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The Honest People: The Semblance of Control on Mad Men

The universe has a nasty way of reminding us that we're not in control of our lives. Though we might scheme and lie and grab onto some semblance of control in an effort to quell that inner truth, it's a bitter pill to be reminded of just how little authority we have over our own destinies.

When Lee Garner Jr. tells Roger, "There's no reason. Nothing you can do," he might as well be speaking for that unseen horseman in whose hands all of our reins sit. Like Lucky Strike's Lee, Life is a capricious and unforgiving mistress.

In this week's glorious episode of Mad Men ("Hands and Knees"), written by Jonathan Abrahams and Matthew Weiner and directed by Lynn Shelton, the truth spilled out uncomfortably for several characters, who were forced to reckon with the lack of control they have in their individual lives. When faced with making life-altering choices, each of them--whether that be Don Draper, Joan Harris, Lane Pryce, or Roger Sterling--were forced to contend with the fact that the choice was already made for them by someone else.

Secrets have a way of coming out, even if you bury them deep inside and for each of these characters (and even Pete Campbell, despite his speech about being one of "the honest people"), there's a ticking clock element to the concealment of their innermost truths. One doesn't need G-men stalking your ex-wives to feel the pressure, after all, and the hard truth can often hurt as much as a blow from a cane to the back of the head.

The fictional construct of Don Draper has been built on layers of control, of refinement, and of stolen opportunity. While the mix-up in Korea wasn't Dick's fault per se, he made a concerted effort to steal the identity of Don Draper, to make the government--and for a while himself as well--believe that he really was this other man. Because by being Don Draper, he wasn't an uneducated farmer's son, he wasn't a military deserter. His life was a blank slate and he could recreate it in any way he saw fit.

But one can't run forever. The panic attack that Don suffers at his apartment, Faye Miller by his side, is the result of keeping the truth bottled up, of running from his true responsibilities for so long. The life he created for himself--gorgeous Manhattan offices, Beatles tickets for his daughter, that Brylcreamed profile--is built on quicksand and it's only a matter of time before the bottom drops out completely. That the government agents, conducting a routine background check on Don as part of his request for security clearance, question Betty is the moment that Don has feared more than anything.

After all, Don managed to finesse Pete Campbell into keeping his dark secret. He formed a bond with the late Anna Draper. He came clean to his wife, even though it ultimately destroyed the final vestiges of their marriage. But a governmental probe into his personal life, into the fiction that he's constructed around himself? It's too dangerous. There are elements that don't match up: his age, for one. And while an everyday citizen might be able to be bribed, coerced, or placated into going along with his identity theft scheme, there's no way that he'll be able to convince a government official of any innocence. There is no going back.

It's interesting that Don opened up to Faye Miller in this episode, telling her about his past, despite the fact that they haven't been together very long. It's a reversal of fortune for Don. After concealing the truth from Betty for so long (and getting burned when he did tell her) and having the lie discovered by Pete, Don chooses to unburden himself to Faye in an effort to regain control over this all-encompassing truth about himself. He chooses to tell her, openly and honestly, though it's also worth noting that his defenses are down. He's "tired of running," and is so exhausted he can barely keep his eyes open.

But in telling Faye, Don doesn't regain control. Not really. In fact, by telling Faye, it seems as though their relationship is over before it's even really begun. Despite the fact that Faye accepts Don and is happy that he told her the truth, she has already begun to make plans and arrangements. This situation isn't something that can be left alone. She alludes to solving the problem, that Dick was just a kid when it happened, that they can figure it out together.

Which is the problem.

Don doesn't want to go back to being Dick. Faye may have surprised him by being so understanding and sympathetic towards his situation but he's been running since he was 18 years old. He's not going back to being Dick Whitman. He doesn't want to fix anything. In that moment, his casual relationship with Faye became something fraught with far too much complication.

Hence, perhaps, Don's sudden admiration of new assistant Megan outside his office. As she reapplies her lipstick at her desk, unaware of Don's gaze, something stirs within him. Is he aware of that he's lost control over his relationship with Faye already? Is he perhaps attracted once again, not to the strong and impassioned woman that Faye represents, but something far easier?

We're reminded, after all, of the fact that even something as simple as Sally's happiness is outside his level of control. Despite the fact that he has promised her to take her to see the Beatles, the tickets aren't in hand and Don spends the episode attempting to track down those concert tickets, lest he disappoint Sally even further after the events of last week.

Pete does keep Don's secret and the company drops NAA as a client as Pete falls on his sword for Don. The Beatles tickets do arrive, however. It's Megan who manages to get them and who hands them to Don after he's reassured Faye that everything is fine between them. "Everything worked out," Megan coos, handing him the tickets. It did, but only this time.

Elsewhere, Joan--not unsurprisingly--told Roger that she was pregnant and that the baby was his and not Greg's, as he was deployed seven weeks earlier. While they consider their options, it's clear that the fate of Joan's pregnancy has already been decided: she'll once again abort, the third time that she's done so. It's not an easy decision, given the fact that Joan has been trying to get pregnant for some time now. She freely entered into this extramarital arrangement, yes, but her yearning for a child doesn't come into the equation. She has as little control over her life--or that of her offspring--as much as the 17-year-old girl she encounters at the clinic.

Our sad Madonna, dressed in blue, can't even be honest with the woman about what she's doing there, pretending that she's supporting her 15-year-old daughter as she gets an abortion. The lonely bus ride home, the loss that she's suffered, only serve to further remind us of how little power Joan has over her own life.

Separate from the sexual and bodily issues of control plaguing Joan, Roger himself suffers a moment of clarity when Lee Garner Jr. tells him that they are taking their business from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to BBDO. It's a shock to Roger, the end of nearly thirty years of business together but Garner says that the decision--like everyone's this episode--was out of his hands. The board decided they wanted to consolidate their brands and this is just a business decision.

Roger attempts to buy time, pleading with Lee to reconsider, to at least give him thirty days to get their affairs in order and keep things secret until then, the literal "hands and knees" begging of the episode's title. While Lee agrees to give Roger thirty days, he still attempts to keep the news under his hat, refusing to even tell the other partners of the loss of their largest client.

Which is why he lashes out at Pete over the loss of the $4 million NAA account. Given the financial jeopardy they're now in thanks to the end of the billable hours from Lucky Strike, they are in dire circumstances. His anger at Pete is displaced rage towards himself, a cosmic frustration with how things have--or haven't--worked out for him, for Joan, for his life. (It hasn't for others either, as Roger discovers most of his business leads are literally dead.)

Circumstances are conspiring around them. Don may have convinced Pete to dump NAA but he wasn't aware of the Lucky Strike situation. Roger might have to apologize to Pete for jumping down his throat, but he hasn't told anyone about Lee's announcement. And Lane leaves for England, believing the company to be fiscally solvent. The lies being told at the conference table bind all of them together, even if they can't see at that very moment that the walls are crumbling down around them.

Lane, for his part, believes himself to be his own man, to be independent of the abuse and tyranny of his Victorian era-born father Robert (W. Morgan Sheppard). He believes that he's made a new life for himself in New York, one that's separate from his estranged wife Rebecca. He is a man in love, having fallen for Playboy Club waitress/bunny Toni Charles (Naturi Naughton).

His relationship with Toni reveals just how far out of his father's orbit Lane has traveled, refuting the Victorian ideals of his father's generation and planting himself in a modern America. Robert immediately takes umbrage to Lane's choice of lover: Toni is both black and a Playboy bunny; she represents the sexual revolution underway. She's a cocktail waitress who basically wears a swimsuit and a bunny tail to work each night. In other words, she's an affront to everything that Robert believes in, his carefully ordered view of the universe.

Still, Lane attempts to wrest control of his life from his domineering father, believing that he can stand up to the old man and forge his own path in life, even if Robert and Rebecca are conspiring to keep his son from him. Despite the fact that Robert makes the situation with Toni all the more uncomfortable, Lane tries to salvage the evening.

But it gets worse. His efforts to enforce his own rule backfire completely as Robert shockingly smacks him over the head with the crook of his cane and then stands on the prone Lane's hand until he agrees to return to England to sort out his family. It's a portrait of a beaten man, one whose plight echoes the likely frequent abuse meted out by this tyrannical man. This new man is infantilized by the exchange, reduced once again to a child at the whims of his enraged father. The blood on his hand, the result of that blow to his head, don't come as so much of a shock but rather an awful reminder once more of the fragility of his self-control.

It's no surprise that Lane takes a leave of absence, intending to sort things out in the United Kingdom. He might be in love with Toni, but their relationship is shattered as soon as that cane connects with his skull, a brutal wake-up call at the end of a dream.

It's just one of many dreams that, rather sadly, none of these characters can toil under any longer.

Next week on Mad Men ("Chinese Wall"), Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce employees resort to scuttlebutt after an agency-wide meeting is called.

Comments

Bella Spruce said…
I really like Don's relationship with Faye and was a bit surprised by his reaction to Megan putting her lipstick on. Still, I guess a leopard can't change his spots (even if he can change his name).

Roger and Joan are truly star-crossed lovers.

And poor Lane. I expected his father to make some sort of fuss but did not expect it to come in the form of a blow over the head. Yikes.
Abbytaz said…
Dear Don Draper,
The past has finally caught up to you and it's time to come clean with the whole world.

Signed,
The Federal Government
Anonymous said…
Hey Jace - great review - love your insights as always... however I may be wrong but I am pretty sure that Don physically changed the dog tags from the dying/dead and burnt Don Draper with his own. Surely that makes it his fault.
Cheers
T
Addie DeWitt said…
A lot of buzz about the director, Lynn Shelton. I didn't love this episode. The past weeks have been so flawlessly seamless in terms of themes and yet here I felt I saw everything from a mile a way. I really like Faye. As an actress but also as a character. She emits a tremendous amount of empathy and you feel like she's going to take care of Don. which I think is why he came clean with her. But I also want to say one thing about Betty Draper... where the heck is Bett Draper!!! January Jones plays this woman pitch perfect and she's the best female character on television and yet they've sacrificed her all season in service of Don and the workplace at SCDP. I wish Matt Weiner would find a better balance. After the Sally episode I find myself interested in what's going on at the Francis residence. Always good writing, Jace. But you gave this episode a bit too much grace.

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