The last time we saw Literary Don, he was reading Frank O’Hara in season two, “quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.” In this maybe-too-cute but nonetheless moving episode, Don picks up the pen himself. “Lost your balance on the tightrope, never too late to get it back,” writes Don Draper — oops, sorry, that was Taylor Swift last night at the VMAs. Actually, Don admits that he’s got a drinking problem and not even a “modicum of control.” Hey, racist Miss Blankenship had the cataracts removed from her eyes so even though she was once blind, now she can see. So why not Don?
For most of the season, Don has been rocketing downward in an accelerating spiral, and only in the last episode did he jerk the controller hard enough to avoid catastrophe. In a way, this relatively serene episode felt like what happens in that brief moment when that headlong momentum jerks you from one extreme to the other: zero gravity. This episode is that second of calm before whatever the hell comes next. We get the metaphor when Don talks about the effort it takes to get into the water, and then the pleasure of the weightlessness. We hear it again when he talks about the way he feels comfortable alone in his bed, “like a skydiver.” When we dream about control, analysts tell us, we have flying dreams: The thought of being suspended in the sky doesn’t scare us; we’re comforted by the way we’re able to stay afloat. If this were a contemporary (and Southern) show, Weiner might have used the Drive-By Truckers’ gleeful lyric, “I’ve been falling so long/it’s like gravity’s gone/and I’m just floating.” Don’s not calm in this episode because he’s figured out what to do; he’s calm because he’s finally realized what’s happening: that he’s lost control and that he can regain it. Last week’s episode, “The Suitcase,” was all about Don’s baggage. This week, he’s trying to throw away all the old boxes.
This episode also gives us the first high-priced music licensing of the season: the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” There’s spectacular irony in the fact that Don is exactly the Man who tells you how white your shirts should be. When Mick sings, that he “can’t be a man ‘cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me” — of course Don lights up on cue. It’s toasted! Don is Mr. Jones, he’s the man, he’s old, and that doesn’t mean he can’t swagger into the office with a gym bag humming the tune. Don drinks beer — and wrinkles his nose. He drinks wine — and seems to need a few minutes to process the strange taste. And as the sound drops out and the camera zooms woozily in the office, Don even lets himself sip a bit of scotch. Don’s not twelve-stepping, and he’s not going cold turkey, either. He still needs that slug of whiskey to steel himself for a date with Faye, but he’s improving.
“People tell you who they are, but we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be,” writes Don. In a way, this sounds like the darkest reading of his character’s fandom: so many TV viewers wanting Don to be something more than a bastard and a drunk and a bad dad when there’s so much evidence to the contrary. Don is telling us, in this episode, that he’s a capable of change. We’ll see. Don’s got a long way to go and he might not be up for it. Sure, he can race that younger swimmer to the end of the pool. But when he jerks his head above the water and stares at the guy, the younger swimmer just goes back to swimming. There are laps and laps to go.
Don’s two dates are contrasts: Bethany’s revealed to be that society girl who’s proud to be in Betty’s class, and likely touches herself to sleep while dreaming of showing Don off at the social club — a nice gal to have in the back of the cab, sure, but for Don, that’s it. And what of Faye? Last week, we raised the possibility that Don and Peggy could eventually hook up, but is Faye really the match for him, at least for now? (And, just as importantly, if Don sobers up, will he always wear natural-colored blazers like some Century 21 real-estate agent?) Don hears her screaming at a man over the phone (the third moment on the show when someone threatens or is threatened to move out) and Don swoops in. Faye’s mafia background is intriguing — at least more intriguing than the well-worn Aesop story she trots out — maybe she has as many secrets as Don? More important, maybe she can keep them. When gallant Don refuses to yank her home, it seems mature and self-aware but not priggish: This is a guy who knows when a back-of-the-cab blow job is just a blow job, and also when it might turn into something more.
Then there’s Joan, and the caricature, and that damn vending machine (do you think Clark bar paid for product placement? So good you’ll get fired for it!). But you know Joey’s screwed up when he says she looks like “some madam from a Shanghai whorehouse” who walks around like she wants to get raped (especially given Joan’s history). These lines seem a little too on the nose. And didn’t Joan’s rant also seem too pat, like it was clearly written in 2010? Joan is obviously distressed by her fiancé’s departure, but she talks of all of this like it’s a certainty: “I can’t wait until next year when all of you are in Vietnam … Remember you’re not dying for me, because I never liked you.” It’s a devastating line knowing what we know now, but isn’t the show laying it on a little thick here, especially when one of the guys refers to Joan’s attack as “scorched earth?” The confrontation between Peggy and Joan at the end of the episode is more fascinating: Joan’s all-knowing powerful woman act just seems a little ludicrous. Dinner with the Sugarberry ham guy? That’s your solution, Joanie? Joan’s whole understanding of power just seems so archaic. But then again, she’s used to jerk-offs mooning her through the office window.
Meanwhile, Betty is struggling. She’s still attached to Don, and, as her neighbor rightly reminds her, she’s got so much more to lose if she doesn’t get her head straight. (By the way, do you think Don was really the only man she’d ever been with?) Henry’s hitching his wagon to New York’s next mayor — who cares if some say he would become one of the worst — and Don is moving on. But Betty, like Joey, can still act like an impetuous, entitled child who doesn’t want anyone else to tell her what to do, but likes the feeling of blaming everything on someone else anyway. She realizes what’s at stake, though. So when Don crashes the birthday party with a stuffed elephant and another earth-toned blazer, she lets him have his moment, then makes out with Henry in front of him.
So, was this episode a bit too literary? Did Don’s observations grate? Or reveal? Is there a future for Don and Faye? And can Don ever sober up enough to climb Mount Kilimanjaro?