In an unusual move, AMC chose to air the fourth episode of this season's Mad Men on Labor Day weekend. As it happens, after a couple of episodes marked mainly by mood, texture, and positioning of plot points and character arcs -- which left some viewers a tad bored -- this episode has some real action.
As usual with these reviews, major spoilers follow. So if you have not yet seen the episode, consider yourself warned.
Four big things happen in this episode. And two of them look to limit the ongoing exposure of the sometimes tedious family lives of the series' two main characters, Don Draper and his advertising protege, Peggy Olsen. We also got a number of JFK references in this episode, which takes place in June 1963, as we know since that's when President Kennedy gave his big civil rights address to the nation which young Sally is watching coverage of (along with Buddhist monks burning themselves to death in Vietnam protesting the Catholic President Diem) as the episode comes to a close.
As I expected, Grandpa Gene -- brought into the Don and Betty Draper household after his mind began slipping gears in alarming ways -- did not turn out to be a molester or even menacer of his adorable, spunky little granddaughter, Sally. Instead, sensing a spark in her all too often missing in daughter Betty, he was her encourager and, in turn, she was blossoming with the attention. Then he died, ending what could have been a distracting family storyline as his mind continued on its decidedly downward path.
Peggy Olsen, noting that living in Brooklyn and commuting two hours a day is a hindrance to her career goals, decided to make the move the Manhattan. Amusingly, with her attempts to find a roommate. And sadly, with her mother lashing out at her flying from the nest.
Showing that Don Draper, as expected, is cool with art director Sal Romano's closeted homosexuality, the Sterling Cooper creative director gave the career illustrator a lease on professional life in the fast-dawning TV age by making him a commercial director, even though his first effort didn't actually work, and sort of outed him to his dutiful, sexy, confused wife.
And we got another sense of the hardball nature of advertising -- the raison d'etre for the show -- and of Don's intriguing aversion to some of its most egregious characteristics, when a clueless prep school pal of accounts co-director Pete Campbell came to Sterling Coo to spend his inherited fortune on promoting the sport that would soon supplant baseball as America's National Pastime.
I refer, of course, to jai alai. I've actually attended a game of jai alai (pronounced "high-lie"), but can't for the life of me remember the rules. On those very infrequent occasions I think of it, I see a snippet from the opening credits of Miami Vice.
But before delving into this wonderful plot in the show, back to the family stuff that at times seemed like it might just derail much of Mad Men's Season 3.
We start off seeing Grandpa Gene letting Sally -- who is all of what, nine years old? -- drive his prized big Lincoln. You can see her blossoming and gaining confidence as a grown-up pays her the attention her mom withholds. Her grandfather -- who knew that Sally stole that $5 bill -- is one of those men who is at once a bluff jerk and a good guy, and he does a lot of things in this episode that show he thinks his time is just about up. After all, he could have waited till Sally was, say, 12 before starting to illegally teach her to drive, but obviously doesn't think he has that much time.
With young Bobby Draper, who, incidentally, has been recast since Season 2, Gene does some more age inappropriate grandparenting. Not with the "exact imitation" Gettysburg Address he amusingly gives the boy, but with the World War I German soldier's helmet (complete with bullet hole and dried blood) he sets atop the child's head to Don's decided lack of approval, and the stripper's fan he pulls out of his treasure box. "Bobby, there was this girl I knew," he begins amusingly as the episode goes to commercial.
The foreshadowing is actually a bit obvious as grandfather and granddaughter eat ice cream together, with Gene noting that the chocolate smells like oranges to him, a sign of an oncoming stroke, after telling Sally she can make more of her life than being a housewife.
Before the stroke comes, Gene lets on why Betty had earlier this season seemed eager to diet her way through pregnancy, noting that as a girl she struggled with her weight. Until her mom, that is, took to forcing Betty to walk home from town. Which begins to get at Betty's neuroses, which are in full bloom as Gene tries to get her to go through his will and funeral arrangements with him. Betty all but sticks her fingers in her ears and shouts la-la-la-la-la, even though Gene assures her they need discuss it only once and they're done.
"I'm your little girl!," she exclaims. Hmm. Betty's a princess ... that could be fine, certainly expected for someone who looks like Grace Kelly, if even more certainly high maintenance. Betty's a little girl ... Oh, boy.
So Gene, after promising to pick up peaches, Sally's favorite, for the kids (even though Bobby, who Gene, like much of America, finds a bit boring, hates them) drops dead in the checkout line at the A&P. And that night, although Betty is closed off as usual and thus somewhat unreadable, nobody in the family seems at all sad, except for Sally, who goes off on the grown-ups after they finally laugh at one of boring brother-in-law William's lame jokes.
She is then banished to the living room to watch TV by dear old mom, with the acquiescence of Don, who's clearly sympathetic to his daughter but also cognizant of the passive-aggressive powder keg that is his wife.
I get the feeling that Sally is going to learn a lot about America in the '60s watching TV news as her mom tries to avoid dealing with her. At the end of the episode, she falls asleep holding her grandfather's copy of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, which he had her reading to him after school.
As Mad Men moves away from the increasing bathos of Betty's family in this episode, so, too, does it move away from Peggy Olsen's Brooklyn Catholic family life, which seemed firmly rooted in the '40s. Peggy decides to embrace the emerging '60s, and of course her workaholic career, by dumping her Brooklyn apartment and moving to Manhattan.
But first, she has to find a roommate. And of course she has to break the news to her mom, who was very indulgent of Peggy, even rationalizing her out-of-wedlock pregnancy and abandoning of her child to adoption, so long as she still lived nearby.
Mom, still reeling, as it were, from the death of the Pope, reacts badly, even though Peggy tries, not all that subtly, to ease the blow by buying her a snazzy new Admiral TV set. I have a feeling she'll get over it, as Peggy is ever attentive and Mom clearly admires Peggy's get up-and-go nature, which has now taken the natural course of getting up and going from Brooklyn.
Which brings us to the more amusing and entertaining Sterling Coo side of Peggy's big move. Peggy needs a roommate to make those those nasty Manhattan rents work for her.
First, she writes her own sad, little, responsible girl ad, which she posts, to very amusing results, on the Sterling Coo bulletin board. Paul Kinsey, accounts co-director Ken Cosgrove, and TV department head Harry Crane devise a script for switchboard operator Lois, in a thinly disguised voice, to use in reply to Peggy's missive, to absolutely hysterical effect.
Whereupon Joan Holloway, in her only significant appearance of the episode, shows again why she and Don Draper should be the ones running an advertising agency.
Off the top of her head, she devises a little ad -- which, incidentally, would work out to about a 30-second TV spot -- for Peggy's roommate quest. It's funny, it's to the point, it makes Peggy sound cool and smart. And for once, Peggy follows Joan's usually golden advice.
And it yields Peggy someone who seems like a good roommate, one who's nice enough and can help Peggy in her own personal development away from clueless Catholic girl. Although, as a Navy guy, I must protest this bias against sailors ...
Which, if one recalls the Village People's classic song, "YMCA," brings us to Sal Romano. (And how is that for a smooth segue? Hey, it's Labor Day.)
Incidentally, as I'm writing this, I'm listening to the complete score to Hitchcock's North By Northwest, which has, let's say, a bit too much source music. Love Bernard Hermann, but '50s music gets old relatively quickly.
When the designated director for the Patio (read the original name for Diet Pepsi) ad opts for a Hollywood directing gig instead, Don designates Sal Romano as the spot's director. After all, he reasons, Sal has already storyboarded the entire spot, which is, per the client, a shot-for-shot recreation of an Ann Margret number in Bye Bye Birdie. And Don, who obviously can give a flying fig about inadvertently catching Sal with a guy in the season opener, thinks the agency art director is a capable guy.
Sal, an anxious type beneath the placid exterior, is anxiously working on what he's already done the night before the shoot when his very cute and attentive young wife -- who followed him from the old neighborhood in Baltimore -- pounces on him in a very pert little negligee. Sal, buttoned up from chin to toe in pajamas, not surprisingly doesn't reply with the natural response.
Instead, saying he's "not himself" -- oh, really? -- Sal then proceeds to actually open up to his wife about his work anxieties. Which, as a nice person and dutiful wife, she appreciates. He explains that illustration is on the decline and TV spots are the coming thing in advertising, so Don has given him a real lifeline.
At first, Mrs. Romano is visibly thrilled as Sal outlines his TV ad-to-be to her. Then, as he acts out the Ann Margret part, rather too convincingly, her expression changes. So much of this show is about looks. And Kitty's look says that she is finally gathering that her husband is significantly more comfortable playing a "feminine" role.
In any event, Sal delivers exactly the spot that the Pepsi execs said they wanted. But they don't like it. And they say so, while acknowledging that the fault is their own.
Which raises an interesting question. Does the spot not work because, as Peggy implies with a few triumphant looks at Don, it caters to male fantasy rather than female aspiration? Does it not work because Sal, as a gay man, doesn't really understand what turns on a straight man (i.e., the clients)? Or does it not work, as Roger Sterling pronounces in his only real appearance in the episode, because the "girl" isn't Ann Margret?
I think Roger is right. Still, dutiful Catholic girl Peggy is threatened by the Ann Margret type of sex bomb ingenue. While Sal is so gay that he won't even partake of the proffered dessert that is his adoring wife, the reality is that talented gay men are, often as not, even better than straight men at presenting sexy women to great advantage.
As usual, when he is actually thinking about something, Roger Sterling is correct. The problem, as it frequently is, is one of casting. While the woman in the part is fine, she doesn't look anything like Ann Margret. And the clients, obviously enamored of the budding starlet, wanted an Ann Margret type. Who did the casting? Probably not Sal.
And, speaking of casting -- as, of course, we were -- we come to one of the dumbest clients in the history of advertising, the shipping magnate's son who insists that jai alai will displace baseball as American's National Pastime by 1970. Unless, that is, Sterling Cooper screws it up with bad advertising.
For any creative person who has worked for a moronic client -- be it in advertising, public relations, or politics, not that the fundamental distinction between these fields is all that great -- this guy is a creative godsend. Nicknamed "Ho Ho" in the prep school he attended with his "friend," accounts co-director Pete Campbell, who obviously despises him, this guy is amazingly clueless. He doesn't know that CBS still doesn't broadcast in color and imagines that he can fund a regular TV show on all three networks starring the man he describes as jai alai's greatest star, a fellow he obviously has an unacknowledged crush on.
"My greatest fear," he declares, "is of balls smashing into his face."
Don is actually appalled by this looming, and highly lucrative, account. While he's all for making money, this is a bit too fleecing for his comfort zone. He insists to the agency's British overseer, Lane Pryce, who disappeared in last week's episode centered on Roger Sterling's big Derby Day party, that they take this to Bert Cooper, an old friend of Ho Ho's shipping magnate dad.
In that confab, Price, sensing big bucks, insists that sonny boy's notion of jai alai as America's coming sport is "brilliant." To which Ho Ho's unamused dad replies: "Are you drunk?"
Yet he urges the agency to take the boy's $3 million advertising budget. It's the marketplace, he explains. If it's not them, it will be someone else. And he knows they will try their best and appreciates Don and Bert bringing this "gibberish" to his attention. And when his son's money runs out, and "he's face down on the pavement," maybe then he will know something of value in life.
Don, to his credit, actually tries to talk junior out of this nonsense at a lavish dinner meeting, to Pete's dismay. But old prep school classmate Ho Ho, thinking he is sensing Don's clever reverse psychology gambit, reveals that he has read galleys of "O'Gilvy's" not-yet-released 1963 book on advertising, and can't be fooled.
Ho Ho is referring to one of the field's ur-texts, Confessions of An Advertising Man, which I first read back in the '70s and which still stands as a fantastic primer on the field.
Don asks why he isn't working with David Ogilvy, since he's read the emerging guru's book. Ho Ho explains that Pete talked him out of it. At which point, you can see Don thinking: "Okay then, I've tried and tried to do the right thing. Now I will take your lunch money. And I will drink your milkshake."
Later, at a celebratory gathering at Sterling Coo, replete with use of jai alai equipment, the athletic Don mistakenly -- or not -- shatters the agency's emblematic ant farm.
"Bill it to the kid," he says.
To review, thanks again, AMC, for airing the most action-packed episode of the season to date on Labor Day weekend. No wonder you almost lost the series by trying to penny-pinch its creator.
You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.