My grandfather always said that nothing good happens after midnight. (This isn’t a How I Met Your Mother riff either; he actually did always say that.) If the morning is for productivity and the afternoon is for wondering why you didn’t sleep as much as you should have last night and the night is for winding down and relaxing with loved ones, the wee small hours are the time when the world crackles with possibility and when questionable judgment reigns. There are reasons we sleep during these hours. I, myself, like to go out walking at 3 in the morning, see whose lights are still on, watch my town sleep, but it’s worth bearing my grandfather’s advice in mind: “Nothing good happens after midnight. Even if you’re not doing anything, people will think you are.” Indeed.
Much of “Wee Small Hours,” written by Dahvi Waller and series creator and mastermind Matthew Weiner and directed by Scott Hornbacher, takes place in the titular hours between midnight and 6 a.m., but the many other moments that don’t take place when everyone else is in bed still have that woozy feeling that anything could happen and that what happens will be, invariably, bad. This season of Mad Men has perhaps over-relied on dream sequences, but there’s only one in this episode—where Betty (January Jones) imagines herself sprawled on her new couch while a lover’s patient hands slowly unwrap the clothes from her body. Instead, it’s the rest of the episode that feels like a dream. Everyone’s a little overtired, and there’s a sense that the story is going to turn around a corner and meet a monster just waiting to devour everyone. Except, in this case, the monsters are powerful men who hold out and hold out and hold out until they get what they want, and they jerk around some of our characters in the process.
So much of Mad Men is about wanting, about desiring something that is just out of your reach either because society won’t allow you to compulsively follow your id or because it’s harmful to the people around you, the people you care about. One of the reasons some fans of the show seem to have not warmed to this season, I think, is because this season has been so rampantly interested in closing off these characters’ dreams and showing them to be rather unrealistic. Don Draper (Jon Hamm), in particular, who’s mostly skated through what amounts to a life that appears to be a desirable fantasy for many a man on the surface, has been brought back down to Earth this season. He’s just a man, trapped between a workplace he’s increasingly less in control of, a wife who is realizing she’s less than enamored of the life she has so far and a life he simply cannot escape anymore. Being Don Draper was good for a time, but actually stepping up to be that man on a full-time basis has become something of a trap for him.
My good friend Luke de Smet (about whom more in a moment) says that while he thinks the show portrayed Don’s descent into yet another extramarital affair well, it’s something the show has turned to so often that he’s a little disappointed to see them go back to it. I disagree. Where Don’s relationships with Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt, whom I hope comes back at some point) and Rachel (Maggie Siff) in season one were about getting things from them that he could not get from his wife and his relationship with Bobbie Barrett (Melinda McGraw) was about his subconscious desires to have it all, his new relationship with Miss Farrell (Abigail Spencer) is as much about his subconscious desire for an escape route, to be caught and removed from all of the responsibilities he sees as trapping him. Miss Farrell is not only someone his wife sees every so often, she’s also got an element of instability he finds fascinating because he knows it will ultimately blow up in his face.
Alan Sepinwall has been saying for a while now that he would find it unbelievable if all of the characters at Sterling-Cooper stayed at Sterling-Cooper for the duration of the series, which is probably true. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), in particular, seem as though they would realize at some point that their unique talents would be better served at an advertising agency that is fond of riskier, more youth-edged work, rather than one that seems to be heading into the ad revolution of the ’60s kicking and screaming (and penny pinching). But despite the realism of that idea, I never thought Weiner and his creative crew would ever actually do it. One of the things that makes Mad Men work so well is its economy, the fact that it confines these nation-spanning stories to just a handful of settings. Even when the characters go on trips to other settings, the trips feel deliberately small. Some of this is a function of budget, but some of it is also a function of the show’s most obvious spiritual forebear, The Sopranos. Both series had novelistic sweep to their storytelling but went about their episode-by-episode plotting as though each episode were a tiny short story that hooked in with all of the other short stories to create something larger. Contrast this with the approach utilized on a show like Deadwood or The Wire or even Lost, where every episode is much more consciously a chapter in a larger work.
And yet, here we are, heading into season three’s final act (with the JFK assassination just nine weeks away) and Weiner is steadfastly breaking up the old gang. Joan (Christina Hendricks), who doesn’t appear in this episode, left Sterling-Cooper in episode six and is now working elsewhere to help make ends meet as her husband has realized he’s never going to be made Chief of Surgery. Peggy and Pete have been wooed by Duck Phillips (Mark Moses), who now works for another agency and would love nothing more than to sign one or both away. And in this episode, a client’s petulance leads to the firing of Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt), a character who felt like a joke in the pilot but has since become one of the show’s most tragic figures and the most obvious expression of the season’s overriding idea that wanting something and actually having it are two very different things. Really, the only character who doesn’t seem as if they’re being shifted out of Sterling-Cooper is the ever hobo-like Don. Maybe that’s why he seems so angry.
It’s the Sal story that tugs the most at the heartstrings here. Mad Men rarely goes for the big, emotionally manipulative moment, playing those cards close to its vest when it can (a notable exception being the big speeches characters have made in both season finales so far), but it feels, clearly, that it can get away with pushing the emotions in the case of Sal. This is probably because Sal’s story is both inherently tragic and inherently realistic. There have always been gay men, but they have been forced to stay hidden for most of history, unable to act on their impulses in any open way. When Sal was introduced in the pilot, he seemed almost a too-broad joke, but as the first season went on, it became clear that the man had never acted on his impulses and was, indeed, living a very sad life. As he became engaged in a sham marriage that he tried like hell to make real, pined for Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) and just generally tried to deny himself. The cracks in that disguise have been showing this season—particularly in the premiere, when he nearly hooked up with a hotel bellboy—and that has led to him more openly expressing himself. Even if he doesn’t know it, even his wife is starting to pick up on something being very, very incompatible in her relationship with her husband.
As Don reminded Sal in the season premiere, if he were ever exposed, it would essentially spell the end of his career, a ticking time bomb I think more of us should have seen coming. What I wouldn’t have predicted, though, was that Sal would end up removed from his position because of the actions of someone else who was buried deeply in the closet but seemingly far more fine with that fact, returning Lucky Strike cigarettes man Lee Gardner Jr. When the two are in the editing room, Gardner comes on to Sal (perhaps realizing that the whole conception of the ad is deeply homoerotic), but Sal, perhaps regarding Don’s advice and perhaps just wanting to focus on the task at hand, rebuffs his advances, insisting he has a wife. Gardner leaves the scene, yet rings up Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), of all people, to have Sal fired. And after some confusion, first Roger (John Slattery) and then Don do, summarily, fire Sal, the latter telling Sal the same variation of “You’ll land on your feet” he seems to tell everyone. And so the gang splinters further.
What’s remarkable about that scene where Don fires Sal is how emotionally direct it is. Mad Men is criticized by some for its obfuscation, for the way it keeps everything its characters are feeling buried beneath layers of period detail and indirectness and the like. But that scene is absolutely to the point. Sal insists nothing happened. We know nothing happened. But Don, operating under the prejudices of the time, does not and makes the assumption that Sal angered Gardner by coming on to him. (To be fair to Don, it’s easy to see where Gardner’s anger would indicate more that Sal misread some signs and came on to the man rather than the reverse.) For as much of a modern presence on the show as Don seems sometimes, as much of an indication of the direction his world is moving in, he’s still very much a product of his time, and this scene is not afraid to make Don both a bigot and deeply unsympathetic. His “You people” to Sal is both perfectly scathing and completely in character, and it’s one of the series’ most heartbreaking moments. He ends the episode in the park, about to pursue something the show has never led us to believe he’s pursued in the past.
Don, of course, is dealing with his own issues, particularly the hard to parse Conrad Hilton (Chelcie Ross), who’s putting Don through his own dance of incomprehensible seduction. Connie’s the one driving Don’s late night jaunts, since he’s constantly calling the guy in the middle of the night to have him come over and talk ideas. He handles his Prohibition-era liquor better than Don. He’s lonelier than Don. And he’s got a very clear idea of what he wants, yet it’s something no one could ever hope to deliver. The more Connie asks Don for things like working the moon into his ad campaign, the clearer it becomes that both men are chasing unrealizable dreams, chasing ideals more than concrete things. Connie doesn’t just want his ad campaign to sell his hotel chain; he wants it to sell ideas of goodness, of American decency, of the nation itself. He wants his chain to be some sort of luxurious Marshall Plan, and the fact that this sort of thing isn’t really in his power frustrates him, so he takes it out on Don, who takes out his anger in an abstract way by bedding Miss Farrell. And so it goes.
That’s the way of things on Mad Men. Everybody wants something, but no one is really capable of stepping up and getting it. In some cases, they’re held back by themselves. In other cases, they’re held back by the people around them. In still other cases, the society they occupy is designed to keep them from getting anywhere near what they want. And that’s why the setting of the episode—those wee small hours—is so important. It’s the one time of day when both great dreams and great nightmares seem possible, and you often don’t even have to be in bed to experience them.
Some other thoughts:
1. Most notably, I’m going to be trading off Mad Men duties with Luke de Smet in the weeks to come. He’ll cover episodes 10 and 12, and I’ll cover episode 11. We have something special planned for the season finale. I’m just doing too much writing elsewhere to really devote the time to these pieces that I like to devote (I got lucky without having anything scheduled for today). Luke’s a great writer, and he thinks of the show in a very different way than I do. I’m excited to see what he’ll come up with.
2. I didn’t really say anything about Betty, whose affair with the guy from Rockefeller’s office petered out before it even began, after a few clandestine letter exchanges, a fund-raiser that did not turn out how Betty wanted and a meeting in his office that ended as quickly as it began. I was predicting that Don would withhold having an affair while Betty would engage in one, but it sure seems as though the show flipped that on its head. It’s interesting to me that Henry (Christopher Stanley) both wanted Betty in a very clear way and knew that was really the only way this affair could play out and the fact that she didn’t get exactly what she wanted was as much to blame for her anger as anything.
3. Similarly, I liked the way that Betty and Carla (Deborah Lacey) just can’t talk about civil rights in any way. Even when they’re both on the same side of the issue, Betty just can’t figure out a way to make herself see the world as Carla must.
4. On the topic of civil rights, I liked the way the episode used the “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s there, the characters are aware of it, but no one really gets too invested in it except proto-hippie Miss Farrell.
5. I’ll say it: I understand just why Roger is behaving the way he is, but I’m a little tired of it. I want him to get a comeuppance. This being this show, though, it seems incredibly unlikely that will happen.
6. How do you think about how the cast is being utilized this season? It’s pretty clear that all of them have major storylines this season, but those storylines will often recede into the background for long periods of time. That seems to be upsetting some fans, but I’m mostly enjoying it, especially as it’s placing Don very clearly at the center of the show.
7. Finally, it’s probably worth saying something about the fact that Emmy winner Kater Gordon left the show and/or was fired (depending on whose account you believe). I think it’s a non-issue. This is just how TV works—writers being fired suddenly and unexpectedly—and I think the ink spilled over it is a little unnecessary.
House contributing editor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark and co-host of the podcast “TV on the Internet.” His writing also appears at The A.V. Club and Hitfix.