05/15/2012 05:21 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2012

Mad Men : Danger! Slippery When Soapy (Especially in Dark Shadows )

If there's one thing we know for sure about the latest episode of Mad Men, it's this: All this soapiness can mean only one thing. People are about to die. You simply can't have so many soap suds flying around without folks slipping and hitting their heads on the sharp edges of all the symbols lying about.


I wrote this sentence in the second paragraph of "Mad Men (Finally) Returns: Worth the Wait?," my piece here on the Huffington Post about the Mad Men season premiere: "I confess to a certain diffidence about it all, all two hours of it."

I have more than a certain diffidence about the latest episode, which takes us into the final third of a great show's uneven fifth season.

As always, there be some spoilers ahead. Incidentally, you can see all my Mad Men pieces, going back to 2009, here in The Mad Men File.

Dark Shadows , which I believe refers to the soapy '60s vampire show, a rather dreadful affair not coincidentally just remade into the quite dreadful brand-new Tim Burton movie with Johnny Depp -- Megan is doing auditions -- is another big turn on the soap opera side of Mad Men.

Big things are happening in 1966 America, and in advertising, the business which the show revolves around, and which one of the lead characters just rejected in a very telling sign of the times. But all that is somewhere over ...there.

Here's what we have over here in this episode. Mostly unhappy self-involved people. And a couple of happy self-involved people.

And the return of Betty Draper Francis. A dieting Betty Draper Francis.

The plot twist of "Fat Betty" was the first of a few big plot twists I found arbitrary and unlikable. January Jones's pregnancy sharply limited her availability for this season of the show. But she never ballooned anywhere near to the extent that her character did. Making Betty fat spurred a lot of chatter, and made the Betty-hating portion of the audience happy, but bored me. She's unhappy, so she's fat, and it's ironic, which means yada yada.

Some of the biggest and best moments in this show have revolved around Betty, even though she was becoming a largely unlikable character. The "Souvenir" episode, in which the Drapers go to Rome and she dazzles Conrad Hilton with her beauty, smarts, education, and sophistication, illustrates how Don blew it with Betty and how she was left as a Grace Kelly type stuck in the suburbs.

She's gone on to marry Henry Francis, a top advisor to Governor Nelson Rockefeller when we meet him, now a top advisor to Mayor John Lindsay. He moves in very high-level, sophisticated and, quite frankly, very glittering circles, more so than Don Draper does. Circles in which a wife like Betty is a major asset, as any smart pol knows.

Yet we've never seen her in these circles, as I've noted before. Where are the Rockefellers? Where are the power players around the glamorous and instantly very famous but somewhat fatuous new mayor of the Big Apple? (Who, incidentally, had quite an interest in advertising.) Instead, what glimpses we've had of Betty are in the same old suburban milieu as before, albeit with a different, more attentive husband.

So, Betty is back, again, and it's more of the same. She's dieting, but she's unhappy, and she doesn't want anybody else to be happier than she is.

Oh, and Don, who is kind of rusty because he's been so busy being happy happy happy with Megan, does some work in this episode and is a little mean to the talented new guy. I'll get to that after I attempt to sprint through the bathwater. Oh, and Roger has sex with his estranged trophy wife, because, well, because her character has been under-utilized and because it's wash day.

* Betty and Don

Betty happens to see Don and Megan's swanky Manhattan apartment and is jealous of their style and cool. She's also jealous after happening to see Megan's swanky, svelte figure.

Does she want Don back? There's always seemed to be something unfinished between them, and a connection of shared experience, but that's not unusual among divorced couples. And the experience was not very good, to say the least. Whatever. I'm a little bored with this, especially if it's left dangling for another year.

* Betty and Megan

Betty is in Weight Watchers, which enables her to talk about some of her personal issues in a largely superficial way, and gives her a patina of nurturing rhetoric. But she is threatened by Megan's youth and slender beauty, which was once hers. I have a problem with this aspect of the story, too, because Betty is played by a slender, youthful beauty, January Jones, who is only a few years older than Jessica Pare, who plays Megan.

* Betty and Sally

So Betty tries to sabotage things for Don and Megan by tossing a grenade into the midst of their stylish nest, in the form of telling increasingly knowing little Sally about the first Mrs. Don Draper. Megan, however, gets wind of what Betty is up to, and the tables are turned on Betty.

* Don and Megan

They again show themselves to be a good team, albeit one with some obvious issues, as most couples have. They don't freak out over Betty's little movida, they don't overreact with Sally, and they present a united front.

Don is very happy with Megan, even with her out of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. He's been happy since he and the kids and Megan, then acting in the guise of secretary-turned-super babysitter, went to Disneyland in the Season 4 finale.

Of course, a happy Don is not a very creative Don, and his work has atrophied as a result.

* Don and Michael Ginsberg

Which brings us to Don and the talented new guy, the Holocaust survivor who thinks himself as a Martian, our very own stranger in a strange land, Valentine Michael Smith, er, Michael Ginsberg.

Ginz is very good. He comes up with a terrific idea for the latest boring and forgettable product the agency is working on. Don and Peggy come up with ideas, too, and they're good, but not as good as Ginz's.

(It's very unfortunate that one of the hairpin plot twists earlier in the season caused SCDP to lose the Jaguar account they had just won. Yes, I'm referring to the chewing gum-in-the-pubes goofiness. It would be nice to see the show dealing with the changing times of 1966 by handling an interesting and resonant campaign, rather than, as Stan put it: "Heinz. Baked. Beans." Or Sno-Ball, which I seem to have already forgotten.)

Anyhoo, Don big foots Ginz, substituting his own idea for Ginz's better one, and seeming threatened and inappropriately power play-ish in the process.

* Roger and Jane

No, Roger has not decided to simply hang around spouting LSD-inspired life insights while the business passes him by. Making an effort to land the Manischewitz wine account, he enlists the help of estranged wife Jane Siegel, who was of course Jewish all along.

She's smart and helpful, as one would suspect after seeing her operate as a secretary at SCDP in Season 2, as she could have been all along as Mrs. Roger Sterling. Roger, it turns out, still has some feelings for her despite his acid-induced decision to divorce, taking a little offense when a younger executive flirts with her at their business dinner.

Later, he has sex with her at the apartment he got for her as an inducement to get her to help land the account. (Or so he styles it.) In the aftermath, she feels the place has been spoiled, as now it will be harder for her to move on emotionally with the memory of their lovemaking there. Really?

And it's Roger, alone of all the characters in this episode who are merrily manipulating away in the guise of living their private lives, who feels some remorse.

Which I suppose is ironic.

Will Roger and Jane get back together? (LSD-inspired insights can be illusory and evanescent.)

Will Roger get together with Joan, mother of his child, who has quickly and conveniently disposed of her doctor husband? (Remember him?) We haven't seen much of Joan lately, probably because she is at SCDP doing work in the advertising business.

Will Roger get back together with first wife Mona, vibrantly played by Talia Balsam, who is John Slattery's real life wife (and George Clooney's first and so far only ex-wife)?

Inquiring minds, and all that.

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