This week’s Mad Men was a weird episode. We opened with an amazingly terrible comic strip about a monkey soldier and before the episode was over there was a threesome, a truly epic meltdown, Betty fighting with everybody, and the most alarming “What’s in the box” payoff since Se7en. We’ll get through it together, though. Scout’s honor.
I think we can all agree that this season has been a big, huge bummer for Peggy. Well, there was that nice raise and the limited power that came with it, but that had strings attached, so it hardly offsets the bad stuff. This is a woman whose hot Saturday night plans involve the upstairs neighbor kid Julio coming over to watch TV and falling asleep on the couch. But things got even weirder when she got a visit from Ginsberg. His week had been unnerving, beginning with the ripple effect that Lou Avery’s newly discovered “Scout’s Honor” cartoon was having on the whole creative team, culminating in him having to work on a Saturday.
The incessant hum of the computer got to him, causing him first to rip up a tissue to shove in his ears and then compelling him to seek a quiet place to work (Peggy’s apartment), especially after he saw Lou and Jim Cutler talking. His spying didn’t yield much detail, as the men were talking in the noisy computer room, but their physical proximity during that conversation led him to believe that the computer was turning all males in the office gay, a preposterous theory to be sure. Regardless, this also drove him to stare at Peggy until she woke up and then kiss her, saying they needed to procreate before the computer turned him gay. Peggy was flustered but managed to handle the situation carefully, sending him home quickly.
What she didn’t count on (and why would she?!) was Ginsberg coming in on Monday and handing her his giftwrapped, bloody nipple. That scene played out perfectly, with Michael seeming calm and normal, casually handing her the box without irony. There was a fleeting moment when I thought, you know, this coupling might just be crazy enough to work! That all came screeching to a halt once the gift and Ginsberg’s wounded chest were revealed. You see, he found the “valve” (his right nipple) through which all the “waves of data” were being sent through him. Without it, they could just flow through without disturbing him. This guy is way beyond quirky; he’s batshit crazy. Peggy, once again, has to keep it together while the walls are falling down around her. To her credit, she gets him to stay in her office while she goes out to a secretary’s desk to call for help. His closing salvo of “Get out while you can!” could have any number of metaphorical meanings, but all I saw was someone who was scared and sick.
For his part, poor Stan (still a dark horse for Peggy’s heart…in my book anyway) accompanied his buddy in the ambulance, and must now mourn the loss at work of his best pal. At least he and Mathis were bonding over “Scout’s Honor”, Lou’s second rate comic that he wanted to fast track into a TV show. Don was even playing along with the group in the meeting, doing his part to follow the rules. This Ginsberg incident, among other things, will shake up that teamwork mentality. And Lou and his cardigans will still be terrible. I can’t wait to see his reaction to this latest wrinkle.
On another front, Betty still has the ability to generate sympathy one second and ire the next. It’s weird having her act as Matt Weiner’s conduit for feminism, but it’s where we are. Henry has gone from being a supportive stepdad figure to Bobby to a neanderthal pig in record time. When Betty has the audacity to have an opinion on the war during a dinner party, he is quick to put her in her place. Their arguments are coming more frequently again, and it seems like Betty will continue to struggle with her dream of being the perfect politician’s wife and her own perfect person at the same time. This struggle is manifested in Sally, the best part of her, even though she will probably never realize it, since she’s way too busy being disappointed in her daughter. Their mother daughter bitch-off was easily one of my favorite scenes in recent memory. Betty sounded like as much of a petulant child as Sally, perhaps even more so. Henry looked exhausted at having to referee. Kiernan Shipka is such a nuanced actor at only 14, the mind boggles at where this girl could go once she has some real life experience to draw from. And her scene with sweet little Bobby, who is so anxiety ridden over his mother’s second marriage that he has a stomach ache all the time? So brief but so effective. It’s looking like their father’s checkered past and distant parenting style will end up paling in comparison to their mother’s passive-aggressive emotional abuse and total lack of support for anything that is not up to her lofty standards.
This episode is kind of divisive – it seems to me like there’s a substantial contingent of viewers who just didn’t know what to make of this one. I get it; this is a weird episode. But I think it’s maybe my favorite of the season so far. And one reason I like it so much is that it’s almost totally grounded in the characters. Mad Men has fantastic characters, but so often the show is about the era and about the changes that are happening around them. And I don’t mean that as a criticism; that’s the point of the show. But sometimes it’s nice to have an episode where Don doesn’t represent something and he isn’t reacting to something societal. After last week’s heavily metaphorical installment, this was a more straightforward collection of stories. And if a nipple gets severed along the way, well, that happens.
Myndi covered the SC&P gang, but a couple of things came up that I want to address because they’re kind of my jam. First off, “Scout’s Honor”. I can’t even tell you how much I love Lou Avery’s stupid comic strip pitch. It is glorious. And the one strip we see is legitimately terrible, which makes me love it all the more. Now, when Lou defends it (and I pray that there’s a gallery of “Scout’s Honor” somewhere on line), he compares it to Underdog. Technically, yes, Underdog was created by a group of guys at an advertising agency.
A couple of things about that – first, Underdog was a TV cartoon and not a comic strip. So Lou is, unsurprisingly, taking the most cynical approach by trying to create something to be adapted into another medium. It’s like he’s the 1969 version of Mark Millar, basically. Just the fact that this is his reference points to how little he cares about it as anything other than a cash cow. The fact that he didn’t cite Peanuts, which had made it to TV by this time, shows that he doesn’t really know anything about comic strips. (Anybody who cared about newspaper strips would have mentioned that before citing a TV cartoon.) Also, they stopped producing new Underdog episodes in 1967. Lou is, predictably, behind the times.
Also, as noted, “Scout’s Honor” is terrible and incredibly tone-deaf. He’s going for easy army gags during the Vietnam War. Back then, Beetle Bailey was trying very hard not to remind you that it was about the military. And, you know, most newspaper comic strips today are awful – especially the legacy strips that have been running since before the days of Mad Men. But they were, on the whole, significantly better than that in ’69. If nothing else, cartoonists were trying to get a taste of that sweet Charles Schulz money and trying to emulate Peanuts. So Lou’s strip would have stood out as being dated and crummy even at the time. And that tells you everything you need to know about Lou Avery.
Also, poor Ginsberg watches Cutler and Lou through the window, trying to read their lips. It’s a direct reference to a scene in 2001 where two astronauts try to hide from HAL and he reads their lips from afar. After all of last week’s 2001 references, that really seems significant rather than just being a clever gag. Notably, when it happens here, they’re in the same room as the computer, while in 2001 they were avoiding theirs. HAL is in on it and Ginsberg’s the one who’s going to have to be deactivated. It’s weird that they invoked 2001 two weeks in a row, unless that’s Ginsberg’s through line. The computer is his monolith, and instead of teaching him how to use tools and kill his enemies, it turns his violence inward. I guess we’ll see if the references continue next week.
It’s not clear what’s happened with Don and Megan since last time they interacted, but things seem to be better. Or at least, less yell-y. But they’re in a pretty good place when Stephanie calls. (And it’s good to see actress Caity Lotz getting away from Arrow for a bit. She plays Black Canary, which you’d think would be awesome. And yet, you’ll notice I’m not recapping that show…) Sometimes I think Anna Draper is the real love of Don’s life, because he cared about her in a way that he doesn’t care about anybody else. He’s going to do anything for anybody connected to her, so it’s a no-brainer that when Anna needs help he sends her to Megan.
(By the way, Megan’s friend Amy is played by Jenny Wade, who is great. She was on the criminally underrated The Good Guys and is a frequent guest of The Thrilling Adventure Hour. I was happy just to see her answering the phone, and that was before things got all sexy.)
Megan’s interactions with Stephanie are really great. You know that Megan at least wonders exactly what Don’s past with her is. Presumably she knows the basics of the Anna Draper situation, but there’s got to be a part of her that wonders if Don’s the father. She says she knows that nothing happened, and we know that’s true, but he did hit on her. Nothing happened, but it could have. And, you know, she’s pregnant. I don’t think Megan has really dealt with her miscarriage, and when a pregnant woman who “know all of (Don’s) secrets” shows up at her door, that’s a lot to take in. Let’s also consider that Megan’s trying very hard to come off as bohemian and then this woman shows up who actually is. Stephanie is at least a couple of years younger than Megan but she seems so much older – she has the life that Megan likes to fancy herself as having. With all that, it’s no surprise that she basically ends up paying Stephanie to leave.
Don ends up missing Stephanie because Lou pulls a power move and forces him to stay and work on a campaign. This organizational structure is very weird; Don remains a full partner, but Lou and Peggy each get to be his superiors during this episode. It doesn’t seem like that ‘s workable in the long term, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to break Don.
There’s very little that I love more than Don Draper feeling out of place at a party. He’s just totally disengaged, and just compare the way he reacts to Megan dancing with that dude to the way he watched her last time she danced at a party. Then, he was riveted (even if he wasn’t happy with it). Here, his reaction is just kind of “Yep, that’s happening.” He’s uncomfortable, but he’s not going to pitch the guy over the balcony or anything. Between that and Amy flirting with him, it’s a godsend when Harry Crane shows up.
Before we get to Don and Harry, let’s skip ahead to the threesome. It seems to me that Megan and Amy are fairly intimate with one another from the beginning. Like, maybe it’s not their first rodeo. Of course, I will go to great lengths to avoid social hugging, so I’m not the best judge of that. But as quickly as they get into it, you know that they’ve at least had the conversation before. Not going to lie, this is a sexy scene. If anybody had told me that that Mad Men was going to be sexier and grosser than Game of Thrones that night, I wouldn’t have believed them. (In fact, Myndi did tell me!) But Don is really not into it. He’s got a lot on his mind after Harry’s revelation, and he’s been trying to be good. Breaking the streak is breaking the streak. And I have to assume that he’s already considering the fallout.
Hey, both Lou Avery and Amy offer to tuck Don in this week! And that is literally the only thing that Lou and Amy have in common.
When Don wakes up, it’s a little bit of an echo to the season premiere when Roger goes to sleep in a bed full of surplus people. Megan, who puts on the same robe that Stephanie was wearing, seems pleased about how things went down. We know that she’s been worried about her marriage, and this could have been ill-advised stoned logic or possibly something she actually thought would help. If that’s the case, she’s clearly the only one who thought so – look at Amy scurrying out of there as fast as she can. (Thanks, Jenny Wade! Hope to see you again soon!)
When Stephanie calls, I get the feeling that she’s utterly without an agenda. I believe that she wants to keep her promise to Anna by not interfering in Don’s life, and I believe that she really does like Megan. Everything Megan was projecting was one-sided. I might be giving her too much credit because I love the Anna Draper episodes so much, but that’s where I stand.
And then there’s Harry. He lets slip to Don that SC&P is pursuing a cigarette account, and any tobacco company isn’t going to want to work with Don. Harry’s inability to keep quiet comes in handy once again – if this had been a blindside, Don wouldn’t have had time to respond. But now he’s ready – Don crashes the meeting and says he’s the perfect guy to work on a tobacco account because he knows what the opposition things. He’s got their data, he knows their strategies. It’s a risky move – not only is it a shaky pitch, but it’s a direct violation of his new employment contract. Either this works, or he’s out on his ear without his partnership stake.
Now, it seems like Don is backsliding here, reverting back to the old Don Draper. But remember, the tobacco letter wasn’t actually a moral stand. He didn’t have misgivings about advertising poison, it was a business move. They were losing Lucky Strike, so he went after them. It was a calculated move, and that letter was exactly as sincere as the retraction he offers to write would be. Don Draper is down, but he’s not out. When he wrote the tobacco letter, he was trying to save the company. And now, he’s trying to save himself. And I have to think he’s going to pull it off yet again.