Mad Men recap: The one where everything changes, marvelously
Good as the two-hour season debut was a few weeks ago, Sunday's Mad Men was a shining example of the best this drama has to offer -- magnetic, subtle proof that this remains the best drama now airing on television.
The best Mad Men episodes find unobtrusive ways to tell us new things about these characters fans know so well, advancing the story in places you least expect, in ways you just can't see coming.
The most obvious example of that in Sunday's episode is lead character Don Draper's fever dream, where a chance meeting with a former fling -- and the angst it causes his new, young secretary wife -- leads to a fantasy where he rejects his old ways by strangling the woman, after she tempts him into breaking his marriage vows again.
After Don wakes to discover it was all a nightmare induced by his fever -- none of us really thought Mad Men had suddenly turned into a Hitchcock movie, after all -- we realize that our man Draper is in new territory. His change meeting shook him up more anyone knew (even himself), leaving deep internal doubts about how faithful he could be, unveiled only through illness.
He has quite literally rejected his old ways by murdering the embodiment of his impulse to cheat. The only question left: How long will this righteous spirit last?
And while Don's unconscious tells him he's done cheating, protege Peggy Olson is beginning to live the baby boomers' journey to a better relationship with black people, befriending the new black secretary in the office.
In a single moment, producers highlighted the difference between the concerns of white people and black people back then, as secretary Dawn Chambers reveals she has been sleeping in the office out of fear. Peggy first assumes it's because of the vague fear sparked by the Richard Speck murders; killings of eight students nurses in Chicago which other characters have been obsessing on throughout the episode.
But then she quickly realizes Dawn has more pressing concerns; riots in Harlem and the response by police, who weren't exactly friendly to any black people in those situations.
Peggy offers her apartment's couch to Dawn. But the best moment comes when, after a bit of bonding over liquor, Peggy realizes her purse is on the table in front of Dawn. Removing it would be a tremendous insult, but in an instant both she and Dawn know that her first impulse is still to snatch it away. One step forward, two steps back.
I know producer Matt Weiner probably feels like these moments must be earned by the series, and that they only feel appropriate coming at this point, when so much is changing for characters who are now forced to meet more modern times. But it was so well done, I couldn't help wishing more stuff like this had been done sooner; summing up the tentative moments of connection and hurtful spams of prejudice involved in forging new connections across race, sometimes almost in the same moment.
We also learned Don's daughter, Sally Draper, should never be left alone with her new grandmother, the mother of mom Betty's new husband Henry Francis. This is a woman whose idea of calming a kid having nightmares involves showing her a butcher knife she keep at hand to ward off interlopers, passing her a half tablet of the sedative Seconal like she was handing over a glass of warm milk.
Like one of my Twitter followers noted: that s--- was gangsta!
Finally, we have Joan Harris, who lets her conscious mind accept what she has always known in her bones -- that her husband Greg is a selfish pig unable to treat her as the equal partner she should be in their marriage. The catalyst for this realization is his decision to sign up for another tour in Vietnam; when fans on Twitter saw that scene, they knew he was going to get killed.
I loved the way producers brought in that intrusive accordion player to top off a scene where Joan was struggling between getting blindsided by her jerky husband -- whose re-up was all about the status he got from being an officer after washing out as a doctor back home -- and putting on a brave face. Love songs never sounded to phony or grating.
It may not matter what happens to Greg, because Joan realized his choice to make that decision without consulting her was the last straw, kicking him to the curb, but hard. In that moment, we also saw Joan shrug off the submissive straitjacket her mother had been fitting for her, moving toward a new independence we've always known she was capable of but she seemed unwilling to fully inhabit.
We've seen how powerful Joan can be in a world where she held herself back. Imagine what things will be like, once she is unleashed.
I'm afraid and excited, all at once. Weiner, it's been a long TV season without ya.