A review of tonight’s “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as I have my lawyer tell your lawyer what time dinner is…
“It’s so easy to blame our problems on others, but really, we’re in charge of ourselves.” -Betty
When I interviewed Matt Weiner back at press tour, he quoted Roger’s line from this episode that “It’s every man for himself” and called that the theme of the season. Time after time this year, we’ve seen characters push for what they want, other people be damned. This week’s selfish actors are Betty, Don and Roger, who each try very hard to get back in the game after a long period of personal or professional atrophy. And of the three, only Roger, of all people, seems the least bit troubled by his actions.
Since her last major appearance, Betty has gotten a bit closer to fighting weight through a lot of strict portion control and Weight Watchers meetings. (And it’s nice that she again has a venue where she can talk about her problems, even if only a little.) She’s feeling better about herself, little by little, until a glimpse of Don and Megan’s fabulous lifestyle at 73rd and Park – and, specifically, her view of a half-dressed Megan, who is young and glamorous and modern and (worst of all for Betty in her current state) incredibly slender – derails her progress. She’s able to stop herself from swallowing the whipped cream she impulsively sprays into her mouth (stress eating before there was a name for the activity), but the images she saw at the apartment are harder to get rid of. The Weight Watchers meetings help at first, and we see another reminder that at their best, she and Henry are able to be warmer and more generous with each other than she and Don could ever be.
But then Betty finds Don’s tossed-off love note to Megan on the back of one of Bobby’s drawings, and all of her worst, most selfish impulses take over. Suddenly, the only dish that Betty wants is revenge, and she doesn’t even mind if she has to serve her daughter up with it, damaging Sally’s view of her father and stepmother in the process. Megan and Don handle the Anna surprise as well as can be expected – even as Sally is acting as nasty and petulant about it as possible – and they foil Betty’s plot, but the end result is that Sally is learning from both sets of parents how to be cruel. (Her cheerful response to Betty’s later queries about Anna is the meanest thing she can say to her mother, and she knows it.) At Thanksgiving, Betty claims to be thankful that she has everything she wants, but immediately has to add “and that no one else has anything better,” which is supposed to read as her being satisfied with her lot in life, but instead reflects a desire to drag the rest of the world down to her own miserable level, where everyone’s portion of happiness is as small as what’s on her Thanksgiving plate.(*)
(*) I ding January Jones quite a bit in these reviews, but credit where it’s due: her reaction in the final shot – trying so hard, but ultimately failing, to enjoy every little bite of her small, unappetizing portion – was pretty terrific.
During that brief moment of contentment with Henry, Betty stretches the boundaries of her diet by eating a piece of his steak, rationalizing it by noting how close they are to midnight, and that she can count it on the next day’s food tally. That’s not really helping her, but she gets to enjoy the taste of steak – just as Don leaving Ginsberg’s Sno Ball campaign in the cab gives him the temporary satisfaction of having his own campaign win, but does nothing about the long-term threat that Ginsberg poses to him.
When Don studies the potential ads to send to the Times reporter and sees almost all of them have Ginsberg’s name attached, Joan tries to make him feel better by noting what a great creative director he’s been lately. The problem is that once upon a time, Don Draper was creative, and now he’s just a director. A peek at Ginsberg’s notebook inspires him to come up with his own idea, but while everyone likes it(**), it’s clear that Ginsberg’s is better: more youth-oriented, more about the product, and simply funnier. Don wins this round – and even wounds Ginsberg by telling him “I don’t think about you at all” (the worst thing you can say to a guy like that) – but you can see on his face after their encounter just how troubled Don is by how far he’s fallen, and how quickly the kid is rising. Peggy worked with Don when he was at his peak, and she’s always going to view him through that lens. Ginsberg may have admired Don’s work from afar, but he’s only ever worked with the version who’s a half-interested fossil. He’s going to keep coming, and keep having better ideas, since we’ve seen no sign in a long time that Don is capable of getting back to what he used to be at work.
(**) At first, I took Don’s brainstorming session with the Dictaphone as a sign of how off his game he was, since the Devil idea sounded just terrible. But Ginsberg and Peggy and Stan all seemed impressed with it (Peggy wouldn’t lie to Don in that circumstance, and we know that Ginsberg lacks a filter or gift for sucking up), and it was presented as a close call in the meeting with the non-creatives, and then as a winning idea with the Sno Ball execs (albeit in a setting where Don declined to show them Ginsberg’s better campaign). Usually, “Mad Men” does a good job of having the pitches live up to the quality that the characters see in them; this wasn’t one of those times. On the other hand, Don’s note to Megan may have been the best writing he’s done in a couple of seasons. Just perfect: short, to the point, incredibly romantic, and inadvertently designed to stick a knife in Betty’s heart. Once again, he’s better when he’s focusing on his new bride than when he’s at the office.
While Betty and Don are struggling to fend off incursions from younger upstarts, old lion Bert Cooper is displeased enough by all the attention Pete is getting – or maybe just by Roger’s “Sterling Campbell Draper Pryce” joke in the elevator – to push Roger to prove that the white-hairs still provide value to the agency by landing a client without the help of Pete or Don. This leads to the third incident this season where Roger’s had to pull cash out of his own pocket to solve a problem (and though he jokes about having to carry around less cash, he still hasn’t actually done it), and in the process to Roger alienating Peggy for failing to go to her the way he did with Mohawk. Roger feels he needs specifically Jewish help to deal with Manischweitz, which is why Jane winds up at the dinner with him (even more of Roger throwing money at a problem, as he buys her a new apartment to get her to agree). And when he catches young Bernie Rosenthal being too flirty with the soon-to-be-ex-Mrs. Sterling, Roger decides to mark his old territory and seduces Jane in her new home, ruining the fresh start she so badly wanted it to be for herself.
But where Betty seems oblivious to the damage she’s doing to Sally, and where Don feels fear of Ginsberg but not guilt for screwing him over, Roger at least has the self-awareness to recognize what he did the instant Jane calls him on it, and to feel bad for it. The LSD hasn’t changed any of Roger’s behavior, but it’s changed how he responds to himself, and to other people. A season ago, he’d have made a wry quip and walked off whistling; here, he shows remorse for hurting someone he used to care about.
Back in the season premiere, Megan complained to Peggy, “What is wrong with you people? You’re all so cynical! You don’t smile; you smirk!” When Don wakes up on Thanksgiving, Megan warns him not to go out on the balcony, due to the killer smog cloud that plagued Manhattan on that day. She’s gotten out of the toxic atmosphere of the office, but the toxicity extends to all the parts of Don’s life and all the people in it. We keep waiting for things to get better – for Betty to be a little nicer, for Don to get his mojo back, for the agency to start picking up steam – and it’s just not happening. These are more desperate times than we realized, and the more desperate things get, the more every man or woman believes he or she has to think of him or herself – even if that winds up making things worse, not better.
Some other thoughts:
* This season was written a long time ago, and Weiner had hoped to be on the air in late fall, so it’s either an extraordinary coincidence that Megan’s friend was auditioning for a role on “Dark Shadows” (the ABC soap opera) in an episode that aired the weekend that “Dark Shadows (the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp film) arrived in theaters, or Megan’s friend was originally auditioning for something else, and the scene was rewritten (if not entirely reshot) once it became clear when the episode would air.
* Looks like we’re not done with Beth just yet – or, at least, that Pete’s not done obsessing over her, between his mid-day sex fantasy (where Beth’s dialogue and line readings had the cadence of a letter to Penthouse Forum) and his argument with Howard on the train to work.
* As happened with the protest from the season premiere, that was an actual New York Times Magazine feature on the ad game, including that photo of the partners from the agency Wells Rich Greene. (Full credit to Adam Bonin for finding that.)
* This episode retroactively dealt with some of the issues Roger and Jane must have gone through in terms of their intermarriage (Jane complains that he suddenly has no problem with people knowing she’s Jewish), and also suggested that there was a whole lot of inappropriate humor the show could have had with the idea over the years. My favorite of the many un-PC gags: Roger asking of the potential clients, “How Jewish are they? ‘Fiddler on the Roof’: audience or cast?”
* Last week gave us Rory Gilmore and Mr. Belding, while tonight gave us Elaine Benes’ old boss from Pendant Publishing, Mr. Lippman – aka actor Richard Fancy, who played the client from Manischewitz.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com