The Carousel: Revisiting Mad Men: S4E3 and S4E8 (“The Good News”, “The Summer Man”)

Hi again, folks, and welcome back to The Carousel! This week I’m reviewing two of the episodes that tied for third place in our upvote poll, “The Good News” and “The Summer Man”. Why is no one reviewing “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” which also tied for third place? Because Miss Rim will do it next week, along with “The Beautiful Girls.”

We’ll end April with “The Suitcase.”

Episode 3: “The Good News” was quite well-received, save one high-profile contrarian review who thought the show was getting stuck showing Don’s downward spiral. But let’s ignore that guy: this is a GREAT hour.

On the surface, the three vignettes that make up 100% of the runtime – Joan’s troubles, Don’s time in California, and Don and Lane’s wild night out – have almost no story connection, and in fact Don’s two vignettes don’t intersect at all. They’re very tonally separate, too, from domestic tension to quiet California life to overtly comedic shenanigans.

But it’s a week of three looming endings, on an uncertain but inevitable schedule – the end of Lane’s marriage, of Greg’s time in the U.S., and of Anna Draper’s life – and the ways people try to distract themselves from the train coming around the corner. Which means I can’t interpret the title, taken from Stephanie’s story of her crazy born-again roommate, as anything but sarcastic.

Let’s start with Joan. Her story opens the episode, visiting the same gynecologist Peggy visited in the pilot. He was condescending to Peggy, but he’s respectful to Joan and treats her like an adult as he explains her reproductive options. This’ll be the last time this week that Joan is spoken to the way she wants to be spoken to.

Lane is the first to undercut Joan’s seriousness, comparing her asking for vacation time right after New Year’s with “some nurse” asking Greg for the same. “Don’t go and cry about it,” he reminds her.

The ‘Darling, kisses’ note she gets with Lane’s flowers doesn’t help, either, and even realizing there was a mix-up with his wife’s flowers can’t erase the feeling that nobody sees her for who she is – which is a woman who is not “some nurse”, a “darling” – or a “helpless, stupid little girl”, as she ultimately says she feels like.

In fact, Joan is a woman so aware of her own maturity that she’s starting to fear it’s too late to have children, between her history of abortions and her age and her husband leaving.

And Greg continues to know alarmingly little about the person he lives with. “You know I love your chicken!”, he enthuses about the clearly store-bought fried chicken from work. “For me, this is like… I don’t know, like filing some papers is for you”, he says to explain how common stitching a finger is. Apparently he’s unaware that Joan hasn’t done her own secretarial work in years. “I usually save that for kids”, he tells her after telling jokes to distract her.

There’s a whole bunch of reasons Joan starts to cry – the fact that he can’t tell her when or if he’s leaving, the timeline running out on her getting pregnant and avoiding the “pitiable old crone” fate – but it’s still jarring to see someone who once tourniquetted Guy’s severed foot like it was nothing flipping out over a cut.

Onto Don and Anna! Let’s interpret this vignette as a goodbye to Dick Whitman – setting aside that there are still some flashbacks and encounters in future seasons, Anna’s death marks Don fully giving up that part of his life. It is, of course, also a goodbye to Anna. It’s a bittersweet one in both cases, and it captures the feeling of having a really good time while knowing you’re never going to have that particular kind of good time again.

California has never seemed so idyllic, going to get “beer and abalone” at a shack by the beach, dancing to old music, and meeting Anna’s political-but-pragmatic beautiful niece Stephanie. It’s why Anna is so much more open to wonder than Don is – last time we saw her she was exploring tarot, and now she’s musing on a UFO she saw. She says she’s always aware of how flimsy the truth of the world is.

Does Anna know she’s dying and her family is keeping it from her? I personally think the show tries really, really, hard to keep from giving any indication either way, though signing her wall in paint makes me think she knows she won’t be in that house much longer. “I know everything about you and I still love you”, she tells Don – the only thing he needed to hear in their last conversation.

(Her last line is “Goodbye, Dick”, and the line immediately afterwards is “Mr. Draper. Mr. Draper.” spoken by a flight attendant. In case you were wondering if the “Dick Whitman is dead and Don’s just Don now” thought needed to be underlined.)

And finally, “Does Howdy Doody have a wooden dick?” It’s Don and Lane time.
Lane continues to feel isolated from his coworkers, even as he loves the hell out of New York and the independence from his family that SCDP has given him. (That will make even more sense when we meet his father later.) When Rebecca needled him suggesting all his coworkers went on vacation together without him, he actually kind of believed her.

And Rebecca hated New York, as we saw last season. So that divorce is looming – it’s just a matter of when exactly it’ll happen, just like deployment and death from terminal cancer. Both working alone on New Year’s, Don and Lane make a connection they both badly needed. Don finds someone at work who’s in no position to judge his new, pathetic single lifestyle; Lane finds a friend, finally.

And absent wives and any possibility of judgment, they’re both teenage boys. Banging girls one room away from each other! Heckling stand-up comedians! Making handjob jokes while watching Godzilla! It’s exactly the sort of insane distraction people need when disaster is on its way and a new year is about to begin. Yee-haw.

Stray Observations:
Don on the merits of his generation’s music vs. Stephanie’s generation: “I think this song sounds like she’s inviting us to a very beautiful place where there’s no surfing at all.”

“You have no say in the affairs of this family. You’re just a man in a room with a checkbook.” That’s a line about Don, but it sounds like how Lane feels as the hated financial officer, doesn’t it?

It doesn’t really relate to this specific episode so much as a thesis for the entire series, but: “Nobody knows what’s wrong with themselves, and everyone else can see it right away.” Damn, Stephanie.

“Campbell’s friendly, but I think unintentionally” is lowkey the funniest line in the episode.

Episode 8: “The Summer Man”

This episode was not very well-received at the time, with less-than-glowing reviews and comment sections at Sepinwall HQ and the AV Club. The crux of it seemed to be two things:

1) The voiceover from Don sounded “unnecessary”, “clunky”, and the most common complaint – the show never needed to tell us Don’s thoughts before! Show, don’t tell!

2) The sexual harassment shown in the episode was over-the-top compared to previous similar storylines.

Well, I’m here to tell you those reviewers and commenters were fvcking morons, and I’m here to yell at them 7 years after the fact.

Key to understanding and appreciating Don’s voiceover in this episode is that Don is reading what he is writing as part of a conscious project to sober up and improve himself. Not sharing his thoughts. The voiceover is no more a reflection of his unfiltered thoughts than a novel would be. And what does his writing reveal to us that we wouldn’t normally know?

Turns out he’s fully aware he’s an alcoholic, where it’s often seemed that the standards of the time and his profession made him think only guys like Freddie qualified.

He’s embarrassed about not having graduated high school. Because of that, he’s never tried to write anything longer than 200 words. Despite fleeing his upbringing and embracing Manhattan, he still thinks he smells cornfields on the air sometimes, and doesn’t sound like he minds. And he’s not a bad writer, either, though clearly a self-conscious one.

And as for the sexual harassment being cruder and more open than in earlier seasons: the sexual revolution didn’t come with a complimentary brochure on the feminist ideals that it’s often falsely conflated with. Sexually liberated young men like Joey and Stan were just sexually liberated young men who swore more often and had no reason to think any differently about women. The show is, in my experience, entirely accurate in suggesting that liberal and hip and ironically rac-sex-classist young guys aren’t any more pleasant to be around than their old conservative counterparts.

With those defenses of the episode out of the way, let’s discuss it! Don is on a self-improvement streak: swimming, journaling, drinking less, going on a date with Bethany where he finally gets action (perhaps because she felt like she had to step it up after seeing how flawless his ex-wife is), going on a date with Faye where it becomes clear he values her work and wouldn’t mind a real relationship.

And in the end, he does what he and everyone else has been assuming he’d never do – he risks confrontation with Betty, and with his own painful emotions about the son he barely knows, and cleans himself up to attend Gene’s birthday party.

(In fact, Don gets to play three different ego-boosting roles with three different women – the single guy with game scoring with Bethany, the gentleman turning Faye’s offer of sex down, and the reliable old dad showing up for Betty. And they’re all blondes! Meanwhile, Megan lurks cackling in the wings.)

How much of these things stick past this week? Not many, because this is a show about the near-impossibility of change. But all of them together signify a climbing out of the hole, and that feeling lasts for a while. Don is, for the rest of the season, actively looking to define what his new life is gonna be.

Henry and Betty see Don and Bethany as rivals where before there was no real competition. The show doesn’t need us to read between the lines when Henry makes a show of mowing Don’s lawn in front of him and giving Don all the boxes marked ‘Draper’ – it’s a message he intends Don, and everyone else in the neighborhood, to understand.

Betty doesn’t have any feelings for Don anymore, in my opinion, but it doesn’t matter. Don being a bad husband was her excuse for being depressed and bitter for years, and now that she’s got a better husband, she doesn’t know how to explain her chronic unhappiness if she’s not feeling victimized by someone.

And as for Joey… God, I fvcking hate him. As I said, he’s a more open and direct person in a more open and direct generation. People swear and make sex jokes now! They talk about their feelings! WASPy work etiquette out the window! And that directness means Joan’s old, indirect way of getting rid of people she dislikes through clients loses out against Peggy’s open, direct firing. Not even Freddie was openly fired!

Joan isn’t wrong that Peggy was selfish to fire someone she didn’t like using Joan as a pretext, making both of them look untrustworthy to men. And Peggy wasn’t wrong to take things into her own hands when Joan failed. There is no answer to how they could’ve gained respect, and I think they both know that.

…Well, that was a down note. Remember when Don called Miss Blankenship “Ray Charles” after her surgery? Let’s end on that.