Dear Television is Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, Lili Loofbourow, and Phillip Maciak. This season, they'll be posting weekly letters about AMC's "Mad Men." While this is not a full recap, there are still plenty of spoilers. Read the last installment here.
Dear TV, “Mad Men” seems to have taken a page from “Community”’s playbook this season, only instead of structuring episodes around particular genres, it riffs on a particular conceit. "What if 'Mad Men' was vaudeville (on speed)?” asked “The Crash.” Last night’s episode appeared to be built around the premise that “Mad Men” was a kindergarten on drugs. It was SCDPCGC: Muppet Babies, which seems fitting given Evan’s insight that it’s told from “curious child” Roger Sterling’s point of view.
That may explain why the L.A. contingent behaves like a trifecta of underslept toddlers. “I tried to sleep on the plane but SOMEBODY wouldn’t stop talking,” little bro Don grumps at Roger, clearly in need of a nap. Harry arrives at the party and announces “These are my FRIENDS!” to an audience that clearly doesn’t care. Not to be outdone, Roger asks Lotus if she’s tripping and then says, all but holding up his five fingers to illustrate, “I’ve done it FIVE TIMES.” Then he bullies a boy who’s smaller than him.
But the immaturity isn’t specific to Los Angeles. If Ted seems slightly more grown-up than his colleagues, objecting that he just wants a rental, even he winds up enthralled by toys. “He finally let me see the car,” he says of Chevy. “They had clay models!” (Hot Wheels were introduced by Mattel in 1968.) Nor was it just the travelers; the SC&Pers who stayed home devolve into children, too. “Avon sent over a box of samples to the girls and Diane opened them not me,” Caroline tattles to Joan, who’s just broken some rules herself. Jim complains to Ted that he’s a babysitter, and Ginsberg proves him right by throwing a tantrum. Joan and Peggy, who scan as slightly older, have a spat that settles into the rules-based discourse of teenagers. “You’re not in that department,” Peggy says snottily, and Joan retorts “You were so brave letting Don carry you to the deep end of the pool.” But they, like Ted and Jim, become allies in the face of a common enemy: the Dad who’s coming home. “You and Peggy DITCHED me,” says younger sibling Pete. He leaves to tell Dad/Ted (who has also, in the interim, become a child: “Roger Sterling let you watch his dog and IT RAN AWAY!” Ted tells Jim, trying to get him to understand how much trouble they’re in).
The joke, of course, is that there is no Dad coming home. Bert Cooper used to be that father figure for SCDP, but he’s forgotten, unheard and unseen. Certain characters play dad at certain points—Ted comes into the conference room and sternly asks Joan, “Did you meet with Avon and not invite Pete?” when Pete makes him, but he doesn’t care and there won’t be any punishment. Pete says, pathetically—and this is what the episode is really about—that without Ted’s enforcement there is no law. Newly liberated, he snatches Stan’s joint away from him and smokes it. It’s the death of discipline, and by episode’s end, Pete has become a high-schooler. Without Cooper’s paternal influence, everyone at SCDPCGC is a child.
Remember how Don stuck out when he joined Midge’s beatnik friends? When he read Meditations on an Emergency in an effort to really understand? That doesn’t happen in this encounter with The Partying Youngs, for two reasons. Evan explains the first reason: This episode was directed by Slattery and is told from Sterling’s point of view, and Sterling never feels like an outsider. The second has to do with Don’s age. Don stuck out at parties when he was the same age as his beatnik peers because he had made different choices from his cohort. He doesn’t stick out anymore because he’s part of a different generation, and old-timers get judged according to different standards. (This is how Cooper could get the entire office to take off their shoes.) And when you get to that age, you stop wanting to be groovy; you want to be a child again.
You fight it, of course, and you try to defend the perimeters of adulthood. Don and Roger pitch to Carnation in a room wallpapered in giant ice cream cones as they guzzle chocolate milk, and they’re trying to define their enjoyment as adult: Carnation is for grown-ups. “Instant breakfast has a different target: adults,” says Roger to the Carnation executives. “They don’t eat cereal, they eat bacon and eggs,” Don agrees as he sucks down some more milk, proving his own distinction false. As if to drive the point home, Harry tells the (daddies) executives that Carnation “should have a presence in Saturday morning.” Their target market doesn’t watch the news, Harry implies, it watches cartoons. And Harry’s right: even when the men on “Mad Men” watch the news, they watch it as if it were a cartoon. Don’s feelings about the Chicago beatings are the feelings of a child. “Go for a swim,” says Megan to him over the phone. “It always makes you feel better.” She was right about that, it turns out, even if it almost killed him.
That said, this episode of “Baby Mad Men”offers diminishing returns. We’re gearing up for the end of the season and it’s hard to know what to make of an episode this near the finale that does so little so repetitively. “They’re just some pennies you pick up off the floor, stick in your pocket and you’re just going in a straight line to you-know-where,” Roger said in “The Doorway” at the beginning of this season. It’s a usefully incoherent sentence because it collapses two models—one picaresque, predicated on random events, disparate pennies, and one linear and continuous with a destination in mind. We took that as the show’s thesis statement, and it helped me provisionally accept the flat slurries we first encountered in Hawaii that have since eroded the sharp edges according to which we once understood these characters. Distinctions have been melting all season. Ted and Don, once clear opposites, are fast becoming twins—a point made with particular force in that shot where Peggy stands between their offices and watches them close their doors. Megan plays both herself and her blond counterpart (a.k.a. Betty) on her show; this week she was asked to play a third role—a hippie-Sylvia-Midge version of herself who happily “shares” Don with L.A.’s bizarro-Betty (who, with Mad Men’s customary subtlety, offers Don an “extra nipple”). But the biggest distinction that’s collapsing is the one between Roger and Don.
Remember that bait-and-switch in “The Doorway,” where we gazed up at Doctor Rosen through the eyes of a dying man? We assumed it was Don, but the dying gaze belongs to a different man. Don may be reading The Inferno, but the persistent drumbeat of death in “Mad Men” this season is about someone else. Evan, if the theory that this episode was about seeing the world from Roger Sterling’s point of view is true—and I think it is—then I suspect this season is about Roger’s death. That Slattery directed this episode where Roger’s lookalike Pfc. Dinkins shows up dead confirms, in my opinion, that Roger isn’t long for this world. He has a heart condition, there have been broken hearts and heart doctors everywhere, and the letter to “Sterling, Gleason and Pryce” doesn’t bode well for “Mad Men”’s most affable character. Joan’s expression as she folds the tiny clothes of her own curious child is mournful even before the news airs from Chicago. I have a bad feeling, given that all the dads are gone, that Kevin’s dad will be going soon, too.
You’re a bad swimmer,