So, for the past few weeks, I’ve been working under the conceit that this, the fourth season of ‘Mad Men,’ will consume itself primarily with Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and his multitude of personalities. We’ve already seen the Don that dotes on his ex-wife and the children they share, the Don that turns from a clumsy interviewee to assured self-promoter, and the Don who likes to get punched in the face by a prostitute. (I can sympathize with the last one.) This week’s sublime episode, ‘The Good News,’ confirms this more explicitly, with a return from our favorite, soul-searching alterna-Don: Dick Whitman. Also: tons more Joan!
The episode opens, in fact, with Joan, at the gynecologist. She’s was getting checked out to make sure that she can have children, probably before her husband, the army doc, gets shipped off to Vietnam. In the sequence’s most touching and human moment, she asks the doctor (cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth) if she can still have a baby, since she’s had a “couple” of procedures. The doctor doesn’t know about the first one (performed by someone Joan says was a “midwife”) but that she should be fine.
It’s Joan that has the best moments in the episode, such as: when she asks Lane for a day off and is rejected; when she tells Lane that he makes her feel like a “helpless little girl;” and when she cuts her finger and has to have Greg, her army doc husband, help her. Joan has always been the cool office queen bee, so to see her go through so many emotions (yelling, crying) is a genuinely affecting experience. In a lot of ways she’s the heart of the show. It’s through Joan that we experience everyone that the office alpha males take advantage of, wine, dine, and leave behind. (There’s already speculation that at least one of her abortions was the result of a tryst with Roger.)
Meanwhile, on the Don Draper front, he stops in Los Angeles for a night. He’s got plans to spend the New Year’s in Acapulco. In my mind, that’s a wonderfully ’60s-specific vacation destination. It’s in Los Angeles, of course, that the most turgid and least interesting section in the show’s long, wonderful history was spent at the end of the second season. This is where Don came back to connect with his previous life as Dick Whitman, in a series of episodes that managed to be overtly philosophical and, well, really boring. So I dreaded seeing a return to this mentality, and was pleasantly surprised when it’s just as grim but not nearly as depressing (or long – he’s back in New York around the episode’s halfway mark).
Anna Draper, with her broken leg, represents, somewhere, the life Don could have had. He is sunnier and looser than he is when he’s in New York. And when he hits on Anna’s sister’s daughter, a charming Berkley girl who reminded me a bit of Blake Lively, it seems less crazy and lecherous and more like a genuine opportunity for a fresh start. Then the girl drops a bombshell on our square-jawed hero: Anna has cancer. All over. She has months to live. Worst of all: she doesn’t know. Don is then put in an incredibly awkward position .He wants to stay in Los Angeles and take care of her, but the longer he stays, the easier it is for him to let slip that she’s dying. There’s a brief moment where he sounds like he’s going to be proactive, a very Dick Whitman move, but soon enough he’s scampering home (after painting her wall), back to the slippery Don Draper we can always count on.
Once back in New York, Don finds Lane depressed over a strained relationship with his family that sees neither them coming over to America nor him going to England. (There’s an indication that his marriage is more or less kaput.) Don offers a solution that every man would jump at: “Hey Lane, come out with me and I’ll get us a couple of prostitutes and life will be grand.” And so they do. We aren’t allowed into the bedroom where Lane makes it with the prostitute, but you have to wonder if he doesn’t ask her to beat him up, just like Don. Probably not. But it’s kind of fun to see high class call girls (and their jewelry!). In the episode’s most amusing moment, the two ad men get heckled by a stand-up comedian. Lane yells back, “We’re not homosexuals. We’re divorced!” In that instance (and in this episode), I felt totally gay for ‘Mad Men.’