Dear Television is Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, Lili Loofbourow, and Phillip Maciak. This season, they'll be posting weekly letters about AMC's "Mad Men." While this is not a full recap, there are still plenty of spoilers. Read the last installment here.
Dear Television, Don Draper can’t deal. It’s the penultimate episode of the penultimate season of “Mad Men,” and our hero is totally losing his shit. Getting caught in flagrante by Sally has sent him spiraling into fetal position, sneaking vodka into his morning OJ. He can’t even bother to help Megan boil two eggs. Poor boo boo, probably needs to take a sick day off. Even in the office, Don is reduced to assuming the part of a “wah-wah”-ing baby for the St. Joseph’s aspirin ad. And so of course the episode ends with Don curled up in fetal position, back where we began. Way back.
This week’s “Mad Men” is bookended by two overhead shots of Don in fetal position, but regression looms large throughout the episode—perhaps most vividly through the treatment of the women in Don’s life. It almost feels like Megan is being erased from the show—first as she sinks into the caricature of her soap character, and now literally as the camera blurs her out of Don’s sightline. Joan can barely get a word in, except to tell clients, “I’ll show you out.” And Peggy has been reduced to a “little girl” stuck between Don and Ted, who has convinced himself that she can’t handle the truth and so he must protect her. “Was that really necessary?” Peggy asks, after Don’s Frank Gleason curveball. Don doesn’t give her an answer, while father Chaough asks her gently if she could, “Leave us alone?” This is a boy’s club. Oh, and Peter is still treating his secretaries like shit.
Everything’s different, but nothing’s changed. Except! Sally has seen her dad screwing a strange woman, which has surprisingly never happened before. The men keep talking about the future in this episode, but if there’s any hope for a future in “Mad Men,” it lies with her. Sally’s scenes in this episode were a breath of fresh air—true escape from the show’s repeating patterns—even while they took place in prison-like enclosures such as cars and dorm-rooms. Even visually, Sally and Betty’s car scenes—shot with the back projection reminiscent of a Sirkian technocolor melodrama—seemed to come from an entirely different world than Don’s. No longer able to trust even her father, Sally desires more than anything to try it on her own. And perhaps this is a wise impulse, considering that no one left in the office trusts Don either. Unable to stand Peggy and Ted having a good time, Don “kills everything” in one blow by resurrecting another father figure—Frank Gleason—and in doing so takes all the attention (erotic and vocational) away from Peggy. Unlike the men of “Mad Men,” however, Sally understands the virtue of compromise and assures her mother: “I want to be a grown-up, but I know how important my education is.” Compare this with Bob’s whiny, entitled declaration (“He's a snotty bastard and he's screwing with my future.”) or the declaratives Don drunkenly receives from his television (“We cannot accept that kind of future for America.”). Just maybe, the kids are alright.
Or if not the kids, then at least certain young women. Sally Draper is no longer Don’s baby, but that doesn’t mean she wants to have at it with sandal-wearing Rolo either. Some might see her quick retreat to Glen Bishop as a regressive, Betty-like move—but to me it reads as inspired. Sally kills a few birds with that one knock: interrupting Glen’s tryst with Miss “You Should Read My Diary;” simultaneously escaping and punishing Rolo for his come-on; but most importantly, impressing Mandy with her influence. If Sally has to resort to sexist codes of male protection through piggish violence (the kind that crop-top Mandy will immediately understand) and if she even enjoys such displays of chivalry—well, she’s still doing a better job of weaponizing faked ignorance than, say, Don or Bob or Ted is.
Sally and Betty’s car scenes seemed to come from an entirely different world than Don's.
Last season, I bemoaned Betty’s devolution since the early seasons of “Mad Men,” but now it seems that she’s come out on top. Don’t underestimate how much her ability to do so is a product of increased detachment from the emotion black-hole that is Don Draper. This week, it felt like I was watching two separated worlds—Sally’s and Don’s—connected only by a telephone wire carrying Betty’s calm and now even compassionate voice. It was obvious which side of the line I’d prefer to be on. (Answer: the one that gets to hang up first.) Jackie did well twice, and so has Betty. We suspect even more from Sally.
On the car ride to Miss Porter’s, Betty asks Sally for a McDonald’s french fry. On the way back, mother and daughter share a cigarette. Sally even helps Betty light hers. “I’d rather have you do it in front of me than behind my back,” Betty tells her, in an offering that seems almost unprompted. Betty isn’t acquiescing to Sally, but offering her the cigarette in a gesture of trust, and—could it be?—friendship. Right hand, meet left hand. In an episode displaying the lengths to which “Mad Men” coworkers will go to betray and distrust one another, I wanted to ride in that car just a little bit longer.
We didn't want there to be any surprises,
Jane Hu is a cultural critic, mostly at The Awl.