Mad Men, “Hands and Knees”

Ed note: I’m currently with a laptop, so that’s why there was no posting over the weekend, why this is later than usual and why there might not be any other posts the rest of the day.

Sometimes Mad Men is more obvious with its thematic concerns, but in most cases, that’s okay. If the themes are more obvious, chances are Matthew Weiner wanted them to be so, and that’s particularly true in “Hands and Knees,” where nearly every main character faces the same problems with their worst nightmares (or bad(dest) dreams as I believe Faye notes). Don, Joan, Roger and Lane have to face the tricky decisions they’ve made and while some handle it better than others, it’s apparent that the middling success Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was having is about to come crashing down, just as the personal lives of these people do as well. As the partners (and Joan) all meet at episode’s end for a meeting, five out six people are holding on to sizable secrets and the only reason Bert Cooper has nothing to hide is because he doesn’t do anything relevant enough to warrant secrecy.

After coming clean to Betty last year, getting a divorce and learning Anna Draper had died, Don’s been floundering personally, not knowing what his identity is. However, none of that identity crisis had been spurred on by any movement on his secret, as it’s almost as if Don’s been comfortable (read: messed up) enough that he’s been toggling between personalities and identities with little fear of repercussion. Remember his little tryst with the homely waitress where he used the name Dick? Yeah.

So just as Don’s kind of gotten his life together at the end of the summer, including taking Sally to see the Beatles at Shea Stadium, it fittingly all comes crashing down when the North American Aviation contract involves an advanced government clearance and so the FBI needs to look into everyone’s life for confirmation that they’re not Communists. But of course, Don doesn’t really know this because Megan filled out the form and just gave it to him to sign like any other secretary-boss interaction would work. unfortunately, the FBI spook Betty (who clearly doesn’t hate Don so much that she’d be willing to send him to prison for desertion) and Don completely unravels. He’s drenched in sweat by the time that conversation is over, he’s drinking again and scrambling to find the other person in the office who knows exactly what’s happening: Mr. Pete Campbell!

The once-scheming Pete shows his maturity by reassuring Don that he will check in with his government contacts, but that doesn’t calm Don. He’s a mess. Faye attempts to take care of him at home, and as they run into two strangers in the hallway, Don completely loses it. Though his claim of heart attack is wrong, he’s not far off. The whole world is finally closing in on Dick Whitman for doing something fairly awful and there’s nothing he can do about it but puke and lie down.*

*I thought it was fitting that when Don finally realizes he’s caught, he’s ripping off the suit, tie, etc. that he’s used to define himself apart from Dick. Nice work, Weiner.

In his state of panic, makes two rash decisions. One, he sets up a trust for his children, one that starts now and Betty can access. And two, he tells Faye the truth about his past — kind of. He leaves out the elaborate lengths he’s gone to protect himself, but there’s enough there that it’s actually a big moment for Don. And yet, after it’s over, he doesn’t seem that interested in Faye or feel remotely closer to her because she knows some truth. Once Pete drops the aviation contract to kill the digging, Don seems revitalized. He’s dodged another bullet. So when he sees Megan, who has been super-supportive and good with his daughter (unlike Faye), he gives her an ominous look. Is it possible that not that Don has yet again avoided the harsh reality that he thinks is eventually coming to him he’s ready to get back on the old-school Don Draper horse (i.e. cheating on his monogamous partner)? Maybe he’s realizing that telling a woman the truth about him takes some of the spark away, so why not hook up with tall drink of water that seems to care about him? In any event, I imagine Don and Faye are not long for this world.

Joan and Roger also face the worst possible news: she’s pregnant! Roger does his best to be supportive (in some of Slattery’s best work on the series, ever) because he still seems to feel worse about their sexual encounter than Joan does. He’s defensive of their decision to the judging doctor, but that’s mostly because he feels the same way. He feels like he took advantage of Joan, even if he does love her and she was more than willing to give in to his advances. If this were any other woman, Roger wouldn’t care, but it’s Joan, he doesn’t ever want her to be in pain.

But Joan’s not too interested in being in any long-term physical pain, as she quickly decides that it’s time for an abortion. She momentarily looks off, clearly wondering how things could be if Greg just died in Vietnam and she started a family with Roger, but then notes, “Greg dying wouldn’t fix anything.” Oh yes it would! Because she’s always trying to keep up the air of independence and strength, Joan goes to have the procedure by herself, way outside of town. When she comforts a mother not to far from her own age in the waiting room, she ultimately has to lie. She’s not there to support her daughter, she’s there for herself and that’s hard to deal with, particularly in her situation. She’d probably prefer to be there comforting a 15-year old daughter, but that’s not her life.

For Roger, it gets even worse. His personal crisis quickly becomes a professional crisis when Lee Garner Jr. informs him that Lucky Strike is moving on, crippling Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in the process. And again, Roger is hopeless, Garner Jr. tells him that there is absolutely nothing that he or even Don can do. It’s over. It’s done. Although Roger eventually gets a 30-day extension to put the company’s affairs in order, it doesn’t matter, he knows it and that’s why he goes off on Pete for losing just $4 million with the aviation deal.

This episode ties a good amount of Roger’s story from this season together nicely, as we’ve seen him deal with feelings of irrelevancy and lack of real power throughout 1965. He thought he could say whatever he wanted to the Honda guys and it’d go fine. He thought he’d get more acknowledgment when Don won the award. He was wrong, and he’s really screwed now. There’s nothing keeping Roger above “mascot.” He’s now just like Bert Cooper unless he scrambles for one last-ditch effort.

While Don and Joan “handle” their biggest fears, try to suppress them and are ready to move forward, Roger doesn’t have that choice. He can lie about Lucky Strike with a drunk thumbs up for now, but it’s going to come back to bite him very, very soon. And he can go back to a normal, flirting relationship with Joan, but it can’t cover up the fact that he really just wants to be with her and cannot. Roger Sterling is an old man being passed by the times and the only thing that was keeping him relevant is gone.

Lane Pryce, meanwhile, is caught somewhere in the middle. It seems that after one night with Don Draper, Lane’s becoming something of a ladies man, or at least one that frequents a Playboy-inspired gentleman’s club and one that dates one of the dancers. While Lane was excited to see his son, we know he’s had no intentions of returning home. But his tough father feels differently. He appreciates Lane’s gestures of hospitality and is generally ambivalent about the new African-American girlfriend…until he nails Lane with his walking stick and physically forces him to agree to come home.

But unlike Roger, I still think Lane has some reasonable options. He’s just going home for a few weeks and despite what his father says, I think he’ll want to come back. It might not be a quick fix like those Joan and Don worked themselves into, but I still have hope that Mr. Pryce will find a way to avoid his worst fears coming true for good. Maybe it’s just my hope to keep him around, but what’s the difference?

On the outskirts of all this nonsense is Pete, who gets roped into covering for Don and feels the wrath of Roger’s personal frustrations. He complains to Trudy — how great does Alison Brie look pregnant? Or in general? — that he’s frustrated with people who just float through life and expect others to clean up their messes, an obvious allusion to his relationship with Don. However, isn’t Pete, as always, just a little jealous of Don because he can skate through life? Pete hasn’t faced his worst fear just yet because no one else knows about Peggy’s pregnancy, so it’s easy for him to take the high road.

Moving forward, things are going to get very rocky for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Of the agency’s namesake partners, one just lost their biggest account, one’s irrelevant, one’s ready to breakdown at any moment and the other is now overseas. That can’t be good for an operating structure, can it? Is the series setting up a major breakdown or another fantastic, heroic moment where people rally around one another to save their livelihoods? Maybe somewhere in the midde? I’d like to say it’s going to get easier for them after dealing with their worst fears here, but that’s not life. Life is messy. It could easily get worse before it gets better.

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