I don’t have any facts to support this assumption, but I believe that last night’s episode of Mad Men will be one that splits viewers down the middle. The entire time I was watching it, I couldn’t help thinking that zero was the number of clues that I had about what was going on, but after letting it marinate for a couple hours and watching one of the middle-of-the-night repeats, I can’t help but think that it was totally and utterly brilliant.
Structurally, all of the things that Matthew Weiner and his writers were able to build into an hour of television absolutely boggles the mind. Don and Roger went on two parallel trips with their wives, one literally and one figuratively, and the show was so chock full of references to previous seasons that I’m still trying to unpack everything to try and decode where all of this information tells us this season is going. Help me sleuth after the jump.
When the episode opened on Peggy, I was sure that this episode was going to be about her in the same way that last week’s was about Pete. It wasn’t, but it did start us off on two important recurrences through the episode: pointed references to past seasons and mirrors, both literal and figurative. Sometimes those two things went hand in hand, but this time, they were separate, with a literal mirror in front of which Peggy was primping for work and the reference to a previous season being the violet candies for which she was searching. In season two, Don told Bobby that his dad loved the violet candies in the purple and silver packaging, and it seems that he had given some of them to Peggy for good luck.
Peggy needed the luck because it was time for her to pitch a new idea to Heinz, and while she was fretting over that, her problematic boyfriend Abe was in her bed, trying to convince her to go to the movies with him and then fretting over how she prioritizes him behind her job. Peggy’s had this fight before, and we know how it ends: with her threatening to break up with the dude. Abe didn’t take her up on it like Mark did a couple of seasons ago, but they parted on unhappy terms.
At the office, things weren’t going much better. Don pulled himself and Megan out of the Heinz pitch so that they could go be irresponsible at the Howard Johnson mothership upstate (Roger told him it was a bad idea, but Don was too busy fetching his bride to listen), which left Peggy to do the pitch with Rizzo standing dutifully at her side. Compared to the Bean Ballet, the idea was surprisingly good – “Home Is Where The Heinz Is.” Peggy, to her credit, sold it quite well. Still, though, the ever-waffling Heinz exec wasn’t quite so sure that he loved it.
When he balked, Peggy practically channeled Don to give one of those barn-burning Don speeches about how the idea is great and he’s just contrary and no one else on the planet could make beans so beautiful. Instead of giving the Heinz dude the push he needed, as those speeches do when Don gives then, the old man fought back against the insolent little girl he saw in front of him and had her kicked off the account.
Peggy reacted to the blowup as the female mirror (mirror!) of Don – she went to the movies by herself, smoked a joint offered to her by a stranger in the darkened theater, and then gave said stranger a handjob while they watched a violent nature film. Afterward, she went right back to work, but instead of working, she fell asleep on the couch with the shot framed the exact same way that Weiner has shown us Don in distress so many times.
Dawn finally woke Peggy up that evening because Don was calling, agitated, from a phone booth that had yet to be given a meaningful context. We’ll get to why he was making that call later because the show doesn’t clue us in for a good half hour, but the important thing for the moment was that it caused Peggy to go finish up for the night in her office, where Ginsberg was also working.
Peggy had run into Ginsberg and his dad when she got back from the movies, and the show took the opportunity to let us in on a little bit more of his origin story. As it turns out, he hadn’t been lying when he said that he didn’t have any family. The man who he lives with and calls his father is actually a man who had found him in a Swedish orphanage at the age of five, and as far as Ginsberg knows, he was born in a concentration camp during the war and his parents are dead.
Ginsberg said that he had received one communication since leaving the orphanage, and it was a letter telling him only to stay where he was. He didn’t elaborate, but the stark reality of the horror out of which he came was jarring enough to send Peggy straight home to call her boyfriend, tell him that she actually did need him. I’m not entirely sure how Ginsberg’s story inspired that in Peggy, but perhaps it was as simple as a reminder of the basic need for human affection in the face of horror. I still think Peggy and Ginsberg are going to bone, though. Just you wait and see.
Over in Roger’s neck of the woods, Jane was dragging him to a dinner party with her fancy friends that he had complained about to Don earlier in the episode. And Roger was right, Jane’s friends were truly pretentious, sitting around the dinner table discussing the nature of truth and the moral implications of reality like any of them are actually all that interesting and thoughtful.
What was interesting, however, was what happened when dinner concluded – everyone dropped acid. Jane had warned Roger that she wanted to do it with her friends that night, but because he doesn’t listen to a word she says, the entire thing took him off guard. After some initial trepidation, though, Roger and Jane and a couple of other folks were all tripping. Roger in the sky with diamonds!
Roger’s first act while high was to open a bottle of his beloved Stoli, which contained booming Russian march music. He then proceeded to get self-conscious about his hair and dye half of it black with his mind, at which point Don appeared to tell him to stop looking in the mirror – the literal one, this time. After some rambling and an exceedingly terrified taxi ride home, Jane and Roger found themselves in the bathtub together, Roger watching the 1919 World Series and Jane complaining that she couldn’t see it. Probably because she was too young to have seen it the first time around.
After that, they proceeded to put their wet hair in pink towels and lay on the floor together in the dark, which is where things really got interesting. As it turns out, the psychiatrist at the party was also Jane’s shrink, which she had been keeping (badly) from Roger. It didn’t take much to get them each to admit that they were both done with the marriage, and in a surprisingly touching moment, Roger admitted that he didn’t like Jane anymore, as a person, but insisted that he once had. Then they cuddled. I say this without a shred of sarcasm: I hope my next breakup happens while sprawled out on the floor, tripping balls. I bet that’d make things a lot smoother.
In the morning, Roger was still feeling serenely content, but Jane had forgotten that they had mutually agreed to get divorced while they were high. She eventually remembered, and although she seemed concerned about how expensive it would be, she put up absolutely no fight. We’ve all known from the beginning of the season (and most of us probably knew long before that) that their marriage was doomed, and it seems like they’ve both been aware of it for some time too. You could see it in the elevator on the way to the party; they fought, but not about anything in particular. They fought just to fight, because their contempt for each other has reached such a level that it’s the only way that they can interact with each other anymore.
We then went back in time, to when Roger and Don were talking in the office and Roger told him it was a bad idea to take Megan to the HoJo. He took her anyway, of course, and he yanked her out of Heinz preparation to do it. Megan didn’t let on at first, but her irritation over never knowing which role she’s playing – Don’s wife or Don’s employee – grew as the trip went on. Peggy’s boyfriend mentioned at the top of the episode that he felt like Peggy wanted to store him in her desk drawer and take him out when she was bored, and it seems as though Don’s gotten as close to literally doing that as possible.
By the time that they were at the HoJo (which felt like more of an acid trip than Roger’s party did), Megan was spitefully rejecting the offer of orange sherbet to embarrass Don in front of some random waitress, and then after being called out, she was shoving it down her gullet so fast that I practically got a sympathy brain freeze. Megan then took a truly low swipe at Don’s dead mother (who she knows is dead because she indicated knowledge of his previous identity in the season premiere), which prompted Don to storm out and drive away, leaving her in the parking lot of the Plattsburgh HoJo.
Naturally, Don got a couple of miles away, thought better of his half of the giant toddler tantrum and turned around to retrieve his stranded wife. Except when he got back to the hotel, she wasn’t there – the waitress said that she had left with a group of young men who had been at a different table, which meant that she was probably inducted into some sort of drug cult and headed to California by the time Don realized she was missing. He stayed for hours, waiting and using the pay phone in the parking lot to call Peggy, Megan’s mom and whoever else may have heard from her. No luck.
The next thing we knew, Don and Megan were in the car, Megan navigating and Don steering them home. Suddenly Sally was in the backseat, looking sleepy and with her Mickey Mouse ears askew, making even clearer what the circular booth and sundae-style glass already told us – this scene was like a Bizarro World counterpoint to the scene in California where Don knew Megan was special when she cleaned up the spilled milkshake. Instead, this episode was where Don realized that nothing gold can stay.
He eventually went home to the city, where he found that Megan had hopped a bus home and had been ignoring his phone calls, and a fight broke out. First it was just verbal, where Don was locked out and yelling at Megan, who was yelling back from the other side of the door in almost an exact mirror (Mirrors! We’ll get to that.) of a fight that Jane and Roger had last season that foreshadowed all of the misery that their marriage has come to be. Don did what Roger didn’t bother to do, though – he kicked down the door.
I don’t know if Don kicking the door in is supposed to metaphorically signal to us that he’s willing to do stuff to save his marriage that Roger was too lazy and apathetic to do, or if it was merely necessary in order to effectively continue the scene. We’ll find that out as the season progresses, but in the episode, it lead directly to a physical altercation. Megan struck first, but then Don chased her literally all the way around the apartment before tackling her onto the same white carpet on which they’d had sex in the season’s first episode. He didn’t strike her other than that, and while the entire thing may seem shocking now, for the period, it was actually sort of Domestic Violence Lite. Don’s a lot of things, but this show has gone out of its way not to make him a physical abuser.
While they were laying there, winded and disoriented, Megan whimpered that every fight diminished them. And she’s right, because by the looks of it, what’s going on here is basically Don and Betty, The Early Years. Don really did love Betty when they were married, if you think back to the scene we saw of him telling Anna that they needed to get a divorce so that he could marry Betty (which was, itself, a flashback). He was giddy and overjoyed to spend the rest of his life with his future bride, and we all know how that ended. In contrast to how we’ve always seen Don end fights with Betty – dismissive and cold – this time, the scene ended with him on his knees, arms wrapped around Megan’s waist, weeping that he thought he had lost her.
Despite the fight, Don and Megan both pulled themselves together and went in to work later that morning, trying their very bests to behave as though everything was fine and that nothing at all had happened. Roger had been right, though. The entire trip had been a very bad idea. Roger’s “trip,” on the other hand, had turned out just swimmingly, and his participation in the episode culminated in him announcing to Don that it was going to be a beautiful day.
That wasn’t the end of the show, though. When Don and Megan got to work, Cooper was waiting to tell him about the disaster with Peggy and Heinz and to command Don to get his head out of the clouds and start actually working and running his department again. And Cooper was right, because if Don had been in that pitch room and made The Don Speech for Peggy, everything would have gone swimmingly. Peggy may be great at what she does, but that doesn’t mean that all the old men who run SCDP’s client companies are going to respect her enough to participate in the tougher parts of business with her as an equal. That’s just the reality of the era, and Cooper made no bones about it. Between that and the escalating conflicts with Megan, perhaps we’ll get a glimpse of the old Don Draper soon. Good for us, bad for him.
- I said it before, but it bears repeating: the structural elements of this episode were excellent. The triple narrative worked seamlessly, and the entire episode played like a love letter to hardcore Mad Men fanatics, who were subtly rewarded over and over again by small references to things in past episodes that you would probably only remember if you’ve seen the series through several times. (I’ve seen it through five or six times, judge me if you must.)
- This episode also did a great job warping its audience’s sense of time. The entire thing took place in a little over a day, but it seemed like time was zooming by all of the characters, a problem with which Pete, who was largely absent from this episode, would likely sympathize.
- I’m continually impressed by how Mad Men makes so much drama out of things that are actually completely mundane. That’s why this show is so great; instead of narrative gimmickry, it builds characters that feel so real and so worthy of our interest that their normal lives have meaning.
- In case you hadn’t noticed, I really love Mad Men.