Jon Hamm seldom goes wrong. As skilled at comedy as he is at drama, all the while looking like a matinee idol. So it pains me to say that this, his Mad Men directorial debut, was a bit of a clunker. Now granted, last week’s jam-packed premiere set the bar so high that anything was bound to be a letdown. And the fact that there was little Pete, little Lane, and no Joan did not help matters. But beyond that there was no flow to the proceedings. Scenes started, some had their moments, and then we were simply dropped into another collection of characters and conversations. Give the man credit for wanting to try something new, but I wouldn’t show him the director’s chair again anytime soon.
Now about those afore-mentioned moments. Don and Harry trying to land The Stones for the Heinz guys provided most of the evening’s laughs (as did Harry’s fast food orgy in Don’s car). I was initially put off by newcomer Michael Ginsberg during his first meeting with Peggy, which I realize was the point. But the possibility of another Stan on the staff was far from pleasant (maybe it’s a lost cause, but I still want Sal back!). The tides began to turn when Ginsberg sat down with Don and Margaret (loved that!), when he expressed his gratitude to Peggy and wanted her to share in his delight over landing the job, and by the time we saw the new hire’s modest home and elderly father, I found myself starting to like him. And now I’m already imagining the possibilities of a new office romance. What would it mean for Abe? How would Peggy’s Uber Catholic family react? And what would Pete have to say?
But despite this intriguing development, the highlights of the episode were, without question, every instance of Betty. I am not a big Betty fan. When she isn’t coming off like a spoiled child, she’s a monster of a mother. And after the way she’s come down on poor Sally in the past, a little girl who just had yet to grow out of her baby fat, you’d think I would take a perverse pleasure out of her inability to fit into a cocktail dress, sitting on the couch with her box of Bugles (well, I did for a few minutes). But after her visit to the doctor and the threat of cancer, Betty came off scared, truly terrified, perhaps for the first time in the run of the entire series. The fact that she had no one else to turn to in that moment but Don speaks to how the lives of those under her roof (including Henry, who I believe truly loves her), go on in her absence and would continue to do so should her exit be permanent. This is ironically underscored during Betty’s encounter with the fortune teller and again referenced during her “death dream.” When the phone finally rings with the news that she is not sick, Henry is relieved. But for Betty, this makes things even worse. An illness to explain her puffy face and expanding waistline would have allowed her to do one of the things she does best, place the blame elsewhere and shirk all responsibility for her current situation. Instead, it’s all on Betty, literally and figuratively. The true tragedy is that a few extra pounds is not a fate worse than death, and a more mature Betty might realize that it’s a sign that she feels safer in her marriage to Henry, who accepts her, than she ever did during her years with Don, for whom she always had to remain something of an accessory. For the moment, Betty is far from this realization, and as her distant daughter leaves the table, all she can do is sink into another sundae. And for so many reasons, I felt for Betty, something I have rarely done before. On an uneven night, credit January Jones with a strong performance and the promise of what could be a great season for the actress and her character.