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William Bradley

William Bradley

Posted: October 12, 2009 03:33 PM

Mad Men: "Wee Small Hours" -- HuffPost Review

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No, we don't get the classic Sinatra song in this episode. What we do get is an hour of people behaving stupidly and making big mistakes. And a few things I don't necessarily buy.

As always in these reviews, there be spoilers ahead, so you've been warned.

Don Draper is getting in over his head. Sal Romano gets unfairly fired, in not the most credible fashion imaginable. Connie Hilton is pleased and disappointed. And Betty is back in her dance of desire and dissatisfaction.


In case you missed it, a quick recap of Episode 8.

The episode is framed with two devices, one setting the stage for the larger context of 1963, the other setting events in motion. Martin Luther King delivers his famous "I have a dream" speech at the great civil rights march on Washington, placing the start of the episode on August 28th. And King speaks out after the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama kills four girls on September 15th. The civil rights struggle is referenced throughout.

Don Draper has acquired a midnight caller. It's his pal and client, Connie Hilton. His latest call wakes up the Draper household and interrupts Betty's dream, in which Nelson Rockefeller's advisor is about to ravish her on the fainting couch she acquired to remind herself of him.

Betty is frustrated, and so back to her fantasy of escape with Henry. She'd seen a vision of what could be in her trip to Rome with Don, and lived it, as the glamorous wife of a high-flying international executive, playing a role in his career and dazzling important figures. And was left with nothing but a charm for her charm bracelet, and a bitter remark to close the episode. She's a very smart if difficult woman, wasting away in the 'burbs, with the otherwise very savvy and ambitious Don oddly unaware of how he can utilize her to supercharge his burgeoning career. It's so odd that it seems something of a plot contrivance.

In any event, Betty launches into a rather girlish correspondence with Rockefeller advisor Henry Francis, who, not surprisingly, eagerly reciprocates. We'll return to the twists and turns of this emerging relationship in a moment or four, but let's get back to Don and Connie Hilton.


Here's a quick recap of Episode 7.

Hilton is eccentric, which is what we call very rich and powerful people who are more than a bit cracked. He also has his homespun charm, and is looking for something of a surrogate son, just as Don hungers for a father figure, Archie Whitman having hardly sufficed, Roger Sterling being a pal (and now an enemy, which I also don't quite buy), and Bert Cooper being, well, Bert Cooper.

But Hilton has decided to take his angst and channel it into a mission, to "bring America to the world, whether they like it or not." He sees himself as an avatar of American exceptionalism, and is determined to use Hilton hotels around the world as missions from which to proselytize about the superiority of the American way. But he doesn't want his advertising to sound "political." Okay then.

Let's say that Connie Hilton is not the first super-rich person to conjure up a universal meaning to the fruits of his good fortune and hard work.

Hilton, as Don notes, calls every four hours, whereas baby Gene wakes up wailing every three hours. Lack of sleep, and the perspective it brings, is one of the best ways to get the waters rising around you, as in the promo poster for this season of Mad Men. Hilton, he confides, is a lonely man. He's constantly working, and he thinks he doesn't work enough. He's a monomaniac.


"Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency" was a most consequential episode.

Cool Don is a bit discomfiting in these scenes with Connie Hilton, playing both the aspiring dutiful son and the corporate toady. For example, when Hilton, rattling on about the superiority of America, opines that the thing that really got Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev's goat about America is that he couldn't get into Disneyland, Don acts like a complete lightweight.

Don allows how this is a brilliant insight as he eagerly scribbles it onto his legal pad. When Hilton asks Don if he hadn't known that before, Don tells him that it's just especially brilliant coming from Connie.

Dude, it's like they say in the NFL: Act like you've been in the end zone before. (Actually, they used to say this, before the more recent crop of showboats. But that's another story.) Say something like: "Exactly, Connie. It's unbelievable what a punk Krushchev showed himself to be when he came to America."


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

To Don's credit, he balks when Hilton starts talking about including a Hilton on the Moon in the advertising campaign, pointing out that it's not a current venue. But Don isn't reading Connie at all well. He's an American exceptionalist and, as an old-style Westerner, an American expansionist. He really does want to put a Hilton on the Moon. And, after all, John F. Kennedy has made it a national priority to get to the Moon.

Perhaps recognizing the power of Hilton's rather wacky thinking as a powerful metaphor is in order.

As we will see.


A quick recap of Episode 5.

But first, to other plotlines. Let's deal with Betty's first, as it's the least interesting in this episode after her powerful episode last week.

Her romantic daydream correspondence with Henry Francis -- "But I do have thoughts. I suppose I wonder too much where you are and what you're doing. I wish I had a clearer picture of you in my mind." -- leads to another dumb act in the episode. Henry shows up unannounced on her doorstep. He doesn't call, he just arrives without warning. And so after some furtive handholding in the foyer, the two lovebirds are forced to part when the Drapers' African American housekeeper Carla returns from the market.

Sophisticated politico Henry starts to bolt towards the door (Would he really do that?) only to have Betty introduce him to Carla and explain that they were discussing a potential Rockefeller fundraiser. But she explains that Henry is just leaving as she's forgotten she left the bath running upstairs. Huh?


Here's a quick recap of Episode 4.

Carla, who misses approximately nothing, isn't fooled in the least by this inept subterfuge hatched by two privileged graduates of elite colleges. She's also less than pleased that evening when Betty decides to cover herself by telling Don that Carla met "the man from the governor's office" when he came by to discuss a fundraiser at their house after Francine's turned out to be too small.

Don could care less so long as he doesn't have to attend a fundraiser for Rockefeller. Oddly, he doesn't find it odd that a top advisor to Nelson Rockefeller would be scouting locations for a surrogate fundraiser in the suburbs.

Anyway, to the cut to the chase on this subplot, Betty follows through on the arrangements, to the slight amusement of Henry, and the evening of the fundraiser comes but the great Henry Francis does not. The Rockefeller surrogate sends his own surrogate, in the form of a female associate from his office. Betty is practically spitting like a cat at this affront. Actually, this is one of the few smart moves Henry makes in this episode. Sadly, it does not make up for the boneheaded move of not calling his inamorata to tell her that he wasn't going to show in the first place.

So Betty drives to Albany, showing up unannounced in Henry's office, down the hall from Rockefeller's, and proceeds to throw the lockbox containing the fundraising proceeds at him. After some predictable chat, they kiss passionately, but Betty balks when Henry suggests that they have sex in his office, which of course she rebuffs before leaving. There are a lot of things to be said about how stupidly Henry's sophisticated character is acting in his much-encouraged pursuit of Betty, but let's move on to the meat of the episode.


A quick recap of Episode 3.

Sal Romano's trouble starts with another TV ad that the client doesn't like, even though this one was approved by the head of Lucky Strike, which is still Sterling Cooper's biggest client. We're supposed to think that Sal has produced a good ad here, but I don't think so. Which is not Sal's problem. His problem is that while Lee Garner, Sr. approved the ad, Lee Garner, Jr. doesn't like it, and he's there on set giving Sal a hard time about it. Worse still, he wants to give Sal a harder time still. But first the ad.

Sal explains that he is having the actor in the commercial perform the "thousand-yard stare," which he says is the way these ads are done. Sal (or the writers) doesn't know what the phrase means, and that's certainly not what Sal's having the actor in the commercial give him. Sal has the actor take a drag from the cigarette and stare in self-satisfaction at the horizon. While presenting his studly profile to the camera. That's not what the phrase means. A thousand-yard stare is the unfocused gaze of a combat-weary solider. It's not cool, it's cold.


Here's a quick recap of Episode 2.

Lee Jr., who as you may recall from the series pilot, is a pushy jerk, wants the actor to look straight into the camera. Actually, he should gaze at the horizon while he takes a drag, then look at the camera to sell his satisfaction. Which if Pete Campbell weren't so busy having a cute coughing fit, and Harry Crane weren't playing his usual officious supernumerary, someone might have pointed out.

So Lee Jr. is already irritated with Sal when he comes back, fairly drunk, for the edit session that night. And makes a crude pass at Sal. Which Sal rebuffs. Since he's married. But hey, Lee Jr.'s married, too. And he tells Sal he knows he's gay but understands he's at work. Later that night, really drunk now, he calls Harry Crane and demands that Sal be fired. And that Harry make it happen without telling anyone at Sterling Coo why it's happening. Which Harry can't do.

Harry neither inquires into the problem, nor discusses what's going on with Paul Kinsey, with whom he's watching TV, but goes back to watching TV, ostensibly to make sure their ads are airing. His, ah, reasoning? Lee Jr. is really drunk and he might forget all about it. And Harry forgets that he works for Sterling Coo, where there are people who might want to get to the bottom of this.


The season opener revealed that Sal Romano's closeted sexuality is not hard for other gay men to read.

Lee Jr., of course, shows his vulnerability in the situation by not disclosing the problem and trying to make Harry -- rather than Roger Sterling or Don Draper -- make Sal go away.

At the very least, Harry should have made sure Sal wasn't the one presenting the ad when Lee Jr. shows up in the office to review it. Seeing Sal there, Lee Jr. is stunned speechless, and flees from the building. Looking exactly like a weak, strange guy with a hell of a lot to hide.

When Roger finally gets Harry to admit that the drunken Lee Jr. called him to have Sal fired, shocking Sal along with the rest of the room, Roger fires Sal on the spot.

Now, I just don't buy this. Roger doesn't know what's transpired other than what he's seen and heard. Namely, that Lee Jr. came off very strangely in fleeing the building and earlier called Harry, of all people, in a drunken fit to try to get Sal fired. Roger might well conclude, in the end, that Sal has to go, after considering all the ramifications. But he's not going to do it off the cuff. Sal isn't some newbie, he's the longtime valued art director of the agency. And Lee Jr. is acting like a frightened punk.

This is what we call a plot contrivance.

What happens next is that Roger sends Harry to tell Don Draper to make this all good again. Sal accompanies him. After Don throws idiotic Harry out of his office -- if he'd told Roger and Don about this when it happened, they could probably have used leverage and finesse to defuse the situation -- he then asks Sal what happened. And asks and asks. Hearing Sal's truthful explanation, Don, previously cool with and sympathetic for Sal's closeted homosexuality, turns mean. Referring contemptuously to "you people," he implies that Sal should have had sex with Lee Jr. and confirms that Sal is fired.

Why? Because Lucky Strike is such a big client it "can turn out the lights here."

Oddly, it never occurs to this connoisseur of secrets that Lee Jr.'s secrets give him leverage in the situation. A lot of leverage, and not just with regard to Sal Romano.

Don Draper is a character that has always looked for the possibility in a situation. Beginning with the very act of becoming Don Draper. The average guy would just lie there stunned in Korea, hoping that nobody figured out that he caused the explosion which killed his commanding officer. Dick Whitman became his commanding officer.

After figuring the angles and exploring them, Draper might well conclude that Sal had to be thrown under the bus. Or at least moved to a consulting basis.

In any event, this further establishes that Don is off his game when Connie Hilton comes in to see the presentation on advertising Hilton Hotels worldwide. (Don is already moving up from New York hotels only.)

And it's quite good. Don incorporates Hilton's mission of promoting American exceptionalism (while ostensibly avoiding politics). Actually, it's a slickly disguised message of American cultural imperialism.

"How do you say ice water in Italian? Hilton. How do you say hamburger in Japanese? Hilton." And so on. Connie really likes it, except he doesn't like hamburgers much. There's just one thing: What about the Moon? He wants the Moon in the advertising.

The unflappable Don Draper starts flapping. He hadn't known Connie actually wanted the Moon in the ad campaign. He doesn't think to say that they can easily develop an associated campaign, which Hilton would be paying for. He just sort of whines that the campaign is really good.

Which Connie acknowledges that it is, praising Don's work, but allowing that he is personally disappointed that Don has not heard him.

So he leaves disappointed, giving Roger the excuse to pop into Don's office to tell him he's putting him on notice that he's in over his head. Which is pretty funny coming from Roger, who has apparently forgotten that their British overseers "forgot" to put Roger on the organizational chart.

Of course, Roger is right. Dealing with Connie Hilton and his projects is like dealing with ... well, let's say that Don has his hands full with that alone.

So, with the water rising around him, as in the season promo poster, it's no surprise that Don knocks on the door of Sally's sexy former teacher, Suzanne Farrell, as the episode draws to a close. Heading into the office early in the episode after a late night call from Connie left him unable to get to sleep, he'd chanced upon the appealing package of big trouble around 4 AM as she jogged along the street alone. Their flirtation continued, and she managed to tell him where she lived after first acting like she wouldn't tell him.

Having fired poor Sal -- who we see at the end of the episode calling his wife from a park pay phone saying all's well at the office but he has to work late, with rough trade in the background -- and disappointed surrogate daddy Connie, Don flees to the arms and other body parts of another smart and sexy brunette.

After telling Betty that he's received a non-existent call from Hilton requiring him to go out in the middle of the night, thus bookending the episode with its beginning.

With some spiky dialogue between the two, Suzanne tells Don that nothing good will come of it. Why do I sense that the Drapers had better not get a bunny rabbit?

At home with Carla, Betty had had no such sense of foreboding on a personal basis. But she did on a political basis. Listening to a radio broadcast of Martin Luther King on the murder of four girls in the terrorist bombing of a Birmingham church, Betty opines that maybe this civil rights thing is premature, that people just aren't ready.

But Betty of all people should know by now that a dream deferred can dry up like a raisin in the sun. (With apologies to Langston Hughes.)

Or explode.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.