Every week for the sixth season of AMC's acclaimed series Mad Men, our roundtable of Eleanor Barkhorn (Sexes editor, TheAtlantic.com), Ashley Fetters (editorial fellow for TheAtlantic.com's Entertainment and Sexes channels), and Amy Sullivan (National Journal correspondent) will discuss the latest happenings at Sterling Cooper & Partners.
Sullivan: All together, now: OH MY GOD! THEY KILLED KENNY!
Okay, so Kenny just ended up injured and determined to leave the Chevy account—and possibly advertising entirely. But I wouldn't put it past Matthew Weiner to have orchestrated that entire sequence just so we'd all have a reflexive South Park response. Kenny himself got to react with an epic rant: "I hate Detroit. I hate cars. I hate guns. I don't even want to look at a steak anymore ... Did I tell you that on the way to the hospital, they tried to stop for lunch?"
That should have been my clue that this was going to be a terrific--and funny--episode, perhaps my favorite of the season. Call me old-fashioned, but I like episodes that move, that use storytelling. This has been a frustratingly uneven season, in part because Weiner chose as his season-long theme the idea that people don't really change, history repeats itself, nothing new ever happens. That's either incredibly bold or idiotic for a dramatic television series.
It also conflicts, at least on the surface, with the actual events of 1968 that have played out during season six. That violent year was so jarring precisely because so many things seemed to be happening to which Americans did not know how to react. Multiple high-profile assassinations, urban riots, the fairy-tale widowed first lady marrying a Greek shipping tycoon--none of these had precedents or prompted familiar responses.
Don mentioned the last development in a surprisingly flirty phone conversation with Betty, which puts this episode in late October 1968. That means Sally has been refusing to return to her father's apartment for several months now. "She says she's not going again," says Betty, who is uncharacteristically restrained in not pushing Don to find an explanation for Sally's abrupt change in behavior. Don looks destroyed—equal parts anxious that Sally will tell Betty or Megan and devastated that he's lost Sally, possibly forever. The episode opens with him curled up in a near-fetal position on Sally's bed, and he's back to self-medicating with alcohol.
Do we have a running count of how many times Megan has said "I don't know what's going on with you/us" this season? Megan, honey, this is the deal with Don Draper. You'll never know what's going on with him but you can guarantee it's not good. At the office, on the other hand, Don is back on his game—assuming his game is torturing Ted and pushing away Peggy. It was bad enough that Peggy left him for Ted, but now Don has to watch her laugh at Ted's jokes, see Ted putting his hands on Peggy, hear Peggy constantly telling him what a good man Ted is. Running into them at the movie theater together—that's their thing! He and Peggy see movies in the middle of the day when they're stuck!—pushes Don over the edge.
Our Don is nothing if not predictably petty, so we know almost before he does that he's going to blow up his truce with Ted, which lasted all of two months. Don tells himself—and anyone who will listen—that he's doing it for the good of the firm. And it's true that both Ted and Peggy have let their feelings impair both their creative and their business judgment. But Don's actions will have the long-term effect of making this shaky partnership unworkable. He lies directly to his partners, assuring Cutler there will be "no more surprises." He humiliates Ted in the St. Joseph's meeting. And by giving Frank Gleason credit for Peggy's commercial idea, he ensures that if the TV spot does win any awards, they won't go to her. If Don had looked at her face by the end of that meeting, he would have seen what became clear in the last scene, that Don has lost both Sally and Peggy forever.
But as sad as that final image was of Don curled up on his couch, desperately alone, this episode had some wonderfully funny scenes and exchanges. Among my favorites was the telephone call between Don and Harry (note Megan's expression of disgust as she hands the phone to Don—she hasn't forgotten good ol' Harry):
Harry: "I have good news for once."
Don: "You found the fun hooker who takes travelers checks?"
Harry: "Why did I tell you that."
We even saw a few of the characters-we-love-to-hate showing signs of personal growth. When Pete uncovers the deception of Bob Benson—or Bic Bittman, as I'll think of him—he reacts very differently than the Peter Campbell of Season One. Remember that when Pete discovered Don's secret and ratted him out to Bert Cooper, he gained ... absolutely nothing. By keeping his mouth shut for Bob, Pete has secured the very best kind of ally: one who owes him.
I can't help thinking, though, that this could potentially turn out very badly for Pete, particularly if someone else learns the truth about Bob and realizes that Pete knew already. And the last time a partner agreed to keep a colleague's secret was when Don told Lane he'd need to leave the firm because of that missing check. I don't think Bob's going to end up offing himself, but I also don't think this plotline will have a happy ending.
For the moment, though, Betty and Sally seem to have reached a detente. In fact, it's just possible that giving Sally a cigarette is the nicest thing Betty has ever done for her. What say you, ladies? Is Sally on track to become a mean girl like her mother? Or is there still hope for our girl in knee socks?
Fetters: Totally agree on Sally and Betty smoking in the car. It was like once there was a cigarette between Sally's fingers, she and Betty could finally communicate in the between-exhales language of adults. They looked like a couple of smoking-in-the-girls'-room queen bees together, so this certainly could be the pivot point that sets Sally on the path to grown-up bitchery a la Betty Draper. And those catty girls at boarding school could speed up that process even further.
Don's early phone conversation with Betty was really striking to me, too, Amy—but to me, it seemed like Don was pretty OK with Sally's distancing herself from him. When Betty says Sally's not coming up for the weekend, he even says to her, "Tell her if she does come, I'll be working the whole weekend." He offers to pay the entire tuition if Sally decides to go to boarding school, and even offers to pay to get her in.
Defense mechanism? Maybe. But at surface level, at least, it almost looks to me like Don's the one who's mad at Sally. Which is pretty inexcusable on all levels, given just how badly he screwed up and how innocently she just happened to catch him in the act of screwing up. Last week we declared that moment a new low for Don Draper, but I think this might be a step lower: He's now cutting his daughter out of his life out of spite (or, best case scenario, shame) because she may or may not have ruined the illicit affair he was having with his friend's wife. And cutting her off with an offer of money, the way we've seen him do before with his mistresses (Midge comes to mind, and his old secretary Allison).
There were so many callbacks to earlier episodes and seasons.
This conversation, it's worth adding, is what ensues right after Don's channel-surfing encounter with Megan's soap opera. Don lands on a TV station on which Megan is wearing a blonde wig and declaring in a ridiculous French accent, "I am talking to joo! Don't you dare eegnore me!"—and Don promptly flips the channel, almost defiantly. It's like a multi-layered reminder that in all possible ways, Don Draper is awful. Like the worst, sleaziest Inception nightmare ever.