Mad Men: Long Weekend (season 1, episode 10)

A shadow of mortality hangs over “Long Weekend,” which initially appears to be a slight and lighthearted episode of Mad Men. It takes its sweet time getting to its more somber moments, though. The slow buildup works. The fact that the increasingly jocular tone of the episode is largely driven by Roger Sterling gives his sudden heart attack — the big plot twist of the episode — even greater impact.

In hindsight, it becomes clear just where the script was going from the very start. “Long Weekend” begins with Betty obsessing over her father’s new girlfriend, resentful that he could so quickly forget Betty’s recently deceased mother [1]. Meanwhile, Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, which Sterling Cooper has taken on pro bono to get in good with the future White House, is clearly turning up moribund — a fact that becomes clear in a side-by-side comparison of their ad campaigns. Kennedy uses upbeat, message-free jingles over fun imagery; Nixon sits and talks dully about economics in a tomb-like Oval Office [2].

The central theme finds its most direct expression as the owner of Menken’s department store finally comes in for a meeting in person to discuss the firm’s plans for the place’s relaunch.

“Your grandkids won’t care [about how you build your store from nothing],” Don tells him frankly. “They’ll say, ‘Grandpa, it must have been so hard back in the olden days.'”

Mr. Menken scoffs, but not at Don. “It was hard. But everyone seems eager to forget it.”

That human urge to forget is ultimately what drives the simmering attraction that’s existed between Don and Rachel Menken since the pilot episode to precipitate. Sterling’s bad behavior — at an eyebrow-raising all-time high here as he makes racist jokes, glibly echoes everyone else’s stupid platitudes, and proves himself the unabashedly dirty old man everyone always suspected him to be — culminates in a massive but non-fatal heart attack while having serial sex with a barely-legal ad model. Faced with the sudden mortality of a man not too much older than himself, who lives the same lifestyle of alcoholism, rich food, and sexual indulgence as himself, Don shows up frazzled at Rachel’s door in the dead of night and makes a move on her.

As before, Rachel initially rebuffs him, but Don somehow sweet talks her with nihilism. “This is it,” he pleads. “This is all there is.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that his phrasing here directly echoes his insincere joviality at his daughter’s birthday party back in “The Marriage of Figaro.” Don is a man who has it all — the family, the house, the lucrative career — and still feels empty, and in Roger’s sickly grey face he clearly sees a reminder of that ennui. Roger responds to his sudden brush with death by embracing his slightly estranged wife and daughter, who cling to him with relief; Don can’t, as his family is out of town at his father-in-law’s lake home for the three-day weekend.

But I suspect that even if Betty and the kids were home, Don still would have rushed to Rachel’s door.¬†Lurking beneath this entire episode is a theme of longing and self-denial — Peggy Olson trying to make sense of Pete Campbell’s on-again-off-again affection, Joan gently but cruelly deflecting her roommate Carol’s sudden confession of love — and Roger’s bout spurs Don into abandoning self-restraint and pursuing what he wants.

It’s hard to know what that is, exactly. Clearly it’s not casual sex; while Roger dallies with his photo model, her twin sister makes advances toward Don that he politely refuses. He’s amusingly uncomfortable to play witness to Roger’s lecherous behavior, constantly attempting to take his leave. It’s not the first time he’s demonstrated a lack of interest in playing wingman to Roger’s roaming libido. Yet security and stability don’t seem to satisfy Don, either. He has a wife who loves him in his perfect home in the suburbs, but his apathy toward that part of his life is slowly poisoning it.

Don definitely seems to have a type, if his dalliances are anything to go by. Like Midge, Rachel is keen-eyed, highly intelligent, unflinchingly independent (especially given the expected role of women in 1960), brunette, and strong-willed. Both his paramours have been practically the opposite of sweet, blonde, domestic Betty; the contrast increasingly gives the impression that he married her because he bought into the American dream as presented by the ’50s media whereas what he really wanted was something very different. Perhaps Don Draper, silver-tongued ad man, was himself sold a bill of goods by the ad industry.

But even here, fumbling for a connection in the shadow of death, Don can’t completely turn off whatever it is that makes him Don Draper, Ad Executive. Once he manages to talk Rachel into an assignation, once his pleas finally win her over, his demeanor suddenly changes. Looking down at her, pinned beneath his legs on her couch, he flips the script and refuses to take the next step until she asks for it. From anyone else, it would be an act of courtesy and respect — are you really sure this is what you want, too? — but actor John Hamm sells it as an act of power and dominance, his voice hardening as he looms over her. “Yes, please,” she replies meekly, complicit yet seemingly unsure of herself. No doubt she’s thinking of her father’s comparison of Sterling-Cooper to a “czarist ministry” (“no matter what the decision, you feel like it wasn’t yours”) as she suddenly finds herself forced to beg for something that only moments ago she resisted. Their sex is in no way non-consensual — clearly she remains attracted to and interested in Don, even after their previous falling out — but the dynamic of their encounter has an unsettling undertone.

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Afterwards, though, as they lay together on the couch, Don becomes uncharacteristically candid about his past; he talks briefly about his mother (a prostitute) dying in childbirth, his father’s death when Don was 10, and the misery of growing up with parents who weren’t really his own. This short confession, one suspects, is more than he’s ever told his own wife about his past. When he first showed up at Rachel’s house, he sputtered that she knew him better than anyone, which she denied with all sincerity. But of everyone Don has interacted with in the show’s first 10 episodes, she’s offered the most cutting insights, demonstrated the keenest ability to see through his ad-man bluster and call it like it is. Sex, power, money, security; maybe none of these things are as important for an unwanted little boy running from his own past as the genuine human connection he lacked growing up.

[1] On a personal note, the mortality theme of “Long Weekend” always hits me especially hard, as this episode introduces “Grandpa Gene,” Betty’s father. Around the time I was introduced to Mad Man and watched through its first four seasons in rapid succession, my own grandfather — also named Gene — had begun suffering from the same symptoms of Alzheimer’s that Betty’s father eventually develops. It doesn’t help that with her fair skin, pale blonde bobbed hair, and blue blouse, Betty in this episode is the Hollywood version of what my own mother looked like when I was a kid. It all hits entirely too close to home for comfort.

[2] Actually, Paul Kinsey’s impromptu theme for Nixon (“Ethel/Go get the ice pick/That Nixon guy is on TV again”) is better than either ad. And it sets up the minor plot point of Kinsey as former choir boy for an episode that shows up in season two or three.