Vulture

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Mad Men Recap: Hit Me, Fire Me, Hurt Me

As we round the final corner of season four — just three episodes left — let’s think happy thoughts. Just think of all the nice lovely things that could have happened this week, if Mad Men were another show: Joan and Roger could have fallen into each other’s arms and professed their undying love. Don and Faye could have had another nice Italian dinner. Peggy could have found love. Pete could have felt a little more secure in the office. The firm might have landed a profitable new account. And Lane, oh Lane, perhaps he could have spent the rest of his life being ticked by a bunny’s fluffy wittle tail. Fat chance. As in the final quarter of past seasons, everything goes to hell.

“It’s a business of sadists and masochists, you know which one you are,” was Miss Blankenship’s dying curse. Episodes like this remind us that Mad Men viewers, as we’ve written before, are masochists, who have no choice but to take their punishment after each narrative thrill. In July, we wrote, "There are very few sex scenes that aren't followed by something crazily harsh. The show often balances our pleasure with punishment… Like Don, maybe fans like getting slapped around a little, too." Never has Mad Men’s pleasure-then-punish principle been clearer.

“It’s a business of sadists and masochists, you know which one you are,” was Miss Blankenship’s dying curse. Episodes like this remind us that Mad Men viewers, as we’ve written before, are masochists, who have no choice but to take their punishment after each narrative thrill. In July, we wrote, "There are very few sex scenes that aren't followed by something crazily harsh. The show often balances our pleasure with punishment… Like Don, maybe fans like getting slapped around a little, too." Never has Mad Men’s pleasure-then-punish principle been clearer.

Last week, fans cheered on Joanie’s stoop-sex with Roger. This week, Joanie got pregnant, got an abortion, and suffered through a predictably awful conversation with Roger. Roger, who finally got what he wanted (Joan), loses his biggest account and last, tenuous claim on his job.

Fans freaked out when Lane loosened up a few weeks ago. Last night, they saw his latest dalliance punished by his doddering (but surprisingly brutal) father, who crushed Lane's hand with a shoe, after lashing Lane’s face with a cane. "Yes" was not enough. Only "Yes, sir" would do.

Over the last two weeks, fans have cheered on how a sobered-up Don seemed to be, embracing Faye as something like an equal — how he might be growing out of his attraction to secretaries and dependence on rye whiskey. Now he’s panic-attack-stricken, FBI-hounded, and, suddenly, ogling the profile of the very submissive I’m-so-sorry-if-you-want-to-fire-me-I'd-understand-completely Megan. Don seems like just another scared boy who needs someone simple to take care of him. "Please tell me you're shtupping that girl out there," says his attorney, as fans cry, "Noooo!"

We shudder to think of what cold water might follow the ecstasy of Sally’s trip to see the Beatles in Shea Stadium. "Help!"

First, Joan. The big question: Did she really get the abortion? She showed up at the clinic, but we don’t know for sure. What we do know is that she was right to reject Roger for so long. “You’re overreacting,” an addled Roger says to a calm and collected Joan. “Buck up, it’ll be fine … ?” She knew this was the only way it could end with Roger, whose casual familiarity with the situation heavily hints that he shared responsibility for at least one of Joan’s earlier abortions. Once again, Joan has to take care of this because nobody else is there to take care of her. Once again, she doesn't have the option of weakness. The conversation in the abortion clinic is brutal. When Joan lies about having a 15-year-old child (because she appears too old to be having an abortion, the assumption being that she's old enough to take care of a child by herself), Joan might be talking about a real 15-year-old ghost. If she didn't get this abortion, surely Greg would figure out it's not his (he is a doctor, after all, even if he's a bad one) despite Roger's awful line, "It wouldn’t be my child, let’s make that clear … I mean, if he comes home." But if she did get this abortion, and her husband does die in 'Nam, as Roger crassly suggests, will she end up childless and alone like Miss Blankenship?

For Roger, it's all just more proof that he's an irresponsible, useless man-child. This season, the extent of his uselessness has become crystal clear. The better the punchlines, the less of a man he's become. He's essentially a spoiled fop and a wit, a wiseacre kid playing around with silly jokes. "I'm just trying to do what's best for you?" Oh my. The Lucky Strike honcho who once forced Roger to play Santa while men sat on his lap now gets to watch Roger beg and plead for more time — before he reminds Roger that all he's got is a name that he inherited. In this episode, Don isn’t the only one trading on a dead man’s name that comes back to haunt him. Roger’s got nothing but the name he inherited. If he seems pathetic and desperate lying about the Lucky Strike account at the partners meeting, he seems doubly pathetic working his dusty Rolodex and finding that the contacts he's forgotten to call for however many years are now dead and gone. Roger's got a month to make something work. Will he fall flat, bounce back, or take Don down with him?

The Beatles may be preparing to rock Shea Stadium, but Lane touched ground first in the British invasion and scouted out the Playboy Club. In this bad-little-boys-must-be-punished episode, Lane seems to think his traveling-salesman father ("no stranger to places such as these") will be impressed that he's wooed a black Playboy bunny while his kids live in London. When the elder Mr. Pryce literally canes his son, and Lane just takes it, he appears just as pathetic and childish as Roger. "Put your home in order," he commands. Is Lane's affair really true love — or is his immediate acquiescence a sign that he knows he's just another irresponsible boy fooling around because he, like Roger and Don, thought he'd never get caught?

And what has Don gotten himself into? In order to court North American Aviation and their development of the Minuteman II — a long-range, computer-guided nuclear missile — he's sloppily submitted for high-level security clearance. Apparently, all those long lunches and daytime naps and fun trips to the pool do exact a price. Now he's running from "G-Men" (just lovely to hear him say the word), working Pete's contacts at the Department of Defense (Pete's Ivy connections do come in handy), setting up a get-away plan, and, most recklessly, telling his mob-family girlfriend about it all. Betty covers for him, but maybe not for long. And Don gets one hell of a panic attack: fever, sweats, and then, back to the scotch and the vomiting again. Just when the new swimming, journaling, relatively teetotaling Don thought he was free and clear — and fans thought they were done with the flashbacks — everything's at risk, once again: business, life, relationships, identity. In narrative terms, this is what they call "raising the stakes." But where will it go from here? How much worse can it get?

Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC