"I don't know. I keep going to a lot of places and ending up somewhere I've already been." -Don DraperSo now we know: "Mad Men" season three picks up only about six months after the end of season two, a much shorter span of time than elapsed between seasons one and two. Betty is now very pregnant, and the Brits from Putnam, Powell & Lowe are firmly entrenched at Sterling Cooper, but there isn't nearly the sense of disorientation we got when we came in on season two and 15 months had passed since Don's pitch to the Kodak people.
"His name is Dick - after a wish his mother should have lived to see." -The midwife
But date-wise, the most important part of "Out of Town" isn't that it takes place six months after "Meditations in an Emergency," but that it takes place on Dick Whitman's birthday. (Note that Don explains that a look at his driver's license - which has the real Draper's info on it - wouldn't help confirm this.) And though this isn't exactly what Matthew Weiner intended when he wrote it (he seemed surprised but not displeased when I suggested the idea in our interview), it feels like much of the episode is about wishes - some made on birthdays, some not - and how they can sometimes come true in the worst possible way.
In the opening moments, we see Don, up late and no doubt aware of what tomorrow will mean to him (and only to him), imagining the circumstances of his own pathetic birth. It's a story his father's hateful wife assuredly told him many times - not to make him feel closer, as Don and Betty try with Sally at episode's end, but to remind him what a terrible burden he is, and what a cosmic joke his entire life is - and in that imagining, we learn that Don is a wish that never turned out quite right for either his biological or adoptive mother. The whore who gave birth to him got her revenge on Dick's father (who had to suffer his wife's resentment until his own death) but didn't live to see it. And the woman who wished and prayed for a child finally got one, but it was one who would be a daily mortification to her.
In Don's adult life, meanwhile, we see Pete finally get the promotion he's felt he was owed since we met him, only for it to be presented to him in a way (with Ken as co-head of accounts) that prevents him from enjoying the moment. ("Why does it have to be like this?" he whines to Trudy. "Why can't I get anything good all at once?") We see Salvatore finally open up and accept a man's embrace, only for the rapturous moment to be interrupted by an inconvenient fire in the hotel.
Even Don and Betty's newfound marital bliss is more of a wish by both of them - she needs someone to take care of her and help raise the kids, he needs someone to provide normalcy to his complicated life - than a reality. We see that they're trying, hard, to be closer to each other, but as soon as Don's on the road, he's going to bed with a stewardess (albeit a stewardess who looks like a taller version of former model Betty).
As I said in my column review of the season premiere on Wednesday, "Out of Town" is a much busier, faster-paced episode than last year's opener, "For Those Who Think Young." Though the leap in time isn't quite as big, the premiere still has the confidence to drop us into the action without bothering to explain what it is that Burt Peterson screwed up, or anything else that happened since the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
If nothing's spelled out, it's still not hard to infer a lot, specifically about the state of things at Sterling Cooper. The Brits are in charge, and nobody on either side of the arrangement seems happy about that, whether it's the chipmunks living in fear of "the firings," Pete and Ken being forced to compete for the job they're currently sharing, Joan hating Mr. Hooker, Mr. Hooker hating everyone, and new financial officer Lane Pryce being puzzled by it all.
The heart of the episode, though, is what happens when Don and Salvatore leave New York for a night to put out whatever fire Burt caused at London Fog. In our interview, Weiner talks about how the episode is about submission, and here we see both the word man and the picture man submitting to their own true nature. Don really, really wants to be faithful to Betty, but he can't resist Shelly the sexy stew ("I've been married a long time," he tells her. "You get plenty of chances."), especially not on his real birthday. And Sal - good, guilt-ridden Catholic boy that he is - wants to resist his gay impulses and be a good husband to Kitty, but when the hotel bellman (who has remarkable gaydar, given how brief the encounters in the elevator and then the room were) is sexually assertive with him in a way that the Belle Jolie rep never tried, Sal finally gives in. And even though the fire ruins things, you get the sense, as he's describing to Paul what the man in the London Fog ad should look like ("excited... handsome"), that Sal enjoyed the experience enough to not run back into his closet of self-denial as quickly.
We're at a point in the series where the genius of Jon Hamm almost goes without saying. Weiner and the other writers have clearly learned to trust their star to say so many things that they can't or shouldn't put into his dialogue. Here, for instance, Hamm expertly shows us Don, bit-by-bit, acknowledging that he's going to sleep with Shelly, and convincing himself that it's going to be okay. And then there's that wonderful look on his face in the final scene as Betty takes over the story of Sally's birth, and Don's not only thinking about how he cheated on Betty again, but that, despite his infidelity and all the problems he and Betty have, how much better off Sally and Bobby are than he and Adam were as kids. All without saying a word.
But Hamm isn't the only one with that gift, as Bryan Batt shows in that wonderful, terrifying and then ultimately happy moment on the flight back to New York, as Sal braces himself to be condemned by Don, only to be relieved when Don, through his "Limit your exposure" pitch, basically gives him the 1963 version of "Keep it on the down-low."
Yes, "Mad Men" is back, and "Out of Town" was an incredibly satisfying way for the show to return from the long hiatus. Heck, even if the rest of the episode had been a drag, it would have been worth it for the running gag about London Fog itself, which served as a metaphor for the whole show. Pryce explains that there is no London fog - that what we think of as fog was actually dust from the coal mines. In other words, what we think of as something mysterious and romantic from the past was actually something far seedier than its reputation suggests - just as "Mad Men" is constantly showing us the hidden emotional cost beneath the glamorous behavior of men like Don and women like Joan.
And yet "Mad Men" rarely makes us feel too guilty for asking us to revel in the surface when we want. As Bert Cooper, bless his Ayn Rand-loving heart, puts it, "I don't care what they say: London Fog is a great name."
Some other thoughts on "Out of Town":
• As I mentioned back at press tour, I did a long interview with Matthew Weiner to discuss "Out of Town," some leftover issues from last season, and whatever long-range plans he has for the series and feels comfortable discussing at this point. You can read it here. And if you missed my Jon Hamm interview from Friday, you can read it either as a column or a straight transcript.
• Since the episode doesn't entirely spell it out (you could assume Peggy and Joan are discussing her engagement ring), I want to clarify, as Weiner did in the interview, that both Joan (to Greg the rapist) and Roger (to Jane) have gotten married in the ensuing six months. (There's a reference in the scene in Cooper's office to Roger still unpacking Grecian treasures, which are apparently from his honeymoon.)
• One other Joan-related clarification: Weiner says he doesn't think Joan intended to screw over Hooker by giving him Burt's office, but that she was trying to make peace with the jerk and inadvertently ran afoul of Mr. Pryce's sensibilities.
• You know you're back in "Mad Men" world when a character like Betty can deliver a line like "She's taken to your tools like a little lesbian" without anyone so much as raising an eyebrow.
• Perhaps the best sign of the effort both Don and Betty are making for their marriage: Don uses his copywriting powers for good (describing an idyllic beach setting to make Betty forget about her physical discomfort) rather than evil (the time last season when he dreamed up a lie he and Betty could tell the kids about the separation), and this time Betty compliments him on how good he is at making things up.
• I'm by no means an Anglo-phile, but after a press tour featuring lively sessions with David Tennant, Craig Ferguson and Robert Carlyle, plus the chance to watch Jared Harris go to work as Lane Pryce, I think I may become an Anglo-accent-ophile. Be they Scottish, English or whatever, there are some guys it's just a pleasure to hear talk, and Harris is definitely one. And voice aside, I like his performance so far as Pryce, who's quite deliberately a hard man to read. He keeps Burt Peterson on well past whatever the scandal was for the sake of his ailing wife, but also seems unconcerned with upping the awkwardness of the work environment by pitting Ken and Pete against each other - or, for that matter, with how the two of them might view him down the line after he didn't give either of them the full story about their "promotion."
• Was Vincent Kartheiser channeling Ed Grimley with that spastic dance Pete does after getting what he thinks is the good news from Pryce? Possibly the funniest moment in the episode (it's that or Sal's exploding pen), and another reminder that Pete, if he's not an imitation human, is at best an overgrown child. Where Ken recognizes how Pryce is trying to manipulate them, Pete's too fixated on getting what he wants now-now-NOW to notice or care, and he still needs approval from his mother, even though, as Trudy notes, "Don't go to the well; there's no water there." And that subplot featured yet another very funny scene, where Ken and Pete are on the elevator together, each believing he's been promoted above the other, each trying to be magnanimous in victory and each assuming the other has heard about his own good fortune.
• I initially thought that Burt Peterson was meant to be a new hire -- someone the Brits brought in after they kicked Duck Phillips to the curb following his outburst in "Meditations in an Emergency." But in watching some of the season two marathon episodes earlier in the week, I caught a few mentions of him, like when Pete tells a joke about Burt to his brother at the family barbecue in "Maidenform." So we're to assume, I guess, that he's an old hand in the Sterling Cooper accounts department who was promoted to replace Duck, then flamed out. Either way, he was played by Michael Gaston, and his firing led to several hilarious moments, including Roger's awkward shift from jaunty to somber when he realized, "Oh, that meeting," and Burt ranting about the British off-camera while Joan deals with Mr. Hooker.
• Speaking of Hooker, for those of you on the younger end of the "Mad Men" demo, the derisive nickname of "Moneypenny" that the Sterling Cooper secretaries hung on him comes from the James Bond books/movies, where Moneypenny is M's efficient gal Friday, but hopelessly in love with 007. (Here she is in "Dr. No.")
• Hooker is also the object of affection for Peggy's secretary, Lola. Not a lot of Peggy in the premiere, but it's reassuring to see that she's settling in as a higher-ranking member of the Sterling Cooper team, and also that she has just as much trouble with her secretaries as mentor Don.
• It was a nice continuity touch, I thought, that most of the companies listed in the first meeting between the heads of accounts are ones - like Utz or Secor laxatives - that have either been mentioned in the past as Sterling Cooper clients, or been part of larger storylines (Jimmy Barrett with Utz, Pete using Secor to block JFK campaign ads). Presumably, the new ones are clients brought in by the merger with PP&L.
• Do any art aficionados care to identify the painting everyone was discussing in Bert Cooper's office?
So go read the Weiner interview (if you, understandably, don't have time to read the whole thing right away - or ever - I excerpted the most important quotes at the top) and then tell me, after a long wait for more of Don, Peggy and company... what did everybody else think?