Mad Men, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”: Playing with it.

One thing we’ve witnessed in the past ten years is television’s rise of the antihero. Tony Soprano. Dexter Morgan. Al Swearengen. All bad guys who do bad things, yet they posses a few redeeming qualities, and as abhorrent as they can be, we still like to watch them stab, shoot, beat and bludgeon those around them.

To a certain extent, Don Draper belongs in this group, too. He’s a liar, a drunk and a cheat. And while all of those things have been evident in him from the very beginning, they’ve really been driven home in season 4 (especially the drinking). Again, all bad qualities, but while the characters’ conflicts and the ensuing drama keep us coming back every week, it’s nice to every once in a while take a break from all that and watch everyone at the top of their game, working together to screw over somebody else.

“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” was definitely a break we needed in what’s been the show’s darkest season so far. When SCDP finds itself in competition with two other agencies for a run at Honda, who’s just now expanding into car manufacturing, Don has to figure out a way to make the agency the shining star, while at the same time following the rules that the Japanese company has set for the competition.

Don’s a person who, for as much as he’s trying to run from his past, really can’t stop clinging to it. While around him, the Sixties are really starting to become the Sixties, he’s walled himself off in a dark, depressing and incredibly conservative apartment. In a conversation with Faye he says, “Why does everybody need to talk about everything?” The unspoken line here being, “Back in my day…” But for all his unwillingness to move forward, it IS an unwillingness, and not necessarily something he’s incapable of. And his idea to pull a fast one on that douchebag Ted Chaough and CGC is proof of that.

And it really was perfect. Joan letting CGC’s director catch a few glimpses of what they’re doing. Don coming into her office with the motorcycle. And best of all, Peggy riding it around the empty stage. And in the end it all worked out. The agency’s ruse got CGC to produce (eg: sink a ton of money into) their own commercial. And Don removing SCDP from the competition because he didn’t want to be bound by Honda’s rules earned them the top spot in the company’s eyes, even though they never really planned on leaving their old company.

And if the episode had ended with Pete and Lane delivering that bit of news, and Don turning to the camera, winking and saying, “Nailed it,” I wouldn’t have been disappointed. But development’s in upstate New York provided some good counterbalance to Don’s caper shenanigans.

Sally and Bobby are at Don’s apartment while he’s off on a date. While Bobby and the babysitter (Don’s neighbor Phoebe) are watching TV, Sally sneaks into the bathroom and cuts her hair. And you can’t help but feel for her. I think everyone understands that Sally’s going to be a screwed up girl just by virtue of having Don and Betty as parents, but when she says things like, “I just wanted to be pretty,” right after asking Phoebe if she’s sleeping with her dad make it all the more clear. This is a girl who’s desperately seeking her dad’s affection.

When Don takes the kids home and Betty sees what she’s done, she slaps Sally across the face and sends her upstairs. And I think everyone will agree when I say that it only gets better from there. A few nights later, Sally’s sent home from her friend’s slumber party when her friend’s mother finds her on the couch…*ahem*…you know.

Nearing the end of her rope — which looks to be very short — Betty and Henry decide to send Sally to a psychiatrist. While Betty’s setting things up, the two talk and get to know each other, and I think that talk really said as much about Betty as it did Sally. When she saw what Sally had done to her hair, she told Don that when she was a little girl she dreamed of having long hair, that her mother used to threaten her with cutting it whenever she was bad. All her life, Betty has had this image in her head, the picture perfect family life. It’s something she’s always wanted (notice the smile that crept across her face while she was staring at the dollhouse), and she’s so blinded by rage over what Don’s done to destroy that that she doesn’t see that some of the blame lies at her own feet. That even though she wasn’t sleeping with every man she came across, she’s still just as inept a parent.

I just wanted to say a quick word about Pete, because for some reason, he always feels like the main character no one pays attention to. While I found Roger flipping out on the Japanese interesting, the real interesting part was Pete’s response to the whole thing. When he told Roger to his face that he was using his outrage as a way of keeping Pete from bringing in new accounts, it really illustrated how much the character has grown over the past few seasons. Now that I think about it, it feels like we can use yelling at Don or Roger as some sort of metric for character development on the show.

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