Backed by the use of Don as narrator and the loud, modern sound of the Rolling Stones, "The Summer Man" represents a sea change, in style and tone, from the usual "Mad Men" episode. At first, each seems like an alien affectation.
The combination of showing Don doing laps in the pool while we hear his voiceover reminded me of "Sunset Boulevard" -- would someone end up floating dead at the end?
Telling us, rather than showing us, is an easier trick for the writers. And while the voiceover seemed more detective-novel-noir than Carrie Bradshaw, the shock is that still, 20 years pre-Oprah, Don is indeed journaling, and earnestly. He's on his way to becoming a recovered alcoholic -- and a bit of a competitive swimmer, too. (Jon Hamm actually swam on his high school team.) I'm not sure what it means that Don reveals that he never finished high school, and that he's a lazy writer.
Certainly, when he steps outside the Athletic Club in his clean white shirt to have a smoke in the sun, the word for word match-up of the lyrics is pretty glaring but also clever ("when I'm watching my TV, and the man comes on to tell me, how white my shirt can be, but he can't be a man cuz he doesn't smoke the same cigarette as me..."). Still, "Satisfaction" as first heard coming out of a transistor radio in the locker room, and then blasting as the main score, establishes the cultural moment raucously, with its built-in critique of advertising, and messy reverberations about (male) sexual freedom. (And huge usage costs? Is that why there was no musical capper at the end?)
Never mind: All in all, it was a brilliant episode, very layered, as usual, and all about cleansing,
rebirth, seeing clearly, and growing up. And the shocker was that it was delivered, at times, in the form of a tone poem. Indeed, there was a dreamlike quality to all the proceedings: Is that really our Don, swimming, writing about self-improvement, turning down multiple offers of smooth whiskey and hot sex?
In the all-a-dream department, Don's actions also alluded to the John Cheever short story "The Swimmer." Published in 1964, it's about a burnt-out alcoholic who tries to find his way to his suburban home via swimming from one end to the other of all the local backyard pools. Cheever's fiction has a big pull on Matthew Weiner -- the Drapers live on Bullet Park Road in Ossining as an homage. And wasn't there a violent vending machine scene at the hospital in the Ossining-based episode showing Gene's gruesome birth? (What a poetic line Don comes up with to explain Gene's arrival: "Conceived in a moment of desperation and born into a mess." He's also obviously describing himself.)
More allusions to water and birth: Mountain Dew, the brand for which the agency creative kids can't come up with the proper work, ended up in real life switching from cartoon hillbillies ("Yahoo!") to a modern-day scene with young actors frolicking in a swimming hole, complete with a rope swing.
Certainly it felt good to be relieved of the unrelenting darkness that has characterized so much of the show lately; enough already with the shame spirals and blackouts! Plus, along with her improved eyesight, Don's punishment of secretary, the former hellcat known as Miss Ida Blankenship, provides unexpected comic high points in every episode. I particularly liked when Don refers to the now-cataract-less one as "Ray Charles."
The writers seemed to be suggesting a division between people who are blind and those who can see, and also adults who behave like children vs. the grown-ups.
And it was a tough episode for the women: Betty is still a petulant child who, sadly for her own children, won't be able to resolve her issues merely by replacing husbands. And the strain between motherly Joan and now grown-up Peggy is ultimately tragic and probably unsolvable.
Let's start with Joan. Stripped of her husband, who, despite the rapey tendencies (an undercurrent that made Joey's remark even more painful) seems to have worked out OK, and stripped of the television department job she was so good at (even though she's at board meetings, she is considered a "glorified secretary" with an office that most employees use to cut through), she is beginning to get lost in the cultural turmoil. In the first episode of the show, she teaches dowdy, unsophisticated Peggy how to dress. Now she's looking like the dated, dowdy one around the office.
She has always used her va-va-voom body, and her innate political smarts, to get along in a "man's world." These days, Roger is a child who has lost his professional potency. The power that she had in protecting and shepherding the secretaries ("the girls") is drying up, as women try to leave the secretarial pool to become the executives they used to assist. The Twiggy body will soon come into fashion; and some of the younger, more arrogant and misogynist guys, like Joey, are beginning to despise those whole-lotta-woman curves that remind them of their mothers, with their manipulation and /or girdled sexuality. When the body is considered a commodity, Joan's figure becomes as flashy and outdated as cars with tailfins.
For his part, Don goes along with the "boys will be boys" line, but at the same time he has mentored Peggy, and tells her, "You want some respect? Go out there and get it for yourself."
After trying to get him to apologize and getting nowhere, Peggy suddenly goes all Trump on Joey's
tiny ass, and fires him. In so doing, Peggy thinks she's shown that sisterhood is powerful, that she stood up for herself and Joan and all women. So she's even more perplexed when Joan turns on her in the elevator. "You solved my problem and you must be really important -- you want to be a big shot."
Joan, the now-"traffic manager" explains that she could have done it her way, with a better result, through behind-thepscenes political maneuvering. Joan says she's now seen as a secretary, Peggy shows she has no sense of humor, and "no matter how powerful we get, they can just draw another cartoon."
It's an intractable problem to this day, and they were both right.
Meanwhile, Dr. Faye is becoming an estimable character. The contrast of her date with Don as opposed to Don's date with Bethany is revealing: Bethany asked the prepared question for bachelors, "Oscar or Felix?" She's a younger Betty, strategizing about what she wants in a husband. (And that's what made Betty so crazy.) Even her final act of, uh, interrupted service for Don was capped with "to be continued," which made Don wonder whether she was rehearsing that line all night.
Whereas Don can really open up to Faye, and ask for, and get, good advice. Earlier, she told him that his kids will know he loves them if he shows up. This time, when he tells her about Gene, and says, "I'm not welcome there," she responds with the very wise, "All he knows of the world is what you show him."
With all the hair changes, Dr. Faye looks different in every episode, and her accent is also hard to place (although a little ethnic on the t-sounds.)
Yup, Dr. Faye hardly comes from a fancy, blue-blood background. The telling off of her boyfriend, "Go shit in the ocean," is a direct translation of a Yiddishism. So it turns out that her father is a "candy-store owner" with Mob connections. Don asks what he's like, and she says, "He's a handsome, two-bit gangster, like you."
So she really gets Don, and knows there's a lot that's messy in his past. (Now he has both Peggy and Faye who understand him.)
Just as Francine's advice to Betty -- "You have everything"-- helped her deal with Don when he showed up for Gene's party, so too did Faye's advice help Don to show the kid who his father is.
(Then there's the Henry stuff, and his literally kicking Don and his boxes to the curb. Cutting the lawn showed that, despite his being the adult in the car with Betty, now he was acting like the child. But his career with Lindsay will no doubt be interesting. Discuss!)
Finally, Don, the elephant in the room, shows up carrying a cute stuffed elephant for Gene. And Betty treats him civilly for the moment. (From the very weak little wave of a greeting that Sally gives him, I wondered whether cruel crazy mama Betty had her manacled to the floor.)
The reality is that baby Gene probably would have cried after being suddenly removed from playing a game with his sister to be put in the arms of a strange man. But Don was using the fabled "kindness, gentleness, and persuasion."
As for Betty's final "we have everything," watch out. To whom much is given, much is required.