Life is not fair. It’s one of those great truths we first encounter as kids. The coach’s son, an inferior ballplayer in every way, gets to pitch. Your brother always gets the biggest piece of cake. Your friend goes on ski trips, sees R-rated movies, always has money to spend on toys and candy. Your sister gets new clothes, and you get hand-me-downs; on the other hand, you get away with all kinds of stuff your sister got punished for, just because she’s older and your parents are calmer, having already raised one teenager. The rules seem to be different for people with light skin and people with dark skin. People who live north of the tracks and south of the tracks. Boys and girls.

Some of us never outgrow our desire for justice, so we become crusading attorneys or bleeding-heart do-gooders or spoiled brats. But most of us, through experience, come to accept the fact that life is not fair. Bad people become filthy rich. Good people get cancer. And vice versa.

The good news is that, in recognizing the capriciousness of fortune, we don’t have to lose our compassion. We can still empathize with people in need and do small things that help make their messy lives more tolerable, if only for a little while.

This, remarkably, is the point of “The Good News,” the third episode of the fourth season of Mad Men. In a show so filled with dark dealings and black humor, simple acts of human kindness have been rare; in fact, part of the fascination with Mad Men has been its ability to keep viewers coming back to follow the exploits of an entire cast of mostly despicable and dislikable characters. But here in the week between Christmas 1964 and New Year’s Day 1965, all sorts of characters recognize the desperation in their own lives and the lives of others–and reach out to make things better.

To wit: on his way to Acapulco for the holiday, Don stops in Los Angeles to visit the person who may know him better than anyone in the world: Anna Draper, the woman whose husband’s identity he appropriated. Anna is hobbled by a broken leg; her roof has leaked and her living room wall is water stained. As Don paints the wall, Anna tells him, “I know everything about you, and I still love you.” (Compare and contrast with Betty, who knows nothing about Don and still hates him.)

Anna’s broken leg is a sign of something far more serious, and Don–remember, here in L.A., he’s still Dick Whitman–is ready to jump in and fix things. But Anna’s sister Patty informs him that Anna’s condition is too advanced, and that Don, in any case, is not family. “You’re just a man in a room with a checkbook,” she says, and tells him the kindest thing he can do is leave.

Joan’s having a rough week, too. She’s ready to start a family, but her doctor husband Greg is soon to be shipping out to Vietnam. Greg’s got to work over the holiday, so Joan asks Lane Pryce for time off the next week–which he refuses to give her. Pryce is supposed to be spending the holidays in London with his family, but we learn that his wife has had enough of America. She’s not coming back, and he’s foundering.

Here we see that even acts of kindness can go awry. Pryce apologizes to Joan, and to his wife, by sending roses, but the florist mixes up the deliveries. Joan responds by firing the secretary responsible for placing the orders. It’s an act of compassion for the suffering Pryce, and grossly unfair to the poor secretary.

Of course, we give what we can. In Don Draper’s case, that means leaving town, getting drunk, and calling prostitutes. In the warped world of Mad Men, even real acts of kindness have a dark and bitter edge.

But the central act of kindness happens when Joan cuts her finger in the kitchen, and Greg shows us why he just might make a good doctor, after all. He cleans her wound and stitches her finger, over her insistence that they go to the hospital. “I can’t fix anything else,” he says, “but I can fix this.”

There is so much we can’t fix. We want our families to be happy. We want our friends to be well. We want life to be fair, and it simply isn’t, and it’s going to end badly. The good news is, here we are, still kicking. Today, we can make things a little better for another human traveler who’s beaten or discouraged or just plain tired. Sometimes, a kind word is all it takes. Sometimes, it takes a paint job and a hooker. Either way, thank god for Man Men.

And now, a scene from Episode Four: