Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Seven Twenty Three" (season 3, episode 7)

Mad Men - "Seven Twenty Three" (season 3, episode 7)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Wednesday 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 September 27, 2009/written by Andrew & Maria Jacquemetton, Matthew Weiner; directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer): In dramatic fashion, "Seven Twenty Three" introduces us to three separate scenarios, presented in single shots, isolated without context and separated by a black screen. Betty drapes herself across a fainting couch, tenderly massaging herself in sensual fashion. Whose house is she at, and is someone else just offscreen, encouraging her? Peggy awakens on a bed, a bit stunned as she remembers where she is and who she's with (a man's body, turned over so we can only see its back, lays next to her). Is this the boy she fooled around with the other night, or Pete, or a stranger? Don pushes himself up from a wooden floor surrounded by empty bottles and the detritus of a wild night, staring at his very bloody reflection in the mirror. Who hit him, and was he drinking and possibly sleeping with the schoolteacher - did their expected affair actually turn into a violent and short-lived bacchanal? This was my speculation in each case and, thankfully, the episode managed to subvert each one of my expectations, surprising me with some developments that emerged from the ether and others that had long been building, either above or below the surface.

Betty is, in fact, in her own home - she has destroyed her carefully redesigned living room, to the horror of decorator Cynthia (Susan Krebbs) - by purchasing an old Victorian fainting couch at the casual behest of Henry Francis, the governor's advisor whom she met at Roger's country club party. She was meeting with Henry during an eclipse the day before (at a restaurant where the waitresses unmistakably wear the Double R uniforms from Twin Peaks), hoping he could help with a local civic matter although both know there's more to their chemistry than that. So far nothing's come of it, but they're clearly inching closer to an affair, as are Don and Miss Farrell at a children's eclipse celebration at the exact same moment. Peggy's fling is - obviously - consummated, but it came as more of a shock even if it shouldn't have. After wooing her in a business sense, Duck accepts her refusal to leave Sterling Cooper and then propositions her in a much more vulgar fashion. To her own surprise as much as anyone else's, she accepts. Is she attracted to Duck? I'm not sure he seems her type (if she has one). But she certainly welcomes his flattery given Don's absolutely brutal dismissal of her just an hour earlier: "Every time I turn around you've got your hand in my pocket. You have an office and a job that a lot of full grown men would kill for. Stop asking for things!"

Indeed, Don bears some responsibility for the places all three characters end up in that opening montage, because Betty's purchase is also clearly a response to his outburst the night before. In her case, at least she gives back as good as she gets before he storms out the door. When pressed why he won't sign a contract at work, Don snaps, "Let me explain something about business since as usual, you're making this all about yourself. No contract means I have all the power. They want me but they can't have me." Betty has the perfect retort. "You're right," she deadpans, picking up the larger significance. "Why would I think that has anything to do with me?" Don storms out drink in hand, picks up a couple hitchhikers (Trever O'Brien and Erin Sanders) off to get married (and hopefully dodge the draft), and gets drugged. He converses with a spectral Archie Whitman, cradling moonshine and rocking in a chair while telling dirty jokes, before the young man punches Don in the back of his head, knocking him out so they can empty his wallet and flee into the night. If Don's professional relationship to Peggy and marital relationship to Betty remain surprisingly intact at episode's end, his relationship to someone else is entirely severed.

Throughout "Seven Twenty Three," Bert, Lane, and Roger have been pressuring him to finally sign a three-year contract; he's just officially landed Connie Hilton as a client and they want to make sure this relationship applies not only to Don but to Sterling Cooper. Lane's concern is of course entirely cordial and impersonal. Bert pushes hard, harder than he probably even needs to, when he presents Don with a contract the morning after his bloody bacchanal: "Would you say I know something about you, Don?" he calmly threatens. And as if to present the flip side of this warning, he shrugs, "After all, when it comes down to it, who's really signing this contract anyway?" - a reassurance that simultaneously digs the knife in even deeper. But it's the third partner in pressure who receives the coldest, deepest share of Don's wrath. Roger supposedly buried the hatchet in the previous episode, but he's been getting under Don's skin for a long time and when he calls the Draper household and asks Betty to push Don, that's the final straw. While finally signing his near-future away, Don says matter-of-factly, "I don't want any more contact with Roger Sterling."

My Response:
The third season has been full of strong episodes, diving into character, spinning larger narratives and deftly incorporating touchstones of this particular period; "Seven Twenty Three" is one of the best so far. This is the first episode written by the Jacquemettons since season two, and it follows a similar structure to "Three Sundays," in which they used a high concept (mostly focusing on the titular days, climaxing on Easter) to tell three characters' stories. Although Roger is not one of the three this time, clearly he is impacted by its events - knowing his vulnerability in the corporate structure at present, I'm wondering if Bert is going to more or less ask him to stop showing up for work. If Roger's falling, it's remarkable to glimpse how easily Duck landed on his feet (remember their brutal meeting back in season two?). This is a character who has really, subtly grown on me. Something of a cipher when he was introduced in season one, the writers, directors, and Moses himself have managed to make that cipher the essence of the portrait. Eager and antsy, uncomfortable in his own skin yet able to use this nervous energy to survive, he's finally found someone more insecure than himself to latch onto. In a neat way, the manipulative relationship forming between Peggy and him echoes the way Conrad Hilton plays with Don.

With so much else going on I didn't even mention Connie's visit to the office in the above synopsis but it's a very strange affair. The hotel magnate, after scolding Don for his lack of religious or familial tokens, solicits advice about some sort of cryptic "personal matter" - an "involvement" in which his "significant needs" are being met but his "eye has begun to wander." Don resists this weird dynamic, and Connie pivots to a handshake deal on Don handling his New York accounts. What is going on here? Don doesn't ask too many questions, knowing that what's most important is the staggering impression he's made on his colleagues and superiors (and also knowing that he found himself in this situation virtually by accident, he doesn't want to overplay his hand). But the millionaire's caprice has an ominous tinge and by episode's end has already contributed to several disasters. I don't see this ending well for anyone, except maybe a bemused Connie. I love how his character was introduced as someone similar to Don in their first encounter - a scrappy go-getting cynic from a humble background, who's made it to the big time but still carries a chip on his shoulder - yet the more we see them interact, the clearer it becomes that class separates rather than conjoins them. The power is all on Connie's side even as Don tries to hang on for dear life.

This is nicely complemented by the reverse dynamic near episode's end when Archie uses an explicitly working-class framework to denigrate Don as phony and weak: "Look at your hands, they're as soft as a woman's. What do you do? What do you make? You grow bullshit!" And a third father figure looms over Don by episode's end. This is one of Bert's strongest moments - he's a character who often comes off as a reliable avuncular uncle but whose devotion to Ayn Rand should never be forgotten. As Connie, Archie, and Bert subtly abuse and toy with Don, the adman "who has everything" becomes unbearable to those around him, and to himself - indeed, his own self-loathing leads him to target precisely the most vulnerable people in his orbit: Peggy, obviously vulnerable; Betty, less vulnerable than Don wishes; and Roger, far more vulnerable than he looks from outside. This lashing-out provides little relief. Assaulted by the wiles of both money and youth, Don's face ends the episode as a marker of the cost capitalism wreaks even on its most adept navigators, whenever they need to be put in their place.


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