Mad Men: A Case of Darkest Before the Dawn?

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The good, repressed old days. Photo: Courtesy AMC

On last week's pitch-black episode, Mad Men put Betty through the ringer and nearly every other character in motion, building toward the finale three weeks from now. Here, Betty gets some much-needed rest while everyone else goes haywire.

The Pitch
Indulge yourself, sucker.

The Campaign
Advertising is an elaborate rationale for hedonism. It's an aspirational religion that tells people they'd be crazy to abstain — crazy not to try something new, to fly to Los
Angeles, jump in that convertible, to sleep with that absurdly young woman with her hair pinned back just so. Don's always gotten high on his own supply. He's always suckered himself. This week, he's not alone.

The episode begins with a dark distillation of the absurdity of what these men do. In a hotel scene with Roger and Jane (his nubile, lesser-Joan), the world-weary, cynical alpha male is revealed to be a fool: "Inhaling the fragrance of the sheets / feeling the warmth of where you were just laying," intones Jane, breathily. "You make wine taste sweeter." Jane says she writes "a lot of poetry when I'm inspired." But it's clearly just plagiarized from bad advertising about better wine and cleaner sheets. Even the old hard-ass Roger isn't immune to self-flattering fantasy. His wife is about to take everything but the shirt on his back. Looks like Jane will take the shirt.

Crazy schemes are afoot everywhere else. Chastised by Roger, Duck finally gulps down a martini, and his dignity, before concocting a plan with his old Blighty pals to take over Sterling Cooper. Meanwhile, money-minded Harry reveals that he only seems like the nicest guy in the world: "I don't know why people keep stirring up trouble," he says of the civil-rights movement. "It's bad for business." Ken Cosgrove's biggest line of that night? "Kurt's a homo!" In Kurt's words: "I like to make love with the men, and not the women." But why does he have to queer-eye Peggy's haircut?

The real action is in California, where they're building new men with "superstrength." Pete, ditched by Don, hangs by the pool, where babes wearing the latest Bikini Atoll fashions ignore him. Don, on the other hand, meets a 21-year-old temptress named, oh so appropriately, Joy. He turns her down, then later sees her in a slick white convertible and Jackie O. sunglasses and head wrap, where she poses the episode's central question: "Why would you deny yourself something you want?

Don is then immersed in a louche, itinerant Euro-bohemian commune that's twice as hedonistic and three times as ridiculous as Midge's old Beatnik scene. Don is so overwhelmed that he literally passes out. Then he eats exotic Mexican food, makes love, ogles a skinny-dipping orgy, and discovers that Joy's own father is the same viscount who practically pimped her out. "You are beautiful, and you don't talk too much," Joy says, explaining why her father likes Don, but echoing Bobbie Barrett. This story line is borderline ludicrous — but it clicks into place when Don's lost suitcase arrives at his once-happy home without him. It's the kind of thing that only makes sense in Hollywood, or on Madison Avenue.

The Early Results
One thing is certain: This season won't end quietly. We know Don will come back somehow, but let's give Mad Men credit for making his absurd California vacation seem so plausible. Don's whole life contradicts this idea that you can't run from who you are — that you can't ever escape real life, whether it's race and the civil-rights struggle or your family and your wife at home. At the end of this episode, you really feel like he could just slip away. Even though he won't.