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Mad Men Recap: Let’s Get Liberated!

The Emmys articulated it: Mad Men is the cure for common television. This episode made some other things clear: Nakedness is the cure for the common brainstorming session; Drunkenness is the cure for the common awards show; Cliches are the cure for the common client; Joan is the cure for the common flashback; Peggy is the cure for the common woman; and nothing is the cure for epic blackout alcoholic drunkenness.

As wry commentary on the Emmys awards frenzy, this very meta episode about Don’s Clio Awards triumph couldn’t help but feel a bit smug, like some entitled kid was joking about his own success, while gloating over it. And it often felt like this acutely self-referential episode was overstuffed with inside jokes at the expense of the narrative, which might be why Peggy's storyline felt so phenomenal by contrast. We get Don’s comment about how awards helped Grey’s double its business one minute, then a self-deprecating line like this one from the small-town awards winner: “The minute you win, they know the ad’s arty, and then you’re out of business.” It's so meta, Don even gets an Adrian Brody moment when he smooches Joan. (Does it intimate a former hookup? Probably just a red herring.) By the time a cake-mix jingle writer is giving Don a hummer while humming “The Star Spangled Banner,” we know we’re in for a cynical riff on the secrets of American success.

Why is Pete a partner instead of Ken? Nepotism. Why does Joan manage the staff? She slept with Roger. Why is Don a partner? He got Roger drunk and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Of course there's more, and, sometimes, success is 99 percent luck. Isn’t that one of the clichés people spout at awards shows? (This episode is filled with them.) But what if your success is all based on a drunken mistake? Or a lie? Or a stolen idea? The increasingly incompetent Roger (described by Lane as “a child”) tells Joan that his talent is “finding guys like [Don].” But the only reason he hired Don is that an eager, cute, floppy-topped fur salesman got him so drunk he ate “a jar of olives.” Roger's genius moment was luck. Don's rise to power wasn't based on the bootstrap model of success that he likes to imagine, either. It started with the bullshit model: Exploit a boss’s alcohol-addled weakness until he says yes.

All along, Mad Men has been hinting that Don is turning into Roger: arrogant, drunk, and coasting on past success. In this episode, they trade roles. Don's blitzed blitzkrieg of a lost weekend results in the hire of a new writer, Danny, who could either be simple comic relief or, if Danny Strong lives up to his Buffy the Vampire Slayer image, a super-villain waiting to happen. The whole malapropism-mad episode is built around the idea that this idiom-happy idiot might be right when he says that “aspiration is as good as perspiration.” Since perspiration is only getting Peggy so far, maybe aspiration is just as good as anything else. On that note, the Roger-Don backstory reinforces what we already know: In the ad business, aspiration — that desire to buy and build a better you — is of ultimate importance, since facts can often be bent to fit the fantasy. It's also why Don, that up-from-nothing con who has never really wanted to be anything but to become a “very important man in a very important agency,” has been such a natural at the game. A better, more glamorous "me" is all he's ever wanted.

Everyone wants some recognition, especially Don, whose whole aim seems to be that “important person.” Normally he’s the most difficult man to please, but put an award in his hand, and suddenly he’s beaming like a child again, lapping it up like that kid in the landmark Life cereal commercial he was too drunk to create: “Hey Mikey! He likes it!” (Life cereal’s current slogan is the terrible “Life is full of surprises,” which just makes it sound like they have no quality control whatsoever.) Don's eagerness is understandable but utterly unflattering. In some consistent, deliberate ways, this season has worked to dismantle Don’s likability. It's led to some narrative schizophrenia on the show, as he veers from one extreme to another, but mostly, it's been downhill. Don has been presented as a jerk of a boss (sleeping with his secretary, then mistreating her afterward), an incompetent father (shoving two of his three kids in front of the TV when he remembers to pick them up), a “pathetic” drunk, and a clumsy lover. Sexually, Don is still appealing to women (at least for one night), but the dull repetition threatens to dull his appeal. When he tries to pick up Faye, he even tries out the same lame line he used on Allison, “You smell good.” (Yes, this is the best the genius Don Draper can muster.) Don’s last admirable quality — that he’s indisputably excellent at what he does—is also now in question, since it seems even his best campaign may have been mostly Peggy’s creation, and his most recent tagline was stolen from an idiot.

Now, on the night of Don’s award, we find out that he’s not just getting Roger drunk, or even Freddie Rumsen drunk. He's getting who-the-hell-are-you-oh-Doris-Judas-Priest!-I-can’t-believe-I-used-my-real-name blackout drunk. Remember Lane's line about nostalgia and London Fog — that there never was any fog in London, that it was all just toxic pollution. Well, here's what happens if you use that neat-o iPhone Cocktail Culture application too often. (In fact, AMC's awful ad copy for that app now sounds more like a threat: "Get that last one right, and Roger Sterling just may invite you to his next party!")

Where do Don and Roger go from here? Blackout drunkenness is no good, but what are the other options? Moderation? “There’s health,” Don pitches to Life, “but that’s not fun.” Where’s the wild romance in sobriety? That feeling that “out there it's not Third Avenue any longer, it's the Nile,” as Ray Milland raved in The Lost Weekend? Roger and Don seem utterly lazy compared to those aspirational kids Pete and Peggy, who don’t need to get liquored up in order to feel that great surging sense of ambition. (When Pete asks if Ken can “do as told,” don’t his pointy elbows wiggling behind his ears just seem so banal and evil?)

Meanwhile, ignored by that entire plotline is the 25 year-old Peggy, who gets less respect than Rodney Dangerfield — but is learning fast and may overtake them all. "Be a woman,” Bobbi Barret once told Peggy. “It's powerful business when done correctly.” In this episode, we see just how powerful that business can be, when she breaks down Stan Rizzo, the cocky (ahem) new art director (Here's LBJ's Klan ad). Ignored by everyone in the office, given zero respect for her contribution to the GloCoat ad, and bumped from the ceremony so Joan can attend, Peggy is fed up — and now she has to deal with Rizzo. Baldly chauvinist, he quips like Roger and prances around the stud bull in the barnyard, but Peggy sees through his bullshit. “Let’s get liberated!” Peggy says, and then mocks Stan's erection until he finally runs off into the bathroom with his tightie whities. Her transformation has been so fascinating, and so complete over the past two seasons, that it’s almost getting impossible to imagine that she could remain at this firm much longer. As all of the other characters on the show descend into creepier levels of dysfunction, Peggy is emerging as a kind of heroine. (Knowing how cynical this show can be, this only makes us worry more.)

It was a strange episode that brought back the flashbacks and Duck, and the distracting inside-baseball didn't end with the awards show. We know Matt Weiner is absurdly paranoid about spoilers, and we see Harry giving Peyton Place spoilers to the Life execs. And on the night of a lock-in best-writing award, the script was peppered with these little idioms that linked back to the opening scene. Here are just a few of them: “Are we on Candid Camera?... Well, break a leg… We wish you the best of luck… Over my dead body… I told him to be himself… We can’t have you pulling the cart by yourself… We’re top of the heap… Let’s get out of here and really celebrate…” Why so many? When Roger, the office wit who never says anything straight, forces Don to say, "I couldn't have done it without you," it seems like he's saying that these dumb cliches have meaning. That underneath all that endless ad-man spin, real honest sentiment means something, after all. Will Don and Roger's insincerity be their undoing?

Still, is the episode even more self-referential than that? After sharing last year’s Emmy win for Best Writing, writer Kater Gordon, who quickly moved from her role as Weiner’s assistant to a full-time staff writer, was fired. Last year, fans debated Weiner’s awards manner (Gordon was onstage but didn’t say a word while Weiner spoke) and a source told Nikki Finke, “We think [Kater's] done a great job, particularly for someone whose career has progressed so quickly... Now, however, Matt has reluctantly decided that their relationship has reached its full potential.” Was this episode—with Don’s ego frenzy and Peggy’s class act — in some way, Weiner’s acknowledgment of her and that tempest in a teapot? If so, it would be fascinating — but we’ll likely never know.

When the award was presented for best writing for a drama last night, Weiner took the stage with Erin Levy, another young co-writer he once mentored. She said that she had to thank her boss. Weiner’s reply? “You do.”

Photo: AMC