"Mad Men" #5

Spooky, haunted, as surreal an hour of “MM” as ever. And the visions, surreal and real, were right on: The casual chill of the ’63 maternity ward; Duck’s tug to the future (having a nosh with the youngsters in his turtleneck); Roger eating a hot fudge sundae at his desk; Betty visited by the spectral Gene, Ruthie and Medgar Evers: Blood, love and boundaries: “See what happens when you speak up?”

And all of this takes place, of course, with the backdrop of the early ’60s, and the cultural upheaval this is just beginning. And it’s this combination of cultural, social and personal conflict that animates the heart of this brilliant television drama. And while this episode, titled “The Fog,” might strike some viewers as a meandering, confusing trip to nowhere in particular — so many great TV dramas, from “The Sopranos” to “Lost” to “Mad Men,” have suffered the same critiques — I think it’s obvious that the show has far too many stories to tell, too many visions to paint, too much going on even in its digressions, to get too wrapped up in how the central narrative is (or isn’t) unfolding.

I’ll invite you to turn to Tim Goodman‘s blog for a thought-provoking analysis of the individual moments in last night’s episode. But when it comes to themes and ideas, here’s what sticks with me:

1. Duck Phillips in his turtleneck, and his grooving on the “secret bond” between Pete and Peggy. Which he perceives as a mutually-productive workplace scheming, rather than the real secret of office couch sex and subsequent pregnancy. Duck is just getting started in the groovy department, but he’s on a whole new path: dressed down, grokking psychic connections, realizing that Peggy has just as much, and maybe more, to offer than her male counterparts. “Now’s your time,” he tells her. Gloria Steinem couldn’t have said it better.

2. Also trying, but falling as short as any spoiled rich kid would: Good old Roger Sterling, the silver-haired husband of a 22-year-old (can’t wait to see how she blossoms come the summer of love) gobbling up a hot fudge sundae at his desk, sometime before lunch. Which isn’t to say that he won’t wield the paternal whip when the opportunity presents itself (e.g., upon the hide of poor old Pete, for having the temerity to urge Admiral TV execs to pursue the negro market. Roger flails away, only to walk away unfulfilled: “It’s never as good as you think it’s going to be,” he grumbles.

3. Every image of familial disconnection/paternal failure: VIrtually everywhere. In the hideous chill of the maternity ward; in the sad pleas of fellow expecting father Dennis’s prayer/confession to Don to be a “better man,” even as the both of them are whiling away the hours by getting tanked on whiskey. The spectral Eugene’s unwillingness to show his face felt tragic, and the unconditional love he beamed toward Betty when he did look up seemed all the more so — consider how jagged their relationship was when he was still alive. Even scarier: the withering warning issued by Betty’s spectral mother, Ruthie, who pointed to a still-bleeding Medgar Evers (whose assassination had been noted in passing on a news broadcast a bit earlier) as evidence of “what happens when you speak up.”

4. None of which was even close to being as scary as that final scene, of an exhausted Betty stumbling out of bed to tend to her new, squalling baby.  Her face a mask of exhaustion and (worse) indifference. Which made me think, with a sinking feeling, of something Don had told Sally’s teacher earlier: “Children don’t belong in graveyards.” No, they really don’t.

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