‘Mad Men’ Recap: Ode to Joan

'Mad Men' hits its stride by letting the ad women lead the storyline.

Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) helps lead the storyline in AMC's "Mad Men."

Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) helps lead the storyline in AMC's "Mad Men."

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What does Don think when he looks at Pete? Aside from the repulsive disdain that the sight of Pete arises in the rest of us, does Don feel some regret, watching the path he treaded now being followed by the slimy, heartless, younger ad executive? That is the question "Mad Men" poses at beginning of the episode "To Have and to Hold."

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Pete and Don hold court for the Heinz Ketchup rep at Pete's Manhattan bachelor oasis, from where he has been screwing other women and screwing over his wife. When the Heinz rep leaves, Pete tells Don he is welcome to use the pad whenever he likes. Don gruffly reminds him that he already lives in the city.

But does Don realize he and Pete are cut from the same, weasel-y cloth? That Pete is only stepping in Don's footsteps, abandoning house and hearth in the suburbs to act on his selfish, adolescent lust? (Mr. Ketchup seems to be of a similar mindset, licking his wedding ring to get it off before leaving to meet a woman presumably not his wife, telling Don and Pete he doesn't "need much of an excuse to come to Manhattan.")

Thankfully, "To Have and to Hold" doesn't spend much time answering that question, as watching Don toss and turn in the bed he has made himself has grown tiresome, six seasons, four episodes in. Instead, it casts its attention to Joan, Peggy, Megan and even Dawn, letting the "Mad Men" women lead the charge into modernity, rather than linger on the men who have been left in its ashes.

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There are plenty of dark comedic elements to this week's episode. Dawn tells her friend that she can't find a suitor in church because "you can't stand out in that crowd of harlots."

Ken is genuinely disheartened when he realizes he – indeed – burst into Harry's office just to complain. An invitation to "swing" with a couple who work on Megan's soap opera throw the Drapers completely off balance. Harry makes a fool of himself in a partners' meeting because he thinks Joan is tattling on him, when his tantrums really couldn't be further from their radar.

The latter scene – though hilarious in execution – exposes the grave insecurities Joan has about her place at the SCDP table – a place gained, in part, by her colleagues' willingness to prostitute her out for a big deal.

"I'm sorry my accomplishments happened in broad daylight, and I can't be given the same awards," Harry whines to his superiors, making little effort to hide his intimations.

Despite the vocal admiration of her mother and the amiable jealousy of her visiting friend Kate, the circumstances of her professional advancement dog Joan. When doing what she does best – HR management, not seducing skeezy car salesmen – her colleagues undercut her, telling her there's no reason to fire Scarlett, the underling secretary who has been fudging her time card, because the "humiliation will suffice."

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In saying so, Bert Cooper actually only humiliates Joan. It's not surprising that she succumbs to the pathetic come-ons of a suitor at the Electric Circus. "He said I'd want you," he tells Joan, when she asks what he has heard about her as he lunges at her mouth. Her self image as merely a sex object reinforced, Joan reciprocates. Don is not the only one vulnerable to falling into old habits.

Peggy's appearance in "To Have and to Hold" is brief, but her rise up the professional ladder is even more upsetting to her male SCDP colleagues. Whether Peggy's ad for Heinz Ketchup is qualitatively better than Don's is debatable. But her pitch is more suited to what Heinz wants (that is, what men often want, to see more of their own image) — something the viewers immediately know and Don soon figures out.

Yet the terms of her success are almost inverse of Joan's. Joan has earned the admiration of her friends and family, but has also drawn the scorn of some of her co-workers. Peggy is winning the approval of her Cutler Gleason and Chaough brethren, but at the cost to her personal relationships — Stan, makes his feelings known by flicking Peggy off as he leaves the bar they all convened at after the Heinz pitch. (Speaking of which, how did everyone know where to congregate after the Heinz meeting?)