We’re back, it’s January 1969, two months after we left off, and things have … not really progressed.* As you hoped, Seth, the season started at SC&P with Don nowhere to be found, but I can’t say the goings on were exactly scintillating—maybe because Don’s absence was just a ruse. Long before the last sequence revealed that Freddie Rumsen is using Don as his ad-savant Cyrano, we (and maybe Peggy) should have known: Freddie has never given a pitch as great as that Accutron one in his whole life.
For the kickoff of a hypertruncated season—just seven episodes—the premiere was pretty fixated on stasis. Don is still an ad genius, but he’s also still on leave and still getting paid. Despite what was hinted at in the finale—Peggy sitting in Don’s chair, getting her very own trademark back-of-the-head shot—Peggy’s still working for someone else. Roger, deeper and deeper into his quest for enlightenment, still hasn’t found much more than a guy hogging up his bed. All these characters are looking for change, but they can’t quite make it happen.
Peggy continues to be cursed by caring too much. For Peggy and Don advertising is not crass. The two of them, with their hidden pasts and reconstructed presents, are their own best work. They believe in the art of the sell, in the power of the fantasy in a zealous, personal way: It’s fundamental to their very beings. But this passion is not commonplace. So Peggy is futilely striving for quality work that Lou, with his daddish cracks, just doesn’t care about.* He’ll accept mediocrity. This may make him a humane boss and a nice guy (Dawn seems to like him more than she ever liked Don), but it sure doesn’t make him appreciate Peggy, with her intense, prickly striving making everything so damn difficult. “I guess I’m immune to your charms,” he smiles, a put-down that immediately enters Mad Men’s Dig Hall of Fame.
But while Peggy is trying too hard and merely running in place, if not backward, Don is behaving uncharacteristically. He’s still keeping secrets—Megan doesn’t know, I don’t think, about his work arrangement—but is otherwise engaged in an unprecedented bout of not doing things: not drinking (very much), not cheating, not getting divorced, not looking for a new job. (He is, however, the guy reading Playboy for the ads.) He’s newly passive, living life in the passenger seat, a state of being underscored by one of those simultaneously funny and infuriatingly on-the-nose Mad Men music cues: Don Draper, emerging into the California sunlight to the energetic sounds of Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man,” his fly-looking wife strutting from a sweet convertible to greet him in slow-mo—only for Megan to insist on driving.
How much of this has to do with Don’s semi-sobriety? We see him take a sip of wine on his return flight to New York and ask if the chicken’s had his whole bottle at Megan’s place in the Hills, but for a guy with his kind of hard liquor habit, that’s hardly a drop. (About that house in the Hills: Helter Skelter, the true-crime book about the Manson murders, opens by observing how oddly sound travels in the canyons, just as Megan does. Creepy!) It’s Don who helps a drunk Megan into the house and not, as so many times in the past, the other way around. Does the lack of drinking explain why he isn’t out looking for another job? As in, he’s sensibly giving himself time to collect himself, to regather some of his mojo before re-entering booze-fueled office life?
Don’s mojo does seem to be at a low ebb. Megan tells Don she’s nervous right before they have sex, but I got the distinct feeling—as did Don—that she didn’t really want to have sex with him, getting intentionally wasted the first night he’s in town, then falling asleep on the couch the second. Even Pete’s real estate girlfriend, putting out the heavy flirtatious vibes, isn’t responding to Don in particular: “Don’t get excited. She turns it on for everybody,” Pete says, looking exactly like the cat who ate the canary. And when Don does get hit on by a woman he likes, for the first time in memory, he refrains from bedding her.
As for that scene with Neve Campbell: I’m afraid that my bullshit meter started ringing right about the time she confessed that her husband “died of thirst,” one of those Please, take out your highlighter and identify the big theme in the text bits of dialogue Matthew Weiner sometimes can’t stop himself from writing. (See also: the very last scene with Don literally out in the cold.) Don too is dreadfully, dangerously thirsty, not just for alcohol but for something, anything sustaining, even if he’s, thankfully, done looking for it in the bottom or a bottle or someone else’s bed. (For now.) If this episode was at all predictive, we’re not quite done slogging it out with Don and his issues just yet.
It’s time for a conversation,
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