There’s that damned elevator again.
Don stared down that empty shaft at work last season, but this year he’s been bobbing up and down like crazy at home. Ever since the symbolism-heavy but still excellent season premiere, that elevator’s cropped up in nearly every episode, carrying Don to and from his indiscretions, keeping him in a purgatorial state without any possible forward trajectory. And here it is again in episode seven, the first thing we see as Don lingers for a bit to eavesdrop on Sylvia’s fight with Arthur before heading to his first day at work with his former rival.
It’s interesting that we jump right into the merger with Ted, Peggy and the rest of the CGC crew moving in and skip over any reactions from Pete, Joan or the other SCDP partners to Don orchestrating it—but perhaps that’s because we all know that ultimately, what Don says goes. He jumps and—though they may complain—everyone else follows, and that’s to be expected.
It’s a busy day, to say the least, with everyone quite literally jockeying for position (Peggy gets Harry’s office, Pete’s left without a chair at the partners’ meeting). But Don and Pete both find themselves called away, albeit for very different reasons. Pete gets an emergency phone call and finds that his disoriented mother, who appears to be dealing with some degree of Alzheimer’s, has stumbled upon his apartment in the city. His brother Bud, seemingly unaware that Pete and Trudy are on the outs, reveals she’s been living in squalor and that it’s his turn to care for her. “Get Trudy a catcher’s mask and be thankful you get to go to work every day,” he says. Of course, Pete no longer has Trudy to care for his mother for him—or even a house to dump her at. It appears as though he and his ailing mother just became roommates, transforming his bachelor pad into something that sounds like the set-up to a sitcom pitch. So this cranky ad exec and his demented mother share an apartment in the city…
While Pete has no choice but to step away from work, Don leaves on his own free will. His call comes from Sylvia, who tells him “I need you, and nothing else will do.” This gets Don all hot and bothered, and he meets her at a hotel for a nooner. As he’s getting dressed and getting ready to head back to the office for a creative meeting (for which he’s 40 minutes late), he initiates a dominant/submissive power play scenario that he carries on throughout the episode—telling Sylvia what she can and can’t do, instructing her to wait for him in the room, saying things like “You exist in this room for my pleasure.”
She plays along, and he returns to the office, where he’s surprised and hurt that Ted held the brainstorming session about margarine without him. He’s used to things starting whenever he walks into a room and ending when he leaves it, but Ted won’t put up with that. Don comes to him bearing “an olive branch”—some booze, what else?—but he can tell immediately from the way Ted winces and hesitates as he downs it that he’s not much of a drinker. He pounces on the opportunity to one-up him, so he proceeds to get Ted drunk as they swap ideas about margarine and then trot him out in front of the creative team so they can see who’s really in control.
It’s petty and desperate, and Peggy immediately picks up on it. She camps out in Don’s office the next morning to tell him “I hoped he would rub off on you, not the other way around” and—in a subtle callback to season two—she tells him to move forward, the same thing Don told her before delivering his famous “It will shock you how much this never happened” line while sitting at the edge of her hospital bed after she gave birth to Pete’s baby. Now the tables are turned, and Don’s the one who’s stuck. He’s not being held in a hospital, but he’s trapped in limbo. He feels threatened and powerless at work, which explains his need to feel desired and dominant in the hotel room.
Ted ultimately evens the score, perhaps by heeding the ailing Frank Gleason’s advice (“Give him the first few rounds. He’ll tire himself out”). He flies Don to their meeting with a client—sporting some incredibly slick-looking aviators, we must add—through a storm. Don’s rattled, both physically (it’s a bumpy ride until they get above the clouds, and he looks a little nauseous) and mentally. When Ted starts discussing strategy with him, he defeatedly says, “No matter what I say, you’re still the guy who flew us up here in his own plane.” Don may be the one getting asked if he’s an astronaut in the season premiere, but it’s actually Ted who’s most comfortable soaring miles above the earth.
When he returns, Don’s got more bad news to deal with: Sylvia ends their affair after dreaming that he died in a plane crash and she returned to her husband. She takes it as a sign that it’s time for her to stop wandering and return home, and though Don begs her to reconsider with a single, heartbreaking “please,” she’s made her decision. They stand wordlessly in that cursed elevator before Sylvia gets off and goes home—she’s no longer in limbo. We don’t see Don exit the elevator because, of course, he’s still stuck in purgatory, unable to move forward.
Then, out of nowhere (just two episodes after the MLK assassination), we get the news that Bobby Kennedy has been shot. Another beacon of hope is cut down, and we’re officially deep into the hellish darkness that was 1968. “They’re shooting everybody!” Pete’s mother cries, and that certainly must be how it felt in a year marked by overwhelming senseless violence. The episode closes with Megan and Don in bed watching reports of Kennedy’s death—Megan quietly sobs while Don sits numb, staring away from the screen. As the credits roll, the Mad Men music supervisors once again prove they’re the best in the biz by mashing up the cheery “Reach Out of the Darkness” by Friend and Lover (“I think it’s so groovy now/ That people are finally getting together…”) with the news audio reporting Kennedy’s assassination. Is this a sign that all this loss, defeat and darkness he faced this episode was the kick in the pants Don needed to straighten himself out? Not likely. It plays more like a cruel wink—Don’s still riding that elevator, and it looks like it’s going down.
-Burt Peterson getting fired for a second time by Roger was hilarious, and his reaction of “What the?!?” was priceless.
-The Joan/Bob plot set up an interesting possible romance between the two of them and gave Bob more depth. He’s good in a crisis. But is this genuine, or another calculated move to suck up to those in power?
-Margie and that other creative guy got fired now that Peggy’s back, of course.
-”First you don’t have a chair, then you don’t have any clients.”
-Megan wants to go back to Hawaii because she feels Don slipping away and wants to return to being happy the way they were in that tropical paradise—but that’s not a permanent fix or a step forward; it’s backtracking.
-When Jon Hamm guest-starred on 30 Rock a few years ago, Tina Fey nailed her description of him with “He looks like a cartoon pilot!” Whether making Ted operate planes is a thickly veiled nod to 30 Rock or not, he did look very much the cartoon pilot with his snazzy aviators and his sheepskin bomber jacket. Has the torch been passed?