Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Hands and Knees" (season 4, episode 10)

Mad Men - "Hands and Knees" (season 4, episode 10)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. The last season will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on September 26, 2010/written by Jonathan Abrahams and Matthew Weiner; directed by Michael Uppendahl): In a single meeting we can glimpse the fortunes of SCDP buckle and groan, ready to collapse. Almost none of the participants realize this, however, with the partial exception of Roger, which makes sense since he is the one holding the most damning cards. In a casual lunch with Lee Garner, Jr., the tobacco tycoon casually drops a bomb. After thirty years, their business relationship is now ending - just like that. His father has passed away and the board wants to consolidate all of their interests. Roger begs Lee to give him thirty days before finalizing the severance, although it's clearly irreversible; hopefully he can line up replacement clients in that narrow interim. When Joan asks how Lucky Strike is doing at the company meeting, Roger only offers a silent thumb's up. Given the stress, is another heart attack on his horizon? Don undergoes his own health crisis with Faye in his apartment, although she assures him it isn't to do with his heart (the incident remains undiagnosed, but we suspect some kind of anxiety attack). And no wonder: Pete's recent deal with defense contractor North American Aviation triggers a standard security clearance investigation by the federal government and Don, without thinking, signs the release form that Meg puts in front of him. We know what that means: Dick Whitman could be outed as a fraud and deserter, his career and entire life destroyed by prison, at best, or having to flee and invent a third identity from scratch, at worst.

Don convinces Pete, one of the few who knows his secret, to cancel a contract three years in the making in order to stop the Pentagon's investigation. Roger castigates Pete when the "screw-up" is revealed at that meeting (knowing how much further this damns their business given the looming Lucky Strike disaster), while Don conspicuously defends him. However, it is the third threat to the company which is perhaps the most subtle, as Lane promptly announces he will return to England for several weeks without much explanation. Only we have observed him spend the entire episode goading on his seemingly amiable if aloof father Robert (Morgan Sheppard) who has been dispatched from London to bring him back, climaxing in the reveal of Lane's girlfriend Toni Charles (Naturi Naughton), a bunny at the Playboy Club and, as Lane's smirk seems to revel in, an African-American. Robert responds by thwacking Lane on the head with his cane, insisting he choose on which side of the Atlantic he's going to "set his house in order" and does not remove his foot from his suddenly meek middle-aged son's hand until the powerful executive mumbles, "Yes, sir." Finally, as if these unfolding crises weren't dramatic enough, Joan discovers she's pregnant - obviously due to her robbery-fueled streetside liaison with Roger - and treks off by herself to "avert a tragedy" after Roger is informed and pays for the abortion (he makes it clear he would not provide for an illegitimate child). Sitting opposite a weeping young mother who assumes that Joan too is there on behalf of an unseen daughter, Joan plays along, replying "Fifteen" to "How old is yours?" On the bus ride back, she keeps her subsequent reflections to herself.

My Response: The title "Hands and Knees" carries multiple implications about power dynamics. It could refer to Roger pleading with Lee or Don pleading with Pete (although despite his own disadvantage, Don takes a surprisingly insistent rather than deferential tone). It could describe Don's physical or emotional near-collapse in front of Faye. Most obviously, it calls to mind Lane's literal position as he grovels before his sadistic patriarch - appropriately played by the actor who portrayed the sick villain Mr. Reindeer in David Lynch's Wild at Heart. Never have so many members of the ensemble appeared so vulnerable; even those like Lee, Robert, or Pete who ostensibly have the advantage appear to be acting on behalf of larger/broader forces (especially Pete, perhaps because he recognizes that without Don the agency would fall apart and he'd be out of a job). This appears to be a particularly apt opportunity for director Lynn Shelton, an independent filmmaker who passed away last year. Known for films playing with their characters' delicate sense of insecurity, she was dubbed "the godmother of mumblecore" for her involvement with that cinematic movement of the late zeroes - and the fact that she was a generation older than most of those late X/millennial auteurs. Despite some big plot moments, Shelton lends the episode an air of character study.

The teleplay provides ample ground for these character moments - in particular, I'm not sure we've ever explored Lane's own personal dynamics so thoroughly, and this is one of the meatiest episodes for Joan all season - but the writers are also treading some dangerously familiar ground. As exciting as it is to watch the always rich Don/Dick dynamic re-emerge, how many times can Mad Men return to that well, especially in the form of a false alarm? Twice already the series has flirted with setting the entire, carefully-crafted Draper persona on fire, and the climaxes of seasons one and two carried a little more weight in that regard. And while I enjoyed the wilting payoff for Pete's long march into aerospace, something about that doesn't feel fully explored either; hopefully there is more to come. Speaking of which, the end of the episode takes this perpetual theme of withholding information and finally applies it to us as viewers. After Don's apologetic secretary hands over a couple tickets for the Beatles at Shea Stadium, meant for him and his daughter, he stares at Meg applying lipstick as if noticing something for the first time. Meanwhile a coyly (and, no doubt, cost-efficiently) instrumental version of "Do You Want to Know a Secret" titters on the soundtrack. We've already heard an exhausted Don share everything with Faye, as he has with few others - in fact, I can't recall if he's ever willingly done so before this (with Bert, Pete, Betty, even Anna, his hand was forced) - and his last interaction with Faye hints at a sense of regret for such openness. So if there's an attraction brewing here for the escape-prone Don, perhaps it's precisely because Meg doesn't know a secret.

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