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Mad Men Recap: Sex, Soup, and Sandwiches

First off, let’s just note that all that swimming in the last episode has paid off: Last week, Don hit the pool. This week, he’s got a hot bod again. A pathetic, stumbling, black-out-addled, punchline drunk just a few episodes (and months) ago, he’s trim, cocky, and able to sip a glass of scotch without sucking down a bottle, getting all blotto, and molesting a secretary. He’s even kept his afternoon nap schedule, only now it’s to sleep off the sex and exercise, not to recover from a bender. That’s progress.

So, what’s up with Matt Weiner and these sexual sandwiches? First Peggy and Duck with their Monte Cristo sandwich room service, and now we see Don’s latest spin on the business lunch: two turkey sandwiches wrapped in paper, two sodas (not ten cocktails!), some very loud panting, and a broken lamp. Don’s feeling so good, he likes to think that he’s got nothing to hide, so he leaves a post-coital Faye in his apartment with this smooth line as explanation: “I’m taking everything interesting with me.” Don sure did get his mojo back in a hurry. But he’s wrong about one thing: He’s the least interesting person in this episode. As the title, “Beautiful Girls,” hammers home, this one went out to all the ladies.

Faye: She can break a lamp in bed; she has the softest skin; and she’s climbing that ladder as a serious, fast-rising executive. But she can’t look after a kid. On some level, Don still sees her as a half-step up from the secretarial pool — “I would have my secretary do it but she’s dead” — but this feels like a real relationship. Don wouldn’t go all the way in the last episode, but now they’re breaking stuff in the bedroom and Don’s consoling her in the office. But who is Faye, really? With her family’s Mafia connections and proper persona, it’s hard to get a handle on her.

Joan: She can do seemingly everything, from writing obits to hiding a corpse under an afghan; she can still wrap the boss around her now-ringless finger. But she can’t keep her husband from going to Vietnam. Did her hookup with Roger — finally, and after so much buildup and fan-fed desire — ultimately seem contrived and sudden? Let’s face it: Ex-lovers have hooked up with less warning and less reason before. And it’s not like she’s got anyone else to talk to. It’s entirely possible that this was a one-off fling between two lonely adults. Though, with Joan’s husband set to die in Vietnam, Joanie and Roger could be set to have a real fling at last — but Joan likely will have as much say in the matter as she did in her husband’s decision to enlist. If she falls for Roger again, it’s just as likely that Roger won’t get divorced and leave Joan hanging, yet again.

Peggy: She can get a drink at the bar; she can fire people at the office; she can pal around with bohemians. But she can’t find a lover who won’t leave her angry, lovesick, or both. And though she’s becoming aware of this whole other world out there that notices little things like racism, her attempts to engage are half-assedly hilarious (Harry Belafonte? The same Belafonte who bankrolled Freedom Riders, funded MLK Jr., and released an anti-Apartheid album in 1965? Really, Peggy? This is likely a nod to the 1968 TV performance, when sponsor Plymouth Motors objected to a white woman, Petula Clark, touching his arm while smiling). The best line in the pitch room came way after everyone used the old “the South is just like that and won’t change” line as a pragmatic excuse, though the Fillmore boys were from Boston. “Same thing.” Meanwhile, it’s a special sort of man who thinks he can turn you on by arrogantly calling you a war criminal. Will that “Nuremberg on Madison Avenue” article really disappear?

Sally: She’s stuck at home with a callous mom and her acting out is turning flat-out operatic. Over the course of the season, her cries for help have grown louder (literally), and Kiernan Shipka’s performance has only grown more fascinating. There’s something utterly messy about the way Don, on one level, is furious, and then, on another, pleased that she would run away toward him.

And then there’s poor Ms. Blankenship, Queen of Perversions, executive secretary, batty old bird, astronaut. Let’s cue up a slo-mo Boyz to Men video tribute: Blankenship shouting at Don; Blankenship barking out racist observations; Blankenship wearing her clownish coke-bottle glasses. Ida came so far, as her onetime paramour Bert Cooper points out, from a barn in 1898 to a skyscraper in 1965. She was an astronaut, and for what? What was her one great step for? Even flippant Roger is depressed at the thought.

Just before Joan and Roger get mugged, Joan complains about the neighborhood and Roger jokingly mocks her fuddy-duddyness by calling her Ms. Blankenship. It’s a slip worth thinking about because Joan is, in some ways, a younger Blankenship: a “queen of sexual perversion” who seduced a partner at the company, became an executive secretary, and (especially if her husband dies) has prioritized her work life to such an extent that she’s in danger of dying “as she lived: surrounded by the people for whom she answered the phones.” Ms. Blankenship, it seems, had little but work. When she died, there was just the one niece and her dear married once-upon-a-time fling Bert Cooper to bury her. There’s a cost to spending so much time on a rocket.

Politically, the world inside SCDP seems more cut off and strange than ever. At a certain point, you look at this show and wonder why they might be racist: The only black people they ever encounter (and that the writers create) either work the elevator or mug them. (Is this also an easy Fillmore-like excuse for the show-runners’ decision not to tell a story about a significant black character? Not that we’re expecting this to turn into Putney Swope.) One idea bubbling up here is this new kind of abstraction: the charts and graphs that put such huge distance between the sadists and masochists in the spaceship and the people, the consumers, out there in the world. Don and his team give the Fillmore brothers what they want, not something good. And in that meeting room, it’s a pure clash between old and new: the old generation of men who built things with their hands and auto factories is somehow trying to please Don and his team, this new generation that doesn’t build anything but spin and branding. This generation doesn’t fix things, it breaks things. Break the old secretary? Get a new one.

Last night, Don and Faye reviewed the episode: “Jesus, what a mess,” said Don. “Part of it’s good,” said Faye. “Right?” In some way, it’s probably an intentional push at that Slouching Toward Bethlehem feeling that the spinning top of the sixties is wobbling of its axis, and everyone’s having trouble making sense. But this one-for-the-ladies episode about Ida, Sally, Peggy, Faye, and Joan felt rushed. So far the season has been more Don-centric than any other, so this attempt to push all these other stories forward felt overstuffed: The kiss between Roger and Joan was such a very long time coming that it would have been nice to see more of them together before it happened. Sally’s runaway day was so frightening that it would have been great to see more of her and her father. (What is Don like at the zoo?) Faye is such a riddle at this point — secret appointments, father with Mafia ties — that she could be anyone. And Don’s new secretary Megan clearly seems to want him, and spent the episode moving from the periphery of the frame toward the center of the action. Are we being prepped for some big season-ending surprise there?

With just four episodes left, this episode seemed intent on detonating all sorts of little plot bombs: Don and Faye, Roger and Joan, Peggy and Abe, Sally and Betty. Which one will beget the most drama? Faye seems so secretive, one wonders what else she might be hiding. Could Joan become pregnant again with Roger’s child? Will that “Nuremberg on Madison Avenue” article come back to bite Peggy? Or will it be Don’s nap-at-lunch, lazy cockiness that does them in?

Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC