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Don up to his old tricks as ‘Mad Men’ returns

Sterling Cooper's ad men are back. At the start of season 3 of "Mad Men," Don's up to his old tricks, Sal finds himself exposed, and Pete lusts after a promotion
/ Source: Entertainment Weekly

Season 3 opened on a shot of bare feet, lit by the light of a refrigerator. Don, vulnerable and alone, in the middle of the night. As he warmed milk on the Draper stove, we flashed back to his first night in the world. His father's wife delivered another stillborn daughter, carted off in a bowl of blood and ooze. His father went for relief in a hooker's bed. The woman, another brunette, swore she'd fry the man's dick in hog fat if he knocked her up. She died in childbirth, moaning for the man's head. The midwife named the baby boy after his mother's last vulgar request, and brought her to the wretched Whitman household. Dick was alive. It was his birthday. Don started from his reverie and skimmed the fat off the top of Betty's milk.

Upstairs Betty rubbed her pregnant belly. ''Am I ever going to sleep again?'' she murmured to her husband. What does Betty want after last season's strange arc of torment and despair that ended with her straddling a stranger in the back of a bar? Well, apparently she wants to doze off again, and dream of the time when she was convinced her home life was straight out of a Sears catalogue. She wants the new baby to come home to the perfect family, which meant that damn Sally had better shape up fast. The bad seed broke the clasp on Don's suitcase. ''She's taken to your tools like a little lesbian,'' sneered Betty. (I'd kill to see Sally in 20 years, bringing home a Betty or Jane to one of her stunned mother's Around-the-World dinner parties.)

The carpet shifted under everyone's feet at the Sterling Cooper office. In one brutal scene, familiar to too many these days, the top dogs called the old head of accounts into Bert Cooper's office. He got the boot, but not without being casually assured that this wasn't easy for anybody. Roger skipped in late, and slapped a hasty expression of regret on his face when he looked over at the canned man stewing in the corner. Sorry, sucker. Truly. The Brits set up a tug of war between Pete and Ken to see who should fill the booted man's shoes. Pete, after a thoroughly dorky Pee Wee Herman celebratory dance when he thought the job was his, whined like a creep to his wife that he wanted everything good in life right now. Pete stamped his feet. Ken grinned and shrugged his shoulders. Ken is hot.

Joan's bling, and nasty stingMeanwhile Peggy can't get her secretary to work for her. In the evening's funniest scene, she bumped into Joan in the lobby one morning and tried to complain. Joan will always be the big sister in this relationship. It's just that now she's the big sister who's getting married like everyone else while the little sister she used to push around is planning a trip abroad and getting hired for cool internships. The power has shifted, but both still respect who wears the gold pen necklace in their relationship. Peggy looked at Joan's diamond and wondered if she was ever nervous wearing it on the subway. ''I don't ride the subway,'' Joan coolly replied without looking over. ''I do worry about being followed though.''

Dammit, this means Joan is still with that cruel paper doll. She's getting out of her dead-end office job and the dating pool, and that's all there is to it. This can't possibly end well. At least she got to sucker punch that new worm in the office, who the secretaries have nicknamed Moneypenny. (''He's repellent,'' said Joan. ''He reminds me of a doorman.'') She stroked his ego with an open office and positioned him to have his hand smacked by his superior. ''This place is a gynocracy,'' Mr. Hooker said with a wince when he realized Joan had won a round. Would that that were true.

Don and Sal went on a business trip to Baltimore. It's a credit to the writers' patience that they waited until the third season to put these men with such desperately secret lives together. Don, without missing a beat, created new identities for them when a chirpy stewardess started flirting with him on the plane. Poor Sal looked amused by Don's deceit and did his best to keep up. ''I've flown a few times but I've never seen a stewardess that game,'' marveled Sal. ''Really?!'' Don said with a smirk. Like Hamm's character on “30 Rock,” Don can't comprehend a world where women didn't hurl themselves in his path.

Over drinks that evening, Don dove deeper into role playing. They weren't just accountants — they were FBI men on the trail of stolen money! Get a few drinks in Don and inevitably he drifts into his twilight zone of existentialist dread. Our man has so much longing and desire locked up inside of him. The last round with a random woman always seems to knock at that ache. ''It's my job to be out of town,'' Shelly told the table. Don sighed behind his cigarette smoke. ''I don't know, I keep going to a lot of places and ending up somewhere I've already been.'' So of course he ended up in an embrace with swelly Shelly, who sing-songed that Don was her last chance at a fresh lay before she tied the knot with her fiance. ''I've been married a long time,'' he wearily assured the girl. ''You get plenty of chances.'' And then, because she meant nothing to him, Don admitted to her that it was his birthday. Or rather, it was Dick's birthday, a man whose life no one in the world has ever celebrated.

While Shelly stripped for Don, Sal started sweating in his hotel room. When he called about the air conditioning, a swarthy young fellow, who'd given Sal a subtle once-over in the elevator, came to the rescue. The camera lingered again on the gentleman's feet, before panning up to reveal Sal's stunned expression (''a little excited, a little shocked''). (Someone help me with Sal's line ''Airplane'' when the bellhop saw his ink-stained pocket. Do pens burst in high altitude? Was it a comment on his uncontrollable excitement?) Just before Sal could burst another pen, the fire alarm clanged. Oh Sal, you just can't get a break. Don raced down the fire escape, rapped on the outside of Sal's window. There was Sal — and the bellhop in a wife beater (he wins!). Sal was busted, driven to quoting Balzac — ''our worst fears lie in anticipation'' — at the next day's business meeting with London Fog. The men again made a good team. Don turned it on to tame a nervous client who was concerned the raincoat business had grown stale. ''There will be fat years and there will be lean years, but it is going to rain.''

On the plane ride home Sal looked out the window and wished himself amongst the clouds. He was busted, by the office's biggest alpha male no less. ''I'm going to ask you something and I want you to be completely honest,'' Don said, leaning in close. Sal looked almost relieved to be forced into a confession. Balzac had it right. Lying had come at a stiff cost, exhausting Sal whereas it always seemed to invigorate Don. But Don wasn't after truth or intimacy. Under the guise of pitching an idea for a new London Fog ad, he pushed Sal deeper into the closet. ''Limit your exposure,'' Don advised him in one chilling tomblike pronouncement. Don could erase the memory of that night at the hotel. So should Sal. It will shock you how much it never happened. Later, at the office, the guys pressed Sal for details about a night away with Don. ''Two married men!'' he coyly pooh poohed. ''There was a fire at the hotel. No casualties.''

Back at the Draper household, Betty kicked Bobby (poor thing) out of the bathroom and summoned Sally to apologize for breaking Daddy's suitcase. Sally just didn't like her Daddy leaving as well. ''I will always come home,'' Don assured his daughter as she unpacked his things. ''I don't sleep well when I'm not here.'' (Dog!) Sally stumbled upon Shelly's wings and assumed it was a little souvenir from Daddy who promptly recovered from his surprise. He watched his little girl pin the evidence of another meaningless affair to her pink bathrobe. A nauseating blink of shame flickered quickly past his face.

Sally flounced on the bed and asked to hear the story about the day she was born. Don started murmuring about a rainy night and choked on the emotion. He can craft scenes from an imagined life, spin stories of escape and intrigue. But he was unable to articulate the intimate memory of his first child's birth. The episode ended with mournful bagpipes playing in the background and Don stunned into muteness.

And Shelly was right by the way. Don does look a little like Tyrone Power, who played a charismatic hustler on a downward spiral in the 1947 film noir “Nightmare Alley.” The con man had a taste for blondes as well.