The Carousel: Revisiting Mad Men: The Jet Set (S2E11)

Discussing Season 2, Episode 11: “The Jet Set”
Hi again, gals and/or fellas! We’re onto the second-place winner, “The Jet Set”, from our Season 2 poll. A handful of people said in the Season 2 discussion that this was the episode that first got them fully invested in Mad Men, or the first all-time great episode. A couple other people said this episode’s main story and experimental tone really didn’t click.

That division, by the way, doesn’t seem unique to here. I remember the mothership’s A review with a loud minority of dissenters in the comments. I didn’t dislike “The Jet Set” when I first saw it, but rewatches have definitely improved it for me, and I find I have more to talk about than I thought. So, Don and Pete have gone to California for the big aerospace convention!

The episode opens with a close-up of Jane’s legs as she luxuriates in bed (being lazy in strange beds with men shirking their responsibilities is going to be a Theme here). She is being very pretty and VERY insufferable. She reads some bad poetry that Roger is quite impressed by, then says their souls are the same age, and God she’s just so obnoxious in season 2. Remember when she self-identified as “a little clairvoyant”?

Anyway Roger proposes to her and she says yes, after hesitating with a hard-to-read reaction.

Peggy seems comfortable playing the boss with Don and Pete gone, telling the junior exec boys when they can break for lunch and telling Harry “no ordering lobster”.

But she’s also wearing some pleated pink A-line skirt and a frilly white Amish-y blouse which make her look like a 14-year-old from the ‘50s – still very torn between two versions of herself. So, Kurt accidentally asks her out to see Bob Dylan. This misunderstanding leads to Kurt casually coming out to his coworkers, embarrassing Peggy and upsetting poor Sal, who learns that his crush Ken’s creative side does not extend to being OK with the gays. Kurt and Peggy go to the concert anyway, and he FINALLY gets rid of her horrible haircut for her, marking another step away from her old childlike ways.

Onto California! We see Don and Pete by the pool, VERY out of their element (Don is still wearing his fedora, for some hilarious reason). The scene sets Pete up as wanting to relax and shirk work, with Don hassling him to follow client leads (“You wanna be on vacation, Pete? Cause I can make that happen.”). Their roles will be reversed shortly.

In a very neat scene – our first indicator that realism isn’t the order of the day in California – Don sees a woman at the bar. He can only see a glimpse of her face, but he’s disturbed by the reminder of his wife. (The woman is played by January Jones for those couple seconds in profile, then a random blonde extra when you can see her clearly, then January Jones for the last few seconds as she goes out of view, then the random blonde extra AGAIN.)

Adding to that surreal vibe, an old European nobleman – Willy – flatters the hell out of Don and introduces him to a random American girl named Joy. Joy is VERY interested, and Willy almost seems like a pimp trying to get her a john. Pete tries to introduce himself as a Dyckman, to little effect.

Back to New York, and reality. Roger and Duck awkwardly discover they share a divorce attorney, and Plot Machinations begin.

Machination #1: Roger’s Very Expensive Divorce is going to bankrupt him.
Machination #2: Roger straight-up tells Duck that no one on the board likes him and he needs to do something much more drastic if he wants to be partner.
Result: Duck goes to his old buddies from London and offers to sell them Sterling-Cooper, making himself the company president. He figures Roger won’t be able to say no to all that buyout money.

It’s all subtly done, so you don’t quite realize how Roger set himself up the first time through. And by the end of the episode, Duck has fallen off the wagon, received a crate of gin from the Brits, and gotten Bert and Roger to discuss the buyout. The guy moves fast!

Back in California, things are getting weirder. Don is disturbed by an apocalyptic Lockheed presentation about MAD and new missile systems.

The tension between end-of-the-world terror and utopian hope is obvious in these glimpses we get of the aerospace convention – discussions of Optomen engineered to be perfect astronauts, and of nuclear war with Russia. It’s an intense environment, and when Joy the Symbolically-Named asks Don to leave and take a, uh… joy ride (I wrote that by accident), he says yes.

The question Joy asks – “Why would you deny yourself something you want?” – is more convincing when people have been talking like the world could end any minute now.

So Joy takes Don to Palm Springs, where she’s rich-girl squatting in some friend’s mansion with a bunch of other aristocratic nomads. Don, accustomed to New York and “real life”, passes out from heatstroke. A weird German doctor revives him, and before he knows it he’s eating Mexican food for the first time! He’s being cooed over by a bunch of Europeans! He’s kissing Joy in front of a bunch of strangers!

The conflict here for Don becomes apparent quickly – these people are everything he seems to want, but everything about them scares him.

Don supposedly wants to live life like a hobo or a nomad, always starting over. These people actually do that, and he can’t figure out how to talk to them. He tries to talk about money and jobs, the only two things you can’t discuss with jobless globe-hoppers.

Don supposedly wants to live a life of sexual freedom. Joy tells him if he joins her, he can sleep with whoever else he wants. She’s so un-repressed her own father (Willy) walks in on them the next morning and talks about sex with them. And it all makes Don INCREDIBLY uncomfortable.

In the end, what settles it is seeing Joy’s French friend Christian show up at the mansion in the middle of the night, carrying two exhausted little kids.

It’s not even that they remind Don of his kids. It’s that they show that these people, like Don, are full of shit. They do have responsibilities – they have kids with bedtimes – and they’re ignoring them. The next day, Don leaves Joy and heads somewhere else in California. He’s not done figuring out what he wants, but he knows it’s not these weird people and their strange lives.

In the episode’s final shot, a mailman knocks on the door of the Draper home. With no answer, he leaves Don’s suitcase there on the front step – its owner MIA. We can only imagine how Betty felt coming home to see it. Last week, Betty said she’d been dreaming about a suitcase, which she connected to fearing terrible news about her father in Pennsylvania. With a husband that’s decided to wander California for weeks with no notice, though, a dying dad is the least of her problems.

The suitcase is a sort of visual reminder that men like Don and Willy and Christian like to wander, and explore the world, and live like nomads with no strings – but there are strings and responsibilities, and they’re being left as a burden on somebody else’s door.

Stray Observations:
– Pete: “I saw Tony Curtis in the men’s room.” [when Don isn’t impressed enough] “Tony Curtis, Don! A thing like that.”
– RIP, Peggy’s cute-but-immature ponytail and not-cute-just-terrible bangs. You had a long run.
– It does not matter how many times I’ve seen it, Ken’s little contribution at the end of Pete getting caught up on what he missed will ALWAYS make me laugh. Unfortunately, this clip doesn’t include the minute-plus of office small talk leading up to it.

– Just… this.