Recap: 'Mad Men' -- 'Seven Twenty Three'
We all know we’re not supposed to look directly at an eclipse. Even in 1963, before they realized that things like smoking while pregnant was an unwise medicinal move, they knew better than to start directly at the sun during an eclipse. And yet, human DNA is intrinsically embedded with the desire to look at what we are not supposed to look at, say what we are not supposed to say, or do what we are not supposed to do. Sometimes we are punished for these transgressions. But sometimes, life just keeps on moving on, seemingly apathetic towards your egregious actions.
Tonight’s episode of “Mad Men,” entitled “Seven Twenty Three,” started with Don, Betty, and Peggy all lying prone. Something has happened to them, although it’s unclear exactly what. Without feeling the need to overtly show a title card proclaiming “One Week Earlier,” the show the retraced the steps of all three characters, showing how they ended up off their feet. Let’s look at them one by one.
Over the closing credits, the country song “Sixteen Tons” tells the tale of a man who owes his soul to the company store. By episode’s end, that’s exactly how Don feels, having finally capitulated to singing the contract he’s avoided since Season 1. A three-year contract might not sound so long to the average person, but to Don the sentence sounds downright eternal.
The issue of his contract comes up because Conrad Hilton agrees to let Sterling Cooper manage the advertising accounts for his New York City hotels. Hilton’s lawyers insist that all major players be in under contract, in which a cadre of eccentric businessmen talk about Conrad Hilton as if he were a breed apart from them. In truth, the only difference lies in a simple matter of wealth. In the world of “Mad Men,” successful businessmen are almost no different than successful artists: they need to be slightly “off” in order to fully succeed. Whereas most can compartmentalize their unique nature within the confining structure of the business world, Don prizes his ability to be simultaneously in the institution while consistently having one foot out the door. He doesn’t want to leave, but he likes the feel of the breeze on his shins.
Unfortunately for Don, much like for Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changin’. While Don survived the initial takeover from Putnam, Powell and Lowe, he couldn’t stay an independent employee in an increasingly global marketplace the way he could earlier in the decade. As we will undoubtedly see as “Mad Men” runs its course, history itself accelerated in the 1960’s, leaving its wake a world barely recognizable to the “I Like Ike” generation. On top of that, Don’s ways with women seem to be failing him as well, with Sally’s teacher harshly cutting off any attempt at an affair during a class expedition to watch the eclipse. Sally’s teacher understands Don’s game all too well, a trend that will only continue as the decade goes on. While Don may eventually succeed in bedding her, it will most likely be under her terms, not his: a new position for him.
Also part and parcel of this new world order? The Vietnam War. Briefly mentioned in last week’s episode, it crept into the world of the show a bit more this week. Not only does Pete have an account (North American Aviation) doing gangbuster business constructing machines of war, but Don picks up a couple of hitchhikers looking to get married to avoid the impending draft. They end up drugging him with Phenobarbital, which gives him lovely visions of his father sipping moonshine and berating his son’s “soft hands.”
Those soft hands eventually sign the three-year contract when a mugged, chastened, slightly disheveled, and quite broken finds Cooper behind his desk, demanding that Don stop “standing on the shoulders of others” and finally reward the company’s loyalty to him. Cooper then turns the screw with what might be the most cutting line in the show’s history: “After all, who’s really signing this contract anyway?” Like Conrad, Cooper is an eccentric, but often uses said eccentricity to bypass the defenses of people so they don’t see the shiny gleam of their knife. And in cutting Don, he might have secured Hilton’s business but potentially marked the beginning of the end for the agency as a whole.
When all is said and done, we’re probably going to look back at this season’s third episode, “My Old Kentucky Home,” as the episode that introduced every major player into the season’s overall story. What stood out at the time was Sterling’s inappropriate blackface number. What we should have paid attention to were the scenes between Conrad/Don and Betty/Henry. While the former started paying off last week, the latter reared its head again this week in the form of a meeting nominally about a reservoir of water but really about the reservoir of emotions between two lonely people.
Betty is trying to redecorate her living room in an ongoing effort to keep herself as busy as possible. There were many shots in earlier seasons of Betty, alone at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette and watching the time move achingly slow. But now, she’s fired the domestic help! She’s picking out furniture! She’s in the Junior League, which I mistakenly misheard as “Justice League” at first and was really, really confused until I rewound my DVR. Of course, when Don can place end tables better than her in less than 5 seconds, such business is never enough.
That’s why she jumps at the chance to reconnect with the man who touched her pregnant belly at Sterling’s garden party, Henry Francis. Kind of a jack-of-all-trades in the Governor’s office, he returns Betty’s call for aid in preserving a local reservoir in approximately 8.3 seconds. Apparently Henry never heard of the three-day rule. He agrees to come up to look at the reservoir personally, having grown up around it in his heyday. They schedule a face-to-face in a local bakery that’s nominally about preservation but is really all about deflection, in which they less-than-joyfully pretend that talking about this small body of water is really what both want to be doing.
As they leave the bakery, Betty accidentally looks at the eclipse which, combined with Henry’s covering of her eyes, leaves her doing quite the impression of a Tennessee Williams heroine. Henry notes a piece of furniture in a nearby window–a fainting couch–and notes that would be the perfect piece for her to own. And while we could have assumed from the outset that Francis’ encounter led to the purchase of the couch upon which she lies at the episode’s outset, it was delicious to see Betty’s placement of it: dead in front of the hearth. Only fitting for a family without any real warmth currently in it.
OK, admit it: how many of you associated “Duck Phillips” and “sex machine” before tonight? Exactly. And not like many of you might after tonight, but good Lord, Duck was getting his Rick James on tonight after his persistent pursuit of Peggy to join his firm. I dare not quote his pick-up line here, lest Hitfix’s blogging software start blushing. But while his approach was shocking, Peggy’s acceptance of it really wasn’t.
Throughout the season, “Mad Men” has built up tension between the once-tight team of Don and Peggy. In Don, Peggy has both a father figure, mentor, and yes, slight crush. This year, Peggy has born the brunt of some insanely bad timing, consistently encountering Don after some less-than-pleasant event in his life. As such, Don unloads on Peggy instead of the source of his real angst. Maybe his arguments towards have merit, but he delivers them with such venom that it goes beyond business into the personal for her. Makes sense, because the source of Don’s anger is personal, even if his language is professional.
As such, she’s more prone to be tempted by Duck’s offer than Pete is. Pete, God bless him, thinks Don would actually be hurt if he left. Snicker. Peggy’s resignation might actually affect Don, but Peggy’s absence simply doesn’t register as a possibility for him. Don takes her for granted, and as such has no filter when talking to her. In Duck, Peggy has a man with who desires her both as a female writer and as a female. (Hello, Hermes scarf!) Whether or not that’s true remains to be seen, but for now, Peggy believes it to be so.
Through her encounter with Duck, Peggy stared into her own personal eclipse: a life beyond Sterling Cooper. Her brief encounter with Don the following morning contained eyes that held betrayal, as if she had almost cheated on her boss. It’s part and parcel of the mixture of the personal and the professional with which Peggy regards Don. With Don dealing with so many other issues in his life, Peggy is barely a blip on his radar right now. But should she ever leave, he’d see just how large her absence truly would be.
We’re now in the second half of the season. With the Hilton account in full swing, Vietnam on the horizon, and Don’s soul affixed to a piece of paper, things are finally starting to come together in what is shaping up to be a season every bit as good as the first two.
What did you think about tonight’s episode? Leave your thoughts below!