Mad Men continues to bring the funny with an episode that furthers the exploration of Roger Sterling’s personality that began last week in addition to showing us a previously unseen side of Don Draper. His possessive, macho reaction to Roger’s drunken pass at Betty is consistent with the Don of previous episodes, but his revenge prank reveals a more playful sense of humor than the tendency toward dry, dark wit with which we’ve become familiar.
But while Roger is used as a source of comedy more than once (the scene where Don provides him with driving tips from the doorway is one of the series’ funniest), there are just as many scenes—if not more—that present him as a fairly pathetic figure. His unsuccessful attempt to schedule a last-minute tryst with Joan shows him longing for his youth (“I could put on my whites and we can pretend it’s V-J Day”), but even then his youth probably wasn’t all that—his naval heroism in the Pacific, revealed this week, falls short of his father’s WWI exploits, and he apparently went through childhood with the demeaning nickname “Peanut” (a nickname Bert Cooper still uses on occasion). No wonder, then, that he takes comfort in the privileges that come with having one’s name on the building.
Status and privilege play a big role in the episode. Even notwithstanding the era’s more permissive attitude toward driving under the influence, I’m sure some people will be disappointed in Don’s failure to keep Roger from getting behind the wheel after their massive binge, but Don has a zillion reasons to let Roger get behind the wheel. Above and beyond the being angry at Roger for putting the moves on Betty, there’s the simple fact that Roger’s his boss—an imperious one, as we see when he takes pleasure in yanking Pete Campbell’s chain by calling him “Paul”—and Roger wouldn’t have taken kindly to any attempt to keep him from driving. Then there’s the spite motive: Because Roger cozied up to Betty, there’s a level at which Don couldn’t care less if Roger has an accident.
Don’s actions against Pete Campbell in “New Amsterdam” showed him to be a very rash guy when angered, so the subtlety of his plot against Roger is a little bit unexpected but very, very impressive. All Don did was adopt the same deferential position he did at the beginning of the episode and the rest took care of itself (well, yeah, he bribed the elevator operator and then had to walk up all those stairs himself, but still). The dividends are significant: In addition to punishing Roger for scammig on Betty, the prank will presumably spare Don from working on the Nixon campaign (something he obviously wasn’t eager to do) and, by extension, spare him from having to work closely with Pete Cooper. Roger becomes the only conceivable scapegoat for the loss of the Nixon campaign, but he’s also the one person Bert Cooper is least likely to punish. It’s really kind of brilliant.
Pete Campbell’s subplot about the chip and dip raises the intriguing possibility that Pete is basically the guy Roger was 20 years ago. Yes, Pete tried to get proactive about manipulating Trudy in “5G”, but here, he’s back to the thoroughly emasculated position he was in at the end of “New Amsterdam”, and her offscreen hectoring of him very much evokes what we can infer about the marriage of Roger and Mona Sterling (at least before the war made Roger more resigned and cynical). After “New Amsterdam”, there was a fair amount of fan speculation that Pete would try to turn his premarital one-nighter with Peggy into an ongoing affair as a means of compesating for his emasculation at home. After last week, talk turned to the possibility that this would be accompanied by Pete taking credit for her copywriting. Pete and Peggy’s first scene certainly seems to suggest this, but I think it’s a little too obvious a development. The odd bonding between them that we see in their last scene together made me think of another possibility: What if they join forces to advance each others’ position at the agency? Now that we’ve passed the halfway point of the season (sad but true), it seems pretty obvious that the narrative momentium will increase and the connections between characters will get tighter and more complicated by the week. In more concise terms, we’ll find out soon enough.
Pete’s acquisition of the rifle and his horsing around with it makes a nice callback to the hunting theme of the story that wound up in Boy’s Life back in “5G”. It’s a nicely metaphorical obsession for him to have, since hunting is regarded in so many cultures as a means of proving one’s manhood, and being his own man is obviously Pete’s most burning desire. It’s a goal that means so much to him that he’ll happily take shortcuts to achieve it, and ths, I suspect, will be his undoing on more than one occasion in the episodes (and seasons—I wish!) to come.
The details we get about Roger’s father’s WWI service are sketchy, but I’m inclined to think the elder Sterling survived the incident in the trenches, which—here’s where the chronology gets tricky again—presumably took place before Roger was born (because let’s face it, I can’t see a rich guy with a kid being drafted to serve in the war—or, rather, I can’t see a guy like that not being able to get out of the draft, unless of course he was as eager to get away from his wife as Roger is from Mona.
Being against smoking doesn’t usually make someone seem Machiavellian and evil, but so it is with Bert Cooper, whose chiding of Roger weirdly makes Sterling Cooper’s seniou namesake seem that much more slimy. His anecdote about Hitler and Chamberlain is absolutely brilliant, however, and while it’s probably too good to be true, I really wish it was. I’ve attempted to verify it on Google, but without success. If any readers know more about this, I’d appreciate it if you could lay out the details in a comment below, and I suspect others would be just as grateful as I.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.