Welcome to the strangest episode of Mad Men that's aired thus far.
Mad Men has hit quite an interesting stride within the sociopolitical climate of the mid-sixties. Through the decay of social and personal barriers of the show's progression – particularly this season, we're able to bear witness to a kind of glacial shift in the period-piece show that allows the detail-hounds to revel in the transition, while offering subtle indicators of symbolism throughout.
Don is a mess. He's ill, which puts him in a vulnerable place when Andrea, a former writer for Sterling Cooper, crosses paths with Dapper Don in the elevator. She doesn't grasp Megan's connection, and tensions flare when she turns on the flirt. This leads to a conversation of boundaries, and amidst the gorgeously saccharine displays of affection between the Drapers we see seedlings of distracted concern creep into Don's countenance.
Joan, meanwhile, is nervously prepping for Greg's return home from the war, desperately eager to get her life back in working order after giving so much of herself and her family to her husband's absence. He returns, and there's love and reunions in the air…until he informs her that he has to go back for another year, after only ten days home. She's understandably devastated, but the deepest currents shift when she learns that he volunteered to go back.
The obtusely obnoxious new copywriter Michael Ginsberg takes lead on a starter account, Butler Hosiery, and nails the pitch – but doesn't let good enough stand alone. He digs in deeper with an idea that Don had originally dismissed, much to the client's delight – but Don’s high irritation. It's enjoyable to watch his character flesh out in development, but they may as well go ahead and get started on the love connection subplot with Peggy.
Speaking of Peggy, she wins the episode's MVP status by holding Roger's balls to the fire in a rare moment of absolute power. At the last minute on Friday night Roger is informed that the walk-through account presentation for the Mohawk airlines people is Monday morning – something for which he's made no preparations. He assigns Peggy the job a man (Michael) was specifically hired to do, while casually making his way out the door – but she sees the game here, and calls him on his vulnerability. $400 worth of bribing later, Peggy agrees to stick around and save his ass.
After post-meeting drinks Don heads home early with a fever, only to be met by Andrea, who makes it clear that she wants to restart their affair. He dutifully turns her away, knowing bad news when he sees it and (hopefully) values his new wife too much for such folly. But she's pushy and sexually demanding, and won’t leave until she's satiated. He gives in, but afterward is overcome with guilt and loathing. When Andrea presses for a more dominant standing in their interaction, Don snaps and… chokes her to death.
As it turns out, however, the murder was no more than a hallucination, and he wakes to find that Megan was caring for him throughout his fevered sleep. Scared straight, he assures her, “You don’t have to worry about me.” Of course, we know otherwise.
Ever the blossoming young lady, and brimming with complications, Sally catches wind of a serial rapist/murderer story on the news and is rightfully terrified. Pauline, looking after her while Betty and Henry are away, makes crude moral rationalizations of the killings that only exacerbates Sally's concerns. So Pauline does what any loving middle-aged caregiver would do when in charge of a child: she offers Sally a barbiturate called Seconal. When Betty and Henry arrive home the next morning, Sally is hiding under the couch and Pauline is still dead to the world just above her.
Joan decides that she wants Greg to leave and never come back — also reminding him that she hasn't forgotten when he raped her. It's a beautiful moment of strength reclamation by the long-inert fireball, and hopefully a kickstart to her return to the razor's edge in the offices of SDCP.
The closing-credits soundtrack, “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)” by the Crystals, is a 1962 pop song that wraps domestic abuse in a saccharine package. The various interpretations among plotlines aside, it's a reminder that some things never change in American culture. One need only to look at Chris Brown and Rihanna's recent reconciliation for evidence of the notion that, somehow, brutish aggression can substitute for love in the heat of the moment. But make no mistake: there is no love in fear.
With any luck, Don's dream will be enough of a motivator for him to get his head together, Roger will stop cutting corners, Betty will regain control of her life and Joan will find her strengths once more. But it's fear that holds each of them back, whether fear of the past, of change, of actually applying effort to their ideals. We'll see next week how thick their skin is.