Hands and Knees: Mad Men, Season 4, Episode 10 (Commentary)
Stop it, kill it, at least find out how far it’s gone. ~ Don to Pete
“Cheer up. When God closes a door, he opens a dress,” goes a classic Rogerism from an earlier season of Mad Men. In the episode “Hands and Knees,” God (aka Matthew Weiner) slams doors shut right and left, but opening a dress won’t help this time – in fact, Roger’s gotten Joan in trouble by doing that. He arranges for her to end the pregnancy safely and discreetly -- just one of several terminations in the episode, and the secrecy in which they are held may kill not just careers but the entire SCDP agency.
It turns out much has been gestating in the SCDP world: Trudy’s as big as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade float, Joan’s several weeks gone, Lane’s grown into a Playboy and picked up a bunny girlfriend, while Pete wins the prize for longest pregnancy, having taken 3 years to grow North American Aviation (NAA) “from cocktails to a $4 million account.” NAA is growing Minuteman missiles, which I suspect is what has gotten both Lane and Roger into the trouble they find themselves in.
Actually, it’s Lane’s father who knocks him up (per the British slang), showing up in place of Lane’s son Nigel, greeting the star-spangled gift that Lane flourishes with a foreboding lack of appreciation for all things American. He’s also unimpressed by Lane’s keyholder status at the Playboy club (although Don finds it quite amusing, seeming like a proud papa for setting Lane on this new path). Robert Pryce seems a stereotypical Brit – extravagantly polite in public and a sadist in private. Furious upon hearing Lane’s intention to start a new life in America with his “chocolate Bunny” of a girlfriend, Toni, he knocks Lane around and demands he stop living a double life: “Put your home in order, either there or here. You’ll not live in-between.” (Words that could apply to any number of Mad Men characters, as we know.) Putting a cheery public face on his subjugation, Lane tells the partners that he’ll be going home to London to “tend to his family” for a few weeks.
Joan tends to her own family matter with the graceful stoicism that we’re so familiar with from this overcompensating paragon of control. Gone is the hysteria of the mugged Joan and in her place is a woman who not only comforts the mother of a teenager who’s having an abortion just before she has her own, but who soothes the frayed nerves of Roger, the man who knocked her up and is now dithering about whether it should “mean something” (sounding like a teenage girl babbling at a slumber party) and complaining that he feels “awful” while the woman who had her innards scraped out the day before says she feels fine – and looks impeccable as usual. (Perhaps because she didn’t go through it? Color me suspicious.) But Roger’s finest hour must be when he suggests that Joan follow the time-honored route of lying to her soldier husband when he comes home so he’ll think the baby is his – or hoping that he dies. “Greg dying is not a solution to this,” Joan calmly responds. Oh Joanie, you may convince Roger, but you’ll never get us to agree with that. On this point I'm with Roger: “I’m only thinking of what’s best for you.”
But Joan’s isn’t the worst news that Roger gets this week. At the end of what seems a routine drunken lunch, Lee Garner Jr. coolly informs him that Lucky Strike is moving all their ad business to BBDO after 30 years with SC(DP). With Lee Sr. is incapacitated, the board has taken control and Lee swears he’s merely the hatchet man, lamely trying to soften the blow by picking up the check for the first time. Like a woman who gets jewelry unexpectedly, Roger knows what that means even before the words are spoken. Accusing Lee of trying to kill him (literally, we find out, when he takes a nitroglycerin tab the minute lunch is over), Roger bluntly tells Lee that he’s killed the agency and begs him for a chance to win the business back. Lee informs him it’s pointless since the board is operating in a strict corporate mode, signaling the death knell for the good ole boys style of business that Roger is used to. Lee is unsympathetic to Roger’s misery (“You inherited this account,” he reminds him – the pot calling the kettle black) but finally accedes to his pleas to give him 30 days to “get our affairs in order” (given how many there have been, you’d think that wouldn’t be nearly time enough) while they both keep the termination secret.
There will be fewer black bars, moving forward. ~ NAA client
That secrecy may ensure the death of the agency, because not knowing they’ve lost the keystone Lucky Strike account, Don and Pete make the decision to jettison NAA. Actually Don makes the decision, while Pete has to take the Minuteman missile where it hurts and pretend to have lost the account by a careless oversight that insulted the client. Knowing what else they’ve lost, Roger nearly blows out his heart again, even uncorking the F word (for I believe the first time on the show) to describe how badly Pete’s screwed the agency. And funny he should use that word, as this episode brought to mind a saying I have: “Don’t f*** with the feds.”
With a stunning lack of foresight, Don’s gotten three years into the process of wooing a major defense contractor without considering that at some point, the government might want to check out SCDP. Even the comically redacted documents that NAA shows the agency (in which nary an “and” or a “but” is left showing) fails to clue him into what’s coming, suggesting he’s not the best person to create advertising about defense systems. (Perhaps that’s why he asks NAA clients, “How would you feel about avoiding the idea of defense altogether?”)
Harry helpfully suggests that advertising means never having to use the word “bomb," but a bombshell is precisely what’s coming Don’s way. Somewhere in that pile of papers that he admits he signs without reading, he’s agreed to a security clearance, and two feds show up at Betty’s door to question her about her ex. Asking if he’s a man of integrity, loyal (yes, to a brand of cigarettes, I would have liked to hear her answer), and the capper, “Do you have any reason to believe Mr. Draper isn’t who he says he is?” Betty’s predictable double-take (“What was that?”) draws an equally predictable comic rejoinder from the G-man: “It’s a standard question; I know it sounds funny.” Yes sir, we get the joke.
Assuming Don merely failed to warn her of the interview, a furious Betty calls to complain that “They need to know all about you and I’ve been through hell.” For once it’s Don’s turn to blanch at a revelation, upon hearing that the government is asking about “your military service, your politics, your loyalty, your name.” (He’s clear on one out of four, by my count.) Catching her paranoia at talking on the phone, Don assumes a coded politeness that Betty (who knows all about that style of speech) picks up on immediately, assuring him that she’s covered for him, which draws a rare and sincere appreciation from Don. You have to give it to Betty – she had a chance to nail Don, and she takes a pass.
But Betty’s silence isn’t enough, as Don well knows. Turning to one of the only other people who knows his secret, he asks Pete to use a government contact he has to find out what the feds know. When it turns out Don’s been “flagged,” (an apt term for someone whose patriotism is being investigated), he demands that Pete dump the account. Pete’s understandably furious at this idea, even though he’s earlier rejected Don’s offer to disappear instead. While Don assures him that the agency can survive without him, Pete knows that’s not true. Faced with losing the biggest account he’s ever landed or losing his partnership in a firm that would go belly up, Pete chooses the lesser of evils, and stoically endures Roger’s vicious attack as a result. Privately, he rails at Don (saying he doesn’t want to “live with your shit over my head,”) as well as complaining to Trudy, who he tries to shield from the ugly facts while muttering about people who drag their lies through life, destroying everything they touch, while “the honest people” have to pick up the pieces. In this, Pete’s deceiving himself, of course, since he engages in dishonesty all the time for business as well as with family.
Despite Pete’s accusation that he has a cavalier attitude towards the truth, Don’s deception is actually making him sick. Or perhaps it’s simply the fear of being caught that’s making him feverish and shaky, ultimately provoking a panic attack that had me looking for the cold cuts. Trying to help (even though he snaps that she’s “not a real doctor”), Faye assures him that he’s not having a heart attack (that’s Roger’s job, after all) since he’s not in any pain (what about that psychic pain, Ms. Psychologist?). At first recoiling from her touch, Don eventually calms down enough to admit he’s exhausted from running and lying and tells her the truth of his identity, and without any of the fraught intensity of his confession to Betty. Unlike Betty, Faye doesn’t reject him but instead calmly suggests that he could get legal help and would probably be treated leniently since he was “just a kid” in Korea (contrast this with Mr. Honesty Pete Campbell, who chalked it up to old news that could probably be swept under the rug, provoking Don’s snarled response that there’s no statute of limitations on desertion – an interesting comment from a man who’s threatened to desert his family and his job on numerous occasions).
But Faye’s helpfulness and understanding may backfire on her. After his confession, Don says he shouldn’t have told her and becomes noticeably cooler, putting off their next date, and not only not firing Megan for putting his life at risk, but looking at her longingly through the open door of his office. Is it impossible for him to imagine a woman loving him romantically as his real self? (Not just platonically as Anna did.) Or is he ashamed of the extreme vulnerability that he showed Faye, ending up on his hands and knees, spilling his guts literally as well as figuratively?
He’s not the only one who finds himself in that posture, as Roger has to beg Lee Jr. for that 30 day grace period, Pete has to abase himself in front of the partners as he takes the hit for Don, and Lane ends up in “Please sir, may I have another” boarding school territory with his sadistic father. While Lane and Joan both fail their rabbit tests, Joan maintains her dignity both privately and publicly despite her travails (which we’re tantalized into believing may include a 15 year old daughter given up for adoption, or is that just how long ago her first abortion was?). Her secrets seem the most deeply hidden of all the show’s characters, and yet the least likely to hurt anyone besides herself. By contrast, Roger and Don engage in a Gift of the Magi sort of secrecy, making fateful decisions about the business without informing each other, thereby creating a mutually assured destruction that would do NAA’s Minuteman missiles proud.
Pregnancies, accounts and relationships are all terminated while destructive secrets and lies are perpetuated, but will this really spell the end of SCDP? Or is there in Trudy’s symbolic belly a rough savior slouching towards Manhattan?
I’m not worried, not in the slightest. ~ Don