The rather slow-developing third season of Mad Men continues gathering steam in its fifth episode, "The Fog," with five major plot developments. As always in these reviews, there be spoilers ahead. So if you haven't seen the episode yet, consider yourself warned.
Five major plot developments in this episode -- named for the culmination of Betty Draper's pregnancy -- drive the action forward as we enter the middle of the season.
Young Sally Draper is acting out in the wake of her grandfather's sudden death in the last episode, occasioning a consequential parent-teacher conference.
In case you missed the previous episode, here's a quick recap.
Betty Draper gives birth to her third child. Less than joyously, and in the midst of a painkiller-induced fog complete with a dream sequence which represents her deep dissatisfaction with her life.
Duck Phillips, whose duel with Don Draper for control of Sterling Cooper defined much of Season Two, makes a dramatic return after falling off the earth professionally in a drunken tirade that blew his coup of arranging the agency's takeover by a British firm.
The British owners' penny-wise, pound-foolish approach to overseeing their acquisition comes to the fore.
And the burgeoning civil rights movement percolates throughout the episode, which takes place in the immediate aftermath of the assassination in Mississippi of Medgar Evers, the NAACP's field secretary.
A quick recap of Episode 3.
Let's take a moment to see where we are, and what it means. Mad Men is not The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, in which young Indy encounters and befriends so many consequential world figures one wonders how he could ever have any problem later in life that couldn't be solved with a phone call to the president. Mad Men is much more subtle than that; the historicity wafts in from time to time, rather than enveloping the show from start to finish. It's a show about an advertising agency, not a secret agent or politician. Which doesn't mean it's not a political show. Among other things that are more in the forefront.
It's June 1963. Evers' assassination was a huge event at the time, coming, not at all coincidentally, just after a major civil rights speech by President John F. Kennedy. Evers, an Army vet, was buried a week later at Arlington National Cemetery with a huge crowd in attendance. The assassination helped build the massive March on Washington at the end of August, featuring a certain speech by Martin Luther King. It also helped drive a national sense of outrage about institutionalized racism, as Evers' assassin was quickly identified, but was not convicted of his crime for another 31 years.
Young Sally, so angry at the grownups at the end of the last episode for laughing in the aftermath of her pal Grandpa Gene's death, is one angry little girl at school. And rather morbid, dwelling on Evers' death. After she picks a fight with another girl, her winsome teacher calls in Don and Betty Draper for a conference. Where she learns about Grandpa Gene's death, which no one, like inattentive mom Betty, had bothered to tell her about.
Immediately solicitous and emotive, she pushes Betty's "I just want everything to be fine and never talk about problems" buttons. When Betty rushes from the room, the teacher -- and yes, she's the one from episode two who was so entrancing to Don as she danced with the children around the Maypole -- finds that she and Don both know the pain of losing someone at an early age.
Here is a quick recap of Episode 2.
Later that night, after a few highballs, she calls Don to apologize for her behavior (but really to connect with him). He's kind, but has to go, for now, as it's time to take Betty to the hospital. Given that they are the two people who have the most concern for Sally, and she obviously has a crush on Don, who finds her attractive ...
And we're at the hospital. Where Don is quickly separated from Betty and sent to "the solarium" to wait it out with a fellow father-to-be, a prison guard from the infamous Sing Sing State Prison, which is not far from the Draper home in Westchester County, not that Don mentions this. These two, despite the prison guard's obvious trepidation about class and education differences, bond during their hard day's night over a bottle of Johnny Walker Red scotch the man brought in for what he had imagined to be a party-like atmosphere with the other dads-to-be.
The prison guard, to Don's increasing sense of guilt and unease, uses Don as sounding board and father confessor figure, alternately worrying about his wife -- who's undergoing a breech birth, not that the hospital staff bothered to mention that for a few hours -- and vowing to be a better man with this second chance to re-start his life.
For Don, this arrival of a third child is just another happening in his life that he thinks he's supposed to undergo in his picture perfect life. Though of course we know a big part of him just wants to chuck the whole thing.
Meanwhile, Betty, in the less than tender grips of the hospital staff, is blown off when she learns to her great dismay that her own (WASP) doctor is off in Manhattan for a fancy anniversary dinner and she will be attended by a (Jewish) doctor she's never met before. But her nurse could care less because the plan is to keep Betty heavily sedated throughout. Which doesn't stop her from asking plaintively why Don wasn't there, saying he's never where he's supposed to be, and wondering if Nurse Ratched had been with him before dropping the bitchfest she's been building to all season and finally dropping off.
Here is a quick recap of the season opener.
And so we have an elaborate dream sequence. Now, I don't generally like dream sequences much. This one is nicely done, if a bit obvious.
First we have Betty, looking especially Grace Kelly-like in a marvelous summer dress, walking along the perfect suburban sidewalk, dreamily catching a lovely green caterpillar in the palm of her hand, which she closes. Symbolism, anyone?
Earlier, she'd imagined seeing her late father mopping the floor in the corridor as she was wheeled to her hospital room. In her dream, she sees him again, this time mopping her kitchen floor. With blood. Asked if death is imminent, he refers her to her mom, suddenly standing there above a seated black man. Who is, of course, the later Medgar Evers.
Referring to Evers, mom warns her about what can happen if you speak out against your lot in life.
Gene reassures Betty, telling her: "You're a housecat. Very important, with little to do."
I don't think Betty is going to like her newly crystallized self-conception as housecat.
When she wakes, she is holding her new baby. And Don is there, being quite attentive. And it's not a dream, although it is a simulacrum. After Don informs her that the lovely little baby she'd thought all along was a girl was in fact a boy, she promptly names him after her father, with whom, from her perspective, she'd just been talking. Don is notably less than thrilled about having a son named after a man he'd barely tolerated.
Back at the office, Don finds a mound of presents, and some pressing problems.
The essential milieu of Mad Men is not all that admirable.
After his parent-teacher conference and before Betty went into labor, Don walked out of a meeting in which the agency's new British overseer, Lane Pryce, was on the warpath about expenses and the use of far too many pens and pieces of paper. In an advertising agency!
Don and Lane met later, and while both clearly have regard for one another and are trying to avoid confrontation, the signs are not promising. Don basically tells Lane that you have to let creative people be unproductive until they are creative. Which Lane seems to understand. But he appears to be laboring under some short-sighted directives from London, as we saw earlier when Sterling Cooper was forced to boot the new account of a little something called Madison Square Garden because the very short-term profit maximization wasn't there.
As Don contemplates the mound of new fatherhood presents in his office, he has two disquieting encounters with key Sterling Coo players. First, Roger Sterling (hilariously eating a sundae) calls from his office to briefly congratulate "Da-da," allow as how Jane wants the new child's initials ("for a yacht or something") -- with Don saying the baby still hasn't a name! -- and complains that things have stacked up in his rather brief absence because nothing can happen without his okay.
Well, Roger, perhaps if you were more involved in the running of the business that your private life caused to be sold, things wouldn't get so stacked up.
Then Peggy Olsen comes in.
Though the Beatles have not yet arrived in America, Don Draper had something of a hard day's night in the latest episode, albeit not as fast-paced as the Fab Four.
While the Draper domestic dramas played out, Herman "Duck" Phillips made a dramatic re-entry onto the scene. He's landed at Grey Advertising (which is still a big deal today), and has decided to do some poaching at his old firm, calling up Pete Campbell in the guise of "Uncle Herman." Which makes for a very funny scene, the upshot of which is a surreptitious lunch with Duck.
When Pete arrives, he finds not only Duck, resplendent in turtleneck and blazer and looking decidedly none the worse for wear, but also Peggy Olsen. Duck has decided to recruit the two biggest young go-getters at Sterling Cooper. Noting a "special relationship" between the two, which they vehemently deny, since it's more special than even Duck knows, he urges them both to come aboard.
Pete, naturally, leaves in a snit, wanting his very own recruitment lunch. Peggy, who has more reason to feel aggrieved at Sterling Cooper, as she is a woman already bumping the glass ceiling there, notwithstanding Don Draper's support, sticks around for Duck's pitch. Which is quite good.
Back at the office, after Don fields Roger's rather frosty call, Peggy, who's made the move to expensive Manhattan, comes in to tell him that she wants a raise. With the Brits counting paper clips, it's a bad time, as Don points out. Peggy, who points out that an equal pay law has just passed and she does better work than guys who get paid a lot more also wants more respect, some of which she gets from Don, little of which she gets from the guys, who usually exclude her.
Noting how much Don has, which she doesn't quite know that she values far more than he does, she asks, echoing Duck's pitch to her: "What if it's my time?"
Distracted, Don doesn't do a good job of assuaging this lament of someone who is, after all, a very young professional. So things are left very unresolved.
Pete, in addition to snitting about not having his very own recruitment lunch with Duck, has been whining about accounts co-chief Ken Cosgrove supposedly getting the best accounts. One of his accounts, Admiral Television, has flat sales. But sales are up in selected markets, which turn out to be centers of black America.
Pete resolves to pitch the Admiral execs on a new advertising strategy for the "Negro" market, undertaking market research with Hollis, the Sterling Cooper building's black elevator operator. It's a telling scene which I won't spoil, pointing up a vast gulf of expectations and concerns at that moment in history. Not that that gulf has been bridged yet, even with the election of President Barack Obama.
So Pete pitches the Admiral execs on focusing new advertising on black media. Which these very white execs, not that Pete can sense this right off the bat, hate. They definitely do not want to be identified as the Negro TV company. He clarifies that he's not talking about "Negro" advertising, he's talking about "integrated" advertising. Which they like even less.
They like it so much less that Pete is called on the carpet by Bert Cooper and Roger Sterling, who greets Pete as he enters the inner sanctum with: "If it isn't Martin Luther King."
This eventful episode closes back at the Draper household, where Betty, "the housecat," looking none too beatific even though this is what she thought she wished for, gets to rise in the middle of the night to deal with what will be months of wailing from her latest child.
After a few episodes mostly centering on tone, tweakings of character, and scene-setting, the past two episodes have kick-started plotlines which may well define Season Three.
I think also the show deserves credit for bringing the history and politics of the time into the series without hitting the audience over the head with it. This is a series that is ultimately about the 1960s, among other things, but it is a series with a particular set of prisms; namely the New York advertising business, and some very intriguing characters revolving around that most American of businesses.
We know, or think we know, what's ahead for this society. We don't know what's ahead for the characters, though we might.