You know how, when you’re watching Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (like you do), you can usually tell when the credits are rolling who did it? It’s always the D-list celebrity making a cameo that week. Or, if the guest didn’t do it, she’s the victim, tearfully remembering a gruesome trauma. Either way, for a viewer this sort of tell is a letdown. Once you know what’s coming, how fun it is to watch is never as satisfying as a shock of newness. I feel similarly when I see that either Jon Hamm or John Slattery has directed an episode of Mad Men. I know it’ll be a placeholder episode, one of those bones thrown to the actors with dreams of calling the shots. This week it was Slattery’s turn behind the camera, and, all consideration for any talent he might have aside, his episodes are usually lighter fare. The jokes were there; there was some awkward mise-en-scène during conversations between adversaries. Slattery knows comedy like a good clown would. I’m not saying he’s Bill Irwin or anything, but the guy understands the power of large gestures. Vincent Kartheiser and Jon Hamm tend to be a little more blustery and brusque whenever Slattery directs them; Christina Hendricks sparkles a little bit more.
So what surprised me this week was a Slattery episode where the volume seemed turned down, especially during supposedly emotional milestones. Crescendos of feeling were interrupted by awkward elevator rides. Don’s side fling with Sylvia ended, the companies merged and felt significant growing pains, and Bobby Kennedy got shot. Oh yeah, that last thing. Kennedy’s assassination was tacked on at the end: Pete’s senile mother wakes him, and Pete assumes she means John, not Bobby, so he turns over and goes back to sleep. We see Megan crying while watching TV, but our usual audience surrogates aren’t there to witness history for us. The camera doesn’t really focus on anyone, and the sound of the news overlaps with the song playing over the credits.
The way things usually go on Mad Men, you would think this muted, absent quality would mean something grand. But what does this awkwardness tell us that we don’t already know? We already know that Don is stuck in a life he chose but can’t be satisfied with. His personality is on a loop, he’s repeating a tested formula to pass the time. Like Ted’s commuter car games involving Gilligan’s Island or Sylvia’s paperback of The Last Picture Show, there are things we do to distract ourselves from our patterns and how tired we might be of them. Don’s version of this is sexual, of course. He enjoys a light round of dominance and subservience, wherein Sylvia must sit locked up in a hotel room waiting for him to feel like coming to her. Sylvia enjoys herself up to a point, but then, in a move designated to make her want him more, Don takes her book away and she is forced to look more closely at what they’re doing. (It feels as if this emotional revelation already happened, by the way, which frustrates me to no end. This is either testament to Mad Men‘s déjà vu problem — which I’m convinced Matthew Weiner views as a strength — or something tonally off about Linda Cardellini’s performance. Or both.) When Sylvia is ending their affair, Don says that it is easy to leave when you’re satisfied. Good line, but I doubt he really gets the emotional weight behind that kind of thing. It’s part of his routine, like romanticizing Dorothea Lange America in ads for margarine, or getting his mistresses to tell him nothing but him will do. To her credit, Sylvia counters this by saying it’s easy to leave when you are ashamed. What it means to feel shame or satisfaction switches around in this episode. There is the playtime shame, part of Don’s sadism, and this involves a lot of set pieces: Sylvia bending over and picking up his shoes, Sylvia getting dressed in a busty red dress to go out only to get undressed again, Don letting the phone ring. But then there is real shame, which comes when their situation is revealed for what it is: a script with marks hit at the expense of others. Similarly, there is a rote satisfaction in hands hidden under the sheets and breathless necking. Real fulfillment is elusive. There is nothing easy about it.
It’s easy however to see that Don is dominating Sylvia to work out office-related frustration. With the merger comes new power dynamics, and Don doesn’t get as much of a say as he used to. What he’s done before isn’t going to work the same way now. Whereas it felt like a victory when he sabotaged Roger several years ago with oysters and martinis, his tactic of plying Ted with brown liquor until he falls asleep at the copywriters’ table feels like bullying. He is picking on someone his own size — for all Ted’s niceness, he is an operator, he has a plan — but that doesn’t mean he isn’t being an asshole. Peggy scolds him: move forward, Don. Knowing this show, he probably won’t. What would it take at this point? A great love? Nope, that fades, and Don doesn’t seem capable of it anyway. His children? No, we tend to forget them soon after Don remembers he loves them. Good deeds, exercise, maybe some psychotherapy? Not a chance, his hole is too deep. If he isn’t switching comfortably between lover and fighter, shark and glass-eyed lamb, what is he doing? If there isn’t a role to play, if he’s not improvising, then there’s nothing for him to do.
Other things happened in this episode, but they felt inconsequential. Pete’s mom is senile and living with him now, in case you didn’t realize that the theme of this season (and all seasons) was regression and feeling out of time. Joan had food poisoning or something. Was this explained while I was spacing out looking at James Wolk’s face? Anyway, Bob helped her out, and she felt grateful enough to keep him from getting axed in the merger aftermath. It’s hard to imagine he didn’t plan that. His character has been set up as such a brown-noser, and everyone is so selfish on this show. But maybe Joan’s mom is right. Maybe there are some good deeds that aren’t part of a plan. Maybe this guy is just genuinely nice. That would be novel, wouldn’t it?