Last night's "The Color Blue" was a cracking good episode that, after last week's rushed and rather arbitrary plot developments, returned Mad Men to its strongest ground. That's the advertising business and the mystery of Don Draper.
As always in these reviews, there be spoilers ahead, so you've been warned.
Don Draper is at the top of the world, or perhaps a plateau before making a further ascent, as he's about to be feted as the face of Sterling Cooper at a highly publicized banquet celebrating the firm's 40th anniversary. But are the walls about to close in? (Betty has at last discovered the contents of the locked drawer she kept trying to open and knows what she's always known on some level, i.e., Don isn't at all who he said he was.) Or are they battlements from which he will make his assault as a coming star of American business?
Don Draper's amigo and uber-client, Connie Hilton, was disappointed in Episode 9 when surrogate son Don didn't give him the Moon. But he's still a big fan, hosting the 40th anniversary party for Sterling Cooper at the Waldorf Astoria.
They might actually be both.
The Color Blue, probably not to be confused with a Code Blue, the medical term for a dire emergency, is about perception and reality. Don is in post-coital loll with Sally's former school teacher, Suzanne Farrell (played by Abigail Spencer), when the sprightly would-be wood sprite we first glimpsed winsomely leading her class in a dance about the May Pole early this season repeats something one of her new students asked. Why is blue "blue?" How do we know that what is blue to you is blue to me?
Don Draper, our rather cynical anti-hero protagonist, is delighted by the question. Truth is, he's delighted by Suzanne, his latest outspoken brunette inamorata. In fact, I think he's falling in love with her, which we'll get to in a few moments. But his delight in her is not so great as to overcome his professional detachment -- his personality really is right for advertising -- so he gives her a warmer version of consensus reality, then comes out with a classic Don Draper-ism:
"The truth is, people may see things differently, but they don't really want to."
Which kind of sums up his marriage to Betty Draper, come to think of it.
Here's a quick recap of Episode 8.
I didn't like the Suzanne character at first, but now I do. She wasn't coming into focus for me. Now she is, now that I recognize her as akin to some women I've known. She doesn't really know what she wants to do in the world, though she knows she wants to do good. She wants to hold onto her innocence and encourage it in others. She wants to have fun and she's drawn to a powerful male, so long as he's not too crass.
She's playing a record by The Singing Nun when Don arrives at her apartment! What a perfect touch. She's not really a Bob Dylanesque rebel. But ... Don tells her that he loves her long, curly hair (actually, it's more wavy). Nobody has that anymore, he says. Yet.
It's apparently getting later in October, as young Bobby Draper is asking when Halloween is. Don has gotten quite cozy with Susanne, riskily so, as she lives only two miles from his family home. He's taking bigger risks still, having his calls transferred from the office service to her apartment, including a message from Connie Hilton. (Who presumably would approve, come to think of it, but the information is there to be found by others.)
Hilton, incidentally, was disappointed last episode that Don didn't give him the Moon in his advertising, but thinks his work is excellent, and will be on hand for the big Sterling Cooper fete.
A quick recap of Episode 7.
After putting in a dinnertime appearance at the homestand, Don's popping over to Suzanne's pretty much every night, telling Betty that he's perpetually summoned by Hilton. He wears a hat as he arrives, but that's not the greatest disguise, especially since he's driving his big blue Cadillac.
But he is trying to control the flow of communication when he's not with her, keeping it one way, discouraging her from calling him at the office.
"Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency" is a consequential episode.
Where he is seemingly back on top of the world again. The storms have passed from the British acquisition of Sterling Cooper. Putnam, Powell, and Lowe's aggressive new CEO for Sterling Coo, Guy MacKendrick, had the shortest career at the top since that Pope who got poisoned, thanks to the inimitable Lois's skill at driving a lawn mower. He has a good modus vivendi with the finely etched Brit overseer Lane Pryce. And the agency's old alpha males, Bert Cooper and Roger Sterling are ceding the spotlight to Don at the agency's 40th anniversary party.
Not Cooper and Sterling are happy. They're unhappy, though for different reasons. Bert is unhappy because he thinks he's getting old. Roger is unhappy because he has to introduce his erstwhile pal Don at the banquet and say "what a great humanitarian" he is. "Screw him," says Roger.
Incidentally, so much for Roger putting Don "on notice" in last week's messy episode. Roger no longer had the power to do that following the Brit takeover. And suddenly Don is not only not in danger of being on notice, he's the face of Sterling Cooper. But since Roger, who's mad at Don because Don is mad at him for marrying his 20-year old secretary, causing the Brit takeover in the first place due to the cost of the Sterling divorce, actually discovered Don working for a furrier, he can grin and take the credit.
The essential milieu of Mad Men is not all that admirable.
Cooper has less in the way of options, though he is more flexible and wise than his old partner's aging son. He is thinking more of his own mortality, staring at a picture of the agency's ad men from 40 years ago.
As Roger brightly notes to his old mentor: "All these guys are dead. Except you, of course." But Bert still has his eye on the future of Sterling Cooper. And, as he tells Roger, that future is named Don Draper.
But the shape of that future, if not its name, is changing.
For Putnam, Powell, and Lowe, having cut the agency by a third and raised revenues by nearly a quarter, thanks to the efficient and increasingly America-loving Lane Pryce, is planning to sell Sterling Cooper.
Here's a quick recap of Episode 5.
Are they into flipping businesses? Or did their plans change once their young London star, Guy MacKendrick, could no longer play golf? The latter seems most likely. And is certainly not a vote of high regard for Pryce.
Who is once again reminded that he is regarded merely as a high-level functionary by PPL chairman St. John Powell as he unceremoniously informs Pryce of this new plan as he's prepping his own speech for the big party.
After ending a speech rehearsal -- before his odious executive assisant "Moneypenny" -- with a grandiloquent flourish about Sterling Cooper leading the way into the future for American business, Pryce asks for reaction. "Rousing," says his male secretary, with just a hint of irony.
Price asks for more specificity: "Churchill rousing or Hitler rousing?" These are great scenes.
A quick recap of Episode 4.
Lane, who is a great and very well-acted character (played by Jared Harris, son of the legendary Richard Harris), is depressed about the coming move. His rather tedious wife hates New York. "It's not London," she complains. "It's not even England." Yes, he replies, "in 10 months here no one has ever asked me where I've gone to school." Although my observation would be that on the East Coast it's pretty important where you went to school. Perhaps Pryce is an exception because they all assume he's an Oxbridge type, which we know from how he's treated by the lordly Powell he is not.
PPL's secret plan for selling the firm is definitely not to Layne's liking. He's a probable Draper ally down the line, as we saw intimated at the end of "Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency."
In addition to the biggest intrigue of the episode, which I'm holding for a reason, we get a lot of advertising work in this episode. Peggy Olsen and Paul Kinsey are in a duel for advancement. Well, at least in Paul's mind they are. She doesn't see it that way.
Here's a quick recap of Episode 3.
I like Peggy, though at times she is tedious because we see her acting more the careerist than the advertising person. In this episode we see her working on campaigns. And she's very good. Because she works at it. She has a process. She doesn't wait around for inspiration to strike, she puts her mind in motion.
She understands, like Don, that an ad is not a play. It's about grasping the desire and the emotion of a product and crafting a brief, catchy message around that.
Paul, in contrast, comes up with very wordy, lengthy scenarios that aren't likely to catch the attention of the average viewer, who's barely paying attention. Paul is someone who is well-educated, which is not the same as being very smart, as he lets his acorns of information substitute for ideas.
A quick recap of Episode 2.
After Peggy smoothly betters Paul's silly scenario for an Aqua Net ad, they each work separately on an ad for Western Union. Peggy doesn't leave the page blank, she starts filling it with ideas, trying to create the context from which she can extract the central idea for the ad. (Actually, she uses a dictaphone, but that's because she apparently no longer likes to type.)
Paul, in contrast, drinks lots of whiskey, listens to jazz, and masturbates to the image for his one really clever idea so far, the supposed Jackie Kennedy/Marilyn Monroe female dichotomy. More relaxed, but sans ideas, he happens upon a night janitor with the preciously literary name of Achilles, who inadvertently spurs what Paul is sure is a brilliant idea. Which he drunkenly forgets to write down!
Awakened the next morning on his office sofa by secretary Lois -- yes, she's still there, perhaps because her lawn mower maiming of Guy MacKendrick served the purposes of everyone at Sterling Cooper -- he finds to his horror that he's made a huge mistake. He neglected to write down his great idea.
Mad Men's third season opener set a strong stage for things to come.
Incidentally, since he was very drunk, the only reason we have to believe that it really was a great idea is that Paul thought it was. And he's not the most reliable source.
Very abashed, he admits to Peggy that he has nothing. Peggy doesn't have much, either, as she reassures Paul. But she does have something.
All Paul has is a barely remembered aphorism from his Princeton days. "The faintest ink is better than the best memory." Which is not really true, at all.
Rather than capitalize on Paul's screw-up in their meeting with Don, she defends him, telling him to explain to Don why he has nothing. When he does, Don is immediately sympathetic, having had the same experience of forgetting what he'd come up with.
Peggy again helps Paul, dragging out his Chinese proverb and noting its similarity to the difference between an ephemeral phone call and a memorable telegram. Paul watches, realization dawning at last that Peggy really is much better at advertising than he, as Peggy and Don intuitively work this saying into a useable concept for an ad. "You can't frame a phone call." And since Don recognizes Paul's contribution of the proverb, it's a win-win for everyone.
Which will about wrap up most of the positive, team play moments in this episode.
Will Don Draper need "Help?" The Beatles won't record this song for another 18 months.
Through the plot contrivance of Don absent-mindedly leaving the key to his secret drawer in his bathrobe, which Betty -- who's pointedly been reading "The Group," Mary McCarthy's telling satire of unhappy New York women throughout the episode -- discovers when she does the laundry, the second Mrs. Draper gains access to Don's trove of secrets.
It's a Hitchcock moment when Betty at last opens Don's locked drawer, with Bernard Herrmann-style music playing throughout.
Whereupon she discovers the existence of the first Mrs. Draper, a California divorce decree from said Anna, a deed to a house in California, pictures of Don as Dick Whitman with his real father and family, discharge papers from the Army, and two sets of dog tags in the names of Don Draper and Dick Whitman.
Betty's been on edge all episode, assuming that a hang-up call one evening was from Rockefeller senior advisor Henry Francis (which it was not, and he tells her when she calls in faintly accusatory fashion that he's not playing a game with her), tiptoeing around the increasingly non-credible idea that Don is spending all his nights now hanging out with Conrad Hilton. Now she's hurt, stunned, and angry as her carefully tended facade of a marriage is exposed as a house of cards.
Betty is ready at last to confront Don. But he's not home. He's "working." Working on his relationship with Suzanne Farrell, that is. So as she waits, with the hours dragging on, she goes through different stages of silent emotion, with attending wardrobe and hairstyle changes, finally giving up after 2 AM as alcohol and exhaustion set in.
Don's been having his own emotional adventure. Early in the episode, he met, and not at his choice, Suzanne's epileptic brother, who's arrived unannounced as he's lost his latest job after a seizure. Suzanne obviously dotes on him, and is very protective, and very desirous of introducing him to Don. (He's played, incidentally, by Marshall Allman, the actor who played Linc's doofy son L.J. in Prison Break, one of the great guilty pleasure TV shows of all time.)
Danny's a good guy, a little wild and cynical from harsh experience of people being frightened by his epilepsy, and smart. Don quickly flees, and doesn't follow through on his promise to call Suzanne the next night. Only on the following morning to find Suzanne slipping into the seat beside him on his morning commute train. She wants to talk.
Not in a scary way. She just needs to communicate with him. They hold hands as they talk, and she gets off at the next stop. Which does not mean this ends at all well.
When Don comes round the following evening, Suzanne's brother is still there. She's found a janitorial job at a Veterans Administration hospital in Massachusetts and gives him a lot of money.
In a giving mode, Don volunteers to drive him up to his new job. Which he does. But midway, Danny makes it clear he has no intention of taking that shitty job. But if he knows what he's going to do, he doesn't let on. Regretfully, Don agrees to let him out of the car and gives him a lot more money than Suzanne gave him. Along with his business card, urging him to call if he's in trouble.
Don is clearly seeing his own late, abandoned brother in Suzanne's brother. He wants to do it right this time. He also doesn't want Suzanne hurt.
Of course, Don has now set in motion some dynamics that can upset the carefully ordered perception of him that he's constructed for others. And he's done that on his own. We're not even talking about what Betty now knows.
Needless to say, Betty is in a crabby mood when Don finally gets around to calling her the next day. Actually, she's momentarily furious, and seems on the verge of confronting Don. But retreats into passive aggressive mode when Don reminds her it's the night of big banquet, saying she's not going because she doesn't feel well. This lasts for about 10 seconds, as Don tells her he needs her to be "the glamorous, elegant, stunning Betty Draper" whom everyone is very much expecting.
And so she is, though she doesn't look at all happy about it.
There's another great Roger Sterling moment as he, new wife (and old Draper secretary) Jane, and Roger's elderly mother are driven to the banquet. After establishing that she had forgotten that the Waldorf Astoria -- Connie Hilton's flagship hotel, site of the fete for Don -- had moved, she lets slip that she thinks Jane is actually Roger's daughter.
Informed again by Roger, that Jane (the actress playing her, Peyton List, is now a regular on the new ABC hit Flash Forward, which is a reason we're not seeing her much this season) is his wife, the senior Mrs. Draper gets off a great line. "Does Mona know?," she inquires, referring to the former Mrs. Sterling whose divorce caused the sale of Sterling Cooper. Jane replies that she in fact does.
And so we close as Roger delivers his lengthy introduction of the great Don Draper, citing his decorated service in the Korean War, his many advertising awards, and his great qualities ... "And now the man you've been waiting for. God knows he's made us wait for him."
Cue Don, who is very happy, as you might suppose.
And what color is the spotlight enveloping the very movie star-ish Don in his big moment? Is it white, as it appears to be and as everyone there is agreeing that it is? Or something else?