Monday, September 13, 2010
Don's career has made him a sprinter among wordsmiths, the mind behind clever slogans half the length of a haiku. Don's journal shows him to be gifted in introspection, at least now that saving himself has proven to be necessary and worthwhile. When we first hear the words of his monologue, it sounds like one end of a conversation with a therapist, but we see that it's just Don, alone with his brilliant mind and his newfound -- or newly revealed -- self-awareness. It's an exercise in salvation. The optimism of the last episode has been borne out, thus far: The best idea does win. At least, a much better idea than waking up badly hungover with the waitress he left his one-night-stand for, and in so doing standing up his own children. Don's arc of personal improvement is obvious at every turn -- he wins an impromptu swimming race at episode's end, and wins the battle with the usurper in his home just by showing up. As another testament to his turnaround, he is invited to more sex than he accepts, and makes his model ex-wife feel insecure upon glimpsing his new life. It's telling that he sends Miss Blankenship away with the alcohol she brought -- the amount that she expected him to consume.
While the B plot brought the series to its full potential as a fraternity movie, the A plot -- Don's plot -- was resplendent, beginning with the long corridor of the swimming lane symbolizing the difficult route ahead. We later see Don submerged like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, in much the same state of disillusionment. But this is an improving Don Draper, who looks a lot like the Don Draper of seasons one and two, standing outside the health club, watching a market basket of 1965's people and styles go by as the Rolling Stones remind us that Don's trade tells us how white our shirts can be and that a man's not a man if he doesn't smoke the same cigarettes as he.
Particularly when last season's episode "Seven Twenty Three" showed Don as perhaps the first member of his generation to be knocked down -- literally -- by a member of antiwar counterculture, we knew that the series has always had the option of a larger historical metaphor, with Don symbolizing the end of Eisenhower America as it slides into decay with the changing times, as season upon season slowly undoes him. But Don came apart quickly and has soon been -- for the most part -- put back together. He's on the rise precisely as the war in Vietnam begins to hold a combat role for U.S. troops. Don may yet see worse than he has seen, but his arc will not rise and fall precisely with historical trends that we already know.
Broadly speaking, "control" underlies all of the episode's interactions, but that is such a general concept that it is either unintended, or is a throwaway. It is true that Peggy and Joan both try to get control of Joey and Stan, and when Peggy succeeds, Joan diminishes her victory as a way of finding the control that she has lost in her home life as well as in her marriage. To chastise the boyish men of the writing staff, she uses the threat of the war as a form of control -- and destruction -- at which they can't and don't laugh. But this is nakedly a compensation for the loss of control that she feels, worried even that her husband has to come in proximity to ammunition at boot camp and leave her without a confidante. In a still more peripheral plots, there was the battle between the vending machine and everyone who tried to use it.
But these parallels are weak and beside the point. Perhaps the meticulously-constructed parallel plots that have appeared in previous episodes this season were beside the point, or a kind of stunt. (In this episode, the most obviously parallel scenes are Don's two steamy cab rides with blondes.) Perhaps Don's rise from the abyss is itself the story arc of a self-help book or an after-school special. But the readings in the journal, and how the accompanying imagery is filmed by director Phil Abraham, delivers the depth and impact of this episode. There is Don, in bed alone, the way he has always wanted to be: Comfortable, rolling to the cool spots, feeling like a skydiver. When he says it so clearly -- and beautifully -- it isn't so hard to see who is Don Draper. Significantly, Don does not derive any particular empowerment in this episode from further openness with Peggy. What bridges the two episodes is that Don has found a voice with which to speak his feelings -- something that Joan also says she needs. We perhaps best understand Don Draper when we see that he prefers to direct his openness to one and the same person who is his bed partner -- nobody else at all.