SONIA BRAND-FISHER: When a glistening Don Draper decided to follow Roger Sterling in taking a goofy victory lap around the conference table lined with Life clientele, I couldn’t help but chuckle. Is Draper’s maddeningly depressing lifestyle and outlook finally going to be flipped around by his newly won Clio award? Well, no, not really, but it was nice seeing Draper smiling again for the first half of the episode. Episode 6 of “Mad Men”‘s Season 4 seemed to be, like Episode 2 in a way, dominated by smaller subplots that acted as vignettes to the ever-changing tone of the episode. Starting Draper high and dropping him low, only to be shot back up again in the elevator in his final flashback depicted the rise and fall of this highly complex character who finally emerged during this episode in a showcase of all sides of the Don Draper that we have come to know.
The little flashbacks of his first interactions with Roger Sterling were darling. One got to see Don Draper with his Dick Whitman enthusiasm and eagerness that, not gonna lie, is kinda cute. One saw a little of this eagerness emerge later in the episode when he was drunk and presenting ideas to the Life executives. His voice doesn’t have the deep, velvet confidence of the square-jawed hero that we are used to seeing. His hair in these flashbacks is a little thicker, as Sterling’s isn’t so, well, sterling. But the banter is the same, the quick wit and early cocktail hours remain. Sterling even has a young Joan Holloway as his mistress, though her hair resembles the sultriness of a ginger Ava Gardner as opposed to the mid-60s perky beehive she sports later on. But in these flashbacks, Sterling and Holloway are simply accessories to the plot of Draper’s rise to power, whose effects we see in the scenes that take place in 1965.
I found the scene with the Life executives to be, though awkward and almost slapstick, arguably under a haze of desperation on Draper’s part. Clearly drunk after accepting his Clio award and clearly on a personal high, he dominates the presentation with a spasmodic arrogance that made his rattling off of Life slogans seem manic in an almost Howard Hughes fashion. It is here that the Dick Whitman trying to be Don Draper emerged: his hair became messier, his voice raised a few bars, his eyes became slits and he gave the impression of taking the world without asking while everyone just stares unquestioning.
Peggy Olson’s collaboration with Rizzo on the cough drop campaign bored me. We know that Olson is ballsy and gutsy and stubborn without needing to take her clothes off for a nudist to prove it. I admire her strength and resilience towards putting Rizzo in his place, but it just got old after a while. Rizzo’s an ass, we know, and Olson is smarter than him, for sure. And here they are naked in a hotel room. Eh, at least it fills air time. And it leads to Olson busting into Draper’s apartment reminding him of all of the professional mistakes he made when he was drunk after the Clio awards. Thank you, voice of reason Peggy Olson. You may now return to your desk and continue pursing your lips.
I did enjoy the flashback at the end of the episode, the young Don Draper squaring his shoulders into position for his launch to the top of Sterling Cooper. I also enjoyed the little kiss between Joan Harris and Draper before he accepted his award. Little moments held this jumpy episode afloat. One must wonder, though, is Betty’s tiny cameo foreshadowing of her escalating anger with Draper, and her life in general? Why is Sterling writing a memoir? Are we supposed to feel hopeful at the end of this elevator of an episode, or are we being brought up in the tiny compartment next to Draper only to be dropped into an inescapable decline?
HOWARD MEGDAL: To me, the essence of this episode was gratitude. More specifically, how often it is misplaced, and in reality, success is a combination of fortuitous circumstances and one’s own cunning.
The pleasure in seeing Don on the way up is enhanced by seeing what appears to be the decline and fall of Don Draper all season long. A more relevant, more vigorous Roger Sterling is a reminder of how we first encountered him as well.
But once again, we are plunged into Don’s 1965, a nightmarish circumstance. His award is for last year’s work; this year, he’s stealing from the idiot Roger sends him. His drunkenness manifests itself within his work, sends him from a glamorous brunette to Doris the waitress (failing to even keep up his Don Draper identity), and worst of all, allows Betty the upper hand in their telephone call when he drinks right through Saturday into Sunday.
Is the bathroom a rock-bottom moment? Hard to say. It doesn’t seem realistic to expect Don to quit drinking any more than it was realistic to hope he was faithful to Betty in past seasons. The difference is, Betty was a lost cause. Sobriety, even relative sobriety, is not.
Even seeing Duck Phillips drunkenly escorted from the Clio Awards fails to provide much pleasure to the viewer: we’re too caught up in wondering if it is a future vision of Don Draper.
We get it; things get complicated as the 60s progress. It would be nice to have a little fun along the way. About the only moments like that in the entire episode were seeing Draper and Sterling hold hands with Joan, and when Don sends the hapless would-be ad man out to ask his secretary where to eat.
One hopes for a little balance in the episodes to come, but if we’re really seeing the collapse into alcoholism, that’s an awfully narrow path to be taking a set of characters who offer many more possibilities.