Mad Men – “Hands and Knees”

“Hands and Knees”

September 26th, 2010

“Everybody has bad dreams once in a while.”

In a Twitter discussion, Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall had a discussion about the role of theme in Mad Men: to boil it down for you, Seitz suggested he was on the fence about “Hands and Knees” due to it being a “theme episode,” while Alan argued that every episode is a theme episode (while acknowledging that this may be simply because he, as a critic, looks for themes to inform his review).

The distinction I offered is that there is a difference between “theme episodes” (which I would argue “Hands and Knees” is) and “episodes with themes” (which is the majority of Mad Men’s run). The series is too thematically rich to go without themes in any particular episode, but “Hands and Knees” stands apart in terms of actively tying nearly every single story into that theme: instead of one bad dream, it’s a collection of bad dreams that happen simultaneously (insert Inception joke).

What makes it, and all good “theme episodes,” work so well is that the episode itself acknowledges that the consistency of this theme is ridiculous: everything that could go wrong does go wrong in the episode, as if every worst case scenario and everything they want to keep secret rises to the surface. The episode asks us to join Roger in laughter when we realize just how screwed these people all are, while emphasizing that everyone has a good reason to go on pretending as if none of it has actually happened.

It’s a very straightforward thematic episode, though, and writing out the same thing as everyone else seems like a waste of my time – as a result, I’m going to outline my thematic read of the episode very briefly before discussing some of the more ancillary elements of the story which may not clearly connect with the central theme.

“Hands and Knees” is very blatantly about getting your affairs in order: Don becomes paranoid with the DoD starts looking into his affairs and tries to stop the investigation, Joan is pregnant and seeks an abortion, Roger learns of American Tobacco’s imminent departure and does his best to stall, while Lane struggles to prioritize between his affairs (or affair) in New York and his affairs in London. The episode plays out like one long nightmare, for both the characters (who are challenged individually) and the viewers (who have to witness those individual tragedies as a collective punch to the gut). In both cases, I think the nightmares were more compelling than concerning: Jon Hamm did some truly fantastic work, Christina Hendricks continues to dial into Joan’s vulnerability and strength simultaneously, Jared Harris made Lane’s affair with a Playboy Bunny creepy enough for us to be skeptical and believable enough for us to resent his father’s corporal punishment, and John Slattery’s portrayal of Roger’s desperation in his meeting with Lee Garner Jr. was a sight to behold.

However, while all of that was uniformly strong, I think we need to recognize the one narrative which seems (at first) to be outside of that central tragedy: Pete Campbell, who has not often been the series’ most likable character, does not truly become part of this narrative, but he eventually experiences his own tragedy. While some may criticize the episode for featuring quite so many different threads converging simultaneously, it should be noted that Pete’s big secret (which he shares with Peggy) remains firmly under wraps. Instead, Pete was simply collateral damage, an innocent victim whose knowledge of Don’s true identity makes him a confidante, and whose connection to the North American Aviation account made him the fall guy for Don’s legal troubles.

The tragedy, then, is that Pete was willing to throw himself on the grenade: considering that Don opens up to Faye about his situation, it is clear that his new vulnerability has him desiring to no longer run from the truth. One gets the sense that, if Pete had stopped and gestured towards Don, he might have come out into the open: while it isn’t clear how much Roger knows about Don’s past, Bert and Pete are both aware, and Joan and Lane would be unlikely to turn it into something more than an internal discussion. And yet Pete has always valued Don’s opinion, considering him a father figure in many ways, and so he sacrifices his own standing with Roger (whose anger, while exaggerated by what it means for Lucky Strike’s departure, is still problematic) in order to keep Don’s secret.

What keeps the episode from seeming too cute is that the majority of the storylines have a clear sense of history to them: while the broad issue of putting one’s affairs into order creates the central tension (and the simultaneity of the tragedies), the idea of concealing the truth or lying is more inherent to the series as a whole and intersects nicely with those stories. Take, for example, the fact that Betty does exactly as Pete does: despite the fact that she and Don are divorced, and the fact that he cheated on her in numerous situations, she keeps his secret without any real hesitation. In fact, she actually bristles more at the question about loyalty than the question which would seem to suggest questions about his identity; Betty may not care for Don, but she still has a clear sense of how far she is willing to go in her efforts to get revenge. Perhaps it helped that Don had just gotten Sally two Beatles tickets, an act which reminded Betty of Don’s commitment to being a father, but there was a sense of loyalty there which nicely echoed with Pete’s decision, as well as loyalty which connects with Peggy’s decision to stay with Don to work on the Samsonite account instead of going out to dinner with her boyfriend.

Don Draper is surrounded by people who have been willing to lie for him and cover up the truth, going back to when his secretaries were forced to lie about his long departures or not ask questions about why he was wearing the same clothes as the day before. And yet here that culture of cover-ups becomes a liability: if people were upfront about their issues, speaking honestly about these situations, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce could perhaps have a chance of succeeding. Instead, they make decisions independent of one another which threaten the entire agency, as the lies and coverups pile on top of one another in a microcosm of Don Draper’s life of subterfuge. The episode is meant for us to experience the same sense of dread and uncertainty as Don lives with every day, and while we may not have a panic attack about it I certainly think it achieved this goal.

And yet, in Joan’s story we see a lie which seems to have no real consequence: Joan tells the young mother – escorting her daughter to an abortion after being a teenage mother herself – that she is there with a child instead of for herself because of lingering concerns (going back to Season One) over her age and because it makes their conversation easier. Like many lies and secrets in this world, there is always a bright side, always a reason why it makes things easier: if she tells her that she is there for an abortion herself, at her age, not only would it raise her own concerns about getting pregnant in the future (which she started the season concerned with, let’s remember) but it would also make the mother feel embarrassed and become even more emotional.

However, it raises an important question about whether the episode is lying to us, specifically weather Joan actually got an abortion? We don’t actually see the procedure, and if Joan stuck to her lie how would she enter the operating room without alerting the woman that she had been lying previously? Also, she tells Roger that she avoided a tragedy, which remains vague language (although her previous abortion, and her general practicality, would indicate that she wouldn’t consider an abortion a tragedy). More likely, though, it raises questions about another secret: we learned early in the season that she had an abortion before, and I personally presumed that this had also been Roger’s baby. That’s another potential bombshell which didn’t emerge in this episode, and yet would add an interesting subtext to Joan’s decisions in the episode.

Perhaps what most clearly defines “Hands and Knees” as a theme episode is the numerous potential meanings of its title: you’ve got Roger on his hands and knees begging for another chance with Lucky Strike, Don on his hands and knees puking into the toilet, Pete crawling to the partners with news of North American Aviation, Lane’s hand being a point of torture from his father, as well as SCDP getting cut off at the knees. However, what keeps the thematic elements of the episode from being too obnoxious is that every story still felt like an individual’s journey: Roger took his heart medication at the end of his meeting, Don’s paranoia deepens his relationship with Faye, Joan’s history with abortions and children is prominently featured, and seeing Lane’s inability to control himself in the Playboy club continued the glimpses into the character we got when he and Don went out on the town.

While it ended up creating a collective impact, “Hands and Knees” still felt true to each of the individual characters involved, and so I can forgive the contrivance (that Joan would happen to get pregnant that one time, for example) so long as these individual stories continue as individual stories after these coinciding catastrophies (or poorly-timed tragedies, if you prefer).

Cultural Observations

  • Open question that I didn’t have time to go into above: what it is about this time that leads to Don telling someone like Faye about his past? He never told any of his other mistresses, beyond vague references to a troubled past, and it’s not as if he hasn’t been challenged (his brother’s arrival, for example). Is it that his family offered something stable that he needed to protect, perhaps explaining why his first instinct when the paranoia hits is to create a trust for Betty (which is interesting in and of itself, basically treating her as the third child she is) and the kids?
  • Liked Roger’s freudian slip of referring to Sterling Cooper instead of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce – very telling of his frazzled he was in that moment.
  • On that note: seems like this would be John Slattery’s Emmy submission fairly easily (lots of dynamic range), but it raises a serious debate between “The Suitcase” and “Hands and Knees” for Jon Hamm.
  • Sally’s Beatles shriek? Some great work from Kiernan Shipka.
  • Trudy’s nightdress was simply stunning (my Twitter feed compared her to Kirby).
  • Interesting that they used a muted f-bomb in the episode – is this the first time the show has done that?
  • To connect with the lies theme, loved the parallel of Joan and Faye both creating fake exit lines after having private conversations with Roger and Don, respectively, in their offices.
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19 Comments

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19 responses to “Mad Men – “Hands and Knees”

  1. Alex

    The very first episode used a muted f-bomb; Pete gushes over Don after the “It’s Toasted” meeting, and Don tells him to take it slow. Pete responds by muttering “F*** you” under his breath.

  2. Acrylamid

    > Betty (which is interesting in and of itself,
    > basically treating her as the third child she is)
    You forgot about Eugene. :)
    Apart from that, great review!

  3. greg

    Just a few random thoughts:

    How has Trudy not delivered yet?
    So glad Don actually got the tickets for Sally; they seemed to be intentionally teasing the audience that his promising them to her would turn out to be premature.
    Are they also teasing us with Lucky Strike leaving? Raising our hopes for the return of Sal?
    I wasn’t surprised that Defense came back into the picture, but I truly expected it to be at the hands of his self-proclaimed rival, but perhaps that would have been just a bit too contrived.
    Don really WILL need those earplugs. Even if he were a Beatles fan himself (probably not very likely) he’d never be able to hear anything over the unrelenting preteen screaming.

    • greg

      oh, and also:

      playing ‘Do You Want To Know A Secret?’ over the closing credits just seemed a bit TOO “on the nose” (as Lane’s father might well put it.) I’m not sure if they only used an instrumental version because they couldn’t afford the rights to the Beatles original or if they wanted the audience to fill in the lyrics in their head but, either way, it was more literal than necessary.

  4. “if Joan stuck to her lie how would she enter the operating room without alerting the woman that she had been lying previously”

    Not necessarily a problem. The other woman is clearly assuming that Joan’s daughter is in the OR already; if her daughter returns before Joan’s does, she leaves the office none the wiser.

    As for Betty’s motives in keeping Don’s secret, I think it’s always a mistake to assign an altruistic motive to Betty when a selfish one is available. If Don’s secret remains hidden, then Betty continues to be that poor woman who rebounded so well after her cad of a husband cheated on her; if Don’s secret is revealed, then Betty becomes the dolt who didn’t realize he’d been lying to from the day they met.

  5. belinda

    I don’t think Pete is lying for Don purely because he’s loyal to the guy. Not that he isn’t, he is to a certain degree, but I thought Pete’s motivation to take the blame here was more selfish in nature – because he realizes (even if Don doesn’t) that SCDP will be dead if Don flees – and thus Pete’s job will be at risk – and that Pete’s success or failure depends on Don’s success or failure.

    That Pete takes Roger’s insults (when in the past, Pete would have let his anger get the better of him) is another sign that Pete is finally the team player he never was at the start of the series.

    Oh, and just want to let you know that there’s a spelling/spellcheck error in “specifically weather Joan actually got an abortion? “.

  6. Valerie

    I see Don’s vomiting in the toilet with Faye present a sort of rebirth as we had seen in the Suitcase. In the Suitcase he was purging his alcohol addiction whereas in Hands and Knees he is purging his hidden identity (at least to Faye). We may see in upcoming episodes how de deals with his hidden past.
    Finally, with that Beatles tune at the end, Don was looking at his secretary with a strange gaze. Do you think she knows his secret?

  7. Whelan

    Mcnutt,

    I think it was important to note that the mother in the waiting room indicated that she was 15 when she choose between having an abortion herself or to have the daughter who was then undergoing the procedure 17 years later.

    When she asked Joan how old her daughter was, Joan replied with “15.”

  8. Fatalah

    Am I the only one who keeps thinking about the final shot of the episode? It looks as though Don doesn’t take Sally to the historic Beatles concert at Shea. He just went through an unmasking, a stressful event. His secretary allows him to re-enter the Don Drapery persona. Does anyone agree?

  9. Earlier this season, Joan was in conversation with the doctor who in the first or second episode of the series prescribed Peggy birth control pills. That conversation clued us into 3 previous abortions for Joan: two performed by that doctor and an earlier third, which was implied to be a non-medical, midwife-type procedure that caused her to fear that it may have done permanent damage and might keep her from conceiving a child with Greg.

    When she said her daughter was 15, I couldn’t help but think that she was actually talking about herself, about her own abortion when she was fifteen. With your interpretation of the episode’s theme being putting one’s affairs in order, perhaps my reading serves to corroborate your own theory that she never had the abortion at all. Perhaps like Don, Joan is unwilling to run away yet again and is indeed still pregnant with Roger’s child.

    Muting the f-word was worse for me than hearing it, and not just b/c that sort of language doesn’t offend me, but rather it knocks me out of the story and fractures my suspension of disbelief. There’s no real reason that AMC couldn’t have actually said it, right? Aside from advertisers complaining, of course…

    • Went to look it up b/c I was doubting myself (for good reason). The third episode this season, ‘The Good News,’ begins w/ Joan telling the doctor she had 2 procedures whereas he only remembers the one. Anyway, the rest of my argument is still valid even with the factual error. Just wanted to point it out for the record.

    • MrsMac

      I thought the same thing, that 15 was her age.

  10. MrsMac

    I like the idea of the theme being around putting one’s affairs in order; what struck me while watching (viewing here in Ireland on the BBC) was the idea of endings – maybe it’s just another way to express the same thing. I saw the ending of the Lucky Strike partnership, the ending of Joan’s pregnancy, the ending of Don’s lie/hiding (from Faye, at least), the ending of Lane’s freedom. Everything was coming to an end and it made me very aware so too the season.

    In Don’s case, for so much progress that he has made, we saw two reversions – his picking up the drink in time of stress, and his looking at Megan with the implication she’d truly become his next secretary. I really hope that doesn’t happen.

  11. Pingback: Catch Up on Mad Men Season Four | Tired and Bored With Myself

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