Spoilers for "Mad Men" season two, episode five, "The New Girl," coming up just as soon as I plan a route to the airport...
"Peggy, listen to me. Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened." -Don Draper
Who exactly is The New Girl? Is it Jane Siegel, Don's comely new secretary? Is it Bobbie Barrett, whom Rachel Menken clearly views as Don's new girl? Or is it Peggy? And, if so, does the title of this episode -- easily the best hour of season two, and already one of my favorite "Mad Men"s to date -- refer to the way Peggy is reinventing herself under the tutelage of both Don and now Bobbie, or does it suggest that Peggy might one day succeed Midge, Rachel and Bobbie as Don's new girl?
On many other shows, I would rail against the idea of romantically pairing off the male and female lead if they had a pre-existing, interesting platonic (or professional) relationship, as it's a writer's crutch. But the more I watch "Mad Men" season two, the more I think the idea of Peggy becoming the kind of woman Don might want to sleep with is a really interesting one -- even if they never actually get together.
Peggy was already Don's protege before she gave birth, but when he confronts her in the hospital, he teaches her the fundamental lessons of his life, the ones he learned from the hobo: No problem is so bad that it can't be denied, ignored or plain run away from. You do not have to be bound by the identity society has created for you. You are the shaper of your own future, even if that future is built on a foundation of lies.
With that conversation (as good a moment as Jon Hamm has had on this show, and he's had a lot of them), Don sets Peggy on a path towards becoming more like him, but as we've seen in his past relationships, and as we see here in his conversations with Bobbie Barrett, Don is drawn to women who in some way knew the hobo's lesson without having to be told it. Midge and Rachel defy what's expected of them by their families and/or society, though neither is as ruthless about it as Don. And here, Don's opinion of Bobbie -- whom he found attractive and yet loathsome -- changes significantly when she delivers the "This is America: Pick a job and become the person that does it" line. (She offers similar advice to Peggy -- "You have to start living the life of the person you want to be" -- who both appreciates it and better understands what her boss sees in this obnoxious woman.) So even though Peggy now insists that she's not Bobbie's competition -- and means it -- and even though Don clearly doesn't look at her that way now, I wonder what's going to happen as she continues to evolve in front of his eyes.
The flashbacks to Peggy's time in the hospital changes how I've viewed a number of things, both this season and in this episode. For one thing, it would seem that Anita isn't raising Peggy's baby, as she was very pregnant at the time Peggy gave birth, and as there's only one baby in the household. It's possible, I suppose, that Anita's baby died or was stillborn, but that would make her less resentful of Peggy, not more, and if we assume that Pete Jr. was given up for adoption, then Anita's feelings towards Peggy are much more out of jealousy than they are justified griping over having to raise her irresponsible kid sister's offspring.
For another, it changes the Don/Peggy dynamic, whether or not all of this leads to romance. Don takes a huge risk in showing Peggy his true face for a moment. Pete and Bert Cooper may know more details, but the only people in Don's adult life who understand who he truly is -- not his real name, but his real personality -- are Rachel and Peggy. Getting a good look at Dick Whitman scared Rachel off, and it seems to have changed Peggy's opinion of her boss. She still respects him, and is protective of him, but you can see that she's aware of his limitations as a human being. Her line in the car where she promises to forget the car crash in exchange for him not blaming her for knowing about it makes much more sense in context of the final flashback, as does her line to Bobbie: "I never expect him to be anything other than what he is."
And an episode like "The New Girl" illustrates the limitations of the hobo's philosophy. Don has escaped his past, escaped his old persona, established an idealized life for himself, but he's so busy forgetting things and moving on that he sometimes forgets about things he doesn't want to. As he tells Peggy when apologizing about the non-repayment of the bail money, "I guess when you try to forget something, you have to forget everything." You can see in that final scene at the dinner table that Don keeps forgetting how much he genuinely cares for Betty and the kids, which in turn leads him to embarrassing places like the sergeant's desk at a Long Island police station.
Because of the car crash and its long aftermath, I'm tempted to draw a comparison to "Sopranos" episodes like "Kennedy and Heidi" (adios, Christopher) or "Irregular Around the Margins" (Tony and Adriana almost hook up) but the one it really reminded me of was season four's "Whoever Did This," where Tony kills Ralphie and he and Christopher spend the rest of the episode (literally) cleaning up the mess. "The New Girl" wasn't quite as focused -- we kept cutting back to the subplots with Pete and Joan -- but the amount of time the episode spent on the crash's immediate aftermath and the way it used an unexpected, violent incident to expose the main character for who he really is (and the lengths his protege will go to for him) really evoked Ralphie losing his head. That's one of those "Sopranos" episodes that immediately comes to mind when I think of that show, and no matter how long "Mad Men" winds up running, I imagine "The New Girl" will hold similar status in my memories.
Some other thoughts on "The New Girl":
• Well, now we know why Maggie Siff (at a press conference for her new FX show, "Sons of Anarchy") was being so evasive about whether she would return to "Mad Men" this season. So, do you think Rachel's re-appearance was a one-time thing to fit the themes of the episode, or will she be back for more? Was she the recipient of Don's hand-me-down poetry book from the season premiere? Running into Don and his new mistress while out on a date with her new husband (and good on her for at least finding a guy who, based on our limited intro, seems to like her and doesn't seem like a golddigger) doesn't seem the ideal time for her to say, "Hey, thanks for the Frank O'Hara, man," but she did seem shocked to be running into him again.
• Because most of these characters are so repressed, opportunities for them to bare their souls come at unexpected moments, with unexpected people. Last week, it was Don telling Bobby and then Betty a little bit about his father. This time, it's Pete using the fertility doctor as an impromptu therapist, opening up about his anxieties in a way he never would to an actual shrink. (Not that he'd ever actually go see one, but if forced to, he would be determined to make himself appear as confident and well-adjusted as possible.)
• Just as the episode sort of answers a mystery about Peggy's baby (or, rather, tells us that what we thought was the answer wasn't), Pete finds out what we've known all along: he's not the infertile one. Pete being Pete, he has to respond to the news in the rudest, most narcisisstic manner possible. And please don't think less of me for this confession: I had never felt the tug of the show's nostalgia-by-proxy while watching the way the men get away with behaving towards the women -- until I watched Pete, in mid-fight, order his wife return to the table and apologize for getting mad when he was the one being an ass.
• Joan getting engaged was overshadowed by other developments within the episode, but is Roger right to question the wisdom of her marrying her doctor friend? Obviously, he's jealous, but looking at it objectively, how happy is Joan going to be when she actually has the husband, and the house in the country, and all the other things she tells the secretaries they can attain one day? Her interaction with Sally Draper last week suggested a woman without much of a maternal side, and I can see her getting bored if she were to leave her job as Sterling Cooper's queen bee. As Paul reminded everyone a few episodes back, Joan's over 30, which makes her an old maid in 1962 years. If she really wanted to get married, wouldn't she have done it long before now? And if Roger is right that she'll hate marriage as much as he does, will we see Joan going to Peggy for advice on how to reinvent herself? (Okay, probably not.)
• I also liked that, even while distracted by showing off her gaudy ring ("You'd like to think it doesn't matter"), Joan is still good at her job. She knows to shut the door when Don takes a call from Bobbie, and she doesn't tolerate young Jane's attempts to hoochify the office. Joan's outfits, while skintight, rarely show much skin; she knows the difference between putting your goods on display and simply giving them away.
• There was some question a couple of weeks back over what foreign film Don was seeing when Jimmy was insulting Mr. & Mrs. Utz. Here, Don mentions loving "La Notte." I'm not much of a foreign film guy; can any film buffs tell me whether that could have been the movie Don was watching? Also, when told of Don's fondness for "La Notte," Dan Fienberg rolled his metaphorical eyes at the notion that Don would enjoy the work of a director (Antonioni) whom he (Dan, not Don) feels is drowning in pretentiousness. Agree? Disagree? Ready for a knife fight?
• The funniest moment of Joel Murray's career by a long stretch (and I say this as somewhat of a fan of Murray the younger): Freddie Rumsen emerging from his office to play "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" with the zipper on his pants, driving the final nail in the coffin for Ken's fumbling attempt to impress Jane. (His desperate "I'm Ken!" sounded eerily like the "I'm Taye Diggs!" incident from press tour.) How long do you think Freddy spent in his office working on that routine before he decided the world was ready for it?
• And yet I'm still not sure the zipper gag was the funniest juvenile joke of the episode, considering it also featured the brilliant transition from Pete about to give a sperm sample to Roger furiously whacking his paddle ball. Apparently, writer Robin Veith has an inner 12-year-old boy she hasn't told anyone about, and he is awesome.
• Bobbie tells Jimmy that she checked into a fat farm, which was one of the many theories around the Sterling Cooper offices about why Fat Peggy disappeared for three months and returned as Slim Peggy. (Pete from the season premiere: "I thought we had verification!")
• The music over the closing credits sounded very much like something you might have heard in a movie from the period, but it was actually an original piece, called "We Love You, Daddy," written by "Mad Men" composer David Carbonara.
• God, I love the compositions the production team comes up with on a regular basis. In this case, it's director Jennifer Getzinger and director of photography Chris Manley on the scene in the Draper bedroom after Don comes home from the crash. Don spends the bulk of the scene with his back to his wife. Don (returning from the scene of several crimes, including one against his wife) is concealed in shadow; Betty (for once totally innocent) is bathed in light. He looks very grown-up; she (scrubbed of makeup and hair products, and wearing a baby doll nightie) almost looks like a little girl, and the way Don tries to reassure her when she talks about her father's high blood pressure is very paternal. Just a beautifully shot (and played) scene.
What did everybody else think?