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Mad Men: You Can’t Go Rome Again

Can’t get enough fall-of-the-Roman-empire metaphors on Mad Men? By golly, this episode is for you (and that grumpy old coot Eugene, may he rest in peace). When in Rome on a Roman holiday, Don and Betty live la dolce vita, burning Roman candles from both ends. Sexy! Also: Pete takes a scandalous staycation, and Joan finally returns.

Everyone’s excited to leave the Sterling Cooper office, except Ebony-reading Pete, whose real home is the office. When Trudy leaves town, we see him listening to music in the dark, shirtless (!) and watching bad TV like some sickly child. Then he bumps into a busty German au pair sobbing over a ruined dress belonging to her employer. What to do? Mr. Peter will get her a new one.

At the department store (where we see Hermès product placement galore), Pete demands to see the manager. It’s Joan. She has a great new haircut and obviously assumes that Pete is covering up for an affair, but then she tells us what we really want to know: Her husband (the insensitive, clumsy, rapey one) is now pursuing a career that requires less hand-eye coordination but considerably more empathy than he would seem to possess — psychiatry. (File under: “Weiner, sick jokes by.”)

Did you assume that Pete is just being a good neighbor? Then you forgot Weiner’s Law: For every seemingly positive action made by a character (i.e., Don’s showcase two episodes back), there will be a disproportionately horrible reaction (i.e., Don clobbered, robbed, and haunted last week). Put another way, Mad Men has its own version of Chekhov’s gun: If a character’s decency is hinted at in the first act (Joan), degradation is almost sure to follow (Joan’s rape).

Yep, Pete tries to get the au pair drunk. She refuses, so he himself gets drunk and invites himself into her apartment during the middle of the night. Powerless and coerced, she grudgingly acquiesces to his advances, then spends the next few days crying. (Is it rape? It sure isn’t nice.) The man who employs the au pair confronts Pete, embarrassing him. The neighbor’s not worried over whether it was rape so much as he’s irritated about possibly losing the nanny; he’s also perturbed that Pete didn’t keep his philandering out of the building. (Pete is completely baffled by how men operate in the social world beyond prep school and the office.) When Trudy returns, Pete falls apart, but she forgives the mysterious source of his guilt when he asks her to never leave him alone again. Then he’s back in his comfort zone, telling silly stories about office pranks. Pete is lost.

Meanwhile, Connie wants Don in Montana, then Rome — and Betty is headed to her community board meeting. Sure enough, the politico, Henry, shows up to swing his big stick around the small-fry meeting hall. Afterward, Henry tells Betty, “I put my heart into things when something is important to me — or someone.” (Is this line so bad it must be true? Or is it just bad-bad?) They kiss. Then Betty peels out in her Dad’s Cadillac Lincoln. Was anyone else let down by the predictability of all this?

The next thing we know, Betty is flying to Rome and away from her desires. Why does Rome stink? Because it’s rotting with the filth and degradation of easy excess, of course! Betty and Don (who’s much more attractive to Betty when he’s praised by powerful people) are hot like we haven’t seen them in many episodes — flirting, role-playing, and even showering together. Betty looks Grace Kelly–glamorous with a wild new updo and slinky dress. (“You’re thin,” Don says — and we worry.)

Local Lotharios hitting on Betty say Don looks ugly and old; he must be rich. So let’s consider Don’s looks: Recently, hasn’t he seemed a bit less stylish and a lot more haggard? Hasn’t he been seen chowing on food? And doesn’t he seem to be gaining weight? We’re not saying we’d kick him out of the copy room, but is Weiner turning Don into a slightly paunchy, past-his-prime, half-step-behind-the-era middle-aged man? Is he messing with the sexiness of his franchise’s star attraction? Will Tina Fey cry when she sees this?

Back home, that giant, tufted fainting couch looms like some bulbous tumor: a cancer of romance. The community board’s ruling is overturned. Sally has made out with a boy and beat up her brother. (She sounds so much like Betty when she screams “shut up” that we wonder if they overdubbed Jones’s voice.) For her part, Betty is kind to Sally in a way she hasn’t been all season, even if she seems to be eulogizing the golden-age romance: “A first kiss is very special. Every kiss after that is a shadow of that kiss. You go from being a stranger to knowing someone.” Of course, it’s doubly tragic because she and Don are still practically strangers — and she knows it. “I hate this place. I hate our friends. I hate this town,” she fumes. So Don gives her a cheap (for Don Draper) trinket: a little gold Roman Colosseum for her charm bracelet. Love in the ruins, love is a battlefield, end of an era: all that.

Commenters, you always seem to hate when we criticize Weiner, but this was our least favorite episode of the season. The show introduces big gambits (the German au pair, the trip to Rome) that change little, reveal little we didn’t already know, and basically tease us before reestablishing the status quo. Other developments (the community board meeting and Betty’s kiss) seem predictable. And we’ve begun to get irritated with how Weiner seems to expect his audience to go around “evaluating objects” (as Betty said to Don last episode) instead of people. If another episode ends with a poignant visual representation of the show’s themes, we might (might) stop loving Mad Men. They’ve been hitting the tired Roman-empire metaphors hard this season, thanks to Eugene and his obsession with licentiousness. And now this corny Roman Colosseum ... But what are we gonna do? Just wait and see. As Betty says, repeating the politico: “When you have no power, delay.”

Photo: Carin Baer / AMC