A review of the latest episode of “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as the jockey smokes the cigarette…
“You can’t tell how people are going to behave based on how they have behaved.” -Don
So who are “The Rejected” of this episode’s title? Obviously, there’s pretentious artist Davey Kellogg, whose nude photos were rejected by Life. Peggy’s concept for the Pond’s campaign is rejected by Faye Miller’s focus group testing. Allison continues to feel rejected by Don, and in turn rejects him (and throws a projectile at him on her way out the door). Joan finds herself too “old and married” to be eligible for the focus group (and gets kicked out of her office during it, since the room doubles as the observation lounge). Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is on the verge of rejecting one of Pete’s biggest clients due to a conflict, but newly-expecting papa Pete manages to turn that rejection on its head and leverage Trudy’s pregnancy into landing the entire Vick’s empire but Clearasil.
And perhaps most importantly, Peggy spends the hour caught between the life she rejected when she gave up her baby and the one she wound up with as a result of that choice.
Pete and Peggy’s affair, the baby it produced, and her decision to give it up(*) without telling Pete, was one of the series’ very first stories, and one that’s been dealt with intermittently ever since. Peggy used the news to shut down Pete’s advances during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that revelation was an obvious source of tension between the two in their few scenes together in season three. Mostly, though, their circumstances have forced them to bottle any feelings on that. Pete has realized – spurred in part by Peggy’s confession about the baby – that he really does love and need Trudy. (Had Peggy kept the baby, Pete might have left Trudy, or at the very least its presence might have driven a wedge in that marriage.) Peggy thrills at the professional and personal freedom she has as a single woman with no familial responsibilities. And the close quarters and scrappy dynamic of the new firm means they have to work together and leave their other issues behind.
(*) And just to prevent the inevitable tangent that happens in the comments whenever this comes up, even though it shouldn’t by now: Peggy’s sister is NOT raising Peggy and Pete’s baby. Several episodes in season two made that abundantly clear – most notably the one where we see that her sister was very pregnant at the time when Peggy gave birth – yet for some reason the question is asked every single time. No. Just no. Thank you.
Every now and then, though, they have to confront things. Peggy loves who and what she’s become – a respected and influential part of the firm, someone who’s comfortable smoking pot at a downtown happening and politely fending off the advances of her new lesbian friend while a man with a grizzly bear head walks past – but she admitted to Freddie that she’d like to be married some day, and can’t resist trying on Faye Miller’s engagement ring during the focus group. And when she hears the news that Pete is finally expecting a baby with Trudy, it knocks her for a loop. It’s not that she regrets the choice she made, but that the emotions of that time, suppressed for so long, can’t help bubbling up to the surface again.
Pete never wanted to adopt, and wasn’t sure he wanted a child at all – in part because of his own dysfunctional upbringing, in part because of the hurt he felt from Peggy’s news – but when he learns that against the odds of contemporary medical science, he’s gotten Trudy pregnant, he realizes that, like the wife he eventually learned to love, it’s something he wants. And after a tense lunch with Ken Cosgrove(**), Pete recognizes that he can use Trudy’s pregnancy (and his firm’s performance on the Clearasil account) to do what Ken fears he can’t with Mountain Dew and use the small piece of Vick’s to gain control of the whole pie. It’s not an unfair move, since his father-in-law was always using Clearasil as a carrot to get Pete to give him a grandchild, but Tom is still shocked that his daughter’s weasel husband has the spine and savvy to finally call him out for it. He calls Pete a “son of a bitch,” and (in one of the most charming moments Vincent Kartheiser has had on the show) Pete just shrugs. After the maneuever he just pulled off – and considering the woman who raised him – is he really in a position to deny the charge?
(**) Ken was, technically, rejected by the founders of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce when Don and Roger went for Pete to be head of accounts. And though Ken was a carefree star of the old firm, in the year since we last saw him he’s transformed into a much more uptight, bitter sort. Kenny and his haircut never used to sweat, but his time in the advertising big leagues has made him very sweaty indeed.
Peggy and Pete do have a bond beyond the absent child – note that Pete rests his head on the obtrusive column in his office while dealing with the Clearasil news, while Peggy raps her forehead against her desk after congratulating Pete on his news – yet they’re headed in different directions even as both their stars rise. The episode ends with them on two sides of the glass entrance to SCDP, Peggy with her bohemian creative friends, Pete surrounded by old money men in suits. Their office is the same, but their worlds are not. But Peggy can still catch Pete’s eye through the glass and exchange a look with him that makes it clear that wherever their futures may take them, their shared past means they still understand each other on a level no one else does. Pete’s not going to leave his pregnant wife to go running back to Peggy, and Peggy’s not going to give up wild nights to have a family with Pete, but there’s still something there, and there always will be.
Peggy’s memories of her own office romantic history, and of the clumsy, failed pass she made at Don when she was his secretary, and her feelings about their complicated, intimate but decidedly platonic relationship all came into play in her hostile, defensive reaction to Allison’s assumption that Don had drunkenly slept with all his secretaries. (“Your problem is not my problem, and honestly, you should get over it” was about the last thing Allison needed to hear in that moment.) And the funny thing is, as loathsome as Pete was in the early going of the series, and as much as we were geared back then to root for Don and hate Pete, Pete never treated Peggy as badly as Don treated Allison the morning after their quickie on his sofa, nor as badly as Don treats her here when she attempts to get some closure while resigning. Backed into a corner, Don does at least acknowledge that they had sex, but when she asks him to write her a recommendation, he behaves just as obtusely as he did when he threw the envelope of cash at her. The idea of asking the recommendee to write whatever they want the recommender to sign is a fairly common practice, but in this particular instance, involving two people where one has made it abundantly clear that they just want the other to recognize their value in some way, it was a bad, bad move, and one that understandably drove Allison to hurl a heavy object at her soon-to-be-ex-boss.
Allison’s very public rejection of Don as her boss was the latest example this season of a Don Draper who isn’t very good at being Don Draper anymore. The drinking continues to be a problem – as is his smoking, in times of stress like the Lee Garner Jr. phone call or the possibility of Allison confessing during the focus group – but even worse is the fact that so much of his dirty laundry is being aired for the world (in this case, the world=the firm) to see. If Joan doesn’t know exactly what went down there, she has a pretty good idea when she punishes Don by assigning the doddering Miss Blankenship as Allison’s replacement on his desk. The Don Draper we met at the beginning of the series hated above all else for other people to know too much about him, and now his life is an open book, whether he’s the star of SCDP’s media campaign or just making a fool of himself repeatedly inside those glass walls. The episode ends with Don coming home (and looking entirely sober for once on that walk) and noticing the elderly couple across the hall having an argument because the husband wants to know if the wife bought pears at the store, while the wife insists on keeping even the most mundane detail of their life hidden behind closed doors. If Don actually had someone willing to buy him pears (we haven’t seen his maid in a few episodes, have we?), I doubt he’d be able to keep even that a secret.
In arguing for Peggy’s vision for the Pond’s campaign over Freddie’s, Don tells Faye Miller that past behavior is not necessarily predictive of future behavior, and he’s living proof of that. So are Peggy, and Pete, and Ken, and most of the other significant characters in this episode. They have changed, right along with the world. They do things in 1965 that their 1960 selves would not believe possible. They’ve rejected parts of themselves from before, whether for good (a more mature Pete, a bolder Peggy) or ill (a pathetic Don, a tense Ken).
When Don gives up on typing an apology letter to Allison, the sentence he can’t finish is “My life is very…” Very what, Don? Complicated? Depressing? Mortifying? Whatever it is, his life, and that of the important people in it, is very much not something he had planned to be living when we first met him.
Some other thoughts:
- A few guest star notes: That was Jessica Pare as Megan, the tall, striking receptionist Joyce kept coming around to gawk at. She popped up briefly in the Christmas episode, and is worth mentioning because she co-starred with John Slattery and Matt Long (Joey) on the WB’s short-lived “Jack & Bobby.” Meanwhile, Miss Blankenship is played by Randee Heller, probably still best known as Daniel Larusso’s mom in the original “Karate Kid.” And Peggy’s new friend Joyce was played by Zoisa Mamet, daughter of David Mamet and Lindsay Crouse, who was Marshall’s weird quasi-girlfriend this season on “United States of Tara.”
- Pardon the pun (it’s 2 a.m. as I write this), but John Slattery had a pretty sterling directorial debut with this one. Slattery has a playful personality that’s evident in the way he plays Roger, and “The Rejected” had a very playful tone throughout, whether it was all the interplay during the endless Lee Garner call (“Ohmigod, there’s some kind of fire!”), or Roger busting Don’s chops about Miss Blankenship, or the screamingly funny scene where Peggy’s head popped into frame through the transom to peep on Don as he poured a drink after Allison’s noisy exit. As usually happens when actors from ensemble shows direct an episode, the hour was light on Roger Sterling himself, but his spirit was everywhere. He’s directing another one later this season. Can’t wait to see it.
- That column in Pete’s office did give Slattery a lot to play with, as it will future writers and directors. Whether it’s Pete being surprised to find Harry at his desk or Lane awkwardly entering, exiting and re-entering around that monstrosity, there’s ample comedy there.
- Anna sends Don a photo of the two of them in their younger years. She’s not gone yet, thankfully.
- Note that Bert Cooper isn’t there for the “informal partners’ meeting,” and in an earlier scene is hanging out in the reception area, shoes off, just reading. Now that the transition from the old firm is done, is Bert any more relevant here than he was during the final days of British rule at Sterling Cooper?
- Note that Harry keeps using Yiddish, here confusing Pete with his mention of “goniffs.”
- Interesting that Faye specifically reminds Don he’s the client. Even though I think he’s correct in taking Peggy’s side in this argument, and even though he wasn’t the one who wanted to hire her in the first place, he’s still acting like as much of a diva towards her as his clients often do towards him. In fact, much of his animosity clearly stems from the fact that Allison broke down in the middle of her focus group.
- Other than the timing of these reviews (more on that in a moment), perhaps the biggest adjustment I’ve had to make since AMC cut off the screener supply is seeing how random the placement of the commercial breaks seems. Shawn Ryan once told me that on “The Shield,” he instructed his writers to write every scene as if it could be the lead-in to an act break, so he would have the ability to move the pieces around in whatever order he wanted, which in turn had the side effect of making that show feel much more exciting from scene to scene. “Mad Men” is clearly a different animal that moves at its own pace, but there are only occasionally scenes where it feels logical that the story is about to stop for a few minutes.
Two final notes. First, I’m posting this now because my schedule for tomorrow was simply not going to allow me to even start writing the review until mid-afternoon tomorrow, so I stayed up to power through. In the future, I’d like to stick with last week’s schedule so I can sleep on my thoughts of the episode, so don’t expect middle-of-the-night postings again barring something unusual.
Second, let me remind you, as always, of some of the basic commenting rules around here: 1)Be respectful of other commenters. If you can’t find a way to disagree with someone without insulting them, don’t comment. 2)No spoilers about future episodes, and that includes any discussion of the previews for the next episode. Period. Keeping that in mind…
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com