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April 16, 2012

‘Mad Men’ Takes A Turn For The Geeky

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All right, AMC, if we didn’t get it before, we certainly do now: You dudes are a bunch of nerds.

No one is going to argue that point what with your record-smashing “Walking Dead,” or the developing series based on “Dead” creator Robert Kirkman’s “Thief of Thieves” comic book. But all those many, many geek references on this week’s “Mad Men”? Consider the message received, loud and clear.

What, you missed the ’60s-set drama’s absurd amount of nerd-out moments last night (April 15)? For good measure, then, we’ll walk you through them all.

“Mad Men” season five draws major attention for “fattening up” Betty Draper actress January Jones.

First and foremost, the episode, titled “Signal 30″ and directed by series star (and “Iron Man 2″ actor) John Slattery, heralded the arrival of science fiction and fantasy novelist Ben Hargrove, the pen name for ad man Kenny Cosgrove (played by actor Aaron Stanton, already a fixture in geek culture for providing his voice and likeness to the lead role in video game “L.A. Noir”). Previously operating in secret, Ken’s private passion was outted by Cynthia, Ken’s all-too-forgettable wife who is suddenly a whole lot more memorable when you realize that she’s played by Larisa Oleynik, formerly the titular shape-shifter on ’90s Nickelodeon series “The Secret World of Alex Mack.”

Cynthia (or is it Cheryl? Like Don’s new wife Megan, we can’t really recall) spilled the beans on “The Punishment of X4,” an old story of Ken’s, during a dinner party held at Pete and Trudy Campbell’s home. Her description of the plot: “There’s this bridge between these two planets and thousands of humans travel on it every day, and there’s this robot who does maintenance on the bridge. One day he removes a bolt, the bridge collapses, and everyone dies.”

“There’s more to it than that,” a nervous Cosgrove tells the hushed room. Don pushes for further details: Why does the robot destroy the bridge? “Because he’s a robot,” Ken answers, clearly encouraged by Don’s interest. “Those people tell him what to do and he doesn’t have the power to make any decisions, except he can decide whether that bolt’s on or off.”

“Or he just hates commuters,” Pete quips in response.

Ken’s fledgling career as a sci-fi novelist wasn’t the only nerdy reference at the Campbell family’s eventful dinner: Texas college sniper Charles Whitman was briefly misidentified as Charles Widmore, a clear Easter egg for “Lost” fans. Indeed, “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof (who already enjoyed a shoutout to his six-season sci-fi series earlier in the evening on “The Simpsons”) took it upon himself to further flesh out Cosgrove’s “X4″ through a series of fan-fiction tweets. Well worth a read from the man behind the DHARMA Initiative.

Later, at the same dinner, the faucet at Chez Campbell burst for the second time in the same episode, prompting Don to remove his dress shirt and get to work on fixing the sink. The heroic action drew immediate Superman comparisons from the onlooking housewives, which is far from the first time that Jon Hamm has been connected to the Man of Steel.

Superman is a “young man’s game,” according to “Mad Men” superstar Jon Hamm

Meanwhile, on a subtler note, Pete Campbell took a turn for the super-villainous this week. Aside from being completely shown up by Don’s ability to fix a sink in seconds, Pete spent the episode flirting with and fantasizing about a high school senior in his driver’s education class, and later having sex with a prostitute, but only after she switched into king-worshipping role-playing mode. He even got into an intense fist fight with fellow Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce partner Lane Pryce; usually the consummate British gentlemen on the AMC series, don’t forget that Lane is played by Jared Harris, who also appears as science terrorist David Robert Jones on Fox’s cult sci-fi series “Fringe” and recently enjoyed a celebrated turn as legendary villain Professor Moriarty in “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.” Pete clearly hasn’t seen the aforementioned show and film, but he nevertheless learned the hard way (and by hard way I mean via serious ass-kicking) that you never, ever get into a knockout brawl with Dumbledore’s son.

All of this served as a reminder to me that Pete, whose views on Don oscillated between hero worship and pure spite throughout the episode, has known about Draper’s secret identity for several seasons now. With his latest turn toward the dark side, can it really be much longer before he uses that bit of proverbial kryptonite against the artist formerly known as Dick Whitman? Only Matt Weiner knows for sure.

Finally, we return to Ken’s side-career as a writer, news of which spread throughout SCDP like wildfire. After a scolding from silver fox playboy Roger Sterling (played by the aforementioned Slattery, whose own Roger got his groove back a bit in this week’s episode, albeit to mixed results for his company), Cosgrove was persuaded to let his alter-ego Ben Hargrove go, but not before Peggy Olsen was able to read one of Ken’s short sci-fi stories, “the one in Galaxy about the girl who laid eggs.” (Lindelof has titled the story “Ova,” though whether or not he tweets excerpts from the yarn remains to be seen.)

But where Ben Hargrove dies, Ken is reborn anew as Dave Algonquin, writer of “The Man with the Miniature Orchestra.” The episode closes with a reading from Cosgrove’s latest effort: “There were phrases of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that still made Coe cry. He always thought it had to do with the circumstances of the composition itself. He imagined Beethoven deaf and soul-sick, his heart broken, scribbling furiously while Death stood in the doorway, clipping his nails. Still, Coe thought, it might have been living in the country that was making him cry. It was killing him with its silence and loneliness, making everything ordinary too beautiful to bear.”

Ken’s latest written effort isn’t exactly nerd-worthy, no, but it’s the perfect example of why it’s so fantastic to have “Mad Men” back after a year and a half, geek call-outs be damned.

Tell us what you thought of the latest “Mad Men” episode in the comments section or hit me up on Twitter @roundhoward!

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