The last — best? — episode of Mad Men pitted Don Draper against the nasty comedian Jimmy Barrett and his even-nastier ball breaker of a wife. Beaten down and practically molested, Don bottomed out, then bounced back, unleashing a desperate, violent retort to Mrs. Barrett that might be television’s most shocking moment this season. It was almost a perfect episode — except we missed Peggy and Pete. But now she’s back! And, though we get just a little of Pete, we do get to see him in tightie-whitie tennis shorts.
The past isn’t even past.
Mad Men has been teasing us with glimpses of Don’s past, since he doesn’t exactly blather about his secrets, not even to his wife. Meanwhile, Peggy — who increasingly seems to be Don’s true protégé — treats her present like Don’s past. At the office, Elisabeth Moss plays Peggy with lockjaw restraint, using nothing but the slightest shrug or modulated glance (and maybe we’re just imagining those) to indicate that she brings anything like her own life into her job. Nobody at Sterling Cooper has any clue about how fraught her life is at home.
At the start of episode four, Peggy practices that same stony restraint at her mother’s apartment, where her jealous sister and cloying mother host a meal for the cute visiting priest, played by Colin Hanks. Tom’s son looks a bit like Pete, with his boyish face and slicked-over hair, and he’s a Christian cool cat too, a godly man who plays the guitar, likes a drink, enjoys a cigarette, and, it seems, Peggy. He first catches her slipping out of a sermon about “hidden dangers” and then escorts her home after dinner, asking for her advice on selling ideas. “It’s Palm Sunday,” he says with flirty false modesty. “I mean, you’re on deck for Easter.”
Later, the priest stops by to see Peggy’s family and drops off a copy of his sermon for her, asking after her and slighting Peggy’s sister. Uh-oh. The next time we see Peggy’s sister, she’s in a confessional, speaking to the lovely Mr. Hanks. She apologizes for taking the Lord’s name in vain, stealing a few coins from the laundromat — and, oh yeah, did I mention my slut sister had a kid out of wedlock and is a total tramp? Yeah, that too. It’s a brutal scene — portraying Peggy’s sister as both utterly manipulative and seriously disturbed. Either way, when Peggy bumps into the cute priest on Easter Sunday, he calmly hands her an egg (oh, the fertility metaphors!) and says, “For the little one.” Then he walks away — gobsmacking the typically unflappable Peggy, perhaps because she, like us, isn’t sure if he’s disgusted by her loose ways or, perhaps, turned on?
Meanwhile, at the Draper household, Don and Betty tie one on with a little help from their midget bartenders, who have learned that the proper recipe for a Bloody Mary is nine parts vodka, one part tomato juice. Mom and Dad kick the kids out of the living room and dance to Betty’s favorite high-school tune (Ms. America loves Bing Crosby; Don says he “sounds like Christmas” and grabs her ass). On the couch, the sight of Betty reading Babylon Revisited is yet another echo of her husband’s affairs (the book was recommended by her stableboy friend), and it’s a reminder that the show uses books as indicators of private betrayal, a naughty way to disappear into some charged fantasy, even while sitting next to your spouse. Next thing they know, Mom and Dad are drunk on their bed, which Bobby breaks — and both kids are starving because the parents forgot to fix dinner. Oops! Happiness is a problem, yes, but so is maintaining this delicate balance. Every pleasure has its cost.
Of course, Betty’s still clashing with the kids — “I’m here all day, outnumbered,” she screams — and she wants Don to spank her son. And as the momentum builds at home — Bobby breaks the hi-fi and burns his face on the griddle — Mrs. Barrett reemerges (!!), apparently still turned on by Don’s dominating, crotch-grabbing performance, and she convinces him to lock the office door behind them (Don’s definitely got his mojo working again). More important, the American Airlines crew bumps up their meeting to Good Friday and Don has to scramble, scheduling an impromptu bring-your-daughter-to-work-and-get-her-drunk-on-rye-day (her questions about sex, race, and booze give you a sense of the Draper family’s values). At an all-office meeting, Don goes alpha, marching out with his creative team and then locking himself in his office, eventually emerging to make a grand, oracular pronouncement, shot in wide angle like he’s Patton standing before the troops: “There is no such thing as American history, only a frontier. This is not about apologies…”
Of course, the actual pitch meeting goes south just before it begins, when Duck finds out that his ringer inside American has been fired. “We’ve got to deliver a stillborn baby,” says Don, nailing him but still smarting over the loss of Mohawk Airlines. And Don’s bad day is just beginning. Back at home, Betty is furious with the kids again, demanding that Don hit the little hellion. Instead, Don marches upstairs. After yelling, Betty pushes him — and Don pushes back. Immediately mortified by what he’s done, he sinks onto the bed, where Bobby, spookily prescient, like some relative of Dakota Fanning, finds him and asks about his father. “Did your daddy get mad? … What did your daddy look like?… We need to find you a new daddy.”
Lying down later that night, Betty demands that Don say something — and he says what’s only too obvious by this point. “My father beat the hell out of me,” Don says, “and all it did was make me fantasize about the day I could murder him.”
We’ll assume this is just Oedipal, but we’re not going to rule out an actual murder just yet. But it’s certainly evidence of Don’s understanding of power — not just a revulsion toward dominating violence (it turns him on, with Barrett) but a preference for silence or blunt, unyielding forthrightness. After all, he won this round with Duck without throwing a punch.
The Early Results
Terrific, as always, but this Sunday there were some cracks in the mortar. The parallels are a bit heavy-handed. If you’re going to reveal that Don was beaten as a child, do you need to drive it home so hard? Does Peggy really have to spell it out with such an on-the-nose line like, “You think you’d be the man you are today if your father didn’t hit you?” And do you have to mirror Don’s struggle with his American Airlines campaign (particularly, his cry that there’s “no such thing as American history”)? It seems a little too cute and neat for a show that’s most brilliant when messy. And while it’s surprising to see Don shove Betty, it’s not so shocking, coming so soon after last episode’s much more disturbing episode with Mrs. Barrett. But Peggy was the episode’s true star, more perplexing than ever.