This is the new column in TNR’s weekly series of"Mad Men" episode recaps. Caution: It contains spoilers. Click here for last week's review.
An episode of a post-"Sopranos" quality cable series often focuses less on the plot and more on the psychology of its characters, the sociology of its setting, and a vividly evoked sense of place. That's why, when fellow viewers ask me to name a "best" episode of such programs, I am often not sure what to say. On a show like "Mad Men," the individual chapters are all of a piece. They flow into each other, reinforce each other, and sometimes episodes in which Nothing Happens prove richly significant later. But there are always exceptions, and last night's was one of them. The charitable way to summarize it would be to sigh, "Oh, well, they can't all be gems." But I'm not feeling charitable. The bad news about "The Good News" is that it's the show's first flat-out flop of an episode—easily the most awkwardly written, clumsily paced and disposable hour it has ever aired. It felt like a rough draft that inexplicably made it to air, minus the customary toothbrush-on-the-tiles attention to detail that makes even the most outwardly low-key and uneventful hour of "Mad Men" deserving of exhaustive morning-after scrutiny.
"Mad Men" has certainly had slow episodes before. Don's sojourn among the colony of hedonists near the end of Season Two was lambasted in some quarters for being slack and uneventful, and for wandering far afield from the show's principal locale and cast. But there was important psychological and thematic action stirring beneath the languid scenes of Joy and her tribe of disaffected globe-trotting sophisticates. It was the "Mad Men" equivalent of Tony Soprano's extended trip to Coma Land at the beginning of that show's sixth season. “The Good News” was different. I'm baffled by initial reactions lauding its boys-night-out humor. The only bright moments were Don and Lane Pryce's misbehavior at a Japanese monster movie (was that Gamera I saw trundling across a miniature cityscape?), and Lane's touching stiff-upper-lip fumblings and exquisitely timed reactions when confronted with temptation (the moment where he takes off his glasses before easing into a clinch with a prostitute was a keeper)—as well as anything involving Joan, with her disclosure of two previous abortions, her blow-up over the flower snafu, and her complex reaction to her Vietnam-bound husband's impromptu wound surgery. Why couldn't the episode have minimized the men for once and revolved almost exclusively around Joan?
Here goes (sigh): In the run-up to New Year's Eve, 1964, Don Draper, nee Dick Whitman, takes off for Acapulco, stopping in Los Angeles for what he thinks will be a brief visit with his first wife, Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton), only to end up bailing on his original destination to stick around Los Angeles and provide comfort when he learns Anna has bone cancer and may die within weeks. Ah, but Anna doesn't know she has cancer, see; her sister, Patty, and her niece, Stephanie (another of those self-possessed young bombshells that the series tosses at Don like bonbons, though in this case the bonbon keeps its wrapper on) have conspired to keep the death sentence a secret. And in the end, Don/Dick participates in the deception. "You have no say in the affairs of this family," Patty says. "You're just a man in a room with a checkbook."
I'll grant that the Anna Draper cancer conspiracy (which was the name of my band in high school, oddly) is historically and dramatically possible. I know of at least one similar incident in my own family. But it still felt irritatingly contrived. The episode gained little from it in the way of emotional or thematic insight. And it missed out on the big, messy, raw, feelings that would have poured forth had Anna—perhaps the only character Don has ever had an honest relationship with—been aware of her fate from frame one and decided to (a) initially hide it from Don, then relent and disclose it, or (b) hide it from Don throughout while we watch the clueless ad man persist with his sad-eyed Alpha Male swagger. I usually refrain from slagging a work based on what I personally wish it had been as opposed to what it actually is, but I'm making an exception here in order to set up a larger question: Has the series become too attached to its "we all keep secrets from ourselves and each other" motif?
The uncharacteristically lame writing and staging didn't offer much in the way of compensation. The dialogue was on-the-nose expository even by the worst standards of "Mad Men," an astutely-written series that can't resist periodically underlining and boldfacing its themes. (Series creator Matthew Weiner is credited as a co-writer on this episode.) Don to the niece, in re her enrollment at Berkeley: "Are you sitting in?" Stephanie: "I agree with what they're doing, but somebody's got to go to class." More gems from Stephanie: "No one knows what’s wrong with themselves, and everyone else can see it right away." "A self-made man. What's it like taking off your suit and returning to the wild?" "I'll be right back after this brief message from Jan and Dean." Really, "Mad Men"? Even the period ambiance seemed off. The performances felt uncharacteristically 2010. Ditto the lighting, the color palette, the decor. And if an ensemble Emmy were awarded for worst background dancing by extras in a mid-'60s period drama, those folks bouncing and shuffling to Jan and Dean would be a lock.
Let's return to New York, because I can't stand to spend one more sentence in Los Angeles. Don and Lane's post-New Year's tomcatting was mildly amusing and might warm up their previously chilly professional relationship, so that's something. I wasn't bored during the movie theater bit (Lane barking at the complaining patrons in faux-Japanese). And I liked their interaction the morning after their call girl romp, with Lane handing over a little more than half his chippie's $25 fee, and Don regarding Lane with nonjudgmental empathy. But this stuff, too, was awkward—and not because the characters were initially awkward around one another. Seeing Lane blurt at the standup comic, "We're not homosexual, we're divorced!" was so much less interesting than a constipated smile would have been. Too often this subplot felt like a "Seinfeld" episode as rewritten by Arthur Miller.
Meanwhile, Christina Hendricks as Joan was (as usual) given promising situations to play
but not enough screen time or sharp dialogue with which to play them. Her struggling relationship is presumably intended to illustrate the push-pull between burgeoning feminist independence and the social pressure to get married and squeeze out kids or be tarred as a spinster. But with each passing week I'm more convinced it's a blind alley for the character and the series—that "Mad Men" would have been wiser to keep her single and let her either play the field or tactically withdraw from it. And at the risk of projecting my own dislike for this episode (and the Joan stuff generally) onto an actress's performance, I sense a tenseness and uncertainty in Christina Hendricks's acting. Sometimes it morphs into that deer-in-the-headlights look that actors have when they fear they're being misused but are so grateful to have intelligent material that they second-guess themselves. Part of the problem might be that, with certain explosive exceptions (the flower bit, for instance, the only scene in "The Good News" that jolted me out of my torpor), the Joan scenes and the Peggy scenes seem uncomfortably similar in function, verging on redundant. (Joan's Roger is Peggy's Duck; Joan's abortions echo Peggy's secret pregnancy, and so on.) And the writers aren't doing enough to differentiate the issues vis a vis the character's social status, aside from conspicuously framing Hendricks in profile from the ribcage up so that her out-of-focus, Maidenform-capped bosom juts into view like the prow of a decommissioned battleship.
Sure, it's not inconceivable that some or all of this episode's moments could pay off further down the line. "Mad Men" has a memory like an elephant, often staging callbacks to moments you thought were throwaways. Nevertheless, I hope it doesn't go that route. Some hours are better left unremembered.