“The Good News”
August 8th, 2010
I spent a good half hour stumbling over how to start confronting this episode before eventually deciding to sleep on it, and upon waking up this morning I discovered why. “The Good News” is a tremendous episode of television, but it’s an episode of television which confounds how I normally confront these reviews. It’s difficult to write about, for me, because its continuities are largely unrelated to the season thus far: while parts of Don’s story theoretically connect with his behaviour thus far this season, it connects even more with his past as Dick Whitman, and since Joan Holloway and Lane Pryce are getting their first showcase of the season we’re required to dig back into the third season as if this were their premiere.
There are connections between the two sides of this story, but the episode is so clearly divided by Don’s time in Los Angeles (or Dick’s time in Los Angeles, more accurately) and Don’s return to New York that it’s not unlike two entirely different episodes – that it still feels cohesive is a definite accomplishment, but it’s something that makes tackling every minute detail of the episode as I tend to do more challenging.
However, it also makes it entirely possible to address it more briefly while leaving some material for a “Mad Men the Morning After” later today or tomorrow, so let’s get to “The Good News.”
What really struck me about this episode upon first viewing was how challenging it was to draw a line between Dick Whitman and Don Draper. While there are still professional reasons why Don needs to keep Anna a secret, Betty is no longer one of them, and you can tell when he is in Los Angeles that he is interested in merging their worlds. However, it isn’t just so that Anna could meet his children; while the episode never explicitly says it, Don is trying to merge his two identities because Don Draper is an empty shell without Betty and the family he was built around. Don started a family to confirm to societal standards, but in the absence of that family his mind wanders back to the life he once led in hopes of finding something to ground him.
It doesn’t work, however: the early parts of the episode in Los Angeles show Don using Anna as a sounding board and then expressly ignoring her warnings to avoid attempting to pick up her niece. He likes the freedom he has in his new lifestyle, or more accurately he likes these sorts of casual sexual encounters – Stephanie is a young co-ed with a sharp intellect, her blonde hair reminding Don of Betty while her personality fits that of most of his former mistresses. Stephanie is the one part of the episode that doesn’t work, as she says too many convenient things thematically (like “Nobody knows what’s wrong with themselves”) to feel like a real person. She’s a Don Draper trap, existing to taunt the viewer with the idea that Don will continue last week’s behaviour with Allison, and there’s something about that which rings false.
However, once Don learns about Anna’s cancer, the story shifts from being about the new Don Draper to being about Don’s search for a new identity. Suddenly, the care-free world of Dick Whitman is not care-free at all; living as Dick Whitman requires keeping secrets which used to be Don Draper’s specialty, and Don runs away instead of dealing with his issues. I wanted to judge Don harshly for giving into Anna’s sister’s desire to keep her in the dark about her illness, but then you realize that he’s running from something more: he’s not running because Dick Whitman is no longer a refuge, but rather because Dick Whitman now reminds him of the former life which he ran away from in the first place. Dick Whitman’s past is what created Don Draper, and with all of that baggage Don very quickly realizes that the man he left behind isn’t capable of dealing with Anna’s illness or his current crisis of identity. I still think that Don’s unwillingness to stay and help Anna through this difficult time shows a weakness, but it shows the combination of his post-divorce struggles and his earlier identity crisis, and the fact that he returns to New York to continue searching for answers rather than vacationing in Acapulco does help us better understand his decision.
It also helps that the second half of the episode turned Don’s bachelorhood into a hilarious night out with a drunken Lane Pryce, making us question any of our earlier concerns about Don’s lifestyle. Mad Men has never been quite as funny as Lane and Don watching a monster movie, drunk, on New Year’s Day, and so we (as viewers) start to wonder if Don’s way of life is such a problem. However, the next morning Lane insists on paying for the prostitute, and he thanks Don for the “welcome distraction.” I was afraid throughout the segment that Don was welcoming Lane into his self-destructive lifestyle, but Lane is only dealing with a divorce: while he might struggle with the end of his marriage, he enjoys New York and he seems to enjoy his life as well. He isn’t Don Draper, and so he can enjoy an evening of fun without that evening turning into a lifestyle in and of itself. He asks Don what it’s like to have a prostitute who knows her way around his kitchen, and Don brushes it off: he barely understands his own life, so he certainly can’t communicate that to others.
Returning to Lane was most welcome, especially since it gives context to why he was throwing himself into his job the way he was – as he says to Don before their night out on the town, for all of the company’s financial concerns it has been a magnificent year, but with his marriage in trouble the agency was all he had left and so he acted defensively. What the night out reminds him is that there’s more to life than his marital troubles, and once he finds it you feel like he can move forward without prostitutes, and without alcohol, in a more balanced fashion: that he arrives slightly late for their Partners meeting does not indicate he is falling off the wagon, but rather that he is no longer so solely focused on the future of the agency, which should be healthy for him.
I enjoyed spending time with Lane, but I think returning to Joan is more important: while we’ve never really seen a real glimpse into Lane as an individual in the past, most of his character development relating to the company, Joan is a character whose story became exclusively personal last season before reconnecting with the company in the finale, so the return to her life with Greg is key. Their relationship is all about control, whether it’s the long wait before going off of birth control or Greg raping her in the second season, and so it’s interesting to see them both grappling with a situation where they have none: Greg could leave for Vietnam at any time, which suddenly creates a timetable for having children (which is why she wants those days in January off) which didn’t exist before. Joan resisted children before because it would force her into the role of wife and mother, a role that she (not unlike Don) knows she is expected to play and yet which she feels would strip her of any power in their relationship.
I love the scene after Joan cuts her finger, in that you can see how she doesn’t want her husband doting over her: she would rather turn herself over to a hospital than have Greg stitch it up, uncomfortable feeling helpless in his arms. However, as Greg does a good job of distracting her (albeit by using techniques he reserves for children and dirty jokes), she starts to realize that he’s good at what he does, and then she starts to wish that she was happier, and that he wasn’t leaving for Vietnam, and that her dream of marrying a doctor was still out there in some way. Or, that’s one way to read the scene: the other way to read it is that Joan cut herself on purpose, and then put on an elaborate act in order to allow Greg the opportunity to show off his medical skills and reminder her why she’s staying with this marriage despite its tenuous future and its challenging present. The Joan we know is much tougher than the woman who cries out over the pain of the injury and seems to exaggerate its seriousness, and there’s the sense that she’s playing a role in order to give Greg a false sense of power within their relationship. I don’t know if I’m willing to stake my claim on which it is just yet, but either way it’s another cryptic glimpse into her complicated life.
There is technically a thematic connection between these various events: it is an episode about distractions, and how they only work for so long. Joan might be able to stop focusing on her pain (or her act, if you prefer) when Greg tells her to look for the bird’s nest on the ceiling, but Don no longer has Dick Whitman as a refuge from secrets, and Lane Pryce knows he can’t use the office (or nights on the town) as a distraction from his marital troubles. Despite being an incredibly entertaining episode, and despite taking place during a holiday break where many of the normal storylines were on a break of sorts, “The Good Ones” is not just a distraction: just as Don’s ways of distracting himself are telling about his state of affairs, this episode delves into how each of these characters is preparing to cope with their identity crises in a new year, and the result seemed like the most diversely representative episode of the series since “Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency.”
- Any speculation on Joan’s most recent abortion? As far as we’ve seen, it could easily have been Roger’s, but I’d be more intrigued if it was some time after the rape (and she chose to abort out of fear of bringing a baby into that environment).
- I liked the idea of the painted wall, perhaps a last standing memory of Dick and Anna’s time together, but it created some major continuity errors in editing, as the wall kept flipping between states of completion as they spoke.
- I may have found the connection with the “House of the Rising Sun” performance later in the episode a bit trite, but the shot of the sun rising as Don sits awake on the couch was truly stunning – the entire episode was well-shot by Jennifer Getzinger, but the California scenes were a highlight.
- Adding to Stephanie’s penchant for red herrings, the way her reveal in the car was written made you think that she was going to say that Anna was in love with Dick, which would have been another direction they could have taken.
- Note that, as Dick, Don admits that he “had it coming” in regards to Betty leaving him. Do we take this as legitimate self-awareness, or do we see it as Don sort of testing out vulnerability in the one environment where he can do so? He certainly didn’t seem too self-aware when he slept with Allison, so it’s like there’s a functional, balanced Don Draper hidden somewhere in there unable to escape.
- One more cultural reference of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and we’ve got a trend – ABC Family’s Huge, oddly enough, had one a few weeks ago.