08/25/2010 12:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mad Men Review: Another Famous Anthropological Study

The reports of Don Draper's descent into chaos have been greatly exaggerated.

"The Chrysanthemum and the Sword," a distinctly odd title for those who were not students of anthropology, sociology, or history, is a significant improvement over last week's episode. Much more happened in this episode, and there was a sense of greater forward motion. There be spoilers ahead, as usual.

Let's get the title out of the way first. It's a direct reference to a famous book, published in 1946 by anthropologist Ruth Benedict, a close associate of Margaret Mead. Benedict, sadly, died not long after, but her work lived on. In particular this book, which drew from a series of papers Benedict prepared during World War II for American intelligence. Their purpose? To analyze and help defeat the Japanese, with whom we were then engaged in a war in the Pacific far more brutal than the war against Germany.

The Beach Boys' number one hit, "Help Me, Rhonda," released in March 1965, inspires a character in this episode.

Americans soon learned that it was an extremely bad idea to surrender to the Japanese. And that Japanese who surrendered were surprisingly free with information. Studying the culture from afar and relying on interviews with a few Japanese, Benedict developed the theory that Japanese culture was motivated by shame, compared to American culture being motivated by guilt. Her work for the military, repurposed for civilians in her 1946 book, became seminal for Americans seeking to understand Japan, which the U.S. worked assiduously to rebuild after the war after assiduously shattering it during the war. In this case, the good folks of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, almost all of whom want to land an emerging Japanese company called Honda, maker of sleek new motorcycles exciting a new generation.

So in this episode, we see Don Draper and our other ad agency folk trying to come to grips with new cultures, both in the form of the Japanese and in the form of a changing America.

We also see the return of Betty Draper, missing in action of late. Her character, it seems, has not actually joined the X-Men, though actress January Jones has. Too bad, because the telepathic powers of the White Queen would come in very handy for Betty. She would know how bizarre people are increasingly finding her parenting to be, and that young Sally really isn't all that bad after all.

Don is still drinking too much, but then he's always drunk too much. The first three episodes over-emphasized his drinking problem because they were all set around holidays -- Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's. The last episode he drank too much as well, but was clearly less of a drunk.

The essential milieu of Mad Men is not all that admirable.

It's March 1965. This time out, Don's quite functional. He's very much on his game at work, as we'll see, and his private life is less chaotic/pathetic. He's dating Jane Siegel aka Mrs. Roger Sterling's friend Bethany and has turned his cute neighbor into a babysitter. Er, why does he need a babysitter when he has the kids over for a visit? Because Don, like Betty, is really a fairly crappy parent.

Don is busy fending off a rival agency, led by an amusingly wannabe Draper creative director, and working to get Honda's future business. Honda is just starting to go into the car business and has already made a splash in the motorcycle business, with slickly designed bikes that Don admires.

It's actually the idea of Pete Campbell, getting ahead of the curve once again, for SCDP to seek Japanese business. But Don is one of the few who actually reads Ruth Benedict's book, which mostly festoons agency desks. And Roger Sterling vehemently opposes doing anything with the Japanese. He flat out hates the Japanese.

Young Sally Draper's crush on Ilya Kuryakin, everyone's favorite Russian spy in The Man From UNCLE, leads to unfortunate consequences. Kuryakin is played by Briton David McCallum, who co-stars today in the most popular scripted series on television, NCIS. That's the famous Jerry Goldsmith theme music. That's also Leo G. Carroll playing essentially the same role he played in North by Northwest.

It's hard for a contemporary audience to relate to Sterling and his racist outbursts in this episode, which may seem out of character for such a generally cool and witty figure. But most of my relatives who fought in World War II fought in the Pacific, not in Europe, and I've studied the war, so Sterling's attitude isn't a surprise at all. Even though he was a naval officer who didn't fight on the land, where the fighting was so brutal that atrocities became commonplace. (This is one of the major reasons why most World War II movies are set in Europe.) But plenty of his friends were killed at sea, where casualties were also high and where the Japanese kamikaze tactic of suicide diving planes into American ships frightened and infuriated Navy veterans. And of course there was Pearl Harbor, the shattering surprise attack that shocked America out of its complacency and innocence.

In this episode, Don and Pete are the change agents. Bert Cooper, a longtime aficionado of Japanese culture as we've seen in his office decor from the beginning, helps smooth the way. Yet his old guard status is reinforced by his mystification about why black people aren't satisfied by the big gains they have supposedly made. Pete has the perfect comeback: "Because Lassie can stay at the Waldorf and they can't." Roger, whose very young wife has him ahead of the curve on Pop and minimalist art (while Cooper hasn't gotten beyond Abstract Expressionism), hasn't been able to get beyond the anger and pain of his wartime experience.

As usual when he's intellectually intrigued, Don is a thorough researcher. He reads Benedict's book and thinks about it, admires the design aesthetic of the new Honda motorcycles, and turns a date into a research exercise at, amusingly, the new Benihana.

So Don is prepared when Honda sets up a competition that doesn't allow him to shine. He manipulates his would-be rival into thinking he has to break the rules by going way over-budget to shoot an over-the-top TV commercial -- in which a stylized New York chase scene reveals at the end that the Honda rider is a pretty blonde, a stereotypical appeal to the male Japanese audience -- by faking a commercial shoot. (Inside the studio, Peggy makes her major appearance in the episode riding a red Honda motorcycle round and round and round.) And he uses his knowledge of Japanese mores to manipulate the Honda executives into keeping SCDP in the running by doing nothing.

This, even after Roger's racist outburst in the first meeting, in which he lashes out at "Jap crap," even then an old-fashioned way of thinking about increasingly stylish and high-quality Japanese products, and makes pointed references to atomic bombings.

"Help Me, Honda," performed by the Capitol Steps in 2009. As Jerry Brown once said of his Yale Law classmate Gary Hart's presidential campaign theme, there are no new ideas.

Joan, introduced by Pete as the agency's "chief hostess," helps a great deal as well. First by wowing the Honda execs with her charm, smarts, and other attributes (one wonders how she keeps from falling over). Then by talking Roger down from his wartime hatred.

Betty and Sally Draper fare less well.

Betty Draper, now Betty Francis -- and Henry Francis looks increasingly like a very good second husband for Betty -- solidifies her frontrunning candidacy for Mother of the Year in this episode.

While Don is off multi-tasking at Benihana, Sally and Bobby Draper, on their regular visit with dear old workaholic dad, are left in the care of Don's neighbor Pheobe. She no longer thinks of him as a figure of pity.

Noting that Don likes her, and that Phoebe has stylishly short hair, Sally performs impromptu hairstyling services upon herself, telling Phoebe that she likes her look and wondering if she and daddy are "doing it." When Don sees his newly shorn daughter, he predicts that he will be in "a river of shit" with Betty.

As indeed he is. But it's much worse for Sally. Betty hauls off and smacks her, shocking both Don and Henry.

Is this still the TV programming most frequently featured in the Don Draper household?

Later, while under the care of a neighbor, a TV-viewing Sally is inspired by the sight of blonde Beatlesque Man From Uncle star David McCallum to pleasure herself. Unfortunately, she's caught in the act. The neighbor's reaction is bad; Betty's is worse. Again in a fury, she threatens to cut Sally's fingers off.

Henry Francis intervenes, suggesting therapy for Sally, almost certainly thinking that some should rub off on his clearly troubled wife, as well. And so Betty begins talking with Sally's new therapist, comforted by the children-friendly scene of her office.

Don is clearly in better shape in this episode than he was at the beginning of the season. But that doesn't stop him from beginning to talk about himself with the fetching Dr. Faye Miller, still hanging out at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce after her triumph in the last episode in getting the agency's secretaries to feel about themselves in the Pond's Cold Cream focus group.

In all, it was a strong episode, focused mainly on the ad game as a prism into the changes of early 1965.

The characters study the anthropology of Japan, a rising sun once more, and of mid-'60s consumer America. Just as we study the anthropology of their scene.