[CAUTION: This is all about Sunday night’s Mad Men. Obviously, if you haven’t seen Sunday night’s Mad Men and you still intend to, you might hold off.]
It’s reductive to conclude that on far too many episodes of Mad Men, nothing happens. Of course something always happens: someone feels something, or learns something, or is locked in a continuous internal struggle with something. A dynamic continues to simmer, a memory comes to the surface, angels and demons battle for somebody’s soul.
But it can feel a lot like nothing happens. It can feel like watching a lava lamp: it’s an exploration of the line between mesmerizing and stultifying.
That’s why, from time to time, it’s great fun when all of a sudden, a lot of things happen, as they did in Sunday night’s episode. At first, it looked like the episode would be about an SCDP public offering, and then it looked like it would be about Roger landing Chevy, and then it looked like it would be about Don losing Jaguar, and then it looked like it would be about Pete losing Vicks, and then all of a sudden it was about the merger of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and Cutler Gleason and Chaough. That’s kind of interesting just because it’s a merger, and then holy moly wait a second — that means Peggy is working with/for/around Don again.
Oh, and also: Pete and his father-in-law caught each other with prostitutes, Megan tried to put the va-voom back in her marriage (which she knows is in trouble, even if she doesn’t know exactly why), Ted kissed Peggy, and Joan finally exploded over both the anger she feels at Don’s eternally distant know-it-all-ism and the fact that she was put in the position of sleeping with a client to get an account. And Pete fell down the stairs, which was really just a metaphorical free beer for everyone who doesn’t like Pete.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, in a couple of weeks, Bobby Kennedy is going to be assassinated. This euphoria, it is temporary.
When Mad Men is slow, it’s really slow. Then when it gets moving but good, it’s like Ocean’s Eleven, with the jazzy score and the jaunty angles and the wisecracking. The last episode so purely of this kind was the third season finale, “Shut The Door. Have A Seat.” In fact, in a direct callback, early on, this episode — called “For Immediate Release,” which has precisely as many meanings as your tolerance for double entendre will tolerate — included Roger, deep into agency intrigue, saying to Don, “Shut the door.” We should have known. We should have known!
As much as we all love a good lingering shot of a pained face, as much as we love a tiny conversation that seems to mean nothing and yet means everything, there is something to be said for sometimes — just sometimes — getting on with it already. Let’s let Joan’s obvious resentments come out. Let’s see Pete act like the pitiable little weasel you know he is on the inside. Let’s put Don and Peggy in a room again, have them clasp hands again, have him stupidly think he’s getting it right by saying something gentler to her when, in fact, he’s taken her fate from her hands and swallowed the agency where she was finally making a name for herself.
None of this rapid development means abandoning the character work that’s been done in the last several episodes or the last several seasons. None of it means these people have suddenly become simple. After all, “Shut The Door. Have A Seat.” was only the beginning (of the end) of Lane Pryce. It’s fun to think about seeing Don and Peggy in the together again, but Don is running over Peggy just as much as he was running over Joan when he ditched Herb and Jaguar without talking to her. It took getting away from Don to bring out the Don in Peggy — it should occur to him that she might not want back into a power structure he’s operating. And Joan? Joan is angry, really angry, because she gave up far more than she meant to and got far less than she thought she would. And perhaps because he’s the only one from whom she expects more, she blames Don.
Don is different, but he’s always the same. Don in this mode is smiling, active, vibrant, charismatic … and still really bad at thinking about how the things he does are going to affect other people. He’s cheating on Megan but happy to accept her energetic efforts to please. He’s stomping all over the women he works with, and while he can barely bring himself to enjoy the company of his kids (as he told Megan last week while looking like a haggard old man), he grins from ear to ear at the chance to make a new car commercial and put one over on a bunch of bigger agencies.
Mad Men sometimes seems to be a show that remains inside a single dynamic, studying it until another comes along that’s potentially more interesting, like it’s crawling through a series of dioramas. But when it’s time to move to the next one, it happens all at once, the same way Peggy suddenly up and quit — and she stayed gone, and she didn’t undo it or change her mind. Now, we’re on to the next, where the old Don Draper is the new Don Draper, or maybe it’s the other way around.