My Mad Men recap: The green eyed monster rears its ugly head in Mad Men-land
In what, for Mad Men is the equivalent of hitting viewers over the head with a large hammer, Sunday's episode "Dark Shadows" featured our hero Don Draper undercutting young talent Michael Ginsberg while passing up rare time with his children to actually work at his job.
The theme this week seemed to be longing and envy; the older veterans envying youthful talent, poor friends envying rich pals, second wives envying first wives and a soon-to-be divorced husband longing for his soon-to-be-ex wife once he realized someone else wanted her.
For Draper, that means finding little solace in the talents of the writers he's assembled at Sterling Cooper. Instead, Ginsberg's clear talent threatens him -- as it does his sorta-mentor Peggy Olson -- prompting Don to leave the budding copywriter's take on an advertising campaign in a taxi so it doesn't compete with his own, less entertaining vision.
The show has been toying with the different ways boomer culture and its focus on youth may be upending the advertising world in the mid-60s, and we get more of that material here, as Ginsburg's youth-oriented pitch for the soft drink Snowballs reveals an understanding of youth culture the pointedly adult Draper could never achieve.
We also see, finally, the return of Betty Draper/Francis, who was missing from so many episodes it seemed her character might have joined the witness protection program. Star January Jones missed many episodes because of her pregnancy, but her character's absences have been pointed and overlong -- kept out of the show's triumphant two-hour return episode, Betty Draper has been little more than an afterthought for much of this season.
On Sunday we saw her return only to perpetrate one of the season's meanest moves, telling daughter Sally of her ex-husband's first wife, who was really the wife of the man whose identity he assumed after the Korean War. This subject is one of the tenderest spots in Draper's life, revealing the lies he has told the world about his personal history, along with the guilt and isolation he felt when Anna Draper died.
But Betty playing that card after seeing the fantabulous apartment he and new wife Megan live in -- along with observing how thin and attractive Megan is while the new wife is changing clothes -- only confirms her as one of the show's harshest characters (the kicker for her was discovering a note which revealed that Don loves Megan in a way he never did with her).
Creator Matt Weiner seems to relish making Betty tremendously unlikeable, using her daughter to lash out at her ex-husband while she is mired in a Weight Watchers program with a new husband whose career is failing. And the episode only highlights how different his relationship is with Megan, who sees through the manipulation instantly and convinced Don not to fall for it.
As usual, Roger Sterling provides what little comic relief there is, as the firm's biggest anti-Semite is pushed into wooing business from Kosher wine label Manischewitz, noting their desire to sell wine to "normal people....It has to be cheap -- surprise -- but impactful." Never has so much prejudice been expressed in such a succinct, entertaining way.
As the show's brief flirtation with a black character has receded, Ginsburg becomes the vehicle for examining the era's casual prejudice, struggling to define himself apart from the mores of his father's generation, yet scarred by the anti-Semitic slings he pretends not to notice.
As we leave this episode we note the scorecard: Betty envies Megan, Don envies Ginsberg, Roger envies whoever gets to sleep with his ex-wife next and Sally probably envies anyone who grew up with normal parents.
As placeholder episodes go, this one's not too bad.