Recap: 'Mad Men' -- 'Wee Small Hours'
On August 28th, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. In the world of “Mad Men,” however, no one seems able to sleep, much less dream. The week featured haunted, exhausted, bloodshot eyes gazing at the world around them and trying to make sense of what they are seeing. And, as we all know, without proper rest we tend to not be our best. Maybe we do things before thinking. Maybe we make mistakes. Maybe we fall into old habits.
[Full recap of Sunday night's "Mad Men" after the break...]
By using the Lucky Strike account as one of the show’s narrative spines, it allowed the writers to demonstrate just how far the world has come, as well as just how far it hasn’t. Sure, MLK’s speech sparked a revolution, but that revolution hasn’t quite fully hit upstate New York yet, where Betty Draper thinks the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama somehow proves that the time isn’t right for civil rights. In the show’s premiere episode, Don Draper landed the now $25 million Lucky Strike account by employing the word “toasted.” Tonight, thanks to a Lucky Strike employing getting a little too toasted, now poor Sal is toast.
Let’s look at Lee Garner, Jr. for a moment, shall we? Seemed like a nice enough guy in the pilot, heir to his father’s position, in line to make big money in big tobacco. But during a late-night edit after a contentious commercial shoot, we learn his heart is more in film than in spreadsheets. His romantic pass at Sal was certainly not his first, and it’s quite possible that Sal’s rejection was not Lee’s first, either. And while Sal stayed to stew in his sexual frustration, Lee went to his hotel to order Harry Crane to fire him.
Crane, still largely above his head in a position created when television made up almost none of the budget at Sterling Cooper, sat on the phone call, unwilling to bring either Don or Roger into it while praying that Lee would not even remember the call in the first place. However, Lee’s storming out upon seeing Sal in the screening room set off a series of actions so rapid that viewers got whiplash. It was as if the show turned up its own speed from 33 1/3 to 78 RPM before we had a chance to adjust. Roger fired Sal on the spot, sent Harry to “…use [his] dying breath to ask Don to solve this,” and then probably downed a bottle of bourbon before heading off to lunch.
Sal confided in Don the truth of his encounter in the editing room, relying on Don’s discretion about the incident in the Baltimore hotel earlier this season. But rather than helping Sal’s case, it ended up hurting him. “You people,” Don said with such casual disgust that it nearly made me gasp. (Those Drapers: not the most socially progressive couple. Can’t wait for Sally to storm Woodstock in six years. That should go over well.) While Don values the client over employee in almost every situation (see Freddie), there was a particular bite to this particular firing. I’m sure Sal still felt that sting while trolling for men in Central Park a few days later, no longer having the one thing that kept his sexual desires in line.
The line of disappointed mentors didn’t end there. In fact, Don found himself staring at one in the shape of Conrad Hilton. While Conrad has clearly made Don’s life an exhausting one, both clearly relish the fact that they push each other to greater heights. They fashion themselves as inherently different from those around them due to their self-made natures, carving out for themselves a special place in the social strata in which they can have a society of two. Atop this sits a no longer latent father-son relationship, one that both men crave on a base level. Contrast these dreams of a worthy father figure with the visions of his biological father in the hotel room with the drugging drifters and you can just imagine Don’s excitement over the prospect.
But they are, at heart, different creatures. Both are driven by their work, but Conrad sees a bigger, noble purpose to his. Don? He’s still newly trapped in a 3-year contract, increasingly exhausted and unable to find any sort of escape accept car rides along the 2-mile stretch of house between his abode and that of Sally’s ex-teacher, Miss Farrell. Conrad speaks wistfully of an America that was good, wholesome, pure, and intoxicating fragrance that once sniffed instantly transformed a citizen of the world into an American acolyte. Hell, he sees it transforming the very moon itself. (“That’s where we’re going, you know,” in a not-so-subtle allusion to Kennedy’s plan.) Don knows nothing of pureness anymore, except in the essence of a woman that he first touched via blades of grass while she performed a Maypole dance under the blazing sunshine.
So when Conrad shoots down Don’s ad campaign for not literally including a poster of a Hilton hotel on the moon, Don seeks solace in a small apartment above a garage looking for the America Conrad keeps extolling. In a bizarre way, I think Don views his seduction of Miss Farrell as a way to better serve Conrad. Mr. Hilton wants “goodness” and “confidence” in his ad campaign, two things in short supply in Don’s life. They are not there professionally (Roger bluntly but correctly points out that Don’s in over his head), but personally as well (the glow from the Drapers’ Roman holiday has utterly faded). This isn’t a way to justify Don’s draper to you, the readers, but I wouldn’t put it past Don to put it this way to justify it to himself. And that justification bought him the first sound sleep in seemingly weeks.
Betty’s dreams have been filled with fainting couch fornication with Henry Francis. (See: glow of Roman holiday extinguished.) She and Henry strike up the 1963 version of IM’ing by sending letters to each other via their home addresses. In Betty’s mind, the letters displace any chance of her dream ever reaching fruition while also allowing the glimmer of possibility exist in a world in which every day is crushingly similar.
Naturally, her plan backfires as the letters only send Henry hurtling towards the Draper residence. Not the smartest move Henry ever made, as his mid-day appearance coincided with Carla’s return from the store. Since Carla is no dummy, the two concoct a fundraiser for the Rockefeller Presidential campaign and ward off any possible improper or false assumption about his presence. (Thirty-six years later, this will be called “pulling a Letterman.”) However, early in the episode we see Betty reading about the futility of any such campaign, with Goldwater’s ascension among the Republican ranks in the run-up to the election year. This futility might also apply to any possible future for Betty and Francis in her eyes.
His absence at the fundraiser itself (he sends a subordinate, albeit a far more knowledgeable one than he on the subject at hand) prompts Betty to throw the box containing the money raised at him in his office. Pretty big emotional moment for a character defined by her emotional restraint. Henry correctly reads her anger as containing some sexual frustration as well, but the passionate kiss seemingly turns Betty back towards reality, almost as if waking from a dream. Or, more accurately, because reality did not live up to the dream.
Remember, we see the dream the way she sees it, in terms of lighting, décor, pace, and more importantly, with Henry himself out of frame. But it also takes place on the fainting couch, a symbol of the one place on earth in which such fantasies could be entertained or even, perhaps, executed. Having sex on a table in a locked office? “Tawdry,” as she says. And not in keeping with the picture of her mind’s eye. Looks like this is the end for these two, although it certainly seems like Don actually wants to get caught this time with Miss Farrell. It may be impossible for him to leave Sterling Cooper, but it’s much easier for him to leave his marriage.
With just a few episodes left, where do you see the show heading as the season finale approaches?