Last night on Twitter, someone remarked that the next episode of "Mad Men" might as well be directed by David Lynch, "because that's the way we seem to be headed, and I have no qualms." The dreamlike/nightmarish pall that has permeated the season has still not lifted, and "Far Away Places" (co-written by series creator Matthew Weiner) was a strange and uneasy journey whose surrealism was both engrossing and at times, repelling.
Weiner loves his narrative symmetry, so last night we were shown three parallel and intersecting afternoons and evenings of three couples whose relationships teetered on the edge of the abyss. The three women - Megan, Peggy and Jane - all had a focus on being taken seriously, whether about their jobs, the status of their relationship, or in Megan's case both. The men - Don, Abe and Roger - were all almost shockingly cavalier. In fact Don, whose arc I'll speak more about in a moment, was positively gleeful, at least for a time. If that wasn't the weirdest thing I've seen on "Mad Men," I don't know what is.
For anyone concerned that "Mad Men" was on a downward slope, that the characters had already done or achieved what we expected of them, and that the only recourse left was to resort to "Grey's Anatomy"-like storytelling where everyone will end up sleeping with everyone else they work with, twice, with gunmen/bombers/natural disaster/etc to fuel dramatic tension ... well, there's little danger of that. For one, the biggest change-up in Season 5 has been Don dropping his mopey and self-destructive behavior, which felt last season like it was pulling the entire show down as a kind of Coleridge albatross. Further, there's a devotion to these characters by now that I think would lead most of us to be ok with the show just being Joan answering phone calls while Peggy, Stan and Ginsberg crack wise in the art room and Roger dictates more moments from his childhood into a sequel to "Sterling's Gold" (one of my favorite lines from the entire series has to be one of those anecdotes, where Roger states, "I always loved chocolate ice cream. But my mother would only let me get vanilla because it wouldn't stain anything." Cracking, Roger, really).
But more than anything, this season has been wholly immersive, with each episode not only leaving behind a number of bizarre stand-out moments (Fat Betty, the fight between Lane and Pete, Zou Bisou Bisou) but creating this intensive atmosphere that, while it's not as anxiety-inducing or suffocating as "Breaking Bad's" world, it's tangible and visceral in its own way.
As for the nitty-gritty of this episode, I'll begin with what I think was the most fantastic of the three stories: Roger and Jane. We've never seen much of their relationship aside from the fact that she seemed to be a beautiful set piece that Roger scooped up to keep him young (and also to replace Joan?), while Jane immediately began diving into Roger's fortune like Scrooge McDuck taking a decadent swim in his pool of gold (sterling gold!). Since then, the flashes of the couple have largely shown two unhappy people who quip at each other in a bored way as if they had been married for decades. Unlike the explosive fights between Don and Megan, Roger and Jane have seemed to sighingly accept their lot and their choices, each giving up on happiness to keep using the other one for whatever they still can. Finally, that has fallen apart, and it did so not only in a unique way but a beautiful one.
Putting a drug-induced visual experience on film is not simple - it's easy to trip and fall into a cliche (see what I did there?). "Six Feet Under" was a show that successfully incorporated drugs in a way that not only looked genuine in the experience, but also re-tuned the tone of the scene. The viewer was along for the ride, not with bending lenses and a kaleidoscope of colors, but with just a few strange tweaks to reality - in that creepy, surrealist way that David Lynch is so masterful at producing - so that you know reality has been altered, and it makes you feel intrigued and uneasy. While we witnessed some of the other LSD party participant's reactions to the drug (and by the way, was that not Timothy Leary throwing the shindig? One nearly expected Cary Grant to show up!), it was the first-hand shots of Roger's experience with the vodka bottle, the cigarette, and the hair ad that made things perfect. After a series of both comical and incredibly sincere scenes together, Roger and Jane have an honest conversation about the end of their relationship, one that Roger rightfully found beautiful. And though Jane's whisper to him the morning after of "it will be expensive" may take things a little more to the side of "screaming and lawyers," Roger ended the episode on the uptick. "It's going to be a beautiful day," he says - happy for the first time in a long time.
Going in the other direction was Don, who was genuinely baffled by Megan's resistance to what Betty would have loved - being pampered and treated. Honestly, if a man pulled me out of work to go for an impromptu vacation where I was going to be force-fed orange sherbet, I would know that all moments of my life had culminated into that pinnacle of perfection. But the differences in those reactions takes me back to an episode of "The Good Wife" where a promising young attorney left the firm because she's getting married and having a baby. Diane, one of the name partners of the firm who gave up on having a family to focus solely on her career wondered if "this is what we fought for." Eventually the feeling was that yes, what women struggled for in the 20th century was to be able to give other women a choice, a freedom, to do whatever it was they wanted. Megan and Peggy are two of those women, working hard in their careers so that they can do what their talent dictates in an uphill struggle against a wholly patriarchal system.
Don loves Megan because she is not Betty, but he has not figured out yet how to handle or even yield to her wanting to be a partner, not a pampered pet. During harrowing scenes (again, the nightmare!) where Don fears the worst after Megan disappears shows flashes back to Don actually - God forbid! - smiling and practically giddy around her. When he returned home to find Megan there, he kicked in the door and bizarrely chased her around the apartment before tackling her (can you ever imagine Betty in that role??), in parallel to the moment in an earlier episode where Megan angrily attempts to rebuff Don's advances until he overpowers her. It's all a metaphor, of course, for their relationship, and for all its explosions, in the moment where to two returned to the office and parted with loving gazes we knew that, as Don always says, "Everything's going to be ok."
Per usual I'm pushing word count limits here, so I'll be brief with Peggy's story. Any episode where Peggy smokes pot is going to be a good one (as they say in "Game of Thrones," it is known). Poor Peggy had it coming from all directions this week, from having to - like Megan - justify the importance of her career to her boyfriend Abe, to justifying her ad campaign about beans to a difficult client. She explodes, is taken off the project, and spends a weird and heartbreaking moment with Ginsberg later in the office where he nonchalantly gives his "Martian origin story," which in fact is the reality that he was born in a concentration camp. After we saw Ginsberg's home life the week before last, there had been speculation that the show might give voice to this. And the way it did was so strange but so perfect. It took awhile for the horror to really set in for Peggy, and it made her call up Abe and confess that she did, and always has, needed him. Because in that moment, Peggy bonded with Ginsberg in their loneliness, for two very different reasons, that came to the same conclusion. "Are there others like you?" Peggy asked him softly. "I've never found any," Ginsberg replied, looking at her directly with woeful eyes.
It reminded me of another quote from "Game of Thrones:" "there are no men like me , there is only me." There are no shows like "Mad Men," there is only "Mad Men." And that is why we love it so.
Musings and Miscellenea:
- And I didn't even get to shoehorn in a joke about Howard Johnson and clams!
- I need a spin-off comedy series starring Stan. "I was out treating this large breasted woman who calls herself Salome, and all I could think about was that I will never be able to draw as well as a photograph."
- "It's young and it's beautiful and no one else is going to be able to give you that about BEANS!" - Peggy
- So Dawn still hasn't gotten much of a story yet, but where has there been time? I'm glad to see that she is being acknowledged, at least.
- I actually am not sure I've ever had orange sherbet.
- That note that Roger had in case he wandered away while tripping ... just everything about that scene was perfect!
- "She just wants to be alone in the truth with you." - Don
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