'Mad Men': 'Gentlemen, shall we begin 1965?'
As mysterious as Don Draper is, he’s also remarkably predictable. For example, I am sure I wasn't the only one who knew that Don would be paying a visit to Anna Draper the second that Harry mentioned the layover in California. See also: the inevitability that Don would hit on Stephanie, Anna’s gorgeous, grass-smoking niece.
I’ve noticed a pattern on “Mad Men.” The show takes a weird turn every time Don makes a trip to California; there’s always something a little dreamlike about his visits out West. Even on a physical level, Don changes, putting on shades, short-sleeved shirts, wearing his hair loose and calling himself Dick. He is at ease in California, and I suspect it’s because the only people there who know him actually know him. This time the surreal quality persisted, at least until Don was handed some sobering news: Anna is dying, but doesn’t know it. Don wants to tell her the truth, but ultimately decides it’s not his place. This whole subplot felt too convoluted — I don’t know why the story “needed” the extra wrinkle that Anna doesn’t know she’s dying, and I doubt it's even ethical for a doctor to withhold a diagnosis from a patient, but to share it with her family — so I didn’t find it as wrenching as it ought to have been. Even if Anna knew her fate, the point would be made: Don is going to lose the only person who knows and loves him as Dick Whitman, and there is nothing he can do about it.
The news thoroughly bums Don out, so rather than going to Acapulco, he heads back to New York, the greatest city in the world, especially when you’re a lonely, depressed, alcoholic divorcee. In contrast to the bright, airy California scenes, New York seemed especially gloomy this week, didn’t it? Don returns to the office over the holidays, only to find Lane in a similarly lonely state. His wife, Rebecca, has left him and returned to England with their children. Don and Lane have clashed often, so it was, in a strange way, nice to see them bond — which, it should be noted, is not something I often say about men hiring prostitutes. They get drunk and go to an afternoon screening of "Godzilla," where Don relays some important statistics: “You know what’s really going on here? Handjobs.” Later, they go to Don’s man-lair. Lane's lady friend notes how masculine the space is, to which Don replies: “I think Norman Mailer shot a deer over there.” Needless to say, the joke flies right over her head, without mussing a single strand of hair. If only because he had a buddy along this time, Don's carousing this week felt less bleak than it has otherwise been this season. Still, the writers are methodically setting up some kind of future crisis for Don. It's never an accident when a character spills a drink.
But there was more to this episode than male bonding: We finally got to catch up with Joan. She has always been my favorite character on “Mad Men,” owing to her combination of strength, vulnerability and an uncanny ability to cut people down without raising her voice a fraction of a decibel. Happily, all of these signature traits were in effect Sunday night. The episode opened with Joan’s trip to the gynecologist -- more specifically, with a shot of those unmistakable stirrups, an instant symbol of vulnerability to women the world over. Joan is at the doctor’s office because, as she explains: “All I want to know is when my husband and I can start a family, if my husband and I can start a family.” Her concern has less to do with her age -- by my calculations, Joan is now 33 -- than with complications from the two abortions she's had. Her gynecologist performed one of them; the other was performed by a self-proclaimed midwife. I must say, Joan seems to have an unusually chummy relationship with her gynecologist, though maybe his intrusiveness is only meant to be a sign of the paternalism of the era. Of course, we’re meant to wonder when -- and under what circumstances -- Joan sought out two abortions. Perhaps during her affair with Roger?
The revelation makes me love Joan even more. Her tragic flaw has always been the contrast between her messy personal life and her professional infallibility. Though we don't know when she had the procedures, or why, we can assume the pregnancies resulted from one of her many ill-fated relationships before Greg, and that her decisions to terminate the pregnancies were, at least in part, motivated by her financial and psychological need to work. This episode also makes me realize how very little we know about her life before she landed at Sterling Cooper; she’s a little Draper-esque in that way.
Joan is now ready to start a family with Greg, but despite her concerted efforts, all is not going according to plan. Her and Greg’s schedules are nearly impossible to coordinate, and he’s due to be shipped off to Vietnam at any moment. As thrilling as it is to see Joan in action, it’s heartbreaking to see her try valiantly, and fail, to make everything work, especially when she resorts to kitsch. There was the infamous accordion from last season, and Sunday night, there was a tragic homemade luau. Greg's not hungry, and Joan slices her finger open. In a vote of "no confidence" in her husband’s medical skills, Joan suggests that they go to a hospital, but Greg insists on treating the wound. “For me, this is like, I don’t know, filing papers is for you,” Greg says, a parallel that Joan rejects. “I don’t do that anymore. I have people do that for me.” They’re both trying desperately to please the other and to make everything right, but there’s only so much that can be done to fix the growing rift between them. Greg’s comment while working on her cut, “I can’t fix anything else, but I can fix this,” summarizes their relationship -- and the episode as a whole.
As vulnerable as Joan is at home, she’s more powerful than ever at the office, though Lane seems to be the only man impervious to her charms. She offers to get him some fried chicken (“Breast? Thigh?” she asks), but Lane knows she’s trying to butter him up. “Fried chicken, indeed,” he grumbles. After a humiliating mix-up with a bouquet of flowers, she fires Lane’s officious yet incompetent secretary without hesitation. The entire flower scene was a wonderfully-staged piece of writing, directing and acting. I loved the way that Peggy’s brief interaction with Joan -- less than a minute of screen time --spoke such volumes about their relationship. Peggy’s job might have more cache than Joan’s, but Peggy is obviously still intimidated by the woman who told her to stop dressing like a little girl; she makes it a point to mention her boyfriend and becomes visibly disappointed when Joan storms off mid-sentence without absorbing the news. It was also delightful to see Joan’s tenacity and fragility play off each other so powerfully. Joan thinks the flowers are from Greg, and she’s momentarily relieved. When she discovers that they’re not -- and she instead thinks they’re a patronizing gift from Lane -- she loses her cool.
As the episode comes to an end, a sober New Year begins. “Gentlemen, shall we begin 1965?” Joan asks, surrounded by a stack of accounting files and four subdued and, no doubt, hung-over senior executives. The camera cuts to Don, and let's put it this way: He doesn’t look too ready.
What did you think? Any idea what's in store for 1965? Will Joan become a mom? Will Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce have another successful year?
-- Meredith Blake
Photo: Joan (Christina Hendricks) reheats dinner for Greg (Sam Page). Credit: Mike Yarish /AMC
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