Mad Men Recap: A Lighter, a Mistress, a Lot of Facial Hair

Michael Yarish/AMC Mad Men

“If your limbs begin dissolving in the water that you tread, all surroundings are evolving in the stream that clears your head” —The 13th Floor Elevators (“Slip Inside This House,” winter of 1967)

The ancient Greco-Roman city of Hierapolis was a resort town famed for its natural hot springs and thermal spas. Doctors prescribed trips to the Hierapolis baths for their sick patients, and the geothermal waters were believed to have sacred healing powers. The city’s great Roman baths were a series of giant hot tubs in a warm setting, which also made it a popular retirement destination. Earlier this month a team of archaeologists announced that they had found the legendary Greco-Roman “gate to hell” in Turkey known as “Pluto’s Gate” at the former site of Hierapolis. It was a shrine to Pluto, the god of the underworld, built on top of a cave belching toxic fumes. Plutonian priests once provided birds for visitors to toss into the cave’s opening and watch as they died in flight. The cave itself was only big enough for one person to descend the stairs, leading them into an alcove with suffocating carbon dioxide streaming out from a crevice. Death set in as the lungs filled up.

The Royal Hawaiian Hotel, where Don and Megan Draper were shown a version of Polynesian paradise extremely welcoming to spend-happy American vacationers, is located on Oahu, a few miles from where the attack on Pearl Harbor had taken place not so long ago. The Royal Hawaiian is a lush tourist fantasy, and therefore a gorgeous lie. For years after World War II ended you could still spot the telltale barbed wire on the beach. The pineapples placed on each Royal Hawaiian banquet table were introduced to Hawaii by the Spanish, and then farmed industrially on plantations built by American colonialists like James Dole. History is erased and blocked out with electric-blue cocktails. The Royal Hawaiian’s hospitality service flatters guests with the supposed authenticity of its take on the native Hawaiian culture, but really it’s just a regular world-class luxury hotel with local trimmings played for camp exoticism. The hotel exec calling the poi “wallpaper paste” tells you everything you need to know about the company’s actual level of respect for Hawaii’s heritage and history.

Don Draper’s idea of a fun beach read is Dante’s Inferno. His ad treatment beckoning vacationers to escape their lives by sinking into the tropical waters for all of time seems completely suicidal, and Stan is right; that’s what’s so good about it. People dream about vacation like earthly heaven, an escape from the problems that plague you at home. It’s not the idea that’s wrong, it’s the execution. They just need a shot of the endless turquoise water and Diamond Head in the background like the hotel exec suggested. Everyone will automatically fill in the “SPRAAAANG BREAAAAK FOREVERRRR” part in their minds. Don must decide whether he is a dead volcano or merely a dormant one. Even after illicit sex with a friend’s wife in the same apartment building as his own wife, whom he kisses on the mouth right after, he barely seems to clock a thrill. His pitch for Royal Hawaiian feels out of touch because he is the only guy left who still has on a stiff suit and tie to shed. Everyone else has molted their early-to-mid-’60s uniforms and grown glorious new beards.

Everyone else, that is, but Roger. Roger’s acid trip ended and the beard of consciousness that came with it has been shaved, and with it went his enthusiasm for the doors of perception and all other doors. (He will certainly not end up liking the Doors, who in 1967 were banned from The Ed Sullivan Show for playing “Light My Fire,” and in 1968 turned down $75,000 to license the song for a Buick commercial.) With his beloved Mimsy dead, and absent the intimate care of Jane, Joan, or Mona, Roger must learn to take care of himself just as it starts to sink in that he’s never had to. Mimsy’s friends seem like old ladies to Roger, who still doesn’t see himself as an old man, although the signs that he might be one are constant. Once you start feeling a heightened awareness of death, you see it everywhere. Roger realizes that his generation is next up on the chopping block, and everywhere he turns there are hippies with knives.

We saw Roger in the middle of his session with a shrink who is far too familiar with the many charming tricks his patients use to avoid taking responsibility for themselves. I’m more than OK with Roger being in therapy, because it means he gets to do MONOLOGUES! His insights into his own depression are sharp, but not fully self-aware. He sees his meaningless experiences and the feeling of pending fatality as something to pity himself for, rather than the Zen joke that Bert Cooper probably views it as. In his own way Roger is coming to the same realization as all those San Francisco longhairs: All he needs is love. Mona persuades him to put in some bonding time with his spoiled daughter, whom he gives the sentimental gift of the water from the River Jordan that generations of Sterlings have been baptized in. She may have been expecting a trust and is disappointed, until Roger promises to consider investing in her husband’s ’68 tech start-up.

Don spreads out at the hotel bar from The Shining in the middle of the night to talk about love and violence with PFC Dinkins, who describes spraying the hotel mural wall red with blood like it could just be an ecstatic act of release and not a violent atrocity (there are still a few months to go before My Lai). Dinkins may have ended up with Don’s lighter, which might be inscribed with Don Draper’s name, Dick Whitman’s, or some ’50s hobo code emoticons. Don’s livelihood has always depended on the fictional link between happiness and financial prosperity. It’s been the baseline of advertising for as long as he’s been in the business. The middle-aged woman who stopped Megan for an autograph was the ideal soap opera consumer, which makes her the new lowest priority on youth-crazy Madison Avenue. Advertisers are courting young customers, even though those young customers are letting it be known that they consider this courtship more like a form of harassment. Now he has to find a way to market anticonsumerism to kids, and if he were really smart he’d just put Sally Draper in charge of creative for accounts. Her youthful contempt for everything (especially cops) is the zeitgeist of 1967. Fuck the police, question authority, roll your eyes at all the dumb adults.

Why did Don go to PFC Dinkins’s wedding? It’s not like he has any respect for the institution of marriage, and he’s not exactly proud of his time in the service. I thought Don was against all institutions, except the institution that is Don Draper, and even that he seems very uncomfortable celebrating sometimes. Last season’s opener had the bulk of the main cast assembled at Don’s undesired surprise 40th birthday party, but this year the team is spread out on solo missions. We meet new characters that the other characters on the show seem to already know, and feel confused that we don’t already know them, too, so subtle is the exposition and filled out is the world. We are given all the vital information we need to know that Sandy is troubled jail bait with a dead mother and Bob Benson is a fast-track douchebag.

The new Peggy is a boss bitch, by which I mean she is literally now a boss, and also indeed being a teeny bit of a bitch. Abe, her devoted counterculture boyfriend with the hilarious new long hair, tells her this as gently as possible, but she responds with the truth: Her employees won’t respect her as a superior and hit their deadlines on time if they’re not scared of her, and they won’t be scared of her unless she’s, well, a little scary. She is using all the things she learned in her five-year Don Draper leadership training seminar, and mostly it’s working. They must not see the shy ponytailed girl she used to be behind that desk, just the woman she is now. She steals aspects of Don’s alpha identity and gives it her own twist: She Is Peggy Fierce. But even as Peggy Fierce, she is still faux-polite on the phone with a pastor.

In her personal relationships she is still just regular Peggy. She communes over another New Year’s all-nighter with Stan (BTW, LOOKING GOOD, STAN) by taking their romantic friendship to a rotary phone, the ’67/’68 equivalent of idle Gchat. She’s certainly not humorless, it’s just that most people don’t get her jokes. Her fake polite smile is one of her best. She is hitting her stride at work, and at home has started to dress like a Belle & Sebastian album, in tartans and a beret. (Don’s talent, meanwhile, comes with a host of liabilities; he’s a disappearing drunk with a sex addiction and a bad temper. He throws up at Roger’s mother’s funeral and still fails his pitch.) Peggy’s worst problems are that she works too hard and can be snippy, but she can be counted on not to choke. More importantly, she always shows up, so even when the client rejects her ideas she can sacrifice her holidays to work. She claims she hates it, but it’s also the thing that gives her the most charge. For Peggy, pressure is exhilarating.

Of course Peggy is the absolute best person in a crisis. She has to downplay that extemporaneity is her strongest suit, so that her underlings can’t slack off and remind her that she always whips out a brilliant pitch at the last possible second. It’s her core strength, sharpened since she left SCDP for Cutler Gleason and Chaough. She can pull inspiration out of anywhere, and then present it appealingly and unpretentiously. Her ego is not so big that she can’t coddle accounts into thinking she’s happy to do their bidding. She’s definitely slightly chiller now that she has a mensch boyfriend who brings her sandwiches on deadline and helps inspire her new ad. Is Ted Chaough a better boss than Don? He shows up unexpectedly at the office on New Year’s Eve (a) sober, and (b) delighted by Peggy’s new ad. Don might have eventually given Peggy respect for turning a great job out so quickly, but those props would have been hard-won and pried by force out of his whiskey-dripping mouth-slit.

Megan has a beautiful, gamine face and body with a sunbaked tan that glows in a purple-and-yellow bikini, but she is simply not neurotic enough for Don. Her mood hinges solely on how many lines she has in this week’s round of soap opera scripts, and Don has no respect for actors even though he has spent his life literally pretending to be someone else. Don liked her best when she talked down to him while on her knees scrubbing up after his failed birthday party. For the first five minutes of the episode Don didn’t even talk, as Megan babbled on about how happy and relaxed she was and fetched them some joints from a sketchy surf shop.

Megan might be a perfect late-’60s fantasy come to life — her French New Wave girl gone Hawaiian is the stuff fashion editorials and hipster wet dreams are made of — but Don always eventually gets bored of looking at women. What they look like is nearly besides the point, except they’re always beautiful. He is obsessed with impressing intelligent women, but he never throws it in anyone unless they’re in some way expendable. He seems to know that he’ll never be satisfied by any particular member of the opposite sex, and he sabotaged his chances with more viable options like Rachel Menken and Dr. Faye. His most satisfying intellectual relationship to date has been with Peggy, and that’s because they have never consummated it. His relationship with Joan might be his most fulfilling sexual relationship for the same reason.

On their first trip together to California, Don had been so hypnotized by Megan’s beauty and ease that he failed to grok her hidden ambition or vain narcissism. He only even realized she was playing the part of the innocent future bride later on in the marriage, when he found out about her acting aspirations. You’d think a player would respect that he got so played, but he was just embarrassed. Now he lives to pay the price for his own careless romantic spirit. Luckily, since Don’s “I’m listening” face looks so much like his “lost in thought” face, he can fake one when he’s really doing the other. (Side note: The proper way to appear handsomely lost in thought when you are posing for a photograph is to make a face like you’re shooting a gun. It’s the secret to male modeling. Try it in the mirror! Jon Hamm knows how to do it; he’s serving up blue steel on the cover of this week’s Rolling Stone.)

Don, just like Tony Soprano and a host of other alpha-male archetypes both fictional and real, wants a safe, nurturing woman for security — and an unhinged, intellectual woman for sport. He recognizes the pattern and can’t seem to do anything but shrug at the knowledge that he’s walking down a ringed circular path. He sees a door, he has to open it. It’s always the exact same thing on the other side; temporary escape followed by crushing, self-created doom. It doesn’t matter. He sees the door — she’s pretty, with brown hair and a certain broken look in her eyes — he’s going to pry it open. He has discriminating taste in self-destructive women, but he treats them like vacations. The relationship ends and he still has a home to go back to.

I knew Don would sleep with Linda Cardellini’s character the moment she walked onscreen and I yelled “LINDSAY WEIR!” As Don’s friend Doctor Rosen’s wife, in a wig that made her resemble Connie Francis crossed with Connie Corleone, Sylvia Rosen is exactly the type of woman that Don Draper always goes for: dark-haired, pretty, white ethnic, and depressed. He has a fetish for women loaning him books — reading the book your mistress lent you in front of your wife is a bold move. (Would Don Draper be good at sexting, or would he be like, “What is sexting? I am dead.”) He’s a prosumer. He likes to run brand comparisons using his dick.

Hair color came up as a possibly false marker of identity. Bottle blondes become bottle brunettes. Roger pursues blondes he knows to be false in hair color and heart. Don married brunette Megan, after cheating on blonde Dr. Faye with her, and is now cheating on her with another brunette, of Italian rather than French extraction. It was discussed strictly on a blonde/brunette binary, because this was not a Joan episode. Don’t worry, Joan lovers, I’m sure Joan will be featured next week. Matt Weiner has said that what he learned from David Chase was to spread the characters’ stories around so you never get sick of anyone. It’s a classic soap opera move, and lest you forget, Mad Men is a nighttime soap. Soaps are often denigrated as valueless ephemeral entertainment, partly because they are aimed at housewives, but mostly because they are so broadly written and acted. Mad Men is a soap opera of cinematic subtlety that makes it effective as melodrama.

Oh yeah, also, Betty suggested her husband rape her teenage daughter’s friend. I mean as a joke! A sexy joke to mix it up in the ol’ marital bed just a little! Are you sure you’re not the one on dope, Betty? Do you need some friends? A new hobby? I hear the Manson family’s hiring. Betty met a few Manson-looking boys in the village at a squat she found by following the maudlin violin music inside her head that fills her heart with rape fantasies. Sandy the teenage liar was right that 15 is barely a musical prodigy. Mozart was composing at 5. Betty claims New York was very different when she lived there as a young woman in the ’50s, in a shared apartment with other models. Which doesn’t mean it was better; it could be horrific, as another Sylvia (Plath) described it in The Bell Jar. It was so nice to see Betty get a plotline where she got to do some stuff and be funny. Her adventures as the Wendy to some goulash-making Lost Boys did not take the horrible turn you might have imagined.

What else? Ken Cosgrove is still dreamy, and Harry Crane remains the worst. The entertainment business is full of Harry Cranes, and they are all terrible. I laughed so hard at Pete Campbell’s sideburns. Michael Ginsberg now looks more like Rupert Pupkin than ever. All the new facial hair. I think everyone looks great and hilarious and accurate! I’m just so glad to have my friends back! (TV characters are my friends.) I laughed a lot during this first episode, which as always cut the undertones of total darkness and despair that were present from the opening moment when we saw the heretofore agnostic Don immersed in Dante’s Inferno on a perfect Hawaiian beach. All of a sudden Don wants to know what you see before you die? You see the rings.

Filed Under: January Jones, John Slattery, Jon Hamm, Mad Men, Matthew Weiner, Recaps

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ mollylambert