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Gale Force Winds of History Hit Mad Men, Which Still Finds the Time for Some Obvious Practical Lessons

04/15/2013 05:49 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2013

Gusts of history are blowing through Mad Men now, with characters increasingly uneasy about America being pushed around in the Asia-Pacific region, taking note of conspiracy theories around the assassination of President Kennedy, and joyously and joylessly embracing the burgeoning sexual revolution.

Unfortunately, two of our main characters have chosen to partake with playmates living within a few hundred feet of their homes. This, and pay attention now, is, not at all surprisingly, a formula for absolute disaster. But Don Draper still deftly saves the day for his ad agency strategy.

Some spoilers are here, of course, and you can see the archive of my Mad Men pieces by clicking here on The Mad Men File.

This was a workmanlike episode, Mad Men moving some plot elements further into place, another chapter in Matt Weiner's novel for television, with some deft direction from series star Jon Hamm. The critical and fan response I've seen looks rather sedate. Recaps are everywhere and nowhere, the show itself easy to watch if you haven't, so I'll just weigh in with some thoughts.

It's late January 1968. The Tet Offensive has exploded across Vietnam, exploding the then prevalent myth that the Viet Cong were close to finished, though Vietnamese Communist forces suffered severe losses in the process. The Navy spy ship USS Pueblo has been captured by North Korean forces, kicking off a bloody hostage drama that will drag on for 11 months and result, as we learned many years later, in a massive intelligence coup for the Soviet Union. And New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison -- Kevin Costner will play him in the 1991 Oliver Stone epic -- is surfacing with what many find to be a compelling conspiracy theory in the JFK assassination.

The brutality and angst of all this reverberates through the episode as characters sort their way through the growing sexual revolution and chart courses through complex workplace waters.

The Dick Whitman flashbacks long ago became overused, being far too on the nose. In this episode, they seem to be employed to provide more explanation for why Don Draper is so highly sexed. (Except, he isn't really very highly sexed. He's had remarkably few partners for someone who is supposedly a major '60s playboy type.)

So what's the explanation? It can't be that sex is fun, especially in the blossoming sexual revolution of the 1960s. No, it's because Don, son of a prostitute, was raised in a whorehouse. I've got to say, this trope of explaining Don's not exactly amazing behavior by providing a paint-by-numbers psychological explanation is one of the, ah, least clever things in an otherwise highly intelligent show.

For a guy who is supposedly losing it, as some fans and reviewers have imagined in, well, each and every season of this show, Don did a masterful job of getting exactly what he wanted with Jaguar, keeping the majority of the client board very happy. The two Jag execs were clearly not on board with what the idiot car dealer wanted with his self-involved local radio campaign; it was just a matter of bringing that out, which Don did perfectly.

Continuing on the ad business front, Don's rival and Peggy Olson's new boss Ted Chaough was fine in seizing on what she learned from her old pal Stan about the Heinz ketchup account being in play. Because it would wreck the relationship with the account it does have, Heinz baked beans, SCDP literally can't go after Heinz ketchup. Despite it being "the Coca-Cola of condiments," as Kenny Cosgrove so amusingly put it.

Was Peggy bad for mentioning all this to her boss? Of course not. Telling him what Sterling Coo isn't going to do is hardly disrupting anything it is going to do, which would have been a violation of her conversation with her old colleague and dear friend Stan.

Incidentally, Peggy and Stan certainly come off as soul mates with this regular evening phone date thing they have going. In a way that seems quite the opposite of when they were colleagues. But would the magic last if they were actually in the same room together?

Of course, the sexual revolution is sprouting up all over the place, though not on Peggy and Stan's phone calls to date. The neighbor men at the Connecticut dinner party were all hitting on the estimable Trudy Campbell, the neighbor women hitting on Pete. It was not a time of monogamy, much as the current ethic tries to enforce that today.

Pete, of course, is an idiot for screwing around with the neighbors. As is Don, though at least his playmate seems more interesting beyond the surface appeal. But with all the fish in the sea available to a great fisherman ... Maybe the proximity is the appeal. Actually, it's the nitroglycerine.

Much as I like Trudy, one of my favorite characters, she's at fault here, too, of course, for forcing Pete, a classic New Yorker, to move out to Connecticut in the first place. The two of them made a potentially great Manhattan couple. They decidedly do not make a great Connecticut couple.

On the other hand, Connecticut is nearly as beautiful as New York City is dynamic. Pete could embrace the best of life in New York and New England if he could get outside of himself. Um, which admittedly is not his strong suit.

Did you notice how Trudy's 50-mile exclusion zone for Pete "unzipping his fly" actually extends 20 miles beyond midtown Manhattan? Cos Cob is only 30 miles from Grand Central Station. I thought she went along with the Manhattan apartment to afford Pete that, er, luxury, so long as his activities weren't in her face. Unless this is a writing error, or Trudy misstating things in the heat of her utterly legitimate fury.

While Pete and Trudy both contributed, in very different ways, to their suddenly very grave crisis, the person who bears no responsibility at all for the storm to come is Megan. Don is making a huge mistake screwing around with a social friend of theirs, much less a very close neighbor. This will ruin the whole sense she has of their lovely home, something that is extraordinarily hard, if not impossible, to forgive.

Incidentally, I continue to think that the good Dr. Rosen knows about Don dallying with his wife, who clearly needs something to do with her time.

Meanwhile, those gale force winds of history are only picking up velocity. Mad Men's characters will get increasingly unnerved in the tumultuous atmosphere that lies ahead.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.