"Let me explain something to you about business, since as usual, you're turning this into something about yourself: No contract means I have all the power. They want me, but they can't have me." -DonA total solar eclipse arrives midway through "Seven Twenty Three," and characters are warned repeatedly to not look directly at it. Betty tries and feels faint. Don puts on his sunglasses and waits for the sun to pass a bit before looking up, while Sally and Miss Farrell watch the eclipse from the safety of a cardboard camera obscura. And at other points in the episode, both Roger Sterling and Francine's husband Carlton talk about looking at the normal sun without any ill effects.
"You're right. Why would I think that has anything to do with me?" -Betty
And all throughout "Seven Twenty Three" (the title stands for the date on which Don signs his contract), characters are given the opportunity to directly face something they want, or something they fear. Some choose to stare into the sun, while others try looking indirectly, each with varying degrees of success.
The episode itself starts with the indirect approach, as we get glimpses of Betty, Peggy and Don in situations that won't explain themselves until much later in the hour. It's not really necessary - I'm not fond of non-chronological storytelling, or in media res openings, unless they reveal something that wouldn't have been apparent had the episode been told in a traditional way - but it at least sets the tone for another intense, unsettling episode.
"Seven Twenty Three" doesn't have the macabre comedy of "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency," nor does anyone lose a foot (and the ability to golf). But by episode's end, we may have witnessed a murder, because it feels like when Don signs that contract on 7/23, Dick Whitman dies.
And if that's the case, good riddance to bad rubbish.
Because most of Dick's appearances in the first two seasons were in situations where Jon Hamm got to play him as vulnerable, even tender (think Don-as-Dick in Anna Draper's house), it's easy to forget just what a bastard he is. He's the one who coldly stole the real Don Draper's life without thinking of the consequences, the one who chased away his own brother to protect his secret, the one who makes Don hold himself at such a crippling distance from his wife. And Dick Whitman is the one whose first impulse at a sign of trouble is to bail on everyone who cares about him. As Jon Hamm put it to me, "When Don's in trouble, Dick runs."
And in "Seven Twenty Three," forces conspire to keep Dick from running, maybe ever again. Sterling and Cooper have always indulged Don's refusal to work without a contract, looking the other away and allowing him to make his power play against Duck. But Conrad Hilton's lawyers force the firm to look directly at this particular quirk, and they realize that it's no longer acceptable. Cooper won't let Don avoid the confrontation, and when Don tries, Roger tries going around Don to Betty, who calls out her husband for his wanderlust - where, she rightly wonders, does he plan to be in the next three years that this is such a burden?
Don-as-Dick is not pleasant to watch in this one. Cornered, he lashes out in ugly fashion at Peggy (who's devastated by it) and then at Betty (who has learned how to fight with her husband), and I'm not sure the character has been any more unappealing than he is in those two scenes. Then he tries going hobo, but he can't even do that well anymore, as his getaway is interrupted by visions of Archie Whitman calling him out for what Don fears is an empty life ("What do you make? You make bulls--t!"), and as he winds up getting rolled by the two hitchhikers. Dick's supposed to be the hustler, not the victim.
The man Dick Whitman turned himself into is a master of the universe, capable of playing all the angles and finding a way to win the unlikeliest of victories. But here, we see other men sitting in Don's chair, putting him ill at ease and telling him how his life is going to be. Connie makes it clear that, however they bonded at the country club, he's going to dictate the terms of this relationship. And Bert Cooper turns out not to be the doddering eccentric we've taken him for, but an absolute killer. He's had the Dick Whitman card in his pocket since the end of season one, but he's declined to play it until now, going straight at Don with it, yet being elegant enough to phrase his attack in an oblique way. (He paraphrases a line he used on Don in last season's "The Gold Violin" about how he knows a little about him, then asks, "After all, when it comes down to it, who's really signing the contract, anyway?")
With no contract, Don has always had the ability to walk away from his job, and even from his life. That's gone now, at least for the next three years. He completely loses this fight, able only to divorce himself from Roger (who poked his nose into Don's private life one time too many), and he's stuck. Throughout "Seven Twenty Three," we see how Don/Dick behaves when there's even a threat of taking away his freedom. Now that it's gone, will things get even uglier? Or will rooting him to one place - and therefore making Dick Whitman irrelevant - allow him to finally accept that this is his life, and to maybe be content with that?
Whatever happens, we can now forget about the idea of Don leaving Sterling Cooper to open his own shop anytime soon (unless Weiner decides to throw us a curveball and opens season four sometime in 1966, as Don's contract is coming to an end). This is where he is, and he, the show and the viewers need to make peace with it.
Getting back to the direct vs. indirect approach, the episode's three lead characters each try a different strategy in dealing with business and with potential romantic partners.
Betty, having realized that the baby isn't going to fix her marriage, is eager for the opportunity to do business with the very interested Henry Francis (who touched her belly at the same party where Don met Connie), and she and Henry flirt with each other without either one coming right out and admitting that they want to jump the other's bones. The closest they come is when Betty calls Henry out for knowing in advance that he wouldn't have time to see the endangered reservoir, and he cleverly changes the subject to the fainting couch in the furniture store window. And Betty, interested but maybe not ready for another affair just yet, can at least buy the couch so she can lie on it and fantasize about him (while looking like a character out of a Renaissance painting).
It's unclear whether Don is actually trying to flirt with Miss Farrell or if he's just making conversation, but things get frosty when she cuts right through all the talk about vacations to accuse him of hitting on her like every other dad. Between her behavior in the classroom, the drunk-dialing episode and now this, sometime tells me that Abigail Spencer is once again playing a role that needs to be measured on the Crazy/Hot scale. But even if she's as cuckoo bananas as I fear, her forthrightness clearly appealed to Don; if he wasn't interested before their conversation began, he is now. And this won't end well for anyone involved, least of all poor Sally.
Peggy tries the indirect approach with Don about the Hilton account, and he sees right through it. This is the second time this season she's had the bad timing to go see him after he had a bad meeting with one of his bosses, and it's just brutal to see Don be that cruel to Peggy, even if he does have a point about her ambition.
And just as Don chewing out Pete in last season's "Flight 1" (after a similar case of poor timing) drove Pete to become Duck's acolyte, Peggy goes to Duck's hotel suite. Duck - who has never had a problem being direct - tries to give her a glimpse of "what opportunity looks like," but she has to look away. And having never looked in Peggy's direction during their time at Sterling Cooper, Duck finds he can't stop looking at her now. Though the Peggy/Duck hookup comes from out of the blue, it makes sense in the moment. Peggy has only ever been with boys like Pete and the college kid, who don't know what they want and/or need Peggy to take the lead. Duck is a man, one who knows what he wants and can describe it in detail to Peggy. As with the Don/Miss Farrell flirtation, this will not end well - Duck is always too impulsive (he sees what he wants and goes after it), and the way he talked about loving the taste of liquor on Peggy's breath doesn't speak well to the long-term prospects for his sobriety - but at the moment I'd prefer not to look straight at that probability for the time being, and instead look around to the more immediate questions. Will Peggy be smart enough to realize that taking the Grey job now would be a big mistake? Will she feel so close to Duck now that she won't be able to resist it? And either way, how will Don and/or Pete react when they find out?
Some other thoughts on "Seven Twenty Three":
• I can only cover so much - and only notice so much - in any given episode, and sometimes the analysis in the comments of these reviews has me smacking my head, wishing I had thought of (or wrote about) something one of you suggested. With last week's episode, it was the notion (first suggested here) that Guy's maiming and its aftermath could be read as a kind of black comic allegory for the Kennedy assassination: an energetic, charismatic young rising star (who may have been more style than substance) has his life cut down in a moment of shocking violence, and in the aftermath, the beautiful woman by his side (Joan standing in for Jackie) wanders around in a blood-soaked dress. I'm never sure how much of any of this stuff is intended by the writers, but it's fun to talk about all the possibilities while we wait for the next episode, isn't it?
• Along similar lines, I had a long conversation with Mo Ryan (whose own review should be up on her blog shortly, if it's not already), and she had a slightly different take on the eclipse, suggesting the episode is about people being blocked in the same way the moon blocks the sun. Don loses his escape route, Peggy is denied a choice account, Betty appears to lose her chance to save the reservoir, etc. "But," she added, "nobody denies Connie or Bert. Two sun kings who used their power and schooled Don about who's in control."
• Joan was unsurprisingly absent from the proceedings this week. I think Hamm, Jones and Moss are the only castmembers who appear in every episode each season (many shows these days have what are called 10-for-13 deals - as in, you're a regular, but you're only paid to be in 10 out of 13 episodes - with their supporting actors to save money), and it makes sense that one of Christina Hendrick's non-appearances would be immediately after Joan's grand exit from Sterling Cooper. I still believe she'll be back, and hopefully soon.
• The book Roger mentions on the elevator is "Confessions of an Advertising Man," by David Ogilvy, one of the most influential books ever written about the profession. Ho-Ho (still being swindled by Don, Pete and the gang) mentioned reading the galleys of the book back in "The Arrangements," though he mispronounced the author's name as if he were an Irishman named O'Gilvy.
• Loved how Don the amateur decorator was able to concisely identify the one part of the new living room that needed changing, and that the professional quickly realized he was right. And even my completely untrained eye can tell that she's right about the fainting couch: that thing is way too big for the space, and too out of sync with the other furniture. It sticks out just as badly as Marty Crane's recliner did in Frasier's apartment, and it blocks out the fireplace in the same way the moon blocks the sun for a few minutes.
• Interesting that Lucky Strikes would still be considered Sterling Cooper's biggest account, though it makes sense given that Connie is so far only letting them take over the New York hotels. If he had handed Don the keys to the entire chain, they'd be number one on the client list, right?
• Ever since Hamm told me about all the pieces of physical business that Weiner likes to throw at him, I can't help paying more attention to them, and how easily he seems to pull off bits like Don refilling his cigarette lighter while he talks to Roger. And his grace then stands in contrast to a moment like Don and Pete's conversation about the Hilton account, where Vincent Kartheiser spends the entire scene struggling to button his jacket with one hand. That may have been intentional (to show, again, that Pete isn't nearly as smooth as Don), or it may just be that Kartheiser was having a problem, but the director liked his performance enough to stick with that take; either way, it was momentarily distracting.
• When baby Gene came home at the end of "The Fog," it sounded like Carla wasn't going to be around for a while to help, though some other people suggested all the dialogue implied was that Carla wouldn't be a night nurse because she had to get home to her family. But if Carla's not around, then Gene is either the easiest baby of all time, or Betty Draper really does have the assistance of magical fairies to always look so put together (and to have time for things like the Junior League) during the newborn stage.
• You understand why the intensely private Don would want no part of Roger anymore, but it's a plus for the viewer that Don won't be starting up his own shop, because we get to keep enjoying John Slattery's knack for saying the most obnoxious things - the line about Don's name being on the sign, but only after his, "and probably Cooper" - and seeming charming doing it.
• Note that Betty, the anthropology major-turned-housewife, often feels compelled to show she's just as smart as the professionals she meets. Hence her saying "like in a skyscraper" to make it clear that she understood Henry's joke about not sleeping well with so many people on top of him, or her peevish reaction when he tried to explain his reference to His Master's Voice. Do you think she actually knew what it was, or is she trying to act worldly in front of him?
• Hard as it is to see Don rip into Peggy, it's more than a little amusing to see the two of them awkwardly come face-to-face the next morning: Don with his busted nose, Peggy wearing the same clothes from the day before after doing the walk of shame from Duck's hotel. Now, does Peggy have the apartment with Karen yet? Was there no time to go home and change? The Pierre is at 61st and 5th, and Sterling Cooper is on Madison between 47th and 48th; I suppose it's possible that the apartment, if she has it already, was in the opposite direction.
• Though I'm sure Don already regrets his relationship with Connie, I'm going to enjoy watching Chelcie Ross spar with Jon Hamm on a regular basis. Connie's not a man who's used to being told "no," and you can tell he's equal parts peeved and intrigued when Don does it. (In that way, Don was right when he said Cooper should have told Connie's lawyers to pass along the message about it being important to Don.)
• Bert's sharp as a tack moment in Don's office is nicely set up by a more typical moment of Cooper goofiness, as he puts his shoeless feet up on the coffee table and says of Connie, "I met him once. He's a bit of an eccentric, isn't he?"
• Carlton, played by Kristoffer Polaha, is skinny again after sporting a gut in his lone season two appearance. I guess the running is paying off for him.
• When Don is in the car with the hitchhikers, it's the second time this season (the first was with the stewardesses) he's briefly let a stranger believe he's some kind of spy. Come to think of it, the Europeans in "The Jet Set" also assumed Don was a spy until they saw his business card. Weird foreshadowing, or just an acknowledgment that Jon Hamm looks like he could have played James Bond?
• After sharing very little screen time together in the first two seasons, we've had a good amount of Roger and Peggy moments this season, here with him running into her on his way out of Don's office, complaining, "Didn't we give you an office?" (Which, to play the role of Betty the joke-explainer, is funny because Roger's the one who gave it to her.)
• Do Don and the thieving hitchhikers stop at the liquor store on the way to the motel, or did Don have that much booze in the Caddy? There are a lot of bottles on the motel room table.
Finally, thanks again for being so smart and passionate in your comments about the show. As I'm writing this review on Friday afternoon, the number of comments for "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency" is edging close to 400, which is a ridiculous number for this blog - and which may be getting unmanageable if I want to enforce Rule #5 of the commenting rules. So I'm going to amend that slightly for this show, and say this:
Until we get to 200 comments, same rules apply (skim everything before posting to avoid annoying duplication). After 200, if you're going to ask a question, or if you're going to suggest a theory or observation that you don't think has come up yet (i.e., "I think that guy Connie from the country club bar might be Conrad Hilton" or "Do you think Joan's bloody dress was supposed to be a Jackie Kennedy analogue?"), or if you want to answer or correct something from a previous comment, I want you to do a word search (every web browser has one, usually listed as Find in the Edit menu) for some possible keywords you might be using. (In those cases, try "Hilton" or "Jackie" or "bloody.") If you don't see any of your keywords - and keep in mind that Blogger splits the comments into multiple pages once you get past 200, so check 'em both - then ask/opine away.
And, as always, remember Rule #1: Be nice and respectful of each other.
What did everybody else think?