‘Mad Men’ – ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Sword’: Turning Japanese

Senior Television Writer
08.23.10 418 Comments

A review of the latest episode of “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as I figure out how to close Fifth Avenue…

“These are not the same people!” -Pete
“How can that be? I’m the same people!” -Roger

How long can you hold onto a grudge? How long can you define yourself by something that happened when you were a young man, or a little girl? How long can you use those ancient events to justify appalling present-day actions?

“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” is notable for giving us a Don Draper totally on his game for most of the hour after the awkwardness of the past four weeks. But while Don is busy out-maneuvering Teddy Chaough, we see just how destructive Roger and Betty can be, leaning on painful memories from 20 years ago or more.

Roger Sterling has always been shown as a man who takes nothing seriously. There is, however, an important and obvious exception: World War II. Roger doesn’t much respect Korea vets like Don – in a season one episode, he dismissed a mention of Don’s service by sniffing, “Oh, his war” – and none at all for men like Pete who were too young to serve. He treats civilian life as a joke, but when he learns that the new firm is making a pitch to Honda, he’s offended. He refers to the potential clients as “your new yellow buddies,” and while he takes delight as always in saying shocking things (see also his run of laxative jokes earlier in the meeting, or his Hiroshima reference when he disrupts the later meeting), the overwhelming emotion is anger. Roger wants no part of this. Pete is onto something when he suggests Roger wants to preserve his importance to the firm by keeping everyone dependent on his relationship with Lee Garner, but it’s more complicated than that. As we see (in just a superb transformative moment from John Slattery), Pete’s accusation washes a series of conflicting emotions across Roger’s face, particularly shame that there’s some truth to what the punk said, but also rage that anyone would dare impugn his memories of the buddies he lost in the Pacific. 

And the later scene with Joan(*) – who has her own military nightmares to come, since she assumes Dr. Greg is going off to Vietnam – makes it clear that this isn’t just about protecting his turf in the firm, or even mostly about that. Roger cares about this – cares so deeply that he was willing to risk professional relationships and large sums of money to derail the plan by any means necessary. In the end, he lets Bert Cooper talk him into going along with the idea of Honda as a client, and he lets himself believe Joan’s theory that the potential deal is proof of the better world that was created by the sacrifices of Roger and his friends, but the story is a fascinating – and, when he shows up to insult the Honda reps, mortifying – look at a very different, less likable but in many ways more human Roger Sterling.

(*) I know it’s asking a lot, particularly in weeks where neither character has a subplot of his or her own, but can we just make it mandatory that every episode feature a scene, even a brief one, that’s just Joan and Roger interacting with no one else around? The chemistry between Slattery and Christina Hendricks and the personal history between the two always makes those a delight.

Betty, meanwhile, returns after two episodes away, and after being a minor presence in the one before that. I can’t say I exactly missed her, nor was I all that pleased when her first scene back had her slapping Sally across the face for the sin of cutting her hair, and later suggesting she could cut her fingers off. But while I was busy hissing at Betty for being such a horrible mother (Sally is, understandably, terrified of her), two interesting things happened: Henry Francis began to prove his value as Husband #2 (Betty trusts him enough that she listens to his parental advice when she didn’t/couldn’t with Don), and Betty found herself in a psychiatrist’s office again.

It’s easy to paint Betty as the villain in the family. She’s cold and judgmental and quick to take out her frustrations on her kids. She’s not charismatic or funny (at least never intentionally), and she doesn’t get to dazzle us with her brilliance in some other field so we’ll forgive her personal flaws. But she’s also not the one who was cheating on her spouse for years (other than that quickie with Captain Awesome on the night when the world was possibly ending). She’s not the one who disappeared for hours on her daughter’s birthday because she didn’t feel at home there. She’s not the one who lied about who she was.  And she’s not the one who got her spouse’s shrink to reveal all the secrets of therapy.

Don’s betrayal with Dr. Wayne is easy to forget. It was a long time ago (in both show-time and real-time), and so many other things have happened to Don and Betty since then. But if ever there were a character on “Mad Men” in need of a little self-examination in a safe environment, it’s Betty. (Don at least has the capacity for self-awareness, even if he usually pushes down what he understands about himself.) And Don took that option away from her. And Henry the gentle homewrecker may have given it back.

Betty is horrible and impulsive and cruel in her response to Sally’s haircut, and then to the masturbation incident at the sleepover(**), but by the time she’s made it to Dr. Edna’s office, time and Henry’s words have given her a bit of perspective on both. Sure, Betty is obsessed enough with appearances that she might try to make herself look like the understanding mom in her first meeting with her daughter’s future shrink. But as the meeting goes on, it becomes less about Betty’s concern for Sally than her oft-mentioned issues with her own mother, who sounds every bit the monster Betty so often is with her kids. None of this excuses Betty’s behavior, any more than Roger was right to take out his wartime issues on the Honda execs, but it’s still important to be reminded on occasion that Betty didn’t spontaneously turn into this cruel ice queen; somebody made her this way, and then her first marriage only hardened those character traits.

(**) Two thoughts on this, by the way. First, I know Kiernan Shipka grew like a weed in the offseason, and that kids today mature even faster than they did in 1965, but that was still a damned unsettling scene, and I can’t help wondering what kind of direction Lesli Linka Glatter gave her for that. Did she know what she was supposed to be pantomiming? Or did Glatter just tell her, “You really, really, really think the blonde guy is cute”? And second, this whole notion that Sally did it “in public” is unfair to her, since we see that she makes sure her friends are asleep before doing it. It’s still not a thing that you, you know, do, but it’s not like she was showing off to anybody.

It’s rare to see Betty opening up to anyone the way she does with Dr. Edna. Ditto the usually glib Roger in the scene with Joan. But perhaps the episode’s most shocking confessional comes from the usually-reserved Don, who has his own unofficial therapy session with Faye Miller in the SDCP kitchen.(***) Don can be personally candid with Anna Draper, but she’s dying (and he has no idea how she’s doing, since Miss Blankenship’s calls go unanswered), and Don’s in enough of a personal crisis that he has to be able to talk to somebody. Faye has surprised Don in the past with her ability to read him, and he’s attracted to her – and has a history of revealing a part of himself to past girlfriends like Rachel Menken – so even though he complains earlier in their conversation about why people need to talk about everything, he finds himself admitting just how confusing his feelings about the kids are, and she finds herself revealing that her wedding ring is just as much a prop as the outfit she changed into for last week’s focus group.

(***) I think the location definitely helped create the intimacy Don needed for that conversation. It’s a part of the office cut off from all reminders of work, Faye is in there in her stocking feet after a long day balancing on high heels, and it’s easy for both of them to pretend they’re actually in a real kitchen at home rather than chatting with a work colleague.

It’s notable that even though Don drinks from Teddy Chaough’s saki bottle in that scene, and is frequently shown reaching for the bottle in his office throughout the hour, this is the first episode in weeks where he never seems impaired by the booze. He’s still drinking too much, but he more closely resembles the Don Draper we knew from past seasons. We don’t get a classic Don Draper pitch, but that’s because he realizes one is irrelevant here. Roger’s behavior has dug SCDP a huge hole, and beyond that, Honda isn’t actually planning to relocate its motorcycle advertising. So Don does his homework with a copy of the book that gave the episode its title and figured out a way to not only make the firm again seem honorable to the Honda people, but to put a big financial hurt on Teddy Chaough. His plan brings back the delightful caper movie vibe from the season three finale, and its success was a reminder that, as interesting as this “Don’s never-ending lost weekend” story arc has been, sometimes it’s a pleasure to just see Draper being Draper.

It’s unclear whether this is Don climbing out from the rock bottom of the last few weeks or just a momentary blip, just as we don’t know if Sally’s therapy (and Betty’s occasional visits) will heal that awful mother-daughter relationship, or if Roger will ever be able to put the Pacific behind him. But talking about these issues with others can’t hurt. As Freddie Rumsen might tell any of them, the first step towards overcoming a problem is admitting that you have one.

Some other thoughts on “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”:

  • Though I focused on Betty and Don above, I don’t want to give Sally short shrift in her own story. The scenes in Ossining are as valuable for showing how she copes with the divorce as for seeing Betty and Don yell at each other – note that both Don and Betty had the same reaction to the haircut, which is that the kids might as well have been left alone – and Shipka’s been doing a great job. We’ve been saying for a few seasons now that Sally was going to wind up spending a lot of time in therapy. How does four sessions a week at age 10 sound?
  • The TV show Sally was watching at the sleepover was “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” and the blonde guy in question was David McCallum, who was a sex symbol of the era (and now plays Ducky on “NCIS”). Assuming McCallum watches “Mad Men,” I’m trying to imagine what his reaction was to that scene.
  • Interesting that this episode featured all three of his potential East Coast love interests. Phoebe the nurse winds up babysitting the kids while Don is on a date with Bethany. (And Don scheduling that on one of the rare nights when he has the kids very much is in line with what he told Faye about the difficulty he has with them.) Bethany complains that they’ve only had three dates in five months, and implies that it’s because Don’s mad they haven’t had sex yet, and Phoebe gets angrily dismissed, and it sure seems like we’re heading for a Don/Faye hookup.
  • Google was not my friend in trying to decipher Roger’s reference to Dr. Lyle Evans. If Google doesn’t know, and Joan (the Google of 1965) doesn’t know, is he worth knowing?
  • If you missed it on Thursday, I got a chance to interview John Slattery about his experience directing last week’s episode. Behind the camera this week: “Mad Men” vet Leslie Linka Glatter, who teamed with director of photography Chris Manley to give us that marvelous shot of a carefree Peggy looking very mod as she drives the Honda in circles around a white stage as part of the con on CGC.
  • Until this week’s script by Erin Levy, Matt Weiner had been credited or co-credited on every script since the fifth episode of season three, “The Fog,” by Kater Gordon (who has since left the show). The script had a lot of good one-liners, including Don entering the partners meeting asking, “Please tell me I missed everything,” and the Honda execs not being subtle in their leering at Joan.
  • Two thoughts on the New York Times reporter calling Don. First, the idea that the media would elevate Chaough to Don’s level simply because Chaough said he was presages an era (which continues today) where the media will do an awful lot of that simply because it needs stories. Second, Faye is impressed that the Times is calling Don; would that line have survived if the episode had been written after Weiner took such exception to Alessandra Stanley’s review?
  • At the end of our first full episode of the Miss Blankenship era, I’m curious for everyone’s thoughts on how much is too much. Obviously, Randee Heller and the writers are having fun creating this dotty old woman who gets everything wrong. But while each mishap (the delayed intercom message, wrestling Pete for the package) was amusing on its own, combined it felt like the show was taking the joke too far. Joan assigns her to Don as punishment for the Allison thing, but there needs to come a point soon where she recognizes that the firm’s most valuable asset can’t be operating under such shackles.
  • Our brief glimpse of Teddy’s office at CGC showed us where Smitty – and, based on Teddy’s smug reference to “your boyfriend,” Kurt – has landed. With Ken’s appearance last week, that just leaves Paul and Sal among the notable Sterling Cooper alums yet to be accounted for.
  • At the end of the meeting with Dr. Edna, Betty fixates on the dollhouse in her office. Is she thinking of the picture-perfect family she had and then lost? Thinking back to the age when she might have played with such a thing, and the way her mother treated her back then? 
  • Maybe the best move of Don’s gambit with Honda was that he paid with a personal check (which listed his address as 184 Waverly, I believe). More than anything else he said in that brief meeting showed that this was a matter of personal honor to Don, and that clearly impressed the Honda people.

Once again, let me remind you of the commenting rules – which we established at my old blog (which is also where you can find my reviews of seasons 1-3) – and specifically of the part about being respectful of other commenters (if you can’t disagree with someone without insulting them, don’t comment) and the no spoilers rule, which includes not discussing anything in the previews for the next episode.

With that in mind, what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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