A small reminder: I’m making my way through all of Mad Men before the last episodes premiere next spring. The plan is to do two episodes a week, with reviews going up Mondays and Wednesdays, but the schedule might vary a little bit.
There’s this thing that everybody does when they’re small and play with Legos, or other type of toy that allows you to build stuff as if you were a little engineer. At one moment or another, almost every child will build a tower. They will try to make it as tall as possible, and then, after spending hours creating this tower, they won’t really hesitate to tear it down. The same goes for sand castles. We spend the whole afternoon at the beach building them, and then we all get up and destroy it by stomping on it. Why do we do this? Why is our impulse to destroy as powerful as our impulse to create? And what does it have to do with this episode of Mad Men?
Well, let me start by pointing out how this episode is very much interested on the idea of being a “self-made man.” I think the phrase is first mentioned in the episode when Don and the other guys at Sterling Cooper are comparing the television spots of the Nixon and Kennedy campaigns. Kennedy’s is by far superior. It is an actual commercial, while Nixon’s is a couple of minutes of an old guy standing in a room telling you about his politics. People at Sterling Cooper are getting worried of how close the election is getting. Don comes up with an angle for Nixon to regain the lead: focusing on the fact that he is a self-made man. “[When I look at] Kennedy, I see a silver spoon. Nixon, I see myself” he says. Another self-made man in the episode is Abraham Menken, father of Rachel, who started out with a tiny business and turned it into a huge department store, and is hesitant of turning his store into something that would be good for business out of fear of losing the history of what he built.
On the other side of the equation, we have men who aren’t trying to preserve anything, but rather trying to escape. We are introduced to Betty’s recently widowed father Gene, who has found a new companion in a woman whom Sally calls “Aunt Gloria.” Betty, of course, is worried about what people are going to say about her father going out with another woman so soon after the passing of his wife. But of course Gene doesn’t want to spend the rest of his days sadly thinking about his deceased wife, he wants to move on to the next page. Similarly, Roger Sterling, seems to want nothing more than to escape from his marriage. We’ve seen him having affairs or trying to hook up with different women many times this season, and this episode is no difference, as he takes advantage of his wife being away, to use Don as his wingman and charm a set of twenty-year-old twins that came into the office for an audition.
The twist, of course, comes when Roger has a heart attack while having to have sex with one of the twins. As the paramedics take him out of the office, he calls out the name of the young girl he was about to bang. Don, in turn, slaps him in the face and boldly tells him: “Mona. Your wife’s name is Mona.” When Roger wakes up from his heart-attack, he finds his wife and daughter waiting for him, and can’t help but start sobbing like a baby. He doesn’t want to lose the thing he was trying to escape from. The heart-attack, however, doesn’t have the same effect on Don. Actually, Don’s reaction is quite the opposite, instead of running back to his wife (who incidentally is away on the beach with her dad), he shows up at Rachel Menken’s doorstep.
Don is a self-made man, and as such, he likes to be in control. A self-made man tempts fate, he ignores whatever circumstances he is born into, he fights against life, he defies destiny, and he comes out becoming whatever it is that he wants to be. He is the master of his own fate, and yet, no matter how powerful the man, life is always stronger. No matter who you are, no matter how hard you’ve worked, you can’t stop people from not caring about your old department store, you can’t keep a young Kennedy from stealing your election, you just can’t know when you’ll have a heart attack. This futility scares Don beyond belief. What is the point of all of what he’s built, if it can be taken from him at any given moment? The question, of course, is why he is driven, of all people, to Rachel Menken?
Well, Abraham Menken might have been the man who created the store, but his daughter has had to fight as hard as him. Rachel, being a woman in the professional world, is a self-made man. “You know everything about me”, Don says to her. “No I don’t”, she responds, but in Don’s mind, they are the same. She is the one that would understand how difficult it has been for him to have come such a long way; from being the son of a prostitute, to becoming Don Draper. If there is a weakness to this episode, it’s that it builds up to what is essentially Don delivering what is essentially a big exposition dump about his past. It’s not the most elegant form of storytelling, but it works relatively well from a character perspective, especially when you consider all I’ve written about in this review, and how Rachel would be just the person Don would tell all this stuff to.
Also in this Episode:
This is a pretty good episode for Joan, and one that shows her at her most sympathetic yet. Her plot-line starts when her roommate Carol tells her she’s been fired. Joan decides to cheer her up with a night out on the town, but as the two women are dressing up, Carol can’t help but confess that she is in love with Joan. Carol’s story is kind of heartbreaking, even more so than Sal’s similar story a couple weeks ago, especially after Joan and her come back to the apartment with a couple of guys, and she has sex with one of them even though we can see in her face that she is absolutely broken down and heartbroken about the fact that Joan didn’t share her feelings. But anyway, what we really care about here is Joan, who also gets a very heartbreaking moment. Early in the episode we see her discussing with Roger, who wants to spend the weekend with her. Joan compares herself to Shirley MacLaine’s character in The Apartment, as far as how badly she’s been treated. And after Roger has his heart attack, and she is summoned in the middle in the night to send out telegrams to the company’s clients, none other than Bert Cooper tells her to not sell herself short when it comes to love. “Don’t waste your youth on old age” he tells her, revealing that he knows about her relationship with Roger, and in a not-so-subtle, but beautifully bittersweet moment, the last shot of the scene features Joan pressing the button in the elevator, calling back to the fact that Shirley MacLaine’s character in The Apartment is an elevator operator.
- This might be of interest to absolutely no one, but the Nixon/Kennedy ads shown in the episode make a fascinating parallel to the 2006 Peruvian Presidential Election. One candidate, Ollanta Humala, had a spot as fantastic and catchy as Kennedy’s, while the other, ex-president Alan Garcia’s spot, was essentially the same as Nixon’s: him in a room talking about his politics. Weirdly enough, history didn’t repeat itself, as Humala’s supposedly radical, socialist politics scared voters away, and Garcia won the election. Four years later, Humala ran again, and he is now president of Peru.
- Ken’s pickup line about cows is one of the most bizarre and disgusting things I’ve ever heard.
- Spoilers. We are introduced to grandpa Gene, who will play a role later in the show’s run, especially regarding Betty and Sally’s story-lines in season three.
- Spoilers. Pete: “How’s he doing?”. Don: “Not great”. Is this exchange planting the seed for Pete’s single greatest moment?