A review of tonight’s “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as you find a way to define those pronouns…
“Tell him the truth. That always works.” -Mother Lakshmi
An old friend returns to “Mad Men” this week. Paul Kinsey turns up having been through a major transformation in the three years of story time since we last saw him as one of the poor fools left behind when Don, Roger and company hijacked the old agency. He’s been on a downward slide through the alphabet soup of Madison Avenue before finding himself, as many lost men and women of the period did, with Hare Krishna.
Paul’s new persona is yet another sign of the rapidly-changing times in a season that’s been full of them. But his quest for spiritual fulfillment and universal truth fits well into an episode where characters are being confronted with convenient lies and awkward truths, and where the ones who manage to make it through to something better are the ones with some kind of guru to help them separate one from the other.
For poor Paul, his guru winds up not being the Prabhupada, or even his love goddess Mother Lakshmi, but Harry freakin’ Crane. For once, Harry’s not just the butt of jokes about what a d-bag he’s become (not entirely, anyway), as it turns out he’s genuinely concerned for his former partner in crime. Harry reads Paul’s terrible “Star Trek” spec script(*) to try to help him out, and when Lakshmi shows up to seduce him, Harry’s concern isn’t about betraying his wife, but Paul. His concern isn’t so great that he doesn’t take the first vaguely-reassuring explanation, but once he finds out the true purpose of her visit – and that her main interest in Paul is due to his gifts as a recruiter – he decides this is one instance where a lie will be far kinder than the truth. He may be sending Paul off to LA for years of rejection and professional heartache, but he’s at least getting him away from this woman who’s been so nakedly exploiting his romantic and spiritual feelings for her.
(*) The latest sci-fi reference in a season that’s been brimming with them, including Ken’s writing under the name Ben Hargrove and Ginsberg’s Martian fantasies.
So Harry lets Paul keep living in denial, which is what Lane – the one major figure of the episode who doesn’t trust anyone enough to let them play the guru role – keeps doing with his tax problem. I can’t speak to the state of Lane’s personal finances and why he wouldn’t have taken out a personal loan from a U.S. bank – or even from Don (the one partner he views vaguely as a friend) – to try to pay the tax bill he has back in the U.K., but Lane has chosen to keep this problem entirely to himself, to the point where he’s willing to mess with the agency’s books, which he had previously treated as sacrosanct. Not only does he lie to the other partners that their latest $50,000 loan is a budget surplus, but when Don insists on stalling on the “bonus” he hoped to scam out of it, Lane simply steals a page from Joan’s check ledger and forging Don’s name on it. This will get vastly worse before it gets better, and all because Lane won’t talk to anyone – not Rebecca, not Don, not anyone on this side of the pond – about it.
The Lane plot was the sketchiest of the week, in the same way that his infatuation with the woman in the wallet was the one misstep in the season premiere. Lane is, by design, so far removed from the other characters at the office that whenever we get one of his spotlight episodes, it feels like we’re just learning about a major set of facts he’s been dealing with for months, whether it’s the tax debt here or his chocolate bunny from last season’s “Hands and Knees.” And because he so rarely opens up to others, we can only guess at the motivations of a man we don’t see nearly as much of as, say, Don, who also plays his cards close to the vest but whom we get to witness in action often enough to understand.
And speaking of Don, he’s both the giver and receiver of wisdom in this one. Megan’s career shift continues to cause problems both at work (where Don has lost all enthusiasm for the job, to the dismay of attaboy-seeking Pete) and at home (where he and Megan have a fight after she takes him to an avant-garde play that includes an attack on the advertising business she just quit). But it’s Megan – who angrily reminds him that he loved the job long before he met her – who is able to remind him of his professional passion (if not to heal everything in their marriage) and get him to give an inspirational rallying of the troops in the agency’s quest to land Jaguar. We’ve been waiting a while both to see Don get his fastball back and to see the firm land the white whale to replace Lucky Strike; it’s entirely possible that they’ll blow the Jaguar pitch, and that Don being irrelevant and past his prime is the new normal for the series, but how satisfying was it to hear him tell the staff to “Prepare to swim the English Channel and then drown in Champagne”?
Even more satisfying? That fantastic sequence in the middle of the episode where Don takes Joan along to pose as his wife(**) on a Jaguar scouting trip, then to a bar where they can console each other over their recent difficulties. Matt Weiner has been incredibly stingy with Don/Joan scenes – though they’ve interacted plenty of times, this episode and “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency” are the only ones I can think of where a significant amount of time is devoted to just letting them talk to each other about their lives – and it feels like he does so because the chemistry between Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks is so explosive that if he did it more regularly, we wouldn’t care about any other relationship on the show.
(**) Note that Joan, gifted at everything, responds without hesitation to the salesman’s question about kids by saying they have 4, which is technically true.
They were scorching together once again, and this time both characters were in a place – tipsy, depressed, Don feeling estranged from his wife, Joan resenting her soon-to-be-ex-husband – where the possibility of them acting on it seemed palpable. Joans shut it down the second Don suggested dancing, but Don seems just drunk enough, and lonely enough, to have tried something. But the only thing that happens is Joan admitting that she tried to use her success at work to be in denial about the end of her marriage, and then Don reassuring her that whatever Greg did to her, she’ll be better off in the long run without him.
Of course, it’s easier in the mid-’60s for a Don Draper to start over than it is for a Joan Holloway, or even for a Paul Kinsey. But no matter who you are, moving forward is easier when you have someone to help guide you along, and, when necessary, force you to be honest with yourself.
Some other thoughts:
* John Slattery talked around Roger’s knowledge of Kevin’s parentage when I interviewed him after the season premiere, but this episode makes it clear he knows exactly who the baby daddy is, even as Joan rebuffs all his attempts to support the kid, financially or otherwise.
* If you’re Bryan Batt, did watching Michael Gladis in this episode make you even more frustrated you haven’t appeared since Don fired Sal late in season 3, or are you fearful of what Sal will be up to (and how he might be wearing his hair) if we ever see him again?
* At first I was puzzled by the reference to meeting in “Cooper’s office,” since it’s well-established that Bert doesn’t have one, and lounges wherever he feels like. Then the procession stopped outside the men’s room, and I got the joke. Also, does this mean that Cooper has other things in common with Arthur Fonzarelli? If he had been at the bar with Don and Joan, could he have started the jukebox for her with just a well-placed strike of his fist?
* “America Hurrah,” the play Megan took Don to, was real. Also, speaking of the theater of the period, Megan hurling the spaghetti against the wall reminded me of the big moment towards the end of “The Odd Couple” (which hit Broadway the year before) where Oscar and Felix are arguing over whether a dish is spaghetti or linguini, until Oscar pulls a Megan and declares, “Now it’s garbage!” (Here’s the film version.)
* Was the big twist of Paul’s “Star Trek” screenplay – that the Negrons were white – that heavy-handed? After all, the final season of “Trek” featured an episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” about a race war between two groups of people: one where their faces were white on the right side and black on the left, the others where the color scheme was reversed. Gene Roddenberry wasn’t much for the subtlety.
* In Don and Joan’s trip down memory lane, I liked the references to former Sterling Cooper employees like Burt Peterson, the former accounts man who was fired by the Brits in the season 3 premiere. Between that, Paul’s return and Don referencing Bobbie Barrett (she’s the one who told him, “I like being bad, and going home and being good.”), it was practically a “Mad Men” history lesson this week, on top of Roger’s own history lesson about Pearl Harbor. (Which was, itself, an allusion to last season’s “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.”)
* Speaking of the Brits, I kept being distracted by the resemblance between the actor playing Lane’s tax man and the one who played St. John Powell’s right-hand man in season three.
* Oh, and one more resemblance, as pointed out by Dave Itzkoff on Twitter: Hare Krishna Paul and Varys from “Game of Thrones.”
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com