), telling her “Maybe I’m in love with you,” but Joan sounds very serious when he asks, “So you want to keep it?” She’d been prepared from the start to go through with the abortion as the sensible thing to do, but she drops her guard for a moment and gets smacked down when Roger immediately responds by saying, “Of course not.” And where she was calm and friendly only moments earlier, there’s a hard edge to the rest of their discussion as Joan accepts that this is the corner she’s stuck in, and that Roger Sterling will never be the man to get her out.
(**) Clearly, the chemistry between these two characters, and actors, is off-the-charts, but Roger has never expressed the same depth of feeling for Joan that he has for either of the women he married. Matt Weiner told me once that when a post-heart attack Roger called Joan “the finest piece of ass I have ever had,” that perhaps that was the most honest assessment of the relationship he’d ever offer.
So she goes to the abortion clinic by herself, and even in the waiting room where everyone knows what they’re there for, Joan can’t admit to the mother of the pregnant teen that she’s there for herself. She invents a 15-year-old daughter, holding tight to the truth.
And of course Roger has a secret of his own to keep, and a bigger crisis to deal with – one that, unlike Don, puts him in actual danger of a heart episode before he pops a nitroglycerin pill under his tongue.
Little do Don or Pete know that they’re dumping North American at a moment when the firm could really use that spare $4 million, since the increasingly-corporate American Tobacco has decided it’s less interested in Roger’s ability to wine and dine Lee Garner Jr. (and then cover up his indiscretions) than in streamlining advertising for all its brands. Lucky Strike is an account Roger inherited from his father, just as Lee Jr. got the company from his old man, but neither is a real decision-maker anymore, and Roger seems ill-equipped to survive in a world where a 12-martini lunch isn’t the best solution to every problem, and where the names in his rolodex are dead, dying or as irrelevant as he is.
Roger enters that partners meeting, like the others, with a bit of information he’d love to have blacked out of the public record the way so much of the North American documentation was redacted, and it’s unclear what his plan is. He got the 30-day extension from Lee because if the news went public immediately, SCDP would be doomed, as new clients would be reluctant to sign with an agency on the brink of financial ruin, while current ones might be tempted to get out early. But keeping the news a secret from his own colleagues, rather than recruiting Pete and the others to help, seems as dangerous as the last time a Sterling Cooper employee decided to keep a Lee Garner decision to himself, when Harry sat back and let Sal get fired.
With three episodes to go in season four, what kind of rabbit will Roger, Don and company have to pull out of their hats this time to top the creation of SCDP at the end of season three? Does Lee Jr. still have enough power that they could blackmail him over what Don knows?(***) Even if Roger tells everyone soon, can they possibly assemble a client roster to fill that void? (Would Don be willing to get on his hands and knees for Connie Hilton a second time?)
(***) And the anger in John Slattery’s voice as Roger mentions “all the lies I’ve told for you” suggests that perhaps Roger also knows a thing or two about Lee Jr’s orientation. Though if that’s the case, and he’s still so defeated about Lucky Strike, Don’s knowledge would be sadly moot.Still, the possibility of the agency surviving without Lucky Strike does bring up the promising possibility of a Sal return in season five.
There’s a sense of impending doom throughout “Hands and Knees,” one that’s certainly not gone as the episode ends. Joan tells Roger that a tragedy was averted, Lane says the firm is fiscally stable, and Megan assures Don that everything worked out, but in all cases, we know the truth, and how bad things really are.
At their farewell lunch, Lee Jr. tells Roger, “There’s nothing you can do. Nothing you could do. That’s just the way it is.” Given the precarious state of things, is there anything any of these people can do to fix it?
Some other thoughts:
• An interesting, sympathetic Betty episode. She’s trying to help Don repair the rift with Sally from last week, and is pleased (rather than jealous) to learn that Don got Sally those Beatles tickets. She covers for Don with the G-men because she has no choice – whatever she said to Henry a few weeks back, she doesn’t hate Don, and he is the kids’ father – but she hates secrets as much as Pete does, because they consumed her first marriage. She wants a more honest relationship with Henry, but even there, she can’t tell him everything because she has no idea what Henry would do with the Dick Whitman info.
• Roger’s rant about Pete’s alleged screw-up with North American included the phrase “fucked up,” but the audio was dropped on the word, just as it’s been on the few occasions where “Breaking Bad” has also used the F-word, which is one of the few words you can’t say even on basic cable. While cable isn’t regulated by the FCC, channels like AMC not only have to deal with advertisers, but they have carriage deals with the various cable providers that stipulate that they won’t include certain content like that. “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan said he used it a couple of times in that fashion because it was the only word that could make the point a particular scene needed, and I guess Matt Weiner and Jonathan Abrahams felt it was the only way to get the point across about how shocked the partners were by Roger’s speech, even if it had to come with no audio for a half-second.
• Sally’s reaction to Don’s Beatles news is perfectly in keeping with the way many girls and young women responded to the Fab Four back in those days. The crowd at the Shea Stadium concert was so loud and frenzied that the band quickly realized no one could really hear them (check out how much John is just goofing around in their performance of “I’m Down”) and was the beginning of the end of their career as a touring band.
• Lane’s present for his absent son makes two Mickey Mouse gags in one night on cable, as the “Dexter” season premiere made memorable use of Mickey ears.
• Fathers and sons in the guest cast: W. Morgan Sheppard, who played Lane’s dad, is the father of ubiquitous TV character actor Mark Sheppard, while JD Cullum (one of the North American guys) is son of John Cullum, who in previous seasons played Lee Garner Sr.
• This was a pretty dark episode, but there were a few brief moments of humor mixed in, like Don and Betty’s lame playacting on the phone once it occurred to them that the government might be listening in, and Don telling Faye “You’re not a real doctor” in the middle of his panic attack.
• Because Alison Brie is so tiny, I wonder if the costume and makeup people are deliberately having fun with how gigantic Trudy’s stomach gets while the rest of her doesn’t change at all. It seriously looked like she had a medicine ball hidden under that nightie.
• The $400 for Joan’s abortion would have been about $2700 in today’s dollars. And it was interesting to contrast the scolding OB/GYN with Joan’s friendly relationship with her own doctor (who himself was far more patronizing to Peggy back in 1960). She’s developed such a bond with him that she’d rather be told she was “ruined” by this guy than face the possibility of the “I’m very disappointed in you” speech from the doctor who’s been helping her try to get pregnant at a relatively advanced age for 1965.
• Joan telling Roger, “Greg dying is not a solution to this” felt just a tiny bit meta, given the number of fans who have been rooting for Dr. Greg to die in combat (if not get fragged by his own men) ever since Vietnam became a possibility for him.
Once again, you can find my reviews of the previous seasons at my old blog, which is where I came up with the commenting rules (no spoilers, be respectful towards other commenters, try not to duplicate other people’s observations/questions, no politics, etc.) that still applies to this version of the blog.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com