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'Mad Men': It's all about recognition

August 30, 2010 | 10:39 am

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"Just because I got nominated doesn't mean they're going to give me the award."

In case you were wondering, that's a quote from Don Draper, not Jon Hamm. Season 4's self-referential streak continued Sunday night, as both "Mad Men" and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce picked up big awards. Hamm may have lost out on the best actor prize, but his fictional counterpart didn't go home empty-handed. Don picked up a Clio, along with several dozen Canadian Clubs, a waitress named Doris, and possibly a few STDs. So Jon, perhaps it's best you didn't win after all.

This episode was all about getting recognition. For the paranoid Pete Campbell, this meant a brief showdown with his old nemesis, Ken Cosgrove, and a confrontation with Lane, who explains the decision like this: "Roger Sterling is a child and we can't have you pulling the cart by yourself." It wasn't flashy, but there was something very effective about their exchange. Lane respects the unglamorous work that Pete has to do, and I think Pete probably feels the same way about Lane -- that is, when he can put his petulant grudges and paranoia aside.

Speaking of which, Pete's latest nemesis would appear to be Joan (or, should I say "Madame DeFarge"?), whose unofficial status as a partner he clearly finds threatening. Pete has blossomed professionally, but he's still nagged by congenital insecurity.

Peggy's greatest adversary is not a person so much as the phenomenon of institutionalized sexism. It all starts with Stan (Jay Ferguson), the agency's new art director. He dresses in work shirts and leather jackets, like a wannabe Jack Kerouac, and tells Peggy she's repressed because she thinks clothing serves a useful role in the workplace. He's the very worst kind of chauvinist: The kind who thinks he's politically progressive. Stan thinks of himself as a genius, mostly because he worked on the Johnson campaign (though not on the infamous "Daisy" commercial). Peggy's gripes with Stan are justified, but Don doesn't seem to care. "Stan is talented and more experienced. You need to learn to work with him, not the other way around," he says. Translation: Quit being a crybaby.

Holed up at the Waldorf with a deadline looming, Peggy has no choice but to call Stan on his bull. If Stan is so comfortable with his nudity, then can he work in the buff?  It was a stroke of genius by Peggy, whose feminist awakening is easily the best thing about Season 4.

Peggy also had to confront Don for stealing a tagline from "Roger's idiot," Danny (Danny Strong).   We've seen Peggy stand up to Don before, but this was different. She wasn't just defending herself; she was chastising her one-time mentor for reckless, unprofessional behavior. Once again, the women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are cleaning up after the mess made by the men.

This episode also examined Don's and Roger's "frenemy" relationship. While Roger becomes more irrelevant, Don's star is ascending. Roger, of course, feels threatened by this changing dynamic. To underscore this point, we were treated to a flashback -- the first so far this season, I think -- which shed some light on the genesis of their troubled friendship. Roger wants credit for discovering Don, but it turns out that that isn't exactly true. Back in the day, Don was an eager beaver fur salesman who liked to come up with ads in his spare time. Roger is irritated by Don's aggressive salesmanship -- perhaps because Don's naked ambition exposes Roger's easy, entitled rise to the top -- and only gives him a job after getting drunk. It's a pivotal moment in the story of Don Draper. Don might have been an advertising genius, but his rise to prominence was anything but fate. There's a parallel between Don's and Roger's meeting, and the moment in Korea when Dick Whitman assumed Don Draper's identity. Only this time, Don only needed a few martinis -- not a dropped lighter, a fortuitous gasoline puddle and a some switched dog tags.

The flashback might have solved one "Mad Men" mystery -- how Don landed at Sterling Cooper -- but now a few more have emerged. We'll probably never know whether Roger actually hired Don in the first place. But what I'm wondering is when Roger and Joan began their affair. There's no explicit indication of what year it is in the flashback, but I'm guessing it's 1953 -- the year Don married Betty. Don wasn't wearing a wedding ring (yes, I checked ), but we see Betty in the Heller's poster, so we can assume they've met. The point being: Joan's and Roger's relationship started this far back? They broke it off in Season 1 (1960), which means they were together for seven whole years.

While we're on the subject, I'm not sure what to make of the congratulatory kiss Don gave Joan after his win. In fact, the entire scene gave me a minor case of dramatic whiplash. First Roger grabs Joan's hand ("They still love each other. I knew it!"), then Don does the same ("Oh my god, does Don love Joan, too? Or is he just drunk?"), and then Don pulls an Adrien Brody, kissing Joan triumphantly ("Oh, he's really drunk.") The kiss was awkward, and judging from her "I just found a dead mouse in the kitchen" posture, I sense Joan was not thrilled about it, either.

So how are we to interpret the kiss? Is Don just being inappropriate? Or could it be a harbinger of things to come? I tend to think it's the former, though the tender hand-holding certainly confuses things. I know a lot of fans out there would like to see sparks fly between Don and Joan; if it does happen, you can bet that the Cold War between Don and Roger would ignite into a full-blown nuclear armageddon.

Unlike Roger or Peggy, Don's biggest adversary is himself. After his Cleo victory, Don embarks on a two-day blackout bender. He goes to bed with a talented (and patriotic!) jingle writer, only to wake up 36 hours later with a bedraggled-looking diner waitress named Doris. In case it wasn’t clear that this was a big slip-up, he's even introduced himself to her as Dick. Even worse is the fact that he accidentally plagiarizes a terrible idea and presents it to the Life executives. His work has always been sacrosanct, but not anymore. Piece by piece, the veneer is disintegrating.

This season, the writers have made the choice to turn Don into a pathetic drunk, a decision that I am finding more and more irritating each week. The appeal of "Mad Men" is the nuance and unknowability of its characters, yet the show is moving in the opposite direction -- towards the obvious and heavy-handed. When Duck Phillips shows up, martini glass in hand, at the Clio Awards, there's but one way to interpret it. I love "Mad Men," but surely there are more dramatically compelling ways to watch Don unravel. To quote Joan, the show has "crossed the line from lubricated to morose."

What did you think of this episode? Was the awards night theme clever, annoyingly self-referential or just a coincidence? Is Don's boozing getting a little too "after School Special” for you, too? And could Danny Siegel be the next Don Draper?

Other thoughts:

-- Did anyone else notice that John Aniston -- aka Victor Kiriakis from "Days of our Lives," aka Jennifer Aniston's dad -- played host at the Clios?

-- Pete Campbell's WASPy exclamations are getting more and more outlandish. Last week was my favorite, "Christ on a Cracker!" but this week's "Judas Priest!" was pretty great, too.

-- Is Jane Sterling (nee Siegel) Jewish? In the preview for next week, Harry refers to Danny as Jewish, so I'm guessing that she is. Has this fact ever been discussed before? Given how Rachel Menken's ethnicity was such an issue in Season 1, you'd think this would have come up by now, no?

-- Why did Joan -- and not Lane or Peggy -- get to go to the Clios? By way of explanation, Don tells Peggy that "there will be a lot of other people's clients there." I wasn't sure how to interpret that. Does it mean, "Joan is hot, we like to bring her and show her off?"

-- I cannot wait to see how Roger's navel-gazing memoir will turn out. The snippets we've heard so far sound positively inane.

-- I love how subtly Jon Hamm plays the various incarnations of Don Draper. There's California Don, who is friendly and at ease; then there's Pre-Sterling Cooper Don, whom we've seen only in fleeting glimpses. Unlike Drunk Divorced Don or Married Philandering Don, Pre-Sterling Cooper Don is eager, striving, and anything but cool. He even speaks faster. Someone give this man an Emmy, please!

-- Meredith Blake

twitter.com/MeredithBlake

Photo: Is that a love triangle I see forming between Don (Jon Hamm), Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Roger (John Slattery)? Credit: Mike Yarish / AMC

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