There’s practically a mythology of alternate history stories. Newt Gingrich co-authored a series of books about what might have happened if the Army of the Potomac had lost a major battle (like Gettysburg, but different) above Washington. I’m linking to one Bill Simmons article about “what ifs” of the 2007 basketball season, but in sport it’s often less formal than that. You don’t think Bills fans play “what if” about half a dozen moments from the late ’80s? I know I’m one of many Phillies fans who plays “what if” about the Ruben Amaro, Jr. years. What if he had united Halladay and Lee earlier? What if he hadn’t traded for Hunter Pence? What if Amaro had waited on that massive Howard contract? And so on and so forth. Science-fiction and fantasy will often call on alternate universes: Star Trek and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine both play in the Mirror Universe to some effect; one of the finest moments in X-Men comics is the “Days of Future Past” story; DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths was both highly effective clean-up and a watershed moment in comics history.
Mad Men has never explicitly made an alternate history story, and although they’ve surprised us before, I seriously doubt that Matthew Weiner and company are going to bust out an episode about Don meeting himself in an alternate universe. (The closest we’ll ever come to that are the occasional delusions, like Don’s strangulating dream.) The people who make Mad Men are obsessed with verisimilitude to the point of re-creation, and they certainly wouldn’t show a changed contemporary present where, say, Don is faithful to his wife or where Peggy remains a secretary. Yet it’s worth noting that the whole series is, in fact, one man’s alternate history. Don Draper is a man who already had a second chance at life; when Dick Whitman threw on another man’s dog tags in Korea, he created an alternate future for himself which didn’t tie him down to the life of another hick simpleton. “The Jet Set,” which presents yet another radical alternate future for Don, conspicuously reminds us of how Don can forge himself anew almost at will; and, of course, it primes us for the episode after “The Jet Set,” where Dick Whitman hangs out with Anna Draper.
Don and Pete go out to California together to learn about aeronautics; Pete, who is still the office’s number one noodge at this point, is in California as much to have a good time and to see the sights as he is to work. Don, who is playing something like a mature adult, does his best to rain on Pete’s L.A. parade. (“You wanna be on vacation, Pete? Because I can make that happen.”) From his first appearance in the episode, clad in his suit by the pool, Don Draper sticks out. Don Draper is not like those seemingly carefree people splashing in the water. He’s smoking a cigarette, he’s wearing his hat, he’s lamenting his lack of sunglasses instead of sunning.
There’s a good column just waiting to be written expressly on the magic of California in the world of Mad Men, with a thesis along the lines of “California, and particularly Los Angeles, presents itself as a world of possibilities where New York, and particularly New York City, presents itself as a world of inevitabilities.” As it is right now, there are some disparate pieces out there from really excellent TV writers, but as far as I know, there’s not a definitive 5,000+ word piece on the role of California in the show. Of course, I’m not on Reddit talking about Sharon Tate either, so maybe I’m just frequenting the wrong websites.
The reason, it seems, is that he’s still deeply tied to his life in New York. He walks up to the bar and thinks he sees Betty; it’s not her, as he sees, but even when he’s walking past her, he’s still half-convinced that it’s her. He orders an old-fashioned. At this point, Don Draper appears not to have even gotten on the plane; he may as well be in some sunny corner of Manhattan. And then Willy shows up. What’s more important is who he brings with him.
Willy, with his slicked-back white hair, his mustache, his European accent, his dearth of necktie. He’s the jolt, the first slice of difference that Don has deigned to interact with since he got off the plane. (The fact that he looks like a casually windswept Roger Sterling is perhaps not accidental.) It’s not a terribly strong jolt, of course; even Joy’s appearance on the scene can’t disrupt Don’s Almászyan poker face, as he refuses (and not unreasonably) to have dinner with this surprising trio. I say that Joy’s appearance hardly changes anything; her parting shot (“Look for us.”) as she walks away manages to get a smile out of Don. Of course, that’s when we can guess that he’ll be adding a notch to his bedpost; we know he will when he makes like Lot’s wife and looks back at Joy.
Don’s second jolt is rather more blunt. Willy is difference and a little distasteful, but M.I.R.V. (that’s “Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicle” to you) is Cold War familiarity and fear in a package which can lay waste to “fourteen different cities” in one go. The words “total annihilation” cast a fairly unfamiliar shadow –concern– on Don’s visage as he sits in the dark, practically alone, with only Pete Campbell for company as a sales rep gives an all too blithe summary of how the world ends.
So when last night’s nubile, beautiful, and interested young woman walks toward him with a broad smile and kisses him in salutation, asking him, “Why would you deny yourself something you want?”, the only surprise as that Don Draper’s alternate history takes so long to begin.
From Joy, that question would probably have given Saint Anthony of Egypt chills. For Don Draper, whose ability to resist temptation is roughly comparable to that of a four-year-old on Christmas morning, it’s a sensational query. The ad man from Gotham who bossed around his underling to set up meetings with men who can practically guarantee the financial solvency of his company, who wore a hat, suit, and tie by the swimming pool, who threatened to fire said underling when he wanted to take a swim, is gone. It happens as soon as he puts on those sunglasses and distinctly says that he’ll leave everything behind for Joy.
This isn’t to say that Don acclimates himself immediately, because that’s demonstrably not so. He follows Joy to the house, through the house, stopping to learn names (and nothing else) about the folks lounging by/in the pool. She has to take him by the hand to keep him moving her way, a gesture which is maybe even more important than you think it is. Don Draper is sweating, for goodness’ sake; the man who is usually ice cold appears to be melting in this apathetic environment. And it’s not until after he passes out of consciousness that he appears to have acclimated.
Willy has one of the more memorable lines of this episode: “Next time you feel faint, lean towards the pool.” It’s not just a funny quip, either, as it hints at a symbolic meaning that foretells what Don will do. It was never a question, really, that he would return to his job and his family in New York, in that order: Mad Men is not Game of Thrones; the most shocking thing that’s happened on this show over six seasons is either Betty dyeing her hair or Freddie Rumsen peeing himself. Don may be dallying in Joy’s world for a little while, but he never does fall into the pool; he never baptizes himself into their cult, in other words. He stays out, never immersed by what they do. And as sure as we are that Don will get into Joy’s car as soon as she appears after the meeting, we can be equally sure that he won’t stay once he faints on the pavement instead of into the pool. His alternate history was never going to complete itself, but that doesn’t mean he’ll stop flirting with it.
At dinner over Mexican food (which Don had been lucky enough to have avoided for his entire life until now), some things happen.
- He finds out that none of his new compadres have jobs (though Klaus is a doctor).
- He finds out that Willy went to the Olympics twice as a fencer.
- Joy starts playing the “are you nervous yet?” game on Don’s leg. Don doesn’t appear terribly nervous.
- Don makes the founders of Sporcle regret that he never got to play one of their geography games.
- Joy goes for it; Don goes with it to the classic makeout tune, “People with various European accents name international cities.
- From there, all that’s left for Don and Joy is the trip to Coitus (Shanghai, Islamabad, Denver, Reykjavik…).
There’s a gnomic glee to the brief denizens of this borrowed house, and no one embodies that better than Joy. Who are these people, Don wonders. They’re friends, Joy replies. Whose house is this, Don asks. Friends own it, Joy says. Who are you, Don asks. As if Don’s in a fever dream, as if he hasn’t woken up from his fainting spell, she says, I’m Joy. Sometimes Mad Men indulges itself more than is really healthy: the most common example is the show’s weird need to do flashbacks to The Sorrows of Young Dick Whitman in the Whorehouse and Did You Know That Psychoanalysts Consider Adolescence a Major Building Block for Mental Illness and General Ungoodness Down the Road. They could have named Laura Ramsey’s character just about anything, from Mildred to Frances to Letitita, but they chose Joy in a serendipitous fit of determinism. Regardless, it still works fairly well. Don Draper may not be getting intellectual fulfillment from this woman, and he’s obviously not terribly challenged by her, but she shows an astounding lack of curiosity about him. She has very little to ask him; the most aggressive questions she has for him, Willy asks for her: she wants to know if he’s an actor or an astronaut. Greta asks Don what his story is; Don replies that he doesn’t know how to answer that, and that’s good enough for the group at large. I’m reminded of Company, when Robert fails to blow out all the candles on his birthday cake; some of his friends pester him about revealing his wish, but one says, “Tell, but lie.” Joy, just twenty-one on the eve of ’60s turbulence, isn’t like the older women (including Betty) that Don spends so much time dithering around with. She wants nothing from him except a something for her nothing, to get all Shakespearean about it. Don Draper has found something like the perfect woman for him: she has shown zero interest in his character, personality, or past.
(Pause. Doughnuts appear at Sterling Cooper. Kurt announces his homosexuality. Nearly unanimous disapproval.)
Apologies in advance for this little detour; I saw Faulkner and I couldn’t leave. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to decide why Joy is reading Faulkner; on other shows, I wouldn’t press the matter too much, but Mad Men is famously deliberate about everything. There’s an obvious answer: The Sound and the Fury confronts sexuality, especially female sexuality, in a pretty up-front manner. The Compson family as a whole is generally unable to handle Caddy’s sexuality, but as complicated as the reaction is, it’s not a sexuality which is condemned by the novel’s author. This reading is supported by the changing focus of the conversation, which lists from Faulkner to sex pretty rapidly. Joy, in a moment of simple recognition which analyzes Don thoroughly: “I like sex. You do, too. I can tell.” While we’re here, it’s also worth noting the role that Joy’s copy of the novel has later on, as Don writes down an address on the back page of The Sound and the Fury and then rips it out; the next episode has some (positive) cathartic moments for Don, which haven’t got any real equivalents in previous episodes. Without going into too many details, events and characters shift from chaotic to “serene” with great speed. Think about Don floating in the ocean in “The Mountain King” after the thunder of the second season, and there’s a real similarity there.
The alternate history offered by “The Jet Set” is, alas, sadly temporary. We can’t give an exact timestamp to Don’s sojourn with the jet set, but it’s almost certainly less than 72 hours. Don is landed in a Garden of Eden, with original sin surrounding him in the form of a beautiful and sex-lovin’ young woman swimming au naturel next to him. But all of a sudden, children show up. And Don can’t look away. Don loves the ad business, but he’s a good enough salesman that leaving it wouldn’t be problematic; leaving Betty, as we find out later, is a wound painful but not mortal. But something about the children, one in arms, changes him. It’s not clear that Don, who is certainly a canny man even if he succumbs to temptation with alacrity, would ever have stayed with Joy for more time than he did; it’s not likely that he could have stayed with her for long, even though (as I say above) that she’s not like any of Don’s dozen or so conquests. But the fact remains that he abandoned the chance at a contract that could have made his career, he showed no signs of leaving his newfound sex kitten, and it took the sight of children –the sight of obligation, the most puissant sign of being anchored– to shock him into movement, into action. Going from city to city, friend’s house to friend’s house with Joy and her jet set wouldn’t have been movement so much as entropy. Don wades into a fascinating water with a life’s worth of new possibilities; he just has to wander into a pool in California to realize he always had a rope around his waist.