‘Mad Men’ Recap: Finally Some Alone Time with Joan

Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

Last night, with images of the gang at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce still fresh in my head, I had a crazy dream that they were all characters in some strange new production of Cabaret. This was much more interesting and unique than the episode we watched last night. It was an hour of good television, for sure, but it wasn’t an hour of great television. It was scatter shot and diffuse without any real surprise or revelation. In fact, the best part of the episode was the dress Megan wore to her dinner with the writer of her soap opera. 

The lackluster showing (one of my least favorite episodes ever and the saddest of a so far weak season) makes me especially sad because it was the first that featured Joan, always one of my favorites, and the first one ever to give us a story from the perspective of Don’s secretary, Dawn. Their stories were set up to parallel each other, with both Joan and Dawn spending time with a close friend and talking about work. Joan’s old friend Kate was in town looking to leave her job at Mary Kaye to start calling for Avon and Dawn was helping to plan a friend’s wedding, and not very well.

After some needless meandering and making out with boys at the Electric Playground, a proto-rave space that seems made for cougars and French younger men, we discover what Joan wants is a life just like Kate’s, where she has a husband and children and fulfilling work. Kate has one job that appreciates her enough to give her diamonds and another company that wants her so badly they flew her out to New York and put her up at the Waldorf. Joan doesn’t feel wanted at all at SCDP, and when she is pursued with diamonds, it’s not for the work she does behind a desk. Joan fought hard for her position, she sold herself to become a partner and, she says, no matter how long she works there they’ll always see her as a secretary.

Ironically, Kate wants Joan’s life, to have made it in New York without having to rely on any man. What Kate doesn’t know is that Joan had to use her sway with men to get there, something that seems to be the only fact that is now salient to her character, since it’s been hammered home two weeks in a row. We all know that it will forever be lurking in the back of our minds when we see her (just like the time her husband raped her) but do we need to keep playing up that one choice week after week?

Dawn has the opposite problem with her friend. While she likes her job and wants to keep it, she’s jealous that her friend is getting married and won’t have to work. In fact Dawn can’t get a date or meet anyone because of her job. She says there is no one “like her” on the subway below 72nd street and she is certainly the only face of color in the office. Dawn wants what she is “supposed to” want, to break color barriers and make it in the white man’s world, but that comes with a price. Not only is she an outcast with men, her friend doesn’t think her job is worthwhile either. She thinks she should give it up for something closer to home, or at least something that will help her meet a man.

Dawn is so eager to please everyone (something her friend likens to a “yes, master” stance) that she has a hard time saying no to Scarlet when she asks to punch out her time card after she bolts from work early. When Joan tracks them down (complete with spy music that would have been perfect if it were deployed either once or three times during the episode rather than a weak twice) instead of waiting for her punishment, Dawn tells Joan that her pay should be docked for her dishonestly. Little does Dawn know that the thing that makes her not fit in, her race, is also what saved her job and there was no danger of her being fired anyway. Dawn says that even if everyone else hates her, which they already do beause of her color, she only wants to please Joan. They’re two outcasts siding together — a direct contrast to the relationship between Joan and Peggy, where they were both outcasts but always positioned as rivals.

Still, Joan sees something in Dawn’s honesty, and promoters her to being in charge of the supply closet and the time cards. Dawn wants everyone to think she’s more than just a secretary and leaps at the chance, leaving behind her chance for acceptance both professionally and personally. Joan wants to be thought of as something other than a secretary and starts acting like it, pulling away from her clerical responsibilities and ceding control of her “petty dictatorship” so that she can become more like a partner. Sadly, she, too won’t every find true acceptance because, of course, we will always be imagining how she got herself to the boardroom.

Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

The key to this episode was Don’s pitch to the Heinz ketchup people. “If you can get yourself in their imagination, then your ad plays all day.” That is what both Dawn and Joan are trying to do, get themselves into the imagination of their bosses as something other than they are. Dawn doesn’t want to be seen as “the black girl” she wants to be a responsible secretary. Joan doesn’t want to be a secretary, she wants to be a partner. Harry doesn’t want to be the ridiculous jerk with the funny glasses and the faux Louis Quattorze desk, he wants to be a partner, just like Joan.

Harry Crane was really the catalytic event for Joan to try to grow into her new position. He comes in questioning her authority when she fired Scarlet and, even though he’s not a partner, pulled rank on her. I loved when Joan said, “Well, Scarlet. You will do what’s right.” She may not have control over the men, but she has control over the women. She doesn’t even need to tell them what to do, they just do it.

But so much of last night’s episode seemed extraneous, like Harry and his Broadway Joe on Broadway pitch with Ken’s father-in-law, Leland Palmer. I guess it’s setting up that Harry, despite his utter ridiculousness, is actually good at his job. By standing up for himself, he’s created a new image in the boss’ imagination of what he’s really like. Then he pointed out to Roger and Bert Cooper (who suddenly has an office?) if they don’t start appreciating him he’s going to leave. Glad we set that up. Also glad that he got $23,500 for his Broadway Joe on Broadway idea, which is more than his annual salary, but still not a partner. Man, that’s nothing!

Credit: Jordin Althaus/AMC

This was a very work focused episode, and things are still not going well for Don Draper at work. Pete convenes a meeting with Timmy from Heinz ketchup at Pete’s pied a terre, showing us all that Don will now be whoring himself out for work, just like all the other visitors to Pete’s pad generally do. Even thought Don was against going after the client last episode, he’s changed his mind now that he thinks it can be carried out in secret. If they get the job, Timmy will deal with Heinz Baked Beans, and if they don’t, no one will be the wiser.

Back at the office he has Stan holed up in a tin-foil-lined office smoking pot and doing work with the spy music going on in the background (just how does his work in secret have anything to do with Joan’s very public pursuit of Scarlet and Dawn?). Don’s pitch about getting the consumer to imagine the ketchup is a good one, but they don’t get the account. Not only that, but he runs into Peggy and her firm on the way out of the hotel room where they were taking the meeting. Don thought they were the only horse in the race, but he got burned.

Naturally he stops to hear Peggy’s pitch, which is just as good as Don’s but she uses his patented, “If you don’t like what people are saying, change the conversation” line. It’s only natural for her to take lines from someone who is her mentor. The difference between Peggy and Don is, however, that whenever she uses one of his moves, it doesn’t work out for her. When she gets aggressive with clients or staff, something that Don does, she ends up losing the account or getting a bottle of feminine deodorant. Don’s line doesn’t work here, either. 

After the pitch, Peggy and Ted run into the SCDP team at a nearby bar and they all learn that they lost the account to the largest ad agency in the world. Everyone there has compromised their morals and they have all lost. Don lost the Heinz Beans account, Peggy lost Stan’s friendship and Don’s respect, and Pete, well, he’s once again lost to Ken Cosgrove.

Credit: Jordin Althaus/AMC

While Don might have been immoral when dealing with Heinz, it’s his hypocracy with Megan that is staggering. First they have dinner with Mel (Ted McGinley, from Married with Children and more sitcoms than you care to imagine) and Arlene and they propose a swingers set up for a rendezvous with Don and Megan (who, of course, doesn’t even get it at first until they spell it out for her). Naturally they shoot this couple down, but marvel in the cab later how brazen they were and how they have been together for 18 years. Maybe if Don were allowed to explore a bit more within the confines of his marriage, he could make one last that long as well.

But what really galled them was how out in the open it was. Don wasn’t upset that they asked them, but that they got the idea of a fourgy into their minds and now he can’t shake it. Don thinks that these peccadilloes should be hidden. In fact, I think he gets off on it. He likes that Sylvia, his downstairs neighbor, goes to church and prays for his redemption. He likes that the secret of their affair tortures them both, it makes him feel awful about himself, which seems to be some sort of drug for Don.

This is also what seems to upset him so much about Megan’s love scene with her coworker. It’s not that she’s kissing another man, but it’s that she’s doing so in public. He says to her, “You’re kissing men for money, do you know who does that?” Yes, he calls her a whore, and we all know, thanks to last episode’s clunky flashback, how Don feels about whores. Also he is just like he was as a teen, lurking in the shadows watching a woman who is close to him have sex with another man. Still he goes right from arguing with her in her dressing room to making out with Sylvia in her maid’s bedroom.

Yes, we get it, Don is a hypocrite, but he sees the big difference being that his is private and hers is public. Megan is letting herself get into the public’s imagination as a sex object and, even if they don’t show much on daytime television, the people who watch it are going to mentally have their way with his wife. No one is ever going to know about Don and Sylvia except them, so it doesn’t threaten anyone’s perception of them.

Of course Don is wrong. Someone is going to find out. They always find out, and once they do, it’s not going to be the fact of them sleeping together that is going to drive Megan (or Arnold) absolutely crazy, it’s going to be all that imagining and speculating about what happened that is really going to cause all the trouble.

Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan

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