Peggy seems to be the only one genuinely doing well this season, and when Peggy does well, I do well. Her character arc throughout the entirety of the series has been a steady ascent: from secretary to copywriter to head of her own department. She's in her element here, upbraiding her underlings for shoddy work -- echoing the sentiments of her mentor Don about the difference between a slogan and an idea, and even using some of his old tricks to break up her mental roadblocks.
A stand-up on Johnny Carson does a bit about the gruesome trophies taken by soldiers in Vietnam and it ruins her Super Bowl spot for headphones. But as Ted Chaough reassures her, she's good in a crisis, and she turns these lemons into some damn fine lemonade. In an industry where you're only as good as your last idea, it's easy to get worried that your last idea was actually your last idea ever. This is where Peggy realizes that she's good enough not to let that particular fear eat at her too much -- that if she opens herself up to it, the idea will inevitably come. There's a reason why Chaough hired her, and it's not just to twist the knife in Don.
Everyone else seems to be doing just about the same, give or take a few inches of sideburns. A new up-and-comer Bob Benson arrives and displays some genial gall, cornering Don in an elevator with a couple of coffees in those classic Anthora cups and then tactlessly sending a spread over to Sterling's mother's funeral, an act that flapped the usually unflappable Ken Cosgrove. Ken later sees Benson sitting out in the open, fishing for people to impress, and balks at his naked ambition, ordering him to go back to his office.
In the creative department, there are a few new faces in the copywriting pool and a few new facial features on some of the old faces: Stan has grown a beard, and Ginsburg has a mustache and scraggly hair that makes him look like a cross between Edgar Allen Poe and Harpo Marx. Don catches them smoking a joint when he returns, calling them out with the line, "I smell creativity."
Don seems to have a good relationship with his team even in Peggy's absence, although he dislikes some of their recent work and gives them a great impassioned speech about the dangers of trivializing the word "love." Coming from Don, it's a bit rich, like Newt Gingrich talking about "the sacred bond of marriage." Especially when his motivational jeremiad -- "What's the difference between a husband knocking on the door and a sailor getting off a ship? About 10,000 volts." -- is interrupted by the visit of Dr. Rosen, whose wife Don will be bedding by the end of the episode.
Rosen's presence is another of the episode's reminders of the slender line between life and death. He's a surgeon who hold's people's futures in his well-trained hands every day. "Please don't compare what I do to what you do," Don entreats him, but later in the episode, as the doctor is getting ready to cross-country ski his way to the hospital to save or lose yet another patient, he tells Don that their occupations are actually rather similar. "You get paid to think about things they don't want to think about, and I get paid not to think about them," Rosen says, certainly not thinking about the fact that Don will soon be up in bed with his own wife while he shuffles down a Manhattan avenue under the cold glow of streetlights. It's the first day of the new year and both of them are already up to their same old habits: One on his way to a job he can't turn his back on for a second, the other philandering and looking for his newest and latest shot of happiness. Don makes the resolution to put a stop to the affair, but you wonder how long that will actually last.
When Don was brought back to his apartment after the funeral incident, he drunkenly demanded his doorman tell him the details of his near-death experience. He wants to know, he needs to know: Is it a bright light? A tunnel? Can you see the Pearly Gates? After all this time and effort, is it just another door to walk through?
Follow Keith on Twitter: @Staskijiwczejcz