Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Three Sundays" (season 2, episode 4)

Mad Men - "Three Sundays" (season 2, episode 4)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review an episode of season two, possibly followed by each episode of season three. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on August 24, 2008/written by Andre & Maria Jacquemetton; directed by Tim Hunter): "Three Sundays" not only unfolds over three Christian sabbaths (as well as a few days in between), on each Sunday - well, the first two Sundays anyway - it flips between three perspectives. On Passion Sunday (the kickoff to the final two weeks of Lent, stripped from the Catholic calendar seven years after this episode takes place), Peggy is in Brooklyn, Don is in Westchester, and Roger is in Manhattan. On Palm Sunday, all three are forced to come together to work on the American Airlines campaign, since the executives of that company have decided to come calling on Good Friday rather than later, as originally planned. And on Easter, we stick with just Peggy at the Brooklyn church whose pews provide the backdrop for each Wes Anderson-esque opening to the various Sundays. On the first Sunday, Peggy meets the church's new pastor, the young Father John Gill (Colin Hanks). He seems to take a fancy to her, leaving her family's luncheon (held in his honor) once she's left, and even soliciting advice for his Palm Sunday sermon after learning that she's an advertising copywriter (a scene in which he suggests a certain Pete Campbell-esque diffidence). He's disappointed by her absence for that sermon a week later, and Peggy's sister Anita picks up on these irritating signs. Before the next Mass, Anita goes to confession and conveniently - if also perhaps sincerely - tells the priest all about her sister's sins as well as her own. On Easter, a muted Father Gill watches a child toddle around and then hands Peggy a painted egg "for the little one." Her face sinks as she realizes what he must know.

Roger's arc is the most limited of the three characters, although it wouldn't be a Tim Hunter episode without him, would it? He goes out to dinner with his family and grimaces as his daughter puts off her wedding (and his wife reminds him of theirs), runs into a call girl at lunch with several of his employees and a client (whom she claims is her husband), is mildly disappointed when Pete has to break the news of her real identity to him, and finally procures her services which she unceasingly reminds him are indeed services, and well-compensated ones at that. Don, meanwhile, observes Passion Sunday without much passion - awakening from an erotic dream, he's interrupted by his children before he can make love to Betty and later in the day little Bobby gets into trouble for touching a record on the family stereo. On Palm Sunday, Bobby burns his tongue on the pancake griddle just as Don gets a call from the city and is forced to bring his daughter with him to the office where the whole Sterling Cooper crew gathers in their Sunday casual best (Pete's golfing gear is especially noteworthy). It's all for naught on Good Friday when Duck, Easter egg splattered all over his face a few days ahead of schedule, informs the gathered admen (and women - both Peggy and Joan are present) that his inside man at American was just fired, and the deal is almost certainly off even though the execs are still attending. That night, a pissed-off Don rejects Betty's admonitions to discipline his son, shoves her, and then admits that his own father beat him mercilessly. "All it did was make me fantasize about the day I could murder him."

My Response:
This is a premiere example of the kind of storytelling a zeroes cable series could pull off. For the most part, the drama is self-contained, although a few elements are mostly just relevant to larger arcs (Don is briefly visited, and kissed, by Bobbie Barrett, the abrasive comedian's wife/manager, and Joan's reaction to the sound of the door locking, and later Don's arrival with his innocent little girl, is priceless). Yet this isn't "episodic" in the classic sense of the term: the events feel like they belong more to illustrative short-form literature than a marking-the-time TV episode. Stuffed with character revelations and memorable gestures, "Three Sundays" reminds us that prestige TV can evoke the short story as much as the novel. That said, part of the power of this episode is in the conversation between the storylines, the cutting back and forth rather than letting each unfold on its own (itself an appealing approach I'd love to see Mad Men explore at some point). In particular, the contrast of the Drapers' WASPy suburban existence beyond the city limits and the Olsons' crowded Catholic urban lifestyle in the outer borough provides a rich dialectic.

I'm quite enjoying our sketches of Peggy's divided existence, split between the freedom of Manhattan and the confinement of Brooklyn. In season one, as she struggled with office politics and scraped by with her precarious multiple-roommate living situation in the city, her origins were shrouded in mystery - certainly much more so than for Don or Pete (I wonder if we'll eventually get a strong sense of Roger's background too). Now, however, we're tracing her roots and I find it particularly interesting that as she's being liberated in her work life, her family life becomes more oppressive. I also liked the subtle reminder of Don's backstory and remain slightly perplexed by what Betty knows about his past. Presumably they discussed his family at some point, right? She asks him about having a nanny in the first season, so I doubt she knows much, but Don's son knows that his grandfather was a farmer so presumably Betty knows the supposed Drapers (I can't imagine she knows anything about the actual Whitmans) weren't exactly upper-crust sophisticates. Although these clues are compelling, we aren't given too many details to larger Mad Men mysteries in "Three Sundays" - but it doesn't feel like a filler episode. It's closer to, if not quite as bold as, "Pine Barrens" on The Sopranos. Sometimes the strength of TV is in its serialized complexity, and sometimes it's in the episodic singularity.

Next week: "The New Girl"Last week: "The Benefactor"

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