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Great expectations on ‘Mad Men’

Don has a short-lived dream of another fresh start, while Joan is coming to terms with the fact that her fresh start is not to be on "Mad Men."
/ Source: Entertainment Weekly

Holy Martini, Don is in short sleeves! The episode opened on a weekend night, with Sally terrified in her bedroom, and Don in casual wear trying to coax her to sleep. The shock of seeing Don out of his suit is always huge, as wrong somehow as seeing Jon Hamm with his strange, misbehaving bangs out in the real world. So there was Don in loose chinos, assuring Sally that baby Gene isn't going to walk into her room later in the night and tell her war stories over bottles of melted strawberry ice cream.

From the pale light of Sally's bedroom to the fluorescent action of Sterling Cooper we went. The British are coming, and those wolfish number crunchers are striking on what was supposed to be a day of paid independence. The office was atwitter with anticipation. Mr. C. and Roger suggested to Don he might soon have a new title and a second home in London. Then Mr. Cooper forced the men to kiss and make up — ''everybody wants Martin and Lewis!'' — over manicures and scrape shaves at the barber. Roger told Don he didn't like being judged. Mona judged him, so he had to ditch her for a pretty little dum-dum. Don wasn't up for the conversation, but assured him they were fine. He was too busy beaming over the prospect of a fresh start to hold a grudge. His imagination was already racing across the ocean, as was Betty's at the prospect of socially approved full-time childcare.

Joan was getting ready for her own Independence Day. To no one's surprise, probably not even her own, Greg snuck home drunk and sheepish. He didn't get the residency. Turns out the man doesn't have any brains in his fingers, and his only hope for being a surgeon lay somewhere in Alabama. Poor Joan, so pale and beautiful in her black nightgown — bow down before her Botticelli bosoms! — choked down the terror of such an idea. She was all business, calmly putting her husband's beaten-down ego back together even after he coldly told her that she had to go on supporting them.

And yet still she had to march into Sterling Cooper for her supposed last day. She worked those Brits over effortlessly with her effortless poise, a reservation at La Grenouille, and two tickets to Oliver! ''I love a tragedy with a happy ending,'' said the oozy guy from The Nanny. Guy, a very charming poreless wonder in Don's grey suit, led the troops, expressing the same pretense of knowledge and interest in both Pete and Peggy. The darling Mr. Pryce, who is fast becoming one of my favorite characters of the season, was told his job was now done and he was being shipped off to India. As his face sagged, he was told not to pout. ''One of your greatest qualities is you always do what you're told.'' Let us all make promises to ourselves that should a superior ever kick us in such cruel fashion, we will walk, benefits be damned.

A different kind of hotel meeting for DonThe big guns were called into the conference room. Guy was at the helm, where he intended to remain. He flipped on a transparency that made the entire room sag. Don was diagonally beneath him, stuck in his present life. Mr. Cooper was, as always, holding on to the status quo. Poor Roger didn't even make the reorganization chart. Only Harry, who lucked into choosing the right medium, got bumped up. ''One more promotion and we're going to be answering phones,'' Pete sniffed to the boys. Guy is one of those classic corporate cold hearts whose tone of voice is always high and light, who tries to empathize with his underlings' concerns without ever allowing them to be aired. ''I'm sure you all have a thousand questions,'' he kept telling everyone, before sailing right out the door.

Rather than actually addressing anyone's professional anxieties, Guy (perfect name for this guy!) changed the subject by toasting the onwards, upwards trajectory of Joan. ''I wish you caviar and children…'' he purred, as poor Joan crumpled into a delicate little sob. ''Thank you all, this is completely unnecessary,'' she sighed as she approached her little steamship of a cake. The booze started flowing, secretaries found themselves onto Ken's lap, Smitty pooh poohed the still young Vietnam War. Don looked disgusted with the whole scene but was rescued from the revelry by a call from Conrad Hilton's assistant. The man wanted a meeting.

Uptown he went, until he found himself in the presidential suite of the Waldorf Astoria with the man he treated not long ago to one helluva cocktail. ''I told people I had a long chat with a handsome man from Sterling Cooper and your name never came up,'' he told Don. ''Apparently you don't have long chats with people.'' Connie wanted a free round of Don's expertise and showed him a couple proofs of friendly mouse in front of a hotel. The set-up was a little too pat of an opportunity for Don to showcase his succinct brilliance. If the hotel titan wanted more of where that came from, he'd have to pony up some business. Connie told him to think bigger which led Don to start in on some hoo-hah about snakes and hunger. I love me some Mad Men pontification but this instance struck me as silly and overwritten.

Joan saves the day ... as alwaysBack at the office a secretary got her hands on the John Deere tractor brought in after that account was bagged, and ended up blazing a panicked trail right over Guy's foot. His insouciance splattered all over everyone's dress shirts as he started screaming for mercy. (Maybe this scene was broader than we're used to on Mad Men but it beautifully set a triumphant Roger up for his line about Iwo Jima.) Joan, of course, came to the rescue! She got rid of the wheezing secretary, laced up a tourniquet, and single-handedly saved the man's life. Take that Mr. Hooker! At the hospital, Don rushed to Joan's side and we all enjoyed one of those rare and always delightful scenes of the two of them together. ''That's life,'' said Joan. ''One day you're on top of the world and the next some secretary is running you over with a lawn mower.'' Ain't that the truth. The Brits arrived, and sighed over Guy's killed career. ''The doctor says he will never play golf again….'' The good news is that Mr. Pryce will remain in place. Over 10-cent Dr. Peppers, he marveled to Don about his twisting fate. ''I feel like I just went to my own funeral,'' he said. ''I didn't like the eulogy.'' Okay, again, kind of purple, but I do love the guy. He's immersing himself like a student in American culture, from its literature to its news stories, and he sees the country in a more clear-eyed and compassionate fashion than all of the people around him.

Back at home, a night-light or a Barbie did not soothe Sally's restless mind. She woke up screaming in terror. Don, of course, came to the rescue, while Betty pouted meanly in bed. ''There's no such thing as ghosts,'' said the man who cannot, despite his best efforts, shed his own. He marched back into his bedroom, complaining that they had to rename the baby for the sake of their oldest child. Betty wasn't budging, though she did thaw just a drop when Sally came in to apologize. Don went to soothe his baby boy, and asked Sally to sit with them. ''This is your little brother,'' he said. ''We don't know who he is yet. Or where he is going. And that is a wonderful thing.'' Don longs for a taste of that unknown again. He thought he might have it in London. Joan thought she might have it with a chief resident for a husband. Roger thought he might have it with Jane. We all have to learn how to accept the lives we are living. I laughed a few times this episode, an action I don't normally associate with Mad Men. For me this is a show of rueful smirks and winces and sighs and, for this sentimental viewer, tears. Roger gives great wisecrack, and he can always get a big grin out of me. Maybe it was the pinot noir talking but I got a real laugh when I saw Sally's Barbie headfirst in the front bushes. And at the ludicrous sight of the panicked secretary on top of a runaway John Deere tractor and then Guy's blood spattering the guys' shirts. For some reason I laughed out loud during the simple interaction of Peggy and Don standing off to the side at the party. ''This is good champagne,'' Peggy said, making chitchat. Don paused, looking churlishly down at his glass. ''I don't think so,'' he said. In the words of Connie, my God but you're prickly.

Speaking of feeling prickly, I'm going to quickly take issue with some folks out there who've been accusing me on the boards of being too rough on Don. Oh please. Don is the hero in every room. He is the man every other man — except for Mr. Cooper perhaps, who doesn't strike me as the type to waste time on insecurity — on the show aspires to be. But he has a real dark side —selfish and righteous and capable of incredible delusion. Tom Sawyer! He's slept his way around the island of Manhattan and test-drove countless stewardesses and has twice now been on the verge of ditching his family altogether. At the same time he's a bit of a prig, convinced that no one out there shares as moral of a code as he. He's a liar, so movingly articulate that he sounds like he's telling truths. Of course, it's impossible not to love Don. He's Don Draper! He's a man capable of fierce loyalty (Sal, Peggy, even Pete in a weird way) and enormous tenderness (every exchange with his children). I'm grateful to root for a character on TV who often irritates and infuriates me. He is so dangerously, interestingly flawed. What does he want out of life? The answer, he told us, is huge. What do we want out of life for Don? We want him to stop running and to know happiness.