The response you desire from someone is not necessarily the response you get. At least not in the world of Mad Men, and certainly not in last night’s episode. ‘To Have and to Hold’ was a slideshow of characters being profoundly disappointed in each other. For Joan and Harry it was perceived maltreatment by their peers; for Don and Megan it was relationship troubles—in Don’s case, trouble with more than one love. It feels like nothing is going right in any corner of the show. Dawn chatted with her friend at the bar about the level of discontent at the office: the tears being spilled; the alcohol being washed down. Every time they take out the trash it sounds like New Year’s. But that doesn’t solely apply to the hallways of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce—it feels like it fits the show as a whole.
Though I want to spend the bulk of my time on Don, I’ll say that of all the characters we saw last night I was most surprised by Harry. Here all of a sudden comes a man that asserts himself and makes his demands known, behavior that we’ve never really seen out of him before. Where had this Harry been for the last five seasons? Seasons one through three he was low man on the ladder, doing his utmost to ensure he didn’t cross anyone. During four and five his character underwent a slight metamorphosis, eventually becoming creepy and, in most cases, largely annoying. Last night he found a second wind, finally willing to remind his benefactors of his worth to them. I can only imagine he has a legitimate case: the television market must be expanding year by year—it must now be bringing in more money than print. He’s the guy that pulls the strings on that, and yet he’s been given the shaft in favor of, as he says, Joan, whose position (doing the books and managing the office) is hardly more essential. I thought his line about him being ignored because he does his work during the day was stinging and was, simply for theatrical reasons, quite brilliant. It was sort of a stand-and-applaud moment for a character that we’ve never really had any reason to like before.
Over the last few episodes I’ve been vacillating back and forth between Don and Megan on who would be first to pull the plug on their relationship. Of the two, Megan is the only one who would out-and-out demand a divorce—Don would, like most men, just check out of the relationship emotionally which, in his case, would probably mean bold-faced adultery, and rarely returning home. He’s already on that track of course, but after last night’s showing I’m not entirely sure where he’s at with her. When Megan first told him about the love scene she was to perform he seemed like he barely cared, almost as if he was acting ambivalent only because that’s how he thought Megan would expect him to react. Of course, when he showed up at the studio, his behavior was markedly different. It’s hard to resist double-guessing him: does he want out of the relationship, spoiling Megan’s work being the fastest way to turn her against him? Does he in fact still feel a connection with her, and was he actually hurt seeing her act out that scene? Or was it just his ego that was hurt, the act itself being a slight against his character, a deep cut on a man whose relationships revolve solely around sex?
For Megan, already dreading Don’s reaction, him showing up was the ultimate betrayal, manifest evidence that he only cares about what she does when it directly encroaches on his desires. His response can only be seen by her as an attempt to undermine her career, another signal that he doesn’t want her to be happy, to be doing what she wants to do. But for Don—returning back to the point about his ego—her willingness to be with another man, as much as that may be a fiction, is evidence of the fact that she is putting her work before what he wants, before his desire and fantasy of a simple, traditional home life. This relationship is a Gordian knot. It cannot be fixed; it will only be solved when it is destroyed.
Two other women figure in this episode for Don: Peggy and Sylvia. Peggy’s betrayal of him is twofold—she not only undercuts him by going for his business, but she also emulates his pitch style. The way she challenges her prospective clients—“It makes you angry, doesn’t it?” and, “If you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation”—is ripped right from the heart of the Don Draper playbook. There is a chance she will beat him in the race for Heinz, and if she does, she does it by being a pale imitation of him (she’s nowhere near as convincing as he), and by presenting an inferior advertisement. (Though Don doesn’t see it, I thought her offering was straight up lame, a creatively bankrupt ad compared to Don’s.) I hope we get a chance to see Peggy and Don interact again, and soon. It seemed like he didn’t even want to be within fifty yards of her after that, and she’s doing her best to become a thorn in his side.
What are we to make of Don’s ending chat with Sylvia? She states the obvious about his character, but I can’t imagine that is, under any circumstance, something you want to hear said about yourself. Interestingly, her phrasing was almost to suggest that she was carrying on the affair for him primarily—“For you to find peace.” It’s a peculiar and upsetting note to end on—telling the person that you like (perhaps even love) that he’s broken, and that he needs salvation. It’s chilling, even. What will give Don peace? A divorce? Playing that line over and over again in my head, it almost seems to suggest at something more final. That might be my own input, but it was a very curious note to end on, and a devastatingly honest remark about Don’s character. He slips her cross behind her neck and gets back to business, as if he hears her but promptly and deliberately forgets what she said. More than anything else on the show right now, I’m desperate to see where the Don and Sylvia angle goes. He’s fallen deep into this relationship. Where will he be when he digs himself out of it?