By Andrew Johnston
I was almost a little disappointed when a literal new girl showed up halfway through "The New Girl", as I was having so much fun decoding the ways the title applied to Peggy, Joan, and the visitig Bobbie Barrett (surely one of the sceries' most fascinating-ever characters). It's yet another entry in a very strong run of episodes and one which, in tandem with next week's installment (don't worry, you'll find no spoilers for it here) provides more in the way of semiconventional character development than the series has in quite awhile.
The opening scene suggests another "new girl" candidate: A potential daughter from Pete and Trudy, who go to a fertility clinic in the hope of realizing the pregnancy she's long desired. The whole process turns out to be Pete's latest emasculating embarrassment, as he's peppered with awkward questions by the doc (he's of course completely sincere when he answers "no" to "Have you ever fathered a child?"). The 1962 nudist mags he's given to stimulate himself into yielding a sperm sample are good for an ironic snicker, but the best joke in that scene is the presence of a copy of U.S. News & World Report with a cover story that even then was completely irrelevant to the day's headlines. Industry wags have long referred to the mag as Useless News & World Report, and it was fascinating to see that was as true 46 years ago as it is today.
Bobbie plants herself firmly at the center of the action by coaxing Don into meeting for drinks at Sardi's,where a symbolic passing of the torch from Rachel Mencken to Bobbie occurs (Rachel has gotten since we last saw her, and her husband has one of the greatest polyglot WASP-Jewish names I've encountered in either fiction or reality: Tilden Katz). Bobbie isn't the "new girl" just because she's the closest thing to a mistress Don has had since Rachel left, but also the first woman he's encountered since then who could qualify as his female counterpart.
In the great tradition of men who change their minds out of petulance when they see something they don't like, Don is soon en route to her beach house at Stony Brook, Long Island, a picturesque village in Suffolk County on the North Shore. On the way, Bobbie provides an abbreviated account of how she achieved success as Jimmy's manager. "This is America," she says. "Pick a a job and become the person that does it." Needless to say, that's exactly what Dick Whitman did when he became Don Draper (it's also a philosophy Bert Cooper shares, as he reveals at the climax of "Nixon versus Kennedy".) But being Don's female counterpart doesn't make Bobbie his female analogue--there are key differences in their worldview. She's got a Roger Sterling-esque love of negotiation, an activity Don says "bores" him (he clearly does everything he can to avoid negotiating on the job at SC), and her subsequent conversations with Peggy suggest she's a lot more cynical than Don.
Peggy's arrival at the courthouse is staged like a mystery with a big reveal, and indeed, as Bobbie observes, it initially does sort of seem as if she's gone a little too far above and beyond the call of duty for Don. Cue the flashbacks which shine light on what happened to her between "The Wheel" and "For Those Who Think Young" and reveal that, as Peggy sees it, she's repaying a debt. In some respects, the insertion of the flashbacks feels clunky, but as discrete scenes they play quite well, in addition to providing us with some useful info. Peggy's mom's tendency to fawn over Pegs at Anita's expense was standard procedure long before Peggy's kid came along, apparently, and Anita herself seems to be about eight months pregnant at the time of Peggy's delivery. If Peggy's kid is being passed off as Anita's, then they're presumably being presented to the world as twins (this may have been stated before; if so, I missed it).
As Peggy drives Don and Bobbie back to the city, Peggy alternates between deferring to Don and acting in a way which suggests that she now has leverage over him, and knows it. It's this side of Peggy's personality which Bobbie is intent on cultivating. During their day at Peggy's apartment, she gives Peggy advice that once again reflects her "Anything's possible when you-go after what you want" worldview. "You're never going to get that corner office until you start treating Don as an equal," she tells her. "And don't try to be a man--it won't work." And so it is that another, more abstract idea of "the new girl" enters the mix--the Helen Gurley Brown-influenced proto-feminist, an archetype that, surprisingly, Peggy may turn out to embody more completely than even Joan (who, in her conversation with Roger, displays a somewhat uncharacteristic-seeming shortage of ambition).
The flashback to Don visiting Peggy in the hospital makes it possible to argue that he, more than anyone, is responsible for Peggy's tendency to aim high. After she tells Don that she doesn't know what to do to get out of the hospital, he offers instant, decisive advise rooted in his rejection of the Dick Whitman identity, advice that's sort of the inverse of what Bobbie says about picking a job and becoming the person who does it, yet which ultimately arrives at the same place: "Move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened."
That's it for the flashbacks, but it's not hard to infer what happened next. Peggy followed Don's advice, in the process taking a few months off from SC, during which he covered for her before re-hiring her as a copy writer. Somewhere along the way, she dumps the roommate and gets her own place (I'm sure I'm not the only one who initially mistook the absence of Peggy's roommate for a continuity error.)
Once again, there's plenty of ambiguity about Don's menschiness. His betrayal of Betty as a pouty response to Rachel's marriage is hardly an example of maturity, but his standing up for Peggy is admirable, and I was reasonably impressed by his resignation to facing the music when it looks like Jimmy is going to call him out over the incident with Bobbie. The most grown-up thing he does, however, is treating Peggy with respect when follows Bobbie's advice, first asking him to repay her ASAP and then calling him "Don" instead of "Mr. Draper." (Sure, he has a surprised look on his face, but it says "I didn't know she had it in her" rather than "How dare she!"). I was fearful that Peggy's arc this season would be more about the baby than her career, but "The New Girl" (and next week's "Maidenform") prove that when she's got some fire in her belly, Peggy's journey is every bit as interesting as Don's.
Miscellaneous Notes: Many people will take Don's $150 fine for drunk driving to be another of Mad Men's periodic cheap, "Ho ho ho, look how far we've come in 40-some-odd-years" jokes. The truth is more complicated: According to the Consumer Price Index Inflation Calculator, that fine comes to $1,092.54 in 2008 dollars. New York DWI law is pretty complicated--it seems that those charged with drunk driving are actually charged with two separate different offenses, "Driving While Impaired by Alcohol" (a noncriminal "traffic infraction" with a minimum fine of $300 and a max of $500 for a first offense; these charges are handled by the DMV rather than the DA, apparently), and "Driving While Intoxicated", (a criminal violation for which first-timers face a minimum fine of $500 and a max of $1000). Point being, if Don had a clean record, he could theoretically be hit for a fine that's almost $400 more (in modern dollars) than what he would face in 2008. If the accident led the cop to upgrade the offense to an "aggravated DWI" (which is done at a police officer's discretion, I think), they'd be more likely to throw the book at him.
The good ol' inflation calculator also reveals that the $110 or so that Peggy scrapes together to pay Don's fine would be $801 in 2008 money--no small sum at all, and one I dare say she shouldn't need Bobbie's encouragement to pursue its speedy return. In another Peggy note, I really liked how, as the only person on the drive home who was actually born and raised in the city, her knowledge of local freeways put Don's to shame.
During the first season, a few people complained about a product placement deal with Jack Daniels that got the whiskey shown on camera and/or mentioned verbally in three or four episodes (it was really quite subtle, especially compared to stuff like the appallingly blatant shilling for the Red Robin burger chain on Psych a couple of weeks ago). Well, Don and Bobbie weren't swilling a bottle of Jack Daniels as they tore it up on the road--the label is blue, not black--but the shape of the bottle sure as hell makes it look like one. Coincidence, or inside reference to last season's plugs (which I don't think are being repeated)? You be the judge.
Speaking of color changes, being the hopeless geek that I am, I couldn't suppress the urge to do a Google images search to find out if the seals of either of the Long Island counties corresponded to the patches on the cop's shoulders. The patches showed a lion against a red background, and, sure enough, the emblem of Nassau County is a lion, albeit one on a blue field. Would the producers have to get permission to use the Nassau County seal on the show? The blue-to-red switcheroo seems like the kind of thing they'd only really have a reason to do if the county had said no.
Finally, there's the actual "new girl" of the title, who didn't make much of an impression as a character (though she certainly is cute). The bit where Ken, Paul and Harry move in like sharks smelling blood was predictable, but still very funny. It also came off as fairly creepy in light of Ken's even-more-lecherous-than-before portrayal in recent episodes. I therefore enjoyed seeing him crash and burn as a result of Freddie Rumsen's impromptu performance, which was the most random, Twin Peaks-esque gag that the series has offered since the Chinese family left their rooster behind at the office back at the beginning of season one. My first instinct was that some great advance in zipper technology took place circa 1962 and Freddie was trying out a brand of slacks for which Sterling Cooper was preparing a campaign, but a quick glance at the abundant online articles about the history of the zipper suggests that, from an engineering viewpoint at least, by the 1920s the zipper had been taken about as far as it could go. Rather, to paraphrase one of the most memorable descriptions in (semi)recent sports journalism, this was just Freddie being Freddie.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.