Mad Men: Week 7 “Seven Twenty Three”

JILLIAN LOVEJOY LOWERY:  Seriously, how have I never watched this show until this season?  Last week’s episode was a tough one to follow — I expected something of a letdown, if even a small one.  Not so much.

Warning:  spoilers to follow.

Of course, the show spoils itself from the start, opening with Betty lounging on a fainting couch, Don bloody in a motel room and Peggy in bed with a man who is yet to be identified.  And how they all got there is quite the journey….

Flash back to the beginning.  Betty and her interior decorator are discussing the new living room, and Don heads out to work, arriving at 9:30 a.m. to find Conrad Hilton in his office, scolding him for a) not having a Bible or family photos in his office and b) his tardiness.  Connie gives Don a bit of a hard time, but ends up offering him the opportunity to work on the three NYC Hilton properties.

Meanwhile, Betty is named secretary of Junior League, and she takes this opportunity to finagle a meeting with Henry Francis, in order to discuss the pending installation of a water tank at the local reservoir.

Sterling Cooper is all abuzz with news of the Hilton deal, and the higher-ups jump on the chance to impose a contract upon Don — a suggestion that is met with a marked lack of enthusiasm.  As the other employees are speculating who will work on the Hilton contract, Duck continues to woo Pete (with Cuban cigars) and Peggy (with an Hermes scarf).  Pete warns Peggy off of Duck, but Peggy is clearly torn, craving the upward mobility that she fears she will never find at Sterling Cooper.

It’s Saturday afternoon.  Betty and Henry meet at a coffee shop for an encounter fraught with subtext — it’s certainly not the reservoir that’s in the front of either of their minds.  Leaving, Betty stares straight into the solar eclipse (the only character who does, surprisingly), and Henry shields her eyes.  She’s overcome, she feels dizzy, and as they pass a furniture store, Henry makes a passing comment about how she needs one of those Victorian fainting couches on which to lounge.  Click.  This is the piece she rests on at the episode’s start.

Simultaneously, Don is with Miss Farrell and the children in a park, to view the solar eclipse.  While the children are peering through their boxes, Don and the teacher have an exchange that’s half flirtatious and half contentious.  “You’re all the same,” she says to him, “with your drinking and your philandering.”  After a bit more tense banter, Don puts on his sunglasses and looks into the sun.

Come Monday morning, Peggy approaches a stressed-out Don about working on the Hilton project.  He bites her head off — thus pushing her further toward Duck.  Roger calls Betty to attempt to get her to reason with Don about the contract, and it’s evident that this is the first Betty’s heard of it.  As per usual, she stews prettily.  Similarly, Peggy is stewing over Duck’s gift and his offer to defect to Gray’s.  She goes to his hotel suite to return the scarf.  Click.  This is the person with whom she winds up in bed.

At the day’s end, Don returns home to an angry wife who asks him why he won’t consider signing a three-year contract, challenging him as to where, exactly, he thinks he’ll be in three years.  Don flees, picks up two hitchhikers on their way to Niagra Falls — or the closest motel on the way.  We’ve now got a pretty good idea of how he gets that bloody nose.

In exchange for the lift, he takes two phenobarbitals and ends up in the motel with the couple.  As they dance together, Don hallucinates his father, taking swigs of moonshine and berating him.  Though out of it, he’s not quite yet passed out, so the male hitchhiker knocks him out.  Don wakes with a bloody nose, finds his wallet empty but a note saying they’ve decided to spare him his car.

Don and Peggy enter the office at the same time, he blaming his injury on a “fender bender” and neither one acknowledging that they’re in yesterday’s clothes.  Defeated, Don signs the contract, but not before Cooper gets in a dig about Don’s assumed identity.  Don is now officially Cooper’s.  He returns home to find Betty lying on her new couch, which eclipses the hearth (much to her decorator’s chagrin).  He tells her the contract is signed.  She does not inquire about his whereabouts the previous night, or about his busted nose.  End scene.

It’s rare that a television show follows one powerhouse episode with another, but Mad Men has done exactly that with “Seven Twenty Three.”  There are so many different ways that this season can go — and I’m eager for Sunday’s episode.

HOWARD MEGDAL: The moving parts are starting to move, but I’m not at all sure I’m impressed with the way they did in this week’s Mad Men. Of course, that is only because normally, there isn’t a single plot point or turn of phrase that doesn’t seem perfectly placed.

The most glaring is Peggy Olson’s infatuation with Duck Phillips, first professionally, then personally. Duck is obvious, Duck failed in his attempts to take over at Sterling Cooper, and even at his new firm, Duck is quick to disparage both the firm’s working condition and the Jewish bent of the firm itself.

Yet Peggy Olson, who has been capable of moving up by judging people well and grabbing opportunity where it exists, not only is taken in by Duck, but is then taken into the bedroom by him? She can see through the student she seduces earlier this season, but Duck is, if anything, both more transparent and creepier.

Put it this way: even Pete Campbell knows to stay away. The guy is a trainwreck. It’s hard to see that Peggy Olson, smart enough to see through Pete, even the priest (who had God on his side, after all, not some second-tier ad firm), doesn’t see through Duck Phillips. Is she suddenly an idiot because she moved to Manhattan and her living expenses went up?

The major plotline, of course, is forcing Don Draper to sign a contract. And this seems ham-handed as well. Roger Sterling calls Betty? Roger is a superb judge of people- the idea that he’d think Betty would have any say in what Don did is laughable, especially considering that Roger and Don, until recently, were quite close.

Even the closing scene, when Bert Cooper makes reference to Don’s identity, made little sense. Is the idea that suddenly, Don, who is desired by many other agencies, and is the sole reason, it seems, that Sterling Cooper can even play in the big leagues, will be cowed into signing? Hard to swallow.

Don’s experience with the hippies, aside from once again placing us firmly on the side of the Establishment in the early 60′s skirmishes (see Don and his girlfriend’s friends, season 1), also makes little sense. Don’s foremost talent is judging people- arguably better than anyone, Roger included. The kid seems off long before Don takes the drugs, the reason we’re supposed to buy that Don goes along with everything.

The entire encounter seemed to be an extra push to allow us to believe Draper, in a room with Bert Cooper, would be bested. It sounds to me like the writers knew it was a stretch.

Even Don’s encounter with Sally’s teacher seemed odd- she attacks Don, yet she is the one who transgressed, calling him for no reason at all. Don is almost always quick to point this out, to redirect the energy of an encounter from defense to offense- it seemed unlike him not to here as well.

All of this is not to say I disliked the episode: the Connie Hilton stuff was perfection, and both Betty Draper’s encounters with Nelson Rockefeller’s would-be ’64 campaign manager, and the fantastic comic relief with the decorator, were exquisitely rendered.

But one more complaint, since I seldom have ANY for this show: I’d like some more Paul Kinsey, please, who is played to Orson Wellesian grandeur by Michael Gladis. He’s been nothing but window-dressing this season. And we really must not have a single episode without Joan. Forget her well-discussed figure- only Don Draper draws our attention more acutely with every line.

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