Mad Men: The Lost Symbols

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Photo: Courtesy of AMC
Character from Mad Men
Show
Mad Men
Episode Title
Seven Twenty Three
Season
3
Episode
7

After a slow start, season three whirred its John Deere engine into high gear over the last two episodes, cutting a bloody swathe through the Sterling Cooper offices and rejiggering all sorts of dynamics. Now that all that British blood has been squeegeed clean, Peggy, Don, and Betty step into a three-ring circus of heavy symbolism and at least one major shock.

This week’s show is a three-part flashback mystery. It begins with three images: Peggy, lying next to some mystery man in bed; Betty, reclining on an antique chaise; Don, face-down in a dirty hotel room. To decode these three mysteries, you must use three symbols: An Hermès scarf, a Victorian chaise, and a solar eclipse.

We knew Don was too admirable last week for it to last. Now he kicks off the episode by getting his perfect face mucked up. (How much more will Weiner rough him up?) Hilton’s back in the picture, talking about business as if it were an affair (the inverse of Duck, later in the episode). Roger is painfully jealous of Don’s new power: When he calls him “our David Ogilvy,” it’s not so much a backhanded compliment as a backhanded slap. Yet the more time Don spends with Connie, the more he seems to lose his independence and his mojo. When Don’s frankly implausible lack of a contract becomes an issue once again, Roger tries to swipe back at Don by jealously manipulating Betty. Finally, we discover that Cooper wasn’t just being kind way back when Pete brought Don’s secret identity to his attention: Cooper was pocketing an ace. Now he plays it, forcing Don to fold. After looking his best last episode, has Don ever seemed so beaten?

Don and Miss Farrell have their moment, too. But it’s deeply strange. She calls him out for flirting, even as she’s pushing the flirtation along. (Is she bipolar? Serious trouble for Don? Both?) All around are camera obscuras. Remember all that talk last week about being afraid of the dark? Maybe this week’s Symbol of the Week is a continuation: Everyone’s being warned not to look too directly into the darkness, because it could blind them — but Don’s not even trying.Then Don ends up in a car with more drifters, perhaps because that’s his natural state (after his California bohemian fling), but drugs revive the ghost of his jackass dad at the Knight’s Hotel (masculinity issues, anyone?). “Conrad Hilton, taken so easily? You can’t be tied down,” Dad says, before reminding Don that he grows “bullshit.” Why all the camera obscuras? And why all the drugs? Not to get all Timothy Leary here, but maybe they’re doing the same things. The drugs that Betty and Don imbibed were also filters that helped them to honestly see what they’d prefer to ignore.

But can Betty handle the truth? She’s gone manic — working to save the environment (requisite and timely Silent Spring reference) by finding that sexy older gentleman who, it turns out, is more powerful than she’d imagined. She and the politico meet alone at a diner, not an office (mirroring the Duck-Peggy plot). The talk is one part policy, nine parts flirtation. They consummate their affair with a slice of apple pie (for what’s more American than adultery?) and a whopping symbol. Betty’s looking into the darkness, realizing her marriage is a mess and that she has unsated desires — but she’s been soaking in lies for so long that the truth makes her dizzy. And so she buys that symbol — a Victorian fainting couch — that just happens to be in the window.

Why is Betty hot for the politico? He one-ups Don’s power and authority — and satisfies her Daddy issues. When the politico makes a joke about “His master’s voice” (referring to the old RCA ad about a dog who mistakes a record for his owner), it reads like a play on both Betty’s Pavlovian response to father-figure power, and as an unwelcome reminder of Don. And the symbol? Placed in front of her hearth, Betty’s Victorian-era ideas of a fairytale romance are ridiculously out of place in her home with Don.

Of course, Peggy’s mystery is the juiciest: We first see her in bed with that man. Then we flash back to her ongoing courtship with Duck. He sends over Cubans for Pete — and that Hermès scarf for Peggy. Pete says, “Duck would love to hit Don where it hurts,” and returns the Cubans. But Peggy is flattered, despite Duck’s corny inscription: “elegance and success.” (It’s not the last awful line we’ll hear from Duck.) Then a rattled Don unleashes a devastating attack on Peggy, reminding her that he gave her a career. It’s an exact mirror of Don’s confrontation with Cooper, and deeply depressing.

Broken down, Peggy meets with Duck in a hotel room, where he seems to be doing business. This strange location raises at least two questions: Is this a real job offer, or is Duck just conning her? And how hungry for revenge is Duck? It’s worth noting the line right before the sex talk: “You are Don’s girl, aren’t you?” Then: “I want to take your clothes off with my teeth and give you a go-around like you’ve never had.” Did any women find that hot? We laughed — but Peggy loved it. Is it because Duck is speaking about his desires plainly and bluntly in Peggy’s subtext-free, declarative language? Maybe that Hermès scarf is the answer: Peggy can be professional and brilliant and trailblazing and no-nonsense but can still crave the kind of glamorous romance she sells every day. Maybe Duck is not just going to mess with her — maybe he’ll break her heart. He overcame her reservations the morning after.

A great episode, with all signs pointing toward imminent disaster for everyone. But instead of dwelling on tragedies to come, let’s note some great moments, too: The way the home decorator’s floral jacket lapels matched the dreary still life over the Drapers’ hearth. Betrand Cooper unironically saying, “He’s a bit of an eccentric, isn’t he?” Don’s retort to Connie: “Maybe I’m late because I was spending time with my family, reading the Bible.” Miss Farrell saying, “You’re all wearing the same shirt.” Recovering alcoholic Duck saying, “I love the taste of liquor on your breath.” And Roger’s jealousy overcoming him so much that he’s left sputtering his most lame joke of the season: that Confessions of an Advertising Man should be called 1,000 Reasons I’m So Great. What a child.