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Mad Men Recap: The Electric Circus

Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) - Mad Men - Season 6, Episode 4 - Photo Credit: Jordin Althaus/AMC

Can Don Draper ever find peace?

That’s a legitimate question, I guess, and one that’s still very much in play on Mad Men. But when Sylvia implied at the end of last night’s episode that she wanted peace for Don, and even prayed for it — Don Draper, a.k.a. Dick Whitman the impostor, a.k.a. the guy shtupping Sylvia when her husband is away, a.k.a. the guy behaving like a petulant brat when his actress wife gets a juicy soap-opera plotline that involves love scenes, a.k.a. the guy who once said that love was invented by guys like him to sell nylons, a.k.a. the miserable bastard who projects his unhappiness outward — you have to ask if he even deserves it, or if by this point we should care if he achieves it.

Yes, I’m growing a bit impatient with my beloved Mad Men — with Don, at least. Granted, this is a slow-burn show in the mode of the last big drama that creator Matthew Weiner worked on, The Sopranos, so I still hold out hope that the writers are arranging pieces that’ll all come together in the season’s back-half — something to do with abortion or a Don Draper health crisis, I’m betting. (During Megan and Don’s dinner with the swingers, Don was warned off cigarettes yet again; they’re averaging one anti-tobacco reference per episode now.) And yet … is it me, or does the show itself seem somewhat bored with Don? I’m not terribly intrigued right now, and not just because season five’s stirring and mysterious final sequence — Don leaving Megan on the soundstage while the theme to “You Only Live Twice” played, passing through what almost felt like a time portal and taking a seat at a bar, where a young woman asked, “Are you alone?” — felt like a series ender, a way of saying, “Don Draper will never change. You know where things go from here, audience, so we don’t really need to keep going.” And then they did.

Luckily Don wasn’t at the center of  ‘To Have and To Hold.” As written by Erin Levy and directed by Michael Uppendahl, this was a true ensemble episode that divided its attention almost equally among several major characters.

Joan painted the town with her debauchery-craving Mary Kay–saleslady pal Kate in an evening that climaxed at the hippy-trippy nightclub the Electric Circus, and got shot down during a power struggle at work. The latter felt like the first overt sign that even though Joan is the first woman in the firm’s history to be named a full partner, the sordid circumstances behind her promotion ensure that she’ll never be treated as the men’s equal. What a rotten catch-22: the whip-smart Joan lets herself be whored out for one night for the greater good of the company and her child’s financial security, then can’t reap the full rewards of her sacrifice because that same company now thinks of her as an opportunist who slept her way to the top. In their drowsy next-morning conversation — bird's-nest hair, smeared mascara — Joan admits to Kate that “I’ve been working there for fifteen years, and they still treat me like a secretary.” Harry Crane treats her as something far worse. Rebelling against Joan’s attempts to fire his secretary over a time-card cover-up involving the eager-to-please Dawn, Harry directs his long-simmering professional resentments toward Joan. This subplot’s peak finds Harry crashing a partners' meeting and demanding a seat at the table because his own achievements, unlike Joan’s, happened by the light of day. (Joan’s contributions to the firm go way beyond that, but of course Harry can’t or won’t see that because he’s blinded by professional insecurity and male privilege.)

Dawn’s involvement in the fracas was meant to illuminate her character, but it didn’t — not really. Thanks to clumsy dialogue that informed rather than illuminated, it mostly gave us a sense of what it’s like to work at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (a place where you hear people crying behind office doors and where one of the senior partners hanged himself in shame) rather than what it’s like to be Dawn, seemingly the only African-American employee in a white workplace, and a kindhearted woman who seemingly spends every day tamping down a persistent fear of being ostracized or fired. I liked how Joan’s impulsive decision to entrust Dawn with handling time cards and office supplies signaled an official separation from her own secretarial past, but this scene was ultimately about Joan, not Dawn. I can’t really give Mad Men any points for trying to turn Dawn into a full-fledged character at this point — not after they introduced her at the start of season five with such flourish that it seemed as if the season would have something to do with civil rights, then pretty much forgot all about her, save for a subplot in the episode “Mystery Date” that was more about the characters’ collective fear of random violence and Peggy struggling with passive-aggressive white liberal racism. (I did appreciate Roger’s rationale for not letting Joan fire her — not that she would have anyway: Cutting Dawn loose might have poured fuel on prejudice complaints against the industry.)

Megan seems to be making a go of it as an actress, but at the expense of her marriage, or what’s left of it. Don is an identity thief who’s essentially acting for his very life, so you’d think he could handle the idea of his wife kissing another man in love scenes that Megan described as “tasteful” (meaning “daytime soap circa 1968”). But no. There are cracks in Don’s façade of libertine selfishness, and when you peek through them, you can see vestiges of a Ward Cleaver or Gregory Peck type. The producer’s dinner-table pitch that Don and Megan come home with his wife, smoke pot, and swing made Don deeply uncomfortable; this tracks with what we know about Don, particularly his evident disgust with beatnik or hippie signifiers of “freedom.” (He’ll smoke pot with other people for the same reason that other people will have a drink with him — to be social — but I don’t get the impression that he thinks marijuana signifies a particular worldview.)

Like a lot of men, Don thinks he should be entitled to do what he likes while the women in his life adhere to certain codes of propriety. He’s banging the doctor’s wife one floor below them, but he doesn’t want Megan to play love scenes because they make him jealous! There are also women-as-property issues at play here. Don is attracted to intellectually and sexually independent women (Sylvia is only the latest), but there’s a part of him that wants to crush or neuter those same qualities and turn the objects of his affection into Stepford Wives like Betty. Megan is rebelling against that impulse. I’m guessing that sooner or later she’ll feel the full force of Don’s wrath, which is that of a square-jawed, broad-shouldered child who’s furious that he can’t have cookies whenever he wants.

At least this thoroughly irritating and rather depressing plotline led to one of those multi-valent Mad Men moments that remind us of how great the show can be: After Don and Megan’s dressing-room confrontation, Don visits Sylvia, her availability signaled by a penny under the doormat, and lays her down on the bed with the same ritualized motion that that actor used on Megan in their love scene. It’s as if Don is imaginatively reasserting his dominion over Megan by becoming that actor — which means that in his mind, Sylvia, who seems to be falling ever-deeper in love with Don, is “playing” the role of Megan; there are at least two, maybe three levels of playacting going on in this scene, which lends additional irony to Sylvia’s statement that she wishes peace for Don. She’s really wishing peace for Dick Whitman, the “real” Don Draper, a man she hasn’t met yet, and who appears to be lowering himself into Dante’s hell one ring at a time.

The major workplace story line dealt with the agency’s backdoor pitch for Heinz Ketchup, whipped up by Don and Stan in a storage closet and presented in a hotel suite booked by Pete Campbell. It didn’t lead anywhere for SCDP.  Ted Chaough’s agency — which pitched the same day, acting on inside information gleaned by Peggy during a supposedly “private” phone call with Stan — didn’t make any headway either: J. Walter Thompson swept in and got the account, which of course means that Heinz must’ve called them up and said, “Hey, we’ve already got two agencies pitching us — you might as well stop in and try your luck, too.” It’s a moot point now, but I think Peggy’s clean, simple “Heinz is the only ketchup” pitch was better than Don’s artsy-fartsy absent-presence one, which, like his footprints-in-the-sand pitch in the season premiere, said more about Don Draper’s mental state than it did about the product he was theoretically selling. Not to give advice to the master, but at this point I think Don’s pitches could use more P.T. Barnum and less Antonioni.

My favorite thing in this episode was Harry’s blustering bid for more power. He’s an inherently comical character, thanks mainly to Rich Sommer’s non-condescending performance; the poor bastard is always on the verge of dignity yet never achieves it. Here, though, I felt he made a lot of valid points, even though he expressed them in alternately self-serving and self-defeating ways. Roger seemed to respect his guts, if not his actual accomplishments. That’s why he and Bert Cooper gave him a check for $23,500, the amount of his commission on the Joe Namath variety show that he dreamed up and sold to napalm manufacturers Dow Chemical. (“That was the most impressive thing he’s done,” Bert said Harry stormed out.) I wouldn’t be surprised if Harry left the firm and ended up working alongside Peggy. Ted has already demonstrated a knack for identifying talented people that Don and company have failed to appreciate and giving them the respect they feel they’ve earned.

Odds and ends

  • I love Stan’s fringed jacket, which perfectly suits his mountain-man grooming and incessant pot-smoking. Somewhere in my family archives there’s probably a photo of my dad in a jacket like that.
  • I hope Stan’s middle finger to Peggy doesn’t signal that they won’t talk on the phone anymore!
  • Nice student-becomes-the-master moment: Don eavesdropping through the door and hearing Peggy use one of his signature lines, "If you don't like what they're saying, change the conversation."
  • Religion is working its way into the show this season after being a non-presence, save for Peggy’s struggles in season two, which were ultimately tied into her working-class white ethnic roots rather than saying anything specific about the presence or non-presence of God. The back-and-forth over Sylvia’s pendant in the bed scene between her and Don had a believable resolution. Don wanted her to take it off; she wanted to keep it on. They compromised by adjusting it so that it was still around her neck, but Don couldn’t see it.
  • I can’t get enough of Ray Wise on Mad Men, but then, I can’t get enough of Ray Wise. He’s an original actor, at once comic and dramatic, and his smile always unnerves the hell out of me because he’s played so many cruel or slimy characters. During that pitch meeting with Harry, I half-expected him to finish by grabbing Harry by the back of his suit jacket and screaming that he was going to send him back to Missoula, Montana.
  • Mad Men isn’t bringing the cinematic stylization that suffused every episode in season five, and I really miss it. There was only one scene in this episode that gave me any kind of aesthetic buzz: that super-slow tracking shot into a close-up of Joan necking with that guy on the coach at the Electric Circus, ending in a tight shot of out-of-focus projected color blobs floating across the screen like psychedelic protoplasm.
  • Ted McGinley (the swinger) is one of the signs of TV apocalypse.
  • For more on the Electric Circus, read this excellent article by Alex Ross: “The club operated in the former Polish National Home on St. Mark’s Place; the site had also hosted Andy Warhol's legendary Exploding Plastic Inevitable. From the outset, the Circus featured contemporary classical music as part of its far-out entertainments. The connection made intellectual sense, given the links between early West Coast psychedelia and the classical avant-garde. On opening night, amid a celebrity-studded crowd, Morton Subotnick, co-founder of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, presented a version of his electronic piece “Silver Apples of the Moon.” In an interview with the scholar Robert J. Gluck, Subotnick recalled “Seiji Ozawa and the Kennedys . . .  dancing to it in tuxedos, under strobe lights.” Alas, no photographs of this spectacle have surfaced.”
  • This show could not have chosen a more mythically loaded signifier of Sylvia's availability than the penny. This business reminded me, in no particular order, of what used to go on dead people's eyes, the coin that one hands the ferryman before traversing the river Styx, and the phrase "a bad penny always turns up." I like the last one the best. Don's the boyfriend as bad penny.
  • Seems to me that the unifying emotion of the season thus far is guilt/shame. What do you all think of that?
Photo: Jordin Althaus/AMC