A couple of times over the course of this season of Mad Men I claimed that Don Draper (Jon Hamm) didn’t have much at stake anymore in continuing to conceal his true identity. Turns out I was wrong. Well, at least half wrong. In my defense, in a key scene of this week’s episode, “Hands and Knees” (written by Jonathan Abrahams and Matthew Weiner, and directed by Lynn Shelton), Don confesses his identity switch to Faye (Cara Buono) with very little in the way of repercussions. Don confesses as if speaking into a void, like he’s not even cognizant of another person being in the room with him; he’s simply saying the words because he can, because he needs to say them, and perhaps the most shocking part of his confession is how easily the words pass from Don to Faye. Faye even seems pleased that Don trusts her with the information, and tries to play the role of caretaker, reassuring Don that everything will be alright. At one point even Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) expresses sentiments similar to Faye’s, telling Don that his past isn’t really all that scandalous, and that they could ride things out should the truth be revealed.
But for Don, his stakes in not being exposed are still very real, and very high. When Pete’s long-gestating North American Aviation account finally comes to fruition and prompts the Department of Defense to run background checks on the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce creative team, Don lapses into full-on panic mode. He sets up a trust fund for Betty (January Jones) and his children, and tells Pete that he only asks for some warning, so that he can escape into a new life should the truth be uncovered. While those in Don’s personal life have little reason to hold Don’s past against him, it’s clear that his desertion in Korea can still land him in jail for a long, long time. Don’s building anxiety throughout the episode, culminating in a total breakdown after an encounter with two businessmen Don mistakes for government agents, is another piece of virtuoso acting from Hamm, who continues to make his case for Season Four being his strongest work to date.
But Don’s nightmare scenario never materializes. In fact, very little bad happens to Don at all. Instead, it’s Pete who bears the brunt of Don’s crisis, as he not only has to kill the account he’s been working on for years, but then has to accept the blame for doing so in a meeting with the SCDP partners. Pete is rightfully angry, but he nonetheless takes on Don’s troubles as his own. He has to do so, because despite Don’s claims to the contrary, Pete knows that he can’t run the firm without Don Draper. Earlier in the season Pete joined Roger (John Slattery) and Bert (Robert Morse) in encouraging Don to accept his role as the face of SCDP, and now he’s trapped, inheriting Don’s sins.
“Hands and Knees” is very explicitly focused on the theme of secrets. Not just Don’s secret, which he has passed on to Betty, Pete and, now, Faye, but Don’s relationship with Faye, Joan’s (Christina Hendricks) one-night stand with Roger and her subsequent abortion, Roger’s loss of the all-important Lucky Strike account, and Layne’s (Jared Harris) familial shame are all being kept under wraps as well.
As usual, Mad Men expresses some of its points through mirrored scenes. Near the beginning of the episode Joan makes a show of talking professionally about work-related matters as she leaves Roger’s office after telling him about her pregnancy, while near the end Faye employs the same tactic as she leaves from a meeting with Don. In both cases the women are trying to conceal their respective relationships, though clearly the emotional weight of doing so is drastically different in the two examples. Faye’s relationship with Don has been largely positive so far, while Joan is dealing with the prospect of a third abortion (at 35) while her husband is in Vietnam, and Roger refusing any responsibility for the child (beyond paying for its termination).
In the first of another pair of scenes, we see Betty making a point of telling her husband Henry (Christopher Stanley) about the agents who came to the house questioning her about Don. She’s unable to tell Henry about Don’s secret past, but burdened by the weight of that lie she she wants to ensure that she and Henry are as open with each other as possible. We also see Pete dancing around the same issues with his (very) pregnant wife Trudy (Alison Brie). In a way Pete is even more forthcoming than Betty, by suggesting to Trudy that he is being forced to protect someone else’s lies. But he refuses to actually cross the threshold of telling Trudy what that lie is, not because he wishes to conceal something from her, but because he knows that he wouldn’t be giving her the truth—he’d just be saddling her with the lie that has become part of his reality. The show is able to present some complex ideas by mirroring these two sets of scenes: fabrications of structural similarity can have drastically different meanings in different contexts, while telling the truth becomes a paradoxical and nebulous thing when starting from a foundation of untruth (as we all, inevitably, are). Has Don entered a new stage of honesty in his relationships by confessing to Faye, or has he simply made his lie her own?
Trudy, in a her maternity nightie, also serves as a contrast to Joan, who we see in the next scene riding the bus alone, returning from the abortion clinic. Joan is a character who Weiner and his team of writers have been especially cruel to, and never has her story been so heartbreaking as here. She consoles a mother (relatively young herself) who has brought her 17-year-old, pregnant daughter to the clinic. The mother asks Joan how old her daughter is, and Joan lies by saying “fifteen.” It’s a lie, however, that reveals a lot more about Joan than the truth would have. Joan could be talking about herself, the first time she underwent an abortion, or she could be referring to how old her first child would have been, but either way we get the sense that the age fifteen means something to her.
Mad Men typically enjoys dealing with fragmented concepts, identity chief among them, but it also presents its characters’ pasts as something concrete and permanent. The past isn’t something that drags behind and haunts the characters, rather it’s something that is always present alongside them; they are their past. It can take the form of Lane Pryce’s violent and maniacally controlling father, or of Pete’s obligation to protect the firm by protecting Don’s past, or of the child that still lives somewhere inside of Joan, but regardless, the past (both their own and of those who have shaped their world) is their reality. Don can’t outrun his history, as he wishes to, because he embodies it. If this episode made one thing clear, it’s that Don can never return to a point before his lie began.
Don was a lost kid when he chose not to tell the army that they had mistaken him for the wrong man, much like Joan, who was another lost kid when she terminated her first pregnancy. But Don’s fabrications will be with him long after there is any reason for them to be so, and what’s more they’ll be with Pete, and inevitably his old children, as well. Pete scolds Don for not being able to detach himself from his past, but Pete can’t detach himself from Don’s past, either.
It’s interesting to point out that, beyond his breakdown, and offering Beatles tickets to Sally that he didn’t yet have, Don doesn’t really do anything this episode. Every step of the way he depends on other people, be they Pete, Faye, Betty, or even Harry Crane (Rich Sommer). They all come through for him, and his situation ends up affecting all of them (minus Harry) more than it does him. Mad Men is a story of how a man makes himself, sure, but perhaps more than that, it’s a story of how we make each other.
• Sorry, a shorter (and late) piece this week. I’m in the process of moving, and things are hectic to say the least. I will try to make it up to you next week.
• The Drinking Bird makes its triumphant return in the opening shot. Also, Roger demonstrates exemplary workplace efficiency.
• North American Aviation, like Conrad Hilton before them, are focused on the moon. Only, unlike Connie, they actually have the means to get there, as NAA worked extensively on the Apollo program. However, they wound up baring much of the blame for the disastrous fire that killed the crew of Apollo I in 1967. In the aftermath NAA was acquired by Rockwell-Standard and the resulting merger came with an extensive re-branding. It’s an irony of history that this account was probably ill-fated anyway, and oddly it would probably serve Pete well to actually follow through on the excuse Don fed him to give NAA, and pursue Martin Marietta as a client instead. (Provided they can keep Don off the security clearance list, this time.)
• This episode is really effective in expressing the 1960s as a stark dichotomy: screaming Beatles fans and the Playboy Club on one hand, the Space Program and Cold War nuclear ballistics on the other.
• In trying to mitigate the damage of the loss of Lucky Strike, Roger rifles through his Rolodex, calling old contacts, at least one of whom turns out to be dead. It’s a sign of just how long Roger has been resting on his laurels. I doubt Roger will handle the Lucky Strike situation particularly well, but at least we’ll finally see a Roger Sterling that’s alive and trying to get something done. It’ll be one of the more enjoyable things to watch as the season enters its climactic, post-Lucky-Strike, SCDP-in-crisis home stretch.
• Speaking of Roger, I’m not sure that I’m a fan of his inaudible F-bomb this week. It strikes me like those Hollywood movies where a bunch of English-speaking Americans are playing characters from France or some such place, and we happily suspend our notion of disbelief over the fact that they’re not speaking French until some character with a heavy French-accent arrives and calls our attention to it. Or like in The Sound of Music where everybody’s speaking English but for some reason they still use the word “Frau.” I assume that, were the Mad Men characters not on basic cable, they’d be cursing to high heaven. It hurts my suspension of disbelief to hear Roger so emphatically use the F-word (and have it edited out, yet). Stick with the rules of your own universe, I say.
• I’d like to hear your readings on that final look Don gives Megan (Jessica Pare). In many ways the characters shared an experience this week; they became involved in the same crisis, and both thought their livelihoods were at risk before finishing the episode by reassuring someone else that everything turned out okay. Yet somehow they’re referring to entirely different things. Is Don simply trying to view the world from her perspective? Is he lusting after her? Something else?
Luke De Smet is a freelance writer based out of San Diego, who spent way too much time obsessing about movies and television while growing up in rural northern Alberta, Canada. He’s currently attempting to avoid movies and television long enough to take up surfing, but is failing, miserably. You can follow him on Twitter.