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It’s all about control on ‘Mad Men’

Don feels cornered as he's assaulted on all fronts even as he brings in a whale of an account, and Peggy turns to an unlikely source for comfort.
/ Source: Entertainment Weekly

Never again can its critics complain that nothing happens on this show. After last week’s foot-soaker of an episode, and the opening 60 seconds alone of last night’s, the third season has hit its glorious stride. The opening shots of prone characters were ominous ones, and set the tone for a terrifically tense hour of TV. Peggy lay naked in bed, an unknown man’s back beside her. (Don’s? Pete’s?) Betty, swanned out on a swooning sofa, looked like a dazed Spiegel catalogue model. And Don, broken, bloodied Don, lay face down in a strange hotel room before he roused and rubbed his parched throat.

Beautifully, the action rewound to an earlier shot of Don’s throat, as he straightened his tie, gave his shoes one last scuff of polish, and smoothed back his shiny head of hair. Swingy jazz piano played in the background as if we were watching a commercial for antiperspirant or aftershave. Here was a man at the top of his game! Downstairs Betty lorded over her new living room with an interior decorator, wondering about the empty space in front of the fireplace. “That’s your hearth darling,” the expert purred back to Betty, not realizing she was talking to a woman who confuses polish for beauty, and manners for warmth. “That’s the soul of your home.” Betty has but one roost to rule over so it’s tragic really when Don strides dismissively into the room and, forced into having an opinion, rightly judges the Drexel end table to be misplaced.

In the cramped elevator up to the office, the distance between former chums Roger and Don is still palpable. “I watched the sun rise this morning,” said Roger. “How was it?” said Don. “Average.” These are pale, privileged, buttoned-up men, largely unaware of their natural world. Roger is feeling churlish that their competitor David Ogilvy has his eventually best-selling business treatise “Confessions of an Advertising Man” (“Great title,” deems Don) soon to hit bookstores. “It should be called 1,000 reasons I’m so great,” says Roger. Both men look peevish that they hadn’t first thought of the idea of writing such a book themselves.

All episode other men were making themselves comfortable in Don’s chair, as if to remind him that he is both replaceable and without any real power. First it was Conrad Hilton, who was unimpressed with Don’s tardiness and his lack of desk accessories. “I don’t know what I’m more disturbed by — the fact that there’s not a Bible or that there’s not a single family photo.” (Says the amiable twice-divorced kazillionaire who, according to that 1963 Time cover story, went through 20-something stewardesses like they were socks and was so impressed with his heirs that he would eventually cut them out of his estate.) Connie ribs him again for being late before Don slings back one of his signature bullet lines. “Maybe I’m late because I was spending time with my family reading the Bible.”

His coolness, as always, impresses and Hilton offers him his New York hotels. They’ll deal man to man, like they did in Hilton’s old West, plus the conference room table’s worth of lawyers who’ll later insist Don sign on their dotted line. “Having me in your life is going to change things,” says Connie. Don is a man who wants little else from life than the constant promise of reinvention and so he receives such news as a promise rather than word of warning.

I’ve loved every scene between Pete and Peggy all season. So much is left unsaid between this repressed pair. There’s such a crackle of competitiveness and simultaneous attraction and repulsion between the two. Pete always seems to be sneaking up behind Peggy, catching her unawares in the hall or on hand to catch her as she faints. Last night he marched into her office and declared the gift she was opening to be expensive, corrupt, and courtesy of Duck. It was an Hermes scarf (“I hope yours is a different color,” she snappily replies) and Pete insisted she return to sender. And off they went, carrying on two separate conversations, their rhythm delightfully out of whack.

Pete warned her that Duck was after them to get back at Don, then accused Peggy of being brought on the Hilton account. Peggy knew nothing of Hilton but dreamily announced that she’s read the man’s book and he’s a Catholic. Pete hissed about Duck again, then, hey!, what book. Finally Peggy told Pete to go his own way and leave her be. It was like a conversation they might have had in an alternate universe, but about their baby rather than a 100 percent silk scarf. “Look I’m keeping this,” she said. “We’re not tied together. I’ll keep my mouth shut and you do whatever you want.”

The office was abuzz with Don’s latest conquest. “How did you make this happen,” wondered Roger, with a slight sneer in his voice. Don bristled a little, reminded of their conversation out under the country club tent. “We travel in the same circles,” he snapped. The partners wanted him to sign a 3-year contract, as much for Hilton’s sake as theirs. Don balked, unwilling to tether himself to his present life. He promised to take the weekend to think it over, pocketing the wad of legalese in his suit pocket like a man who takes a number from the smiling girl he never intends to call.

Again, the action shot forward in time, with Don looking at his smeared face in the mirror. “Ah Jesus,” he said. (At the risk of wading into choppy waters I’d be curious to start a discussion on these boards about whether or not what this man needs is some kind of religion. I’m continually struck by that baptismal image of him in the California waters last season, or the widow Whitman saying to him that the only thing keeping Don down was his obstinate belief that he is all alone in this world.) As Don gasped at his own image, Betty looked on the verge of an exhalation of another kind as her red-taloned fingers snaked slowly down her flowered frock. And away we went, to an earlier scene of Betty entering a bakery in another bouquet of a dress for her illicit meeting with that alligator shoe of a man Henry Francis.

On behalf of the Junior League’s efforts to halt the draining of their local reservoir, Betty is able to orchestrate another meeting with Henry. After they planned their Saturday hook-up, Betty banged a little at Don’s locked desk drawer to remind herself of what’s fueling her fire. After their lunch, during which Henry made it clear he’s not concerned about a water tank, he rushed to shield Betty’s eyes from the eclipse. Apparently her eyes are her erogenous zone because she practically swoons. They passed an antiques store and Henry pointed at the fainting couch in the window, used by elegant women when their nerves or emotions got the better of them. Betty is so delighted to have a powerful man treat her so protectively and with such delicateness — unlike Don who finds her tedious, or her father who found her pathetic — that she springs for the silly sofa. Earlier the Junior Leaguers marveled at this seemingly together woman. A new baby and a new living room? “Are you suicidal?” one teased. She very well may be.

Across town Don and Sally’s slightly unhinged teacher circle each other under the looming solar eclipse. (It finally occurred to me that her name Miss Farrell is a play on the word feral. She is a woman who cannot be tamed or broken, and so of course every self-entitled man in the suburbs longs to lasso her.) When Don wondered about her summer plans, Miss Farrell gave him a sour, taunting look and accused him of being like all the other hard-drinking married men who come a’sniffing. Don was miffed, but of course turned on. “How do people live elsewhere?” he asked, only partly teasing. “They don’t have as much,” she said, echoing Peggy’s earlier gasping over the sheer abundance of Don’s life. “They don’t get as bored.” (Go bang your head against a wall Don, rather than bang this off woman!) The moment of the eclipse arrived. Everyone scurried under their boxes for a look. Don turned away, looking behind his shades in another direction altogether.

It’s painful when someone calls out your condition, and you realize that what plagues you is both banal and so easily identifiable. Don is bored. Bored and angry. When Roger insisted again that he sign that contract (“grunt once for yes!”), Don needed someone to lash out at. So when Peggy bounced into his office wondering about the Hilton account Don flexed some ugly muscle. “What do I have to do for you?” he asks the stunned woman. Moss’ face flushed beautifully as she tried not to cry. “You were my secretary. And now you have an office and a job that a lot of full grown men would kill for … Put your nose down and pay attention to your work because there’s not one thing that you’ve done here that I couldn’t live without.”

Out Don’s office Peggy flew, right smack into Duck’s open arms. (“I’ll have a whiskey.” “You are Don’s girl, aren’t you?” Ewwww.) Duck is sober and horny, reciting lines of soft porn. (“Hmm, wonder who wrote that for him.”) Peggy listened with her mouth hanging open as Duck suggested taking her clothes off with his teeth and gifting her with a go-around unlike any she’s ever had. Sorry, Pete! And if he was amorous in the evening, wait til she sees him in the morning.

At the Draper home, Roger hit where it hurts, calling Betty to get her on the case of Don’s contract. Messing with the very strictly separate compartments of Don’s life is a punishable offense and their fight was a sad and mean one. “No contract means I have all the power,” spat Don. “They want me but they can’t have me.” “You’re right,” said a shrewd Betty, “why would I think that has anything to do with me? It’s three years Don. What’s the matter — you don’t know where you’re going to be in three years?” Like a child he tore off into the night, clutching his glass of Scotch.

Two hitchhikers appeared in the midst. Aw Jesus. Vietnam has become a steady cloud hanging over each episode, and the boy now sitting shotgun was heading to Canada with his girl to get hitched and dodge the draft. They make fun of Don for being an ad man square. Desperate not to be so pegged, Don takes two of the broad’s phenobarbitals. We all know how the night is going to end but I certainly didn’t see old Archie making an appearance. “You’re a bum, you know that,” his dad said, cursing him over slugs of moonshine. “You can’t be tied down. Look at your hands. They’re as soft as a woman’s. What do you do? What do you make? You grow bullshit.” The kids looked up from their making out and saw the time was right to filch the drooling suit’s wallet. The boy slugged him hard in the back of the head and down Don went, along with whatever dignity he had left.

“Fender bender,” he kept bleeping to everyone at work the next morning, including Peggy who was fidgeting at the previous day’s vest. Mr. Cooper was waiting for Don behind the man’s desk. Yes, Roger gets all the best lines and John Slattery’s biting zingy style is one of “Mad Men’s” true pleasures. But it’s time for Robert Morse to get some love for his silky, powerful portrayal of a businessman who rules supreme, despite his silly outward affectations. There is no doubt who will ever win in a duel between Don and Mr. Cooper. He has all the power, he has for a while now. But now it was time to remind the younger man of that. “Would you say I know something about you Don?” he asked calmly, holding the contract. Don sighed, beaten. “I would,” he said, and the sadness in those two words cut deep. “Then sign,” crooned Mr. Cooper. “After all when it comes down to it who’s really signing this contract anyway.” Devastating. The only thing Don could demand was that Roger stay out of his face from now on.

And so a bruised and battered Don returned home to a family room with no soul. “I signed,” he tells Betty, as if delivering news of a cancer diagnosis. Don Draper has been tied down, drafted into a world that he increasingly resents. As he trudged up the stairs, and Betty sunk deeper like a cat into her chaise, a coal miner’s lament played over the credits.

This was by far my favorite episode of the season. How did it sit with you? Will someone help me unpack the symbolism behind the eclipse? Did you think Duck had such vim and vigor in him? Is there any hope at all for Don and Betty? Now that we’ve gotten to know her a little better, is Miss Farrell a nut or the only sane soul left in Cheever country?