Mad Men – Seven Twenty Three
In many ways, last night’s Mad Men was a return to the issues and themes of the first two seasons. Unlike the more recent episodes where the outside world has begun to intrude into the atmosphere, the primary focus of “Seven Twenty Three” was looking inward.* Politics inside Sterling Cooper clashed with Don’s complicated selfhood, Peggy’s fumbling attempts at sexual and professional development led her into bed with someone from her work environment, and Betty once again found herself prone on a couch. (Remember the first season, when Betty used to be in therapy, and would lie down and talk out her feelings while an unsympathetic psychiatrist diagnosed her with mother issues?) Happily, the episode did much more than rehash previous content – if anything, “Seven Twenty Three” gave us a culmination of one of the central concerns of the first two seasons. Don gives up his professional freedom in favor of long-term stability, and in doing so, as Alan Sepinwall points out, essentially kills Dick Whitman in favor of Don Draper.
The episode was also different from many of the previous installments in that it was far more overtly formal (by which I mean, in a lit. crit.-y way, that it had a noticeable and purposeful form). “Seven Twenty Three” worked with a method of storytelling Mad Men has rarely experimented with, a classic procedural technique. We see our main characters engaged in some startling activity or located in an unexpected place, and then we flash back to an earlier point in time to discover how they get there. CSI does it constantly, Alias used to do it practically every other week, and it even happens occasionally on shows like Grey’s Anatomy or House. The tool creates a built-in sense of expectation and suspense, but its rigid form can also backfire and allow the audience to easily predict the rest of the episode. The “twenty-four hours earlier” technique can also force a frequently unstructured show like Mad Men into a somewhat unnatural but nevertheless appealing symmetry.
First, Mad Men instantly classed up the form by denying the audience the standard “twenty-four hours earlier” title card and instead creating the jump in time with a nice visual leap from Don rubbing his bruised neck to Don nattily fixing his tie the previous morning. Next, the episode highlighted and, I think, justified the inorganic symmetry of the convention by centering the mirror images (opening and closing with the same moment in time) around an unusual, unnatural event, a solar eclipse. The unexpected specialness of a full eclipse makes the inverted storytelling feel appropriate, or at least less out of place. It also gave the episode a still moment in time, where Don and Betty could pause and be anchored to the same event, which made the whole experience more contemplative and less like the typical headlong rush toward the opening scene.
The best thing about the flash back storytelling is that Mad Men created enough meaning around its use that the form and content were matched. We watch Don wake up with his face destroyed in a motel room, fully regressed to his Dick Whitman identity. Then we watch Don wake up the morning before as Don Draper, complete with pressed suit and polished shoes. Over the course of the day, the conflict with Conrad Hilton and Don’s need to actually sign a contract as Don Draper bring his identity anxiety to the forefront until he reaches a point where he loses control entirely. Dick’s father appears in a vision to scold him for producing nothing of substance, and then he allows himself to be snookered by two fresh-faced con artists. The return of the Dick Whitman wake up then gives us a conclusion to the process – he may have woken up as his previous self, but he immediately heads to the office to seal Dick Whitman’s coffin and walk out, permanently, as Don Draper.
For me, the episode worked. It was thoughtful, taut, eventful and self-aware. But this was your one cliché episode opportunity, Mad Men. You used it well, but that means you probably shouldn’t do it again.
*This is not to say that there weren’t occasional blips of historical reference – Henry Francis’ political ambitions could become quite pointed after November. More importantly, Pete’s excitement about an aviation contract and the impending need for jets to fight in Vietnam continues to nudge Sterling Cooper toward a wartime marketplace.