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Mad Men Recap: Every Time Something Good Happens, Something Bad Happens

One more episode down, just two to go in season four — and the dominoes keep tumbling. Rome is burning (oh, yes, that metaphor again!) in the offices of SCDP, and everything is changing. Fast. Right, Don? “Nothing should change,” says Don. “Nothing will change.” Yeah, thanks, Don.

When Roger calls in from his hotel, pretending that he’s in North Carolina, it’s puerile and pathetic. (What happens next episode when Don or Bert calls Lucky Strike to wrap up some last-minute business, only to find out he was never there?) Last week, we predicted that Roger might off himself, and this episode surely felt like a memoriam: He says good-bye to Joan (or at least sex with Joan) for good. And when he looks at that copy of Sterling’s Gold, doesn’t it just seem like he’s looking at his life? Nothing but a bunch of quips, wrapped between covers.

Well, so did we, Peggy — we’ve been going on about this pleasure-punishment trope in recaps here all season long. Nobody has sex on this show without paying a price — not you, or Roger (just think how bad his life suddenly got after sleeping with Joan), or Don (who’s instantly punished for shtupping Megan). Can’t anyone on this show have hot sex and live to kiss and tell?

“Every time something good happens, something bad happens,” says Peggy, after lustily shagging her lefty boyfriend Abe. “I knew I’d pay for it.”

Well, so did we, Peggy — we’ve been going on about this pleasure-punishment trope in recaps here all season long. Nobody has sex on this show without paying a price — not you, or Roger (just think how bad his life suddenly got after sleeping with Joan), or Don (who’s instantly punished for shtupping Megan). Can’t anyone on this show have hot sex and live to kiss and tell?

The naughtiness must be part of the attraction for Peggy, who, like most characters on this show, seems to be turned on by doing exactly the wrong thing. Is part of the attraction for Peggy the rough push-and-pull? In some way, she must be attracted to the fact that “Nuremberg on Madison Avenue” Abe thinks she’s a war criminal. We’ve been hoping that good things would happen to Peggy — and here she gets a delivery-boy sex fantasy come to life, and also seems the least vulnerable at SCDP, since she has so little to lose. Uh-oh … What was that? Stan nearly raped her immediately afterward. Oh my. Threatened, Stan is only getting more aggressive. If it hadn’t been midday, that scene with the locked door and the forced kiss could have been terrifying. (Though, there is that nice touch after the meeting: When Peggy is told that she’s had lipstick on her teeth, she looks especially pleased, knowing that the clients liked her idea, not her gams.)

Maybe it’s just because we’ve been obsessing so much about the show that this episode didn’t particularly surprise us, despite all the action. But it was racing through plot points so quickly — Lucky Strike, Trudy’s pregnancy, Pete’s courtship, Peggy’s affair and Peggy’s moment with Stan — the movement felt too mechanical. The pace was so rapid, and the transitions so jarring, that it felt simultaneously impressive (for jamming so much accelerating plot into one episode) and too much like a blatant setup for two final humdinger episodes. The table is set for all sorts of personal tragedy (Phew, Trudy had that baby, but we're not counting blessings until she and her daughter leave the hospital) but, for the most part, the episode was all about taking care of business. Or at least watching that business implode.

The one moment where the plot machinery seemed to pause was that awful, crass funeral of ad-man David Montgomery. Who knows if his name is a nod to one of America’s greatest labor historians, the Yale new-labor legend David Montgomery, but it would be a fitting tribute if so, since the funeral was a kind of sick joke about capitalism. As the boys scouted out vulnerable accounts, the eulogists offered up the only stories they could about the ad-man Montgomery: work tales. Each was supposed to be heartwarming because Mr. Montgomery would take a break from his faraway work (which sounded dull and empty) to buy something tiny, like a thimble, for his daughter or wife. The image couldn’t be more direct: After work had taken all of this man’s life, his blank-faced daughter and widow were left with just a thimbleful of his time. (We'll see if Don finds time to take Sally to the Beatles gig at Shea Stadium after all this.)

This season, the show has become more critical of the actual conditions of Madison Avenue. Abe was the first character to really embody a hard-left critique of the ad world (only Midge's bohemian critique came close) with his “Nuremberg on Madison Avenue” jeremiad. There are a whole lot of historians and sociologists, like David Montgomery (or Christopher Lasch, whose Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged seems especially pertinent to this episode) who might be frustrated by the way a lot of the period arguments we fans have had about Mad Men — in terms of women in the office and work-life balance, and gender roles and so forth — tend to occlude the macro-level changes in the ways Americans work. We talk about how Betty’s a bad parent, and Don’s a bad parent, but rarely about how the way work — and, particularly, this kind of obsessive Manhattan work world — is eclipsing all other sorts of power and order, requiring and overtaking more and more of people’s values and lives. When, at a funeral, there's more talk of money than religion, more talk of work trips than the journey to the afterlife, the show's making a point.

When Pete and Don and Joan and Roger and Peggy all have home lives that are falling apart, is it any coincidence that they’re spending all their time in the office? That, without churches that matter or political institutions that they trust, marketplace values are replacing all others in their lives? It’s the sympathetic tragedy of Miss Blankenship, who fell in love with the office and died there, a lonely astronaut. In past seasons, the show focused much more on the characters’ home lives. This season, particularly by cutting down Betty’s role, the show has practically constricted itself around the office. Now that everything’s gone haywire inside, it’s clear how little life there is left for these characters outside.

When everything goes to hell, Don yells at Faye that work is all there is for him: “This is everything to me!”

“I know the difference between what we have and this stupid office,” Faye replies, and Don takes it as a flat rejection. He says he’s used to having his ideas rejected, not himself. But now his work is just about all he is.

“This isn’t about work,” Megan tells him, when Don worries that he can’t make another mistake. But of course it’s about work, Don: She’s your secretary.

But Don's just been trained in a particular way. What Don's work in advertising gives him, more than anything else, is an enormous capacity for rationalizing desire, and an extraordinary number of ways to justify pleasure — to say yes to more sex, money, fun, and trouble. Advertisers are very good at convincing people to say "yes," or at least "why not?" Advertisers are extremely good at convincing people to say "more." And advertisers have no economic interest whatsoever in helping anyone, even themselves, to say, "No thanks, that's enough, I'll sacrifice." That's one reason Faye's sacrifice is so shocking. Don's desperation at work has prompted Faye to risk her livelihood for him, despite his surely false promise that he would do the same for her.

Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC