Mad Men: Season 6, Episode 10–A Tale of Two Cities

“I’m in charge of thinking of things before people know they need them.”

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Rarely has an episode of Mad Men been so light and fluffy, and (almost) devoid of the usual gloom and portents that characterise the show. And rarely has an ep had a title so literal, as this week saw Don, Roger and Harry jet off to LA on business, while back in New York, Joan tried to get more involved in the business herself – as opposed to just office admin.

I say ‘business’, but of course Don and Roger’s jaunt to California was treated more like the holiday it really was. Roger even stopped Don trying to do research on the plane, insisting all Don needed to do was “be you.” Well, if he can work out exactly who that is, I suspect even then it won’t be a face that would be ideal to show to clients.

The feel of the late 60s was all over this one. In NYC, Ginsberg was feeling rebellious like the hippy he really is, which led to a blistering confrontation with ‘the new Roger’, Jim Cutler. Cutler has thus far been portrayed as congenial and relaxed, vaguely reminiscent of Hugh Hefner in his laid-backness. Now we saw another side of him as he faced up to the new belief that big business might be, you know, a little unethical. This immediately drove him to the office of Ted Chaough, where he outlined a new plan to get rid of ‘the right people’ – ie the old guard from SCDP. Ted wasn’t taking him seriously, but I think a few people had better watch out.

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Still, if anyone was going to get to Cutler, Ginsberg was. The frenzied eccentricity that drove Don so wild when he first joined was well and truly back this week, and Ben Feldman was superbly sweaty as Ginsberg first defied the boss then had a panic attack at the thought of representing the firm to clients. It was king of suckups Bob Benson who managed to drag him out of it, with a firm hand and the flattering command, “be the man who inspires me.” No wonder Ginsberg’s response (when he’d calmed down) was “tell me the truth – are you a homo?” Well, maybe. Perhaps Joan’s his fag hag. And I’ve wondered very frequently about Ginsberg in the past too – could they be destined to be Mad Men’s own ‘odd couple’?

Speaking of Joan, half of this week’s ep was very much her story, as she found herself unexpectedly in the position to woo a big new account. A ‘date’ with a friend of a friend turned out to be rather different, as the man in question was a big wheel at cosmetics firm Avon, and in the market for a new ad agency.

Given that Joan’s role as partner seems to have thus far involved little more than being an office manager, it was no wonder she seized the chance with both hands. She may not have gone about it the best way though, as she found herself on a collision course not just with the ever-seething Pete Campbell, but also, surprisingly, with Peggy Olson.

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Then again, perhaps it wasn’t that much of a surprise. There’s always been a friction between Joan and Peggy, from the moment when Peggy expressed a desire to become something more than just a secretary. For Joan, there’s no such thing as ‘just’ a secretary; no wonder this longstanding enmity blew up into a full-on shouting match this week, as Joan asserted that Peggy had never respected her, while Peggy denied having slept her way to the top via Don Draper.

That, of course, is the nuclear option where Joan is concerned. Having compromised her principles to actually sleep her way to the top (arguably an act of self-sacrifice for the good of the company too), she’s constantly reminded of the fact. Along with the corollary implication that she wasn’t good enough to get there on merit. No wonder she has a resentment-masked envy of Peggy, who genuinely did get where she is through hard work and talent.

And no wonder too that she seized the chance to be involved with some real business so eagerly. Unfortunately for her, Ted Chaough saw fit to put said business straight into the hands of Pete Campbell; a tactless error to which Joan responded by effectively cutting him out of the deal and keeping him in the dark. That’s not the best way to deal with office politics, and shows that, however admirable she may be, Joan is far from flawless. No wonder Peggy was annoyed.

Still, in the end, it was she who came to Joan’s rescue when the furious Pete found out he’d been had, pretending her new client was on the phone. As she commented to Joan, “you better hope he really calls.” It was a good plotline for Joan, who really hasn’t found the position of partner quite as rewarding as she expected, and we saw the usual strong performances from Christina Hendricks and Elisabeth Moss as two very different women trying to make it in a male-dominated business environment in their own ways.

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The particular males who usually do dominate the offices of… whatever it’s called this week were off having the time of their lives in LA. Or at least, Roger was. John Slattery was on supremely funny form this week, possibly thanks to the talented director, one John Slattery. What a guy.

Still, it was writer Janet Leahy who gave Roger such excellent lines, as he compared he and Don to conquistadores; “I’m Vasco de Gama, and you’re… some other Mexican guy. All we have to worry about is not getting syphilis”. Then, meeting with snooty and none-too-keen potential clients Carnation, he defended the honour of New York City ad men by dismissing those they’d had a bad experience with – “I’m sorry your last girlfriend hurt you.”

Eager to embrace the California party scene, Roger found a keen helper in the form of the ever-slimy Harry Crane. Harry’s getting harder to like these days; yes, he was very forward thinking in his plans to get the agency involved in the emerging TV ad market, but oh boy, doesn’t he just know it.  Still full of himself this week, Harry, keen to show off his media savvy and contacts, was soon dragging Roger and Don off to a Hollywood party full of movie types, where they bumped into yet another familiar face from seasons of old – Danny Siegel, incarnated by Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Danny Strong.

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Now keen to be referred to as ‘Daniel A. Siegel’, Danny seemed fairly sanguine about having been sacked from the agency way back in season 3. Roger wasn’t, though, and took every opportunity to sneer at him until, trying to chat up Danny’s silent hippy girlfriend ‘Lotus’, Roger challenged him to a fight. To which Danny, appropriately for his height, responded by giving him a sound punch in the balls. It was the only thing that actually made Lotus laugh; but not as loud as I did. Still, it made me wonder whether there’s any significance to the recent glut of long-vanished characters returning to the show. Before Danny, we had Duck Phillips, and before him Burt Peterson. Is everyone stuck in a Lost-style afterlife?

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Don, typically, seemed to be. The only man who can contrive to make a drink-and-drug-fuelled party into a morbid, portentous existential event, Don decided to accept an invitation to try hashish from a hookah. This may be the first time he’s responded to the phrase, “there’s still a nipple free” without a bout of meaningless sex.

Not that he didn’t try. But he was distracted from copping off with the pretty young blonde who’d issued the invitation by the rather unexpected appearance of Megan in full hippy garb, asserting that she’d moved to LA to surprise him. It was a weird, off-kilter moment that only got more bizarre with the even more unexpected appearance of another old face – PFC Dinkins from the very first episode of this season, proffering the lighter that Don had returned to him.

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Mad Men often has the tendency to treat its actual events like dreams, so it wasn’t until about that point that I realised we were in another of Don’s fevered hallucinations. Well, anyway, the point where Dinkins told him that he was actually dead – besides visibly missing an arm. “Why is your arm still missing?” asked the mystified Don, to which Dinkins responded, “dying doesn’t make you whole. Look at you.”

Typical Don Draper – he can’t even get high without thinking about death. As it turned out, he was pretty near it – having an out of body experience, he saw himself floating face down in the pool, for all the world like William Holden in Sunset Blvd. Perhaps, like Holden, he really is dead, and telling his story from beyond the grave; but if so, this is just the latest of many occasions when he might have actually died without us – or him – realising it.

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Still, it can’t all be about Don – much as he may think it is. His tragically shrivelled mirror image Pete Campbell was having a pretty rotten time too. But then when doesn’t he? Not only was he seething with rage at Joan for having been cut out of the Avon deal, it didn’t exactly make him happier when Ted wasn’t really all that bothered by her behaviour. So, yet again mirroring Don (albeit unknowingly), he took refuge in the last place you’d expect from straitlaced Pete Campbell. Grabbing a handy spliff from Stan, he ended the episode getting righteously high. What’s the betting it doesn’t make him any happier than it did Don?

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Where’s Bob Benson?

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Bob seems to be finally developing into an actual character these days, instead of a mysterious smiling presence that nobody really knows about. His main character trait appears to be glib, slick sycophancy, that constant smile of his always ready to ingratiate. And perhaps it’s working too. Not only was he rescued from redundancy by Joan, this week found him handpicked by Ted and Jim to accompany the unpredictable Ginsberg to a meeting with clients Manischewitz wine.

Along the way, he displayed the usual unthinking anti-Semitism of the period, trying to reassure Ginsberg with the statement, “they’re your people.” AT least he seemed to realise and backtrack by mentioning that Manischewitz don’t only make kosher wine, but “wine for all sorts of churches.” Most people wouldn’t get away with digging themselves deeper like that, but Bob’s ready smile seems to be his Get Out of Jail Free card.

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Historical Events

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The feel of the late 60s was everywhere this week, what with Ginsberg’s workplace mutiny and the hippy party in LA. But actual events were on display too. We saw new footage of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago choosing their Presidential candidate, Hubert Humphrey, and their rejection of a peace motion over the continuing war in Vietnam – a war that Democratic President Lyndon Johnson got the nation into. Ginsberg’s fury with Jim Cutler included his mention of the “200 body bags a week” returning US soldiers home by this point; a fact reinforced by Don’s hallucination of PFC Dinkins, who, knowing this show, is almost certainly dead for real.

As Thunderclap Newman put it, there was obviously “Something in the Air” in 1968, as the DNC’s apparent rejection of ‘peace’ led to yet another of the riots that seemed to dominate the year. This one followed a week of protests near the DNC, and culminated in a pitched battle between protestors and the police, who, judging by the footage Don and Megan were watching from two separate coasts, didn’t exactly behave with honour.

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The snooty execs from Carnation maintained that the night’s riots lost the Presidency for the Democrats. Perhaps they were right.

Dedicated Followers of Fashion

If you thought the late 60s clothes of Manhattan were hideous, Los Angeles showed you that NYC was actually a bastion of restraint. Hippy beads and kaftans were everywhere, in the most glaring colours imaginable. Harry Crane, as ever, displayed a breathtaking lack of taste with his bright orange blazer and cravat combination:

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Still, I can’t fault his taste in cars. The Ford Mustang had been around for three and a half years by this point, and was developing year by year into a flabbier and less elegant shape. Harry at least had the good sense to stick with the clean lines of the ‘64 original, complete with Pony interior. Roger’s response? “Get something with a roof. I don’t want to turn up to meetings with bugs in my teeth.”

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This was a pretty lightweight ep of Mad Men – though by the standards of any other show, the conflict between Joan and Peggy, and Don’s usual ventures into David Lynch territory, would mark it out as rather heavy. Still, as this show goes, it felt rather throwaway; enjoyable enough without really accomplishing anything. Of course, Matthew Weiner plays the long game, and some of the events here may turn out to have greater significance later on. For now, though, while I can always spend an hour watching Roger Sterling being cheerfully obnoxious, this felt like Mad Men on autopilot.

2 thoughts on “Mad Men: Season 6, Episode 10–A Tale of Two Cities”

  1. I can’t help but respectfully disagree with you, Simon. This has been one of the most heavy-with-portent episodes YET this season, and it all boils down to Don’s opium dream.

    Don sees dead people. He has hallucinated his bother Adam, his ex-sort-of-wife Anna, PFC Dinkins… And his hallucinations have occasionally been prescient. When Anna died, he saw her before he got the call (although her death wasn’t altogether unexpected).

    This week, Don hallucinated Dinkins and a pregnant Megan. So my question: was Don, however briefly, dead and in the afterlife, and not just having hashish hallucinations? And if so, when Megan says ‘she lives there…?’

    On Uproxx I read this, “The wording during that sequence is very careful. During the hallucination, in addition to finding out that Megan is pregnant, Don asks, “How did you find me?” Megan responds, “But I live here.” The “here” is not California; it can’t be the party. She’s clearly not actually there, but she could be in the afterlife. A few seconds later, Draper sees a dead Private Dinkins, who says, “I heard you were here.” Again, “here” is in the afterlife. “Dying doesn’t make you whole,” he tells Don, which is when Don realizes that death won’t fulfill him, it won’t bring him the answers he seeks. He has to get out, back to the living because “everyone is looking for you,” as Megan suggests. That’s when he is pulled from the pool and returned to life, away from Megan, Private Dinkins, and that place where the doorman was briefly after he died. It’s a perfect bookend to the opening scene of the season.”

    Mind blown yet? 🙂

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    1. Yes, it was definitely portrayed as a near death experience, and that wording – along with the presence of the PREGNANT Megan – is deeply significant. I certainly felt that the Uproxx interpretation rang true, though we perhaps shouldn’t be too influenced by the whole “Megan Draper is going to die” theories when watching the show. That may turn out to be a red herring, especially in a show which concerns itself with death as a theme most weeks.

      Nevertheless, while it was obviously the most important bit in terms of the show’s themes, it only took up a few minutes of an otherwise enjoyable but none too deep episode. I suspect the whole sequence may have been Matthew Weiner’s contribution to Janet Leahy’s script, though I certainly can’t fault her characterisation and dialogue.

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