Mad Men : "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" (And Really Suspend Your Disbelief?)

This was an entertaining episode, which certainly moved the demands of the plot forward with only three episodes to come this season. But it was disappointing to me, in that it demanded such a suspension of disbelief, with very intelligent and sophisticated characters behaving in remarkably boneheaded ways. And it had a major soap opera cliche employed in striking fashion.

As always, there be spoilers ahead. Incidentally, this piece is later than usual because heavy politics intervened from the beginning of the week on and this show airs late on Sunday night. Also, I was less than thrilled with this episode, so was not so excited about writing about it.

"Do You Want To Know A Secret?" You can listen to the first Beatles hit sung by George Harrison while reading the piece.

It's August 1965. The Beatles have at last arrived in a major way on Mad Men. In fact, they are responsible for the only joy on the show, with Sally Draper learning that Don will take her to the Beatles' famed show at Shea Stadium. He says he'll wear ear plugs, though, which will come in handy with all the constant screaming that will make the old ballpark sound like the tarmac at JFK. Not that he actually has the tickets when he makes the promise to Sally. He'll need help from Harry Crane -- what is he doing, anyway, spending all that time out in LaLa Land? -- to end up as hero rather than zero.

This, however, turns out to be the least of his problems.

Kicking off the last third of the season, "Hands and Knees" grinds the plot in sudden and surprisingly awkward ways to set up the stretch run of what has been a terrific Season 4 of Mad Men.

As the use of an instrumental version of the Beatles' 1963 hit, "Do You Want To Know A Secret?" over the end credits drives home, this episode is all about secrets. Namely, their power to move things in negative ways.

After showing her corporate-oriented colors in the last episode, Peggy Olsen isn't in this episode, even though she has a few big secrets. As we'll see, she's not that central to Don's life, nor to the running of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Her firing of the sexually obnoxious Joey hasn't changed much, as the Young Jerks of the agency still diss her. But at least no one is drawing lewd pictures around her. Perhaps she'll figure more prominently in the next few episodes.

This episode, as usual, revolves around Don, Mad Men's protagonist. He, of course, has the doozey of all secrets, in that he's not really Don Draper, he's Dick Whitman. The crises we've seen him get through earlier in Season 4 -- all of which involve heavy drinking around depressing major holidays, the winning of a major award, and the death of his dearest friend, the only person who really knows him -- are not nearly so existential as what he deals with in this episode.

We see Don, Pete Campbell, and Harry Crane meeting with execs from North American Aviation, then one of the great names in aerospace industry. Pete has been cultivating them since the terrific Season 2 episode in which, on a business trip to California, Don goes walkabout on Pete, going off to Palm Springs with a band of sybarites while Pete is left in Los Angeles to try to get Sterling Coo into a new business.

"Help!," released by the Beatles in the same month in which this Mad Men episode takes place, is a more appropriate song for Don Draper.

Pete has succeeded in smashing fashion in spinning up North American Aviation into a major client. North American needs the help, too. In its great days, it created the P-51 Mustang, the leading fighter of World War II, the F-86 Sabrejet, the leading fighter of the Korean War, and the craft that took test pilots to the very edge of outer space, the X-15. But, though it still has a major role in the business, it's lost out on recent contracts for new fighters and missiles. Now it's planning to leapfrog ahead with the Moon mission, by producing the Apollo command module.

But it doesn't look as though we're going to live through its tragedy on the launch pad in 1967.

In their meeting with the North American execs, Don, Pete, and Harry are struck by all the redactions in the documents they're given describing upcoming products. But they're told that the secrecy will soon change as business moves forward.

Oddly, neither Don, who guards his secret identity fiercely, nor Pete, who, as we'll see, knows what security clearances are about, realizes what has to happen next.

The Beatles perform "A Hard Day's Night" at the Shea Stadium concert that Don Draper will take Sally to. The screaming is so loud that the lads have trouble staying in the right key.

So Don is shocked when Betty calls to complain about being blindsided by a visit from two federal investigators. They're checking into Don's background for the Department of Defense. And they're doing it at Don's okay!

It seems that his lovely young new secretary, Megan -- who comforted Sally at the end of the last episode when she fall sprawling in the office as she fruitlessly ran to escape going back to her mother dearest -- filled out a DOD background questionnaire for Don and had him sign it. But hey, only three of the eight answers are baldfaced, flat-out lies, inconsistent with the background of the real Don Draper, who was an officer in the U.S. Army. What can go wrong?

Plenty, naturally, and Don is flagged by DOD security.

We're asked by the show's writers to indulge in enormous suspension of disbelief on this major plot development, on which much of the rest of the season will apparently turn.

Don Draper, enormously savvy, fiercely protective of his identity, long nurturing of his secret, doesn't notice that much of the material he's looking at in a meeting with a major defense contractor is secret, nor take heed of being told that soon he will be able to read it for himself. He doesn't notice the DOD letterhead on the forms he signs. He never once considers what it means to work for a company engaged in highly secret activities.

The essential milieu of Mad Men is not especially admirable.


Pete Campbell, who knows Don's secret better than almost anyone, having used it to try to blackmail Don late in Season 1, very savvy, working for years to nurture North American Aviation's business, at last growing it into a very big account for the ad agency, well connected enough in DOD security circles to inquire after Don's potential problem and learn the confidential information that Don has been flagged by Pentagon security, doesn't think to remind Don that he is undergoing a background check. He doesn't think to review for himself the material that Don submits to the Pentagon. He doesn't .... Well, you get the drift.

Let's just say that I had to suspend a lot of disbelief to buy any of this. The man we know as Don Draper is a deserter from the U.S. Armed Forces. He deserted his unit in a combat zone. There is no statute of limitations on desertion. You would think that he would exercise the utmost of caution in dealing with the military and one of its biggest contractors.

Moving on ...

After Betty lies for Don, he sets up trust funds for his kids and gives her access. Panicking, he confesses his secret to his gal pal Dr. Faye, who is understanding and says she wants to help. But Don doesn't really want help in dealing with his identity problem -- and her help didn't sound psychological, it was more about legal advice and the possible use of connections -- he wants it to disappear.

So what does he does? Does he go to the very connected Republican pol Bert Cooper, who knows all about him and, incidentally, should also have known to warn Don going into the North American Aviation meeting of the security clearance he will need to move forward?

No, he does not. That would be too logical. After all, Bert Cooper might be able to make the problem go away.

No, instead Don tells Pete -- who has informed him that Don has been flagged but that the investigation can be halted -- that they must get rid of the client. And that Pete has to fall on his sword to make it look as though it has nothing to do with Don.

Which Pete does, garnering, so to speak, a tongue lashing from another man with a big secret, Roger Sterling.

Joan Holloway has a big secret, too. At least from her husband, the eminent Dr. Blockhead, now safely ensconced -- well, probably not for him nor for the men he will operate on -- in the midst of the Vietnam War.

The demon rum, played so big this season that the test pattern as most frequent TV programming in the Draper household is a running gag in these pieces, is actually the least of his problems.

Incidentally, before I go on, I must say that I find it remarkably tasteless of some professional entertainment writers to say that they hope he steps on a land mine. It's one thing for a commenter to say that, objectionable as it is. It's another thing for a supposed professional to do it.

Okay, moving on.

Joan's big secret, which will come as no surprise to soap opera aficionados, is that she is pregnant. And her husband isn't the father. It's Roger Sterling's baby, product of their heat-of-the-moment stairwell tryst after being mugged in the last episode.

Now, really. How much of a cliche, and a very convenient one at that for purposes of plotting, is it that she conceives only in the one illicit encounter of her marriage? The irony ...

That's about as soapy as it gets, folks.

Roger, naturally, is all about Roger when he learns. He offers to do what he thinks is the right thing. Pay for an abortion. She says no, she'll take care of it. And Joan, after listening to Roger get reamed out by his doctor for "ruining" her, goes to the doctor's abortionist referral to have it done.

But she has a telling conversation and, to make a long story short, I don't think she has the abortion. When she next sees Roger, she tells him that a tragedy has been averted.

Oh, Joanie, the night is young.

As for caddish Roger, he has a very big secret. And not that no one is interested in his inane memoirs. No, he has gone and lost his life's work. The big tobacco company that still provides the life's blood of SCDP billings is moving its business, "consolidating its brands" with BBDO.

The odious Lee Garner Jr. delivers the news to a rather whiny Roger over dinner. Pleading, Roger earns a 30-day reprieve. But the axe will fall at the end of that time, and Garner, who reminds Roger that he inherited the account (just as Lee Jr. inherited his share of the company, which Roger doesn't mention) tells Roger to get affairs in order.

Megan, who like Jane Siegel Sterling looks like a closet Mod, feels fine by the end of the episode. By the look of the look in his eye, Don Draper thinks she looks fine, too.

Which leads to a sad scene in which Roger is phoning old contacts he hasn't bothered to keep up with, apparently looking for business he hadn't thought he needed to contribute to the agency and, sadly, finding that some of his peeps have shuffled off this mortal coil.

Now, let's step back for a moment.

If there is anyone with a bigger, potentially more devastating secret than Don Draper in this entire show, it's Lee Garner Jr. He's a Southern white male in the 1960s. He's a supposed family man. He's the son of a legendary tobacco man. He cultivates the image of a macho Marlboro man. And he is a barely closeted homosexual.

Does Roger think to use this information a leverage? Does Roger even know this?

Inquiring minds, and all that.

Again, suspension of disbelief is required.

Finally, we come to Lane Pryce. Here, sadly, not so much suspension of disbelief is required.

Free from his lovely, yet disputatiously snobby wife, now back in London, he's having a good time in America, spreading his wings. His wings extending to the Playboy Club, where he takes his father and Don for dinner after daddy dearest shows up in lieu of his hoped-for son.

There we learn that Lane has acquired a special friend, a black Playboy bunny named Toni. "She's the finest waitress!," he gushes. Evidently.

On another evening, he thinks to take his father and his "chocolate bunny," as he affectionately calls her, to dinner. But father dearest sends Toni, who is quite fond of Lane as well, on ahead to the restaurant, as he has something he has to rather quickly discuss with his son.

The "discussion" is an ultimatum. Return home to London at once. When Lane says no, he's clouted in the head, hard, with a cane. With Lane down on his knees, his father grinds his hand into the carpet until he agrees to do as he's told. (Hence the title of the episode.)

It's a sad moment.

Later, Lane tells a partners meeting that he's taking a brief leave of absence to sort out his private life back in London. But before he goes, he pronounces the agency's finances in fine shape, even with the loss of North American Aviation.

Just to be sure, Joan goes around the room, asking after the other accounts. She starts first with Roger, who gives a thumbs up when asked about Lucky Strike.

After Don's dramatic panic attack, complete with his now familiar copious vomiting, he's feeling that things are back in shape. The DOD investigation was halted. Only Pete knows that he's the reason why the agency lost North American. (And Pete would never use that leverage, of course.) The agency's finances are quite sound. Too bad about his friend Lane going back to London for awhile, wonder what that's about.

There's just one potential problem. The Beatles tickets!

Dr. Faye visits Don in his office. He tells her he feels much better. He seems a little distant as he does it.

She leaves, and Megan, who has been apologizing and offering to resign all episode since learning of the DOD problem that she thinks she caused, walks in.

The Beatles tickets have come through! Sally will be able to lend her screaming voice to the jetwash at Shea Stadium after all. And Don will get to see firsthand what this phenomenon is about.

"You see?" she says. "Everything worked out."

Well, almost.