“I have an announcement to make. It’s going to be a beautiful day.”
After the last couple of weeks tight focus, this week’s Mad Men continued the trend with yet another episode of detailed character study. It’s a Peggy episode… No wait, it’s a Roger and Jane episode… Hang on, it’s actually a Don and Megan episode… I can’t stand the confusion in my mind!
Actually, it was all three of these, cleverly interweaved in a Robert Altman/Quentin Tarantino non-linear narrative to take place over roughly the space of the same day. Mad Men has played with dramatic form before, but never, I think, so boldly. Series creator Matthew Weiner has said that the tricksy structure of this episode was inspired by French anthology films, but I suspect like most people of my generation, the first thing I thought when I realised what was going on was, “oh, it’s Pulp Fiction.”
And it did take me a little while to realise what was going on. Not until we were some way into the Don/Megan narrative and I saw the same moment of them telling Peggy they were off to Howard Johnson’s, in fact. In retrospect, I was being pretty dumb – though I did wonder why Roger turned up in Don’s office proposing a trip to Howard Johnson’s when I thought he and Megan had just been there. And I did expect that, when Peggy was called by an obviously flustered Don from a call box in the first story, there’d be some payoff to explain his consternation. So, dumb old me was being less than perceptive this week – ironic, in an episode so concerned with people’s perceptions that it featured at its centre Roger Sterling tripping on acid.
But I’m getting ahead of myself (much like the story structure of this episode). In many ways, we were in familiar Mad Men territory here; the script dealt yet again with the relationships between the male and female characters, with a dose of reminding us how difficult it could be to balance those relationships with a professional career. Especially for Peggy, who’s still struggling to be taken seriously in the man’s world of copywriting.
Peggy’s relationship was the first to be subjected to what I suppose would be appropriate to call an acid test. She started her narrative in bed with her on/off boyfriend Abe (and who would have thought he looked so good clad only in a pair of white briefs?). Bur she couldn’t concern herself with such niceties as going to the movies or having sex – she had her long-awaited Heinz pitch to think about.
In many ways, this scene was an amusing gender reversal of common Mad Men moments, particularly from when Don and Betty were still together. In this case, Peggy was, revealingly, basically a female Don – so preoccupied with work that her frustrated partner eventually angrily asked her if it was over between them. And just like Don, Peggy was too deep in thought about work to even give him a proper answer. No wonder he ended up storming out after saying that he wasn’t like most men in that regard.
The Heinz pitch didn’t go well, with bean supremo Raymond less than impressed with Peggy’s idea even though he’d asked for precisely what he got. The heavy implication, of course, was that he couldn’t take Peggy as seriously as he would Don; he even asked if Don had signed off on the proposal. All credit to Elisabeth Moss for this scene – you could actually see the moment when Peggy reached the end of her tether, and just let Raymond have it in a tirade that was either bold or suicidal – we’ve yet to see which.
And of course, Raymond responded not with the respect he’d have given Don, but by likening Peggy to his teenage daughter. I’m not surprised she was frustrated enough to go and get stoned and give a strange man a handjob in a movie theater. Odd choice of movie though; Born Free has certainly made me crave the former activity, but never the latter…
But the most significant aspect of the Peggy narrative was what she – and we – began to learn about eccentric newcomer Ginsberg. He’s fiercely protective of his privacy, and seems to want to keep his father hidden away, even though his father seems quite a likeable guy. Quizzing Ginsberg on this, Peggy was first told that he was actually a Martian – solemn but eccentric, we thought. Then he revealed that he’d actually been born in a concentration camp, never knew his mother, and was adopted from a Swedish orphanage.
Hard to know if that was trademark eccentricity too, but it had the ring of truth about it. It certainly unsettled Peggy; enough that she had to call Abe over in the middle of the night, like a resource she could summon at a moment’s notice. I wonder if her thing with Abe really is coming to an end – because it looks like there might be something brewing between her and the enigmatic, quirky Ginsberg. If so, good. He seems very interesting. And it shows that Peggy may have a recurring taste in Jewish intellectuals, something I can empathise with.
Roger too was dealing with intellectuals, in the most out-and-out funny section of the episode, which nevertheless was still fraught with significance for his increasingly moribund relationship with trophy wife Jane. In her previous (infrequent) appearances, Jane has shown urges to be taken seriously as an intellectual, much to Roger’s amusement. Now we saw him indulging her with a trip to a very pseudo, middle class dinner party, which took an unexpected turn when the host suggested they leave a discussion until after they “turned on.”
No surprise in retrospect – if I caught the host’s name correctly, he was Dr Timothy Leary. Certainly his obsession with the Tibetan Book of the Dead would fit with that being the case. When it became clear that Roger was grudgingly going to experiment with hallucinogenic drugs, I was – like last week – eagerly leaning forward murmuring, “I really want to see this!”
I also had a moment of dread that Mad Men would lose its usual subtle restraint, and we’d be presented with the usual audio-visual headfuck that most shows seem to think best represents an acid trip. But no – in typical Mad Men style, the trip (shown exclusively from Roger’s POV) was handled with intelligence and subtlety. No swirling colours and Grateful Dead soundtrack here. Instead, we got the Beach Boys and laugh-out-loud moments as the drug took hold.
First, Roger had a few weird auditory hallucinations – a vodka bottle played Russian classical music at him when he opened it, causing him to open and close it over and over again to repeat the effect. Just when I couldn’t stop laughing at that, he got fixated on a hair colour ad with half a man’s grey hair recoloured to black, then took the unfortunate step of glancing at himself in the mirror:
After I stopped laughing at his resemblance to Two-Face, the trip took a turn for the significant, as Leary, advising him not to look at his reflection, suddenly turned into a calm, authoritative Don Draper. Trip-Don advised Roger to go to his wife, which he duly did, and after a bit of dancing which Roger viewed as out of his body, he and Jane took a cab to continue their trip at home. The sight of the two of them utterly spaced in the back of a NYC taxi was funny enough to start me laughing all over again.
But back at home, the trip took a more serious turn and Roger and Jane ended up having one of those deeply profound conversations you only seem to have when you’re really out of it. And with almost Zen-like calm on both their parts, they came to an amicable agreement that their relationship was over – a firm decision, unlike Peggy’s prevarication on the same issue earlier. It’s just a shame that Jane didn’t remember any of it on waking! Still, she took it well, and it looks like Roger’s footloose and fancy free again (not that he ever let marriage restrain him anyway). Perhaps he’ll finally get together with Joan – she’s the only woman in five seasons he’s ever had any real chemistry with, presumably intentionally.
As the newly Zen Roger arrived at work and suggested a trip to Howard Johnson’s with Don, we were into the final thread of the script (and back to the scene that the Roger narrative had started with – I didn’t realise until then that the LSD party had been a flashback to the night before). Don, who seems to have finally grown up with regards to women this year, eschewed Roger’s suggestion of a weekend of debauchery in favour of a trip with Megan. In hindsight, Roger’s suggestion might have been better.
For yet again, the tempestuous Draper marriage flared up into a dramatic fight. Megan, not too happy at being peremptorily dragged out of work for a trip to a glorified diner, used the ultimate weapon on Don – reminding him that he has no mother. As far as Don’s psyche goes, this is the nuclear option, and he stormed out in his car, leaving Megan in the parking lot.
Of course he calmed down and came back, but by then Megan was long gone, possibly with some reprobates she’d met in the parking lot. Cue a long night of worry for an increasingly frantic Don as he tried to locate her to no avail, even calling her mother; and along the way, making that flustered call to Peggy we’d seen earlier during her section of the episode.
Finally returning to New York, Don was none too happy to find Megan already at home – and with the chain on the door. So he did what any red-blooded alpha male would do – kicked the door in, chased her round the apartment and finally caught her up in a kiss she couldn’t help but respond to. Yep, he’s still got it.
But it’s still not clear how their relationship stands. The frustrated Megan had earlier said that, as far as she was concerned, it was over. That kiss seems to have changed her mind; well, Don is a very attractive man! Still, it’s looking increasingly like he needs her far more than she needs him, yet another indication of the growing change in the formerly dominant Don. Earlier, Roger had wondered if Jane, twenty years his junior, had cheated on him with a younger man. I wonder if, where Megan is concerned, this might become an inevitability – in keeping with the theme that Don isn’t the young man he was, and is becoming more and more conscious of it.
As if to remind him, the all-too-infrequently seen Bert Cooper was waiting to give him a good bollocking at work: “You’ve been on love leave. It’s amazing things are going as well as they with as little as you’ve been doing.” In earlier years, Don could party hard, have a major existential crisis, stare moodily through a haze of cigarette smoke and still turn up at work on top of his game. No longer, it seems…
This was a brilliant episode, I thought, with the usual high class soap opera of Mad Men taken up a dramatic notch by the clever use of the interweaved non-linear narratives. As a former film student, I’m a sucker for that kind of thing, especially when welded to drama this good.
As always, the performances were impeccable, with as much told by facial expression and body language as by dialogue. There was also some excellent direction that brought home the similarities of each main character’s dilemmas – particularly notable was the fact that Don and Megan ended up collapsed on the floor discussing their relationship in exactly the same position as Roger and Jane had been earlier. And of course, as a diehard Roger fan, how could I not love an episode with the great man tripping his nuts off with Timothy Leary? ‘Sterling’ stuff, up there with the classic Suitcase episode, and it’s going to be hard to top this one this year.