Ah, the big merger episode. The aftermath of last episode’s impromptu merge between SCDP and CGC has resulted in an episode that almost feels like the start of yet another new show. At the same time, though, characters repeat their histories in such a way that shows how very few of them ever change. Don desperately clings to his sexual prowess to cover up the emptiness inside him. Joan bolsters some regained confidence upon greeting the CGC employees and giving them a tour, but she also tries to hide her weaknesses away where no one can see them. These characters have relied on putting certain traits on display in order to get what they want, and they’re aware of those traits. What they don’t realize, however, is that they’re repeating history over and over and expecting to be happy from this process. Much of this episode feels like familiar ground for the show, with many characters continuing to live their lives as they always have by walking and talking the same way, but it feels different now. Don is a lot less clever, Joan is less put-together and Pete feels even more pathetic. It’s a testament to the show’s willingness to risk alienating viewers that it’s showing the gradual, subtle destruction of these highly flawed individuals.
Don’s behavior in this episode was a real mystery to me upon first viewing. I originally thought that his aggressive, borderline disgusting comments towards Sylvia were a part of some grand scheme to push her back to her husband. The episode begins with Don eavesdropping on Sylvia and her husband fighting, so I figured he might be trying to make her husband look good in relation to him by being unreasonably foul with her. Then I realized how selfish and misguided Don has become over the course of this season, making the kinky bedroom talk just another reflection of his lack of awareness for other people’s feelings. When she understandably leaves the hotel room he’s forced her to stay in, his eyes reveal a much more pathetic, desperate man than once thought. He needs this with Sylvia, but it’s not Sylvia he’s so enamored with. Sylvia could be substituted with any of the similar-looking brunette girls he’s slept with over the past six seasons. It’s the idea of having that exciting other woman that Don has relied on since his marriage with Betty. When his plan goes awry, as the episode’s title ironically suggests, he is left an emptier man, one who’s so caught up in his own problems that he fails to see the people around him as anything but tools or obstacles.
Don’s lack of awareness is seen again in the office when he forces Ted to drink with him while they work. As they struggle to come up with ad copy for margarine, Don continuously pours him glasses full of heavy liquor, rendering Ted drunk and incoherent. Peggy scolds Don, claiming that Don knew full well that Ted could not keep up with him. Is this a part of Don’s power play, his attempt at asserting dominance like he tries to do with Sylvia? Perhaps. It seems more likely that he just assumed that everyone could pound down drinks at the same rate he could and acted accordingly. It’s gratifying to see Ted (who we learn is a certified pilot) flying the Mohawk plane and scaring the bejesus out of Don. This was a big episode for Kevin Rahm and I hope he gets recognized at this year’s Emmy Awards.
Meanwhile, Joan is in her prime, expertly showing the new writers and editors where they need to go and what they’ll be doing. There is a great scene that intentionally mirrors the pilot episode, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, with Joan doing a walk-and-talk with Peggy on her “first day”. It’s fascinating seeing how much Peggy has changed, not just with her wardrobe but with her confidence. She is much more relaxed and less afraid of saying the wrong thing. On the other hand, the Joan we see in this episode almost feels like the same Joan we see in “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”. She’s still wearing the same clothing, the same hairdo, the same walk, and the same flirty voice. Despite her new position of power, she still feels like a subordinate in the company. When she has stomach pains, she shuts herself in her office praying that no one will see her throwing up. Considering she’s a partner in the company, one would think that she shouldn’t care about things like this, but she still does. Bob Benson escorts her to the hospital where she finds out it was just a minor ovary problem, but she’s grateful enough to defend him when his name gets brought up for potential firing. Joan isn’t feeling particularly important in the company, especially after Don carelessly threw away the Jaguar account she worked so hard to get, so little kind moments really do make a world of difference to her.
Pete is forced to deal with his increasingly forgetful mother, who his brother pawns off on him, claiming they are essentially too tired to deal with her anymore. When his mother repeatedly tells him she wishes to leave his New York apartment, he blatantly lies to her, telling her it’s St. Patrick’s Day so many Irish drunks will be out and about. Yet again, Pete works his slimy magic to further his own happiness, even if it serves to scare his confused, dementia-ridden mother. At the end of the episode, Mama Campbell wakes Pete up at the break of dawn to tell him that “the Kennedy boy” has been shot and killed. Pete dismissively tells her that the JFK assassination happened five years ago, thinking her ramblings to be another one of her confusions. Little does he know, however, that a Kennedy boy was assassinated on that day: Bobby Kennedy. It speaks volumes that the world these characters live in has changed so much that they can’t even process it. After losing the president five years ago and Martin Luther King, Jr. only months ago, it seems unthinkable that they would lose yet another important figure in such a short timespan. Megan cannot believe the news, her teary eyes glued to the TV screen. Don, however, sits on the bed with her but faces the opposite direction. Lost in his own world, he can’t even work up the sympathy to be upset with Megan.
With each passing episode, it’s becoming apparent that Don has started to lose touch with reality. He has become bored with Megan, so he philanders with her best friend, only to be flabbergasted when Sylvia rejects him. His output at work is increasingly out-of-touch, many of his ideas concerned with depression and mortality. He’s spiraling. The things he used to excel at are rejecting him for more modern choices. Don isn’t alone. Roger delights in firing Burt Peterson for a second time, but that happiness is short-lived. He’s still the same man that waxed philosophical on his therapist’s couch about life being a series of doors that don’t affect you one way or the other. Joan has achieved partnership status but she’s still the woman who makes up for her insecurities with jaded confidence.
It reminds me of the chorus from “Wish You Were Here”, one of my favorite Pink Floyd songs. David Gilmour sings, “We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl, year after year. Running over the same old ground. What have we found? The same old fears.” These characters continue to retread the same ground expecting to find new happiness but ultimately they wind up with the same fears and insecurities they started with.
MVP: Kevin Rahm