Don Draper does California… again: Mad Men [Season 4, Ep. 3]

What a strange episode. This week’s dose of Mad Men was Jekyll and Hyde-esque. First, Don goes to California where he gets to actually ‘be himself’ among friends. He is so different in California! He is helpful and handy, he flirts but does not seduce. Is this who you really are inside Don? After about half and hour, Don gets back on a plane and instead of flying to Acapulco, returns to the office. Lane Price, too, has decided to ring in the new year at the offices of SCDP. For the rest of the show, Don initiates soon-to-be-divorced Lane into his bachelor ways. I have mixed feelings about this episode. I quite liked the second half, but the first half felt like a real disappointment.

I sincerely hoped we had seen the last of Anna Draper (and California for that matter) in Season 2. It’s not that I don’t find the subplot interesting, it’s just that while Anna is an interesting character, she makes no sense in the world of Mad Men. The Don Draper that Anna knows (perhaps we should call him Dick Whitman) is unrecognizable. Who is this hyper-disclosive man who talks about his feelings? Scenes with Glen Bishop are uncomfortable, but in a way I find fascinating… scenes with Anna feel like they come from a different television show. For a show that is so good at discretion, I suppose I think we would all be better off if we didn’t know WHY Don was the way he was.California, similarly, feels like a place the show can reference, but never truly understand. The good news, it seems, is that Anna is terminally ill, and this episode seemed a bit like a giant goodbye to the only person in the world Don may actually love without condition.

Was this ‘festive’ New Year’s celebration a sendoff to Dick Whitman via Anna? Or was Don determined to really live having been so close to death? Perhaps this too, was evident in the opening scene of the show, where we learn that Joan has had two abortions. We learned a lot about Joan this week… Lane’s bumbling mix-up of the flowers was a wonderful detail. I loved Joan’s outrage at the slip, and I loved how quickly she composed herself in order to punish the idiot secretary who was actually at fault. I am sure her line about taking responsibility was probably about something else– this is Mad Men we are talking about– but I don’t quite know what. The New Years night on the town was marvelous. I think my favorite part had to be the scene in the comedy club, where the stand-up asks why Wall Street has such an ugly boyfriend. I did feel a bit like Don was corrupting Lane, who doesn’t seem to actually WANT to leave his wife. Then again, he has many outs throughout the night, and he keeps persisting.

Some final rambling thoughts: I’ve been thinking about the timing of the show. Matthew Wiener deliberately chooses to set Mad Men against the actual calendar. Christmas in July, New Years in August. It seems odd, considering how often television is designed to line up with holidays, but I think this strategy really allows for some kind of critical distance. Perhaps I’m over-thinking this, but it seems to me that this week I was able to really see ‘New Years’ as the anxiety-producing hoax that it is. When you are bound up in the anxiety yourself you miss it, but holiday-induced tension was hyper-visible (in Peggy, Lane, Joan, Don, etc.) from the perspective  of summertime.

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