Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Out of Town" (season 3, episode 1)

Mad Men - "Out of Town" (season 3, episode 1)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another 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 16, 2009/written by Matthew Weiner; directed by Phil Abraham): We've advanced only a matter of months between seasons this time, with Betty still pregnant and Sterling Cooper still stumbling through the painful process of reorganization under new management. The latter situation yields a humorous crisis early on, as new British CFO Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) invites Pete into his office to inform him that he will be the new head of accounts, and then invites Ken into his office to inform him that...he will be the new head of accounts. Ken is bemused, Pete is not, and a mini-cold war begins to brew. As for the former matter, Betty's pregnancy, it's addressed even earlier, at "Out of Town"'s outset, and tied into Don's haunted past. While boiling milk late at night, Don experiences...a flashback (impossible), a vision, or a visualization of the stories he heard growing up. He witnesses his stepmother losing one of many children in birth, his father sleeping with a young prostitute (Kelly Huddleston) who promises to "cut your dick off and boil it in hog fat" if she gets "in trouble," and then his own birth to that prostitute as she whispers her threat once again...and passes away. And then the baby is delivered to the Whitman family and introduced, in an apparent misunderstanding (or ironic reappropriation) of Evangeline's dying words, not as Richard but as Dick - which is apparently not a nickname. This is one hell of a dark origin story (no wonder the baby grew up into a man who wanted to change his name).

After that memorable opening, Don and Sal - er, "Bill" and "Sam" - are off to Baltimore to make it rain. Pardon the pun; they're meeting with representatives of the London Fog raincoat company. Ironically I could probably have used another, opposite pun, given the passionate fires they attempt ignite in their hotel rooms - Sal with a bellboy (Orestes Arcuni) and Don with Shelly (Sunny Mabrey), a flight attendant (as they weren't known at the time). These flickering flames are quickly extinguished by an ill-fated fire alarm and as he descends down the fire escape, Don knocks on Sal's window and is shocked to see the half-dressed bellboy emerge into frame. Sal is horrified and ill at ease for the rest of the trip until Don finally appears to broach the subject on the flight home only to, pointedly, refer solely to a question about their ad campaign. Sal is touched by his colleague's discretion. There are times when Don's reticence reads as consideration rather than indifference, and this is certainly one of them.

My Response:
Have either of them done this before? Sal has likely hooked up with men but probably wrote off the experience in his mind. This does seem like it might be his first time in a while, especially given how firmly he shuts down a client's overtures in the first season and how eagerly he races headlong into a sad, lonely marriage. If Don is returning to form after a few months, Sal may very well be resurrecting a repressed inclination after years or even decades. I wonder if Mad Men is simply allowing Sal a moment as down payment on far-flung future developments or if, by centering him in the premiere episode, the series is promising to offer him a continuous arc throughout the season. We certainly know this isn't Don's first time - two seasons have crafted arcs closely around his infidelities. So let me rephrase: has he done this since? In the four or five months after his reconciliation with Betty, did he have any other flings, one-night stands, or dalliances? His behavior with the stewardess suggests otherwise: he seems genuinely hesitant, even a bit brusque before allowing himself to succumb. And the same universe that throws her in his path - as reckless and stubbornly persistent a come-on as he's ever encountered - also interrupts (or prevents?) their entanglement, as if the whole situation was a temptation or test.

Did they have time to actually go all the way? Does it matter? Maybe not in the sense that Don's newfound commitment has proven short-lived, but perhaps it's important in another sense. Something I caught, or at least registered, only when re-visiting the episode was a throwaway bit of dialogue following dinner. We could easily assume that Shelly's southern accent, itinerant profession, and superficial persona mark her as a one-off character meant to reveal something about Don and little else. But she casually mentions being based in New York, and I can practically guarantee we'll see her again. What if the first scene's flashback is foreshadowing too, and when Shelly inevitably runs into "Bill" in Manhattan...she's several months pregnant? If that spectral Californian Joy (Don's last indulgence as far as we know) surprised us by disappearing as quickly as she was conjured, then Shelly could surprise us by sticking around.

Aside from those two key, intersecting, storylines, "Out of Town" feels surprisingly minor. It's a well-executed episode, catching us up even as it reminds us that not too much time has passed, but I was a bit surprised this was a season kickoff - as were my fellow viewers. In retrospect, I'm not totally sure why; neither the first nor second season launched with a huge bang (maybe the first did - a bit - but that was mostly to do with dramatically introducing these characters and their world). There is plenty of potential in this material - the Pete/Ken tangle in particular is brilliantly positioned to both sustain Pete, who is certainly the fourth lead at minimum, and boost Ken's profile. I have to confess, however, that I'm eagerly craning my neck for both historical and narrative reasons: I think '64 is going to be a very big breakthrough for the series. Nonetheless, we've got a ways to go before we reach the thick of mid-sixties Mad Men so I might as well settle in for the ride.

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