Will Mad Men regain the acclaim that made it the best drama on television? Based on the response to To Have and To Hold, so far the answer would have to be no.
This may have been the most entertaining episode of the still new Season 6. But I have to say my enjoyment of it diminished as soon as I watched Mad Men creator Matt Weiner's accompanying iTunes commentary on it. Right off the top, he declares: "This episode's a pretty painful exercise in hypocrisy. And it's really about cheating, and the morality that goes with sliding past things."
In other words, the whole thing is about how awful these people are.
To borrow a line from a rather well-known movie on a different topic: "Are you not entertained?!"
Is this why we are here? To receive moral instruction and to be told that the '60s really weren't the fun that most people say they were?
The show has gotten, let's say, a bit less than subtle, more than a bit on the nose in recent times. Which happen to coincide with the end of its record-tying streak of Best Drama Emmy Awards.
It's March 1968, in between the time Robert F. Kennedy announces for president and the time, two weeks later, when President Lyndon Johnson drops his reelection bid.
We'll see shortly how Mad Men handles what is about to happen. For not only is LBJ about to announce the impending end of his long political career, Martin Luther King is about to be assassinated. (And we just got our first hint of a story for the show's first black character, Don's secretary, Dawn.)
Presumably the show will not stay caught up in Don Draper's latest tedious affair. Speaking of which, for a supposed big-time '60s playboy, Don has always had a rather paltry approach. And we seldom see him having, well, fun. Ah, well.
Still, there was much to enjoy in the episode. Such as Stan's snazzy new leather jacket, with fringe! Between that and the beard, he is looking very much like one of the Byrds. He certainly seems to smoke as much pot as they do, which may account, incidentally, for the agency's somewhat incomplete pitch later on Heinz Ketchup.
We do see Don having a little bit of fun this time when ... Don smokes pot! After looking disapproving at first at Stan's suggestion in their super-secret project work room, he settles into an amusingly baked mode.
But he is still very James Garner-looking -- Garner still looked like Garner well into his still-in-the-future Jim Rockford period -- as the Medea of the soap opera set points out to budding starlet Megan when she begins her swing set campaign in the dressing room.
Don goes on to tell his still adoring young wife that he will "tolerate but not encourage love scenes" when she nervously broaches the latest added storyline for her character. By the end, however (of course, since the ep is all about "hypocrisy"), we'll see that he rejects her as a whore even as he rushes off to his not especially appealing girlfriend's bed in what is clearly one of the biggest disasters in the making that we have seen on this show.
But, fortunately, the episode is not all higher-brow soap opera.
We get a fabulous sequence of events on Dow and napalm.
Dow is having some trouble with a little controversy over its product being used to burn people alive in Vietnam. But Harry Crane, too often just a boring shlub on this show -- my understanding, incidentally, is that his character was originally slated to take the much-rumored high dive at the end of Season 1 -- has a solution to Dow's little image problem.
"Broadway Joe on Broadway!"
Broadway Joe, of course, is New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath, a genuinely outstanding player who was hyped into a premature legend because he played in New York, home to the New York media hype machine.
He hasn't won the Super Bowl yet (he will famously guarantee victory for the underdog Jets in the 1969 Super Bowl, and deliver), but he is a sensation, as much for his insouciant boulevardier style -- which, frankly, we could stand to see in this New York-set show -- as for his actual athleticism.
Working the alliteration angle, Harry's accomplice spins up the rest of the TV special for the avid Dow execs. There will be Joey Heatherton for the sex, Julie Andrews for the singing and, best of all ... "John Wayne in a sketch version of Camelot!"
Harry's amiable idiocy manifests itself to hysterical effect: "Is there anything that makes people smile more than Broadway and football?" It's all a great way to wash away the napalm controversy, with "Yankee Doodle Dandy and the Notre Dame Fight Song playing at once." (Namath, incidentally, played his college ball at Alabama.)
Of course, it's a big hit with the desperate client, as well as a great hoot for the viewer.
We get more advertising -- remember that? -- later with the weaving fight over the Heinz Ketchup account. Now rival Peggy Olson's idea was better than Don's, I think, but her agency loses out, too, as the would-be client screws them all over.
We also get workplace drama around Joan, who instead of acting as the director of operations who works with other senior executives instead acts as though it's the early '60s and she runs the "secretarial pool." Her attempt to fire Harry's secretary -- the execs are now treating their secretaries more as nascent assistants than interchangeable cogs -- without even talking with him backfires in disastrous fashion, with Harry attacking her and bringing up how she got to be a partner. He's a major jerk, as usual, but she mishandled the situation with the secretary.
Which leads her to a remarkably airless hook-up club with her old friend, after which they both engage in seemingly joyless (of course!) sex with a couple of anonymous guys.
At the club, Joan's partner-to-be, listening to a sultry tune taking off on Warren Beatty's recent smash Bonnie and Clyde, drunkenly intones: "Johnnie and Joan ... Bonnie and Clyde." Er, right.
Ironically, in 1975 Beatty will release a little movie dealing with how much fun truly libertine people were having in 1968 called Shampoo. (Not fun without any consequence, of course, though it's played vastly more subtly.) Is Mad Men becoming the anti-Shampoo?
Before we get to that, let's see how the show handles the massive tumult which is just about to occur.
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