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.
Ah. That’s more like it.
After the stumbling mish-mash of last week’s “The Good News,” Matthew Weiner’s series rallied with one of its finest episodes yet, “The Rejected.” Directed by cast member John Slattery (a.k.a. Roger Sterling) and co-written by Bret Johnson (a former writer’s assistant on the series), the hour showcased many of the program’s greatest virtues while banishing its more self-defeating tendencies. More intriguingly, it situated most of its events within a mode that rarely gets sustained over the course of a whole episode: light farce, with a sprinkling of social satire. Slattery, in other words, directs like he acts: skillfully but without evident self-satisfaction. Man, was this episode fun!
It’s a compliment to “The Rejected” that I can’t easily tick off a list of obvious big moments, but must instead describe events in terms of what they meant to the main characters. For purposes of illustration I’ll concentrate on Peggy. This week, the agency’s only female copywriter got to know a young, lesbian photo editor who invited her to a downtown party after showing her some nude photos in an elevator and inspiring no shock whatsoever. Given the Cruising-style borderline sordidness of Sal’s storyline last year, I wondered whether this encounter might be leading to either a furtive lesbian affair or a revelation of Catholic-raised Peggy’s ingrained homophobia. Instead, the invite led to a casual pass; a polite yet equally casual rejection; some marvelous dialogue between Peggy and a would-be photographer/experimental filmmaker mocking both self-serious downtown artists who don’t think copy writing is writing, and copy writers who stubbornly insist that it is; a raid by the cops, and a powerfully sexy and funny moment between Peggy and a male guest as they hid from the police in a cloak room. (Best exchange of the year so far, hollered over loud party music after Peggy accepts the photo editor’s weed but brushes off her kiss: “I have a boyfriend.” “He doesn’t own your vagina.” “No, but he’s renting it.”)
What’s wonderful about this episode is that the significance of that downtown hipster party in Peggy’s life doesn’t coalesce until the episode’s penultimate scene. Peggy, who once carried Pete Campbell’s child in secret, makes eye contact with him through plate glass as she waits for an elevator with her new bohemian buddies. So much is going on here. The poignant exchange of close-ups between Peggy and Pete offers a subtle kind of closure for the secret pregnancy subplot. They were kids when it happened, and now they’re adults. There’s lingering sadness, awkwardness and guilt, but also a certain affection—all of it concealed by social necessity.
That moment at the elevator also shows both Pete and Peggy, who are roughly the same age, coming into their own—but in vastly different universes. Peggy was already a single woman in New York charting new territory as a female copy writer. Now she’s gravitating towards a burgeoning downtown social scene that’s even more unconventional. Pete, meanwhile, has chosen the traditional path. He’s a father-to-be, and far more comfortable in his own skin as a husband and a businessman. Whereas Peggy is exploring an identity for herself outside the office, Pete’s work life and family life have increasingly converged: when we see him at the elevator, he’s surrounded by powerful businessman, one of whom is his father-in-law. In an earlier scene, Pete pressured the old man to give Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce a much larger slice of his business, and then literally shrugged off his attempts to make him feel uncomfortable. The formerly callow and insecure Pete Campbell is finally learning how to get what he wants.
I could spend the rest of this column talking about the elevator scene, or go similarly in-depth on any number of scenes in this episode. But instead I’ll just list a few other moments and lines and shots that I loved: Pete and his father-in-law starting off their meeting the bar by noting that each man was 15 minutes early, and the slow zoom on Pete as the reality of his impending (second) fatherhood sinks in; Ken Cosgrove forcing Pete to apologize for talking trash about him behind his back; Faye taking off her wedding ring before the focus group meeting with the single secretaries to make herself seem less threatening; Peggy slipping Faye’s ring onto her own finger; Allison breaking down during the focus group and fleeing the room; the shot of Don and the other observers through one-way glass, their figures seen from behind in a wide shot (an image reminiscent of the iconic silhouette of Don Draper that ends the show’s opening credits); a very similar image of Pete and Trudy embracing on a couch after establishing that they’re both thrilled by Trudy’s pregnancy and fully committed to parenthood (fascinating how this shot imbues a usually mysterious and controlling camera angle with feelings of warmth, stability and calm); Allison finally breaking under the strain of Don’s rottenness and hurling a paperweight at him; Don stumbling home drunk and starting to type out a letter of apology for Allison, then stopping himself when he realizes that he’s about to commit to paper how horribly depressing his life has become; Don reacting to various shenanigans and outbursts with pained winces (to an alcoholic, anything louder than a whisper is an assault); Don inadvertently revealing his own fear of powerlessness and irrelevancy by arguing with Faye about her conclusions (“You can’t tell how people are going to behave based on how they behaved.”); Peggy, post-joint, staring at the experimental movie being projected on a sheet at the party and declaring, “This film is more interesting than I thought.”
This episode demonstrates a couple of principles that I’d like to see embraced whenever possible by everyone making series TV. (1) It’s possible to sustain a series’ established themes without periodically wheeling out a large chalkboard with “THEME” written on it in block letters, and (2) It is likewise possible to let characters evolve without getting too specific and reductive about how, exactly, they are developing, and what it means in the context of American psychological/social/historical blah blah blah.
When I think about “The Rejected,” the word that comes to mind is “effortless,” a word that I seriously doubt even the most devoted “Mad Men” fan would use when discussing this series. Artists hate the word “effortless” because it implies that excellence comes easily, that there was no real work involved in making something worth praising. But they shouldn’t. The term is shorthand for work that carries itself with unassuming grace and appears to have come into existence without strain or fuss, even though the opposite is true. “Mad Men” often (unintentionally, one hopes) makes you aware of how smart and ambitious it is, and how hard the writers, actors, directors and crew are working to make it so. “The Rejected” was something else. To crib a line from James Agee, it is a work by master carpenters who drive every nail in cleanly, with one blow.