HOWARD MEGDAL: The Sopranos, like Mad Men, had tremendous episodes where little transpired, plot-wise. Then, without warning, mid-season, they’d have surprise episodes where much changed places. In the Pine Barrens episode with Christopher and Paulie, the show experienced what might have been its apex.
This week, Mad Men had it’s Pine Barrens episode, and it might have been the best one yet.
I beg of you, if you haven’t seen it yet, don’t read on- go watch immediately, then report back.
Okay, you watched? Here we go.
The British Are Coming, as Roger Sterling exclaims as he closes the door. In an immediately subsequent scene, Ken Cosgrove comes zooming in on a John Deere. We are made to think this is some kind of trump card over Pete Campbell, but no. The entire episode is an exercise in misdirection, and skillfully done.
We think Don and Betty are happy, but of course, Betty is never happy. At long last, we even get Don to reach the end of his patience with Betty’s complete lack of emotional availability for her daughter. So satisfying for the viewer, just to have Don give Betty a single look.
Meanwhile, the schlub doctor Joan is married to, Greg, doesn’t get the promotion he wanted. He comes home sulking, and we begin to see that professionally, the two may more closely resemble the differences in skills between the two. Joan is the dominant one in every way, even sending her husband off to bed at the end of the scene-but the tension within, with Greg holding all the power due to his gender and the year, is considerable.
But the ultimate misdirection is the young British executive, Guy MacKendrick, who is set to take over Sterling Cooper. Don loses. Roger loses. Everyone we like most loses. And he’s an overeducated twit. Still, as Bert Cooper puts it, “We took their money, we have to do what they say.”
Except… we know Don has no contract (and so does Duck Phillips now!). So it turns out you should pour a drink to anyone who wants one, because Don was nice to a guy at Roger Sterling’s party weeks earlier- and he turns out to be Conrad Hilton! Deus Ex Machina, right? No! It was the faux deux ex machina, because the real one was…
Lois! She drunkenly loses control of the John Deere. What is it they say? If a lawnmower appears onstage in the first act, it better run over someone’s foot in the third.
Don and Joan share a tremendous moment at the hospital. It is striking that the two actors who hold our attention onscreen most are hardly ever onscreen at the same time in this show. Despite the duel deus, Joan does not receive ones, and plants a tender kiss on Don’s cheek in lieu of asking for her job back.
The British contingent need to reevaluate. Lane, who was being sent to India as reward for doing so well in America, gets to keep his job. And Sally even gets to sit on Don’s lap with the baby. He can’t control Sterling Cooper, but he can make sure his daughter isn’t afraid anymore.
I will watch this episode again and again- just like the Pine Barrens episode. This was a great moment in the life of a superior show that people will reference for years to come.
JILLIAN LOVEJOY LOWERY: Truly, writing this piece after reading Howard’s words is a tall order, as I agree with his every point on this incredibly heavy episode. With so much on which to focus, this is a difficult episode to review in any sort of comprehensive fashion, though an easy one to discuss on multiple levels.
To that end, instead of focusing on all the intricacies, instead of getting caught up in the John Deere/foot amputation incident, or the meeting with Conrad Hilton, I’d like to take a moment to focus on the women in this episode.
I’m interested in the infinite differences between Joan and Betty — and I’m also incredibly interested in Sally, who, regardless of her age, seems to be a very strong female.
Joan, despite her bumbling husband and his news of being passed over for head resident, continues to be a pillar of strength. Cool and collected, she is steadfast in a crisis — whether it’s comforting her drunk and dejected spouse or putting a tourniquet on a man run over by a mower. Though she cries at her cake presentation, she passes off one pain for another, not letting anyone see the real reason for her discontent. Joan’s got problems, folks. She just won’t let you close enough to see, yet she somehow maintains a real sense of warmth and humanity.
In stark contrast to this is Betty. Granted, she doesn’t have an ideal relationship with Don, and she’s not entirely unsympathetic. Nevertheless, Betty bothers me. I understand why she behaves the way that she does, but there’s an element of the “spoiled daddy’s girl” that she just can’t shake. Like Joan, there is much that she leaves unsaid. But instead of putting her best foot forward and rising to the occasion, Betty wallows. She’s polished and beautiful, and she’s another strong woman, though there’s something Stepford-ish about her.
Sally, though just a child, moves me, as she’s so incredibly complicated — but her age leaves her without guile or pretense. She’s freaked out, and trying to navigate her way through it, looking for an ally. She won’t find that ally yet with her icy mother, but it seems that Don is softening to her. I hope he doesn’t let her down.
Again, I’m new to this world. I’m still not entirely sure what’s going on — and I will need to watch and rewatch this episode many times over, in order to get all the nuances. But thus far, my favorite thing about Mad Men is watching the slow boil of the many different and compelling subplots. I’m sure after another few viewings of this episode, several more things will jump out at me. But — strangely enough, considering how testosterone-driven the plot is — for my first time with this installment, it was absolutely Ladies Night.