Review: 'Mad Men' - 'To Have and To Hold': Leave a penny, take a penny

Don and Pete go after ketchup, Joan hosts an old friend and Megan gets a juicy storyline (at work)

<p>Christina Hendricks as Joan in &quot;Mad Men.&quot;</p>

Christina Hendricks as Joan in "Mad Men."

Credit: AMC

A review of tonight's "Mad Men" coming up just as soon as I imagine Joe Namath in a straw hat...

"It's a hell of a lot better than letting my imagination run wild." -Don

Don and Peggy present two diametrically opposed pitches to Timmy from Heinz. Don's is built around what you can't see, with the promise that the readers' imagination will be more powerful than anything he and Stan can show them. Peggy goes literal, giving Timmy the ketchup bottle he missed in Don's ad, big and bold as life. It leaves nothing to the imagination, but catches the eye nonetheless.

Yet even though Peggy seems to be winning the day — and even steals Don's old line about changing the conversation, which an eavesdropping Don appreciates even as he realizes that he's losing — Heinz ultimately doesn't choose either pitch.(*) Throughout "To Have and To Hold," characters make faulty assumptions based on their imagination, while the people who know better understand how lousy the actual situation is. And in the end, it doesn't matter if you imagine reality or look straight at it, because you're going to wind up unhappy.

(*) This information isn't very well-conveyed at first — if you don't know that J. Walter Thompson was another (real-life) ad agency, it's easy to assume it's the name of Timmy's colleague, and that Cutler, Gleason and Chaough won the account — but Ted and Peggy's glum demeanor makes their loss clear by scene's end.

"To Have and To Hold" presents tales featuring four of Don's secretaries, past and present(**), none of them especially pleased with where life finds them in the spring of 1968. Let's start with Dawn, if only because it's her first standalone storyline — and, therefore, the first time "Mad Men" has taken even a cursory look at the racial strife of the era from an insider's perspective. Dawn's marriage-bound friend Nikki has her impression of what Dawn's work life must be like, but Dawn explains just how isolated she feels, with no sense of office politics, even as she's aware that "everybody's scared there." After Scarlett nearly gets her fired, Dawn resolves to model herself more after Joan, assuming she'll be okay alienating everyone else so long as she has the respect of the agency's only female partner. But Joan, knowing what she went through to get to this point, responds to the idea in a "careful what you wish for" tone.

(**) I like to imagine an alternate version of the episode involving Allison and Lois as Skid Row alcoholics, Allison constantly lamenting her bad timing in trying to have a relationship with Don, Lois having PTSD about running over Guy's foot, and both of them being haunted by the ghost of Miss Blankenship.  

It's a big Joan episode, after she had little more than cameos in the season's first three hours. Through both a visit from her old friend Kate and an argument at work with Harry, she's reminded not only of what she had to do to reach this position, but of all the mistaken assumptions everyone makes about her. Harry clearly knows about Joan's night with Herb from Jaguar, and has built up an entire world in his head where it's the only reason Joan belongs in that room, when we all know exactly how important Joan has been to both the old agency and the new one. Harry even imagines that Joan has gone straight to the other partners to tattle on him, when of course she would never bother them with so trivial and annoying a matter as this.  What's interesting about that conflict is that while Harry is from our perspective being a cruel sexist pig, from his own — where the television department's been a huge part of the agency's success, but he somehow didn't get a partnership when it started because he wasn't smart enough to ask for one — he has a legitimate beef. And when he brings up what Joan did in the dark, it casts a very clear shadow over the faces of the male partners, who would prefer not to be reminded of what Joan was asked to do. (For the sake of their own images of self, it's better for them to focus on the many valuable professional skills Joan brings to the agency, rather than her night with Herb.) 

Kate, meanwhile, comes to New York envious of the glamorous life she thinks Joan has, and ropes her into an exotic night that lands them in the very un-Joan setting of the East Village. (As we saw last year when she went for drinks with Don, Joan's very much of the previous generation.) As they nurse hangovers in Joan's bed the morning after, Joan tries to set her friend straight on what her work life is really like, but Kate points out that it ultimately doesn't matter: "I don't care how they make you feel. It's right in front of you for the taking."

Peggy doesn't show up until very late in the episode — so late, in fact, that I had written this off as one where they balanced the budget by leaving Elisabeth Moss and Kevin Rahm out of it — but she makes her time count with the great Heinz pitch. But because she doesn't win the account, she's burned several bridges (a bit with Don, but a lot with Stan, who flips her the bird on his way out of the bar) for nothing, just as Don and Pete burned SCDP's relationship with vinegars, sauces and beans for a shot at ketchup. (Don's been down this road before, though at least the old agency knew it would be losing Mohawk whether or not they landed American Airlines.) Each had dreams of ketchup bottles dancing in their heads (though only Peggy put the actual bottle on her ad the way Timmy wanted), and wound up worse off than they were before their respective secret missions(***) began.

(***) More imaginations running wild: Ginsberg drives himself nuts trying to figure out what Stan is up to in the room with tinfoil on the windows.

The episode takes its title from Megan's (fictional) soap opera, while depicting the very real one Megan is an unwitting part of. Don seethes at the image of her kissing another man, even if it's just acting, and implies she's a whore — and when Dick Whitman calls you a whore (as he once did, even more overtly, to Betty in the season 3 finale), your marriage is pretty much over — before heading straight to Sylvia's apartment, where he even puts a penny in her hand before they fall onto bed to kiss just like "Corinne" did with "Rafe."

We already know that Don imagined a version of Megan that was much less complicated than the reality, just as she did with him. Now they're just going through the motions, each pretending at different times to be happy to be around each other — swingers(****) Mel and Arlene appear to have a much healthier relationship, even if they have to bring outside parties in to keep things lively — while Don's passion is much more engaged by Sylvia. (The temperature in my living room seems to go up about 10 degrees every time Jon Hamm and Linda Cardellini are on screen together.)

(****) Hamm's lip curling in disgust and confusion never fails to amuse me, so the entire dinner with Mel and Arlene was a delight.

Yet even in that affair, there's what Don imagines is happening and may actually be happening. As they prepare to have sex, he's distracted by the cross she wears around her neck. He suggests, only half-joking, that she uses it to pray for his return when he's not around, but she tells him bluntly that she prays "For you to find peace." Remember, this is the woman who didn't flinch when he told her that he wanted to stop doing this, but instead replied with empathy, "I know." Though Sylvia is as turned on by Don as he is by her, she also has no illusions whatsoever about what's happening here. She doesn't have to create an image in her head about what they're doing, because she can see it clearly. And she knows that — like all the crying, scared people Dawn sees as she tries to make sense of life at a white ad agency — they're just sad.

Some other thoughts:

* I'm so pleased that Peggy and Ted are working together, not only because it allows Peggy to grow as a character, but because it allows for great moments like the stand-off between the rival creative teams outside the hotel suite. We saw some similar beats when Ted first showed up in season 4, but they didn't have nearly the weight, because Ted was just a fly buzzing in Don's ear and didn't have someone we knew and liked standing right beside him.

* It's easy to joke that Ted McGinley (who played Mel) has just killed "Mad Men," except that 1)He's joined several shows that lasted for years after he showed up, and 2)He's actually done some very good work in smaller dramatic parts, like his stint on "Sports Night."

* Other guest stars of note: Joanna Going (who starred in a revival of "Dark Shadows" — the soap Megan didn't get cast on — in the early '90s) as Arlene, Marley Shelton (who, as a commenter points out below, starred in a different attempt to revive "Dark Shadows" in the mid-00s) as Kate, and Mark Derwin as Pierre Cossette, who actually  produced a primetime musical special built around Joe Namath in 1968. (I can find no video from the original "Super Night at the Super Bowl," but here's another edition from the late '70s, also with Namath and friends. It's... something.)

* Fair is fair: last week, I complained about the seemingly random act breaks, so tonight I have to bring up just how good the cut to commercial was after Joan chased Meredith out of the conference room following Harry's interruption of the partners meeting.

* Roger's amusement at Harry is a never-ending source of entertainment for the rest of us, no? The later scene in Cooper's office, meanwhile, offered us an interesting bit of backstory, as Harry says that Bert used to be Harry. Obviously, there wasn't a television department before the original Sterling Cooper was founded, but is he suggesting that Bert was once a lowly media department employee the way Harry was in season 1?

* More and more talk of Vietnam, both during the meeting with Ken's father-in-law and then at the swingers dinner with Mel and Arlene. And of course the chasm between the counter-culture and the traditional culture remains huge, whether it's Joan trying to fit in at The Electric Circus or Don being weirded out by the swingers (though the much more forward-looking Megan was, as well). Among the reasons he's so drawn to Sylvia is that she's close in age and temperament to him; he doesn't have to struggle to understand her the way he so often does with Megan.

* Inflation calculator at work: if Harry makes $22,000 a year in 1968, he makes a little over $143,000 in 2013 dollars.

* Always love it when the score goes for a caper flavor, bringing back fond memories of "Shut the Door, Have a Seat."

* Nice pull by James Poniewozik on Twitter, who found a poster from The Electric Circus circa 1967. The song playing in the background was "Bonnie & Clyde."

* Pete Campbell, still trying to be Don Draper, and still not understanding how huge the gap between them is: he offers Don the use of his shag pad, and Don contemptuously replies that he already lives in the city. Pete has nothing to offer, or teach, Don in this area.

* Still, Don has respect for Pete overall, which is a lot more than you can say about his feelings for Bob Benson. It's hilarious how little interest Don has in anything this young haircut has to do or say.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

Alan-sepinwall-sm
Alan Sepinwall
Sr. Editor, What's Alan Watching
Alan Sepinwall has been reviewing television since the mid-'90s, first for Tony Soprano's hometown paper, The Star-Ledger, and now for HitFix. His new book, "The Revolution Was Televised," about the last 15 years of TV drama, is for sale at Amazon. He can be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com
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