“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).
- 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.