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Mad Men: Changing the Conversation

The horny little nerd-bird.

Logan Hill is off filming his own very special jet-setter's episode of Mad Men, so we’ll be filling in this week. And thank God! Because this was one of our favorite episodes, spiraling around a nuanced debate between Don and Peggy — a multilayered meditation on the nature of feminine wiles, which are, after all, their own kind of advertising industry.

The Pitch: I enjoy being a girl!

The Campaign
We open with the kittenishly rapacious song stylings of Ann-Margret in Bye Bye Birdie. Ken’s newest client is Patio the (real, by the way) early version of Diet Pepsi, and the clients want a copycat movie sequence. Peggy’s disgusted, saying Ann-Margret speaks to men, not to her, the potential client. Nope, says Ken: “She’s fun and sexy; don’t be a prude.”

Meanwhile, Pete oversees the new Madison Square Garden account, only to nearly lose the client when beatnik-commie Paul sympathizes with the protesters defending Penn Station. Pryce deputizes Don to fix things, which he accomplishes with his usual hypnotic pitchmanship: “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” New York is in decay; offer California-flavored hope! It works, but perversely, the Brits kill the deal.

Meanwhile, a pregnant Betty sulks, craves fried chicken, and, in one hilarious edit, snaps at a child — “What are you doing?” — as soon as Don leaves the frame. Then, after a visit to the office (during which Joan ominously notes that she may get pregnant, too, when Dr. Rape gets promoted), she is forced to make awkward chitchat at dinner with Pryce’s sardonic wife, who makes remarks like, “We’re near the U.N., so there are plenty of Africans.”

But what’s really bugging Betty is her sick father, who has been abandoned by his new wife. “Maybe she’s realized that he’s a son of a bitch,” suggests Don. Betty plays family host and it’s a misery: Her father dodders creepily while Betty fights with her brother and sister-in-law over his fate. As with the ad clients, Don solves the problem, strong-arming Betty’s brother so effectively the guy is lucky he didn’t get finger-banged outside a cloakroom. Dad moves in. Trouble is, he’s senile: They find him pouring out liquor, caught up in some Prohibition fantasy.

Roger is generally hilarious, so we’ll just quote a bunch of his lines. “Did you ever get three sheets to the wind and try that thing on?” (gazing at a suit of armor in the British boss’ office). “Princess Grace swallowed a basketball” (hostile banter with Betty). His unhappy daughter Margaret begs him not to bring homewrecker-stepmom Jane to her wedding, and Roger’s analysis afterward ranges from bitter (“someone’s trying for a landgrab”) to sadly insightful (“now I just want to win”) to hilariously self-pitying (when he buttonholes a baffled Peggy as a sounding board). There’s even an encounter with Joan, complete with bittersweet eye contact and a horrifying “Good night, Mrs. Harris.”

But the really great stuff is about Peggy, who spends the episode obsessing over Ann-Margret. She overhears Joan in full flirt, using a line about the subway. That night, she creepily, sweetly, poignantly attempts the Ann-Margret song in her single-gal mirror, off-tune, trailing into stymied hair-brushing. When she approaches Don about the Patio account, she shows him the Bye Bye Birdie clip. “The boys are very excited about finding this girl,” Peggy deadpans. But Don gets the appeal: “It makes your heart hurt.” She argues again: “I don’t mind fantasies, but shouldn’t it be a female one?” It IS, says Don: Men want her and women want to be her. “If we were making a movie or a play, we’d be embarrassed to make this,” Peggy says bitterly. “It’s phony.” He responds that she’s not an artist: “We solve problems.”

That night, Peggy goes to a bar and flirts, using Joan’s line. It works. Soon she’s splitting a hamburger with a college kid who seems somehow both callow and sweet, conventional but also genuinely attracted to Peggy’s humor. “I figure if we’re all going to be replaced by machines, you might as well be the one to make ’em!,” he gushes about switching to engineering from lawyering. “Or you could just become a robot,” she responds.

At his apartment, they quite sexily make out, but he doesn’t have a condom. It’s awkward, but she makes an offer: “There are other things we can do.” His eyes shine; they connect and kiss. But in the middle of the night, she dresses and leaves, ignoring his offer of breakfast and hints of interest. She refuses to name her workplace and goes out the door, saying, “This was fun.”

The final scene is a May Day dance at Sally’s school, where Don hones in on the barefoot teacher’s avid, girlish dance moves. He brushes the grass with his fingers. Is he attracted to her Ann-Margret–ish charms? Longing for something earthier in his life? Or is he considering Peggy’s point of view, the whole question of real versus phony? A family photo is taken. And the next day, he meets with Peggy. He lights a cigarette. She flips through her portfolio. We’re watching from outside the office and the scene ends.

Early Results
Christ, Peggy is fascinating. The entire episode spirals around her angry, hurt, confused analytical response to the image of Ann-Margret, the girlish phony all the boys want. But ironically, when Peggy mimics those breathy faux-innocent moves (and copycats Joan the way the ad copycatted Bye Bye Birdie), she stumbles into a fairly passionate encounter with someone who seems attracted to her for who she is, a horny little nerd-bird. Of course, she backs away. And pretends she’s a secretary. But we love that this show can make a demand for a condom and the suggestion of acts other than intercourse the height of kink and candor!

And what was going on in that May Day scene? Though Don slammed Peggy down, we do wonder if he’s reexamining his own understanding of what men are and what women want — that very effective artificial masculinity he’s learned practicing in front of his own mirror. The episode ends with him gazing at Peggy. And while Don may be a philanderer, he clearly disapproves of Roger, who is prancing through a Noel Coward rewrite of the Jon Gosselin story. Amid all the high archness, bonus points to Roger’s ex-wife, Mona, who manages to call Jane “June” in passing. And also: Notice the close-up on the wedding invitation. Poor Margaret’s wedding is scheduled for the day after JFK’s assassination.

Photo: Carin Baer / AMC