If last week’s episode was about death, rape, and finding one’s own path, respectively, this week’s dose of Mad Men was about prostitution and guilt in all its varied forms. All the main characters are tangled in complex collaborations, whether willingly or unwillingly, sexual or chaste. Everyone’s wrestling with guilt in this episode, handling and mishandling situations as a result. Don Draper is, as ever, standing at the center of the tempest, acting as though he’s a port in a storm when really he’s rocking harder than anyone else.
Trudy Campbell, as it turns out, has grown a helluva backbone in the intervening years between last season and this. She’s stone cold, her prim words and sly smile thinly veiling total contempt. When she describes the local Easter Egg hunt to a new neighbor, a man with a gorgeous, blond wife, he asks if she dresses up like a cottontail. Trudy plays at offense, but the very things that would’ve genuinely offended characters like Trudy or Betty a few seasons are their very stock in trade these days. “You simply must see ‘Hair!'” Pete tells the neighbor’s lovely young wife, Brenda, and her pretty, blond friend (or is it daughter? I couldn’t tell). The two women joke flirtatiously about the veracity of claims that “Hair” featured real sex acts. The Campbells, once a shining beacon of American success, are not keeping up with the Joneses, so to speak. After they finally usher the newcomers out the door, Trudy tells Pete tiredly that the neighbor is insisting they all go skinny dipping. Pete sprawls undaintily on the couch to watch war coverage as Trudy cleans up. It’s evident, only in these tiny interactions, there’s no love lost between the once-blissful Campbell duo. (Remember their brilliant dance scene at Roger’s wedding? In other news, I need to re-watch the whole series – this music feels so old, and these couplings so ancient. How things have changed.)
The next morning, things get a bit awkward in the elevator at Don’s apartment building – Sylvia and Arnie argue contentiously about something that needs to go in the mail, and Sylvia asks her husband fruitlessly for money. Don, eyeing Sylvia in her bathrobe and curlers, pretends to have forgotten his cigarettes so that he can excuse himself to jump back into bed with her. He uses one bad habit to get to another, just like old times.
And suddenly it’s flashback time! Don, who in this episode always seems to be approaching a doorway (certainly not a coincidence, considering the title of the season premiere), has a sudden, uncomfortable memory of the day his stepmother moved them into the whorehouse where he grew up. Upon entering the brothel’s foyer, Don/Dick’s stepmother, very pregnant with Adam (now deceased, his suicide still a partially-buried point of agony for Don), glares stonily at the lecherous implication that she would do anything dirty for the brothel’s proprietor, Mack. As Mack and his wife usher the Whitmans into their humble abode, a whore admonishes a teenaged Don/Dick, “Little boy, find your own sins, stay away from Mack’s.” Well, he certainly didn’t have a problem with that.
In bed with Sylvia after lovemaking, Don and his mistress smoke a cigarette. Ahead of his time, Arnie Rosen is advising people that cigarettes are *gasp!* bad for you. When Don asks how she is allowed to smoke inside, Sylvia replies, “I just found out the maid smokes.” Linda Cardellini is perfect in this role, though it’s still intensely difficult to unsee her as Lindsay Weir. Her cross perpetually dangles between her breasts, reminding us every second of her Catholicism. As he gets up to leave, Don hands her the money she couldn’t get from her husband – and she seems to revel in the implications of such an illicit transaction. “I have money, I just never have money,” she says, practically purring.
The blatant similarities between Don and Peggy continue to astound, unsurprisingly. Peggy’s secretary is also African American, much like Dawn in her style of dress and hair. If you’ll remember, Dawn and Peggy had an odd, awkward interaction last season about their mutual feelings of discontent. Peggy strove to connect their plights, not understanding the extent to which the color of Dawn’s skin made her Other. Peggy and her secretary, though, seem to have a good rapport on the surface; the woman gently chastises Peggy for treating the Creative team like crap (this echoes Abe’s sentiments from last week). Peggy, as unsure of herself in the way of comforting people as Don is, stumbles over trying to tell Creative she loves them just the way they are. “The way you are…has nothing to do with the fact that the work needs work,” shes says, obviously anxious to get them out of her office. It’s a bit cringe-worthy.
Meanwhile, it appears Trudy Campbell has followed through on her suggestion for Pete to have an apartment in the city. Her attempts to separate his city life from his suburban one have worked well, so far as she can tell. His cheap, generally unoccupied flat in Manhattan is sparsely decorated when he leads lovely young Brenda in the door. “Please dear, don’t linger in the hallway,” he says; she’s no better than a you-know-what to him. He can offer her the simple things in life: peanut butter and cheese crackers, cheap-ish liquor, and vulgar comments about how “it can get hot in here.” He leads Brenda into the bedroom, which is walled in colored glass, a visual reminder of the drabness of the Campbell home in the suburbs. The contrast between this lively young blond and his pretty, dark wife is stark and intense – his life in the city and his life in the suburbs don’t overlap if he can help it, but Pete isn’t always good at helping it.
At SCDP, things are heating up. Heinz is back, and this is not a good thing. Kip Pardue, one of the most stereotypically attractive actors working right now (most memorable to me for this artful, extremely NSFW montage of debauchery from Rules of Attraction), is impeccably dressed and pretty as Timmy, the Ketchup guy. “So the question here is, what can you do for ketchup?” Timmy asks the SCDP crew. Raymond, he of the Heinz Baked Beans account from last season, stays behind to tell Don he will have no further contact with Timmy. At Heinz, baked beans are falling by the wayside as the up-and-comer ketchup gallops past. “I’d rather retire than watch that guy screw my girlfriend,” he says angrily, impotently. As anybody who’s paid attention in the last 50 years knows, Heinz is not a household name for its baked beans. Heinz ketchup, as Ken notes, is “the Coca-Cola of condiments.” After Ray, who has in his insecurity disgraced himself, leaves the office, Ken and Don talk of Raymond’s weakness. “Sometimes,” Don says when Kenny asks why they can’t just slip Raymond and approach Timmy, “you gotta dance with the one that brung you.” Sometimes you do, indeed, Don. How about dancing with your own wife?
Uncoincidentally, the next scene is in the basement of the Drapers’ and Rosens’ apartment building, where Megan is firing the maid while wearing a wholly unflattering (and very depressive, for Megan) green cable knit sweater. Unexpectedly, she bursts into tears just as Sylvia walks through the doorway. Sylvia accompanies Megan to the Draper apartment, where Megan, obviously lonely and sad these days, spills her guts. First she talks about her mother’s will – deliberately drawing our minds to Megan’s horribly unhappy French Canadian mother, who slept with Roger last season – before we realize she’s talking about her soap opera character. Then she tells Sylvia she had a miscarriage a few days prior. Sylvia understandably mixes up Megan’s fantasy life with her real life. It’s something the writers clearly intend for us to do this season. Megan’s miscarriage, though, is very real, and of course she didn’t tell Don. “I’m such a horrible person…to be pregnant now, at this moment,” she says, unable to finish her sentence, implying delicately that she had contemplated abortion. Her guilt, the superstitious notion that she might’ve caused her own miscarriage by thinking about it, is ruining her. Sylvia is in an intensely uncomfortable situation here. The man with whom she’s having an affair had a pregnant wife, and he isn’t even aware of it. Now Sylvia’s saddled with the burden by virtue of her gender. Sylvia was raised Catholic and quite simply doesn’t understand how anyone could consider getting an abortion. “In your heart I think you feel the same way,” she says to Megan, just as Don walks in the door.
Peggy finds a container of Quest Feminine Hygiene Powder on her desk, and carries it to Ted Chaough, hoping against hope that it’s a new account. Peggy’s wardrobe is heavily purple this season, drawing comparisons to Joan in all her self-appointed regal glory. When Peggy reads the folder to Ted, she realizes it’s a bad joke courtesy Creative. The intended target for Quest Feminine Hygiene Powder: “professional women and other Olsens.” She takes it as much in stride as she can – but to anyone watching now, the gesture is hardly playful, and actually seems a threat. This provides the only concrete contrast between Peggy and Don – Don commands, if not appreciation, at least respect. Peggy, a woman in the same role, is going to have trouble commanding anything from a troupe of men who haven’t caught up to the idea that ladies are, in fact, capable of supervising a project (and oh so much more).
As though to make the connection between Joan and Peggy even clearer, the following scene gives us Joanie herself, surprised as Herb (of Jaguar fame, the very gentleman she slept with in order to obtain her status as “non-silent” partner at SCDP) darkens her doorway. “I know there’s part of you that’s glad to see me,” Herb says, sweating like a pig and practically reeking through the screen. “And I know there’s a part of you you haven’t seen for years,” Joan responds tartly, without a hint of a smile. She barges into Don’s office and pours herself a drink directly from his bar. “He’s here,” she spits venomously, and they need converse no more. Herb, wiping sweat from his brow, tells the male portion of the SCDP crew they need to present an idea to the bigwigs at Jaguar to put 60% of their current funds toward local ads. Whatever he’s plotting, it can’t come from him – it has to come from the ad guys. Don’s disgust with Herb is palpable and problematic.
Peggy and Stan have a very comfortable rapport, joking and chattering during evening phone calls. Stan tells Peggy all about the ketchup debacle – the hilarious way “‘fraidy-cat” Raymond commanded them to have no further contact with Timmy, the way Ken bungled the potential ketchup account. The two giggle discreetly at others’ misfortune; it’s a much-needed reprieve from their day-to-day. Unfortunately, Ted Chaough, he of few morals, overhears the conspirators (or is it collaborators?) and makes it abundantly clear he is entirely comfortable with stealing both talent and clients from SCDP. Peggy is obviously not okay with this behavior, but Ted’s the boss. Unfortunately, he successfully poaches ketchup from SCDP – and now Peggy is left to feel guilty (something she used to be pretty good at) for her carelessness.
In the suburbs, the Campbells suddenly hear screams from outside their normally idyllic home. Brenda stumbles up to the doorway, yelling for help, her nose bloodied. “Hey Campbell, she’s your problem now,” her husband shouts from the car. Trudy struggles to restrain her anger while icing the wounds caused by Pete’s (and, obviously, Brenda’s, and her husband’s) bad behavior. Trudy takes it upon herself to drive Brenda to a hotel (“Come, dear, it’s better this way”), even as Brenda begs Pete to please take care of her.
Megan begs off from dinner at an Italian restaurant with the Rosens, and Arnold leaves the table to attend to a patient, leaving Sylvia and Don to eat together. Sylvia, who knows Don’s life better than he does at the moment, is openly hostile. “How could I possibly know what you like to eat?” she asks, indirectly jabbing at her role as not-wife. She points out that Don gets wicked enjoyment out of how foolish the cuckolded spouses appear. Don, who at the beginning of last episode couldn’t think of a damned word to say, works his magic on Sylvia. “Oh, I see. You want to feel shitty right up until the point where I take your dress off,” he says, stunning her with his incisive reference to her innate Catholic guilt. Despite (or because of?) said guilt, Don can turn any woman on with words. As a pretty Italian aria plays in the background, she becomes visibly aroused by Don’s dirty talk. “Weren’t you the one who told me you were drifting apart?” she asks, requesting permission to alleviate her guilt. He lets her order for him, ostensibly granting her power, and the scene frequently cuts from the restaurant foreplay to Don and the doctor’s wife screwing on the maid’s bed.
When Trudy finally shows up at the Campbell house after dropping Brenda off at a hotel, it is very late and she is very pissed off. She turns off the bedside lamp and gently closes the door as she enters the bathroom, eyeing prone Pete scathingly all the way across the room. The gentle click of the bathroom latch, her exit from the marriage bedroom after learning about her husband’s affair with the neighbor, matches perfectly with the slam of a door that is Don coming home after his own affair with the neighbor.
Megan, distraught and looking more juvenile than ever, tells Don about the miscarriage. He has no idea how to react but does his best. “You have to know I’d want what you want,” he explains, letting her know he’s up for the “let’s have a family” conversation whenever Megan is. The man is once again juggling as many women as he can stand, and isn’t fazed that he has to reassure his guilt-ridden wife while battling his guilt-ridden mistress.
At least one person in this episode doesn’t feel guilty, but enraged. “Somehow I thought there was dignity in granting permission,” Trudy says to Pete as he comes home the next day, spearing him with ice crystals in every word. Suddenly she starts throwing out orders. She won’t accept a divorce, she says, because she won’t be a failure. Instead, “I am drawing a 50-mile line around this house, and if you so much as open your fly to urinate, I will destroy you.” She means it, too. Do not mess with Trudy Campbell. How things have changed. Cleaning up your husband’s bloody mistress, who lives just down the block, is a valid last straw.
When Jaguar returns for their big meeting at SCDP, Don upends Pete’s whole pitch in a horribly misguided show of solidarity for Joan. Jaguar isn’t a fan of the updated approach. Roger agrees good-naturedly and succinctly with his only line of the episode (and one of the best): “That was the deftest self-immolation I’ve ever seen.” Don, in all ways, is very deft at self-immolation. Don and Roger have to explain to young Pete what they mean when they reference Munich. “We gave the Germans whatever they wanted to make them happy, but they just wanted more,” says Roger. “Well, who the hell won the war?” Pete asks before storming off. Unsurprisingly, all three of these men have been given everything they wanted to make them happy, and they only want more. It’s the way of the Mad Men universe.
The penultimate scene brings us back to Don’s introduction to his stepmother’s role as a prostitute. Teenaged Don peers through a keyhole as clammy, naked Mack gently pushes Abigail down on a bed and leans into her. Another whore (probably the same one who’d warned him to steer clear of Mack’s sins) tells him he’s a dirty little spy. On the soundtrack, “Just a Gigolo” plays mellowly, softly. After stopping by the Rosen household in secret, a drunken Don collapses weakly outside his own double doors before crossing the threshhold.
This season, it appears, will be all about doorways. Finding them, using them, entering them, leaving them. Mad Men has never been light in tone, but in this season’s opening episodes, it’s clear that the show’s themes are only growing darker and tenser. Don is indignant about Joan’s prostitution (which surely links to his matriarch’s), but hands his own mistress a wad of cash after sex. Pete, still hovering somewhere near the bottom when he wants so badly to be at the top, refuses to separate his suburban life from his city life, leaving his mistress beaten and his wife enraged. Peggy can’t quite leave SCDP behind, and Ted Chaough takes advantage of her weakness. Megan and Sylvia are racked with their own guilt, though Sylvia’s used to it (and even, it appears, gets off on it a bit) and Megan’s not. Trudy and Joan refuse to be treated like hookers, even as the men around them make it clear that’s what they’re worth. It’s shaping up to be a tense swirl of collapses and explosions, a stormy expanse of guilt and seeking penance.
What’re your thoughts? Who is Bob Benson, really? Who is headed where, and do you have predictions?