Episode Three: "The Benefactor"
As Jimmy Barrett, the Don Rickles-like comedian put it while shooting Sterling/Cooper's latest UTZ commercial, ''You try and stick your face into a can of nuts!''
And indeed, there was a whole new cast of nuts this week, with barely a reference to Pete, Peggy, and Paul, the Sterling Cooper characters whose messy personal problems dominated, and were left unresolved, in the last episode.
Instead, it was a dense, symbolism-packed, uneasy ride, circling the themes of light and dark, power and cruelty. Some of the violent sex had a very "Sopranos"-like echo.
It opens on a shoot for UTZ potato chips. The set is a very modern, minimal back-lit fake bar -- the account guy is drunk and asleep, and the talent is drunk and very up. Don Draper is nowhere to be found, and the UTZ owners -- Mr. and Mrs Schilling -- drop by the set.
The "insult'' comedian, Jimmy Barrett, immediately launches into horrifying gratuituous fat jokes (even to a modern ear) about the pleasant but plus-sized Mrs. Utz. Bits about the Hindenburg, and the whale in Pinocchio fly like hockey pucks. There's noone there to rein him in. (There was a "Sopranos" episode all about making fun of a fat wife, and the deadly repercussions of that.)
Don, it turns out, is taking in a New Wave French film with subtitles in the middle of the day.
Indeed, holding on to the reins, and doing whatever it takes to maintain control, was the theme of the episode.
This was made, as Dick Nixon liked to say, perfectly clear in a riding scene featuring Don's wife, Betty. She's increasingly shown as a Grace Kelly-like zombie -- a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, trying out new personas, cold and calculating one minute, passive and childish the next, but always desperate for male attention. There was that weird scene in a previous episode where she came on to the tow-truck driver. This week, she has her eye on Arthur, a F. Scott Fitzgerald-spouting guy, engaged to a very rich girl, who is taking riding lessons to fit into her family. He's the very definition of ''callow youth.'' Betty arranges to run into him at the stable. She looks commanding and perfect on her steed, and obviously feels her power.
By contrast, Arthur is shown immobile on a broken-down nag. In a complete gender reversal, Betty is in control, and grabs the reins of his horse, who is eating grass. "Straighten her out," she says. ''You can't let her do that." Arthur responds, ''And you don't for a minute think you might be hurting her?" Betty answers with these telling, if self-hating words: "She needs to be told what to do."
Meanwhile, the role-switch continues with husband Don, who after his absence that day on the set, is commanded by agency head Roger Sterling to repair the damage with the UTZ client. (By the way, the out-there humor in that commercial is perhaps a reference to the "wacky" Lay's commercials at the time starring Bert Lahr, in which he said ''I bet you can't eat just one.'')
Don stands in profile in front of the dramatic, black-and-white set, facing Bobbie, the comedian's attractive, and tough-as-nails female manager. They talk in profile, in shadow. It's a gorgeous shot, like something out of a theater of the absurd Pinter play of the time, or the Ingmar Bergman film about "open marriage'' that would soon rock the American cultural elite.)
He ends up driving her to the Copa where Jimmy's performing, (In an accurate detail, the comedian ends up stealing the tuxedo he wears on the ad shoot.) Just as they get in the safety of the car, there's a hale storm (ominous sign.) Within this bubble, Bobbie turns the tables of power, and becomes the sexual aggressor. Don briefly demurs, but, ends up returning the ardor, something he couldn't make happen with his own wife on Valentine's Day.
But then there's another reversal to come at Lutece, at a dinner Don sets up with Jimmy and his manager and the Utz couple, to repair some fences. But the apology does not seem forthcoming. Instead, Jimmy comes on to perfect housewife Betty, with a string of rapid fire one liners including, "Do the birds hang up your laundry?''
Don leaves the table to talk to manager Bobbie in the hallway. She demands extra money, and says there'll be no apology. His response is as shocking and atavistic as any of the cruelty shown to him by his stepparents on their Depression-era farm. He grabs her by the hair, and at first it's hard to tell whether this is sexual , or violent, or both. Then he sexually assaults her with his finger. It's rough, and she's clearly hurt. He comes back to the table, wipes his hand with a napkin, and Bobbie publicly tells Jimmy to apologize, which he does.
Don's behavior takes a page from Tony Soprano, who also likes to dally with aggressive, successful women, and in the end, always brings it back to brutal business, and shows them who is boss. (And come to think of it, with her attempts at her own affair, Betty is becoming like Carmela.)
Meanwhile, back at the agency, media dweeb Harry Crane is angry that he doesn't make more money after seeing an account guy's paycheck. He finds a way to ingratiate himself at the agency, and also with a friend at CBS -- by offering a client an advance screening of ''The Defenders'' a popular legal drama at the time, starring E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed as his legal sidekick. CBS can't sell it to sponsors, since it deals with abortion-and although I thought you couldn't even say the word "pregnant" at the time, obviously things are changing. At the time, CBS did indeed run the show, which was forward-thinking and unapologetic, (and largely sponsor-free.)
Again, the themes of sexual violence and power are in the air, as like Harry, the agency uses the topic of abortion, absurdly. to ingratiate itself with its beauty business client, Belle Jolie. (The client is the guy who earlier came on to Sal, the agency art director, who rebuffed him because he wants to stay in the closet. So both gay and women's rights are topics that are about to explode.)
Don's argument couldn't be more absurd, or insensitive: "What is better than tears to make a girl ready to hear that she can be beautiful?" Peggy's only appearance during the episode is in this conference room, watching the show about abortion with her own conflicted conscience.
In the end, the empty suits are all lined up, sitting in the dark. It reminds me of what Jimmy Barrett tells the client's wife, by way of apology, that night at Lutece. "There's the guy under the lights, and then there's me.''
"I know what you do, I just don't have the stomach for it'' she responds, which is a great way to express how I felt about Don Draper by the end of this episode.
A slightly ironic post-script: this episode was interrupted by many commercials, which were uniformly annoying and awful. One of the worst was for Viagra -- a bunch of country singers pickin' and a-singing "Viva Viagra!'' It showed exactly how far we have not come from Don Draper's day.
Mad Men can be seen Sunday, 10 p.m. on AMC, and is immediately rerun at 11:00. It can also be found on iTunes and on AMC Demand.