Mad Men, "The Summer Man": to be continued

Quick Take: Mad Men, "The Summer Man"
Don Draper and Mad Men reach a strange and wonderful new plateau in the summer of 1965.

Review: Mad Men, "The Summer Man"
(S0408) "They say as soon as you have to cut down on your drinking, you have a drinking problem." We hear Don Draper's (Jon Hamm) voice say these words as the episode opens as we see him diving into a pool. The words alone are striking stuff, coming from a guy who has been drowning in booze all season long (and for years, really) and who has seemed to get by through means of denial and compartmentalization and flat out dishonesty, honed by a horrid childhood and polished to a fine finish after taking on a false identity and persona during the Korean War.

Later, during a staff meeting, Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) pours a glass of liquor (rye, we imagine) for "el jefe" and we see him stare at it longingly and with newly self-aware eyes. The meeting's participants fade out, and we feel Don's new stranger in a strange land existence. In four seasons of Mad Men, we've seen dozens of these office scenes with casual guzzling of booze as creative and accounts and financial matters are hashed and chewed over.

And now, it's different. Everything's different for Don and for Mad Men this season – we're seeing what feels like a horde of departures and radical shakeoffs of the past to something new and unfamiliar and at times unsettling. It's truly extraordinary to see this kind of creative level being achieved during the fourth season of what has long been the best show on television… and as fan boy-ish as it is to say, it keeps getting better due in no small part to the bravery with which it continues to stride into new territory.

Meanwhile, we see more of Betty and Henry than we have in weeks. Instant tension is provided when they bump into Don and Bethany out on a date at a small and fancy restaurant, made no easer as Henry is there on political business. On the ride home, Henry instructs Betty that she "is not allowed" to demand a drink like a common wino, and we get some insight into Henry's blue blood background. This is exactly the kind of man that Betty thought she wanted, but we see that she's as miserable as ever. "I hate him." Betty (January Jones) says of Don. "Hate's a strong word, Betty. I hate Nazis," Henry (Christopher Stanley) replies.

The flipside of hate is love, and sometimes there's a fine line there, as Henry clearly recognizes. "He's taking up too much space in your heart," he says, and muses about whether they rushed into marriage (answer: that would be a yes). And, later, we see that Betty clearly hopes that Don will show up for baby Gene's birthday party, though she protests the opposite of course. At the end of the episode, when Don does show up with a gift, she seems pleased, though for the moment she has reconciled (or sold herself) with the belief that she "has everything" with the house and kids and Henry. It would seem to be the same dream she sold herself onto with Don however until the bitter end of their marriage.

"So, are you a Felix or an Oscar?" Bethany (Anna Camp) asks Don during their date, which in an odd way emphasizes the season's theme of identity. I think Don's courtship of Bethany is an attempt to do "what's right" and has the potential to unfortunately lead him right back into a marriage with a woman who barely knows the real him/Don/Dick. And while Bethany clearly would love to be the second Mrs. Don Draper (see: her eyeing Betty from across the restaurant and her moves in the cab ride later), Don feels he already knows her, and isn't overly excited or challenged by that knowledge (he likely sees her as a young Betty type, and he's likely not wrong).

Therefore, it was refreshing and exciting to see a Don who is seeming to pull himself back from the brink (for now) pull off getting Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono) to go out on a date. Don is more himself around her, more relaxed, more challenged, and more at ease to be closer to a real version of himself, complex and messy as that may be.

I also enjoyed Don's voiceovers in the form of his writing a diary in longhand (though he laments feeling like a little girl who is writing down what happened that day) as we're getting close to a Don who is finally starting to reckon with himself.

Let the reckoning continue.

More thoughts on this week's Mad Men:

  • Water has often been used as symbol of cleansing or renewal on the show, and so it's telling when we see Don dive into an Olympic-sized lap pool at the beginning of the episode. Great shot too.
  • "The Summer Man" takes place in June 1965, so we've covered a good number of months this season ("Public Relations" took place around Thanksgiving time, 1964). When we see Don on the street in front of the New York Athletic Club, The Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" plays in the background, and it's a sign of how quickly we and the characters are accelerating into the "real" 1960s of popular lore.
  • "I feel like Margaret Mead." – Peggy, on watching the fellas wrestle with the office vending machine
  • "What do you do around here besides walk around like you're trying to get raped." – Joey (Matt Long), channeling Mel Gibson circa 2010? And then: "I don't need some madam from a Shanghai whorehouse to show me the ropes." We've seen Joey be cheeky and even go close to the line in derisively referring to Don as a drunk after the Christmas party, but we see a whole new level of understanding his attitude about women here. Then, later, after getting a scolding from Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), Joey has the audacity to leave a drawing straight out of a high school boy's sophomoric playlist (entitled "Tally Ho!", it shows Joan and Lane in a compromising position). To draw such a picture and circulate with the fellas is one thing, but to leave it in plain site is truly despicable behavior, putting him on a level that I don't think even Stan is creative or capable enough to get to.
  • It's heartbreaking to see Joan (Christina Hendricks) blatantly (and brutally) disrespected at work, and then see her breakdown in front of Greg (Sam Page) as he packs to head off to Basic Training. She's not crying so much because he's joining the army as a medical doctor, I think, as much as about the loss of her own identity and place in the world. I also note that the Joan of early Mad Men seasons would not cry, particularly in front of others – she would bottle it up and put on a happy face. Those days are over now – there's only so much bottling up that can be done, as Don is finding out as well.
  • "I know the joke. This guy's balls are so big…" – Stan (Jay R. Ferguson), ever the entertaining gent
  • I love seeing Don spoon some Dinty Moore stew out of a can for a bachelor's meal.  
  • A lot more about Vietnam this week, more perhaps than in any single episode. It's on TV, it's on Don's mind, Greg is heading to basic, and Joan uses it as a weapon to combat the boys' derisive antics at the office.
  •  

    Video: Mad Men, "The Summer Man"
    Head inside the episode, from AMC:

    By Eric - TV Geek Army "Revered Leader"

    About the author

    Eric is the publisher and revered leader of TV Geek Army… at least in his own mind. TV Geek Army is a place for serious TV reviews and news for serious fans of great television. Contact: eric-[at]-tvgeekarmy.com 

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