09/01/2010 07:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mad Men Makes the All-Time Television Pantheon and Unspools Another Fine Episode

As if it weren't clear before, Mad Men has entered not only the current cultural pantheon but also the all-time television pantheon. As always, there be spoilers ahead.

Before we get to Mad Men's third straight Emmy Awards win as the best dramatic series and what that means, as well as the details of another fine episode in "Waldorf Stories" and what that may mean, let's get one thing out of the way right now. We finally know how Don Draper got hired at Sterling Cooper. He didn't!

How perfectly Don Draperesque is that? But before we return to that, and the rest of the latest episode, let's look at Mad Men in the pantheon.

Incidentally, you can see all my Mad Men pieces, from this year and last year, here in The Mad Men File.

Mad Men won the award for Best Dramatic Series for the third year in a row at Sunday night's Emmy Awards at the Nokia Theater in downtown Los Angeles.

Mad Men won its third straight Emmy Award as Best Dramatic Series on television on Sunday night. It wasn't a surprise, but with a lot of upsets during the ceremony, it wasn't impossible that it would lose. But even though none of the six nominated actors won, the show won again for the third year in a row for best writing -- with creator Matthew Weiner again, and Erin Levy earning the prize for the season 3 finale -- as well as for best casting and hairstyling. And Lost simply wasn't good enough in its final season to knock off Mad Men, especially with Lost's rather insipid finale.

So Mad Men, the series that HBO infamously passed on and which finally debuted on a channel, AMC, once reserved for repeated showings of Commando and other such fairly recent, er, semi-classics, won its very deserved third straight award as the finest show on television. Which puts Mad Men one season away -- this one, as it happens -- from the all-time record of four straight wins.

Only three shows in the history of television drama have won more best series Emmys than Mad Men.

Let's look at the company Mad Men is in.

The Defenders, described by some as the most socially conscious show in history, won three in a row from 1962 to 1964. Mad Men already paid homage to the show, depicting the controversy around a Defenders episode in which the father and son lawyer team, played by E.G. Marshal and Robert Reed, defended a woman who got an abortion.

The gritty-yet-humanistic police drama Hill Street Blues won four in a row from 1981 to 1984.

The slick but telling L.A. Law won four in a row from 1989 to 1992.

And The West Wing won four in a row from 2000 to 2003.

What about The Sopranos? Well, the show on which Weiner got his big break won twice, for 2004 and 2006, with Lost and 24 winning the award in between. I was a big fan of The Sopranos, but Mad Men is better.

How badly should we feel for the six actors -- Jon Hamm, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, Elisabeth Moss, John Slattery and Robert Morse -- who garnered Emmy nominations but didn't come away with the awards? Probably not too bad. Four of them just made the cover of Rolling Stone. (You can guess which four. Sorry "Roger Sterling," maybe Esquire awaits.) And they are fashion icons the world over now. Well, maybe not Robert Morse. Though his socks ought to be.

As good as Bryan Cranston is in Breaking Bad, I'd love to see Jon Hamm finally end up with an Emmy as best actor. His Don Draper is the center of Mad Men, and he shows a great range, including in the latest episode, "Waldorf Stories." I expected Julianna Margulies to win best actress for The Good Wife, which is actually a very fine CBS show I've seen a few times. Margulies is outstanding in it. (Though Kyra Sedgwick pulled off an upset for a show I haven't seen.) I halfway expected Christina Hendricks, or perhaps Elisabeth Moss, to win as best supporting actress. But Hendricks, though very potent in her appearances, probably didn't get enough screen time last season, and the winner in that category, Good Wife's Archie Panjabi, is constantly in the middle of the action on that show.

So, "Waldorf Stories." What more have we learned?

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

For one thing, that Matthew Weiner is a cheeky fellow. The latest episode, which first aired the night of the Emmy Awards, turns on, yes, an awards show. In which Don Draper is up for a big award. Which he wins.

It's the Clio Awards (sort of), the premier awards in advertising. In 1965, the Clios are staged as a long boozy affair at the Waldorf Astoria. The Clios I was at some years ago were in Miami, and it was decidedly not an afternoon event.

Before they get to the awards show, in a sequence highlighting the show's more comedic focus, Don and Peggy Olsen interview an aspiring copywriter recommended by Roger Sterling. Or, more accurately, by Mrs. Roger Sterling, the beauteous young Jane Siegel Sterling, Don's former secretary, whose affair with Roger caused the sale of the original Sterling Cooper to the Brit conglomerate that set all the professional changes into motion.

The young and very diminutive Danny Siegel -- he's Jane's cousin, and he's played by a fellow that I could swear was one of the would-be super-villain "Nerds of Doom" on Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- has a hilarious portfolio consisting of other people's work that he "admires" and precisely one, very hackneyed, idea, executed ad (so to speak) infinitum. Fill-in-the-blank product is "the cure for the common fill-in-the-blank."

Afterwards, Peggy says she's relieved to meet someone worse than she is. "Don't get used to it," Don tells her. Nice.

Don's in high gear as we open, since he's the toast of the industry and up for a major award -- actually the Clios give out a great many awards -- and continues as he tells Roger that he admires the fine prank of sending "the kid" to him. As if Roger's very smart young wife is going to let her cousin go unhired.

All this makes Roger, who is hilariously working on his memoirs but not recalling all that much, think back to how he met Don in the first place. Don, as we've previously established, was a fur salesman, who also did the company's ads. (We see the young, and still future, Betty Draper in one of the ads.) Roger has stopped in the shop to buy a "getting-to-know-you" fur for Joan Holloway, with whom he is embarking on what becomes a long affair.

Don is not at all the smooth, urbane character we're used to. He's more like a big, gawky, very eager Labrador puppy. Roger wants no part of him and is irritated when he finds that Don has placed his advertising portfolio in the box with Joan's fur, a junior varsity move.

I think what we often forget about Don Draper, who is really Dick Whitman, is that while he successfully stole the identity of his dead Army lieutenant in the Korean War, and the Purple Heart that goes along with it (which Dick himself actually rates, oddly enough), he didn't actually know much of anything even though he returned from Korea with the status of a decorated former Army officer. He certainly didn't know his dead lieutenant's profession, that of engineer. That's a gig that's hard to BS your way through. So he sold used cars, and went to night school, and worked his way to selling furs and making some local ads on the side.

In the present day, with Peggy getting no recognition for helping conceive the Glo-Coat ad that's up for the award, Don, Roger, Joan, and Pete Campbell head to the Waldorf Astoria for the awards. In thinking about his memoirs, Roger has decided that recruiting Don is one of his big accomplishments. Unfortunately, they don't give awards for that.

Following his big Clio win, Don Draper evidently came up with some better lines than these in the latest episode. Too bad about that blackout drinking.

Don, secretly holding hands with Joan, who is also secretly holding hands with Roger, under the table, wins, naturally. After planting a serious kiss on Joan, he collects his award. Which he, also naturally, promptly misplaces as he launches into what can alternately be described as a two-day bacchanal, bender, or spree. After a hilariously misbegotten pitch session.

Before discussing that, let's deal with Don and Joan. In a sense, they are the most obvious potential couple on the show. They're both great-looking, both very smart, both worldly, both very good in the advertising business, with complementary skills. In fact, in today's world, the two of them could easily start their own ad agency.

But we've never seen even a hint of them hooking up, aside from the very meaningful looks they exchanged toward the end of last season's "Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency" episode. Could they become a major item? Perhaps they already have been. In any event, we get no more of that the rest of this episode.

Instead we get a boozily celebratory Don striking out again at the Waldorf bar that night with Dr. Faye, the fetchingly manipulative consulting psychologist for the agency. But only after scoring on a pitch back at the agency.

Cereal company execs running late had canceled on the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce crew prior to the Clios, but showed up at the agency after the awards show. Feeling invincible after his Clio win, after Roger does a victory lap around the conference room, Don decides to go ahead with the pitch even though he's several sheets to the wind.

We've seen a pensive, heartfelt Don Draper pitch before. We've seen an eerily-in-command Don Draper pitch before. We've even seen a desperate Don Draper pitch before, with nothing going into the meeting. In the pilot episode, no less. But we've never seen an overconfident, drunk Don Draper pitch before.

It actually goes rather well, which is not surprising, since Don has presence, nobody minds that he's been drinking since he's just won a big award, and he's well-prepared. Just one problem. The client thinks the idea is too intellectual.

So Don has to improvise. Desperately, hilariously, throwing half-baked one-liners off the top of his head. Finally he scores with... "Life, the cure for the common breakfast." Hey, that sounds familiar. Actually, it works fine. (In real life, slogans are overrated anyway. Just make sure it's not bad.)

Roger Sterling discusses the philosophy of drinking.

With this late afternoon victory, Don is back to the bar at the Waldorf. After Dr. Faye, who's warming to Don but doesn't want to succumb to his drunken version, sends him on his way, Don finds that his blooming celebrity status is catnip to another Clio winner, a smart brunette. Have we noticed yet that Don does best with brunettes?

Presumably Don doesn't get slapped around by her, as we saw with his call girl pal in the season opener. Somewhere over the thoroughly lubricated next 36 hours, he picks up at least one other woman, the blonde he wakes up with only to field a call from an enraged blonde, the one named Betty.

He's forgotten all about picking up the kids! Oops. So much for domestic Don. At weekend's end, yet another woman arrives at Don's man cave in the Village. This time it's Peggy, who's been rather put upon by Don's snubs and demands that she work with the agency's arrogant new jackass art director. She's not there to continue his revelries, but to tell him his successful pitch with the cereal execs was actually from Jane Siegel Sterling's nerdy cousin.

Naturally, he has to be hired now. (Of course, he always had to be hired, or Roger's life would have become markedly less pleasant.)

The saving grace at the start of the new week for Don, aside from having recovered some of his mojo with women? Roger has fetched his Clio trophy from the Waldorf bar. All he wants is some thanks for having hired Don at the old Sterling Coo in the first place.

He doesn't exactly get it, though he appears to think he does. Nor should he, because as we see in a flashback, Roger never actually hired Don.

Friendly, and very persistent, young Labrador pup Don had cajoled Roger into having morning drinks with him, leading to not much more than functional blackout conviviality for the older man. The next workday, there is Don greeting him in the Sterling Cooper lobby. After Navy vet Roger asks Don to leave him alone, Don informs him that Roger hired him. "You said, 'Welcome aboard.'"

As the elevator door closes on Don and Roger, with Don making his first ascent to Sterling Cooper, Don has the greatest little grin. He pulled it off! Sadly, the closing song is not "Anchors Aweigh."

In our B and C stories ...

Peggy, left out of the Clio Awards, is further affronted by Don with his instruction to work with the new art director, having to hole up in a hotel room with him to brainstorm the Vick's consumer cough products line. This character, who is very excited about having made a TV ad for President Lyndon Johnson's campaign that wasn't actually used, is one of the biggest male jerks on the show, and that's a stiff competition. Too stiff for him, as it turns out, with Peggy calling his bluff about her supposed prudery by insisting they work in the buff together. With hotshot, who turns out to have no ideas, getting an errant stiffy, to complete the punning, Peggy wins the stare down. As if there was any doubt.

I think it's getting to be about time to bring back Sal Romano.

Meanwhile, the old Sterling Coo gang starts reassembling, with Kenny Cosgrove rejoining the agency, bringing some big-time clients with him. Pete Campbell, always at least a little insecure, is not pleased about this, but he lays down the law to Ken, noting that he is a partner and Ken is not.

So where are we? Don is even bigger than before, having won a prestigious award to go with his big press clippings. He's rediscovered his sexual mojo with women he doesn't have to pay. The agency again gains big new clients. Roger mis-remembers his great coup of doing something he never did, i.e., hire the great Don Draper.

Is this still the TV programming most frequently featured in the Don Draper household?

On the other hand, Don, like a great many people with acclaim and fame thrust upon them -- Hollywood, anyone? -- reacts by nearly drowning himself in a sea of alcohol. He's again blown off his kids, which again convinces me that he has them in the first place mainly because he thought he should. And he's ripped off a nonentity for a winning pitch, without even realizing it.

Don Draper is getting to an age where all this drinking really catches up with you. We've seen him exercise exactly once on this show. (He did 15 push-ups, which he faked to be 100 as Betty walked into their bedroom.) He smokes like a chimney. He doesn't eat at all healthily. Clearly, he's heading for Roger Sterling territory if he doesn't change. Blackout drinking, multiple heart attacks, maybe even an embarrassing episode in front of influential people. (Who can forget Don goading Roger into a long lunch of oysters and martinis before meeting with Richard Nixon's campaign leadership, and that long hike up the stairs with the elevator conveniently "out of order?")

How bad off is Don now with the drinking? Well, we'll know more if he has a bad experience in an episode not set around a holiday or an awards show.

The bigger question right now, on the heels of Mad Men winning a nearly unmatched third straight Emmy Award as television's best show, is how good is this season?

We're nearly halfway through the season, and I'm finding it to be more entertaining than the comparable run last season. But perhaps not as consequential.

It's easy to forget, given the spectacular final three episodes of Season 3, that the first part of the season had some heavy going. All the family set-up material had a certain degree of tedium. Betty Draper, and you have to admire January Jones for playing the role without trying little tricks to make the character more charming, turned into quite a pill in a number of episodes last season. Sidelining the Joan Holloway and Roger Sterling characters for much of the season robbed the show of much of its zest. Yet moving all the pieces into position, as a novelist would do, payed off in spectacular fashion down the stretch.

The first part of this season, especially with all the humor, is more pleasant to watch than the first part of last season, which I actually did just watch again. But until we know where we're going this season, I'm not sure how consequential it will all turn out to be.

Can Mad Men repeat next year with a record-tying fourth straight Emmy win? Sure. The biggest threat to the streak was probably this year, with the final season of Lost. Will it repeat? We'll have a much better idea in October.

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