Mad Men series 4 episode 5 review: The Chrysanthemum And The Sword

The latest episode of Mad Men, The Chrysanthemum And The Sword, sees Don back on shrewd, cunning form - here's our review of series 4, episode 5...

4.5 The Chrysanthemum And The Sword

One of the great things about Mad Men is its ability to constantly shift in pace and tone without compromising its inscrutable identity.

Episode three was tragic. Episode four was hilarious. Episode five, The Chrysanthemum And The Sword, is brisk and, in a marked contrast to the rest of the series so far, surprisingly up-beat.

For one thing, it’s great to see advertising Übermensch Don Draper back on form. He’s still drinking – and the episode’s overarching Japanese theme sees him knocking back more than one glass of rice wine – but he’s once again slick, confident and winningly shrewd.

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With Pete already rising in stature with last week’s acquisition of Vick’s, he wins further respect in this episode, proudly announcing that he’s secured a shot at getting Honda on board as a new client.

While the news is good for the company’s dwindling coffers, Roger’s less impressed. Having fought against the Japanese less than 20 years earlier in WWII, he’s less willing than his fellow partners to put the past aside.

Roger’s seething prejudice threatens to derail SCDP’s chances before they’ve even begun – his thinly veiled references to the nuclear bombings at the close of the war, which he continues at a decidedly inopportune moment later in the episode, are among the most awkward I’ve seen in any season of Mad Men.

And with the company’s arch rival Cutler Gleason and Chaough also pitching for Honda’s custom, it seems that all is lost.

Thankfully, Don’s done his homework – he’s eaten in a Teppanyaki restaurant, imbibed the rice wine and read a book on Japanese customs (from which this episode takes its name), and comes up with a cunning, audacious plan.

To cut a potentially complicated story short, I’ll summarise it thus. Surmising that his rival will attempt to bend Honda’s rules – which explicitly state that their pitch should contain no completed work – Don begins to circulate rumours that SCDP is shooting a completed commercial to win Honda over.

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Cue one of this episode’s funniest scenes – Don ‘casually’ pushing a Honda motorcycle around the office while Joan interviews a potential film director. Needless to say, her swearing the director to secrecy has the opposite, required effect – within minutes, CGC has heard about Don’s apparent intentions to shoot a preemptive advert for Honda, and sets about making an expensive commercial of its own.

At the meeting with Honda, Don initiates stage two of his plan – having read something of Japan’s ‘shame’ culture, Don announces his withdrawal from the running, since he can no longer compete on an even footing with CGC and their flashy ad.

This inspired use of reverse psychology shames Honda into placing SCDP at the top of its list of potential agancies, and puts CGC (who’ve spent all their cash on a pointless commercial) thoroughly out of business.

The theme of shame runs deep in this episode. Don’s daughter Sally, becoming increasingly troubled as she gets older, is caught touching herself while watching, of all things, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (is this what people got up to before the internet?), prompting Betty to hastily pack her off to the nearest child psychologist.

If there’s one criticism to be levelled at this episode, it’s at Betty’s cruel, unsympathetic demeanor displayed herein. Little more than a bit-player so far this season, she’s reintroduced here by slapping her daughter brutally across the face for cutting her own hair, before threatening to “cut her fingers off” for her moment of self-abuse in front of David McCallum (I mean, why The Man From U.N.C.L.E.? Maybe it was the turtleneck sweaters).

Is it the writer’s intention to make Betty such a dislikeable character? On paper, she should be the one we side with the most, since she’s suffered years of indifference and serial infidelity at the hands of her ex-husband, Don. But where she’s come across as insipid or simply cold in earlier episodes, this installment sees her at her most alienating.

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As ever, it’s the sly, smooth-talking rat Don Draper who somehow comes out of this episode smelling of roses (or chrysanthemums) – and his eleventh-hour understanding of Japanese customs may well have saved his company from a premature death.

I wonder if he watches The Man From U.N.C.L.E.?

You can read our review of episode 4, The Rejected, here.