“Wee Small Hours”
Power dynamics are the engine of Mad Men and they tend to crush someone: Roger and Don, Don and Connie Hilton, Sal and Lee Garner Jr, on and on it goes. This episode in particular seems to be about how they react to rejection and to the world stepping on them, usually by going to someone else for a little comfort. (There’s a great close up of Don deciding that he wants to see Ms. Farrell, and he looks doomed.)
Mad Men and The Shield are the two dramas that use character experience and growth the best out of all television, and the former really rewards audience attention. Ms. Farrell is just another version of Rachel, somebody “new and different”, and while it’s frustrating to watch Don make new versions of old mistakes, you know Don by now and you know what his patterns are.
Harry assuming that Lee Garner will just forget about it shows how little he understands power. (None of the people who hate #MeToo do either.) Sal “humiliated” him, Lee always gets what he wants, and so Sal will be destroyed. It’s the principle of the thing. At least Sal gets a small moral victory in simply saying out loud, “He’s a bully.” But that’s not much.
“The Color Blue”
Paul’s subplot seems unnecessary but Mad Men rips character from it: (1) Don is a writer at heart and sympathizes that Paul lost his idea, (2) so is Peggy, and (3) Paul is not. (And Paul is a horses ass who treats anybody beneath him as fodder, which is always funny.)
Farrell’s brother is another drifter, but unlike Don this isn’t out of choice, there’s just nowhere to go. I’m going to start using another version of his “I can’t do what you do” speech to tell people why I don’t do well in the professional world.
“The Gypsy and the Hobo”
The shit hits the fan. The show kept weaving together the slow smolder of the civil rights movement with the tensions of the suburban life and its starting to really pay off. The politics and the personal were never separate to begin with, and we’ll see that in The Grown Ups as well – Mad Men used inevitable historical shit smartly, making those violent moments have a deep impact on the characters and their decision making.
Don and Betty’s conversation was 30+ episodes in the making – Don is terrified, vulnerable, the con man backed into his own lie. Actually talking about it seems to cleanse him, make him whole. But it’s a running joke though that anytime Don tells the truth about his past, it fucks him over – he mistakes Betty’s ambivalence for a similar happiness. (See also Season Six, where he tells the truth at the worst possible moment.)
Ownage: “You were the one.” “You weren’t.” As read it could feel brutal, but when Roger says that it feels necessary and like a man moving on from old hurts.
“The Grown Ups”
Pete and Trudy in the wake of the JFK Assassination are all self righteous liberals in all eras, and its hysterically funny. Smartly this is a generally funny episode to counter-balance the collective horror of Kennedy’s death, that perfect balance of bleak and privately amused. The characters react unconsciously by doing things they’d never normally do, making life decisions. It’s like Kennedy shocks them into action, particularly Betty – for the first time in her life the complete structure of the world is thrown into chaos and Henry Francis, unlike Don, makes a stronger promise to put it all right. (One of the smarter choices the show made was having Henry be as charming as Don but actually sincere and authoritative. He and Betty don’t have a perfect marriage but they actually communicate and confide in each other because Henry has room for that in him.) If Betty were more like Peggy she wouldn’t need a man to put her life together, but she was never given that option.
It shows how much Pete’s grown that he takes the news about Accounts calmly and without losing his shit. The truth is Kenny is just more…likable, easier to be around – he’s a Draper.
Ownage: Does Jack Ruby killing Oswald on live television count?
“Shut The Door, Have A Seat”
One of the most purely fun episodes of television ever, one of the all time Mad Men episodes. The show was its own genre typically but this is a caper story, without too many complications but with enough excitement to propel everything forward. Near dizzying in the amount that happens, and these rewatches remind me how much Mad Men had this weird, near-absurd approach to plotting. Where other shows would zig it would zag, never going where the viewer expected but it always felt distinctly logical. Of course Don starts his own agency with the gang, and yet that’s kind of insane.
The one exception to the fun then is Don confronting Betty and its fucking terrifying. Even when they argue they rarely say exactly what they mean, always being indirect. (Even when Don rightly accuses Betty of being a shitty parent he doesn’t just say that.) I always really believe he’s gonna knock her down here, and his final “You’re a whore” foreshadows the eventual deconstruction of Don’s warped fixations in season six.
So much glorious payoff here, with Pete and Peggy getting what they need from Don. If Don’s the ultimate Dad – distant and frustrating in that coldness – this is a reminder that the validation a dad can give is incredibly rewarding sometimes. And then so is telling your dad off, as Don does with Conrad Hilton, seeing that the level of power he has is more dead weight than anything. I noted that Don wants the same kind of approval from Hilton that he wants from Cooper – the second generation self made man needing the nod from the titans before him, men of refinement and a calm evil.
Ownage: Lane fucking over Saint-John. “Very good, happy Christmas!”
Summary: More than any other drama, Mad Men is immensely rewarding to watch again and again for multiple reasons, a big one being that the arcs of the characters were so powerful that they give certain moments an extra impact. The scene where (as Weiner put it) Don comes as close as he can to telling Peggy that he loves her moves me more because I know how important she will always be to him. Knowing these futures makes the little moments, the character beats that much more satisfying.
I can see why people don’t love season three, but I like the deliberate pacing and especially how the plot had several balls in the air at once, taking the time to lay out everything. This is how you do slow, unlike the Netflix Marvel shows – patient and sensible, where those feel rushed even when they’re tortoise-like because they’re cramming everything in. I think after this I’m just going to feel mildly depressed that no modern television has come close to this kind of literary, textured brilliance.