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'Mad Men' Mondays: 'Hands and Knees'

G-Men, abortion, and a Playboy bunny: An explosive episode of 'Mad Men.'

This is the new column in TNR’s weekly series of "Mad Menepisode recaps. Caution: It contains spoilers. Click here for last week's review.

The first time I saw Jon Hamm as Don Draper, I thought, "This character has the saddest eyes I've ever seen." With each passing season it becomes increasingly clear that I read them wrong. It wasn't sadness I saw in Draper's eyes. It was fear. More accurately, it was fear held at bay. But once in a while it springs to the surface, and when it does, Draper's unflappable facade crumbles and we see a man who's seconds away from abandoning everything, packing his bags, and running away—again.

The occasion in "Hands and Knees"—episode 10 of Season Four, directed by Lynn Shelton and written by Jonathan Abrahams and Matthew Weiner—was Don's investigation by the government for what should have been a routine security clearance. Don would have been the point man for a new client, North American Aviation, a California-based firm that's developing technology for the Department of Defense, including guidance systems for the Minuteman II missile. Don's new secretary, Megan, filled out the form applying for security clearance and Don signed it without looking, as people tend to do with forms. Don later realized that within the first eight questions, he had lied about three things, including his age. He was thrown into a spiral of terror—even suffering a Tony Sopranostyle panic attack—when the government sent two agents to question his ex-wife, Betty. ("Do you have any reason to believe Mr. Draper isn't who he says he is?" one agent asked, with no idea how  loaded that question was.) Betty held up well under their bland ambush, telling them nothing incriminating. She also refrained from spilling Don's secret to her second husband, Henry—who, as an employee of Governor Rockefeller and a rising political star, probably should have been told. "I don't want any secrets," she told Henry, laying her head on his chest without having even alluded to the secret she was keeping.
"Everybody keeps secrets." That was the theme, or something like the theme, of last night's "Mad Men," and in case you didn't figure it out on your own, the show clued you in over the closing credits with an instrumental cover version of the Beatles' "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" (The song was a humorous callback to a running gag in this episode in which Don used his agency connections to get tickets to take his daughter Sally to see the band at Shea Stadium, but it was also a reminder that "Mad Men" sometimes has trouble quitting when it's ahead.) And the security clearance incident was yet another of the show's periodic reminders of what sustained deception costs a person. It's been said that that if you don't buy the ethical justification for being truthful, there's a practical argument for it: If you don't lie, you never have to remember exactly what you said. Don's whole life has been stitched from a huge lie and embroidered with countless smaller ones. He has a lot to remember: where he grew up, what his childhood was like, the number and names of his siblings, how many times he's been married, the name of his wife and which wife, and on and on. And that's on top of all the smaller lies he's told as a handsome, alcoholic philanderer. Judging from "Hands and Knees," the strain of being Don Draper/Dick Whitman is very nearly too much for Don/Dick. Don convinced Pete to cover for him—to scotch the account before the investigation could progress too far and absorb the incredulous fury of his partners. Next week Don will probably be on an even keel again and lying about something else, because that's what habitual liars do, and because this is TV: Don can't be totally exposed, because if he did, the series would have to either end immediately or spend the rest of its run tracking Don's progress through the prison system for desertion from the U.S. Army. I was reminded of a cynical but very quotable line by Don from the series pilot: "I'm living like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one." Don is finally figuring out that there is, in fact, a tomorrow—the wreckage of Season Four is the "tomorrow" he couldn't foresee—and the expedient life now seems much less attractive.

So many secrets, so many lies. Joan becomes pregnant following her post-mugging tryst with Roger and they decide that she should get an abortion (her third, I think). So she goes alone on a bus to "take care of it." Roger's reaction to the news was fascinating and real: regret and real sorrow commingled with blase male entitlement. At one point he even spun out a hypothetical narrative that involved Joan having the baby and pretending it was her husband's and Roger eventually entering the picture and claiming his fatherhood after Greg died in Vietnam. (I love that Roger can be so sensitive and profoundly insensitive in the same breath. I also loved Joan's reaction, which was that of a mom who hasn't lost her capacity to be shocked by a little boy's verbal fumblings, but takes it all in stride.) Roger, meanwhile, had a professional secret of his own: Lucky Strike, the source of the vast majority of Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce's billings, is dumping the agency. The final  secret—maybe more of an emphasis than a revelation—was Pete's. He's becoming the steadiest, most-clear headed senior partner, willing to absorb outrageous manipulation and abuse to keep the peace and stabilize his own position.  

Lane Pryce, meanwhile, entertained a visit from his father, Roger Pryce, who flew in from England to give his son a bit of advice that applies to so many of the series' major characters, including Don, Roger, and Joan: "Put your home in order. Either there or here. You cannot live in between." The "in between" is a kind of present-tense netherworld, an imaginative space created when we lie and successfully avoid, or postpone, getting caught—a concept whose fragility was made shockingly clear by the image of Lane Pryce curled up on the floor of his apartment, moaning in pain after his father responded to the revelation of Lane's love affair with an African American Playboy bunny by sending the young woman along to dinner and then belting Lane across the face with a cane. That blow to the head was merely a literal version of what many major characters suffered in this episode.  

In a Twitter discussion after the show between myself and critics Alan Sepinwall and Myles McNutt, I commented that I'm always resistant to "theme" episodes of dramatic series in which nearly every scene and most of the dialogue is woven around a unifying concept. The risk is that spontaneity and messiness of life recedes or vanishes, and is replaced by a sort of clever algebraic bloodlessness. McNutt responded that he distinguishes between "'theme episodes" (which I would argue “Hands and Knees” is) and "episodes with themes" (the majority of "Mad Men"’s run). The distinction is a fine one, but worth making, because it defines the difference between right-brain and left-brain storytelling, between drama as poetry vs. drama as architecture. "Hands and Knees" offered more of the second category than the first, but it never succumbed to the tendency to flatten out human idiosyncrasy and replace it with a gigantic cause-and-effect flowchart. All these characters had their secrets, yes. But those secrets were all quite different, and were illustrated in unique ways. More significantly, the act of secret-keeping was itself a sort of dramatic get-out-of-jail-free card for "Mad Men." Because everyone does, in fact, harbor secrets, often dire and shameful secrets, and has to deal with their exposure or threatened exposure at any moment for any reason, the regular viewer of "Mad Men" can't complain that it's too much of a coincidence to have all these people's secrets illuminated simultaneously in the course of a couple of painful days. In this sense, at least, the fictional lives depicted on this series are not terribly different from our own. Every day we present the world with an official narrative about who we are and where we came from, but huge portions of it are redacted—like the document that North American Aviation showed the agency in that initial meeting. "There'll be fewer black bars as the process moves forward," an aviation rep tells the mad men. But there never are.

Matt Zoller Seitz is a contributor to Salon and the founder of Slant's “The House Next Door,” where he has written extensively about “The Sopranos” and other series.

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