Not even a televised interruption regarding a tornado raging through Cook County could draw me away from this fantastic episode of Mad Men. If tonight’s episode had only proven that Don Draper is all too vulnerable to changing times, it would have still stood as a pivotal turning point in the series. Yet we were also treated to a nonlinear narrative, one unexpected hookup and — perhaps most shocking of all — a strong and likable Betty Draper.
The episode began with three flash forwards: Peggy lying naked in bed with someone, Betty appearing dazed on a Victorian fainting couch and Don lying beaten in some dingy motel. These premonitions were a neat trick but I think they ultimately killed some of the suspense for tonight’s episode. I think the sex between Peggy and Duck Phillips could have left me a little more stunned if I hadn’t been provided with the preview.
However, these flashbacks were a minor misstep in an otherwise great episode. Chronologically, the episode began with Don receiving an unexpected visit from Conrad Hilton. The meeting between the two businessmen was nothing too earth-shattering: They exchanged some banter about Bibles and family albums before Hilton dropped the bomb and asked Don to work some accounts for him. Then “Connie,” as Don so lovingly calls him, left Don as the office hero.
Okay, I lied. There was something else about the show that bothered me. I’m not a fan of Conrad Hilton. I assume that the writers want to present him as Don Draper’s equal, but I just think he represents all of Don’s least appealing traits, namely his smug self-satisfaction. Furthermore, his presence really takes me out of the show because whenever he’s on-screen I just want to shout to him, “Your great-granddaughter is going to be a slut!” Again, minor complaints.
So word moved through the office that Draper landed the Hilton account, which caused not only Don’s copywriter underlings, but also his bosses to treat him like the most popular guy in school. Such universal admiration had its drawbacks for Don, since Sterling, Cooper and Price all asked him to sign a three-year contract with Sterling Cooper. Don’s resistance to signing the contract was backed by a surprisingly logical rationale: basically, Don announced later in the episode that if Sterling Cooper had him, he would no longer hold as much power. Nevertheless, Don’s contract phobia irked many people, including new rival Roger Sterling. Sterling became so fed up with Draper that he decided to call Betty at home and inform her of Don’s contract. A very immature move, but also completely in Sterling’s character.
Speaking of Betty Draper, I don’t recall ever being as fond of her as I was this episode. First of all, she acted relatively less monstrous to her children (though many could justifiably argue that we just didn’t see her interact with her offspring too much tonight). Secondly, she flirted with the governor’s adviser Henry Francis with a cool that would make her husband proud. Plus, you have to applaud her for putting Sterling in his place when he called her behind Don’s back.
But Betty’s finest moment of the episode — and arguably of the whole series — had to be her argument with Don regarding his unwillingness to sign the contract. Typically, Don has the last word on all their spats, but tonight saw Betty leave her husband speechless with this brilliantly insightful comment: “What’s the matter, Don? You don’t know where you’re going to be in three years?” Betty’s lines were so poignant and delivered with such venomous sarcasm that Don had no choice but to get drunk and joyride.
Don’s argumentative defeat at the hands of his wife was not the only failure he suffered in this episode: Sally’s teacher shot down his moves, some drugged-out teens beat him up and Burt Cooper blackmailed him into signing the contract.
Finally, if Don doesn’t play his cards right, he might also lose Peggy to Duck Phillips. The combination of Duck’s gift from Hermes and the wicked tongue-lashing delivered by Don sent Peggy directly into Doug’s suite — and then his bed. Granted, Duck obviously had ulterior motives for sleeping with Peggy; but after her cringe-inducing meeting with Don (that scene should get Jon Hamm nominated for another Emmy, by the way), I can forgive the normally savvy Peggy for not being more aware.
So what did you all think about this latest episode of Mad Men? Is this the beginning of the end for Don Draper? Are we witnessing a re-orientation of the balance of power in the Draper household? And who do you prefer as Peggy’s friend with benefits: Pete or Duck?
Correction appended: The original version of this post referenced Conrad Hilton as Paris Hilton’s grandfather. He is actually her great-grandfather. Thanks to commenter RW for the clarification.