"I'm no longer playing this game." - Joan
"'Cause you'll lose!" - Kate
Those were throwaway lines, spoken during an often energetic and eventful "Mad Men" episode; they would have been easy to miss. This hour was so full of sly humor, momentum and short, powerful scenes that I assumed that, right at the end, it would change gears and shift into existential despair mode, which is one of the show's more predictable notes these days. And the episode did shift in that way, but what came before that was a welcome and almost fizzy change of pace. Well, not fizzy, given the amount of angst in the air, but there was definitely a charge to this hour, as characters assessed their limits and, in some cases, brazenly ignored them.
Right off the bat, quite a few characters came up against rules they either flouted or rebelled against; months or years of frustration couldn't be held in check anymore. Betrayals, surprises and turnabouts were so frequent, you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled on to an episode of "Game of Thrones" with groovier hair and better pot.
What's funny about the Joan quote above is that she ignored it almost immediately. She wasn't going to play some juvenile kissing game in a taxi with her friend and some random guy from the hamburger place -- but then she did exactly that. She went on to make out with another hip cat at the Electric Circus as Serge Gainsbourg crooned away in the background. Why the hell not, Joanie? After years of heeding the rules and playing the game the way it's supposed to be played -- show up to work on time, be responsible, don't pick up strangers (an old habit Joan had more or less discarded) -- she'd finally reached her limit. What had playing by the rules gotten her, after all?
Here's what being the good, tolerant, dependable Joan had gotten her: secretaries breaking her rules, and something much more humiliating -- Harry countering her authority and more or less calling her a whore in front of the other partners. What is the point of paying attention to the rules, once you realize the game is rigged against you? Finally, Joan saw the futility of the path she'd taken, and she had to break free, at least temporarily. The thing is, Joan's life might look like a success from the outside, but those in charge of the game won't ever let her play on the varsity squad. She's lost before she can really begin playing.
Harry may be a vile ass for saying what he said in the meeting, but he's actually no less frustrated than Joan is. His department is bringing the firm a ton of money these days -- and to be clear, this is because TV is booming, not because Harry is good at his job. The Dow Chemical/Joe Namath special is more or less the first idea we've seen Harry have in eight years. Nevertheless, he is part of a big revenue stream for the firm, and yet, he is shut out of the inner circle. He's not as badly treated as Joan -- in today's cash, he's earning a cool $143,000 a year, enough to keep him in obnoxious sport coats and elaborate glasses. Still, he's not really a power player at work and he knows it.
What does it mean to succeed and yet fail? Joan's life looks like a dream to her old friend from out of town, but she'll never be allowed to forget how she got her partnership. Harry has all the trappings of the successful young executive yet is shut out of the important decisions. Megan does well at work and tries to be honest with Don about her love scenes, and he rips her apart on her big day. Peggy gets to pitch to a big client and yet she doesn't get the account and she hurts two of her only real friends. Ken does everything right and yet he's sold down the river by his fellow employees.
It's that last betrayal that really stings, and not just for Ken. Of course Ken is right to be furious: The head of creative at his own agency deceived him in the most disrespectful way possible. But there's so much more fury and shock to go around, and the whole encounter made for a masterful sequence. The standoff between the SCDP team and the Chaough team is one of the most divine things the show has ever done: First, we see the two trios face off, with a gigantic visual chasm separating the competitors. Then, in tighter shots, we see Stan's stunned amazement, Pete's snarling disgust, and Don's ferocious scowl.
Of course the moment is brilliantly played by Elisabeth Moss as well: Peggy tries to catch Stan's eye, in an effort to salvage their relationship with a strained, slightly hopeful smile. He's not having it though, and she can barely force herself to flick her eyes at Don, whose feelings she can guess all too well. Few words are spoken, but we know exactly what everyone is feeling -- a combination of sick shock and queasy anticipation. (Nothing ever fazes Ted Chaough, however, which is a little disturbing.)
Ted was one of the few characters not seriously thrown off course in this hour; almost everyone else was. Dawn is the most understandably afraid. She's the Peggy of six seasons ago -- she's trying to find her way and to fit in, even as she begins to realize how distressed and driven the people around her are. She's asking herself the questions that occurred to Peggy when she first got to know Don and his cronies: Do I even want to fit in with these people, who are so clearly unhappy and stressed out so much of the time? As Dawn confided to her friend Nikki: "It sounds like New Year's Eve when they empty the garbage -- there are so many bottles!" It's a strange, scary world at SCDP and Dawn is navigating it very much on her own. Even a friend she sees in midtown barely acknowledges her on the street.
It's about time -- long past time, actually -- for the show to recognize how alone Dawn feels and helps us understand what she likes and doesn't like about her job. As the firm's only African-American, she is isolated and unable to take any number of things for granted -- she doesn't know whether the other secretaries really are her friends, whether she can take part in minor transgressions like time-card trickery and whether anyone will ever go to bat for her. It was a relief, in a way, to see her talk so openly about her frustrations and fears with Nikki.
We can only hope for more from Dawn as the season progresses. One thing "Mad Men" has done well over the years is show us how isolated characters -- many of them women -- both flail and find ways to succeed in the cutthroat office culture of 1960s Manhattan. Like Joan and Peggy before her, Dawn feels alone at the firm -- but like both of those women, she's found something of a friend, or even a mentor. I can see Joan taking Dawn under her wing, possibly. Whether Dawn would actually benefit from having Joan as a mentor is an open question, however.
After all, part of Joan's problem is that she thinks she can still get away with autocratic behavior and absolute control of her subordinates, and she can't. The rules of the game have changed, but she hasn't been paying enough attention to notice that. It was actually poor form for her to try to fire someone in the middle of the work day where everyone could hear her doing so. The men who have the real power (i.e., those above her) and the women who work for her (those below her) are not going to automatically heed her rulings in this looser day and age. Her status as both office manager and partner have been undercut, mostly due to the kinds of unpleasant attitudes Harry gave voice to, but partly due to Joan's inability to change with the times.
Ultimately, what can the normally cautious Joan count on? Not a lot. Hence kissing two random guys in one night.
What can Don count on? To feel betrayed by the women around him, of course! Don always rigs the game so that he's the injured party, even if he breaks the rules left and right. In his narcissistic mind, the betrayals he experiences always trump whatever sins he commits and wrongs he dishes out. That strain of self-pity is not one of Don's attractive qualities, and he was at his worst as he entered Megan's dressing room.
As we've seen so often in the past, a betrayal in one area of his life caused him to lash out at a completely different person. The timing of Megan's first love scene was especially unfortunate, coming as it did just after Don found out that Peggy (urged on by Chaough, of course) had gone behind his back to try to get the Heinz account. Peggy is the one person he's always been emotionally closest to, and she sold him out in an effort to get a piece of business. In so many ways, Peggy hit Don where he lived (another twist of the knife: She even gave a "Don Draper" pitch in the Heinz meeting, one that was very reminiscent successful Draper meetings of the past, especially Don's first pitch to Ed Baxter of Dow in a previous season).
Don being Don, when they all convened at the bar, he wasn't going to let on how hurt he was (though Peggy had to know how deep the betrayal went). No, he packed up his ugly anger and he took it to the set of "To Have and To Hold," where Megan filmed a wooden scene that played out like a very low-rent version of dozens of Don Draper seduction scenes. It was all there: The woman who was smitten but needed convincing, the man who talked her into what she knows is morally wrong, the intimation that the rules shouldn't apply to them, the clinch on the bed. It was all classic Draper.
But without Don Draper playing that scene, without his hangdog sexiness and weary vulnerability, with over-bright lighting and low-rent decor, the scene looked cheap, tacky and more than a little bit sad. Don sells his product well, but that product is Philandering Man, and what he's after is no nobler than what Corinne the maid's fictional employer wants. Perhaps seeing his own moves reduced to crass melodrama is what turned his rage white-hot, or maybe he couldn't stomach seeing his wife do her job and ultimately not care much about his objections to what that entailed. As I wrote about in my season premiere review, Don truly craves mother-comforters; independent women attract him, but then repel him and activate his worst instincts.
Yes, Megan gets paid to kiss people, but she's one of the few people in this story who is absolutely clear about what she was hired to do and what she will get out of her job. Who else in Don's world can say that they have such absolute clarity about where they stand? Almost no one.
The ironies abound: Don's a serial cheater, but Megan wouldn't have slept with her employers, even if it meant she'd lose her job over that snub (and who knows, she still might). Don leaves the set of his wife's fake infidelity to carry on a real affair. Don spends every day of his life prostituting himself to big companies who force him and his team to dance for every dollar. And of course he thinks he's not gross and calculating, like Arlene and Mel, who are (if nothing else) honest about what they want.
What was most entertaining about the dinner scene with Don, Megan, Arlene and Mel is that Megan didn't even understand what the older couple was proposing at first. It took her a while to grasp that they were swingers, and then she couldn't wait to get away from them and their offer of "grass" and a "chemistry experiment." (I'm with Megan: Eyeewww). But the upshot is: The next day, Megan put on a maid's uniform and kissed a guy for money, but she knew that was the extent of her job, and at the end of the day, she remains one of the most honest and morally upstanding people on the show. So of course Don is cheating on her.
What Megan's wearing in that soap scene, by the way, is a very important element of this episode. The bloggers Tom and Lorenzo do a weekly feature on their site called "Mad Style," and it's an absolute must-read for "Mad Men" fans. They deconstruct the costumes in ways that make me see every episode in a new way; they are fabulous at explaining the complex thematic statements being made with clothing, hairstyles and accessories.
I don't want to steal their thunder, but I have to comment on one aspect of "To Have and To Hold" (the name of the episode as well as the name of Megan's soap). Three female characters wear outfits that are very similar, and their key outfits convey similar concepts.
Early in the episode, Sylvia is tied to Megan by way of clothing: She wears a black coat with white trim and a white hat, all of which recalls Megan's black-and-white maid's getup (which she wore backstage and on set). Later, after Joan's big night out, she came into the office wearing a color combination that is quite unusual for her: She wore a black dress with white trim. In both cases, the color schemes of their outfits were quite reminiscent of the outfit that Megan wore as Corinne the maid on the TV show. These three women were made to feel like prostitutes, or reminded of the transactional nature of their past or present relationships, and they all wore black and white ensembles.
In case the penny didn't drop, Don actually handed Sylvia a coin just after he accused his own wife of being a hooker. As Tom and Lorenzo have pointed out, Sylvia is often clad in a column of black, which makes her look like as somewhat funereal figure in Don's life. And black is quite out of character for both Joan and Megan. In a sense, all three women have had to give up dreams; part of them has died (certainly for Megan, this is the start of her realizing her marriage to Don is on is way to expiring).
Nothing on this show happens by mistake, and there was something stark and foreboding about all three women's black-and-white clothing. It's the kind of getup you see on priests -- and mourners.
The end of the episode, I must admit, was somewhat less entrancing than what came before, not just because seeing Don do his best to emotionally destroy Megan was hard to watch. The scene was well-played, of course, but I find it somewhat harder to buy what "Mad Men" is selling when it comes to Don's affairs. No matter what he dishes out, he gets to fall into the arms of yet another mother figure who wants to offer him comfort and who prays he obtains peace when he's not in her apartment, helping her commit all kinds of sins.
We've seen this so many times before; the affairs that offer no relief, the existential dread that leaves both partners ultimately feeling adrift, a woman whom Don ultimately views as yet another version of the whore who gave birth to him (we're four hours into the season, and we've seen Don give Sylvia money twice).
This is an old cycle, and it gets harder to feel sorry for Don as he makes the same mistakes again and again, and in doing so, leaves yet more wreckage in his wake. At this point, it looks like Don doesn't want to learn from his many mistakes, despite ample opportunities to do so. It's not just that these kinds of plots are repetitive; it's just harder to feel sorry for a man who is this determined not to change any of the patterns that bring so much pain in their wake.
So often, the true excitement of "Mad Men" comes from in watching characters careen down new paths and surprise themselves: Joan kissed a downtown hippie; Peggy went head to head with Don and lived to tell the tale; Harry asked for more recognition, not knowing what that demand would ultimately get him; Dawn went into Joan's office and didn't know what kind of reception she'd get.
"Mad Men" is often at its best when its characters avoid old ruts (Joan, after all, took a small step toward a more assertive future by delegating some responsibility and handing off her keys to Dawn). So often, this world is most exciting when we don't know how things will work out, and when the answer to the question, "What will happen to these people?" mirrors Joan's parting words to Don's nervous secretary: "We'll see."
A few more thoughts:
"Mad Men" airs on Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.
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