"You have everything... and so much of it." -PeggyI've been getting a sense from some critics and "Mad Men" fans that, while they've enjoyed season three in isolated moments, the lack of a major story arc akin to Duck vs. Don, or a secret to be revealed (Dick Whitman, Peggy's baby) has made this season feel oddly lacking compared to the first two.
I don't agree, but I at least understand where those complaints are coming from. And now that we've seen "The Fog" - an episode that had almost everything people have been asking for, and so much of it - it almost feels like the first four episodes were just an extended prologue, and the story of season three genuinely begins here.
In the space of an hour, we get the return of Duck and his attempt to woo Pete and/or Peggy away to a rival agency; more overt signals that Don is attracted to Sally's teacher (and, especially, vice versa); the conflict between Don and Lane Pryce coming to the forefront (and complicating the Peggy situation); and, of course, the birth of baby Eugene Scott Draper, whose arrival takes over the middle portion of the episode, in the same way he's about to take over Betty's life.
And with the birth of the new Gene (so soon after the death of the old one), the episode is as important for what doesn't happen as what does. Since the season began - really, since the final scene of season two - we've seen that Don and Betty are each making more of an effort at closeness in their marriage. Don's doing it because he realized in California he wanted to stop being a bystander in his own life. Betty, on the other hand, has been doing it for this baby. She doesn't want to be a single mother to an infant, and it's become increasingly clear over the past few episodes that Betty has convinced herself, as many expecting parents in problematic marriages do, that the kid is going to fix everything. But when she's under the influence of the anesthetic, she's able to articulate her true fears about Don: "He's never where you expect him to be!" And in director Phil Abraham's beautiful final shot of the episode, we see her stand in shadow in her bedroom, shoulders slumped, bracing herself to deal with a crying infant, and she realizes that nothing is better. (And with her father dead and Carla gone to be with her own family for a while, things will probably get worse; Gene may have been losing his marbles, but at least he was available to drive the kids to school when needed.)
Things will get particularly bad if Don acts on whatever is going on between himself and Sally's teacher, Suzanne Farrell. When Don stroked the grass while watching Miss Farrell dance barefoot on it at the end of "Love Among the Ruins," some of you speculated that he was attracted to her and trying to connect in the only way he could. I assumed that Don is too intensely private and compartmentalized to relieve himself where he eats, so to speak. But it's clear during their meeting at Sally's school (with Don managing to look anything but childlike while seated at a kid's desk), and especially during their phone conversation, that they have the same kind of connection Don had with Midge, and Rachel, and even Bobbi. Her proximity to his home life aside, Miss Farrell ticks all the boxes for Don - smart, independent and ahead of her time (she believes in a different, more nurturing model of childcare than what Don and Betty are familiar with) - and they both know what it's like to lose a parent (or in Don's case, two parents) at a very young age. And it's even clearer during that call that Miss Farrell wants to, and likely will, have a more private, clothing-optional parent-teacher conference with Don. What is it that Chekhov wrote? I think it went something like, "If you put a drunk woman with a half-buttoned blouse and a dangling bra strap on screen in episode five, she's going to have sex with Don Draper by episode nine." Right?
Because of the long birth sequence and the visit to Miss Farrell's classroom, we spend little time at Sterling Cooper this week, but Kater Gordon's script makes every second there count.
We knew from the MSG incident in "Love Among the Ruins" that Don and the Brits don't exactly see eye-to-eye, but the conflict becomes starker with Pryce's expense account witch hunt. Their refusal to do the MSG deal was absolutely penny-wise and pound foolish, and Pryce's "Pennies make pounds!" rant just confirms that they have no eye on the long-term, and that this will continue to cause problems between the two.
Yet this isn't a straight rehash of Don vs. Duck. For one thing, Don has become much more important at Sterling Cooper than ever before - work essentially stops while he's at the hospital, because too many decisions now require his approval - and Lane can only afford to fight the firm's star so much. For another, we see later in the episode that Lane (who, despite his background in finance, doesn't seem to resent Don's position in the same manner as Duck) isn't completely reactionary and inflexible, as he's willing to consider Pete's ideas about marketing across racial lines. As written, and as played by Jared Harris, Pryce still remains an enigma. While he could certainly turn out to be the Richie Aprile of this season, I hope Matt Weiner has something more complex - and, yes, long-term - in mind for the character.
But the tension over expenses in turn puts Don in a bad spot when Peggy comes to him to ask for a raise. (This is the second time this season where Peggy has unwittingly tried to get something from Don while his thoughts are occupied with a conflict with Pryce.) We know, of course, that everything Peggy says about equal pay for equal work is right - even as it's sadly amusing to hear her describe the concept as such a novelty - just as we know that Don doesn't have the juice right now to fight this battle for her. And what makes this scene - one of the best Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss have ever played together - sing is how well we understand each position, even as the characters are only somewhat aware of what the other is dealing with.
But the scene becomes more than just two characters talking past each other when Don catches Peggy's gaze lingering on the baby booties. Just as Peggy has seen the face of Dick Whitman, Don has seen Peggy suffering from post-partum delusions. These two know each other so well, and care about each other so much, that it hurts to see them at cross purposes like this. Though she doesn't intend to, Peggy cuts Don to his core when she points out how much she envies him - Don can't stand to hear that this life he finds empty seems so bountiful when viewed from the perspective of somebody who isn't really Dick Whitman - and Don in turn lets her down when he fails to make even a token attempt to get her more money.
And outside Don's office, Peggy comes face-to-face with Pete, another man she's wounded deeply, even if she doesn't understand how much she hurt him - or, for that matter, that Pete is capable of being so hurt. Though he's as petulant and childish with Peggy as he was with Duck when he stormed out of the recruiting lunch, when he says "Your decisions affect me," it speaks volumes. Now we understand why Pete and Peggy haven't had any significant one-on-one interaction this season, why Pete was so unhappy in the premiere to get so many accounts that Peggy works on, why he's so often working with Paul, and, for that matter, why he and Trudy suddenly seem like such a functional unit. Peggy had Pete's baby and gave it away, all without telling him, and while he likely wouldn't have been much help if she had told him, he feels betrayed. He wants no part of Peggy, which has driven him away from her at work and driven him towards Trudy at home.
I certainly can't imagine Pete going to work for Duck if Peggy's part of the deal, but given that meeting with Don, would Peggy go on her own? Knowing Duck, he's selling Peggy (and Pete) a bill of goods in order to hurt Don and Sterling Cooper (though if he had to poach two SC employees, these would be the right two). Should Peggy go to Grey, things likely wouldn't turn out to be any more enlightened than the frat house she'd be leaving. But it feels like she needs to leave the nest at some point, doesn't it?
Because most TV shows try to maintain the status quo at all costs, I could see some resistance to having Peggy or Pete jump ship to a rival firm. But if this season, and this series, are about showing how much things changed (and how much other things didn't) during the 60s, then does it really make sense to have all the same characters working at the same place for however much of the decade we cover? Isn't it only logical that someone like Peggy would try to branch out? Or that Ken would hop from agency to agency?
For that matter, wouldn't Don sooner or later get fed up with working under the authority of men who don't share his values and vision and consider opening his own shop? I don't know that you can plausibly bring everybody on board in that scenario, and I would hate to have to say goodbye to, say, Roger Sterling as a regular character. But Duck's attempt to sow discord at Sterling Cooper is just a reminder of how unlikely it is that all these characters will continue to work together for however long a period "Mad Men" ends up covering.
Because Weiner isn't generally in any kind of hurry to tell his stories, we'll get a few episodes a season where the plot is put aside for a long interlude, like the election party in "Nixon Vs. Kennedy," or Betty playing house with Glen Bishop in "The Inheritance," or the lengthy hospital sequence here. If "Mad Men" had been more plot-driven once upon a time, passages like these might feel self-indulgent, but from the start, the show has been as much about taking a snapshot of the era as it is about showing us the adventures of Don Draper, mad man.
The birth of the new Gene is important to the larger story of Don and Betty's marriage, but it's also a window into a very different time from the one we know. When my daughter was born, there wasn't even a question that I'd be in the delivery room to provide moral support (and snap a ton of photos once the baby came out). Don, on the other hand, is told "Your job's done" as soon as he drives Betty to the hospital, and he spends the entire birth getting drunk in the waiting room with prison guard Dennis Hobart, while Betty is left alone with a cheerfully condescending nurse who has no patience for the overgrown child in her delivery room. As Don was told by a nurse during Sally's birth, "Your wife's on a boat. You're on the shore."
Abraham's direction and January Jones' performance do a great job of capturing the fog of the title (which I initially assumed was referring to another trip to the London Fog plant in Baltimore). Cut off from her husband, under the influence of anesthesia, failing to get the sympathy of her own Nurse Ratched (or even to get a return call from her regular OB/GYN) as she experiences labor pains, Betty feels lost in a fog, disconnected from her body, and her life. Even after the baby comes, she's still mostly alone, forced to wave to the kids from the distance of her second-story hospital room window. And in the dream she has under the anesthesia's influence, she sees her late father, and her mother (comforting civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was murdered on June 12, the day after Grandpa Gene died in the "Mad Men" universe) and is again infantilized by them both. Gene tells her she's a housecat with little to do, while her mother points to Evers and warns Betty, "You see what happens to people who speak up? Be happy with what you have."
But Betty's not happy with what she has, and despite his best efforts, Don isn't, either. Jon Hamm is so terrific at showing how anxious, and ambivalent, Don is about all of this. As Dennis talks and talks about what he's going to do with his own child, you can see Don thinking of all the ways in which he's let his own kids (and his wife) down, and yet he's also still not sure this is the life he wants, no matter how much he tries to dedicate himself to it. He's noticeably uncomfortable when Dennis insists on telling him how little baby Hobart is going to change his life - "This is a fresh start. I don't know who's up there. I'm going to be better. I'm going to be a better man." - because Don know how often he's made those promises to himself, and how hard they are to live up to.
In many ways, "The Fog" is a fresh start to this third season. Until now, the characters have all been in a holding pattern. Betty's been hoping the baby's arrival will make everything better. Peggy has been working hard and assuming her effort and talent will allow her to keep rising. Pete's been avoiding the woman who gave away his son. Don and Lane have been trying to avoid locking horns. But by the end of this great episode, they all know none of that's possible. The baby can't fix the Draper marriage on his own, Peggy still has a glass ceiling to break through, Don's going to keep chafing under Lane's authority, etc., etc.
And now that everyone has had their own emotional fog lifted and can see clearly the position they're in, what are they going to do about it?
Some other thoughts on "The Fog":
• Pete proves himself worthy of Duck's interest with his attempt to convince the Admiral execs to market their TVs to the black community. It's easy to see why Hollis might take Pete for a bigot - he's snooty and class-conscious, and in the season one episode where he and Peggy had a morning quickie in his office, he acts annoyed when Hollis lets a black custodian board the elevator - but we also know that for all his faults, Pete is the most forward-thinking guy at Sterling Cooper. If there's money to be made by marketing to a new demographic, Pete has no problem trying to make that money. But it's interesting to see that even after Hollis drops his guard, he's still not all that interested in who made his TV or why he bought it. With Evers' murder so fresh in everyone's memory, it's not surprising Hollis might find it frivolous to think about "The Beverly Hillbillies." Pete's dream of a homogeneous, integrated America where blacks and whites can have the same lifestyle, and the same aspirations, isn't necessarily Hollis' dream. On the other hand, Pete's right that Hollis watches baseball; when Marilyn Monroe died last season, Hollis was the one to note, "I keep thinking about Joe DiMaggio."
• Don's midnight snack with Sally was another suggestion that Don and Miss Farrell will hook up (Sally: "That's what Miss Farrell said." Don: "Then I guess it must be true."), but it also showed what a good dad Don can be when he's both present and not busy trying to be supportive of Betty when she's having one of her moods.
• Is it unfair to Yeardley Smith (who played the nurse who kept updating Dennis) that she's the one "Simpsons" voice cast member who I can't see in another role without automatically envisioning her Springfield alter ego?
• The camera lingers on Betty's feet during her anesthetic fantasy. If Matt Weiner hadn't said in our interview that the image of Don's bare feet is "the story of the season, in a way" (suggesting the pained man underneath the impeccable suit), I might start wondering if he had hired Quentin Tarantino as his new director of photography.
• It's nice to have Mark Moses back as Duck, and I made sure to take note that Duck was having coffee while Peggy pondered her Bloody Mary. Also, Grey is still in business today. Judging by Pete's comment - "Two months at Grey and you're already having a nosh?" - Grey was a lot more friendly to Jews back in the day than Sterling Cooper.
• Dennis, like the car salesman last year, has no idea how to read Don. The salesman assumes Don is comfortable in his own skin, while Dennis, the alleged expert on criminals, stares at the identity thief in front of him and declares him to be an honest guy.
• Miss Farrell is played by Abigail Spencer, and it's been bugging me where I knew her from ever since she appeared in "Love Among the Ruins." Turns out I know her from a bunch of shows (including a Lifetime drama where she was the lead), but was thinking of her both as the Carrie Bradshaw stand-in from the "D-Bag in the City" episode of "My Boys," and as Ted's girlfriend Blah-Blah on "How I Met Your Mother."
Comments continue to mushroom, and again, I commend most of you for being both damn insightful and damn respectful of each other, but for the small few who need a reminder, here are the commenting rules. Read them. Know them. Then discuss "Mad Men." That is all.
What did everybody else think?