The Good News: Mad Men Season 4, Episode 3 (Commentary)
I started thinking of everything I was sure I knew was true -- and how flimsy it all might be. ~ Anna Draper
The good news this week is that Mad Men returns to form with a rich and entertaining episode layered with meaning even in the seemingly throwaway asides. Three major characters struggle with bad news – Don learning that Anna Draper has terminal cancer, Lane finding out his wife wants to end their marriage and Joan worrying about Greg being sent to Vietnam – but joy still finds its way in, as each connects with a person who reminds them not of the preciousness of life (that would be, well, too precious for this show) but rather the absurd pleasure to be found in simply living, especially in mid-twentieth century America. This path to release isn’t automatic – each earns it by choosing to see things as they really are instead of holding fast to the flimsy matter they’d called truth. In challenging personal assumptions and illusions, each finds the way to a more authentic experience, just as the country they live in has begun to do.
You should swim as much as you can there -- it will clear your head. But no cliff diving. ~ Anna to Dick
Life’s a beach, and then you die, the saying on t-shirts goes. In “The Good News,” people talk and sing of beaches – in Cape Cod, Hawaii and Acapulco – but no one makes it there, not even Don, who’s booked himself a New Year’s bachelor getaway to Mexico, seeking a fresh start to 1965. The closest he gets is San Pedro, where he stops overnight to visit Anna Draper, a meeting that does clear his head, by showing him the cliff of mortality we all teeter on.
As she makes clear in both words and actions, Anna loves and accepts the man that she knows only as his true self, Dick Whitman. And ironically, when Don becomes a Dick, he’s a much more likable guy. It’s always both a relief and a revelation to witness the utterly relaxed version of a character we normally see as tense, driven and increasingly unhappy. Even his drinking with Anna seems celebratory rather than the frantic anesthetizing it is in New York, and his sharing of a joint signals his openness to the new, more casual freedoms so distant from his corporate three-martini self.
What is it like taking off your suit and returning to the wild? ~ Steph to Don
Don-Dick’s duality is at the heart of the series, a metaphor for the split occurring in American life: The country is literally starting to come apart at the seams, and divisions between young and old, establishment and rebel, black and white, men and women, gay and straight are both explicitly portrayed and hinted at in the subtext of this and many other episodes. Here the split is evoked in the juxtaposition of sunny California with the dark news of Anna’s condition, a dive off a cliff into mortality rather than a refreshing swim. The news is broken to Dick by Anna’s niece, Stephanie, a Poli Sci major at Cal (Berkeley) who says without any apparent irony that she’s not really interested in politics, and has avoided the sit-ins because she feels “somebody has to go to class,” declaring that “I just don’t understand who’s in charge.” Dick’s retort for this (“You’re in charge. Trust me, I work in advertising.”) shows an awareness of the youth market that we haven’t quite witnessed from him before (Pete being the advocate of that new demographic) and suggests far more readiness to cede the world to a new generation than people like him felt in 1964. (Anna’s “Young people are going to save us,” seems similarly pat, even for the ever-sunny and increasingly hip pot-smoking dame who essentially urges Dick “if it feels good, do it” in expressing her desire to see him happy.)
When Steph rejects the power that Dick lays at her generation’s feet, Dick shrugs and tells her the answer is to stop buying things. “Don’t think that’s not possible,” Steph retorts – a preview of the hippie rejection of materialism soon to be widespread among her fellow Baby Boomers (alas, for all too short a time). Steph seems a perfect mid-60’s character, half-awake halfway through the decade that will change a generation and a country (the latter profoundly, while the former will end up more like their parents than they ever believed possible in their youth). “I don’t know where things go,” she avers after dumping Anna’s clean laundry on her bed, to which her exasperated mother responds, “You can tell by looking.” Yes, and you don’t need a weather man to tell which way the wind blows, but you do have to open your senses and look, feel or listen. Steph shows her own closed-mindedness by disdaining her roommate becoming a Jesus freak who embraces the Bible rather than her psych textbook (the sacred text of the culture at that time) and who wants to spread the “good news.” As the first bonafide 1960’s college student (at Berkeley, no less) the show has delved into, she evades stereotypes, being less counter-cultural than mock-cultural, putting down the music of Dick and Anna’s youth as surely as she does her classmates’ preoccupations. She deems a ride home from Dick as “probably safer” than her usual mode of hitchhiking, only to have New York Don resurface and try to seduce her, an attempt broken by the shattering two-part news that Steph delivers: that Anna is dying of cancer, and hasn’t been told. Dick eloquently responds, “Cancer. Shit.” -- which nicely covers both halves of that revelation.
I woke up in a panic because I thought I might have missed you. ~ Anna
Yes, kids, it used to be common that people weren’t told they had cancer or were dying. Having Anna’s sister, Patty, withhold this news at the doctor’s urging (because it will only distress Anna, after all) is an entirely realistic scenario for that era. Telling people the truth of their medical condition was thought to be unspeakably cruel, and not conducive to a peaceful death. (Because after all, as Dick points out, it’s better just to let someone wake up in agony one day and wonder what the hell is going on.) But Dick’s attempt to take charge and provide Anna with both the truth of her condition and better medical care hits a stonewall in her sister Patty, who cuts him down by asserting that, “You have no say in the affairs of this family. You’re just a man in a room with a checkbook.” A perfect summary not just of his dual life with Betty and with Anna, but of the responsible yet powerless role that American men have all too often been burdened with, even today. The man his ex-father-in-law Gene had asserted couldn’t be trusted “because he has no people” is once again orphaned by those words, devastatingly cut off from the one person in his life who has loved him unconditionally. The pain of that wound is evident when a few moments later he actually defends Patty to Anna (who says she wouldn’t have chosen to be related to her) by saying that not everyone has family, essentially shaming Anna into appreciating her good fortune.
What do you want? ~ Don
Half of what you have. ~ Anna
Feeling he has no right to tell her the truth, he leaves Anna, clearly knowing he will never see her again, but playing along with the charade that he will bring his kids to visit her in a few months. The meaning of their final exchange (“Bye, Dick.” “Bye, Anna.”) becomes clear as the shot of his grief-stricken face taking one last look at her dissolves into a similar image accompanied by the humming of a jet plane and the sound of his being addressed as “Mr. Draper” by a flight attendant. Without Anna, Dick Whitman is now truly dead. The one person who knew not just his real legal identity (something Betty does now, too) but his true self -- and accepted that self – is passing from his life. He’s stuck being Don Draper now, and must make the best of it.
And so he does, in an unexpected fashion, forming common cause with Lane Pryce, who he finds holed up at the office when he flees there himself after aborting his Acapulco jaunt. Lane’s perhaps the only person having a worse holiday than Don, having been told by his wife that she will not be returning to America, thus presumably ending their marriage. Actually Lane seems unclear on that point and Don declines to advise him, saying he’s learned it’s not a wise idea, thus obliquely acknowledging his responsibility for encouraging Roger to throw over his marriage. But this refusal does nothing to deter our new Odd Couple from bonding so thoroughly that a comedian at a nightclub assumes they’re a long-term gay couple and compares them to George and Martha from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (a comparison that could consume an entire thesis, but I’ll merely quote Lane: “We’re not homosexuals, we’re divorced!” – a correction which is matched by the comedian’s oblique insult upon realizing the truth: “You’re not queers; you’re rich!”)
I suppose I’m a bit curious myself. ~ Lane to Janine, lady of that evening
Starting with a bottle of something fine that Lane’s genteel drunk of a father has sent for his birthday (which Don is amazed to find “has no bite,” just as their relationship soon won’t), they work their way through an ocean of alcohol, roar through a Godzilla movie, make a merkin out a steak and get laid by a couple of hookers in matching evening gowns. Lane seems quite dazed to be taken into Don’s ad man world of excess and pleasure (not to mention that apartment that one of the hookers deems “very manly,”) but enjoys himself so thoroughly that he even gives Don a bonus of $5 when reimbursing him for the hooker.
Breast? Thigh? ~ Joan
One of each? ~ Lane
Lane and Don admit fault in prejudging and rejecting each other, and by doing so, start a relationship of friendly equals who can both carouse drunkenly and work soberly together. But Lane falls victim to a more damaging misperception when his secretary mixes up the messages for apology bouquets sent to his wife and Joan, upsetting the latter with what she thinks is a denigrating and overly familiar message, while giving his wife the impression that he is indeed overly familiar with Joan, thereby hastening along the end of his marriage (as well as the end of his “egregious” secretary, who Joan terminates on the spot). But Joan has also misjudged Lane, trying to tempt him into giving her time off with a combo platter of honeyed tones and fried chicken, only to have Lane quickly see through her manipulation and fume, “I know all men are dizzy and powerless to refuse you, but consider me the incorruptible exception!” (It will be up to Don to supply that breast and thigh, thus proving Lane corruptible by men.)
I saw something once and I’m telling you, it knocked me sideways. ~ Anna
Joan’s collision (rather than collusion) with Lane is a nearly unprecedented failure on her part in handling people. But it’s a mere warm-up for the real revelation, when she discovers that her husband is both a competent doctor and a man that she doesn’t want traipsing off to Vietnam. (As much as viewers of the show may devoutly wish it.) At the start of the episode, her commitment to her marriage is demonstrated by her visit to the gynecologist to make sure that (despite two earlier illegal abortions), she is able to have children. Her doctor’s question of why a woman of her age would have waited two years is met by an oblique, “We have a plan,” but it seems likely Joan is using the royal “we,” and working on a plot behind Greg’s back based on the premise that married men with children weren’t sent to Vietnam.
Nevertheless, her marriage seems tense and strained, with Greg urging her to just ditch work so they can have time off together, even if it does get her fired, and Joan clearly wanting to protect her career as well as her options. When she slices her hand open while preparing him a “Hawaii at Home” New Year’s meal, she’s hilariously reluctant to have him treat her, insisting they should head to the hospital (where the real doctors are), only to be shocked as he calmly stitches her up while expertly distracting her with childish tricks and dirty jokes, explaining that what he’s doing is as routine for him as filing papers is for her (“I don’t do that any more. I tell other people to do it,” she responds in classic Joan-in-charge fashion.) As the realization of her husband’s skill and even kindness washes over her, she bursts into tears, the ones that Lane had earlier sexistly accused her of shedding (“Don’t go and cry about it.”) even as she stood dry-eyed and resolute before him. The usually obtuse Greg seems to understand, reassuring her that “I can’t fix anything else, but I can fix this.” Moving from suspicion and even contempt, Joan for once lets herself be the one cared for, surrendering control and revealing her attachment to this deeply flawed man.
It’s so encouraging to see someone happily married around here. ~ Peggy to Joan
If I’d rolled over on this, I’d have to smoke the dress. ~ Anna finding a joint on the sofa.
In an episode full of revelations, turnabouts and new alliances, Anna’s surrealist joke about her joint becoming a dress parallels Greg’s transformation from bumbling rapist to kind and competent doctor, and Lane’s from sober accountant to wild party boy, and Don’s from rogue seducer of young girls to caring protector of Anna, and Joan’s from confident mistress-of-the-universe to vulnerable wife. This shifting perspective is reflected in Don’s account to Anna of what it was like to finally reveal his real identity to Betty, who he says “never wanted to look at me again” as soon as she saw who he really was. Despite saying he deserved her rejection, he argues that, “I kept thinking how small it was compared to how long it went on.” – an inversion clearly in conflict with how Betty experienced it, which was as a bigger deception the longer it went on. As college girl Stephanie says when describing what it must be like to go on the kind of dates that Don does as a divorced guy, “Nobody knows what’s wrong with themselves and everyone else can see it right away.”
Don: I think it sounds like she’s inviting us to a to a very beautiful place….
Despite the refreshing lack of pretense he always exhibits in California episodes such as this one, Don still lacks a fundamental self-awareness and is playing the survival game that’s brought him this far. In her love-is-blind way, Anna tries to speak to this, telling him, “You’ll be fine. You’ll make the best of it, you always do.” Which makes you realize she doesn’t watch the show, because we often see Don make the worst of things, at least in his personal life. But Anna sees only Dick, not the Don Draper show that plays out in New York. He’d be better off following her advice when he haphazardly tries to repaint her living room in a rush of regret and grief, only to stop after completing a small slapdash portion, symbolic of his attempts to paint over his feelings as well as the messy parts of relationships, “You just going to paint that corner?” Anna asks before chiding, “A patch of new paint is as bad as a stain.” Don has tried to paint over the stain of his illegitimacy and poverty but the job is sorely incomplete, and only calls attention to the lack of mature development of his character. “A self-made man,” Stephanie calls him, not knowing the deep truth of that label, as the relentless process of making and remaking himself keeps unfolding.
Lane: I made a discovery as I slowly pulled back from the records.
Don: I’m not sure I can handle any more bad news.
Lane: Although things are precarious financially…it’s been a magnificent year.
At the episode’s end, Joan starts the financial meeting for the new year by asking, “All right, gentleman, shall we begin 1965?” and Don’s face tells us that he’s not sure, perhaps wondering whether he’s ready to face more of the kind of change that each year of the decade has brought so far. Earlier, Anna has spoken of the profound effect that seeing UFO's has had on her, but Don's not so keen on seeing beyond what he already knows and believes exists. As a man that keeps hiding in plain sight, he still doesn't understand the power of simply opening your eyes, but the 1960's had a way of forcing them open in individuals as well as the collective vision of an entire society. Having been truly seen and yet still loved by Anna, perhaps he will eventually take from her loss the desire to reveal himself to others, letting all that everyone thought was true about Don Draper be revealed for the flimsy fiction that it's been.
If I don’t see you, Happy New Year. ~ Lane to Don