“Mad Men” recap: Are you a surprise?

In last night's episode, Don, Megan, and Peggy grapple with complicated fantasies

Topics: Mad Men, jessica pare, don draper, peggy, aol_on, mad men recap,

"Mad Men" recap: Are you a surprise? (Credit: Benjamin Wheelock/Salon/AMC/Frank Ockenfels)

“Whenever I’m really unsure about an idea? First, I abuse the people whose help I need. And then, I take a nap.” Welcome back from the dead, Don Draper! By admitting his worst flaws to Peggy, Don shows that he’s not just back, he’s en fuego. He’s smooth, but not sneaky. He’s helpful, but not a lap dog. He’s drinking, but not getting drunk. He’s almost evolved enough to pen his own self-parodying management manual, “The 64-Hour Work Week,” in which he finally lays out his secrets for (dysfunctional, dissatisfying) success: Delegate, booze, abuse, nap, repeat.

For the first time, Don is trying out his newfound taste for honesty without making a giant mess of things. Because, at the end of the sixth season, for Don, honesty was like a sweet sportscar with a souped-up engine and no brakes. He just wanted to have a little fun and be authentic and acknowledge the many elephants in the room, but in so doing, he ran over Ted and Peggy and Megan and almost wrecked his whole career. Then he felt so guilty and confused that he couldn’t take responsibility for any of it.

When Peggy tells him, “It’s poisoned because you expressed yourself,” she’s not just talking about Burger Chef. She’s talking about Don poisoning the office and poisoning her affair with Ted Chaough with his reckless honesty last year. These words should play on Don’s worst fears: He can’t be himself, or no one will love him. He says as much to Peggy in a rare intimate moment, after she asks him, “What do you have to worry about?” “That I never did anything,” he replies, “and that I don’t have anyone.”

Peggy looks baffled, and we understand. Because if Don Draper can worry about failure and loneliness, then the rest of us are in big trouble. But these days, Don is learning to drive his Drapermobile without flattening everyone in his path. He’s choosing his moments. He’s experimenting with moderation. He can listen without growing passive. He can try to tell the truth, but he can also bite his tongue. He’s scheming, but mostly for the greater good. He’s getting his mojo back, but not taking all the credit for everything. He can meet Pete’s girlfriend without flirting with her. He can sit in on Peggy’s pitch meeting without undermining or upstaging her.

And most important, he’s openly admitting that he’s been an asshole for a long, long time. How long can this possibly last? (Don is still an old-fashioned guy who thinks working mothers are sad, of course. This isn’t a fantasy. We’re still talking about Don Draper, here.)

Speaking of fantasies and wondering how long this can last, Pete and Bonnie are flirting on the plane to New York, in that lighthearted way that always spells certain doom on this show. “I want you shopping all day and screwing all night!” Pete yelps gleefully, laying out his “Pretty Woman” vision of how Bonnie should function in his life. But Bonnie, like so many others in this episode, is wrapped up in a fantasy about family life instead. “I sure would like to meet Tammy,” she tells Pete. “I picked out her Barbie.” But Pete doesn’t want his daughter to meet the Malibu Barbie he himself picked out. He also doesn’t want to marry Tammy, who lured Pete in the first place by claiming to care more about power than baking cookies. Ah, but Pete also doesn’t want his estranged wife, Trudy, to date other men, because she’s a mother, damn it, and she’s still his wife, not some common tramp!

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Pete’s Madonna-Whore complex is in full effect, in other words. Tammy is the whore (Shopping all day and screwing all night!), and Trudy is the Madonna (Baking things and staying home with her daughter and suffering in silence!). Maybe that’s why it’s so satisfying to see Trudy looking and sounding happier and better than ever. She’s unwilling to play along with Pete’s fantasies. She reminds him that they are getting divorced, and he’s not a part of this family anymore. Pete has no family! This news makes Pete sullen, and not even his filthy-footed Barbie back at the hotel can cheer him up. He disappoints her yet again.

In another maneuver straight out of fantasyland, Bob Benson is convinced that his best move is to propose to Joan. Ah, Joan! Sensible, gorgeous Joan. Who wouldn’t feel honored to propose to her? This scene feels suspenseful, too. Because there’s always that slim chance that Joan will make a big mistake and say yes. No matter how cautious and wise and hardworking Joan is, she has always loved the idea of getting married (if not the reality of getting married).

But of course, Joan knows the deal with Bob. What a great scene! (What scene with Joan in it isn’t magical?) “I know I’m flawed. But I’m offering you more than anyone else ever will.” Bob tells Joan, one of the many times in this episode that an insult is delivered with a straight face to an incredulous woman. Thankfully, though, Joan doesn’t share Bob’s belief that a fake marriage with a closeted gay man is the best she can do. “No you’re not, Bob,” she says. “Because I want love. And I’d rather die hoping that happens than make some arrangement. And you should, too.” And so, Joan the pragmatic idealist shoots Bob’s dreamworld clean out of the water. Shopping all day and weeping all night is definitely not Joan’s fantasy.

Peggy is grappling with her own fantasy of becoming Don Draper. After all of her frustration and smugness and not very evolved behavior over the past few episodes, Peggy has an epiphany when she delivers a very solid presentation, and Pete blurts out, “You know that she’s every bit as good as any woman in this business!” Peggy now realizes that, even if she hits it out of the park, she still won’t become anything that faintly resembles mythical hero Don Draper in people’s minds, because she’s still just a woman, and therefore only capable of being compared to other women. Not only that, but mythical hero Don gets to play the hero in the Burger Chef presentation, and Peggy has to play the mom – made all the more unbearable because Peggy feels ambivalent about the fact that she may never actually become a mom.

All of this leads to the moment we’ve been waiting for between Peggy and Don, and boy, does it pay off. Peggy drinks, naps and abuses Don, following “The 64-Hour Work Week” to a T. Don responds by taking her abuse, insisting on his good intentions, being completely honest with her, and sticking with her through thick and thin. Like a good brother, or a good dad, or a good mentor. Like a true equal and supporter. Like an ideal member of the fantasy family that everyone is so hung up about in this episode. It’s fitting, of course, that the episode should end with Pete, Peggy and Don eating together. This is their real family. And even though Don is still old-fashioned, his feelings about Peggy and his pride in Peggy have always transcended his worst prejudices, impulses and baggage. (Or at least most of the time this is true.)

Sounding like a true guru, Don tells Peggy that the job is “Living in the not knowing.” “You can’t tell people what they want,” he says. “It has to be what you want.” Don, who’s been telling people what they want all his life – and became what other people wanted when he became Don Draper — is finally learning to express his true feelings and needs directly.

But he can’t do that with Megan. No way. “Are you a surprise?” Peggy asks Megan, and Megan, like Peggy and Joan, is definitely poised to surprise Don with her independence and her headstrong behavior. “You were dead to the world,” Megan tells Don. “I sleep better when you’re here,” Don replies. “I miss you, too,” Megan says, missing Don’s point entirely. Don doesn’t miss Megan, he misses sleepwalking through life with his beautiful pretend wife around. But Megan misses Don when he’s sleepwalking. She wants him to show up instead. “You know what? I want to see you somewhere where there’s nothing else going on,” Megan says. “Not L.A., not here. Just us.” This makes Don wince. The last thing he wants is to be alone with his pretend wife, with no distractions. Megan was built for the background of his life. She’s not an equal the way Peggy is. She’s not someone Don can feel real intimacy with. She started out as a prop and is damned to continue to be a prop indefinitely. And also? Her teeth look especially off the hook in this episode. Like ’70s film stars from Diane Keaton to Lauren Hutton, Megan has big bold Austin Powers choppers, and she’s not afraid to show it. Mad, baby, mad!

But big, sexy teeth are a nice metaphor for liberated women who aren’t content to shop all day and screw all night. The Betty Draper fantasy wife is melting. (“My world! My beautiful world!”) She’s no longer content to listen to men tell her what she’s supposed to be. Betty is sick of her new husband’s condescension. Peggy is skeptical of Don’s hero act. Bonnie refuses to play along with Pete’s hot and cold routine. Megan tells Don exactly what she wants, and returns to L.A. without giving in to his desire for her to stay in New York. Joan openly pities Bob and is more concerned with SC&P’s fate than she is with his marriage proposal. Then she practically spits at Roger when he uses her for information instead of giving her the love and respect she deserves. These women aren’t taking abuse anymore. Naptime is officially over.

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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