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'Mad Men': The new girl

August 25, 2008 |  6:00 am

Elisabeth1 After drawing an impressive 2.1 million viewers in the first episode of its second season, “Mad Men” has reportedly lost a cool million in the weeks since. What’s behind this drop-off? Were people so swept up in Olympic fever that they had no time to watch anything else? Were they so glued to their cellphones, awaiting the text message announcing Obama’s VP selection, that they forgot about television altogether? Is it the classic sophomore slump that seems to afflict any highly original television series, novelist or musician? Did expectations just get too out of hand, making any reality pale by comparison? Has the novelty of the era and its workplace drinking worn off? Or have Americans en masse decided that, you know what, books really are a superior form of entertainment since they demand more active engagement on the part of the imagination? Just kidding.

The truth is, I don’t know the reasons behind the plunge in viewers because I’m intrigued by the second season. Perhaps it’s getting too dark for some; the show is beginning to induce that sense of unease I always felt during “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under” and any episode of “Big Love” where the polygamists have to interact with the outside world.

You see, our hero, Don Draper, is getting himself into some messy situations, and this week Peggy Olson is the fixer. Think of her as the Michael Clayton of yesteryear. And how did she land this gig? That’s a very interesting question. Bobbie Barrett would tell you that “this is America –- pick a job and become the person who does it.”

But let’s start with the more lighthearted threads –- you know, the ones dealing with infertility, marriage and sexual harassment. This week, Pete and Trudy Campbell visited what passed for a fertility doctor in those days. Back then, you couldn’t just do IVF, have twins, and then insist to all the tabloids that twins run in your family. After answering some very personal questions, Pete provided a semen sample to Dr. Stone’s office. Now, it won’t come as a surprise to you and me and Peggy Olson that Pete’s sample came back as robust, but Pete’s gloating leads to a fight with Trudy in which it becomes apparent that she was kind of hoping that he was the problem. Pete argues for a child-free existence –- it’s really so much easier to go to the movies –- but Trudy genuinely wants a baby. On the marriage front, Joan Holloway shows up this week with a glittering rock on her left ring finger. Roger Sterling congratulates her but then runs out his remaining lines deriding the institution of marriage and predicting that she’ll quit working soon after she’s hitched. And Don Draper at last has a new secretary, the very fetching Jane Siegal, who attracts a great deal of notice from Ken Cosgrove and who is treated to a rendition of a Mozart tune performed by Freddy Rumson using the zipper on his trousers.

Don and Peggy have the two most involved storylines of the show, and it turns out that those threads are more connected than we’ve thought. And this episode answered a couple of key questions I’ve had, which I’ll get to in a moment. Early in the show, Don takes a call from Bobbie Barrett, who’s celebrating that “Grin and Barrett” will be shooting a pilot. She enjoins him to meet up with her at Sardi’s, where’s she’s clearly already several drinks into her celebration. Don tries to refuse, but of course he shows up. And whom should he run into but Rachel Menken, who is now Mrs. Tilden Katz. During their conversation, it’s clear that she knows what he’s up to with Bobbie, and Bobbie knows what Don used to be up to with Rachel.

Bobbie tells Don that she wants to have him on the beach in Stonybrook, and in what seems almost like a dream sequence, we cut to a car on the road at night, with Don and Bobbie passing a whiskey bottle back and forth. “I feel so good,” Bobbie says. “I don’t feel a thing,” Don says, dozing off shortly thereafter. Although it’s horrifying, it’s really about time that someone crashed his car on this show, and Don and Bobbie end up sideways in a ditch. They’re battered and bruised but alive. In the police station, the cop tells Don he was at the legal blood-alcohol limit of .15, and I bet I’m not the only person who was surprised that they even had a legal limit back then, because it sure doesn't seem like anyone's thinking about that. Don attempts to bribe the officer, who is not amused, and so then he’s forced to call someone to bring enough money to get to $150 he needs to pay his fine. And that someone is Peggy Olson, who manages to gather $110, borrow a car, drive out to Long Island in the middle of the night, take the pathetic duo back into the city, host Bobbie at her apartment for a few days while Bobbie’s black eye heals, and find solutions to a variety of other problems. When she appeared, I wondered why he called her, and then I settled on the idea that she would be less likely than the others to gossip about it. But that turns out not to be the exact reason.

When Don arrives at his house at the break of dawn, Betty is understandably angry -– so angry, in fact, that she uses the word “hell.” I know. And so Don confesses his secret to her -– no, not that one, but rather that he has high blood pressure. He blames the pills and the booze for the accident, leaving out where he was or what he was doing at the time the crash occurred. He drags himself into the office with a sprained arm and a cut forehead, and I’m sure everyone completely believes him when he says he missed a step on the staircase. Meanwhile, Bobbie hides out at Peggy’s place, trying repeatedly to get Peggy to confess to some sort of involvement or infatuation with Don since Bobbie can’t figure out why Peggy is doing all of this. In a couple of flashbacks, we get some answers. In the first one, Peggy is back in the hospital, overhearing her mother and sister be briefed by the doctor on her condition, which he calls “neuropsychotic.” When we cut to them, we see that her sister is very pregnant, meaning that the little tot Anita is now raising is merely a reminder of Peggy’s behavior, not the actual output of Peggy’s behavior. The doctor interviews Peggy, and she can correctly identify the year, the president, and the location, but she says she doesn’t know why she’s there.

In the second flashback, Peggy again wakes up in the hospital, but this time, Don Draper is sitting there, and he immediately provides an answer to a question all of us had probably been asking: How could Peggy have disappeared from the office for weeks or months without anyone's noticing? He says he tracked her down after she’d been absent for a while, that her mother had said she had tuberculosis. What’s wrong with her? he wants to know. She says she doesn’t know. He tells her to do whatever the doctors want her to do -– to get out of there as soon as possible. “Move forward,” he says. “This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” And thus we get a sense for why he called her from the clink –- mutually assured destruction, perhaps.

Having taken some advice from Bobbie to treat Don as an equal if she wants to get ahead, Peggy doesn’t forget the car crash, and she asks Don to return the $110. She also calls him by his first name. This little moment actually carries a good bit of drama. Don goes home to a meatloaf dinner with his family, only to find that Betty has left out the salt out of concern for his blood pressure. And that’s where we leave Don Draper: battered, bruised, and forced to contemplate a salt-free existence. I’d feel melancholy too.

-- Sarah Rogers

(Photo courtesy AMC)