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We'll Take a Cup of Kindness Yet: Welcome Distractions on Mad Men

At the end of it all, sometimes all we leave behind is a mark on the wall.

That seemed to be the message behind this week's beautiful and lyrical episode of Mad Men ("The Good News"), written by Jonathan Abrahams and Matthew Weiner and directed by Jennifer Getzinger, which seemed to offer the suggestion that just about everything in life--whether that be beer and abalone at the beach, an afternoon movie, or a rendezvous with a call girl--are in themselves welcome distractions from the true issues at hand, from the omnipresent threat of death and loss.

It's only fitting then that the distractions faced by Don Draper, Lane Pryce, and Joan Harris, are offered up as the calendar pages flit from one year to the next. New Year's Eve and New Year's Day represent the alpha and omega of the neverending cycle of life, the passage of time. It's only fitting that January should be named for the Roman god Janus, whose two heads looked in either direction and so too that "The Good News" should itself be set in the liminal period between 1964 and 1965.

It's also, for Don, mostly set in the space between destinations, between the workplace intrigue of Manhattan and the promise of relaxation in Acapulco, in California, where Don can truly be himself. Not the Don Draper of Wall Street Journal profiles or the recent divorcee, but his true self, Dick Whitman.

Throughout the series, the presence of Anna Draper has been keenly felt, both in terms of Dick's own usurping of her husband's identity but also for the relationship Dick forged with the real Don Draper's widow, a relationship with a woman that wasn't based on sex or marriage, that was void of power games or artifice. It was, really, the one true relationship in his life that was built upon honesty, even as it was borne from the biggest lie Dick/Don had ever told.

It's only fitting then that Don would go to see Anna now, his life in tatters after the destruction of his marriage, that he would seek to reconnect with one of the few positive influences on his life. When Anna tells Don that she's sorry that Betty broke his heart, the depth of that sympathy is palpable. "I know everything about you," Anna tells him later. "And I still love you."

The same can't be said about Betty, who left Don shortly after he came clean to her about his past and his real identity. The foundation of their marriage was built on quicksand, whereas he's been open and honest to Anna about who he really is, about his dreams, his fears, his failures, and his successes. More than his wife or children, Anna Draper knows Don more than any person ever has. Really, Anna is the only one qualified to answer the question raised in the season opener: "Who is Don Draper?"

It's said that we're alive so long as those who knew us carry us in their memories. The impending death of Anna Draper--to a cancer that she doesn't even know she carries in her bones--isn't just the passing of a confidante and friend. It's the passing of Dick Whitman, of the one person who knew just who Don Draper was and who loved him all the more for it. When she tells him that she's proud of him, it's more than just hollow words or an empty sentiment. Anna's love is a validation of the man Don can--and could--be, of his full potential and promise.

But nothing lasts forever, sadly. Anna's already polio-ravaged body is further invaded, the cancer eating away at her from the inside, just as her picture-perfect home is stained by water damage, a reminder of an invader that can't be kept out. Don's efforts to distract Anna, to conceal the truth from her about her condition are in keeping with his handling of the water stain: he applies a fresh coat of paint to make things appear to be fine. But underneath it all, the stain is still there. It might be hidden for now, but Don knows it's there, just beneath the surface.

Likewise, Don discovers that he can't stay in California; he can't keep applying coats of paint to something that he cherishes more than anything. If he stays, he'd have to tell her the truth and he leaves, promising to bring Sally and Bobby at Easter time, but not knowing truly if he'll ever see Anna again. Their goodbye, as Don chokes back tears, is likely the final one they'll share.

It's all the more gutting then just what Don chooses to leave on the wall. As Anna paints a flower--a symbol of a too-short life--Don inscribes something at the bottom of the wall ("Dick and Anna, '64"). It's a reminder that they were there, they shared a part of their lives, however brief, together and that they existed. It's more than many of us get and it's all the more heartbreaking to realize that soon, that too, will be painted over.

(It's also fitting that Don should learn of Anna's death after making a move on her niece Stephanie--who is "young and beautiful"--but not only are his advances rebuffed but he learns from Stephanie that Anna has terminal cancer and that the last few months of her life this is to be kept from her. Personally, I'm glad that Stephanie and Don didn't end up in bed together and that Stephanie didn't want to keep Anna's condition from him. However, Stephanie's mom, Patty, sees things different. Don is just "a man in a room with a checkbook." He has no say over Anna's life or her death.)

Rather than vacation in Acapulco, Don returns to New York, where he encounters Lane Pryce, himself attempting to find a welcome distraction from his own marital problems. A clerical error--an almost comical exchange of a bouquet of flowers meant for Joan--compounds the already perilous condition of his marriage and Lane is told not to fly to London and that his family won't be returning to the U.S.

The two men--both divorcees now--end up spending the day and the evening together, taking in a Godzilla movie, a steak dinner, a raunchy stand-up show, and two call girls. It's meant to be a welcome distraction for them both but the alcohol-fueled excursion and debauchery--from monster movies and masturbation jokes to oversized steaks and call girls Candace and Janine--turns into a morning of sobering recriminations. Their boys' night out now seems tawdry and sad the following day, as Lane settles up with Don over a glass of water, handing him $30 to take care of Janine, the hooker whose company he enjoyed.

It may have been a "magnificent year," but things are still precarious. The good news may never come for either of the men. Don's vacation turned into something heartbreaking. Lane's night of excess was a reminder of what he's lost. No matter how hard you try, some things can't be retrieved. And some things once lost, are gone forever.

For Joan, it's that fear that's almost paralyzing. The Joan we see on New Year's Eve, flower lei around her neck is vastly different than the headstrong and powerful woman who throws Lane's flowers at him and fires his incompetent secretary after she fails to admit responsibility for the "egregious" screw-up. Her attempts to salvage the holiday, to celebrate the turning over of the year as it happens in Hawaii, is an effort to hold onto Greg and to push the uncertainty that 1965 brings to the back of her mind. But, unfortunately, it's just a coat of paint.

As Joan cuts her finger attempting to make Greg freshly squeezed orange juice, he takes the opportunity to stitch her up. But in order to do so, he attempts to distract her as well, pretending there is a bird's nest on the ceiling, as one would a child. But rather than feel that he is patronizing her (as Joan assumed Lane was from his card and admonishment not to go cry), there's a tenderness here that's at odds with Greg's treatment of Joan last season and his rape of his wife. "I can't fix anything else," he tells her, "but I can fix this." Despite what has passed between them, I do believe he loves her.

It's a small moment of domesticity that conceals the true terror that Joan feels: that her husband will go off to war and will die in Vietnam. Even as she hopes to plan for the birth of a child (plans for which, fortunately, an illicit abortion from a "midwife," did not derail), the presence of death sits uncomfortably between them. Greg might be able to fix her cut but it's a painful reminder of just how little time they have been them as well as how unknown the coming year will be. Will he be gone in three months' time? Or six? Will he come back to her?

Ultimately, distractions are just that: distractions. In the cold light of morning, Don is still alone, Lane is still estranged from his wife, Greg will still go off to war and Joan may wind up a widow. All three attempt to take their minds off their troubles by escaping reality but life has a way of catching up with you. At the office, the conference table has finally arrived as the staffers of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce gather around to begin to plan the coming year.

It's a scene that's full of possibility for them all. Just what 1965 will bring none of them know but it's an effort to face the future head-on. Distractions past, they can get down to the business at hand. It may not be easy, it may be filled with loss, but they've turned over that calendar page and, like any of us, are taking it one day at a time.

Next week on Mad Men ("The Rejected"), an edict from Roger and Lane puts Pete in a personal dilemma.

Comments said…
I loved that when Don and Lane left with their "dates", the folksinger was singing the classic, "House of the Rising Son." The counterculture speaking the truth to the Admen.
Kate said…
What a rich episode....heartbreaking in the first half, hilarious in the second. How true that these characters spend so much time trying to figure out what is wrong with them, when we see it right away, just like Anna with her cancer that no one will tell you about. As Don says, "So, she's just going to wake up in agony one day, and you'll tell her that's it?". I have a feeling it's not only Anna who will be living through that statement.

I will say, though, that this episode had us rolling in several moments....Lane's belt buckle speech to the rstaurant, discussion of Catherine Deneuve with a quick cut to Godzilla, "can ya eat it?". I love that the structure of the episode took us on an emotional journey similar to Don's in this episode - a harsh reveal of the reality of where these characters are headed, followed by the "welcome distraction" of the new year's eve shennanigans. Like them, though, the end of the episode left me feeling off-center and uneasy.
Blythe said…
I was surprised to find that a lot of people didn't like this episode and felt that nothing happened.

I was enthralled by the richness of this story and the weight of things left unsaid. It was heartbreaking and hysterical and a very moving episode. I'm just glad that there are others out there who felt this way too!

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