By Andrew Johnston
After hitting fans with bombshells a-plenty in "Six Months' Leave," it's only to be expected from Mad Men that the follow-up would go in an entirely different direction. Well, that's partly true—certainly, Betty's angst and its effects on her marriage to Don are among the prime orders of business here. The heavy focus on Betty and Pete Campbell and their respective problems with aging parents gives the episode a very melancholy feeling as, despite being surrounded by family, circumstances leave them feeling very much alone.
When we last saw Betty's father Gene, it was just a few months after her mother's death, and he'd just started carrying on with his new girlfriend Gloria, which created a rift between Betty and Don. With the passage of almost two years, their bond is that much tighter, and Betty's less comfortable about it than ever. Her physical distance from her dad (unlike her brother William, who stayed nearby) made it all too easy for William and Gloria to join forces (or so Betty believes) in taking everything they please from the house, disinheriting Betty in practice if not on paper. I'm inclined to think Betty is overreacting, but William's failure to tell Betty about the stroke for three days—or to even mention earlier strokes—certainly doesn't speak well of him.
As for Pete, Trudy's inability to conceive is causing him ever more headaches as he labors under the implicit promise he made to give her parents a grandchild in exchange for "help" buying their apartment. Presumably because of their lack of a connection to the "old money" mindframe, Trudy's parents apparently don't have a problem with adoption. Pete does, however, and one gets the sense that it was drilled into him by his family and isn't really a personal thing. When Pete's mother catches wind of the possibility of an adoption and tells Pete he can kiss the family goodbye if he goes down that road with Trudy, he twists the knife in his mother by revealing just how puny a sum she'll have to live on for the rest of her days thanks to his father's devotion to keeping up appearances.
Especially after the scene between Pete and Peggy at S-C, I suspect a lot of fans will be spinning theories about scenarios in which Pete and Peggy's baby could be adopted by Trudy. I don't see that happening—it seems way too soap-opera and there are a ton of hoops that would have to be jumped through. However, I'd buy a situation in which Peggy somehow let the truth slip to Pete, who would later drunkenly confess the truth to Trudy, thereby casting a long, dark shadow over the relationship that keeps the two from ever really trusting each other again.
It seems likely that Don is using the visit to Betty's father as an opportunity to get cracking on mending the relationship, and Don keeps a respectful distance while also making it clear that he's ready to help Betty in any way he can. The only fresh intimacy between them comes when Betty, who's been sleeping on the bed in the spare room, rouses Don, who's been sleeping on the floor, and mounts him. It's a fascinating sex scene—on the one hand, it only makes sense for Betty to turn to good old-fashioned carnal energy in response to all the stress the visit has put her under, notwithstanding her feud with Don. On the other, the texture of the scene almost makes it feel like it's actually a dream that Don is having. Subsequent events, however, make it pretty clear that the tryst was for real.
Somewhat unusually, the episode basically dispenses with plot business when there are still several minutes to go, using the remaining time for a series of brief character studies in loneliness which were key to why I found the episode so deeply affecting. When Don and Betty return to Ossining, he's operating under the assumption (or "desperate hope," take your pick) that the experience of visiting her father together brought them close enough to cancel out their recent differences. Before the stroke, Don and Gene had a fairly cordial relationship, but now he's ranting that Don is not to be trusted because he has no "people" in the world—a slur that surely slices deep for Don, as practically everything he's done since ditching the "Dick Whitman" identity has been in the interest of acquiring people and setting down roots.
More than anything else, Don wants to move back in as if nothing had ever happened, but he encounters no such luck: Betty soon makes it quite clear that she doesn't think Don should stick around, and Don is quickly on the brink of tears. We've seldom seen him in such a vulnerable state, and while Jon Hamm plays the moment to perfection, what follows—which I'll discuss momentarily—makes his performance all the more impressive.
The next morning, the Draper dog leads Betty to the treehouse Don built in "Marriage of Figaro," which is being used as a hide-out by none other than her old partner in existential despair, Glen Bishop. Glen ran away from home a few days earlier, seeking to avoid being sent off to live with his father and "mean" stepmother. Life with his mother doesn't seem like the world's greatest alternative—ignoring her kids, she prefers to devote her time to political activism and going on dates (though I'm sure Glen is exaggerating her activity in the latter department.
In many ways, it's a replay of the season one scene in which Betty squeezed Glen for dirt on Helen, but with a key difference: That time, Betty was seeking info to help her feel superior to Helen; this time, she's driven by an apparent instinct that Helen's post-divorce life, for better or worse, may turn out to be a preview of her own.
Betty is so starved for true empathy that she loses sight of reality for a second and lets Glen cross a line when he takes her hand and announces his intent to "rescue" her. This quickly leads to a phone call to Helen, who thanks Betty for taking care of Glen while sternly admonishing her that the weird connection between Betty and Glen must end immediately. In response, Betty does the closest thing she can do to playing a trump card and telling Helen that Don has left. Helen—instantly stigmatized no longer—reaches out to Betty, offering the kind of support and grown-up advice she needs if she's going to take baby steps toward her own life. "The hardest part," says Helen, "is realizing you're in charge." And, as Bert Cooper said, loyalty's been made from stranger stuff.
Don, of course, is a perpetual outsider who always carries a little cloud of loneliness with him, and he probably feels a little more like an outsider than ever when he makes an early return to the SC office—it's largely empty, and he hasn't a clue why. Turns out a party celebrating Harry Crane's impending fatherhood is in progress, and the celebration—or is it his frustration with SC in general?—makes Don snap. Don's decision to bigfoot Paul off the trip and go to California for the engineering conference with Pete is the decision of a lonely man, one who's confident and aggressive but lonely nonetheless. Sitting next to Pete on the plane and sucking down one cigarette after another, Don has the look of a rapacious predator contemplating its next move, ensuring that the prospect of Don at liberty in L.A. is as frightening as it is intriguing.
Since there wasn't a convenient place to address the situation in the body of the recap itself, I've held my comments on the Paul and Sheila situation for down here. I like Sheila a lot, and while Paul is one of my favorite Mad Men characters, I would never deny that he's an unbelievable blowhard. Sheila clearly seems smart enough to see through that, so there must be another side to him that we haven't seen yet but which does the trick for her. She certainly deserves much better treatment than what Paul gives her in this episode, however—his "you can work at a supermarket anywhere" line was particularly crass. After Don boots him off the trip, his decision not to tell her and to act like he canceled because he had a change of heart is perhaps even worse, but it falls under the umbrella of classic cad behavior without really having a racial tinge to it. His speech on the bus could well be the most inane that he's ever had on the show, and more than ever it makes me want an episode that gives us a little more of a glance at what makes this guy tick.
As to their trip to register voters in Mississippi ... my immediate suspicion was that 1962 was a little early for that sort of thing, which some quick research seems to bear out (for lack of time, I used the Wikipedia articles "African-American_Civil_Rights_Movement_(1955–1968)" and "Timeline_of_the_African-American_Civil_Rights_Movement" as my sources) Certainly, the first freedom rides took place in the summer of 1961, but 1962 seems to have been a fairly quiet year in the Civil Rights struggle, with far more activism and protest from locals on the ground than by liberals from up North. 1963 and 1964 were the true watershed years of the struggle (it's *amazing* how many famous events from the crusade took place in 1963). Still, cheesy though Paul may be, he deserves credit for volunteering on behalf of the call, especially for doing so ahead of the curve.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.