‘Mad Men’s’ ‘Seven Twenty Three’: Let’s talk about the episode

The following post discusses “Seven Twenty Three,” Sunday’s episode of “Mad Men.”

“You can’t go any further on your own.” –Bert Cooper

A lot seemed to happen in last week’s terrific episode, certainly to Guy and his late, lamented foot. But as several astute observers on other sites pointed out, after Guy’s injury, the reset button was hit and the status quo was more or less restored at Sterling Cooper by the end of the episode.

Sure, change was in the air and everyone had reason to be nervous about what the future would bring.

But real change happened in this episode. I would argue that “Seven Twenty Three” is one of the key episodes of the entire series.

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There were encounters and scenes in that were years in the making. After a lifetime of being the guy who always had his bags packed, metaphorically speaking, Don had to capitulate and sign a contract. His escape hatch slammed shut. It was a defining moment for him. 

There’s no denying the impact of several key scenes, especially Don’s devastating attack on Peggy and his final, quietly brutal showdown with the wily Bert Cooper. We’ve never seen Don that willfully cruel. Or that trapped.

When cornered, Don fights dirty. And yet he lost. We’re used to Don the alpha male somehow eking out a win. But he lost. Don was never going to sign a contract. But he signed.

What are the implications of all that? Is a housebroken Don Draper still Don Draper? It’s a fascinating question.

I wasn’t overly fond of the way the story was told, i.e., starting with three separate morning-after shots of Betty, Don and Peggy and then retracing the characters’ steps and showing us how they got there. As used here, the device was a little affected and it made for some disjointed storytelling.

The “X Hours Earlier” device is used so much on TV that it’s become something of a cliche (but this being the much more ambitious “Mad Men,” we weren’t even given a title card saying “X Hours Earlier” after those opening shots). Still, those opening images did create some suspense. How could you not want to know how Don ended up on the floor of a cheap hotel room (it was not a Hilton, that’s for sure). And Peggy ended up in bed at a much fancier establishment — with an unknown man.

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We learned that Don Draper had been backed into a corner. And as he always does when the pressure’s too much, he ran — to a bar, to a mistress, to Palm Springs, wherever.

But this was the most pressure Don had ever been under. Once and for all, he was being forced to choose, between being tied down and being (in his mind) free. For Don Draper — for Dick Whitman — his entire life has been about the acquisition and use of power. He’s kept everyone near him on their toes by never fully giving people what they want. It’s the source of his mystique and his self-created identity.

By now, though, Betty has his number; she knows that she doesn’t know even half of what she should about her husband (hell, she still can’t get into that locked drawer in his desk). He’s never given himself fully to her, and he can’t, because his name isn’t even his name.

At Sterling Cooper, Don is the golden boy because he’s the golden boy who could leave. Not having a contract helped him salvage the Duck disaster last season. Why on Earth would he sign one now?

But he’s faced with a dilemma: Sign a contract and stay at Sterling Cooper, or risk going out on his own and hope that Conrad Hilton follows. But he finds he doesn’t believe in himself enough to do the latter.

Don’s great at selling B.S., as his old man tells him in that pill-induced vision (and his unimpressed old man, after all, is the product of of Don/Dick’s own mind). Trouble is, Don doesn’t quite believe his own B.S., not to the point of leaving to establish his own shop.

He doesn’t have the guts for that (yet?) and he knows he no longer has what it takes to leave this life and start the whole process over again as someone else. He’s got to stick with what he has. And that knowledge terrifies him. 

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I think the key moment of the entire episode — right up there with the moment in which Don signed the contract — was when he looked into the mirror in that motel room and realized he’d been played. He’d been rolled by a couple of kids. And hell, maybe in his own self-destructive way, he’d realized from the start that was possible. But it almost didn’t matter. He just wanted out.

Where “out” led was to this: The hustler got hustled. Don/Dick had to be as shrewd and brutal as those kids in order to get where he’s gotten (and frankly he was lucky that the kids didn’t take his new Caddy). But as his old man (i.e., his subconscious) pointed out, he had grown soft. A life lived on his terms has made him, in some ways, weak and vulnerable. It turned him into the kind of suburbanite who gets preyed on by streetwise types.

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To have to admit defeat and sign that contract — what a devastating moment for this man. In conversation a couple of days ago, Alan Sepinwall said the moment that Don signed the contract in “Seven Twenty Three” — which was the date of the contract — was the moment Dick Whitman died. I’d have to agree.

Alan went on to write in his review: “And if that’s the case, good riddance to bad rubbish. Because most of Dick’s appearances in the first two seasons were in
situations where Jon Hamm got to play him as vulnerable, even tender
(think Don-as-Dick in Anna Draper’s house), it’s easy to forget just
what a b*****d he is.”

I’m not sure I completely agree that the death of Dick is an entirely good thing. Dick, when we saw him in flashbacks, had a more hopeful air about him, the sense that he was striving toward something good. I don’t see him as someone who wanted to cause pain, but would do so in his quest to construct a less painful, more powerful role in the world. And Don, after all, is a fictional construct — in some ways, more a Potemkin village than a real human being. Will it do Don more harm than good to be cut off from Dick’s yearnings forever? Then again, I do think there’s a lot of validity to an idea that Alan expanded on in his review — that leaving Dick behind may force Don to accept his lot, once and for all.

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Dick may have been more brutal when necessary, but Dick Whitman also had the drive to reinvent himself as Don Draper, and he had the street smarts and natural creative abilities to get this far. But to go further, alone? Without Sterling Cooper behind him? Without the armor and cushion — without the mask — the firm provided? He didn’t know if he could do it. And that knowledge filled him with rage and a desire to escape. But in the end, he drove back to Ossining and trudged up those stairs.

Poor Peggy: She had the unfortunate timing to walk into his office at just the wrong moment. The walls were closing in on Don, with Roger once again trying the charm offensive and turning petulant when that didn’t work. Don being Don, he pulled a total Draper and froze Roger out. Don knows Roger has no real power at the firm anymore. (And Roger is desperate to convince PPL — hell, anyone — that he’s still relevant, hence his somewhat pathetic calls to Don’s attorney and the Draper home).

But still, Peggy — eager, ambitious Peggy — was one more person rattling Don’s cage.

One thing that we’ve always known about Don is that he doesn’t wantonly abuse his power over those who have much lower status. With the other executives, there’s always a jockeying for position and some kind of veiled or overt office combat. But he’s not one to take advantage of or humiliate those further down the ladder.  

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So for him to open fire on Peggy — his protegee — with both barrels was a jaw-dropping moment. Part of it stemmed from her horrible timing, and part stemmed from the fact that he could unload on a copy writer in a way that he couldn’t unload on Roger or even Pete (who’d also asked to be put on the Hilton account, though, to be fair, that was before the worst of the pressure came down on Don). Don was also just frustrated with her request, but his rage about the vise he was in amped up what would have been normal irritation to a frightening level.

It was astonishing to see Don go after her, and he knew exactly what to say to devastate her. Not all of his tirade was invalid; she should have realized this wasn’t a good moment to hit Don up for an assignment (but lately Peggy is so out of the office gossip loop that she probably had no idea what was going on at the top levels of management — and maybe nobody did).

But to tell her that all of her work was work he could “live without”? That was a knife in the gut.

Elisabeth Moss played the scene beautifully, as always, and gave us a glimpse of the two very difficult emotions churning through Peggy: Raw pain and grief over the fact that her mentor had cast her aside. That “I’m sorry” could also be read as, “I’m sorry I’m going to leave, but I have no choice now.”

In a weird way, could Don have been trying to help Peggy? The way he went after her was unforgivable, no question, but was he attempting to teach her that it’s dog-eat-dog in the business world and he just can’t help her all the time? At that moment, he didn’t know if he’d be staying at the firm, if he’d be landing the Hilton account or even if he’d be able to prevent himself from fleeing entirely. Maybe in his mind, he had to cut her loose. Don didn’t need the baggage and Peggy needed to learn not to rely on him.

Still, no matter what, it was brutal to see him rip into Peggy that way. The brilliance of casting Jon Hamm in this role is that, even after Don does something awful like that, you still want to know what Don will do next. 

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In any case, Don drove Peggy, literally, into the arms of Duck Phillips. Who saw that coming? I didn’t. But as Duck told her exactly what he was going to do to her, you could see her realize: Here’s a real man, not some half-drunk college boy. This would be something far better than what she’d experienced in the past. Why not?

But would Peggy want to work with someone she’s slept with? She’s been down a similar road with Pete and you’d think she wouldn’t want to go that route again. Besides, Duck wasn’t even willing to promise her what she wanted at Gray. Just how empty are his promises? Let’s hope recent experience taught her to be a little more wary.

I wonder if Duck had always planned on seducing her, whether or not his bid to poach her from SC worked. Did he think she’d be more like to come work at Gray if he slept with her? Or did he just decide to go for it on the spur of the moment? Who knows. But I have to think there was an element of calculation in telling her to meet him late in the day at a hotel suite (and wasn’t his line about “what opportunity looks like” a repetition of something he’d said to Pete and Peggy in an earlier episode?).

So much for Peggy’s resolve not to have anything to do with Duck anymore. But that was a fiction Peggy created for herself — she protested far too much about Duck’s attention, which she of course craved.

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And Betty created a similar fiction for herself — she told herself she just wanted to lobby Henry Francis about that reservoir, not merely bask in his attention again. But really, she wanted him to look at her with those guarded yet hungry eyes again. (She does have a type, doesn’t she? Henry is a powerful-seeming man who’s somewhat older than her and has a smooth line of chat. Henry even admitted that he’d never planned to go to the reservoir with her the first place. Not that she minded; she wasn’t exactly dressed for a hike.)

An eclipse took place that weekend, and just as the moon blocked the sun, key characters were blocked in their attempts to obtain something. Or, it seems to me, they got only part of what they wanted. 

Peggy wanted a new career and a more responsible position. She wanted to be valued and taken seriously. But she got to sleep with Duck (and maybe she’ll get more money at Gray, if she leaves SC).

Betty wanted to get Henry to help her cause and she wanted to enjoy his attention again. She didn’t get what she wanted regarding the reservoir (maybe), but at least she got the couch, on which she could fantasize about what dream-Henry would do to her on it. (It’s interesting to note that at the moment of the eclipse, both Don and Betty were with attractive people of the opposite sex — sizing up what they did and didn’t want).

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And Don wanted to be the alpha male who brought in a big account and yet could keep wielding power on his own terms. He was told no, which is not something that frequently happens to him. Don was the star of Sterling Cooper, but he could no longer shine.

But nobody denies Connie
or Bert. Two sun kings who used their power and schooled Don about
who’s in control.

Words can’t describe how much I loved that final showdown between Don and Bert. Hamm is of course always terrific, and Robert Morse could not have played the scene better. Bert asserted himself by sitting in Don’s chair (and it’s interesting to note that three men sitting in chairs — Bert, Connie and Don’s father [i.e. Don’s subconscious] — asserted their dominance over Don or confronted him directly about various issues he wanted to evade).

Bert even barked, “Sit down.” What? Nobody tells Don Draper what to do, in his own office, no less. But Bert was the second person to take Don’s seat in a few short days. And he pretty much told Don that if he didn’t sign, Bert would out him as Dick Whitman. He’d ruin Don/Dick.

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Who knew Bert was willing to play that card? After he spoke that line about not knowing who was going to sign that contract, Bert dropped his genial expression and his face hardened. You saw how he built up this firm — by going for the jugular when he needed to. It took years for Bert to throw that knowledge in Don’s face, but when he needed to, he did. Wow.

Who is Don Draper now? I’m fascinated to see where this goes next. Because the Don Draper we’ve known until now could walk away any time. He may not have walked any time in the next three years. But he had to know he could. That’s over now. That’s got to have huge repercussions for him.

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Don was not only tamed by Bert, but Connie is very clearly used to having the upper hand. I don’t think we’ll see a Bible on Don’s desk any time soon, but seeing Don navigate these new power dynamics in which he has to answer to others and theoretically can’t just flee — that should be interesting.

Could we see a power play in which Don decides to stage a coup at SC and somehow finds the backers and money to oust the Brits and Cooper? And maybe he’d have to swallow his pride and keep Roger on in order to make that happen? That’s all just speculation, but I can’t think that Don’s going to be happy not only dancing to Connie’s tune but knowing that senior management is well aware that Don is handcuffed to the firm.

What a difference an eclipse makes, eh? After those first scenes of the morning-afters, the first image we saw in “Seven Twenty Three” was of Don getting ready for work. He came down the stairs of the Draper house looking as spiffy as it is possible for him to look.

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The final image was of a defeated Don trudging up the stairs, looking for all the world as if “16 Tons” of worries were on his back. Instead of the classic back-of-the-head shot of Don, we got stooped shoulders and a defeated posture.

“Don’t look at it,” Henry said to Betty during the eclipse. But Don was forced to look at the reality of his position. And even with his powers of denial and compartmentalization, that picture will be very hard to forget.

A few other observations:

  • Sorry, but my Dictionary of Symbolism is out of date. What did it mean that each character moved his or her right arm in those three opening scenes?
  • Will the fact the Connie thinks Don grew up on farms in Illinois and Pennsylvania ever come back to haunt Don? Let’s just say that Connie, over drinks with Don and others, refers to Don’s past growing up in in those places (facts he learned when Don and he met at the bar at Roger’s party). Would anyone think that was at odds with what was known about Don’s past? Or perhaps Don’s friends and business acquaintances don’t know anything of note about the real Don’s youth.
  • The scene with the teacher was, once again, a bit off. Is the character off or is there just something jarring about the way they write her scenes? First of all, it was July. Why was she in the park with the kids? Why were they all with their dads? The show can’t throw us one or two lines of exposition about what’s going on? As it was, the scene felt plunked down awkwardly in the middle of an episode that was already a little jagged-seeming.
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    And the teacher seemed, once again, much more forward than any teacher would be at that time. She instantly assumed Don was hitting on her and told him so. Even though she’d been the one to call the Drapers and talk flirtatiously to Don in an earlier episode. And by the way, she was the one who asked Don in that scene if he’d be around in August. Then when he said he would be, she shot back, “Well, now I know that,” as if he’d forced that information on her. She asked him!

  • Even Roger could not find a comeback when the eccentric Bert Cooper called Conrad Hilton an eccentric.
  • Roger’s best line was the one about Don maybe one day having his name on the firm. “After mine. And probably Cooper.”
  • I liked the fact that Betty held her own in the fight with Don. She is narcissistic, he’s right about that, but she stuck to her question, which was about him: Why wouldn’t he sign the contract? Everyone was putting pressure on Don; Bert, Roger, Peggy, the Brits, Conrad Hilton, now Betty. Perhaps if he hadn’t stopped for those hitchhikers, he would have been halfway to the Pacific by morning.
  • I’ll have to rely on readers who were adults during 1963 to tell me whether men of draft age were really worried about being sent to Vietnam in the middle of that year. Obviously the couple on the road were just selling Don a line (one he all to willingly bought), but would couples really have gotten married for that reason at that time?
  • So what occupied the “hearth” or heart of Betty and Don’s home, in the end? A fainting couch, from which Betty could recover from the constrictions of her life and fantasize about the strong, powerful men who (in her mind) would rescue her. The “soul of the home” became a place for immature, self-absorbed daydreams, which is somehow appropriate for the Draper household.
  • Allison, Don’s new-ish secretary, seems like she’s up to the job, no? The look she gave Don when he told her to hold his calls was hilarious.
  • Is this the first time we’ve seen Pryce willingly and happily take a drink? In the past he’s taken a token sip of Don’s whiskey, but landing the Hilton hotels had him practically giddy and quite willing to participate in the Sterling Cooper drink-a-thon. 
  • It was such a “Mad Men” moment when Don and Peggy ran into each other after their big nights out –and both were still wearing the same clothes. They ignored that, just as they ignored their fight.
  • Given all that’s happened, won’t it be unrealistic if there aren’t staff changes at Sterling Cooper before Season 3 ends? Not that I want any of those actors to leave the show, but wouldn’t it be realistic that there would be some turnover by the start of Season 4, whether via job hopping to other firms or further conflict pushing out various employees? Or who knows, maybe Don will eventually open his own shop (that’s still a distinct possibility at some point, I think; either that or him reshaping SC to be “his” shop).
  • In any case, as much as I love the character of Roger, it’s hard to see how much relevance he would have in a fourth season. I get the sense that Bert is fine with Roger hanging around but wouldn’t fight to keep him if the Brits or even Don wanted to jettison him. (But again, I love John Slattery’s performance and would love it if a plausible way was found for Roger to stick around. Oh, and I want Joan back very soon.)
  • Don at least got one concession out of Bert: “I don’t want any more contact with Roger Sterling.” Snap.

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