Matthew Weiner is a literary man. Individual episodes may be slow. But, sometimes, slow is required for the masterful, coherent whole he is creating. Mad Men is really a novel played out on a television screen. This week, we find out Don is sober, monogamous and ready to go back to work.
Don surprises Megan in California. Shit gets real, after immediate coitus. She finds out he “surprised” her at Alan Silver’s behest, because she was losing it. He confesses he has not been working the past few months (and, thus, has been away from California by choice). Megan kicks him out, saying “this is the way it ends.” While things improve with a phone call, Don will never move West. They go through the motions of saving things, as they have gone through the motions of being married.
Where Don will commit is work. He receives a rival agency offer. He eschews the blonde in the hotel room, bringing the envelope to Roger to leverage himself back. His return to SC&P reiterates “this is a hierarchy.”
Jim Cutler has made his power bid. He co-opts Joan. He tries to co-opt Harry Crane and his computer. He has his own creative guy in place, who is not Ted but adequate. Roger counters, as president of the company, by bringing Don back without telling anyone. The partners can’t afford to buy Don out and fear him working elsewhere. However awkward for him and others, Don is back in the game.
Honesty remains the cardinal sin. Don will perform his penance. He is demoted and must answer to Lou Avery. He will be babysat with clients. He must stay sober in the workplace. Ominously, he will be placed in Lane’s old office (was it still vacant?). His return, ironically, was facilitated by the partners’ inability to be honest with him and each other.
Male characters – Pete in the 1st episode, Ken, Ginsberg, Ken Cosgrove – are willing to welcome him back. Female characters, Peggy and Joan, with whom he forged deeper connections, are the most hostile. Peggy informs Don he was not missed, even though he was. He isn’t immune to Peggy’s charms and doesn’t ask what got “her pantyhose in a bunch.”
This conflict was not rife with tension, beyond the palpable awkwardness. Don was always coming back. As great as Jon Hamm’s “feeling the impact of words” face is, the show needs him interacting with characters again. There are too few episodes, or pages, left for such a radical dramatic departure.
Betty makes her first appearance this season. She begins by bragging about Henry being up for “AG.” The conversation leaves her feeling purposeless and “old-fashioned” as her lunch companion discusses her job. Betty brings up the kids, but she does not even take an active role in that. She decides to attend Bobby’s field trip, asserting her role as mother.
Bobby is desperate for attention from her. He is ecstatic just having her there. He bubbles to the teacher that “we were having a conversation.” He chases off a boy who tries to take her spot.
Betty is desperate for attention from Bobby. She’s jealous he likes the bra-less teacher. She drinks the milk to impress him. She overreacts when he trades away her sandwich to a girl for some candy (painful shot of Bobby eating the gum drop). Come evening, Betty is still guilt-tripping him. She wonders why her children don’t love her, when they have been desperate for her to love them.
I wonder where “Betty” may have gone with a stronger actress than January Jones. A character that should be a subtle, intricate and intriguing fellow traveler to Don comes off as flat and awful. Jones looks like Betty should look. But a woman with Hamm’s ability to emote may have done more with that role.
The episode closes with Jimi Hendrix’s “if 6 was 9.” Weiner’s pop culture references are never flippant, especially when it’s a brand name, the Beatles or Jimi. It’s an atypical Hendrix song, more interesting for its lyrics than the guitar play. It’s rough and grainy, purportedly cobbled together from an ironed out tape after the initial master was destroyed. It also features on the soundtrack for the seminal 1969 counterculture film “Easy Rider.”
As “Tomorrow Never Knows” captures 1966, “If 6 was 9” captures 1969. It’s a cry for individualism. What does individualism mean when individualism becomes the mass consumer culture? Everyone is growing their hair out. “Mr. White Business Man” Roger Sterling is practicing free love and wearing colorful ties with a fair whiff of Jimi Hendrix.