This was the most routine of the episodes so far this season. But afterwards, I learned where Betty Draper has gotten herself to. She's joined The X-Men!
If only. Though her home in Westchester County is certainly close enough to Professor Xavier's school for those specially gifted children. Actually, of course, it's Emmy-nominated January Jones, who's now a star of the upcoming X-Men: First Class movie, playing Emma Frost, a powerful, and powerfully hot, telepath. Jones has certainly gotten enough practice trying to read Don Draper's mind over the past few years.
The Beatles' "I Feel Fine" was the number one hit in the U.S. and U.K. over the Christmas and New Year's holidays of 1964/65. Don Draper's not as bad off as he was over the holidays, but he's definitely not feeling fine.
Now her new character doesn't have to try to get into a locked drawer; she can simply see into anyone's mind to divine their secrets. This should also be a welcome break for Jones, whose complex Mad Men character frequently comes across as dour and is unfairly hated by many fans.
While this episode was pretty routine, it doesn't mean it was bad. Mad Men is most appropriately seen as a novel for television, and that means characters can disappear for stretches of time, as in life, and time must be spent setting up emerging scenarios.
This happened in the early stages of last season, when key elements were set in motion that paid off later on.
One great thing about the episode is that it was directed by repeated best supporting actor Emmy nominee John Slattery -- who used some intriguing camera angles and pacing -- his first turn behind the camera on the show. But that was also a bad thing about the episode, as it meant less time for his Roger Sterling character, always one of the most enjoyable things about Mad Men.
Slattery, incidentally, illustrates one of the great truisms of the entertainment industry, that it contains great talents that relatively few know of. I've seen him in many things -- including a terrific turn as a CIA operations director opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson's War -- but stardom had eluded him. Until Mad Men.
So what happened, and what might it mean?
Peggy Olsen was finally reintegrated into the story, after getting short shrift the first three episodes. She's the youngest regular on the show, so it's natural that she's exposed to new things that say "'60s!" first. What's striking is how she's been so slow to be affected by change, probably because she is the biggest grind on the show.
We first met Peggy in 1960. It's now February 1965 -- thankfully, we skipped Don Draper's Valentine's Day after the first three episodes focused on unhappy holidays -- and at this rate if we are going to rely on Peggy to lead the way into all the tumult and change Ronald Reagan will be president by the time she gets into Simon & Garfunkel.
She has driven no change in the agency, unlike Pete Campbell, who was clearly identified at the end of Season 3 as the forward thinker in the business and is the character who has grown the most, from entitled old money weasel to a Kennedy liberal with easily the best marriage on the show. To the estimable Trudy, very well played by Allison Brie, who we should see more of.
Don Draper's carefully constructed life was, in some major respects, deconstructed by the end of Season 3.
But Peggy does show some progress in this episode. She's fallen in with a new group of younger boho friends, and undergoes an adventure involving marijuana and brushes with lesbianism and an art school type who thinks he understands Andy Warhol, but decidedly does not.
Perhaps Peggy will ultimately emerge as an avatar of the future in some way, but she's used in the show as a vehicle for viewing change rather than adapting to it and driving it in her own milieu. Perhaps this episode will be more than another false dawn in that regard. There've been others. Remember when she went to a Dylan concert a few years ago? Her only lasting takeaway was a new hairdo and a lament that she'd picked a gay guy for her date. Perhaps her character is what it is; a constantly working striver from Brooklyn looking to better herself, whose importance lies in the fact that she is a female accomplishing her careerism in a deeply sexist time.
The younger character who doesn't just brush up against change in this episode but makes some change is Pete.
Because Freddy Rumsen returned, bearing Pond's Cold Cream as a a new account gift to an agency far too dependent on the Lucky Strikes and the odious Lee Garner Jr., Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has a conflict with its existing Clearasil account. It has to go, and Pete has to tell his father-in-law, who'd arranged it.
Pete turns this setback into a triumph, gaining a raft of new business from the conglomerate that runs Clearasil; namely, the Vicks line of cough products. In the process, he makes himself much more powerful within the agency, where he's already a partner, and makes SCDP less dependent on Garner.
The essential milieu of Mad Men is not all that admirable.
Which is a good thing, because Garner suspects he's being overbilled (he is, of course) and Roger and Don barely escape the conversation with the hilariously dubious claim that Radio City is on fire!
Providing more breathing room on the Garner front isn't the only change for Pete. He and Trudy are at last having a baby. (And just when they'd seemed so happy without one.) And he acknowledged his back-stabbing ways over a meal with Kenny Cosgrove.
Yes, Ken, Mr. Easy Going, is back, though not at SCDP. With a very rich heiress fiancee, he bears hilarious tales of corporate dunderheadedness at McCann Erickson -- the clutches of which SCDP narrowly escaped in such dramatic fashion at the end of Season 3 -- and the key to big new accounts.
And how is Mr. Don Draper? Definitely not good, but clearly better than he was over the holidays. Which is in the realm of damning with faint praise.
He finally loses Allison, his long-serving secretary with whom he foolishly had a liquor-fueled sexual encounter just before Christmas.
She's angered in this episode by his refusal to share a communication from his friends in California. (Anna Draper's intriguing young UC Berkeley student niece sends him a picture of him with her aunt noting that the two of them "don't look so old" in that shot.)
And Allison is part of a focus group of agency secretaries run by that psychologist who told Don that he'll end up married by the end of 1965 because he's just that "type" of man. The group is used to test Peggy's concept of advertising for Pond's Cold Cream, a more forward thinking view of the product as a personal indulgence. Which it is, because as any knowledgeable woman knows, if you really want to guarantee youthful looks forever and not just make your face feel good, you have to use La Mer. (That's meant to be ironic.)
Dr. Faye Miller runs the group in such a way that the women get upset about their personal lives. Her takeaway? That what the secretaries really want from such a product is to use it as a way to, wait for it, get married.
"Hello, 1925," says Don, sardonically, as he rejects the good doctor's manipulated "research" and sticks with Peggy's approach.
Is this still the TV programming most frequently featured in the Don Draper household?
But Allison has had it and decides at last to quit. She asks Don to write a letter of recommendation. He agrees to sign anything she writes, which is clearly not what she wanted from him. As evidenced by the paperweight she hurls at his head.
Later, drunk at home, Don tries to make amends by composing a letter of apology to Allison. But this sort of thing is hard for Don, and he falls asleep after expressing a most incomplete thought about the state of his life.
After other things ensue, the episode ends with an intriguing coda.
Don has again dragged himself home, drunk, and notices, with evident horror, his elderly neighbor repeatedly fending off her husband's question about whether she remembered to buy pears at the market.
Is this where the bourgeois mundanity of the supposed ideal of marriage emanating from the '50s leads? Is there, perhaps, another path beckoning as the '60s unfold?
Inquiring minds want to know.