Sunday, September 27, 2009

Don't Stare at an Eclipse

Mad Men: Seven Twenty Three
Season 3, Episode 7

After last week seemed to throw so much upheaval into the world of Sterling Cooper with multiple characters coming, going, glad to be there, sad to leave and some who were coming going and some who were going staying... whew. Things this week are much more about settling down a new status quo at Sterling Cooper and could we really imagine that the episode where Connie Hilton started giving business to Don and Sterling Cooper be one that ended with so many characters so colossally disappointed. Or that Don would be the most destroyed?

But this show has always been more about the reality that exists behind our fantasies. The nonlinear bit at the beginning let us know things wouldn't be ending well for anybody this week, showing Don bloodied, Peggy depressed in bed with someone and Betty laying on a couch seemingly lost in another dream world. But Don could take a bloody nose much easier than he'll accept a contact with Sterling Cooper. His roving eye refuses to commit to three years, even with the promise of thousands of dollars and the enormous Hilton account. At least he won't commit easily. All things considered, he'd rather be free to look at the sun.

For starters, in case you missed it, the title is the date Don signs his three year contract with Sterling Cooper, complete with standard non-compete clause (i.e., no agency of your own until 1966, pal). For weeks now, I've been imagining Conrad backing Don at his own ad agency and dreaming of the staff members he would take with him. It was similar to the conversation the boys around the office have had since early in season one, but Don's always remained. But if Don always had the world on a string, the one thing he could NEVER get over was the wanderlust that he's served since he was young Dick Whitman. In the end, Don can't flirt professionally anymore. It's interesting that he's so concerned about being free to flirt or even leave his job at the drop of a hat, while in the same episode he gets shot down by Sally's teacher and rolled by a pair of thieving hitchhikers. And I wasn't even sure if he was flirting with the teacher when she went off on him. So basically, Don takes three huge hits this week and I think the one that left a physical scar hurt the least.

Don flirted with leaving in season one before a pile of money was dropped in his lap. He was talking about running off with Midge at one point. But he remembered how much he didn't want to be Dick Whitman anymore and he stayed. Then he did it again, in an enormous misjudgment suggesting to Rachel Menken that they run away together. He flirted with leaving last year during his extended trip to the west coast (again with shades of the man he was before Korea - his inner-Dick) and one more time rather than working under Duck in the finale. And from the time he used the fact that he didn't have a contract to beat Duck, it began a ticking clock until that card was going to be taken from him. You can't play a hand that big and pull your big bargaining chip back into your pocket again. It only can really be done once, and that is a lesson Bert Cooper knows.

This time felt so close to pushing Don out of Sterling Cooper, especially since Roger made his latest bad moves. If there was a worse move than trying to be buddy-buddy with Don again (that ship had some holes when he flirted with Betty and sailed for good when he married Don's secretary), it was calling Betty behind Don's back and expecting her not to rat him out.

But it's been an interesting change of fortune that Roger, the jovial and personable guy we liked so much early on, has become a utter fool and bumbles this enormously. Meanwhile, the one note joke of Bert Cooper, the eccentric old man who was rarely seen, insisted everyone remove their shoes in his office and decorated his wall with tentacle porn, is (when he needs to be) the sharpest assassin in the group. He always knew what would be sacrificed in bringing the British in. He rarely misses the flaws in others. And he wisely sat on his knowledge of Don not being Don, but actually a criminal named Dick Whitman. After letting Roger goof around and Don roam a bit (to the point of trying to hang out with the hicks headed to Niagra Falls), brings out the card that he knew would win any argument with Don. And he isn't a smug prick about it like Roger would be, just explaining the cold reality of the situation. "After all, when it comes down to it, who's really signing the contract, anyway?"

Of course, this scene recalled an earlier one where Connie, like Bert, sat in Don's chair and forced the man who likes to be a master of his universe into a position of weakness. It was spectacularly dis-jarring to see someone else sitting in Don's chair, let alone see it twice in the same episode. The shows ultimate hustler, the man who has almost never let a client put him in a position of weakness, was beaten and hustled not once or twice or thrice, but pretty much four times this week. If Betty had actually had sex with Henry Francis, an adviser for the governor who she met at Roger's party, instead of just flirting and buying the over-sized fainting couch, it might have been the worst weekend of Don's life.

I have to comment on that couch. As they established early in the episode, people should be standing and gathering in front of the fireplace. Even Don realized the one problem in the room was moving the end table away from the fireplace (man, he was on fire at the start of the day, but his life went off the rails quick). So rather than cheating on her husband or just continuing to be a bad mother, she buys the biggest, ugliest and most ridiculous-looking fainting couch because the gentleman she has an eye for told her a story about it.

Poor Peggy has had some rotten luck this year, just as when she asked for a raise, she is unlucky enough to come visit for no reason besides subtly asking for the Hilton account right after Don has a terrible meeting. Considering how much I care about this relationship more than any other in the artist, I've rarely felt as bad watching this show as I did when he absolutely tore into Peggy. While he had a reasonable complaint, he went about six angry levels too far because of his anger about having to sign an exclusive contract. We can only hope she doesn't bolt to Grey with Duck. If it was a bad idea before, it became a horrific one after having sex with him. We can only hope Don relaxes a bit and doesn't make the mistake of driving away his best writer.

The situation now might stinks for Don, and really as Betty pointed out it was pretty nonsensical not to sign it. Where else would he want to be in three years? But the pipe-dream of Don forming his own company was just that. There are too many great characters at the agency that Matt Weiner and company can tell so many stories with. Just imagine more stories with Roger being a buffoon, Pete maybe become a bit closer to how cool Don is, Joan's inevitable return... and let's not forget about Bert Cooper. After that last showdown, Don sure won't.

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