I re-watched “Wee Small Hours” last night, partly in preparation for writing up tonight’s Mad Men and partly because my wife hadn’t seen it yet. I was deeply struck by “Wee Small Hours” last week: the cleverness of the character parallels, the depth of the themes, the willingness to make people we’ve come to care about look pathetic and ugly… it all impressed me. And on second viewing, I had much the same reaction. But another reaction began to creep in too: I’m not sure if I like this. I derive a lot of pleasure from the literary qualities of Mad Men and the subtle tension of the dramatic developments, but I’ve also always dug the fantasy elements of the show: living in an impossibly elegant past; enjoying privilege by proxy, etc. I know Matt Weiner likes to remind us that there’s a cost for all that—the same way that David Chase always reminded Sopranos fans a few times a season that his hero was a murderous egomaniac—but if there’s not enough sweet fizz to counter the bitter taste, it can be a turnoff.
Then again I felt much the same way last season, when the Bobbie Barrett storyline seemed to bring out the worst in Don. And then along came “The Jet Set,” to enthrall me the way few hours of dramatic television ever have, and bring the whole season into focus in preparation for the finale.
“The Color Blue” is not “The Jet Set,” though like that classic, tonight’s episode did touch on the multitude of men who call themselves Don Draper: the dead guy in Korea; the man who took care of the dead guy’s wife; the man who pulled himself up by (mostly) his own bootstraps; the compassionate soul; the selfish philanderer; the trophy husband; the cranky boss. To paraphrase a question from Don’s new May Queen, Suzanne Farrell: How do I know that the way Don Draper looks to me is the way he looks to you?
It’s also clear that we’re now getting to the point in every Mad Men season where tensions are coming to a head. Specifically, the uneasy alliance that Don and Betty struck at the end of last season—the one that had her letting him back into the house in exchange for his promise to be just a little more stable—is being tested hard by both parties. Betty still has her mind on Henry, who’s let her know in no uncertain terms that they can start their affair whenever she’s ready to stop being so picky about the surface he asks her to lie down on. Don’s affair with Suzanne has already leapt to the staying overnight phase (and the “your service called” phase, apparently), and he’s been forced by circumstance to reveal their relationship to Suzanne’s brother Danny, who drops by unexpectedly. When the phone rings at the Draper residence these days and nobody’s on the other end of the line, both Betty and Don have reason to panic.
And then, in a moment that Mad Men watchers have been waiting for since around this time in Season Two, Betty finally gains access to the locked drawer in Don’s study (thanks to an ill-timed baby cry leading Don to leave the key in the pocket of his robe), and she finds out about Anna Draper. Well, sort of. She finds the deed to Anna’s house and the divorce decree, and she finds some stray photos and memorabilia belonging to some dude named Dick Whitman, but since Betty doesn’t know who Dick is—and doesn’t know about the original Don Draper—she really can’t interpret the meaning of what she’s found. She’s just reconfirmed that her Don’s a liar.
I want to return to this point about documented evidence and the different ways it can be interpreted in a moment, but first, we’ve got a party to plan! Back at the office, Sterling-Cooper is preparing for its 40th anniversary bash, and the real bosses back in London want to make sure that everyone’s going to be there and be on their best behavior, because PPL, having made Sterling-Cooper lean and profitable, now wants to sell the agency. Roger and Bert, unaware of the sale, are nonetheless planning to be uncooperative. Bert doesn’t want to go to the party because the event reminds him of how old he is, and of how many of his original colleagues have died. And Roger doesn’t want to give his speech honoring Don for all he’s done because he's completely had it with Don Draper. But then Lane Pryce appeals to Bert’s vanity, and the dominoes fall. Roger stands up at the end of "The Color Blue" and gives Don quite a polishing, even as Betty looks on icily, wondering who this man is that Roger is describing.
Also back at the office, Paul and Peggy are having a bit of a tiff because Peggy’s proving better at improvising at pitch meetings and giving Don modified versions of Paul’s ideas after Paul can’t sell them. This leads to them both pulling an all-nighter to out-do each other with campaign ideas for Western Union. Peggy free-associates into a Dictaphone, as has become her habit. Paul drinks and sketches and listens to jazz, until he comes up with the perfect idea. But then he forgets to write it down, and in the morning it’s gone. And to make matters worse, while Paul’s confessing his failure to Don, Peggy seizes on something he said to her in private—an old saying that “the faintest ink is better than the best memory”—and turns it into the starting point for a perfect campaign for a telegraph company.
Like Suzanne’s story about the child who asked her about how the color blue looks to her, the subplot about the Western Union campaign serves up another of this episode’s major themes. Actually, both themes run in tandem, right until they don’t. When Don answers Suzanne’s story with an assertion that advertising is about boiling communication down to its essentials and deciding what the color blue looks like, that seems to answer a question. When the Draper phone rings and no one’s on the line, that seems to settle something too. Speculation, memory… these are ephemeral. It’s what you can put on paper that matters. Even Suzanne’s brother seems to be a walking advertisement for the value of definitive proof. He’s an epileptic, and he explains to Don that this means he can’t get away with pretending to be something he’s not. “Everyone knows sooner or later that there’s something wrong with me.”
Yet when Suzanne wonders what Don was like at 8, or when Don admires her long, curly hair—“no one has it any more”—it’s clear that the power of memory and fantasy can overwhelm reason. And for all the documentation that Betty now has about Don/Dick, what does she really know? Her interpretation of what it all means may be right in a general sense, but it's probably wrong in its specifics. A telegram, a printed ad campaign—or heck, a signed contract, if we want to go back a few episodes—may have lasting meaning, but that meaning can still vary from person to person, depending on what they bring to it.
So yes, a lot going on in this episode, and in many ways it was all every bit as rich and brilliantly conceived as last week. But I ask myself again: Did I like it? Yes and no. I loved the ambition and the intelligence as always, but I wished once again that there were a little bit more heart. I’m confident Mad Men will get to that though. I’ve got my fingers crossed that—as happens every season—we’re being led uneasily towards a satisfying payoff.
And now, because I can’t resist: How does “The Color Blue” look to you?
-I find I always get incredibly tense during the last five minutes of Mad Men. Does that happen to anybody else?
-The Drapers don’t go to church except at Christmas, though Betty considers them “church-goers.”
-Bathtime Betty was reading The Group, the movie version of which has been sitting on my TiVo for about six months now.
-Frankly, I’m hoping for a quick end to the Suzanne Farrell storyline, which has seemed a little forced to me thus far. (What does the teacher get out of this affair? That has yet to be satisfactorily answered for me.) Between my distaste for Suzanne and my distaste for Bobbie Barrett, I guess I could be accused of hating it whenever Don dallies, but I actually liked Midge and Rachel from Season One. His taste in women has gone downhill since then.
-Similarly, if the PPL crew disappears from Mad Men, I shall miss Jared Harris’ performance, but I shan’t miss Matthew Weiner’s broad take on British quirkiness, which has clanged for me all season.
-A rare line of dialogue from Ken, who says of the Western Union account, “I love getting telegrams, but I never send them.” To which Don replies, after waiting a beat, “How is that supposed to help?”
-The bitch session between Bert and Roger was the lightest sustained scene of this episode, from Roger remembering how one of the original partners made him eat a whole roll of laxatives when he started out, to Roger finding a picture in the S-C scrapbook and muttering, “Oh God, remember her?” (Bert’s curt response: “Hmph.” Oh the stories they could tell.)
-Speaking of stories, hearing Roger refer to Don “working at a fur company and going to night school” made me wonder if we’ll ever get a flashback to Don’s early days at the agency, and how he rose.
-Is it me or is Paul getting creepier by the week? Correct me if I read this wrong, but was he cranking up the jazz to disguise the sound of him jazzing up his crank?
-Churchill-rousing or Hitler-rousing?
-That leaf-strewn Massachusetts road where Don drops off Danny looked just gorgeous, even in standard definition. It was also a perfect visual metaphor for where we are in this season. We started in spring, but autumn’s falling fast.