Where "Mad Men" a week ago was a reminder of how well-written the show can be, Sunday's episode (titled "Waldorf Stories") was a showcase for the acting in the show -- especially by Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss and Christina Hendricks. . .
Of course, the big thing about the episode was the Don's descent into alcoholic hell -- a "lost weekend" which really was lost, and which saw Don even more indiscriminate about whom he beds. Even worse, as has been indicated before, his drinking is affecting his work -- his insistence about going ahead with a pitch when he was in no condition to do so, then his unthinking lift of his job applicant's idea.
But even as we were dealing with all that, there was the secondary, and somewhat ungainly, origins story of Don's being hired by Roger. I think the balancing of the stories was overdone, particularly having Don's hiring parallel his own drunkenness-inspired staff addition. At the same time, the episode -- and this season -- are really underscoring how much Don made himself in Roger's image; Don the fur salesman is nowhere near as well groomed, calm nor skeptical as the Don we have seen in the '60s. The trappings all come from Roger. But so do the womanizing and the drinking, and in both those cases Don has sped past Roger; and he has reached the stage of being an office joke more quickly than Roger.
Indeed, it's looking more and more as if this season could end up with Peggy and Pete running things. As much as the decline of Don has been center stage, the decline of Roger has also been playing out. Whatever energy he received from the setting up of the new agency has, a year later, dissipated.
And his clout at the agency is diminishing: his Lucky Strike connection has brought the agency humiliation (per the Christmas party). Pete has observed that they can't get by just on Lucky Strike (and we've already had a hint that cigarette advertising, especially on TV, is going to be a tougher sell; we're into the era of the Surgeon General's report) -- and Lane acknowledges that Pete has been the rainmaker, even as he wants to bring in Ken for more rain. So if Pete is ascending past Roger (although Pete's partnership isn't enough to have his name on the firm -- yet), then Peggy may be positioned to pass Don, especially if he is falling past her. Not only did she save Don on the "common breakfast" issue, she asserted herself on the Vicks ad.
And here I am talking about story instead of performances, which is where I wanted to start. So let's just say that Moss's handling of the Peggy-stripping scene was marvelous, bluff-calling without the slightest erotic undercurrent. That she still had an erotic effect just proved how much she was in control of situation. It was very much a Don Draper coup in that respect; Don at his best never concedes control to anyone else in the room, and his ongoing disaster is a result of his inability to control clients (witness the swimsuit and the Life cereal meetings) or himself (ditto). The issue remains whether Peggy can take the best aspects of Don, such as his mastery of a situation, without taking on his flaws as well.
As for Hamm, well, it was interesting to have him give an Emmy-caliber performance on a night when he was NOT winning an Emmy. It wasn't the drunk scenes so much as the flashbacks, his ability to show us an unformed Don -- laughing too loud, smiling too big, not dressed quite right; he looked as if his head was larger in the past. It recalled the way the Italy episode reminded us that Don is a bit of a rube (at least, in that situation, when compared to the genuinely sophisticated Betty); of course, that episode showed how much of Don's facade was just that, while "Waldorf Stories" -- and Hamm's performance -- more directly showed what Don was before he finished building the facade.
Finally, I have to mention Hendricks for her flashback scene. We have seen much of Joan as smart woman, as someone who has increasingly asserted her own power among the men, it was fascinating to see her when she was still playing the coquette, and when her expectations did not appear to go beyond a nice fur from her gentleman friend. In an episode that had currents of what might have been -- what if Roger hadn't met Don, what if Don had never noticed Peggy -- Joan's offered another thread. What if she had always depended on men? Would she have been just another woman in some guy's lost weekend? Instead, she has discovered her own strengths (to some degree -- she still needs to ditch that worthless husband) and, like Peggy with her stripping, recognized that real power for women need not be sexual.