The spaghetti’s on the wall as Ali Khan drowns ‘Mad Men’ in champagne

Don and Joan. (Jordin Althaus/AMC)
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Starlee Kine

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This episode elicited both an audible groan from me and an eye roll, but then, around 15 minutes in, that all stopped and I settled in.

To be honest, it might have been a premature eye roll, a stiff drink in preparation for how I thought the episode was going to unfold.

The groan happened when Don said, "I’d live here if I thought it was more than a pipe dream," which came after Harry called the fiscal projections he was handing over to Lane "hopes and dreams" derived from reality. Hey, I like all the swirling writing too but it needs to either be so tight and on point that we don’t have time to think, or else give us a little breathing room. They don’t all have to dazzle. This season the show is so aware of its own rhythms and themes that it even seems to be sneaking in commentary about the quality of its programming.

Last week’s episode wasn’t the strongest but as Weight Watching Judy put it, sometimes it’s enough to just maintain. This week we hear "Star Trek" described as a show that "does a good effort at matching the moral complexities tinged with adventure that draw people to it," which could be said about "Mad Men" as well. Except in the latter’s case, we’re talking about adventure viewed through the same time-sensitive lens as the one that portrayed Howard Johnson’s as a luxury getaway. But ever since Megan quit, a strange harmony has settled over the show. There seemed to be experiments with making good communication skills feel exciting. I watched Don and Megan having their mature discussions about Sally and Betty and who's quitting and who's not with my head cocked to one side like a dog, waiting to see whether that jingling sound was the can opener or the car keys.

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We’ve never been thrown the curveball of domestic bliss, and it was hard not to be suspicious and also, sort of confused. Which is why when Megan freaked out on Don last night the world righted itself a little by turning back upside down. Spaghetti is what she made Sally the night of her big Heinz bean epiphany.

It’s what triggered in Megan the fantasy of playing homemaker and mom full time, and in just two months she is shattering that against the wall.

There’s been so much talk of apartments and carpeting and casket-like sideboards, of the virtues of city living versus suburban dying, that it’s the perfect time to get reacquainted with Paul Kinsey. Here’s a man who has nothing, not even his hair. He’s come under the spell of a girl who "rejects the material world in favor of a true identity." Harry has a vision on his very first try. It’s not terribly surprising. He’s the least tortured of the SCDP men. He basically just wants to be able to eat French fries whenever he wants and to freely ogle the occasional French Canadian.

Roger has been using the wad of bills in his pocket to lose the respect of everyone in sight, but Lakshmi doesn’t ask for Paul for a dime. No projections, she’s only interested in commitments, which is where Paul’s real value lies for her. Professionally trained in the art of the pitch, he knows how to close the deal when it comes to spiritual investments, even if he ultimately failed to sell himself enough to Don. The cash that is eventually exchanged does come from Harry but is delivered to Paul, an initial down payment on those hopes and dreams.

Kinsey is given five hundred dollars while Lane takes eight thousand. That amount is put in real, stomach sinking perspective later when we’re told the most beautiful car in the world costs less than six. All that money goes toward buying his freedom, toward the privilege of being able to keep breathing in that toxic air. He pays off his Queen but now his wife can’t afford to go home. Lane traces Donald Draper’s signature, mimicking a younger Dick Whitman. So many men have walked in the shoes of just that one. All signs point to a death by season’s end and right now, Lane is looking like the front-runner. Is Lane taking on our Don’s identity or that other blown up one?

Last season Roger let something else out of his trousers and nine months later there was a baby. In one of those interactions that the show is especially good at, where the truth is suddenly just plainly spoken, Roger and Joanie shut the door and talk about their son. Joanie’s too ginger for any traces of Sterling to be evident in his complexion and she has no intention of feeding him with a silver spoon. Roger’s money is no good here. It’s worth nothing compared to the comforting weight of Don’s overcoat on her shoulders.

How much did your own shoulders loosen at the sight of Joanie finally being properly taken care of? Her ex wants her signature on the divorce papers but her married name is as ungrounded in reality as the one that Lane forged. That’s not who Joanie was; we know it, Don knows it. He lets her pick out her queen-for-a-day car, which he secures with a collateral check. The salesman says of course she can drive if she wants, but Don and Joanie are in this together.

If they’re not back by the end of the day, the check will get cashed; but this episode is all about the immaterial things that money can buy. Like, so many drinks at the hotel bar. Like songs on the jukebox that neither of them will allow themselves to dance to. "Look at all these people dancing to my music," she says, and also thinks, every day at work.

Last season we were given the Suitcase, Peggy and Don cutting out of work to drink and bond and confide. She asked him why he never slept with her and Joan does the same in this one. They know it has to do with admiration and respect, the purest, deepest kind, but they want to hear him say it, using his special Don words. They want to feel that smile used on them. Harry reached a higher level of consciousness through Lakshmi’s seductive powers but Don’s way of chanting is just the conversations that he gets to have with the women in his life.

A bouquet of roses arrives at the office for Joanie. Another thing bought that within a week will be gone. We think they’re from the man at the bar, but they’re from Don. An old fashioned gift from one throwback to another. They're a love note, but also a way for her to keep up appearances.

Something seems to have revived Don, at least for the moment. Maybe it was driving that car, drinking that alcohol, that flirting with a pretty girl. Prepare to take a great leap forward, he tells his staff, and the employee shot we’re shown is of all women (save for one male extra in the back.) Joanie’s prominently in the front.

Ali Khan married Rita Hayworth in 1949, when she was pregnant with their child, a princess. They separated two years later and then she was married and divorced twice more. By fifty four she was an alcoholic who wanted to retire from acting but had to keep at it in order to pay the bills. Prepare to swim the English channel, says Don, and then drown in champagne.

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,' the big weigh-in.