A review of last night's "Mad Men" coming up just as soon as I smoke the dress...

"I started thinking if everything I was sure was true, and how flimsy it all might be." -Anna Draper

"The Good News" marks the end of 1964, and though we've only seen a few months of it, it appears to have been a very bad year in which to be Don Draper. He's a rising star because of the Glo-Coat ad, but at work he's feeling too much pressure to keep the new firm afloat, and at home he's a lonely, pathetic, sloppy, drunken mess who repeatedly embarrasses himself hitting on women. (Thus far, the only women with which he's had success are the ones he pays: Candace and Allison.)

It's gotten so bad to be Don Draper, in fact, that for the first time in a long time being Dick Whitman seems a preferable option - particularly if Anna Draper is part of the deal.

We saw in season two's "The Mountain King" that our Don is much  more relaxed in the presence of the real Don's widow. Here, she's even more of a life raft for a drowning man. He still makes a fool of himself trying to seduce Anna's college-age niece Stephanie - in marked contrast to his California fling with Joy in season two - but before that, he seems happy and content and capable of connecting with other human beings.

And then Stephanie reveals just how flimsy even this life must be by telling him that Anna is dying of cancer, and doesn't even realize it.

This news briefly turns him back into Don Draper (check out how he carries himself when trying to bully Anna's sister into letting him take over), but mostly it leaves him more vulnerable and Dick Whitman-like than ever. Anna has always been the one safe harbor in his life. Where Betty reacted to the Dick Whitman news in the way Don feared - "I could tell the minute she saw who I really was, she never wanted to look at me again." - Anna, who has even more justification to feel hurt about it, has never judged him for what he did. She's never judged him for anything (though it's unclear how much he tells her about some of his extra-curricular activities), and is a ray of sunshine in his dark life. At the bar, Stephanie puts on Patti Pagie's "Old Cape Cod," and Dick suggests the song reminds him of a beautiful place he wishes he could go. Anna is that place for him, and though he doesn't go there as often as he should, it's always been there for him - until now. When Dick tears up(*) at saying what he assumes will be his final goodbye, Anna thinks he's just upset at what his Don Draper life has become, and assures him that he'll make the best of things like he always has. The difference is that before, he always knew he had her in his corner - always knew that he had this safe place to retreat to in case of emergency. Now? He promises to bring the kids out for Easter, and while this season seems to have a holiday theme for its episodes, I wonder if Anna will even make it that far. Our man has spent a lifetime running from being Dick Whitman. Suddenly, being Dick doesn't seem so bad - but the last vestiges of Dick Whitman are going to die with Anna Draper. The "Dick + Anna '64" signature on the repainted wall evokes young lovers putting their names on a tree or a wall or a desk, but also evokes the writing on a pair of cemetary headstones.

(*) We have an early contender for Jon Hamm's Emmy submission here. I thought "The Mountain King" was a mistake two years ago because the performance was only striking in the larger context of Dick vs. Don, which wasn't obvious if you only saw that one hour. Here, though, he spends most of the first half being Dick, and letting his heart be torn to shreds, and the second half being drunk, comically pathetic Don. The man can act a little.

Don isn't the only character grappling with the haunting question of how much time he has left with a loved one. Joan is professionally fulfilled (give or take some dust-ups with Lane Pryce, who's quite harsh in declaring his immunity to her charms), but at home she faces nothing but uncertainty. When will her schedule coincide with Greg's enough for them to try to conceive? When will Greg be sent for basic training? And when will the Army send Greg to Vietnam?

Joan's marriage hasn't been anything like what she imagined it would be. She wanted a handsome, kind, rising star surgeon. She got the handsome part right, but the rest? No need to rehash most of the previous ugliness, but even here, when he's doing something relatively right by stitching up her cut hand, he still makes it clear that he doesn't understand or appreciate his wife. He knows so little about her new job that he thinks she still does filing, and distracts her with a technique that he usually saves for children. The problem is, Greg is the child - the one who's never been able to see beyond what effect the world has on him - and Joan is stuck with both him and his uncertain future. So she weeps not over her cut, but over the rest of it. Greg assures her that "Everything's going to be okay," but neither of them have any way of knowing that.

Lane, meanwhile, at least has a clearer sense of what's becoming of his loved one - but a definitive answer isn't much better in this case, since Rebecca has chosen England over him.

We saw the tension in the Pryce marriage last season, as well as the idea that Lane has come to love America, even though America - as represented by his colleagues at the two firms - hasn't been entirely warm towards him. But in finding himself alone at the office on Dec. 31, and then in the orbit of a spectacularly drunk(**) and self-destructive Don Draper, Lane actually begins to feel welcome in this group, sad as that may seem.

(**) When Don remarked on the lack of bite on the booze Lane's alcoholic father gave him, I knew things would get worse before they get better. The last thing Don Draper needs in this state is a kind of booze that's easier to drink.

Though there was a lot of pain behind both men's actions, the trifecta of them drunk and loud at the office, drunk and loud while seeing "Godzilla" - or perhaps, per some commenters, "Gamera" - (Jared Harris yelling in pidgin Japanese was genius), then drunk and loud at the restaurant was, a wonderful comic duet for Hamm and Harris. I was pleased that Lane had no illusions about the "girlfriends" Don called for them, and even weirdly pleased that the intensely private Don would let a colleague see that side of him. When he tells Lane that he learned the hard way about giving advice in these situations, he's alluding to the Roger/Jane/Mona mess, which was one of many instances of Don trying desperately to keep everyone at the office from knowing anything about him. Here, he lets kindred spirit Lane see the real him - a particularly dark and sad version, but him nonetheless - and both men seem to feel strangely better afterwards, like at least they know there's one other man in that office who feels something similar to what they do.

Despite Lane's toast about what a magnificent year they've just had, it's clear that he, Don and Joan are all hoping the new year is a lot happier than the old one.

Some other thoughts:

  • Though Don is finding it harder and harder to connect with young women (all women, really), he's also becoming more acutely aware of the power of youth culture, as evidenced by most of his dialogue with Stephanie. Also note that we hear The Beach Boys Jan & Dean playing on the jukebox at the bar, and that for perhaps the first time in a long time (since he was with Midge), Don is out for a bit of nightlife geared at a generation younger than his own.
  • Though this episode opens only days after the end of "Christmas Comes But Once a Year," Allison seems to have recovered from the humiliating morning-after with Don - or, at least, is doing a good job of acting like she has. But Don is still weirdly flirty with her. Hmm...
  • Stephanie's line about how "nobody knows what's wrong with themselves, and everyone else can see it right away" should be a motto for the entire series.
  • Don is taken by that line, and it's clear he's absorbed Faye Miller's lecture from last week, since he paraphrases her question about desires versus expectations to Lane.
  • I'm assuming the shot of Don sitting on Anna's couch all night was done in a single short take with the light changing, but it was still very effective.
  • "I'm not going to fight watching Dick Whitman paint my living room in his shorts." I'm guessing Anna is not alone in that sentiment.
  • The counter-culture comedian was played by our second "Sopranos" alum in the last two weeks: Will Janowitz, who was Meadow's one-time fiance Finn De Trolio.

Two notes before we get to the comments. First, please keep in mind the usual commenting rules on this blog, which include being polite to other commenters (if you can't disagree without insulting somebody else, don't comment) and not posting spoilers about upcoming episodes (which includes any discussion of the previews for the next episode).

Second, I got the sense last week from the comments that you would rather these reviews be done right than be done quick. I thought about staying up late last night to do it, "Lost"-style, but realized that would just lead to a shoddy review. (Writing about "Lost" requires a different set of muscles than writing about this show.) So the goal will be to aim for late morning East Coast time for the rest of the season.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com