Mad Men: Season 7, Episode 5–Runaways

“This is the best place to be right now, Don.”



Another tightly focused episode of Mad Men this week, as David Iserson and Matthew Weiner’s script dealt with three plots. Unusually for the show, they didn’t particularly intersect or inform each other; less unusually, the one which, at first glance, seemed light and comedic took a very dark turn by the end.

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Mad Men: Season 7, Episode 2–A Day’s Work

“Sometimes I think maybe I died, and I’m in, I don’t know if it’s Heaven or Hell or Limbo, but I don’t seem to exist. No one feels my existence.”



This week, Mad Men took one of its occasional turns towards ironic humour, in an episode full of people telling each other transparently unconvincing lies which crumbled to the touch. Jonathan Igla and Matthew Weiner’s script was so full of comical misunderstandings that, had it been made in Britain in the 70s, it would have made a pretty good Whitehall farce. But this is Mad Men, and the humour on display was black in tone and undercut by the show’s usual bleak nihilism.

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Mad Men: Season 6, Episode 9–The Better Half

“We’re both two halves of the same person. We want the same things.”


“The Better Half” – a self-deprecating phrase often used by husbands in the 60s to describe their wives. Ironic, really, considering the second place wives always took to the ‘Master of the House’. Here, it meant that and more in a thoughtful, incisive episode of Mad Men that examined the characters’ relationships with their families and their partners, and asked, just who is the ‘better half’?

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Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 13–The Phantom


“It’s a great sin to take advantage of hopeless people.”


After the high drama of recent episodes – Joan’s prostitution, Peggy’s departure, Lane’s suicide – the finale to Mad Men’s fifth season felt somewhat more low key. It was a chance for the characters to take stock of where they’d been left by the tumultuous events of the year, both in their business and personal lives. It was notable that, this year more than any, there was no major historical event against which to juxtapose the characters, a sign perhaps that the drama itself is now more important than its context.

One of the things the show has often dealt with is the consequences of its characters’ actions, and this finale seemed to take most of its time in dealing with those. Mad Men’s plotlines never have what you could call conclusions, not really, but there were capstones – and consequences – to many of the subplots laid out this year.

Lane’s suicide has obviously affected everyone at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce very deeply (apart from anything else, they’re presumably going to have to rename the company). Yet, in keeping with the show’s usual dramatic subtlety, it was quite some way into the episode before anyone explicitly mentioned the matter. Initially, we got some sideways references to it: Lane’s empty chair at the partners’ meeting, Harry, Bert, and apparently others being less than keen to move into the office where this unspeakable event had happened.

Don seemed to be keeping it together, but from the very start his guilt seemed to be manifesting itself; initially as a troublesome toothache which he refused to see a dentist about, then increasingly with visions of his dead brother Adam. As noted by many Lane’s suicide (probably intentionally) mirrored Adam’s perfectly. Both hanged themselves after having been rejected by Don, and obviously Don (and the screenwriter) is acutely aware of the similarity.

In moral terms, Don’s treatment of Lane is far more defensible than his treatment of his brother, who he rejected to keep his former life as Dick Whitman a secret. As a partner in the agency who’d been found to be embezzling it and forging the accounts, Lane was clearly in an untenable positions, and Don at least did him the courtesy of allowing him to resign while keeping the embezzlement confidential (though this may have had more to do with Don worrying that a police investigation would turn up his own ongoing identity theft). Nonetheless, Don should have little to feel guilty about concerning Lane.

But that’s not how it works when somebody you’re close to kills himself, and the visions of Don’s brother may have more to do with reminding us that he really should feel responsible in that case. It’s a mark of the show’s attention to detail that they were able to hire Jay Paulson to return as Adam after having dispatched the character in the first season. He’s a distinctive enough actor for me to have recognised him immediately as the ‘phantom’ of the title when Don started seeing him out of the corner of his eye, tentatively asking, “Adam?”

These two manifestations of Don’s present and ongoing guilt finally came together as Don relented and wen to the dentist to see about his toothache. Knowledge of the show’s style meant that, as Don went under the gas and closed his eyes, then opened them again, I realised instantly that we were into one of the show’s ‘dream’ sequences. So it proved as Adam turned up, not to berate Don but offer a sad smile and another parallel to Lane: “I lost my job. Because I’m dead.” An unpleasant purple weal around his neck was proof enough of this, and Don pleaded, “Don’t go”. To which Adam’s response – “Don’t worry, I’ll hang around. Get it?” indicates that we’ll likely be seeing more of Don’s increasing burden of guilt when the show returns.

It doesn’t help that Lane’s death, along with a resurgence in business from Mohawk Airlines, has done the company pretty well financially. His life insurance payout is massive, and SCDP are the beneficiaries – shades of Death of a Salesman, which were further emphasised when Don insisted on paying $50,000 of the settlement to Lane’s widow.

The scene of Don visiting Mrs Pryce, and awkwardly trying to offer condolences only to be rejected coldly, was one of those supremely uncomfortable scenes Mad Men does so well. Embeth Davidtz as Rebecca Pryce has had almost nothing to do, acting wise, beyond a blithe ignorance of her husband’s misdeeds; now finally, she got a chance to show her acting mettle.  As the only other thing I’ve ever seen her in was the 1993 Evil Dead sequel Army of Darkness, I was pleasantly surprised by how good she was here. Keeping the traditional British restraint about grief, she coldly told Don, “It was wrong of you to fill a man like that with ambition” – probably the most succinct analysis of Lane’s downfall you could get. And she outright told Don that she knew this to be just an attempt to salve his own conscience, and that as far as she was concerned, it did nothing to alleviate his guilt. Ouch.

As this is Mad Men, and everyone has to be having a horrible time, Pete Campbell was doing pretty badly too. Pete’s one of those characters that, while impossible to like, I still can’t help feeling sorry for; as mentioned several weeks ago, absolutely nothing works out for him. His tragedy is that, like Don, he seems to have everything he should want, but like Don, it’s never enough. It’s ironic that this is the one way in which Pete truly is similar to his ‘hero’ Don.

This week, we got a resolution – of sorts – to his attempts to have a passionate affair a la Don, with fellow commuter’s wife Beth. After seeing Beth on the train, he was powerless to resist her invitation for a meaningless shag in the same hotel where she’d stood him up. Then she revealed that this would be the last time it would happen – she was off to have her depression treated (not for the first time) with electro convulsive therapy, and experience had taught her that she would likely not even remember him afterward.

This led to a rather heartbreaking scene as Pete blagged his way in to visit her at the hospital, only to discover that she’d already had the ECT and (apparently) really had forgotten who he was. Cue a long and surprisingly moving speech from Pete as he detailed the travails of the ‘friend’ he told Beth he was there to visit – actually, of course, a summation of his own emptiness and lack of fulfilment. It was delivered brilliantly by Vincent Kartheiser, who constantly manages – for me, anyway – to keep Pete straddling the line between loathsome and sympathetic.

At least one thing seemed to work out for him, though. Ending up in a fistfight on the commuter train with Beth’s husband Howard, he unwisely baited the no-nonsense conductor who broke up the fight, receiving a black eye for his trouble. Turning up battered at home led wife Trudy (Community’s Alison Brie, who we don’t see nearly enough of) to concede that his desire to rent an apartment back in Manhattan was probably a good idea. But what’s the betting that it’s not going to make him any happier?

At least we got a welcome return for Peggy Olson. I wouldn’t expect her to have left the show for good; after all, the very first episode began with her first day at the agency, and she’s been a crucial character since. Here, we saw that life at Cutler Gleason and Chaough may not be much better for her. Ted Chaough dragooned her into taking up smoking so she can work on a prospective Philip Morris account, and it’s no surprise that she followed her old boss’s example once again when times are hard – she went to the movies.

Where, as chance would have it, she met Don himself, also taking refuge from his troubles as he recovered from his tooth extraction (it must have been terrifying for him when the dentist told him he couldn’t smoke for 24 hours). Their scene together was touching; despite Peggy having only left a couple of weeks ago, they hugged like old friends who hadn’t seen each other for ages. The real chemistry between Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss was again in evidence as both feigned happiness, avoiding the subject of their current worries. At least Don’s regret over her departure was expressed; he seemed bitter and sad but proud when he told her, “that’s what happens when you help someone. They succeed and move on.” I doubt we’ve seen the last of Peggy (she was highlighted significantly in the closing montage); but I wonder where she’ll be when the show returns. Back at SCDP, or turning into a capable rival for Don elsewhere?

Thankfully, the often-too-perfect Megan was getting a serious dose of her husband’s usual sense of angst and futility. Her acting career is noticeably failing to take off (and her mother is none too sympathetic), and like Don, she took refuge in brooding and getting drunk. Jessica Pare is a perfectly capable actress, but I can certainly understand many people’s objection that Megan has little depth as a character beyond acting as a foil for Don’s insecurities. Here, finally, that mask of wholesomeness was nicely cracked.

After one of her friends begged her for an in with Don to be cast in a new SCDP commercial, Megan basically stabbed her in the back by trying to get the gig herself. Don was initially reluctant but eventually conceded, and in one of the episode’s last scenes, we saw that Megan had got the job. Terrific, perhaps, but a total abandonment of her earlier principled stance that she wanted to succeed on her own merit. She may be finally getting work, but it’s only because of her husband rather than her ability, and she betrayed a close friend to do so. Welcome properly to the world of Mad Men characters, Megan. (And that’s before you even consider that her mother is yet again entwined in the ‘understanding’ arms of Roger Sterling!)

The ep – and the season – concluded with one of its trademark musical montages, this time set to Nancy Sinatra’s hit of that year, ‘You Only Live Twice’. As usual – a highly appropriate choice – Don manages to both recall and subvert the archetype of James Bond as he walks away from Megan’s film set into the darkness. Hanging out at a bar, he was approached by, yet again, a shyly attractive young lady. And her friend. And his unspoken answer to their question – “Are you alone?” – was the cliffhanger on which this season left him. He’s spent the year trying hard to move away from the ‘old’ Don, only to find the consequences of his actions pushing him back into that role ever more. Will he have the strength to resist?

It’s been a great season, which was a relief after having waited nearly two years to see it. Matthew Weiner has, as ever, kept the show’s slow burning moodiness and character depth, so that truly dramatic events, when they come, are all the more shocking for it. It’s sad that we won’t be seeing any more of Lane, who really came into his own this year in terms of deep plotlines both humorous and sad, and Jared Harris deserves a nod for his likeable performance over the last three seasons. And I’m glad to see that Peggy’s departure from SCDP doesn’t mean her departure from the show. Let’s hope that we don’t have to wait as long for the next season as we did for this one!

Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 11–The Other Woman


“Don’t fool yourself. This is some very dirty business.”


With just three episodes left this season (including this one), Mad Men continues to impress, this week presenting one of the most powerful, heartrending instalments the show’s ever done. With perhaps a tighter focus than usual, this week’s episode directly addressed one of the themes that’s been ever-present throughout the show’s run – the gender politics of its 60s setting, and in particular the thoughtless, unjust treatment of women that even good men – like Don – just don’t understand.

The script focuses almost exclusively on the travails of Joan, Peggy and even Megan to make its point. Not that the male characters are absent; indeed, they get as much screen time as the women, with some telling character points of their own. But they’re primarily there to demonstrate just what a bad lot in life women – even massively capable ones like Joan, Peggy and Megan – got in 1966.

It was an angry script by writer Semi Chellas (with the usual input from showrunner Matthew Weiner) that accomplished its aims fairly straightforwardly, but not without some real dramatic inventiveness. Ostensibly, the ‘story’ – fitting neatly into the show’s current arc – was about the progress of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s bid for the Jaguar account. But in every way, the story was used to reflect the injustice to which women were routinely subjected at the time.

The script set out its stall fairly early on, with a business dinner between Pete, Ken and Jaguar Dealers’ Association head Herb Rennet. Herb, a slimy, pudgy sort of fellow, doesn’t mince words; he’ll give them his vote, conditional on the promise of a night with the ‘stunning redhead’ who showed him around the office – Joan Harris. Initially, this looked like the sort of thing the show often does, setting up the inherent sexism of the period for being knocked down fairly quickly. We know Pete’s a spineless, unprincipled wanker, but surely even he would baulk at pimping out the formidable Joan for a fast buck?

But no, despite Ken’s immediate reaction of “no way”, Pete not only didn’t rule it out, but made a hilariously hamfisted attempt to make this indecent proposal to Joan as ‘indirectly’ as he could. At this point, the plotline was still funny enough to provoke laughter, with Pete’s clumsy attempts at obfuscation more than matched by exactly the kind of frosty looks you’d expect from Joan. But the humour rapidly began to dissipate as Pete took her at her word – “you couldn’t afford it” – and convened a partners’ meeting to discuss exactly what they could afford to offer her.

As I say, the script had stopped aiming the idea at humour, and what replaced it was outrage. To be fair, Don at least had the decency to walk straight out, saying that if this was what it took, he didn’t want the account. But none of the others had the decency to rule out the idea – not Lane,who recently tried to kiss Joan, not Roger, who’s actually fathered a child with her, not even the usually principled Bert Cooper. Dazzled by the promise of a prestigious auto account, they were all prepared to ask a woman they’d worked with and respected for many years to prostitute herself to further their business.

Lane at least did seem to demur, which almost gave him a shred of decency; but it was clear that he was terrified of offering Joan the prospective $50,000, since he’s already fraudulently obtained that on company credit to pay off his own tax debts. That plotline, clearly hanging over Lane’s head, was what encouraged him, via a conversation made almost entirely out of obfuscation, to give her the idea of asking for a partnership instead. Let’s be clear – Lane wasn’t against pimping out this woman he has feelings for. He just didn’t want it to happen if it revealed that he’s been embezzling the company. That’s far from a high-minded declaration of principle.

Even then, I couldn’t see Joan agreeing to do this. She’s been one of the most self-assured, capable, principled characters on the show since it began. Surely she wouldn’t agree to sell her body in order to further her career? And yet the script gave us a plausible scenario as to why she would give in to the idea of sleeping her way to the top. With her husband divorcing her, her baby to bring up, and now her refrigerator breaking down with no money left to fix it, she’s at her wit’s end. What’s being suggested is horrible – but pragmatically, can she afford to reject the idea? So she went to Pete, and forthrightly declared that she’d do it – in exchange for the 5% partnership, and no negotiation.

The prospect of a character you’ve come to like having to stoop to such depths was truly horrifying, but even then, I found it hard to believe she’d go through with it. When Don found out what the other partners had agreed to in his absence, he hotfooted it straight to Joan’s apartment to play Knight in Shining Armour and talk her out of it. But, as if to prove that Don’s good intentions don’t matter a jot, and that he doesn’t really understand the position Joan’s in, he was too late.

Not that this was immediately clear. At first, it seemed like he’d arrived in the nick of time, and Joan was having second thoughts. But then, Don’s pitch to the Jaguar panel – not coincidentally describing the XKE in the most misogynist terms of femininity – was cleverly intercut with the sequence of Joan having visited the loathsome Rennet the night before. It was heartbreaking to see the self-loathing on Joan’s face as she turned to allow him to undo her bra.

Even then, the intercutting of the sequence kept us guessing. Surely Joan would have second thoughts, politely tell the pudgy car dealer she couldn’t go through with it, and leave? But no, as Don came to the climax of his pitch (tellingly, it was “Jaguar – at last something beautiful you can truly own”), we realised that Joan had gone through with it after all. As she lay naked in bed with the less than attractive Rennet then turned away from him in discreet loathing, it was hard to hold back a tear. And then we went back to the scene of Don arriving at the apartment, realising then that he’d arrived after Joan had gone through with it. No wonder she was about to take a shower.

Was Joan right to do what she did, from a pragmatic viewpoint of a much overdue furtherance to her career? It’s hard to judge, given the presumably accurate portrayal of the attitudes of the time. Certainly, her expression at the partners’ meeting – when Jaguar confirmed their acceptance of the proposal – was all steely business, feeling suppressed. But her telling exchange of looks with a horrified Don showed there was more under the surface than just pragmatism and acceptance. It was a masterful performance from Christina Hendricks throughout, and given Joan’s bonding with Don last week, I wonder if the two are about to have a long, soul-searching chat again.

For all Don’s well-intentioned chivalry though, the far more lightweight (but still angry) plotline about Megan’s audition showed that he’s just as much of a sexist dinosaur as his colleagues. He may not want women to debase themselves (not that this has always bothered him), but he just doesn’t get that the women he knows might want to succeed on their own terms, without his ‘gentlemanly’ help. Certainly when Megan reveals that, should she get the role, she’ll be off touring for months on end, Don’s immediate reaction is to abandon his previous tolerance and forbid it outright. Megan’s angry assertion that he only allowed her to follow her dream because he expected her to fail looked dead on the money to me.

I’m still doubtful over Megan as an ongoing character. As commented on this blog a couple of weeks ago, she’s often seemed too perfect, lacking the flaws of the rest of the characters and acting more as a foil for Don than a person in her own right. But Semi Chellas’ script made me genuinely feel for her. First she had to endure the realisation that her husband had no confidence in her abilities (despite that he still wants her advice about the Jaguar pitch). Then, in a brief but telling scene, it became obvious that her audition callback was less about her acting ability than the shape of her rear end. And for all that Don was ready to be the Comforting Husband, you got the impression that he still didn’t understand.

But when it came to Don Just Not Getting It, this was small fry compared to the episode’s other big storyline – his treatment of Peggy. In the stress and furore of recent weeks, he’s been consistently treating her more like a doormat than a protege, and this week she’d finally had enough.

The last straw came when, having pitched a brilliant proposal to Chevalier LeBlanc perfume in Ginsberg’s absence (and after having refused to be described as his subordinate), Peggy found Don’s first reaction to be that he’d hand the idea straight to Ginsberg as soon as he was finished with Jaguar. And then, to add insult to injury, he took Peggy’s aggravation as a sign that she just wanted the account to get a free trip to Paris. Peggy, to her credit, immediately decided that she was worth more than that, and went out looking for better opportunities with the competition, where she might be recognised as worthy on her own terms.

Not surprisingly, Don’s old nemesis Ted Chaough was more than willing to make her an offer – in fact, he was prepared to exceed her original demand by $1000 a year. It’s nice to hope that he did this out of recognition of her abilities (and that probably was a factor), but given the way we’d seen women treated throughout the episode, my first thought was that he was making the offer just as a way to stick it to Don.

Peggy’s been an integral character to the show since episode one, and initially I didn’t believe she’d leave SCDP. But in a shock moment, leave she did. And as if to cement the episode’s portrayal of the well-meaning Don Just Not Getting It, his initial assumption was that she was just fishing for a raise, which he was more than prepared to give. He finally Got It when it became clear that, no matter what he offered, his former protege was off to pastures new; as he realised, and both reflected that this was really the end for them, the scene became genuinely tearjerking.

Don’s voice cracked as he refused to let go of Peggy’s hand, his face crumpling; Peggy herself had tears rolling down her otherwise controlled face. It was a hugely emotional scene, brilliantly played by both Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss. As Peggy walked out of SCDP for the last time amid furious partying, unnoticed by all (except, significantly, Joan), it became clear that she really was going. And perhaps now is the right time for that. As has recently become clear, she’s basically already become Don, albeit a female version, and the show doesn’t need two of them. Nonetheless, she’ll be missed.

An incredibly powerful episode overall, that gave Christina Hendricks and Elisabeth Moss in particular a chance to shine, and made me mark Semi Chellas as a writer to look out for. It’s easy for a man, if he’s liberal, to intellectually grasp how badly women were treated in the 60s; it’s quite something else to make him understand it on an emotional level. By rubbing our faces in the injustice suffered by likeable characters we’d known for some time, this episode succeeded at doing just that to an extent that I don’t think even Mad Men has managed before.