Scenes from Two Failing Marriages Dominate “Mad Men” Season Seven, Episode Five
You knew this was going to be a “very special Mad Men” even before the opening credits, when the AMC staff announcer warned viewers about sexual content, in a manner reminiscent of the run-up to an episode of “Justified”. And, Matt Weiner certainly didn’t disappoint, coming across with a ménage a trois so intricately choreographed that it was reminiscent of an aquatic scene in an old Esther Williams movie.
The recipient of this sexual largesse was a tired and slightly drunk Don Draper, on the West Coast ostensibly to check up on his very pregnant “niece”, Stephanie, who has flown the coop with a $1,000 check before Don hits the door of wife Megan’s Laurel Canyon home. After smoking some weed with her pal “Amy from Delaware” and cleaning up the debris of a party with her “actor” friends, Megan is ready to go to some unusual lengths to make this a weekend for Don to remember. This, after earlier in the night Megan has performed a vampish dance with a guy looking suspiciously like Roy the Beatnik from the show’s early episodes (featuring the freewheeling and ultimately tragically fated Midge). So, the two women seduce Don, and the ad man, protestations aside, responds viscerally and positively.
Then morning comes, Don’s in bed with Megan and Amy, followed by an exceptionally awkward scene in the kitchen, the latter a bit flustered and embarrassed and the former frustrated that her strategy hasn’t led to some kind of resurrection of affection in Don. If the Draper marriage were on life support before shooting the adrenaline of a three-way into the morphine drip, it is certainly now about time to pull the plug.
There’s really no more reason for Megan to be in LA than for Don to remain in NY at this point. Her acting career has hit a full stall, and she’s spending her days hanging out with the aforementioned Amy and fielding calls from her fellow struggling actors. It’s all about the California lifestyle for Megan, and she’s been fully seduced by it. Plus, if she and Don were actually in the same city for more than two days, they’d have to actually work on their marriage, and neither of them want to do that, because they’d have to admit that it’s all over but the occasional sex orgy.
Plus, don’t we have a bit of an issue with show continuity? Last time we encountered Megan, she was telling Don it was over and then tolerating a less-than fulfilling bi-coastal phone conversation while Don made a half-hearted attempt to win her back. In this episode, all of that seems forgotten, as when Don presumptuously asks Megan to take care of Stephanie, Megan responds cheerily about it and looks forward to Don making the trek back to LA to have his little family reunion. What happened to Megan’s resolve to call it quits?
It’s enough to drive one crazy, and indeed, that’s exactly what happens to Michael Ginsberg, who is transformed from being eccentric (and almost comically over-the-top) to a full-on nut job, all because of the leviathan-like computer that he believes is taking over his mind and revealing a pretty healthy dose of homophobia. His first strategy for dealing with the humming in his head was strange enough- trying to seduce Peggy Olson in her condo. His second strategy- cutting off one of his chest nipples in order to relieve the pressure from his brain, and then giving the offending body part to Peggy as a gift, lands him in a gurney on the way to a mental hospital. That Peggy realizes that Ginsberg has crossed the Rubicon from annoyingly strange to truly sick shows there’s hope for her yet, and Elisabeth Moss plays the scene with just the right amount of horror, shock and sympathy.
Speaking of horror, there’s the return of Betty after a one-episode hiatus, and we find that the pettiness, selfishness and immaturity that has been the hallmark of her approach to both of her marriages is beginning to finally get to the preternaturally tolerant Henry Francis. At a progressive dinner, Betty reveals that she didn’t get the memo that Henry- evidently now a Congressman or state representative- is now against the war in Vietnam and supporting Richard Nixon’s effort to extricate the US from the decade-long quagmire. Betty seems pretty into the war effort, and assumed Henry was, as well. Either she didn’t bother to check signals with Henry on this, or she simply doesn’t care. Since Betty has elevated self-centeredness to an art form, I’d bet on the latter.
Just to add salt to the wound, Betty bows out of the rest of the dinner with a “headache”, leaving Henry to meander around the neighborhood stag and putting him in a foul mood. While Don at least has two stoned women to bed at the end of the night, there’s no such luck for Henry, who must be left to wonder what in the world motivated him to break up the Don and Betty’s marriage. Maybe he should have had a heart-to-heart with Sally beforehand, who after breaking her nose in a mock swordfight and coming home to her mother and stepfather, seems to be permanently alienated from “Betty”, a term she uses contemptuously to refer to her mother.
This episode reverses the previous proportion of office activity to personal stories, as there is only one plotline devoted to the office, but it’s a significant one—the machinations by Jim Cutler and his favorite “adequate” creative chief, Lou Avery (comedian Allan Havey) to get rid of Don once and for all. The strategy involves winning the new Commander cigarette- newest from the Philip Morris line up- and then forcing Don’s resignation or firing because of the “open letter” he wrote several years ago, in which he atoned for working for cigarette companies. Through a strange alliance with the insurgent (and gossip-prone) Harry Crane, Don learns of the plot, shows up unannounced to the clandestine meeting with the client and offers to fall on his sword to land the account- or run the creative effort, using the Intel that he gained from sleeping with the enemy. It’s the old Don–slick, smooth, articulate and convincing—who walks in and out of that client meeting. No strange digressions about his deep dark past and total command of the situation and the room. Jim and Lou are less than enthralled with the performance, but Don feels pretty satisfied, choosing to interpret Lou’s parting shot (“you’re really something”) as a compliment, even as he knows full well that it’s not.
That scene, coupled with Lou’s semi-unraveling when his creative staff finds his sketches of a cartoon character called “Scout” that he evidently thinks will bring him riches, establishes the circumstances for a potential Lou meltdown and a Don ascendancy. Don now has his nose and a good deal of the rest of his body inside Lou’s tent. The creative staff clearly respects him more than they do Lou, and the “Scout’s Honor” comic strip that is Lou’s pride and joy reinforces how clearly out of step he is with the current Zeitgeist, not to mention his own staff. This is underscored when he attempts to connect with them by making a ridiculous comparison between himself and Bob Dylan.
The scenes with Megan and Stephanie are particularly well played, as Megan’s surface friendliness is stripped bare pretty quickly after she sizes up the younger woman. Megan calls Stephanie “beautiful” and Stephanie says that Megan is “magnetic”, but it is clear that both women are uncomfortable with each other, and with the prospect of sharing their affection for Don. And, there’s the undercurrent of regret spiced with resentment on Megan’s part, as she sees the visibly ripened and Madonna-like Stephanie in full bloom at the seven-month mark of her pregnancy—and being less than enthralled at the prospect. Megan maneuvers Stephanie out the door by warning her about Don’s possessiveness and buying her off with the aforementioned $1,000 check. It’s a passive-aggressive move on Megan’s part, and it demonstrates that the wound of her miscarriage is still just beneath the surface, not to mention her impression that Don seems to care more about this almost-total stranger than he does about her. After all, he’s coming to LA to see Stephanie, not Megan.
It’s interesting that both Don’s and Betty’s marriages are unraveling at the same time on different coasts. It makes one wonder whether these two will ultimately decide that they belong together again, inflicting their own brand of solipsism on each other rather than disrupting the lives of everyone else. Perhaps with only two episodes left, we’ll at least have the strands of these marital subplots resolved, even if Don is still playing the long game at work. It would be nice to have something, anything resolved in this fascinating but frustrating brace of episodes as consolation for waiting yet another year for the inexorable conclusion.
Harlan R. Teller