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Mad Men Recap: Soap Opera Digest(ed)

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Even the Devil drinks a Sno Ball and even Mad Men can get hit in the face. "Dark Shadows" just wasn't on its usual high level of awesomeness. It's titled after the 1966-1971 vampire daytime drama (weirdly coinciding with Tim Burton's movie remake released this weekend) that Megan's redhead friend Julia is auditioning for. Megan laughs at the script and mocks she hasn't seen a soap opera this bad and "isn't it supposed to be scary?" -- and that's how I feel about this episode. It was all soaped up with bloodthirsty rivalry, jealousy and fake crying -- and isn't it supposed to be scary? But we didn't really care. It was nothing new. How many times have we seen Pete get all puffed up and deflated, Don belittle his coworkers, Betty pick a petty fight, Joan pick up the pieces, Roger seduce an ex, pay people off and crack Jew jokes? That's kind of their thing. There was a real life smog emergency on Thanksgiving of '66 so that was, um, a big dark shadow and the episode focuses on the emotional dark shadows--hidden pasts, unspoken fears, insecurities, etc. -- that follow the characters around, but are usually more subtly exposed, only when hit by the light from a certain angle.

The other heavy-handed problem is Betty. She's boring. Henry's boring. Their storylines are no longer relevant to ours. The Fat Betty plotline is just kind of weird and out of the blue and she's not as much fun to watch when she's not the beautiful ice queen of the west. The most interesting part of her story was that Weight Watchers was around in the 60s and it seems pretty similar to the way it is now. What I did care about was her interaction with Megan. She walks into Don and Megan's "throne on 73rd" seemingly for the first time and tip toes around. It's a lovely apartment, I'm sure it's hard to digest but it's a shirtless, skinny Megan that sends Betty home breathless to her Redi-Whip-Inhaler. (Maybe Don should send her some cool whip). Megan's competitive/nervous around her too, she basically kicks her out of the apartment. The use of Weight Watchers does work thematically for the episode. It's all about taking control of your life, suppressing an appetite and silently competing with everyone around you while pretending to support them.

Roger tells Peggy "that's the way it is, it's every man for himself" which MW told us was a theme of this season -- and that's what this episode is really about. Still in post-LSD truth bomb dropping mode, Roger kind of narrates the episode. After the silent opening shot of Betty rationing out her weight watchers meal, he tells Cooper fishing is not a competition man vs. fish, it's man vs. man, "it's the measuring and the weighing," which sets up Betty's weight watchers as the frame of the episode about man to man competition. Then Roger talks about golf on the phone, "playing with a pro makes you worse, makes you self conscious," which will relate to Don and Ginzo's conflict and later tells Ginzo "sometimes when you really, really hate someone, you need to prove something is yours even if you'll lose it" (exactly what we'll see him do later with Jane).

Pete creates and loses his own competition. Pete prances into the morning elevator bragging about his new BFF Victor(y) from the Times who's interested in them for an article on hip firms -- but don't worry, they just want him! He's fantasizing about Beth reading about him in the paper and coming to find him in nothing but a fur, and then he's not in the article and gets all upset. Oh, Pete's upset again. Loser.

For this Times article, Don goes through his work over the last year. It happens quickly but we flash over the completed ads we heard pitched this season. There's Cool Whip ("Just Taste It"), Mohawk (with a paper airplane, "if you can find a less expensive way to fly to Lake Placid, take it"), Butler shoes ("search for a prince until you find a butler" with a dark shadow of Cinderella and her prince in a dark alley, just like Ginzo said), one with a car (is that a Chrysler? With the tagline "Gentlemen start your Sunday afternoon"), one with a woman sitting (probably pantyhose), and presumably an anti smoking ad that says "cough cough hack hack."

It's almost all Ginzo's work and Joan detects this realization and perfectly coddles Don's fragile ego. She says look at all this great work you've done as "creative director," look at your talented team. But Don's used to being the talent, not the director. Ginzo's pulled ahead while Don's been on love leave and now Don wants back in the game.

After flipping through Ginzo's "shit I gotta do" folder, Don sees the "Get hit in the face with a Sno Ball ad" chuckles, inspired and sits down to try to come up with something better. Oh man is he rusty. He settles on the devil idea, telling himself "sinfully delicious" is "not bad" but it's really not great. I was surprised Ginzo thinks it's good and actually feels threatened, condescending and congratulating Don for coming up with that after not writing for so long. He declares himself the competition, "good to know." Everyone thinks Ginzo's is funnier but an insecure Don decides to only take his in -- Don's petty move of the night that shows us how threatened he really feels. We've seen Pete push Roger out these season but we wouldn't expect Don's talent, of all things, to be on the line. But the truth is, it is. If he can't connect to the younger generation and their music, soon enough he won't be able to pitch to them, either. Ginzo gets pissed when he hears Don dumped his idea and confronts him immediately and unprofessionally, and obviously, in the elevator. He warns Don you won this one, but "I got a million more" and says "I feel bad for you," but Draper is a seasoned elevator fighter and gets the last word, "I don't think of you at all."

More predictably, Peggy's jealous that Roger asked Ginzo for help over her after she helped him with Mohawk. Stan warned her that if she hired him, he would end up her boss and he's already speeding way ahead. Peggy's ideas are lacking. Don notes that her New Yorker comic strip idea doesn't have a punch line and her Mohawk ad ("if you can find a cheaper way to fly to lake placid, take it") was pretty mediocre.

Roger asked Ginzo for Jewish help with Manischewitz. They sell wine to jews and now they want to sell some to normal people, cracking maybe too many (and too obvious) Jewish jokes throughout the episode. The best one: "How Jewish? Fiddler on the roof -- audience or cast?" Ginzo's bus ad idea -- to show the bottom halves of people under the window with cases of wine under their seat is genius. A luggage company should jump on that, STAT.

Roger pays a lot to sell Manischewitz. $200 upfront to Ginzo plus a new apartment for Jane. He needs her at dinner, she needs a new place without memories. Sold. After the Manischewitz son blatantly hits on Jane at dinner, Roger, as he told Ginzo sometimes happens, insisted on proving she was his by taking her up to her new apartment and tarnishing her fresh start. He seems genuinely remorseful when he apologizes to her -- their conversation dreamily reminiscent of their LSD break up.

The big soap opera moment of the night is when Betty cracks and pulls out the most explosive weapon she can think of -- Anna Draper. She's trying to hold it together but when looking through Bobby's homework papers, she finds a note scribbled on the back of his big (shot up) blue whale drawing. This note was over the top, to "lovely Megan," the voice-over taunts in Betty's head. Thanks to this handy Dark Shadows glossary, I learned the Blue Whale was the tavern on the show where a lot of the action went down--and this is where Betty declares soap opera war. She tells Sally to ask Megan about Anna, which cruel and childish, was more like the Betty we know and love to hate.

Both Sally and Megan, the two that can fake cry, come out on top of this dramatic bracket. Yes, Megan's jealous that Julia gets the part but she adeptly quells both Don and Sally with this Betty/Anna situation. As an angry and confused teenager, Sally is the only one who it's actually appropriate to act out this way (which Kiernan Shipka plays with delightful terror). She calls Megan phony and competitively cries "you were my friend first" (does she mean before Don? Like when she was her babysitter? That's adorable). Megan ultimately handles it well. She tells Sally "they just got married to help each other, they never lived together and they never had any babies," and then tells Don and calms him from calling Betty, from giving her exactly what she wanted "the thrill of having poisoned us from fifty miles away." We see listening-in Sally nods in understanding in the hallway, realizing what her mother was doing.

In perhaps the nicest moment of parenting we've seen, Don controls his anger the next morning and calmly explains Anna to Sally. She's the one who's house she went to and the one who calls him Dick. I continue to be surprised with how open and comfortable he feels, but it's nice.

Then Sally, equipped with this new info on her mother, plays Betty perfectly. She tells her they all spoke of Anna very highly and looked at photos, knowing that'll sting (though maybe not quite knowing why) and makes a passive comment about her being hungry at Thanksgiving and tops it off with a little girl smile and "I'm thankful I'm doing well in school." Sally's about to take Betty down and that's a storyline we'd all want to see. Betty says, "I'm thankful that I have everything I want, and that no one has anything better." What a joke.

A few other things:

This episode was written by Erin Levy, who recently also co-wrote "Tea Leaves." Obviously MW doesn't have a writer's credit on the worst one. I think she was trying to do a clever play on a soap opera -which could have been great--it just wasn't well executed.

It was directed by Scott Hornbacher -- who I love from the trippy "Far Away Places" -- and the direction was one of the best parts of the episode. There were physical dark shadows everywhere.

Don looks so old. I think it's partially because we see him walk around in casual clothes and pajamas. The mask is off and I'm continually caught off guard seeing Superman Draper just look an old guy, who has to stretch when he gets up. This fantastic Andy Greenwald article on the Alien Mystique of Megan Draper this week put it perfectly, it's like "watching James Bond turn into your dad." That article's worth reading.

Where do you think Don took the boys?

All the negativity about Betty aside, she does have a nice moment with Henry over the stolen bite of steak. He realizes that he bet on the wrong candidate for the election. He says there he "he bet on the wrong horse, jumped ship for nothing," which resonates more as Betty leaving Don for him. Betty, equipped with Weight Watchers support speak tells Henry, "this is just a setback. I support you like you support me." This is the most sympathetic we've seen her in a while.

Even Harry's complaining about his office and trying to compete, he's the head of his department!

When the account guys decide Ginzo's Sno Ball pitch is funnier than Don's, Ginzo says "look on my works ye mighty and despair. " Stan responds,"read the rest of that poem, you boob" which is "Ozymandias", a sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley about the inevitable fall of kings and leaders. The next line is, "Nothing beside remains."

The closing song is "Sweeping the Clouds" by Maurice Chevalier and we hear the first verse which is about taking life in your own hands: "Don't go 'round moping, hoping happiness will come,/That's not the way; it doesn't pay!/If you want happiness, just help yourself to some,/Why don't you try to take life the way I do."

Re: Megan and Don Watch: In a New York Magazine interview, Jessica Paré says, ""we all know this is not a show about Don Draper being a happy, healthy man." That does not bode well for the happy couple.

Is it possible the Tim Burton release was a coincidence? What's the deal with that?

I'm not familiar with the original "Dark Shadows" but I'm sure there are many more references scattered throughout the episode. Did anyone catch them?

What else? Thoughts?