Duck and cover. This was the gloves-off, throw-it-in-your-face edition of "Mad Men."
Our master manipulator, Don Draper, finds himself in the very unfamiliar position of being pushed around and jerked around by seemingly everyone he comes into contact with -- from Conrad Hilton to Sally's school teacher to the sleazy hitchhikers he picks up on the lonesome road to nowheresville.
The episode titled "Seven Twenty Three" ends with the ultimate indignity for "Mad Men's" man of mystery. Bert Cooper puts aside his crazy old codger routine to bend Don to his will by using Kryptonite -- the knowledge that Don Draper isn't who he says he is at all. A lot of old demons come back to haunt Don in this episode -- and you get the feeling that the witching hour isn't over for him, not by a long shot. The solar eclipse motif had obvious symbolism in an episode in which Don's mental health seems to be spiraling out of control, again.
Don was the white-hot center of this riveting hour, but we also got some heavy duty material for Peggy and Betty. This episode was beautifully written -- noticeably good even by "Mad Men" standards -- by Andre Jacquemetton, Maria Jacquemetton and Matthew Weiner and directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer. There wasn't a bad line in it, as far as I'm concerned, and the plot development seemed to gallop along, even though we don't really know everything nor where things will end up. (We do know one thing -- the escalation of the Vietnam war is definitely looming as a transformative and traumatic event for American culture. We know, unfortunately, how that storyline ends.)
"When it comes right down to it, who's really signing this contract anyway," Bert Cooper tells Don with a malevolent grin. Oh cut him to the quick, Bert. Jon Hamm is incredible in registering the agony of this moment for Don with barely a word. It seems as if Don made himself forget that way back in season one Pete Campbell picked up a few threads of the Don Draper/Dick Whitman subterfuge and tried to butter his own bread by outing Don to Bert.
Bert didn't care at the time because all was well at Sterling Cooper under its brilliant head of creative, and Bert wasn't such a conservative corporate stuffed-shirt type as to get all worked up about the prospect of having an Army deserter in their midst. But, this episode makes it absolutely clear that Bert's no bumpkin; he knows how to play rough (Robert Morse's finest work in the show to date). And even Bert doesn't know how much his words sting Don in this pivotal confrontation scene, because it's much the same smackdown that Don administered to Peggy just the day before. Bert pulls the same trick that Hilton does on Don, disempowering him by sitting behind Don's desk.
"You've been standing on someone's shoulders," Bert instructs. "We brought you in, nurtured you like family... Now is the time to pay us back." And the final dig: "Would you say I know something about you? ... After all, when it comes right down to it, who's really signing this contract anyway?"
AGGGHHH! Blood on the tracks!
Bert pulls the trigger because he has to. When Don manages to bring in some of the Hilton Hotels business, London is impressed, and if London is impressed presumably the corporate masters at Powell, Putnam and Lowe will leave them alone -- which is obviously how Bert and Roger Sterling prefer it. Don's reluctance to sign a three-year contract -- the renegade posture that worked out so well for him at the end of season two when Duck Phillips made his power play -- was imperiling the Hilton contract.
Don tries to shrug it off in the hopes that his oddball new benefactor will appreciate his unconventional stance, but no luck. As Hilton told Don in their strange meeting -- where Hilton put Don in his place by sitting behind Don's desk after arriving unannounced at Sterling Cooper -- the big-picture stuff will be between the two of them; the rest is for the "lawyers." And Hilton's lawyers want the certainty of Don Draper being under contract to Sterling Cooper. After all this you wonder if Don isn't regretting not making that bigger play that Hilton practically goaded him into in their previous meeting at the Waldorf.
I found it so interesting that there was no explicit reference (at least not that I caught) to the recent carnage at the office (as seen last week) or the fact that they all dodged the bullet of a new British master coming in. Only about two weeks have passed since the date of the "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency" episode and the prospect of big-time upheaval with the reorganization plan that didn't last more than two hours. I suppose that the memory of all that is why Bert and Roger want to be damn sure that nothing gets in the way of them landing the Hilton account.
While Bert Cooper has proved that he's still got it when he needs it, Roger Sterling really has lost his touch. For him to have called Betty to try to enlist her in cajoling her husband on the contract is just plain dumb. He should've remembered how Don and Betty feel about him and about Jane, and he should've known that he'd only get Betty angry, at him and at her husband. Not good!
I was surprised that Betty lost it so quickly with Don in discussing the contract issue. "What's the matter? You don't know where you're going to be in three years?" she accuses him. He throws a little back at her and her navel-gazing ability to turn anything "into something about you." He paints it as a power thing on his end but she sees it as a sign of his rootless nature and fear of commitment. He deeply resents having to explain any of it to her.
So much for suppressing it all for the sake of the newborn. We knew it would all bubble up again, but I didn't expect it to boil over so quickly. Great stuff from Hamm and January Jones, who seem to do their best work in the kitchen! Betty was feeling less guarded because of all the tension -- sexual and otherwise -- stirred in her by her meeting with Henry Francis, the strategist for Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. So now we know that Don and Betty both had fateful encounters at Roger and Jane's dreadful Derby Day party.
(Love how Don won't give Roger the satisfaction of telling him that he met Hilton at Roger's country club at the Derby Day party. Instead it's a smug "We travel in the same circles.")
About that contract -- don't ask me to explain the significance of the date July 23, 1963. Keener "Mad Men" fanatics than I may recognize that date as corresponding perhaps to Dick Whitman's "death" and Don Draper's "exit" from the Army ten years before? Between the title of the episode and the way the camera lingered on the shot of Draper's signature and date on the contract, there's obviously something going on with that date.
Don and the hitchhikers was just plain weird. An echo of sorts of his boozy car accident with Bobbie Barrett from season two. But this time he really was a sap who seemed to ask for it. Mood-altering pills? Sure, give me two! Just enough so I can hallucinate my craven father telling me a vulgar joke about our hillbilly roots and a cutting insult about my soft-handed work.
"What do you do? What do you make? You grow bullshit," Papa Whitman sneers at him. Not really a surprise that this sentiment would be hurled from his subconscious just as Don in his dopey state is being forced to consider signing up for a formal hitch at Sterling Cooper. Still -- these fantasy sequences this season of "Mad Men" are unnerving as hell. They seem to be best used sparingly, as they did in this episode.
Was it my imagination or did Don look a little bit like Jake Gittes from "Chinatown" with the placement of the band-aid across the bridge of his nose? I loved the way he walked into the office the next day, looking like hell and saying "fender-bender" to anyone and everyone. Not at all Don Draper smooth -- he doth protest too much. Interesting to see Peggy walks in with her best attempt at an confident air to divert attention from the fact that she's wearing the same outfit as the day before. (For her sake I hope she bought some fresh underwear on her way in.)
I'm dying to move on to Peggy but there were two more fantastic Don sequences to parse, and I believe they were connected in a way. The scene with Hilton in Don's office was like watching a Wimbledon match. I think Hilton was testing Don's mettle, again, in trying to get him to think that Hilton's "involvement" was a sexual indiscretion. I think Don passed the test with his skeptical line about "don't you have a coterie" of confidants, fellow moguls and kings to turn to on something so delicate. This scene also had the single best line of the seg, after Hilton chides Don for coming in late -- 9:30 on a Monday morning in summer -- and not having a Bible or any family photos in his office.
"Maybe I'm late because I was spending time with my family reading the Bible," Don shoots back, showing his agitation at Hilton's intrusion. Hey, where's the fun in being Conrad Hilton if you can't bust in on other people's offices whenever you feel like it.
The scene with Miss Farrell was just wild -- at first I thought it might've been a Don hallucination ("camera obscura," anyone?). But like Hilton, Farrell is forceful and abrupt in questioning why he's so interested in her summer plans. Clearly, she's fended off amorous fathers in the past (or maybe not?). "You're all wearing the same shirt," she insists. Like Hilton, she's confident to the point of utter arrogance. This puts Don on the defensive ("We're just talking," "Nothing's happening.") but as we know from Bobbie Barrett and Rachel Menken, forceful women drive him wild. After this scene I'd say we can bank on seeing at least a little more of Miss Farrell this season.
Don's encounters in this episode with people who are younger than he is -- Peggy, Miss Farrell, the hitchhikers -- in this episode are telling. Although they're not even a half generation younger than he is they seem to be so different. Peggy starting to get a handle on what she wants and how to get it. Miss Farrell doesn't even pretend to play along with the niceties of flirting with a student's father, and the hitchhikers represent a world of defying authority (getting out of the draft, stealing Don's car), wanton drug-taking and sexual liberties ("do you like to watch us?") that Don can't quite wrap his head around -- at least not while he's nursing the blow to his head.
Oh, Pretty Peggy-O. Just when your spine is starting to stiffen, your boss and mentor tries to take you down a peg because you had the temerity to ask for equal treatment. Those of us working today should give thanks every day for all the Peggys who had to take the crap so that we could earn a decent wage, not get fired for getting pregnant, etc. I cheered when she told Pete early on in the seg to "stop barging in here and infecting me with your anxiety."
"You were my secretary," he says after she inquires about the Hilton account. "Every time I turn around you've got your hand in my pocket." Plenty of able-bodied men would kill for her job, he scolds. "There's not one thing you've done here that I can't live without." Ouch.
This unpleasantness with Don of course sets Peggy up for her unexpected tryst with Duck Phillips. I believed her earlier in the episode when she told Pete she wasn't going to Gray and that she was savvy enough to realize that Duck was taking aim at Don as much as he was trying to recruit Peggy. But after getting rattled by Don, her guard is way down. Duck's seduction speech to Peggy sounded more angry -- vengeful even -- than lusty: "I want to you into that bedroom, throw you on the bed, take your clothes off with my teeth and give you a go-around like you've never had."
Let me count the ways I love Mark Moses in this role. (At least Duck's not drinking. But his line about "I love the taste of liquor on your breath" reinforced my belief that he's using Peggy in a not-nice way.)
Betty, on the other hand, made love to her suitor in her mind -- and on her Victorian fainting couch. Christopher Stanley, the actor who played Henry Francis, was fantastic. I'm pretty sure we'll be seeing more of him. Betty the narcissist loves the attention. The guy at the stables who came on to Betty last season blew it by coming on strong all at once.
Betty wants to be courted, Victorian style. She loves the idea of Henry, a powerbroker of a completely different sort than her husband, wanting her desperately but not being able to have her. ("This is still a small town," she says primly, nixing Henry's effort to walk her to her car.) Betty's delight at her new infatuation has made her more dissatisfied and more short-tempered with the husband she's got. Fireworks ensue. The only person Don seems more upset with these days than Betty is Roger.
** I knew it was only a matter of time before someone mentioned "Silent Spring" and the budding conservation movement. Rachel Carson, we all owe you big-time for sounding the alarm on ground water contamination and other environmental disasters.
** I predictDavid Ogilvy's"Confessions of an Advertising Man" will shoot up the Amazon sales charts after this episode. I think this was included as another example of how times are changing around them. In the past successful businessmen like Ogilvy and Hilton wouldn't have shared their combat stories. But the media landscape is definitely changing.
** I wonder if this water pump that Betty and her Junior League pals are trying to prevent will present some entanglement for Don? Or will it merely be the thing that gives Betty and Henry an excuse to see each other? I noticed that the older woman in Betty's club indicated that Henry had a reputation as ladies man.
** Nice to see Francine again. She's got a way with Betty. "It's not adorable to pretend like you're not adorable." Her husband's still a creep, as evidenced in his exchange with Don at the eclipse-watching thing with the kids.
** Great line from Bert Cooper on Conrad Hilton: "A bit of an eccentric, isn't he?" Cooper says with his stocking feet perched on his table and the Rothko squares behind him. The reactions of Don, Roger and Lane were perfect.
** Wilson 4-8038. "Draper residence."
** Loved how Betty threw her carefully planned living room redo out the window after being smitten by Henry. I've got no eye for interior decorating but even I can see the Victorian sofa looks unbelievably out of place in the spot in front of the fireplace that her decorator previously designated as "the soul of the home." But Betty could care less. Her heart's aflutter.
** Betty an anthro major? Never would've guessed it. Bryn Mawr -- definitely could've guessed it.
** Bless my pea-pickin' heart -- whenever I hear "16 Tons" by Tennessee Ernie Ford,my toe starts tapping and my voice drops about 40 octaves. My husband wasn't even paying attention to the episode and he immedately started playing it on his acoustic guitar. And here's a bit of TV trivia -- the writers for Tennessee Ernie Ford's ABC variety show ("The Ford Show") that ran during the "Mad Men" era included the hot-shot duo of Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin.
On second thought:
You always pick up so much on a second viewing, probably because you're not quite as stunned the second time around.
** Multiple characters use a variation on the line: "What do you want from me?"
** Hilton puts Don on notice early on: "Having me in your life is going to change things," he promises as he leaves Sterling Cooper.
** Interesting comment from Peggy in her closed-door discussion with Pete: "It's the world against Don."
** Don works hard at putting Peggy in her place in their confrontation.
** Peggy to Duck: "I was raised on whiskey."
** Duck doesn't sweet-talk Peggy about the job. No, she won't be copy chief right away, and no she won't get to go to Paris for the Hermes account.
** Maybe the zebra is changing his stripes. After all the tumult, Don walks home, tail between his legs, and dutifully reports to Betty "I signed it." And then trudges upstairs.
** Could Pete Campbell's ties get any skinnier?