A few months back, I found out that "Humpday" director Lynn Shelton had been hired to direct an episode of the fourth season of "Mad Men" (and, because it wasn't yet public, I held onto to said information like a scared little boy clings to his favorite balloon, until AMC decided to release it into the online stratosphere). The news left me both excited and confused. "Humpday" was one of my favorite movies of 2010, a landmark improv comedy that deserved the major bump it got out of the Sundance Film Festival. It was a significant improvement over Shelton's last feature, "My Effortless Brilliance," which employed a similar spur-of-the-moment production method. Behind the camera, Shelton had matured nicely.
Although "Humpday" didn't get as much widespread momentum as its biggest fans felt it deserved (for reasons I eventually termed "The Humpday Effect"), Shelton herself managed to slip into the national conversation as a counterexample to the Judd Apatow paradigm for male-directed comedies, and received a lot of new offers. (She's now planning a movie with Emily Blunt and Rachel Weisz.) So good for her! But at the same time, "Mad Men," a slow-moving televised period drama about American consciousness at a significant point in its evolution, never felt to me like Shelton turf. For one thing, it's a pricey, cable-mandated production; for another, Don Draper's stone-faced expression has rarely struck me as possessing comedic potential.
Having finally caught up on episode 410, "Hands and Knees," I'm relieved to report that something clicked. I say this as a biased party, but also as someone whose relationship with this series was lukewarm for a good two seasons before I finally began to appreciate it: "Hands and Knees" is a swift, entertaining piece of one-hour storytelling, one of the more engaging episodes of the show in its short history.
If there's something "Shelton-esque" about it, I imagine it comes from the economical pace. "Mad Men" tends to linger on certain images and dwell in pregnant pauses while a million thoughts presumably flit across Jon Hamm's face. "Hands and Knees" indulges in suggestion like any other episode, but it hardly slows down to do so. The dark comedy quotient runs high, from the absurdly restrained opening conversation about abortion shared by Joan and Roger to financial officer Lane devolving into a small child groveling at the feet of his stern British father. Don finally gets a chance to confess his secret identity to a woman he actually cares about, making a choice he should have considered when he first married his ex, Betty. Accounts get dropped and people yell at each other. Pete takes the heat for Don and somehow valiantly keeps his secret safe. Life goes seriously ballistic for all of the show's main characters, but Don -- two Beatles tickets in hand, one for his formerly estranged daughter -- eventually looks happy. After an hour of nervous laughter, anxiety and the extreme sadness that he endures in nearly every episode, "Hands and Knees" ends on a strangely upbeat note.
Did Shelton pull this off on her own? Or was it already built into the DNA of the show? Hard to say. In an interview with Vulture, Shelton says that "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner aims for "real authenticity and naturalism," which "Humpday" brings to the max. Speaking with Michelle Kung at the Wall Street Journal, Shelton confessed that she didn't even know the details of upcoming episodes. "Mad Men" came to her, not vica versa -- a window opened, and Shelton stepped right through. And now the show must go on.