Monday, October 26, 2009

Who Wants to be Don Draper for Halloween?

A lot of people have been asking when Mad Men was going to pick up the pace, and not without reason. For every big drama moment like Sal's firing or the British guy's foot being lawnmowered off, there's been half an episode about Don and the teacher or Betty and the politician. With only 3 episodes left of the season, we wanted to see some pay-off. Which is why Sunday night, Mad Men produced its best episode of the season, and one of its best overall.

Now, the past few episodes I've started to tire of the Sopranos-like device in which Matthew Weiner and co. choose to focus on only three characters each week. Since most weeks Don and Betty made up two out of three, that meant weeks at a time without any noticeable imput from Pete, Peggy, Roger, Joan, etc. This week wasn't any different. There were still only three storylines - Don/Betty, Roger, and Joan. The difference is this week all three were gold.

First up, Joan. Now that she's left Sterling Cooper, we see far too little of Joan, so any sighting is cause for excitement. And unlike her memorable but brief appearance with Pete in the department store, this time there was plenty of Joan, and even more reasons to think her husband is the most unworthy human being on the planet. As he flubbed his interview prep and bitched and moaned about how unfair life is that he's not a good enough surgeon, Joan did what every one of the show's viewers wanted to: hit him in the head with a vase. Sadly, his decision to join the army seemed to just keep Joan trapped in the marriage even tighter (though clearly leading into a Vietnam storyline), but for that faked smile at the end alone, this should be Christina Hendricks' Emmy submission episode.

Next Roger, who's been barely present this season. His Casablanca and Hemingway referencing encounter with an ex who left him in Paris twenty years earlier brought Mad Men back to part of its original appeal: the glamour of an earlier era. Watching Roger and Annabel discuss the old days was like watching an old black-and-white Hollywood romance, except older and sadder. His simple "you're not" when she called him "the one" hit harder than any of his more obvious attacks the night before. Definitely John Slattery's Emmy submission episode.

But as great as it was to see Roger and Joan get so much screen time, this episode will really be remembered as the one where Betty confronted Don about his past. This episode's been in the making ever since that guy on the train called Don "Dick" in season 1, and man, did it not disappoint. Watching the way Don completely collapsed once he accepted his past must come out, dropping cigarettes and unable to pour his own drink, well, certainly a different person than the one who sneered "you people" at Sal just two weeks ago.

As Don slowly and methodically went through his past, you could see the pain each word brought, as Betty found herself unsure how to react. I admit I kept asking throughout "what about the teacher in the car?!?!" Would she leave, or spend the night there? Very grateful for the shot showing she did indeed leave. But otherwise, the kind of subtle scene Mad Men excels in, up there with Peggy telling Pete about their baby last season. Jon Hamm and January Jones, I think you know what to do come Emmy time.

The episode ends with possibly the series' best final line ever, "And who are you supposed to be?" Isn't that always the question. And with Don's past opened up, there's now tons of material feeding the final two episodes. Plus, the following storylines still need some kind of resolution by season's end: the Brits' ownership of Sterling Cooper, Duck's attempts to steal Peggy and Pete, Sal's firing, Joan's connection to Sterling Cooper, Roger and Jane's marriage, and Betty and the guy from the governor's office. Maybe not everything will be addressed by season's end. But whatever happens, this week at least showed what Mad Men looks like at its best.

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