Mad Men, Season 3

Week 5: Welcome Back, Uncle Herman!
Talking television.
Sept. 14 2009 10:28 AM

Mad Men, Season 3

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Week 5: Welcome Back, Uncle Herman!

Same here, Patrick: This episode left me with an overwhelming feeling of relief that both Betty and her baby survived the ordeal. At times, I wasn't sure I was going to make it. I found the hospital scenes excruciating to watch—I caught myself averting my eyes as the nurse jabbed at Betty's arm trying to find a vein and flinching each time the other nurse came into the waiting room with an update. I was all but certain Lisa Simpson was going to inform Don Draper of some terrible news.

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

I usually love the way that Mad Men confounds our expectations, but last night, once the feeling of relief wore off, I too started to feel manipulated. The dream sequences foretold tragedy, but so did just about every other scene leading up to Eugene Scott Draper's birth. "I don't think children belong in graveyards," Don tells Ms. Farrell portentously. "Our worst fears lie in anticipation," he tells Dennis Hobart, as if goading the Fates to show him otherwise. And in my favorite piece of misdirection, Dennis assures Don that the newest Draper will be happy and healthy—right before he notes that, in his expert opinion, Don is an "honest guy." Oh, boy.

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As for the dream sequences, I'm with you on that, too, Patrick: I found them quite hokey. (I suppose we should count our blessings that we didn't have to sit through Don's Sing Sing nightmare as well.) It was interesting, though, to meet Betty's mother, whose death hung over the first season, even if the introduction was in a dream. Nothing seems to infantilize Betty so much as talking to her parents. Last week, when Gene sat her down to go over his arrangements, she responded like a bratty teenager. This week, her mother brought her back even further: "I left my lunch pail on the bus, and I'm having a baby," Betty confesses. In her mother's warning not to "speak up"—and her admonition to Betty to literally close her mouth, lest she catch flies—we get a sense of where the quiet, accommodating housewife of Season 1 came from. Something tells me, though, that Betty's days of heeding her mother's advice, however ominously delivered, are behind her.

I had a much better time last night when the action was set at Sterling Cooper. I enjoyed Sal's explanation of his Baltimore expenses to Lane—"If I were lying, wouldn't I have made it a round number?"—and Don's defense of the hard-drinking, hard-napping ways of his department: Making good advertising, he explains, is a matter of "letting our creatives be unproductive until they are." I also loved Duck's attempt to surreptitiously get a call through to Pete by claiming to be his Uncle Herman. ("Is Aunt Alice all right?" Pete demands, wide-eyed with concern.) I was surprised to see Duck back in the mix—I assumed he was still on the run from the SPCA—and surprised, too, at how happy I was to see him, turtleneck and all. As Patrick noted, his wooing of Peggy prompts her to speak up about not being treated as an equal. I wonder if it might also reintroduce a theme that's been dormant since the first season, namely the growing presence of Jews in advertising in this period. Grey was founded and run by Jews, and as Pete notes, it seems Duck has learned how to fit in with his new colleagues: "Two months at Grey, you're already having a nosh?" he asks snidely. The only Jewish employee we've ever seen at Sterling Cooper is David Cohen, the mail clerk Roger produced in the first episode to set Rachel Mencken at ease. I wonder if we'll get to meet a real, live Jewish ad man at some point in the weeks to come.

Speaking of the pilot, Pete's interrogation of Hollis on the elevator called to mind a scene Patrick mentioned at the beginning of this TV Club, when Don asks a black waiter what cigarette he smokes and why. A white waiter intervenes, assuming his black colleague is talking out of turn. In the wake of Evers' death, Hollis has a recent reminder of the perils of "speaking up," though I got the sense he also didn't much like Pete's assumption that he could somehow reveal the secret of why blacks prefer Admirals—or the assumption that the American dream as Pete imagines it is available to all Americans. The look on Hollis' face at that moment—disbelief, pain, a tinge of anger—was poignant, but his refusal to be a pawn in Pete's game felt like a small victory.

Once again the subject of race brought out the worst in Roger Sterling, but his dressing-down of Pete was a blast to watch. "Let me put it in account terms," he says, before explaining that remedying the situation with Admiral is going to require significant heavy petting. I thought the better line, though, was the one he offered at the end of Pete's flogging. "It's never as good as you think it's going to be," he says ruefully.

Has anyone seen my credenza?
John