11/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mad Men : "Seven Twenty Three" -- HuffPost Review

In history, the solar eclipse is an omen of things to come, frequently upsetting. And so it is with "Seven Twenty Three," an episode which caused some confusion in advance. And some after as well, with a major newspaper blog still failing to grasp what the title is about, mistakenly saying it's a time in the morning.

As always with these reviews, there be spoilers ahead, so if you've not yet seen this key episode, you've been warned.

Last week's episode, "Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency," was quite consequential.

Since the previews on Mad Men, unlike most movie trailers, are structured in such a way that they really don't tell you anything about what's coming, and even actively mislead you, I noticed a lot of fan blogging speculation about the cryptic title of this episode. A prevalent theory had it that the title is related to David Ogilvy, the British advertising guru who published the classic "Confessions of An Ad Man" in 1963. But what did the number mean? One favored explanation was that Ogilvy's funeral was on July 23, 1963. Since he actually died in 1989, that was incorrect.

What "Seven Twenty Three" is is Don Draper's Waterloo. Or I should say, Dick Whitman's Waterloo. That's the day in 1963 on which Don Draper/Dick Whitman gets lassoed. Fitting, as it's his Westerner hotel magnate friend Connie Hilton who sets it in motion.

But before we get to that, let's go back to the beginning of the episode. Which was actually near the middle, per the Lost-style flash forward/flashback mode now in vogue.

A quick recap of Episode 5.

We see three principals in various forms of repose. Peggy Olsen is stirring in bed beside a man, as distinguished from the usual boy she is around when she's around a guy. Betty Draper, looking very sexy, is in a reverie, alone, on some sort of settee. And Don Draper is face down in a cheap-ass motel room.

The rest of the episode revolves around how they got there.

This is an episode about people hooking up, making connections, some of which may be disastrous. Except when it's about Don's attempts to flee connections. But try as he might, the master dissembler, with the walls closing in, proves unable to get out of anything. Except perhaps his friendship with Roger Sterling. And I doubt that.

Which is as good a place as any to begin, since this is not a blow-by-blow recap. (I must say that I'm surprised by the rise of the literal recap. I thought people watched TV, in part, to avoid reading. The recap is the new way to avoid spending an hour watching a TV show.)

So, Don and Roger, whose relationship was key to the first two seasons of the show. But not so key now, at least so far. Don resents the hell out of Roger for spoiling Sterling Cooper by causing it to be sold to the British conglomerate so he could pay for his divorce and afford his marriage to Don's foxy 20-year-old secretary. And Roger is so into being married to his now 21-year-old that he's not doing much at Sterling Coo other than being (self) important. Which is what he does in this episode, to impotent and near disastrous effect.

Don and Roger encounter one another, uneasily, in the ubiquitous elevator on their way to relatively late appearances at the office. Don's matters. Roger's, not so much.

Roger mentions that he's reading the galleys of David Ogilvy's classic, Confessions of An Ad Man. (Ogilvy, in addition to writing self-aggrandizing yet guru-like books -- including the one I first read many years ago, Ogilvy on Advertising -- came up with such advertising classics as "the man in the Hathaway shirt," "Commander Hathaway's" "Schweppervescence," and "The only sound you will hear in the new Rolls Royce at 60 miles per hour is that of the electric clock.")

Roger is a little jealous, and allows as how he has to come up with a blurb for the Ogilvy book even as he says that any one of a thousand ad guys could have written it. Later, he is more honest, when he declares Don "our David Ogilvy."

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

Finally getting into his office at 9:30 AM, Don discovers his surprise buddy from Roger's horrible Derby Day party, Connie Hilton, already there. Sitting in his chair. This becomes a trope of the episode. Older, more powerful men sitting in the chair of this master of the universe.

Showing he will be a handful, Connie tosses a few curveballs at Don, including giving him crap for not having family photos or a bible on his desk, before giving him a piece of his business. Nothing special, just the New York hotels, including the Waldorf Astoria. As these are crown jewels of the Hilton empire, more is clearly to come. If Don works out.

But there is a problem with Don. Not that Connie cares, though his lawyers do -- which means that he does but he ain't saying 'cuz they're buddies -- Don doesn't have a contract. He believes, as a major Hollywood star told me years ago, that the best course is to work without a contract. Because that gives you the option on the relationship, and thus the power.

Which is generally true. Except that Connie, i.e., the Hilton empire, wants to be sure that Don is going to be around for the next three years.

A quick recap of Episode 4.

Which Sterling, Bert Cooper, and Lane Pryce run down for Don in an uncomfortable meeting in Cooper's office. In which Cooper -- who, lest we forget, is keeping the secret that Don Draper is really Dick Whitman -- impresses upon Don that he now must sign a contract. A very generous contract.

As Roger points out to a nonplussed Betty when he calls her at home to lobby after learning that Don has failed to send the contract to his lawyer for review, as promised, and after Don blows him off in a meeting in Don's office. Betty, of course, knows nothing about her, which is true of most of her relationship with her husband, so she is pissed off.

Especially so when she confronts Don about Roger's call.

Don goes into patented clam mode and leaves the house, drinking whiskey out of a glass, headed West in his snazzy blue Cadillac. When he decides to pick up a teenage couple hitchhiking.

Before he does this, he rips into Peggy when she comes into his office on the pretext of having him sign off on routine art work but actually to try to get onto the Hilton Hotels account. Already feeling cornered by Cooper, Pryce, and Sterling, not to mention Hilton himself, Don dresses her down, telling her that she's swiftly gone from being his secretary to a job "grown men would kill for" and she hasn't produced any work that he "can't live without." So get your hand out of my pocket. Ouch.

Here's a quick recap of Episode 3.

Which makes it easier for her to ignore Pete Campbell's rather good advice to return an expensive gift from Duck Phillips, who is out to recruit them from under Don's nose to join the Grey agency. Pete, in full neurosis mode, barges into Peggy's office to tell her who the gift is from and compare his own gift of Cuban cigars -- "I'm starting to think they're not so rare" (Doh!) -- to her new Hermes scarf. Which Peggy, naturally, loves, as it's perfect for her.

In the guise of "returning" the gift, she agrees to meet Duck in his suite at the Pierre Hotel. Where he proceeds to tell her what he has in mind for her professionally and personally.

Professionally, Peggy gets Hermes, Macy's and Revlon if she joins him at Grey. Personally, she gets to climb into his bed in the next room to have her clothes removed by his teeth and, well, you get the gist. As does she. Peggy opts for the latter, with an option on the former.

Which is how Peggy came to to be stirring in bed beside a man in the flash forward open of this episode.

Betty's journey to her sexual reverie in a settee comes via the route of politics. Not that she's been involved in politics before, mind you. Betty, incidentally, and this was covered in an earlier season, is not simply an emotionally blank Grace Kelly-lookalike mannequin who snaps at her kids. She graduated from Bryn Mawr, the sister school of Haverford, one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country.

Realizing that, much as she loves her new baby, named for her late dad, that a third child is not the solution to the problems in her life, she becomes in civic life. Namely, the Junior League in Westchester County. In her freshly redecorated home, another domestic project which did not fulfill. Great early scene with Don and the decorator in which Betty insists on his "professional eye." Move the end table and the lamp, he suggests, correctly. Betty has not yet discovered art collecting.

Speaking of which, Mad Men producers and writers, where is the seminal Pop Art work of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, former ad men, which is breaking big all over New York now? Okay, I digress.

And a quick recap of Episode 2.

Citing Rachel Carson's new book, Silent Spring, these civic activists are big on conservation, the early term for environmentalism. In particular, they are upset about a big, unsightly water tank that will divert water from their beloved reservoir to new developments. Whether they are more concerned about the environment, property values, or keeping the wrong sort of people away is something left to your judgment, and to future episodes.

Because the issue is really a pretext for linking to a thread from what turns out to be the very consequential "Derby Day" party hosted by Roger and Jane Sterling. As it turns out that the Rockefeller family owns much of the open space land there in Westchester County and the governor of New York is, of course, one Nelson Rockefeller. Betty volunteers that she has met an aide to Rockefeller. That would be the suave politico Henry Francis. who had the great come-on line with Betty waiting for the loo and engaged in a brief reverie of his own holding his hand against her pregnant belly.

It's swiftly established that Henry is, yes, smooth article that he is, a big deal with Rocky and that babelicious Betty is best suited to call on him to intervene. So she does. And Henry calls back in, surprise, about 4.9 seconds.

They meet over the issue, naturally, sparring, though she is clearly interested in more than a water tank. Henry, though making himself immediately available for a Saturday afternoon ice cream social rather than the hike Betty clearly didn't dress for, actually plays it rather distantly, perhaps anticipating that she would do the same. As they part, he shows her a Victorian fainting couch, which, to distract from their sparring, he suggests could be just the thing for her.

Naturally, she gloms onto the thing, which is gigantic and godawful, and makes it the centerpiece of her newly redesigned living room, much to the displeasure of her decorator, who correctly points out that it absolutely destroys the symmetry they'd been going for. But that's okay, because it's the perfect piece on which Betty can daydream about another older, masterful man who can take her away from it all.

Which brings us back to the ur-masterful man of our show, Mr. Don Draper.

Don is having a rough episode. He's being pressured by his new super-rich client, who he'd thought was some nice old Westerner he bumped into at a party, Sterling and Copper, his protege Peggy, and Betty herself, who gives him crap for not telling her anything about his snazzy new contract he doesn't want to sign, or much of anything else. (Incidentally, I left out a wonderful little moment in which Betty, taking Henry's return call in Don's study, gives another furtive tug on Don's ever-locked desk drawer.)

Mad Men's season opener set the scene in striking new ways.

So Don jumps in the Caddy and heads out, drink in hand, for ... Who knows where? California?

And he picks up these two kids, a guy and a gal, who say they're headed for Niagara Falls to get married. Not that they're in love or anything. She's just helping the boy out to avoid the draft. Not that he was likely to be drafted in 1963. Don, this is what we call a "clue." They can't pay Don or anything, but they do have drugs, Phenobarbitol, so Don tosses his glass out the window and decides to partake.

Whereupon he ends up in a cheap motel dancing with the girl while the guy looks on, in a not especially friendly manner.

Don's old man, Archie Whitman, shows up again in Don's druggy vision to give Don crap about the seamy scene to come, Don's "bullshit" profession, and the fact that he is back on the bum again.

Fortunately, Don is saved from a relapse into Whitmanville by the enormity of his stupidity.

The kids are con artists who have drugged him. When he doesn't collapse fast enough to suit the boy, who is clearly a hothead as well as a hophead, the kid bashes Don on the head and mugs him. Which explains why he wakes up in classic face-plant mode on the motel floor.

After checking out his cleaned-out wallet and taking stock of his dented visage, Don cleans up and climbs into his fortunately still present Cadillac and makes his way into the office. Where he meets Peggy, in her day-before clothes following her lengthy tryst with Duck. They're both a bit abashed, and friendly enough. So far so good.

But more pain awaits Don when he walks into his very own office. For sitting in his own chair, once again, is a powerful older guy. In this case, that nice eccentric Bert Cooper. Who is not always all that nice, or all that eccentric.

The work of seminal Pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, taking images from advertising and comics, was exploding across New York in 1963, but we're not seeing it yet on Mad Men.

Having allowed Roger his ineffectual attempts at pressuring Don into signing the contract, Cooper finally drops the hammer. There are evidently a number of reasons why Cooper is a devotee of Japanese culture. And one of them is the Zen virtue of patience. Without ever specifically mentioning that he knows that Don Draper is really Dick Whitman, Cooper plays the imposter card he's held for the past two years and Don dutifully signs the contract.

With a notation of the date, 7/23/1963.

Don has surrendered. He is now who he has pretended to be.

Incidentally, there were a few odd, apparently anomalous, references in this episode. Henry Francis jokingly asks Betty if her son can be registered by November. But his boss, Nelson Rockefeller, was just elected to his second term as governor in November 1962. The only New York election in November 1963 is for an unopposed state judge and off-track betting.

Henry does tell Betty that he may be Rockefeller's campaign manager. But the next Rockefeller campaign -- he's twice been elected governor of New York at this point -- is not in 1963 but a second run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1964. Which turns out to be quite consequential, as it is the last gasp of the Northeastern liberal Republicans typified by Rockefeller against the ascending Sun Belt conservative wing of the party.

Then there was the Vietnam draft reference, used to con Don -- the ultimate sophisticated con man -- into falling for his hitchhikers' routine.

In July 1963, we are far away from the massive Vietnam build-up. There are only 16,000 Americans in Vietnam, mostly as advisers to the South Vietnamese Army. The big build-up doesn't start until after John F. Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, and Gulf of Tonkin incident -- perhaps better described as a pretext -- in August 1964.

This is either a writing error, or a drunken Don acting like he's knowledgeable to impress two kids who see him coming a mile away.

There is a major build-up underway, as Pete Campbell notes early in the episode when he, too, tries to inveigle Don in involving him with Hilton, but it's in terms of arms and materiel for the South Vietnamese Army.

These possible problems aside, it's a terrific episode.