Superman Don gets a whiff of Kryptonite as ‘Mad Men’ trips out

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Megan and Don on a trip of their own. (AMC)
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Starlee Kine

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The playing-with-time theme became literal on last night’s "Mad Men" excursion, which revolved around trips of both the road and psychedelic variety.

It took a little while for at least me to realize the flash-forward stuff was happening but once it clicked, I felt like I’d been fed a little sugar cube of my own.

There were so many things to love about this episode, one of them being how clever it was to shoot it the way they did. The color schemes and fade-outs and intense close ups of wrists displaying watches and fingers pressing lighters made me feel like I assume it wanted me to: just your average, 1960s television viewer watching whatever my clunky set had to offer. I kept thinking of "Columbo," because out of all the shows from that time I know it the best, but also because it was so full of style and cameos by soul-stricken men. There was a bit of David Lynch in there last night too. That scene with Roger and Jane on the floor, their heads pressed together as one, had the cadence of theater but the majority of the episode was shot so convincingly in that other-time way that it felt not only like I was living in another era, but the cast was too. It’s a bit tricky to unpack, but what I mean by this is that there were moments where I sort of forgot, in a visceral, unconscious way, that Elisabeth Moss and Jon Hamm and the rest are contemporary actors. It’s like they, the actual actors, became characters to me. Jon Hamm as a '60s television thespian, playing the part of an ad man unraveling during what’s supposed to be a romantic vacation. And by regarding them all in this strange, artificial, blue-screened car-ride sort of lens, all the characters felt more real, or more “possibly true,” than they ever have before to me. Especially Don.

I’ve been noticing something about Don’s role this season. Not only has it been slighter than in previous seasons; but it also changes based on whom the episode is focusing on. I think we’re seeing him the same way the people in his life do, or rather, we’re seeing him through the filter of the other characters' neuroses.

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In the premiere, the show’s light shone on Megan, whose power over him in the still-early months of their marriage was great. As a result he was presented to us as almost backdrop, a shaky sketch of the man whose approval everyone else had for the longest time so actively craved. In Fat Betty, he’s a middle-aged divorced dad. Mystery Date revolves around female empowerment and how and whether the men fit into it, and Don spends it sick in bed with a fever, futilely trying to strangle to death the hold women have over him. It isn’t until we got to an episode featuring Pete Campbell, who, unlike the others, has never stopped admiring Don, who still desperately wants to feel like a peer to him, that Don emerges as the strapping superman that we remembered from the earliest seasons, before we learned too much.

Which brings us to last night, when Don’s persona shifts as fluidly as whatever demons or angels Jane saw rippling down her billowy sleeve. When we first see our superman call Peggy, from his literal phone booth, something is clearly amiss. Even though the episode starts with Peggy searching for her lucky gum from Don and she’s worried about having messed up the Heinz case, Don’s hold over her feels weak. She’s too in her own head to notice that he sounds out of his. Another great aspect of this episode is that at certain moments you were really able to know what the characters were thinking in a way that wasn’t projection. After Peggy gives her afternoon delight, the camera zooming in close on her anonymous new movie-theater friend’s belt buckle as though it were an important clue, the next shot is Peggy looking in the mirror while washing her hands. She’s thinking back on what she did, reliving it, relishing the weirdness, trying to figure out where the experience wiil live in her mind.

Peggy may have lingered over the question of whether she wanted to be like a man in her conversation with Dawn, but it’s becoming clear that the choice might not be hers to make. In the Heinz pitch meeting, in an attempt to convince herself that the path she is on is the right one, that being a career woman is worth it even when the men she respect run off with girls who barely care but still benefit twice as much, she tries to pull a Megan-scrubs-the-carpet move of her own.

“It’s young and it’s beautiful” she tells the client; if that's enough in so many other cases, why not now?

When the client turns to Ken and asks him if he believes that girl, Ken hesitates, waiting for the clients' cue. It’s a technique that works as often as it does not.

When Pete and Harry bought out all the air time to help Nixon’s campaign, Cooper came storming into the office, demanding names, only to have turned out to offer praise instead of criticism. In these swirling times, it’s becoming hard to gauge where anyone stands. One moment you're pouring yourself a drink to drown out your sorrows; the next that drink is playing a tune that only you can hear.

Peggy is so constantly showing new sides of herself, even within a single episode, going from stubborn and aggressive in the beginning of this one to vulnerable by the end, that it’s easy to forget first season Peggy whom I refer to, in my head, to my friends, since the Halloween when I dressed up like her, as Crazy Peggy. Because that’s what she was revealed to be, at least temporarily in that last episode of the first season, with her in the hospital, after she’d given birth to the baby she was in denial about having carried. It’s what bonded her to Don, their secret alter egos, their shared ability to be both at once. So it was interesting to watch her interaction with the orphaned Ginsberg. His mother was killed in the Holocaust and he’s undergoing his own sort of superman delusions by insisting he isn’t of this world at all but from Mars. Peggy, always so good at hiding her reactions in the moment, is stunned by all of this but if she connects it to her own abandoning of her baby, she doesn’t show it. Maybe that part of her life is starting to feel like a dream. What happens to those memories that you never speak about? Where do they go? Into a late night phone call to your boyfriend expressing raw need?

The Heinz client covets his own memories of his youth but becomes proprietary when those memories are being offered up freely to this new, out-of-control generation. In the movie theater, Peggy’s companion closes his eyes and she alternates between watching him and the lioness up on the screen who has just eaten her cub. Both scenes are the same amount of possibly true. Ginsberg’s dad stares at him while he sleeps, perhaps afraid that if he stops, his adopted son will disappear like all the other Jewish little boys.

A daytime joint drifts dreamily into a evening trip. Roger sees his two sides, straight down the middle, as clean as the part in his hair. When Roger stares in the mirror, at his younger and older self, it is Don’s voice he hears behind him, telling him not to look at himself, that there’s no good that can come from such close inspection of the damned.

It’s a robust Don, a confident one, the guide without whose aid Roger has been flailing these past few months. But now the dream Don, as properly dreamy as Roger needs him to be, has set him back on his shallow course; and even in Roger’s most drugged-out and thus most honest moments, his internal struggle is the same as his outward one. He doesn’t want to grow old. And the only way he knows how to fight it is to deny those close ups and continually seek out the new and the fun and the alive, probably getting married again and again, every time thinking he’s found the truth, always making the same mistakes but no matter because “every experience will be more beautiful than the last.”

Don and Megan were the third couple to fight it out last night. We’ve seen them fight before but this one was different because it was the same. That sneer of disgust Don gave Megan while she was stuffing her mouth full of sherbet, we’ve haven’t seen that since the Betty days. And it was that expression more than any 40th birthday party or Rolling Stones concert that made me finally glean that Don, like Roger, is getting old. Less because it reminded me of how he would look at Betty and more because it reminded me of the Heinz guy, the disdain and fear he had for Peggy’s willfulness. Don treated Betty like a child because she was one. Megan is just young. In some ways she’s less naïve than even a girl like Peggy, whose ambition so fully insulates her from the world outside the pitch room, that she failed to process a baby growing inside her, or a genocide happening.

It was in a Californian diner that looked so similar to the Howard Johnson one, that Don first fell under Megan’s sway. Milk was spilled but tears were not shed and in that little patch of peace, Don glimpsed an easier life. He told Megan the truth about his two identities, hoping it would make him whole. What he didn’t realize is that now, by allowing Megan to be alone in the truth with him, she could use that same truth to mortally wound him. If we’re going to keep running with the superman thing, which the show seems fine with doing, Don Draper’s kryptonite is his mother issues, specifically the ones involving the prostitute who orphaned him by dying in childbirth (I found it interesting that the brothel madam from last week resembled the type of woman who Fat Betty is supposed to be turning into) and the stepmother who threw that fact in his face, the same way Megan does at Howard Johnson. Sally wants to know if there’s a way back to vacation world. Roger wants his youth back, Ginsberg wants to be back with his people on their home planet, but Don just wants Megan, who makes him feel the closest sensation to being a child himself than he ever has. The thought of her abandoning him brings him to his knees. He may just want to hold her hand but his hulking frame is in danger of squeezing the very life out of her.

Starlee Kine is a a frequent contributor to PRI's "This American Life." She writes The Girl, a weekly look at "Mad Men," every Monday this season. Previously: On 'Mad Men,' as the women's options open up, the men feel theirs growing slimmer.