Can we say that last night’s episode of Mad Men was not only the most entertaining hour of the entire series, but also, considering all else, one of the best episodes yet? It had everything: comedy, drugs, mayhem, flashbacks, emotion, and, naturally, ample amounts of subtext. It’s easy to get caught up in the humor of the whole thing and pass it off as just a throwaway blip on the radar; similarly, it’s easy to be concerned by the dreamy structure of the episode and dismiss it on that count. Certainly, I think it’s fair to say that I’m not entirely sure what went down in that hour. Things happened, but who knows what. I wouldn’t say it was confusing—rather, it’s like the episode is a coded message and we’re lacking the cipher to explain it all. As such, we kind of have to do the best we can. Thankfully, the episode was a blast, so it’s not too disheartening if we don’t get anywhere. I’ll let you peek at my notes if you promise to share yours with me too.
The great irony of the episode was, of course, that Don was supposed to be working on the Chevy ad but was instead working on a speech that was to win Sylvia back. As if we needed more evidence of his self-centeredness—he was trying to enlist Peggy for his little side-project as well! Only late in the game did she realize that they were talking about two different things, and that his mind wasn’t on Chevy at all. It was fun watching him dart hurriedly around the offices, working out his pitch to buy Sylvia back while everybody else was working desperately on the car. But Don only has time for Don, and that’s how it’s always going to be.
Yet everyone’s left with nothing at the end of the long three-day high. Not only was all the work garbage—again, one of the hundreds of great moments in the episode was seeing Ted frustrated at how none of the ideas were workable—but Don, after piecing together the greatest pitch and ad in history, one tailored specifically for his dear Sylvia, suddenly finds he lacks the ardor he once had. The pitch goes undelivered. I assume it’s because he came home to that awful situation, saw the one ruined family he had, saw the second (potentially) ruined family he’s currently with, and was put off by it all. I can’t say why. Maybe it’s guilt for not loving them; for dedicating his life to some other woman? Maybe having the police there in his absence was the punch that sobered him up? Who can say—I didn’t find enough evidence there to piece together the why of it. But something lit up in him and put him off Sylvia completely. Even she seemed a little crushed by the finality of it all. She barely got a word from him in the elevator, and not even a look.
As a short aside: I don’t think I realized quite how much he loved her. I mean, who can say if it was real love—he was desperate for something else, somebody else, and she happened to be it. but he was, at any rate, attached to her; so attached to her that he was almost crying (not the first time this season), and he showed, for the first time in a while, that he was capable of actual emotion.
Connected with Sylvia (and the issue of love and Don in general) was the curious mother complex that arose here. It’s been obvious for years, but the writers haven’t seen fit to focus on it until now. And then, quite out of the blue, it falls on us like a barrage of hail: we have his abusive step-mother, a motherly prostitute, the black con-artist that claims to be his mother and, of course, his quest to regain Sylvia; his quest to find his mother again. (If there’s any doubt that Sylvia and the mother issues are related, just look at the advertisement he eventually finds to spur on his creativity: a mother and son, the caption, “Because you know what he needs”—another irony, because the only real mother figure in his life, that abusive step-mother, certainly did not know what he needed.) This is another case where I’m not entirely sure what to make of it all. The reason for the existence of these feelings is itself fairly obvious—Don’s lack of parents, and complete lack of any biological mother. This has likely led to his troubled and complicated relationship with women. Perhaps the newest layer here is that he sees them as caretakers. We might reason that he wants to find somebody to take care of him, to replace the mother he never had. Megan has failed at that—she has her own career—but Betty seemed to be doing a serviceable job, and she would have continued had Don not acted out on her. I’m not entirely convinced that this reasoning his right, but it’s just an idea. At any rate, I’m happy that Weiner and co. finally brought it up, and I’d love to see it addressed further.
As a final note to close our discussion of Don with, I wonder what him walking off Chevy means? Is it simply for functional reasons—he’s presented them with more than enough work; he doesn’t like working on a strict timetable; he doesn’t like not being able to meet with them, and so on? Or is it an admission of defeat—that, as with the case of Sylvia, he isn’t up to a project of such magnitude anymore? The quack doctor who was shooting up everybody with the wonder drug wanted to know what they’d name the firm, and Don didn’t answer. There was a time when I thought he was back into his work again, but maybe he’s checked out for good now.
It’s par for the course that my thoughts on an episode are predominantly related to Don, but here are some other disparate notes for us to end with:
- The fact that nobody got anything done for the whole weekend is a reflection of how irreverent the whole episode was. Just think of all the devastating things that occurred while the cast was high: CGC’s senior artist died; the Draper residence was burglarized and the children could have been harmed.
- What is it going to take for Don to say the words “I love you”? I kept waiting for him to say it to Sally, but it never came. He got tantalizingly close when he said “I left the door open,” and I’m half-sure that was a deliberate choice of wording by the writers. He can’t say “I love” but he can say “I left.” Of course, as he revealed a few episodes back, he doesn’t think he loves them as he should. And, as we learned this episode, he has a broken heart. So he doesn’t love anybody—at least he doesn’t lie to them and tell them that he does, I guess.
- I feel bad for ignoring Peggy, as there are some pretty major things going on with her character as well, but her closeness with Ted (Don sees them through the doorway), and her near-fling with Stan is mounting evidence that Abe (or at least the lifestyle he wants the two of them to lead) just isn’t right for her. That’s all obvious stuff, but I didn’t want to go without mentioning it.
Finally, we should reiterate again just how entertaining this episode was, and how well it was written and directed. This was an Emmy-caliber episode all round, and one of the finest Weiner and his team have produced yet.