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The better half Draper

What a nice Memorial Day treat last Sunday’s episode was!  “The Better Half,” which sounds like the title of a Doris Day movie, was a respite from the angst and pain of the assassinations, depression, and adultery of the rest of the season.  Don may still be “lost in a dark wood,” as per Dante in the season opener, but he has potentially found his way again, right there in the forest itself.

“The Better Half” is a comedy in the classic Shakespearean definition, where mistaken impressions lead not to tragedy but to a more rueful understanding of humanity.  In “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” the characters go off to the forest, where they are toyed with by the spirits and make romantic errors but come out unscathed. The episode is also in the tradition of Ingmar Bergman’s movie “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which also features urbanites who head to the countryside and engage in non-tragic romantic escapades.  (Sondheim fans recognize this story as “A Little Night Music.”)

You know “The Better Half” is a comedy when one of the characters is stabbed in the stomach and lives; or when a bitterly divorced couple reunites for a night of passion with zero negative consequences. And by the final scene we just have to laugh at human foibles.

Unlike any of the other episodes this season, “A Better Half” has no discernible time stamp.  Aside from Abe’s rantings about “fascist pigs” and the one fleeting reference to Bobby Kenendy, there’s nothing to place the episode in any year or decade.  It’s just a generic, dreamy summer. All the characters are well-groomed – Stan and Ginsberg, with their long hair and beards, are absent as are hippie chicks like Wendy Gleason. There are no pop culture references either: no one’s reading a best-seller, watching a TV show or reading a newspaper.   This episode could have been set anywhere from 1955 to 1970.

“The Better Half” opens with a debate about choice.  Don and Ted are trying to decide the more appealing sales pitch: is it that margarine tastes good or that it tastes good at an attractive price?  How do you choose between the two margarines, especially when there’s also the allure of the superior experience of butter?  These are not life or death decisions and the rest of the episode is filled with similarly non-existential choices.

Consider the number of triangles in the story, each of which requires some kind of choice.  Professionally, Peggy is caught between Ted and Don, but she’s also wavering romantically between Ted and Abe. Don is involved with Betty and Megan, while Betty is the object of desire for both Stuart and Henry. Megan of course is caught between Arlene and Don; and Joan has to choose between Roger and Bob Benson. Some of these outcomes are funny, some are sad, but none are heartrending

The Don story line is especially poignant. Megan cooks him a special Thursday night dinner but when she tries to engage him in conversation about their respective days, he blows her off and says he’d just rather relax in front of the TV. The next day, on his way to parents’ weekend at Bobby’s camp – somewhere out in those woods – he runs into Betty. In the strangeness of the forest, their bitterness falls away and they call a truce.  The scene where they have dinner with Bobby and sing the “Father Abraham” song is both unbelievably sweet and unbearably sad. To the outside world they look like a perfect family (Bobby introduces them as “my Mom and Dad,” which is both an accurate and incomplete description of the family dynamics). And they do look perfect: Betty is more beautiful than she’s been since season three and Don is as handsome as ever.  You get a sense of what this family could have been if Betty and Don hadn’t both been so narcissistic.

Betty’s recovered beauty reflects her apparent contentment with life and she’s able to talk to Don without rancor.  Their mutual seduction is sexy, with him holding her hand too long and her leaving the cabin door open.  Their subsequent pillow talk is the conversation of two people who know each other too well but are willing to suspend hostilities for a moment of peace.

As surprising as this (perhaps temporary) reconciliation is, what’s most unexpected about the detente between Betty and Don is that Betty becomes the voice of reason.  Matt Weiner has dragged this poor character through the mud these six seasons, making her infantile, self-absorbed, nasty and vindictive, but tonight she finally gets her due.  When Don tries to speculate on what it would have been like if they hadn’t broken up, Betty kindly but firmly reminds him that “I loved the way you looked at me, but then watched it decay.” She then delivers the episode’s money line: “That poor girl [Megan].  She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst to get to you.”

That night with Betty, combined with the follow-up scene the next morning where he observes her contentedly having breakfast with Henry, seems to trigger some decency button in Don.  When he returns the Megan that night, he admits that he hasn’t been mentally engaged in the marriage for some time and the implication is that he will work on it.  Time, as they say, will tell, but it’s entirely possible that we’ve reached a turning point in the story arc where Don gets his act together.  Or not.  One thing “Mad Men” is not is predictable.  Much of the season has been a dissection of how Don has lost his bearings as he enters his mid-40’s. One potential storyline for the rest of the season could be how he gets his mojo back; or another could be his continued descent into irrelevancy.

Don’s story in “The Better Half” was played for poignancy but Peggy’s was deployed for comedic effect.  In the first scene of the show she is asked to choose between Don and Ted’s margarine campaigns. This is extra funny because Pete self-importantly tries to mediate the pair and they completely dismiss him; even when he says he agrees with Don’s approach, Don swats him away and wants to know what Peggy thinks.  But by the last scene of the show, she is literally standing equidistant between Don and Ted’s offices on Monday morning as they cheerfully yell back and forth about the success of the client meeting and we never even know which slogan they used.  Who cares?  It’s just business.

What’s hilarious about the scene, though, isn’t just that the once crucial margarine pitch is no longer a sense of tension between Don and Ted but that Ted, who had proclaimed his love for her on Friday, seems to have cooled over the weekend and reacts extremely professionally when she announces that she’s broken up with her boyfriend.  Instead of immediately calling the Sherry Netherland to make reservations for an afternoon tryst, as she expected, he offers her the blandest words of comfort: “You’ll find someone else, whoever he is.” And then, with that Ted Chaough exuberance: “Ready to get to work?  It’s Monday!” Cue Lou Johnson’s version of the relentlessly upbeat “Always Something There to Remind Me.”

In between those two book-ending scenes in the office, Peggy’s personal life falls apart, sort off. But again, it’s not the end of the world.  A prim, middle-class Catholic girl, she has never enjoyed urban homesteading in the jungles of the West Side.  She comes home to find Abe recovering from a stabbing and being interviewed by a cop.  It’s not clear what Abe and Peggy have in common anymore because he’s become so radicalized that won’t help the police identify his attacker.

Just a few months ago Abe was optimistic about the future, predicting that Gene McCarthy, or “at worst” Bobby Kennedy would be elected President and stop the war, but with Kennedy dead that cheery attitude soured. He proclaims that they are living in a police state and that the people who stabbed him “have no other recourse” since they were “brought here in slave ships.”  After someone throws a rock through the window Peggy improvises a spear (because that’s what you do in a jungle) and in one of the most unexpected developments in a show full of surprises, she accidentally stabs Abe.

The subsequent ambulance ride to the hospital, with the tip of the spear still sticking out of Abe’s stomach is another bit of dark comedy. “In case I don’t make it,” is usually the cue for a sentimental reconciliation or confession of love by the potentially dying party, but in this case, Abe uses the occasion to denounce Peggy for her reactionary views: “I don’t know why I thought you’d be braver. You’re in advertising…. You’re a scared person who hides behind complacency. Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment.  I’m sorry but you’ll always be the enemy.” “Wait,” she asks, “are you breaking up with me?”  Duh.

Peggy’s hardly heartbroken, though, since she’s been fantasizing about Ted ever since he kissed her in the office. And just two days earlier Ted had reaffirmed his love for her.  Unfortunately, she forgot one of the great lessons of love: “You snooze, you lose.” When Ted asked whether the romantic feelings were all on his part, she responded, “Let me think about it.” Unfortunately for her, Ted appears to be the one who “thought about it” over the weekend and by Monday they were back to boss and protégé.

Overall, this episode feels like someone hit the reset button. The Sylvia affair is completely over, as is Peggy’s relationship with Abe. Peggy’s flirtation with Ted is done, and we can only assume that Betty’s most vitriolic hatred of Don will now be tempered. Matt Weiner could have easily ended the season with “The Better Half,” but there are still four more episodes left to go. Clearly the last third of the season will have entirely new plot lines.

Some other observations:

  • The episode was chock full of surprises. In addition to Don and Betty’s camp grapplings and Peggy stabbing Abe, we were shocked by the reappearance of a sober Duck Phillips and the growing closeness between Joan and Bob Benson. And how about those Benson shorts?
  • One thing that was NOT surprising was Roger messing up his play date with his grandson, then feeling sorry for himself and showing up at Joan’s.  After urging her to abort his baby and never paying attention to the kid, he suddenly shows up with Lincoln Logs trying to reclaim his patrimony.  Just like Betty observes that Don’s gaze decays, so does Betty declare that she can’t depend on Roger and wants him to stay away.   Don was born dirt poor and Roger with a silver spoon but they have remarkably similar problems with women.
  • Don claims that the sexual act doesn’t mean intimacy to him and likens it somewhat charmlessly to “climbing a mountain.” At first I thought this was him bullshitting Betty but upon reflection it’s clear that the Draper chase is more important than the actual conquest. As anyone who’s ever climbed a mountain knows, when you get to the top, it’s like, “now what?” so the analogy makes sense.  He has got to be completely kidding himself, though, when he says he’d be happy simply to hold someone in his arms.  When have we ever seen that?
  • “I’ve missed you.” Don says this to both Betty AND Megan. Reminds me how Bill Clinton gave “Leaves of Grass” to both Hillary and Monica.  Maybe someday someone will compare the charm and caddishness of these two rogues.
  • Bobby reveals to his parents that he’s “Bobby Five.” Is this Matt Weiner’s sly joke that this is the fourth child actor to play the part?
  • The mystery of Bob Benson continues and week by week he seems less dweeby and more handsome. The actor who plays him – James Wolk – is like a young John Hamm and a really young Harry Hamlin. All his scenes are inherently funny because he’s so obsequious and eager to please. He seems to be getting better at it, too.  Sending flowers to Roger’s funeral and offering to pay for Pete’s prostitute were not very suave, but getting Joan to the hospital and finding Pete a nurse?  Very smooth.  I never expected to say this, but I want to see more of Bob Benson.
  • Also very funny was the scene in which Megan unknowingly encourages Arlene to make three passes at her in three minutes.  That really took some doing and highlights that she really is still young and unsophisticated. I mean, really, what did she think was going to happen when she invited into her empty apartment someone who has already proposed wife-swapping?
  • What’s up with Pete inviting Joan out to “supper?” What is on his mind? Certainly not some kind of dalliance with Joan?  Eww.
  • The scene where Bob Benson helps Pete find a nurse is brilliant. With his references to “something has come to my attention” and “office gossip,” you think he’s going to play office politics and confide about Joan and Roger, but then it turns out just to be the nursing recommendation.  Extra smooth.
  • As usual, the funniest moment on the show wasn’t a line of spoken dialogue but the shrugging response from the paramedic in the ambulance when Peggy asked if her bleeding then-boyfriend would live.
  • So Duck Philips is back.  Does that mean we’ll see the triumphant return of Sal Romano?
  • Something is bubbling with the name of the company, which has been commented on for the last two episodes.  Which reminds me that when I worked for a PR company that merged with a similar-sized firm, the partners couldn’t agree on a name so we went for months under the moniker of Robinson, Lake, Lerer, Montgomery/The Sawyer Miller Group. No lie.
  • Still no African American characters this week except the off-stage assailant who stabbed Abe.  Hmm.
  • “Well that’s a Yankee wrinkle.” This must be Duck-speak because there’s no reference to it on Google.
  • Next week: chaos returns with the Democratic Convention in Chicago, when the police rioted against the Yippies. I had previously predicted that Abe would get his head bashed in there but it doesn’t look like it now.

It’s the status quo antebellum.

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Like other Bluth Family fans, I am excitedly looking forward to NetFlix’s May 26 launch of a new season of “Arrested Development.” If the trailer is any indication, the new season will be as mordantly funny as the original episodes, which ran on Fox from 2003-2006.

It says something about the state of contemporary television, though, that a show that barely had enough viewers to stay alive on a major broadcast network, is now being touted as a major growth driver for an online streaming service.

If it didn’t make business sense for Fox to renew the series, why would Netflix, which has about one-third the available audience, bring it back from the dead?   Obviously the difference is that as a mature business, Fox needs to make a profit on all its series, but Netflix, a still-expanding service, is willing to offer a loss leader like “Arrested Development” to attract new subscribers.

NetFlix isn’t alone in subsidizing new content. Amazon, YouTube, Hulu and countless other video-streaming channels have all begun to offer original programming.  Amazon posted 14 video pilots on its Instant Video Store and promised to produce full seasons for the most popular ones.  YouTube created 50 paid subscription channels.   Hulu has distributed more than 25 original and exclusive series. Few of these are likely to be profitable in the near term, if ever.

Last fall I wrote a piece about Jerry Seinfeld’s YouTube project “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”  This was a high-end show with great production values and big-name talent, so it probably wasn’t cheap to produce.  Yet the last time I looked, the number of views to these shows ranged from only 23,000 to 1.5 million, hardly enough to turn a profit.  And I’ve still yet to speak to another human being who has even heard of — never mind watched — this series.

The subsidies for Amazon’s streaming business are chicken feed.  After all, this is a company willing to lose money on every book downloaded to the Kindle in order to build market share in the e-reader market.  Similarly Google is subsidizing the mapping of the entire world, so it’s not likely to worry about a few losses for its YouTube channels.

Every week seems to bring a breathless announcement about a new online TV show or streaming channel.  This leaves me exhausted.  I have already passed the point where I can keep up with what’s available on niche channels on traditional linear TV, and somehow I’m expected to stay current with the latest online offerings? 

It’s false to assume that humans crave more and more choice.  No one really wants to go to the supermarket and be confronted with 50 different kinds of ketchup.  The emotional effort of worrying about making the perfect selection, combined with post-purchase remorse that maybe you should have chosen something else, is not worth it.

I really don’t want more television options than I already have.  With hundreds of channels available on cable and thousands of old TV shows available through NetFlix, I’m always worried there might be something better than the very thing I’m watching right now.   Throwing new online shows into the mix will only make this problem worse.

And with so many viewing options, it’s become difficult to use television as a shared social lubricant.  When you get together with friends these days, someone’s watching “Homeland,” someone else is watching “Game of Thrones,” and you’re catching up on “Justified” or “Sons of Anarchy.”  It’s easier to talk about movies: even if you haven’t seen “The Great Gatsby,” you’re bound to have an informed opinion about it.

I worry too about the future of quality television if the viewing audience is sliced into too many segments.  With more shows to watch, the audience for each show is bound to be smaller.  At what point will it become uneconomical to produce high-end shows if the anticipated audience trends toward infinitesimal?  It’s fine for NetFlix to throw money at “House of Cards” and “Arrested Development” now, but what happens when its subscriber growth levels off?  There will be a very different cost-benefit analysis.

Everyone has their dirty little secret  — and mine is that I hope the original content experiments at Amazon, YouTube and Hulu flop.  I already pay too much for television, and don’t want to feel obligated to add a lot of online channels too.  Life is already tough enough knowing I’ll never have enough time to read all the books I want to.  I don’t want to have the same problem with television.

Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin) and Stan Rizzo (Jay R Ferguson) on their uppers in Mad Men.

OK, “Mad Men” fans, settle down.  Sunday’s episode, “The Crash,” had a hallucinatory air to it, but it was hardly as confusing as many people thought.  I was following the Twitter commentary during the commercial breaks and you’d have thought Matt Weiner had sold Sally into the white slave trade.

The story itself is one of the simplest plots of the year:  The agency team takes speed to improve their pep and creativity, but are so over-energized they start doing crazy things. Don has flashbacks to his youth. An intruder walks into the Draper household while Sally and Bobby are home alone, claiming to be an old friend of Don’s.  Don gets over his fixation on Sylvia, emotionally shutting down and says he won’t work on the Chevy account any longer.

It’s not the story that’s confused, it’s the strangeness of the story-telling format itself.  We are so accustomed to the series’ realism that we are thrown off balance by the slightest deviation.  Last year “Mad Men” toyed with several different genres of film-making, including film noir and French experimentalism. “The Crash” is in the realm of magical realism, which is defined (by Wilkipedia)  as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.”

Weiner achieves this effect with several simple techniques. We are immediately disoriented by the opening scene in which Ken is frantically driving a car full of dangerous men, who are brandishing a gun and putting their hands over his eyes until he crashes.  We are also thrown off stride by Don’s plaintive call with Sylvia in which he says “I’m feeling a lot of emotions too.” Don’s feeling emotions – no wonder the room starts to spin.

But the real weirdness starts when Jim Cutler arranges for the team to get injected with some speed-like concoction that overstimulates everyone and causes them to move at double-time and lose all constraints. We get a brief sense from Don’s perspective of what it’s like to be on this drug, with distorted vision and hearing, but otherwise there are no camera tricks. Instead, people are just acting crazy: Stan is the target in a William Tell-type game where Ginsburg attempts to throw an Exacto at an apple target above his head; a strange hippie girl is wandering about doing I Ching readings and hitting on Don; there are some jumps in time (indicating periods when Don is presumably blacked out);and Don is in a fever to come up with a pitch inspired by the prostitute who fed him soup when he was sick and then took his virginity. This is a show where the whores are doctors and the doctors are whores and nothing is quite what it seems.

Meanwhile, Sally (who’s home alone with her brothers and reading Rosemary’s Baby in bed) comes upon an older black woman prowlingin the Draper apartment.  The strangeness of the scene is accentuated by the woman’s claims – that she’s Sally’s grandmother, that she “practically raised” her father, that Don gave her a key and is expecting her. Since we’ve just seen flashbacks of Don’s childhood, when he was raised in a whorehouse by a motley assortment of prostitutes, it’s not so far-fetched to think “Grandma Ida” could be one of them.  But coming in the context of the crazy office scenes, this sequence also seems more bizarre than usual.

And yet there’s a simple explanation for everything.  The car crash at the beginning of the show was caused by the drunken, careless assholes at Chevy who took Ken on a joyride. “Grandma Ida” is an ordinary burglar, who entered the apartment through the back door that Don had left open. The hippie girl is Wendy, Frank Gleason’s daughter, who is brought back to the agency by Cutler after Gleason’s funeral. And of course the various hijinks in the office are all chalked up to all the drugs and alcohol they ingested. By Monday morning, when everyone is sober, the weekend is just a memory of a bad trip.

Almost all the other episodes this season can be attributed through various timing and dating hints to specific dates in 1968, but “The Crash” is more generally set during weekend in June 1968, three months after Stan’s cousin was killed (On March 4).  Even so, the episode feels more like the Sixties than anything we’ve seen before. The drug use, casual sex, loss of personal safety, and confusion create a picture of society losing control.   The office lost its moorings during this crazy weekend, just like America itself did in 1968.

At the heart of this was the Vietnam War and this episode feels like a domestic version of the war.  Chevy is turning into a quagmire and Ken is literally injured in the conflict.  The firm’s top brass – Sterling and Gleason – could not care less about what’s happening in the trenches, as long as Chevy keeps paying the bills (and so what if everyone has to work the weekend?  It’s Chevy’s “clock.’  They are the ones paying for the extra hours billed.)

The reference to the dead cousin makes the Vietnam connection most explicitly, but the picture of an exhausted Stan wearing a headband as he stands in the William Tell pose is a clear call-back to one of the most iconic images of the war — Christopher Walken playing Russian Roulette in “The Deer Hunter” (see:  http://bit.ly/16LSiyC.) This scene is so vivid, right down to the Exacto knife in the forearm, that it colors the rest of the show and reminds us that Vietnam, with its unseen enemy, lack of a “front” and drugged out grunts was itself a hallucinatory experience.

But as usual, the real center of the story is Don’s inner turmoil.  He is more upset by being dumped by Sylvia than he’s been about any other woman, virtually stalking her and listening in on her life from the backdoor of the apartment.   It’s hard to understand the hold she has on him, except that she’s the one who’s there when life has finally begun to wear him down.  The marriage that made him so happy last season is no longer working, so he’s clinging to whatever thrill the illicitness of the affair offered.  But for Sylvia, this affair is a just a temporary fantasy and she tells him that “I want you to try to be happy.”  Unfortunately, as we know from last year, he believes that “happiness is a moment before you need more happiness.”  The question for the rest of the season is whether he can pull himself together and find a path to normal happiness or spend the rest of his middle age careening from experience to experience.

The flashbacks suggest what a tough road he has ahead of him.  A motherless boy in a bordello, he is shown kindness by a prostitute who mothers and feeds him soup when he’s sick and then betrays him twice: first by seducing him before he’s emotionally ready for sex and then by revealing this to the rest of the house, which causes his step-mother to beat him with a wooden spoon. We get a picture of sex connected to mothering and nurturing , but also to disgrace and disgust.

At the end of the episode, Don has an emotional crash that’s almost as bad as Ken’s car crash in the first scene. He collapses in front of his family after the speed finally wears off.  Physically he’s back to normal on Monday but he’s emotionally closed down. After spending days trying desperately to talk to Sylvia and hoping to make that one perfect pitch that will win her back, he finally gets her alone in the elevator and coldly doesn’t speak to her, not even giving her the courtesy of letting her proceed first when they reach the lobby.

The show closes with Momma Cass singing “Words of Love,” one of the many brilliant show-closing songs Matt Weiner has selected over the years. The lyrics could not be more perfect for Don’s now defunct relationship with Sylvia:

 

Words of love, so soft and tender,

Won’t win a girl’s heart anymore.

If you love her, then you must send her

Somewhere where she’s never been before.

Words alone can’t do it for Don anymore, which will be a problem since he’s gotten where he is today by his silver tongue and the timbre of his voice. My guess is that we haven’t seen the last crash.  But there is one grace note. Don does have the decency to call Sally to assure her that he didn’t have a heart attack and to take responsibility for the break-in so she knows it’s not her fault. In other words, he does still struggle with his humility and tries to do the right thing.

Some other thoughts on “The Crash”:

  • We’re getting a deeper look into what a hellhole it must be working for this agency.  The bosses are unsympathetic if you’ve been injured in the line of duty; you’re expected to work around the clock at the drop of a hat; the clients are mercurial and capricious, and jerk you around just because they can.  Ken Cosgrove’s tap dance routine as he sings “It’s My Job” is amazing not only for the dance itself (see GIF at http://tinyurl.com/qh9dmkl)  but for the lament he makes about how the Chevy clients treat him. But nothing’s quite as devastating as Don observing that “every time we get a car this place turns into a whorehouse.” The line between prostitution and advertising has been blurred for sometime on this show, but never quite as explicitly as this.
  • Jim Cutler is slowly being revealed as an amoral monster. In addition to rubbing his hands in glee at the extra billable hours for the weekend work and dismissing Ted’s grief at Frank Gleason’s death, he gets the office hooked on speed and brings Gleason’s daughter into the office after the funeral where she has meaningless sex with Stan – while he watches from an open door!  We haven’t seen the last of the evil Jim Cutler.
  • Dr. Hecht, who administers the speed-laced injections is based on a real person, Dr. Max Jacobson, aka Dr. Feelgood, who shot up JFK and Jackie as well as hundreds of other clients in the Sixties.  See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Jacobson
  • Betty’s blonde and thinner again, but bitchier than ever. When Sally says she earned the money to buy her miniskirt, Betty asks “On what street corner?” showing that Don’s not the only one with prostitution on his mind. Later, in the Draper apartment, after the intruder has been caught, she blames Megan for not being there when it happened, saying – right in front of her – that she’d been “off on the casting couch.” And then there’s this line: “Do you know that Henry is running for office?” It might seem like a non sequitur under the circumstances, but Betty is always worried about appearances, and the danger that this break-in might turn into a public scandal seems to be what’s really bothering her.
  • Funniest line: Bobby Draper asking “Are we Negroes?” after meeting Grandma Ida.
  • Most obvious bit of dialogue: Wendy, with stethoscope: “I want to hear your heart…. Oh, I think it’s broken.” Don: “You can hear that?”  Wendy: “This (the stethoscope) is broken.”
  • Best advice: From Peggy to Stan, after he tells her that his cousin has died, in an apparent attempt to seduce her (hey, it worked for Roger Sterling and his mother). “You have to let yourself feel it. You can’t dampen it with drugs or sex.  That won’t get you through.” This is the opposite advice that Don offered when she was in the hospital after the birth of her baby (“Pretend this never happened”). Stan is “Thanks but no thanks” and is next seen having sex with Wendy. No wonder Peggy goes home in disgust. Was that really a tender moment between Peggy and Stan or was he manipulating her?  Peggy’s wondering the same thing.
  • I am not a big fan of the flashbacks to Dick Whitman in the whorehouse, which have taken on an “Oliver Twist” aspect.  The Dick/Don story is so extreme and out-of-the-ordinary that it has no relevance to us. Of course he’s screwed up.  Who wouldn’t be?  Also, it’s increasingly difficult to believe that the meek Alfalfa-like Dick will grow into the uber-confident Don.  People’s personalities don’t change that much.
  • I’ve said more than once that someone could write a Ph.D thesis on the elevator scenes in Mad Men and now that Don lives in a high rise, they’ve multiplied.  Last night’s scene with Don and Sylvia riding down together in silence was one of the great ones, even if there was no dialogue. By the way, Matt Weiner said on “Fresh Air” that the reason they use the elevator so much is that it’s a cheap scene. In other words, budgetary considerations, not artistic choices, drive these scenes.  I still think someone will spin the symbolism of the closed space into an academic monograph, however.
  • Matt Weiner is really playing with fire with the race issue. Making the intruder a black woman after having Roger and Joan get robbed by a black man last year, combined with the lack of serious black characters, is asking for trouble.  Of course it makes sense to have the intruder be a nanny-like character, someone that Sally would be apt to trust (her previous mother-figure was Carla the maid).  But still, I don’t know how much more patience the political correctness police will have with him.
  • Finally, I note that Frank Gleason died of pancreatic cancer.  There were a lot of knowing smirks earlier this season when the Peggy’s real estate agent said a condo would increase in value when the Second Avenue subway was finished, since everyone knew that subway is still not finished today. But there was little reaction when Ted Chaough told Gleason they would fight and beat his disease, even though pancreatic cancer is as much of a death sentence now as it was in 1968. The major organization trying to find a cure for the disease is the Lustgarten Foundation http://www.lustgarten.org/ named after Marc Lustgarten, a beloved executive at Cablevision who died in 1999.  Cablevision, which continues to be the driving force behind the Foundation, used to own AMC.  Is it a coincidence that Weiner gave Frank Gleason Lustgarten’s disease?  Probably, but it’s also likely that the reason he knows that this is a deadly ailment is because of Lustgarten.

“Your face looks like a bag of walnuts.”

MadMen607_12-54_Don-and-Sylvia1Well, that didn’t last long.  All the hope and optimism that characterized last week’s excellent episode of “Mad Men” can crashing down in Sunday’s “A Man with a Plan.”

Given the history of the Sixties, it was inevitable that that brief period of good feelings would end, and I spent the entire episode in a state of dread, wondering when the horror of 1968 would again be unleashed.  It came at the very end, with the murder of Bobby Kennedy.  Pete’s addled mother has one moment of clarity when she utters the final line of dialogue in the show: “I don’t understand what’s going on. They are shooting everybody.”  In the last scene, Don and Megan are wordlessly watching televised footage of the assassination, which even today has the power to shock.  And then in one of the saddest juxtapositions of music ever achieved on the show, we hear the lyrics to the relentlessly upbeat song “Reach Out in Darkness” (“I think it’s so groovy now, that people are finally getting together.”

In a decade of sad and depressing events, perhaps nothing was as demoralizing as the murder of RFK. Coming just two months after the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr., and five years after his own brother’s death, this low point seemed to suggest the country had gone into a dark and dangerous spiral.  Ted Chaough told Don that sometimes a pilot flying in the clouds will think he’s right side up when he’s upside down (a very chilling observation, btw, since that’s exactly what happened to John F. Kennedy, Jr., when he crashed his own plane on the way to Hyannis.)  Clouds, darkness – that’s where America was in 1968, not sure how to get out of the Vietnam War, how to stop riots in the streets, or how to stop fighting a culture war.

That’s what makes the end song so sad – all that naïve optimism blowing up in violence.  The release of this song in June 1968, the very week RFK died, was the last time until the 1980s that America would feel good about itself or feel that we were in any way “getting together.”

“Mad Men” is not a show about the Sixties; it’s a show that happens to be set in the Sixties, and Matt Weiner has made it plain he will not be genuflecting at all the Sixties Stations of the Cross.  To that end, although he devoted whole episodes to the MLK and JFK assassinations, he only gave two minutes to Bobby Kennedy, once again subverting our expectations.  We know this third assassination is coming and he lets the tension build the entire episode, lulling us into complacency and giving us hope that maybe we won’t have to go through that after all for another week.

Instead of a full assassination show, though, we get a show about how reality intrudes on our hopes, dreams and fantasies. Much of the episode revolves around the downsides of the merger between Cutler, Gleason & Chaough and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (a new firm that is still unnamed, by the way.) As is frequently the case in a merger, the honeymoon period has lasted exactly one day and now the principals are jockeying for offices and staff.  The real estate is too small, boxes are piled everywhere and people with overlapping responsibilities need to be fired.

Then there is a good example of why the concept of “due diligence” was created.  In the rush to merge, nobody looked too closely at the negatives on the other side, and they are now learning that a CGC partner is dying, that SCDP lost Vicks and that there might be a conflict between two of their clients.

The merger tension brings out the worst in some of the characters.  Pete is needlessly paranoid about his status because he walked into a partners’ meeting late and there was no chair for him.  (Mon Dieu! That’s what happens when you show up for a meeting even later than Don Draper!)

Meanwhile, Don is playing passive/aggressive power games with Ted Chaough, who dares to criticize him for being late to a margarine meeting.  Under the guise of brainstorming with him mano-a-mano, Don gets Ted so drunk that he passes out in the writers’ room, humiliating Peggy, who’s embarrassed that her new mentor and fantasy figure, the too-nice Mr. Chaough, can’t hold his liquor. When Peggy rebukes Don for taking advantage of Ted, he says, “He’s a grown man.” “So are you,” she retorts. “Move forward.”  (Coming on the heels of Joan’s “There’s no I in team” speech last week, this is the second episode in a row in which a woman that Don admires platonically have called him on the carpet.)

But Don gets his comeuppance the next day, when Ted flies the two of them through a harrowing rain storm to the Mohawk headquarters. Now Ted is in control and Don is terrified to be in the bouncing plane. “Once we’re above the clouds, it’s as sunny as summer,” Ted says reassuringly (a phrase that harkens to the misplaced optimism the characters felt last week).  Don’s a bit chastened by the experience, and tacitly acknowledges that Ted’s physical courage is impressive (and perhaps even more useful than the ability to drink, smoke and seduce women while looking so darn handsome.)

Failing to dominate Ted Chaough is one thing, but what’s even more surprising is that he loses a power play in the bedroom too, and in rather pathetic fashion.  In last year’s season opener, we saw that Don had a bit of a domination fetish (he made Megan get down on all fours to clean the carpet that was soiled at Don’s 40th birthday party). In “A Man With a Plan,” this fetish is fully realized when Sylvia says the magic words “I need you and no one else will do.”  In the blink of an eye, they’re in the Sherry Netherland hotel, where Don orders her to submit to his every wish, instructing her not to leave, not to think, to undress in front of him, etc.

Sylvia, who is heard screaming at her husband in the first scene of the show because he wants to move to Minnesota, is initially receptive to this fantasy game, but the attraction soon wears off and she decides to take a cab back to planet reality.  When Don returns from his trip to Mohawk he tries to resume the dominant role but she matter-of-factly tells him it’s over. Three times she mentions “home,” as in, “It means it’s time to really go home.” Not only does she end the game, she also informs him that the affair itself is over. A good Catholic girl who wears a cross even to her assignations, she says, “It’s easy to give up something when you are ashamed.”  In the end it’s Don who’s the object of humiliation.

I have heard that there’s a book called “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which purportedly deals with domination games of this sort and Twitter last night was quick to compare these scenes to the novel. But I think a stronger case can be made that this is a variation on “The Last Tango in Paris,” the 1973 movie in which Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider play strangers who act out domination games at an anonymous Paris apartment.   In “A Man with a Plan,” the first thing that Sylvia says to Don in the hotel is “All of France is on fire,” which refers to the Paris student riots of 1968 but also has a sexual double meaning and could possibly allude to “Last Tango,” one of the most sexually explicit mainstream movies ever made.  Like Don, Brando plays the dominant role in “Last Tango” and he too is ultimately rejected when he tells Schneider his name, undoing the fantasy. His desperation at losing her is even more extreme than Don’s, though, and he’s so persistent that she ends up shooting him. Don and Sylvia have a less violent conclusion, but it’s still shattering to Don, who can’t even focus on what his own much more beautiful wife is saying.

Don is rarely rejected by the women in his life, but when he is, as when Betty divorced him, he engages in self-destructive behavior.  We’ve seen that America self-destructing before our eyes.  Will Don also go into another downward spiral now?   Or will he reach out of the darkness?  The thing about Mad Men is that you can never guess.

Some other thoughts:

  • Until the last ten minutes, I thought this was the worst episode of the season. Then office machinations were hard to follow (too many names bandied about in meetings), the domination subplot was disturbing, the story about Pete’s Alzheimer’s-suffering mother was pedestrian and the Joan/Bob Benson subplot seemed grafted on.  When I watched it a second time I liked it a lot more, though, since I was able to catch the nuances of the office politics and was able to watch the Don Sylvia interlude through the prism of knowing that for her the game was just a game.  If you didn’t like this after watching it once, you should give it another chance.
  • Jon Hamm really acted the crap out of his role this. What a full range of emotions, from the fear in the airplane, to the despair at losing Sylvia, to the manipulative charm he showed Ted. It’s inexplicable that he’s never won an Emmy.
  • Funniest line?  Pete Campbell: “My mother can go to hell and Ted Chaough can fly her there.”
  • This episode takes place on June 3-5 1968. Monday, June 3 is the day the CDC folks move into the SCDP offices. It is also the day before the California Democratic Presidential primary, which is why the drunken Ted Chaough asks the creative team whether McCarthy or Kennedy will get the nomination. Don makes the astute observation that Hubert Humphrey, LBJ’s vice president, has wrapped up many of the convention delegates even though he didn’t run in the primaries. Despite revisionist history, it is not at all clear that Kennedy would have won the nomination, despite winning a string of primaries because Humphrey had the support of the party regulars (the unions, the southern states, etc.)  In any event, on Tuesday June 4, the day Don and Ted flew to Mohawk, Kennedy won the California primary and was shot just after midnight while passing through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, where his victory party was being held.  Thus, most Americans woke up to the news of the shooting the next morning on June 5.
  • I look forward to more confabs between Roger Sterling and Jim Cutler (played by the former 80’s hunk Harry Hamlin).  These are two polished sharks who completely understand each other.  The meeting where they bloodlessly decide which staffers to fire is a good illustration of how little they care about their minions.  Bob Benson?  The other guy?  Who cares as long as there’s a dead body.
  • I love how Roger goes out of his way to fire Burt Peterson, who used to work at SCDP and is now the head of accounts at CDC. The usual protocol would be for a partner at CDC, where he currently works, to drop the axe but you just know Roger volunteered to do it. And when Burt yells “You’re a prick, you know,” all Roger can say is “Damn it, you stole my goodbye.”
  • It’s typical of Peggy that she imagines Don engineered the merger to get her back under his thumb.   “Yes Peggy,” he says, “we risked our entire company just so I could have you back in this office complaining again.” Just like old times!
  • Speaking of Bob Benson, I hope we’re leading up to an explanation about what he’s doing on this show.  With his bland good looks, ingratiating manner and lack of any real responsibilities, he resembles a pod person from “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” But why is he working at SCDP?  No one seems to have hired him, yet he’s always available to pay for someone else’s prostitute or transport an office manager to the emergency room.
  • Who is the “man with a plan” named in the episode’s title?  It appears to be the aforementioned Bob Benson about whom Joan’s mother says, Obviously Joan, every good deed is not part of a plan.” Or is it?  Taking Joan to the hospital saved Bob’s job.  I had originally thought that the man with the plan was Bobby Kennedy, but don’t think so now, since the assassination only figured into the last two minutes of the show.  Or maybe Don is the man with the plan – the plan to live his entire life in a fantasy world.
  • Ted Chaough is evolving into an interesting character. He’s living up to his nice guy reputation, letting a distraught Pete Campbell have his seat at the conference table. But he’s also a bit of a nerd, dropping “groovy” and “man” into the conversation way too unironically for such a clean cut dude.  It’s not clear how good he is at creative, either.  His brainstorming session on Fleischman’s margarine was useless at best.  And he has a system that categorizes clients according to their similarities to the “Gilligan’s Island” cast.  Of course, Don, who’s been too busy reading “Dante’s Inferno” to know the difference between Ginger and Mary Anne, has a more intuitive (and, up until now at least, successful) approach.)
  • Since the MLK assassination episode, in which a handful of black characters actually appeared on screen, we haven’t seen any African Americans at all.  There were at least three references to Dawn in “A Man with a Plan,” but she was always conveniently not at her desk when the camera was there.  I wonder if this is a deliberate “screw you” by Matt Weiner to people who complained about the lack of black representation on the show.  It’s almost like it’s “I’m Matt Weiner and I’m going to go out of my way not to show an African American face, just because I can.  I won’t be bullied like Lena Dunham was and I won’t bow to your political correctness.”

“If I wait patiently by the banks of the river, the body of my enemy will float by.” Amen.

Mark Zuckerberg’s invention of the “relationship status” button was the work of the devil.  As portrayed in “The Social Network,” the idea to let Harvard classmates advertise their romantic availability on The Facebook just popped into head one day and he added it with minimal thought to its long-term implications.  Little did he know that in the years since it would be such a source of heartache.

The agony and glory of Facebook is that it lets you effortlessly share personal information with a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, but it’s all too easy to overshare (or brag), especially in affairs of the heart.  Given that social media barely existed a dozen years ago, there are still no firm guidelines about how to handle love on Facebook. As a close observer of Facebook customs, let me suggest a few:

1)      Avoid the aforementioned “relationship status.”  In the early throes of love, the urge to tell the world you’re in a relationship with a wonderful new main squeeze can be overwhelming. Flee from this impulse! Sometimes one partner (guess which gender?) will pressure the other one to make the public proclamation on Facebook.  It’s a big step, somewhat akin to getting your own drawer at another person’s apartment. Resist! Take the drawer but skip the publicity.  Consider what will happen if/when you break up.  There’s nothing sadder than seeing a relationship status go from “in a relationship with (Miss Perfect)” to “single.” The only exception to this ban on relationship statuses should be marriage. That’s a lifetime commitment and posting the news on Facebook is the equivalent of having your wedding in the paper or wearing a wedding ring. Plus it saves on the cost of engraved wedding announcements.

2)      Act like you’ve never been in love before, even if you never have been.  The rest of you who are not now in the thrall of a hot new thing know what I mean.  Too many gooey Facebook references to a new girlfriend/boyfriend can set our teeth on edge.  Don’t act like Facebook is your teenage diary.

3)      No kissing pictures!  Would you make out with your significant other at a dinner party?  Then don’t make out on Facebook. Also, no pictures of your beloved in a bathing suit or in any stage of undress. Gross!

4)      Don’t become “friends” with your significant other.  Even if you’re married.  Especially if you’re married. No real good can come of letting your girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse see your posts. Oh sure, in the early days, you’re both so smitten that you just LOVE each other’s posts. The “like” button is WHOLLY INADEQUATE for your feelings. But over time, your significant others will cool considerably to your Facebooking talents.  They won’t like what you say about them or won’t like the way they look in photos. Or they’ll think you’re mentioning them too much, or worse, too little.  Or they won’t like the comments your friends make on your posts.  And then, if God, forbid, you break up, you face the delicate question of whether to “unfriend” each other.  Facebook is for people who don’t see each other all the time. Presumably you don’t need social media to keep in touch with your beloved. (Btw, I know a few happy couples who get have navigated these treacherous waters without incident.  Still, unless you are Jim and Pam Halpert, I wouldn’t recommend this.)

5)      If you insist on becoming Facebook friends with the object of your desire, don’t post a lot of comments on each other’s page, even if you are as witty as Nick and Nora Charles.  The occasional self-deprecating response to a photo or an amusing self-defense regarding a mildly embarrassing escapade is OK every once in a while. But in general, keep the pillow talk private.

6)      Don’t brag about the beloved’s accomplishments. Facebook is not the annual Christmas letter. Some exceptions to the rule are if he/she: 1) wins a MacArthur “Genius” grant; 2) is elected to the U.S. Senate; 3) wins a Nobel Prize; 4) pitches a no-hitter in the major leagues; 5) is named a network news anchor.

7)      Limit yourself to one anniversary announcement per year. If you must mention an anniversary, stick to the actual date of your wedding, not the anniversary of the day you met, or the day you kissed or the day you realized you were in love (barf).  And if you must mention your anniversary, avoid over-the-top adjectives like “amazing,” “wonderful,” “fantastic,” or “sexy” unless you are describing the new car he/she got you as an anniversary gift.  In fact, the less said the better; you don’t have to convince us that you love your spouse.

8)      Show a little sensitivity after you break up. If you’re still FB friends with your ex or your ex’s friends, definitely don’t post pictures of your new conquest.  That will make their heads explode and earn you their undying enmity.

9)      If, after you break up, you remain Facebook friends, post the very occasional link to a shared interest, preferably something funny, on the ex’s Facebook page. This will show your mutual friends that you’re handling the break-up very maturely.  Don’t overdo this (more than once every three months) because it will seem creepy.

10)  Don’t stalk your exes. This advice is hard to take because, unless your ex is remarkably adept at privacy settings, Facebook makes it pretty easy to check in on those old girlfriends and boyfriends.   And who doesn’t wonder about a potential alternative reality in which you didn’t break up?  And who isn’t curious about how old or rich the exes have become? Bad, Bad, BAD idea.  Keep your eyes forward.  After all, look what happened to poor Jay Gatsby when he stalked Daisy “Voice Full of Money” Buchanan; they weren’t even Facebook friends and he ended up dead in a pool.

The bottom line? Love is complicated enough as it is.  Don’t compound the difficulty with social media.  Oh, and by the way, I just looked at Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook page and he does NOT list a relationship status.

Watching “Man Men,” always a disquieting experience, was more unsettling than usual on April 28, coming so soon after the Boston Marathon bombing.  The episode in question (“The Flood”) revolved around the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., and was a case study in how people react to national tragedies. 

As occurred with many real-life ad executives at the time, Don Draper and his fictional colleagues learned about the King assassination at the New York Advertising Club annual ANDY Awards dinner.  The organizers apparently became aware of the shooting at some point during the festivities and their hopes to delay the announcement until the end of the evening were thwarted when someone shouted out the news during a speech by Paul Newman (see http://bit.ly/10OptjG for The New York Times write-up the next day).  The rest of the episode dealt with the assassination’s aftershocks as the characters tried to find meaning in this tragedy.

Watching this through the prism of the Boston bombing gave a somewhat different perspective than would have been the case if our emotions had been less raw from our own recent shock.  It gave the show more depth and resonance, making it seem more real and universal. At the same time it undermined some of the period-specific lessons that showrunner Matt Weiner appeared to be trying to make.

At first glance the differences between then and now are huge, beginning with the primitive communications of the “Mad Men” era.  In April 1968 it was still possible for event organizers to think they could withhold major news from a ballroom full of high-powered ad executives. That would be inconceivable today since contemporary attendees, sitting with their smartphones on the table, would all have learned the news simultaneously from tweets, New York Times news alerts, emails or texts.

But the world has not really changed so much in 45 years. Then, as now, people rushed to get in touch with each other and find out more news. On “The Flood,” the award show attendees raced to the hotel lobby payphones to call family or business associates; in the following days, televisions were a constant background presence, with the news networks providing updates and specials. All of this was a painful reminder of how, just days earlier in our own lives, people had been obsessively trying to discover if anyone they knew was at the Marathon and then tried to stay current in the quest to identify the bombers.

In “The Flood,” only three TV networks, a few radio stations and the daily newspapers delivered the news, and they all seemed to be serious and authoritative.  Boston, on the other hand, provoked a massive outpouring of social media communication as well as frenzied and hyper-competitive TV reporting, resulting in a great deal of misinformation across all platforms.  You couldn’t help but wonder if the “Mad Men” characters who passively received information from a small group of sources weren’t better off than modern consumers, who were frantically jumping back and forth from cable news to online news sites to mobile-based social media.

“Mad Men” is too sophisticated to have didactic morals, lessons and themes, but it seems clear that Weiner wanted “The Flood” to illustrate the divide between white and black America. The white characters fumble their expressions of sympathy to their black associates. “It could have been worse,” Peggy says to her secretary. “We’re all so sorry,” Joan says after awkwardly trying to hug Dawn, the firm’s one black employee, implying that she is not part of the “we,” that she’s somehow apart from them, a token.

Yet, having just seen the massive outpouring of sympathy after the Boston bombing, I wonder if we should all give Peggy and Joan a little bit of a break. When New Yorkers said to Bostonians, “We’re all so sorry,” no one thought it was gauche. Boston reminds us that it’s human nature to show empathy after a tragedy, regardless of race or geography, and that it’s not easy to come up with the right words.

Then there’s the scene where Pete, the office liberal, calls Harry Crane, the firm’s media buyer, a racist because he seems insufficiently distraught over King’s death and too concerned with the revenue impact of the networks pre-empting “Bewitched,” “Merv” and maybe even the Stanley Cup!  Harry has always been kind of a joke on the show, never quite saying the right thing, but maybe we should give him a break, too.  Is there any question that network and agency representatives similarly jostled over “make goods” and other financial issues after the Boston bombing? It doesn’t make them racist or unusually insensitive; it makes them businessmen. 

The great thing about “Mad Men” is the way is uses the events of the past to help us understand the present.  The Boston bombing, on the other hand, turned out to be one of those rare events of the present that helped us to better understand the show.  And yet, the effect is fleeting. Memory fades.  In just a few months, people will watch “The Flood” without thinking once about Boston — and the show will be finally viewed as Matt Weiner had originally intended it to be.

Ted, Don and Peggy ponder the latest plot twist.

As a public relations professional (if you can call it that), I immediately recognized the title of this Sunday’s “Mad Men” episode (“For Immediate Release”) as press release jargon that indicates to reporters they can use the news right away.  But since that seemed too obvious a clue, I thought Matt Weiner might have another meaning in mind (and given all the sex that occurred on the show, maybe he really was trying for a double entendre).

Regardless of how many interpretations you can give to the word “release” the show really did end with Peggy typing a press release — and to the loyal readers of this blog who were tipped off several weeks ago about the merger of Sterling Cooper Draper & Pryce with Cutler, Gleason & Chaough, all I can say is …. You’re welcome.

After a season full of despair, fear of death, lying and cheating, “For Immediate Release” was a blast. Almost everyone’s having a good time, except for poor Pete Campbell. And who among us is saintly enough not to revel in his misfortunes.  In a night of great lines, the sight of him stumbling down the was possibly the funniest moment of the episode.

Here’s what’s going well for our friends: the partners are on the verge of being rich, or getting richer, through an IPO; Don finally fires Jaguar and shows his contempt for the porcine Herb Rennet who runs it; Don and Megan’s marriage seems to regain a bit of pizzazz; and most important of all, SCDP and CGC merge in order to win the Chevy account, which will catapult them into the big leagues.

And all this is accomplished by the old guard, the characters who seemed so irrelevant at the beginning of the season. Burt Cooper is the partner who brought in the underwriter to manage the IPO. Roger Sterling is the one who used his guile and charm to get the firm introduced to Chevy; and of course it was Don’s creative genius that carried the day with Chevy and conceived of the merger with Ted Chaough’s agency.  When big things need to be done you bring in the big boys.

The sunny optimism of the show was not confined to the old school mad men either.  Peggy’s boyfriend Abe thinks the future is looking up. Despite living in a squalid dump on the upper west side, he thinks positive charge is on the way: “Everything is getting better. Vietnam is going to end.  Johnson won’t be around. McCarthy may be president; Kennedy at the worst.”

Peggy’s next line, “I love Bobby Kennedy,” is a clear signal that we have to enjoy this episode while we can because the “flood” predicted in last week’s episode is about to consume America.  It’s May 17, 1968; in three weeks Bobby Kennedy will also be assassinated; in July there will be riots at the Democratic National Convention; in November Richard Nixon – not Gene McCarthy – will be elected president after the segregationist George Wallace siphons off most of the southern states and prevents Hubert Humphrey from getting traditionally Democratic votes; and the Vietnam war will continue for another six years.

Don’s pitch for the Chevy account – “the future is something you haven’t even thought of yet” – is supposed to be optimistic, but it’s actually a portent of further despair.  The RFK assassination, coming so soon on the heels of the Martin Luther King Jr. murder and the killing of JFK just five years earlier, was bad enough.  The early optimism of the nonviolent civil rights movement gave way to years of urban rioting. And of course the country tore itself apart over the Vietnam War in a way that we have not even seen on “Mad Men.”   1968 was a year when half the country hated the other half; on “Mad Men” no one seems to object to Abe’s Frank Zappa looks, or Stan’s long hair and bushy beard, but in the Sixties a haircut was an overtly political statement that could set off a huge argument at a family dinner.  “Everyone likes astronauts,” Chaough’s partner says but that’s not true.  With their clean cut looks, military backgrounds and reliance on technology, astronauts were the symbol of the “establishment” and everybody did not love them.  I’m not sure if Matt Weiner, who was only a toddler in 1968, really gets that.

But before we descend again into darkness, let’s savor this very funny, very sunny interlude.  This is an episode where someone can truthfully say “my mother just died” – on Mother’s Day, no less – and use it as a wry pick-up line.    Oh that Roger Sterling! (Who wisely decided to empty his bag of “Sterling’s Gold” copies before headed to the airport.)  And of course any episode with Megan’s mother Marie is a treasure.  She visits the Draper household to avoid going to visit her grandchildren on Mother’s Day (their sin being that they are overly excessive in their Mother’s Day wishes). She offers to give away the flowers that Megan has given her for the holiday and then delivers the maliciously biting observation that Herb Rennet’s wife Peaches “is the apple that goes in the pig’s mouth.” Ha! And don’t forget how she swigs wine from the mouth of the bottle while she waits for Don and Megan to complete their spousal reconnection.

This is also the episode where Don says “I love puppies” and where Burt Cooper asks Pete if he has any spirits of elderflower (a real liqueur, apparently).

Of course not everything is hunky dory in the SCDP universe.  The odious Pete Campbell has blown up his marriage. After learning that he’s about to be enriched by the firm’s IPO, he creeps back into the marital bedroom from whence he has been banished for John Cheever-like indiscretions with the local housewives; when Trudy somewhat good-naturedly resists his advances, he petulantly responds “So, we’ll maintain every other aspect of this marriage except the one that really matters.” “You mean Tammy,” she coolly replies. His libido thwarted at home, he visits an uptown whorehouse, where he runs into his father-in-law.

Neither Pete nor the father-in-law seem to understand the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction, a strategy that generally kept the peace for during the Cold War.   But MAD was deployed by cool-headed statesmen, which is not Pete Campbell.  When his father-in-law escalates the conflict and pulls the Vicks account, Pete goes nuclear, telling Trudy that he “caught him with a 200 pound Negro prostitute.” Well that ends that, and by bragging to Trudy how rich he is going to be, he has just doubled his alimony and child support payments.

(By the way, it’s a delicious irony that Pete, the office liberal, who just last week excoriated Harry Crane for being insufficiently sad about the MLK murder, makes the only two racist comments of the show: he also told Ken that he’d seen his father-in-law with “the biggest, blackest prostitute you’ve ever seen.”)

It’s also not clear how badly Don has damaged his relationship with Joan.  She’s bitterly upset that Don unilaterally severed the firm’s relationship with SCDP with Jaguar – the account that the firm won after she had sex with Herb Rennet. “I went through all of that for nothing?” she rages.  Don’s been yelled at my dozens of women in his life, but Joan’s comments are probably the most cutting: “Just once, I would like to hear you use the word ‘we,’ because we’re all rooting for you on the sidelines, hoping you’ll do whatever you think is right for our lives.”

And yet, in business at least, Don’s unilateral actions have mostly been right.  His problem is that he sees things before anyone else and acts like the Lone Ranger (or Superman as Megan rather grandiosely says.)  He was right two years ago to publish that open letter promising that the firm would not accept tobacco clients; and he was almost certainly right that the Jaguar account is doomed. An account obtained through sleaze is always on thin ice and Herb Rennet is looking for revenge after Don sabotaged his attempt to shift ad spending to local TV stations.  By trying to get Don to report to the kid who writes flyers, he’s making a play to regain creative control, which Don will not cede.  And to make it worse, Herb has just learned after Megan, saying in the most lascivious way, “tall and tan and young and lovely.” Ick. He deserved to be fired.

So on we go into the future, which we know is bleak, but the characters don’t. Peggy is assigned the task of making the newly merged firm “sound like the agency you want to work for.”  Because that’s what she and Don and Ted do: they create a new reality out of words.

Some other thoughts:

— I don’t really want to complain because it was such a good episode, but for a series that prides itself on getting every little detail right, there were three whoppers this week. 1) The IPO process is nothing like it’s presented on this show. The stock price is determined the first day or trading, not by the investment banker. And there’s no way a banker would come to the office on a Saturday night, look at some financial statements for 20 minutes and then agree to do the IPO on the spot.  There’s something called “due diligence.” 2) Similarly, two same-size agencies cannot agree to merge in less than a day. There are many tricky money and control questions that need to be resolved in laborious detail, especially when the partner at one firm has cancer and the other firm is about to go public.  3) It’s extremely unlikely that Peggy and Abe would have been able to buy and close on an apartment in less than a month, even on the Upper West Side. And why are they living in a dump like that? How is it even possible that a place like that is a co-op?

— Marie’s advice to Megan to revitalize their marriage through sex seems a bit off.  It’s not just sex that Don wants.  He wants a partner. He was most in love with her when she was part of his work life too.  Not to sound like something out of “Can this marriage be saved,” but I think Megan needs to stop nattering on about her soap opera career and engage him again where he comes most alive – at the office.  Of course needless to say, she does need to keep the sex coming too.  That’s a given.

— That was an interesting new perspective on Dr. Arnold Rosen, who had seemed the innocent cuckold until now.  He comes into the Draper kitchen and basically hits on Marie in front of Don and Megan; then he quits a job because his hospital won’t let him perform a heart transplant. He’s upset because the patient died, but even more upset that he won’t get the fame and prestige of performing this new procedure. (I’m not sure if this is another mistake, but the first U.S. heart transplant took place at the beginning of 1968, very soon after the world’s first transplant by Dr. Christian Barnaard in South Africa.) We no longer feel quite as sorry that Don is sleeping with his wife, now that he’s no longer a saint.

— Speaking of the now unemployed Dr. Rosen, I wonder if he and Sylvia will move to Houston, where most of the heart transplant action is taking place?  That would get Sylvia out of Don’s orbit before he can wreck both marriages.  That would be a very interesting and unexpected plot development, since we all think it’s inevitable that Don will torpedo his relationship with Megan.

— The car that Chevy will develop — using a computer no less! — is the Chevy Vega, a real bomb. A literal bomb since it used to catch on fire.

— According to my calculations, the SCDP partners will now be worth $16.5 million if their 1.5 million shares trade at $11/share. Joan is worth more than a million dollars, which is a windfall for her and probably worth five minutes of cuddle time with a naked Herb Rennet.  In keeping with the show’s theme that you can’t predict the future, though, what the partners don’t know is that the stock market is about to enter a prolonged slump and those shares will probably not be worth the IPO price again until the 1980s.  Also, what they don’t know is that they will spend every day from now until the day they sell out calling their brokers asking what the stock price is (no Bloomberg terminals or e-trading in the 1960s!)

— Joan’s extreme reaction of Don’s question, “Don’t you feel 300 pounds lighter?” reminds me of how she slapped down Peggy for firing the guy who was harassing her in the “All The Beautiful Girls” episode in Season Four. Then, as now, Joan claimed that she could handle herself, but she clearly can’t.  As long as the stain of Jaguar fell remained, the agency as a whole could never put that unholy act behind.

— How furious will Harry Crane be when he finds out that the firm is going public?  Joan get a million dollars and he gets $23,000 for thinking up “Broadway Joe on Broadway.”

— Don’s Chevy pitch is the third time this season he’s tried to sell the concept of a ad that doesn’t include an image of the product (the others being the Heinz ketchup bottle and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel).  I’m not sure if this means he’s running out of ideas or that we are to understand that Don himself is not there. Regardless, they are all interesting stylish pitches, too far ahead of their time.

— It may turn out to be that “tall and tan and young and lovely” will be the most consequential line of the season — the moment around which the whole series pivots.  Before then, Don was still in a funk, going to far as to pretend to love puppies to keep the chit chat going; but after Herb Rennet makes one sleazy remark too many, Don is jolted back to the old Draper.  “I’ve never felt better,” he says after dumping Jaguar and he’s a tiger in the bedroom when he gets home. Power really is the ultimate turn-on and Don has his mojo back big time.

— So Ted Chaough hates being called a nice guy. I wonder how big of a problem that is since he’s mostly been a douche on this show (except for the one time he told Peggy to send the staff home on New Year’s Eve.) Still, he was gentlemanly enough not to ravish Peggy on the couch, which is a step up from Draper behavior (although to his credit, Don never made a pass at Peggy.) Note to Abe, drop the shirtless farmer jeans look and grab a groovy turtleneck before it’s too late.

— Speaking of Abe, here’s another prediction – he ends up getting his head cracked at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

By the way, I want to make this clear, unless this works, I’m against this.