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'Mad Men': Three Sundays

August 18, 2008 |  6:00 am


We’re now about one-quarter of the way through the second season of ‘Mad Men,’ and the balls have been thrown into the air, if you will –- dangerous, heavy, potentially explosive balls. There’s distance between Betty and Don Draper at home, and the tension between them is only expanding that divide. Roger Sterling, unable to surrender his conception of himself as a charming, daring, rules-don’t-apply kind of guy, make perilous choices. Peggy Olson carries on with her life as if no big secret of hers is toddling about in his Easter finery, but her sister Anita is growing ever more resentful. And don’t get me started on little Sally Draper’s drinking problem.

The classic three-act structure employed frequently in film and literature was rendered overt in this episode, in the manner of Julia Glass’ National Book Award-winning Three Junes, the episode of "House" called “Three Stories,” and about 10 zillion other things. As you have probably gathered, the episode takes place largely on three successive Sundays: Passion Sunday, Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. While structural choices like this can provide momentum to narratives that might need it (such as those that might be subtle or seemingly disjointed), I felt that ‘Mad Men’ contains so much tension and momentum already that the conceit distracted me. I just came up with that authoritative-sounding statement; please weigh in with your own thoughts so I know whether to deploy it in cocktail-party conversation.

Although she shared airtime fairly equally with other characters, Peggy was the center of this episode, and it was her narrative that advanced most noticeably.

The opening scene takes place in her mother and sister’s church, where Peggy, suffering from a hangover, steps outside for air. There, she encounters Tom Hanks’ son, who introduces himself as Father Gill, a young visiting priest. It turns out he’s also going over to her sister’s house for post-church dinner, where Peggy’s proud mother boasts about Peggy’s copywriting and presentation abilities. When Peggy has to leave, Father Gill gives her a ride, and he asks her for tips on public speaking since he’ll be doing the sermon on Palm Sunday. Peggy offers solid advice -- e.g., be prepared and believe in what you’re selling –- while demurring that she’s not his ideal audience.

On Palm Sunday, Father Gill stops by Anita’s house after the service. He’s come to find Peggy and give her a copy of his sermon, but she isn’t there. After he hands off the copy to Anita, Peggy’s mother exclaims how wonderful it is that he’s taking an interest in Peggy, while Anita looks simultaneously annoyed and worried. Irritation wins out when she goes to confession with Father Gill, and her main sin turns out to be that she’s very angry at her younger sister, who seduced a married man and had his child and just acts as if nothing happened. Oh, and everyone’s always falling all over themselves to help her. You know, if I were Anita, all of this would upset me too. We first children always follow the rules, and where does that get us? Father Gill prescribes some Hail Marys, but it’s clear that the message has been delivered to him. And at the end of the episode, on Easter Sunday, when Peggy’s son wobbles through the church garden during the Easter-egg hunt, Father Gill approaches her, hands her a dyed-blue egg, and says, knowingly, “For the little one.”

In other storylines, Roger and his wife are out to dinner with their daughter and her fiancé, Brooks. Roger and Mona press the young couple about their wedding plans, but their daughter pushes back, saying they don’t want a big spectacle of a wedding. Shortly thereafter, Roger encounters Cosgrove and Campbell at dinner with a client and, more importantly, the prostitute, Vicky, whom they have helped secure for that client. Now, what I’m about to say next is either blatantly obvious or totally preposterous, and I need you to tell me which is correct. The prostitute, Vicky, looks quite like Roger’s daughter. Accurate? Or the first indication of a psychotic break? Anyway, Roger lines up a night with Vicky, and he ends up paying her double her normal rate so that he can kiss her on the lips, and then he covers the cost of her next “date” so that she’ll accompany him to Lutece. He does warn her that he’s not in great health. She tells him not to worry, that “no one ever dies doing this.” That turns out to be true for this episode, but Roger is playing with fire.

You’ll remember that a couple of weeks ago, Don was forced to dump a good client, Mohawk Airlines, for a shot at American Airlines that Duck Phillips had unearthed and then overhyped. Having known sales people in my days in business, I must say that the character of Duck is very well written and well acted: You know he’s exaggerating something, but it’s hard to specify exactly what since a torrent of slick, persuasive talk is constantly battering you about. On Palm Sunday, Don gets a call at home that the folks at American have moved up their pitch to that very week, and this means everyone’s in the office. Forced to take Sally with him (more on this in a moment), Don heads in, where essentially everyone at Sterling Cooper -- aside from Roger, who’s out with Vicky – is toiling away. Without going into detail, there is tension over exactly how to pitch to American, and Don wins out. But when the meeting rolls around, there’s a surprise: Duck’s man on the inside, Shel Kenneally, was fired that morning. Whoops! Well, the American people “acted impressed” on their way out, we learn, and while the team seems dejected (and Don indulges in an I-told-you-so or two), I suspect this might not be as dead as it seems.

In the suburbs, the atmosphere starts out promising for Betty and Don when he puts the moves on her on the aptly named Passion Sunday morning. Alas, the moment is disrupted when Sally and Bobby barge in, but Don and Betty do spend a lost Sunday together at home, drinking Bloody Marys (mixed by Sally, of course) and forgetting to feed the kids dinner. This domestic bliss is unsettled, however, by two things: first, Betty’s pestering Don to do something about Bobby’s relatively minor acting out, and second (and unknown to Betty), Bobbie Barrett’s seduction of Don in his office. Regarding the former, Betty wants Don to spank Bobby for his various infractions, but Don, signifying that perhaps he was the first proponent of modern, no-spank parenting, resists. This resistance results in a fight between Betty and Don, in which she argues that she needs support since she’s at home alone all day raising them, and he points out that (a) she has Carla, and (b) he pays for everything. At this moment, stay-at-home parents everywhere empathized with Betty, and working parents everywhere empathized with Don. At the end of the episode, Don tells Betty that his dad “beat the hell” out of him all the time, and the only thing it made him do was fantasize about killing his father. Betty regrets pushing Don on this, but it’s clear that life is not peaceful in the Draper household. Anyone want to make any bold predictions for future seasons? Will they eventually get divorced, casting Betty into the life of the much-pitied Helen Bishop? Will she overdose on Don’s Phenobarbital and one of Sally’s special cocktails?

Speaking of Sally, she has an eventful Palm Sunday in the office, remarking upon Joan’s bosom, querying Kinsey about whether he lies on top of his black girlfriend, and, finally, polishing off some leftover booze and passing out on an office couch. Maybe she and Roger can hit the town in a future season, if Roger manages to stay alive.

-- Sarah Rogers

(Photo courtesy AMC)