08/09/2010 05:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mad Men Review: "The Good News" Is Sad Yet Very Good

After a fairly uneven second episode, Mad Men is back on track with "The Good News." More's the pity it has to be so sad.

There be spoilers ahead, of course.

Remember, do not engage in over-analysis -- perhaps a euphemism for projection -- with regard to this show.

A recap of Season 4, Episode 2.

Needless to say, Don Draper's loyal, dare I say loving, secretary Allison was not typing a letter of resignation at the end of the last episode following her awkwardly resolved pre-Christmas tryst with the boss. Nor was it a suicide note, as a few imagined.

The imagined big drama following the aftermath of their intimate encounter has not ensued. Instead, Don is facing yet another holiday, the third in a row in three episodes this season, this one, naturally, New Year's. And he's still drinking heavily.

Don has always been a big drinker -- remember the nap he took during the pilot episode -- and now, without his shattered family around, he's a holiday drunk, like a great many people made unhappy by the holidays. But still a functional one, so it's far too soon to imagine that he is in the sort of tailspin which I think some viewers really want to see.

Actually, he already doesn't seem as bad as in the last episode, which is not a huge surprise, as he has a fun trip planned. First to Southern California, to see his unlikely soulmate, the only real Mrs. Donald Draper there will ever be, then to Acapulco for some serious fun in the tropical sun and moonlight.

I enjoy seeing New York ad man Don Draper out in California in the early -- now nearly mid -- '60s. This time out, we see him bumping up against surf music and Dylan, in Ray-Bans, looking very Don driving a convertible down the PCH, his Manhattan uniform far behind. He's already declared California to be the future, and this is where he's bumping up against the future most clearly.

Don Draper's carefully constructed life was, in some major respects, deconstructed by the end of Season 3.

In an earlier season it was aerospace and the burgeoning space program and military build-up. It was also an encounter with a group of hedonists, who snatched Don up into their gypsy ways for a moment or four before he split to see the touchstone in his life, as he does in times of turmoil.

And as he does in this episode.

Anna Draper is the woman who knows all about him. The wife of the real Don Draper, the Army lieutenant whose identity our Don, aka Dick Whitman, stole in the Korean War to form a new and better life for himself from nothing, Anna encountered our Don selling used cars and knows all about him.

She understood him, and he helped take care of her as he rose in the advertising world. She has a house near the beach, a piano on which to give lessons, an evident taste for marijuana, and a welcoming, ever-loving attitude toward Don. Theirs is a platonic love, and he is relaxed with her in a way we never see him with other women. It's looked as though it could be something more.

In one of my hopeful scenarios, I had seen Don relocating to LA as the '60s go on, becoming a California-based creative guru of the ad world, settled down with the real Mrs. Draper. Alas, it is never to be, and I actually teared up as I learned of her impending fate.

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

Taking Anna's very fetching niece home, and naturally hitting on her, albeit in a low-key way, Don learns that Anna has terminal cancer, bone cancer as it happens, which accounts for her broken leg. Anna doesn't know, and both her niece and her sister insist that it's better that way.

The niece, incidentally, who I suspect we'll see more of, is yet another harbinger of the coming "real '60s" as many have it, as well as a reminder of how much of what we think of as the 1960s stems from California and the West instead of the more hide-bound New York. She's a poli-sci major at Berkeley, an admirer of the somewhat inchoate Free Speech Movement there, but she's not an activist. At least, not yet.

She already shows signs of refusing to be "folded, spindled, or mutilated," to borrow an FSM phrase, rejecting Don's field of advertising as bullshit and saying that its incessant selling of products people don't actually need leads to "pollution."

So don't buy the stuff, Don, intrigued, suggests. "Don't think that can't happen," she shoots back.

At least for a while, that is. One of the greatest challenges for advertising lies in figuring out how to co-opt social change. It's a challenge that advertising has always been up to.

A topic I'm sure we'll be getting to.

For all his retro failings and inability to open up, Don Draper has always been intrigued, even turned on, by women who are willing to stand up to him and are smart enough to argue with him. Think back to his gal pals of Season 1.

But with Anna's sister insistent that he's just a man with a checkbook, he regretfully says goodbye to her without telling her it really may be goodbye, painting a wall for her and signing it, wistfully, "Dick + Anna '64."

After that wrenching experience, the margaritas and fleshpots of Acapulco are out of the question, so he's back to New York.

Political correctness has never been Mad Men's hallmark.

Where he and, of all people, Lane Pryce end up as holiday running mates. Lane is separated from his snooty wife, pill that she is, disliking all those "dark people" around the United Nations. She's moved back to London.

With the two of them at loose ends, they decide to get sloshed, see a Godzilla movie (though Don reverentially considers a film starring "Catherine Deneuve!"), have a big dinner (at which Lane hilariously brandishes his steak as "a big Texas belt buckle"), and go to a comedy club. At first, the comic singles them out as a gay couple (!) until their dates arrive. Don's on-call call girl pal brings a friend. At which point the comic types them as rich guys.

On our other major track of the episode, Joan gets the good news that she can have a baby with her now Army surgeon husband, despite her two earlier abortions. (I assume that we all assume that at least one of those was with Roger Sterling.) Dr. Blockhead, as I like to call him, is facing deployment to Vietnam, though he doesn't like to think about it. He does have a nice moment with Joan in this episode, though, unlike virtually all other episodes.

Joan's most intriguing encounters, however, are with Lane Pryce. They, it seems, are at loggerheads, in rather intriguing ways.

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

He refuses her time off, declaring that, virtually alone among all men, he is capable of saying no to her. When his apology bouquet -- and why are you apologizing, Lane? -- is mixed up, hilariously, with the bouquet meant for his estranged wife in London, Joan is extremely angry, telling him he makes her feel like "a stupid little girl."

They're both over-reacting to one another. Watch that space.

Naturally, it's Joan, seated at the head of the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce conference table, who kicks off 1965 by welcoming all to the new year of business the day after New Year's.