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'Mad Men': Frisky business

October 12, 2009 |  9:32 am

Never trust a man who talks like a cowboy but is dressed in a suit. Lee Garner Jr. of the Lucky Strike account pulled the rug out from under Sal this week, all because Sal wasn’t game for a little frisky action in the editing room. For all parties involved, Lucky Strike turned into an Unlucky Strike-Out, har har.

Garner calls Harry Crane to get Sal fired, but Crane doesn’t take it seriously, figuring it’ll blow over as soon as Garner sobers. Nine times out of 10, he would’ve been right, but the dynamics were trickier than clueless Crane could’ve known. Garner, on some level, was likely worried that Sal would rat out his secret, and it was also a way to exert more sexual power. If not with his body, Garner would enforce his will with his account dollars, the kind, as Don points out, that mean the difference between lights on and lights out at Sterling-Cooper.

The scene between an astounded Sal (actor Bryan Batt played this beautifully) and Don, in a moment of righteous disgust we rarely get to see from our dapper hero, was one of the most unflattering for Don of the season so far. “You people,” he says, with just enough seethe to remind us that Don is not immune to the prejudices of his time.
In a strange sense, it’s a relief. Too often, “Mad Men” has let Don be better than the trappings of the ‘60s — a nouveau parent, a champion of Peggy, a compassionate soul disgusted by Roger’s blackface and spiritual kin to all outsiders. We’re reminded that Don can be a callous, cruel businessman willing to leverage homophobia in order to justify firing Sal. Would he have insisted that Peggy sleep with a client? Actually, maybe so, but how far does the line blur for demanding clientele? Does this mean that Connie Hilton, who took a shine to Betty in Rome, gets to bed down with her should he so desire?

It is fair to point out that Don’s biggest source of irritation with the Sal situation may not have been with Sal’s sexual orientation but with Sal’s lack of ability to control the situation with whatever means necessary. If Don were Sal, he would’ve slept with the guy, no question. Don likes the type who will crisis manage at any cost. Keeping secrets is more important than keeping your dignity.

Sal wasn’t the only one expected to acquiesce in “Wee Small Hours,” the ninth episode of the rapidly ticking-down season. Don was running circles for Hilton and getting nowhere outside of Roger’s wrath. Even the ever-sensitive Betty wondered aloud if the civil rights movement should simply wait for a better time. She blabs this to Carla, of all people, who was mourning the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Betty’s ridiculous statement was almost as obnoxious as her hypocritical comments about the South, as she passed the silver tray back to her hired help, whom she treats politely but without much depth or consideration.

Let’s go ahead and launch into Betty’s pseudo-affair with Henry, another example of Betty’s naiveté, albeit a more sympathetic one. As the common wisdom goes about women in affairs, Betty wants an emotional connection, not necessarily a sexual one. She was more interested in having Henry stand in her living room, doing his spiel about Rockefeller, and giving her little winks and nudges between deviled eggs and Spam canapés. Instead, the discreet Henry sends one of his bright lady minions, and Betty nearly loses her cool in front of Francine, who probably loves nothing more than to witness this kind of unhinging, which she can play and replay in her mind while folding never-ending piles of laundry.

After Betty flings the money box across Henry’s office — the second metal canister to go flying in “Wee Small Hours” — the two come to an understanding about the differences in their idea of “affair.” Henry, of course, expected a little rendezvous in the office with the shades down and the door locked, or perhaps a quick dash to the nearest, um, Hilton. Betty finally snaps out of her delusion that Henry just wants to hear about her Bryn Mawr roommate and other tales that make her an interesting person. She can’t consummate their flirtation because it would be tawdry, and off she goes back to Ossining, to entertain herself with Bobby and Sally’s squabbles and Carla’s occasional gaffes with stocking the kitchen.

Don rarely blinks twice about having a tryst, and the one with Suzanne, the kooky teacher who lives in a sad apartment and goes running at the serial killer-baiting wee hours of the morning, has been a long time coming now. Their repartee — Suzanne’s comments about her being “new and different,” or perhaps just the same — felt a little rehashed from the affair playbook already ransacked with Midge and the department store heiress, but there also seemed to be just a sliver of instability about Suzanne. She certainly sells herself as a jaded old hand at this kind of thing, but she seems to have very little else to occupy her mind, outside of cutting boxes for eclipse-viewing and dancing around maypoles. A young, pretty woman tucked away in a dumpy apartment in the ‘burbs? Why isn’t she in Greenwich Village, commuting to the Bronx every day to teach disadvantaged children? Could Don come to occupy too much of her mind?

Last but not least, let’s examine Don’s most emotional moment of the show. Hilton, in one of his many late-night monologues, laid the biggest trip on Don anyone could — he told him, “You’re like a son to me.” It was like watching a giant fish hook latch on to the lip of a fat bass. Don, the ultimate orphan, the wanderer, the perfect conduit for Hilton’s imperialist fantasies that his hotels be a luxe phantom of America wherever you are, is now on the line to please a father figure just as critical and withholding as his real dad. In every moment of “Wee Small Hours” we watched his self-worth get tied up in it, the stitches tighter and tighter. What will he do to bring his spiritual papa the moon?

— Margaret Wappler

Photo: Lee Garner employs one of his seduction moves, the from-behind body lock, on Sal. Credit:  Carin Baer