Don’t read on unless you have seen “The Runaways,” the fifth episode of “Mad Men’s” final season.
“This is the best place to be right now.” — Megan
Wrong. Almost everyone in “The Runaways” was out of place or out of their element, and quite conscious of that fact. And I’ll say more about that in a minute, but first, well, wow. You can’t make the claim that “Mad Men” denies the viewer a full range of experiences.
First, we had the AMC After Dark scene of Don having a three-way with Megan and her friend Amy. And then we had something completely different: Michael Ginsberg proudly presenting his sliced-off nipple to Peggy. Excuse me for a minute while I go drink the entire contents of my liquor cabinet.
Yeeeeow. I feel scarred from having written the above sentence about Ginsberg’s body part; seeing what was in that box was worse. There’s a mental image I’ll never be able to remove from my brain — Scout’s honor.
As wildly different as those two moments were, this is “Mad Men,” so the moments shared a thematic link, as did much of what occurred elsewhere in “The Runaways.” As I noted above, almost every character stood on unfamiliar terrain or felt deeply alienated from what was going on around them.
Even though Don may have succumbed to the charms of Megan and her friend, there was reluctance in everything he did when he was out in California. He felt left out at her party, he tried to ignore her dancing with another man and he sensed that there was something odd about Stephanie’s quick exit from Megan’s pad. Don was so uncomfortable that Harry Crane, of all people, turned out to be a sight for sore eyes. Don couldn’t wait to get away from all those pot-smokin’ hippies and go drink manly alcohol in a dimly lit bar. There’s only so much extramarital flirtation and banjo a man can be expected to endure.
Ginsberg’s unease, at least in his own mind, had an explanation: It was all the computer’s fault. He was so rattled by that humming monolith that he actually went to Peggy’s house, a weird place for him to end up on a Saturday night. There, Ginsberg found one of the episode’s many odd pairings: Peggy and little Julio from upstairs. In an episode full of characters experiencing discomfort and disconnected states, it’s wildly ironic and very sad that Ginsberg actually found relief from his distress. Unfortunately, his “relief” was a symptom of profound mental illness.
On the other coast, Betty had a party that was about as different from Megan’s bash as it could be. Another irony: Despite her stable and moneyed environment, Bettty was every bit as disconnected from her husband as Megan was. There were a lot of people who couldn’t be trusted in this hour: Henry couldn’t trust Betty to keep her mouth shut about her political opinions and discuss only safe, non-controversial topics. Megan (speaking for herself, rather than Don) didn’t trust Stephanie to deal with her situation in the ideal way — whatever that meant — so she sent her packing. The subtext was, of course, that Megan felt threatened by Stephanie’s easy emotional intimacy with Don, something that Megan always had to fight for (and despite her efforts, her bond with Don was clearly slipping away).
Betty, not surprisingly, didn’t trust Sally to take care of herself and her precious nose (and if I were Henry, I wouldn’t trust Betty around any of those kids, given that Betty’s only response to any setback is petulant rage. Gene and Bobby, start packing for boarding school now).
It was bittersweet to see Bobby finally have someone to talk to (though even he felt out of place in Sally’s little-used bedroom). Sally was yet another character who was away from her usual spot. She was not at her school, but stuck in Betty’s orbit, the absolute last place Sally wanted to be. Despite the episode’s title, Sally didn’t run away — Henry took Sally to the doctor in the morning — but almost everyone in this hour was in flight from someone or to a new place.
Even Harry wasn’t where he was suppose to be — he ended up in Megan’s house, with a woman who was most certainly not his wife. Spotting Don, Harry gladly fled that uncomfortable situation.
Ah, finally we come to the one person who was in his element in this hour. That’s not to say that Don was comfortable in much of this hour: For one thing, he was very annoyed that he didn’t get to swoop and take care of the pregnant Stephanie. That situation tailor-made for Don: She was a beautiful, exotic, intelligent woman who was dependent on Don for her day-to-day existence. But Don wasn’t allowed to save the day, because a put-out Megan basically sent Stephanie packing.
But all the L.A. annoyance was just the prelude to Don’s discovery about the cigarette account. Toward the end of the episode we got, of all things, a vintage Don Draper pitch, just when I’d stopped expecting those to happen anymore. Classic Draper: He took a situation in which he was not wanted and which was, in fact, part of a scheme to get rid of him — and he turned the tables on his enemies and ended up making himself essential to the client. Just look at the smug look he wore as he hailed a taxi at the curb. Draper is back, baby.
It really was Don’s ideal kind of situation: He loves being the underdog, the guy who, to all intents and appearances, has no cards left to play. The joke’s on you, Cutler and Lou: Don may not be able to connect in person with Stephanie or connect emotionally with his wife, but put his back against the wall in a business situation and there’s a good chance he’ll do something nobody will soon forget. This time, he made an impression in a good way — this was not the Don of the legendarily disastrous Hershey’s pitch. This was a guy who’s played office politics for a long time and could, if he wanted to, run circles around a vindictive mediocrity like Lou Avery.
This time, Don wanted to do just that, and he nailed it. (That said, this is not the Don of Season 1. That little scene just before Don entered the breakfast meeting with the cigarette guys was sheer perfection. Doubt washed over his face, and Don quickly mastered it, but we knew he was much more nervous than he let on.)
Without an elegant segue, I’d like to turn to the problem of Megan. I don’t quite get why she appeared to be fighting so hard for her marriage. Last time we saw her, she appeared to be on the road to accepting that her relationship with Don was winding down. Los Angeles appears to be the place for her — she certainly felt more at home at her Laurel Canyon party than she ever did as host of Don’s “Zou Bisou Bisou” blowout. She’s got her own circle of friends and her own life. Don’s made it clear that New York is his home. It didn’t make sense to me to see her go to such lengths to keep her relationship with Don going.
The problem of Megan pre-dates this season, of course. Megan is largely a blank slate — she’s defined by her relationship with Don, and I don’t have a great sense of who she is or what she wants outside of that. I can imagine the internal emotional and intellectual life of Peggy, Pete, Joan, Roger or Don, for example, but that’s just not the case with Megan.
This season especially, the show appears to be changing who she is week by week, according to the needs of the story rather than the (admittedly indistinct) personality of the character. For a few seasons, she seemed like a sensible and smart young woman, but out of nowhere, she became a semi-crazed director-stalker out in L.A. She was righteously furious at Don’s deception about his job suspension and his refusal to join her on the West Coast, but this week she’s got rid of Stephanie, tried to make Don jealous with another guy and had a three-way in a desperate attempt to keep him interested.
All these things don’t strike me as different facets of her character: They seem to me like evidence of the fact that the writers don’t have a great grasp of who she is or what makes her tick. It also says to me that the writers have story needs they need her to fulfill and who she is changes from week to week based on the plotting needs of the moment.
Regardless of the inconsistent writing for Megan, it’s clear that Don and Megan’s marriage is extremely shaky. As I’ve said before, Don’s first and only real love is his work, and it’s clear that that interests him once again, and he’s merely going through the motions with Megan. Now that he scents a huge account and sees a possible new role for himself at the firm, he can barely sustain a morning-after conversation with Megan, let alone her pal Amy.
Also on shaky ground: The relationship between Betty and Henry. The only real reason I think Betty wouldn’t consent to a divorce is because she’s already been divorced once and she couldn’t handle the social ostracism that would come from being twice divorced. That said, she herself put her finger on the problem that I’ve complained about forever when it comes to Betty: She’s too passive, too reactive. If she’s is so fond of thinking for herself, she should do something with those opinions and that knowledge. Giving Gene baths, turning Bobby into an anxious wreck and threatening her daughter with physical harm don’t appear to add up to a full-time job, and she certainly appears to want more in her life than she currently has.
Don wanted an attractive, capable accessory when he went after Megan — what he got was a woman with her own wants and interests, and thus he eventually lost interest. Not unlike Don, Henry wanted a woman he could save — a pretty blonde doll who would look good on his arm and who wouldn’t have ideas of her own. Henry also didn’t get what he wanted, but he also knows that divorcing Betty would likely end his political career. Somehow those two, I think, will find separate orbits for themselves and remain together on paper and emotionally very far apart.
For his part, Don couldn’t wait to leave Los Angeles — which he knows is not the place for him — and get back to the one place that has always made sense to him: the office. Amongst all these disconnected, lost people who failed to make real connections in this purposely disjointed hour, Don stood out. As he stood on that curb, he knew exactly where he belonged.
“You’re incredible.” “Thank you.”
Oh, Don Draper. You may have your faults but I can’t wait to see you stick a (metaphorical) knife in Lou Avery’s back. Or his front. Whichever you prefer.
Hail of bullets:
- It’s so weird to see Caity Lotz on “Mad Men” after two seasons of seeing her as Sara/The Canary on “Arrow.” I kept expecting her to ninja-fight somebody.
- Scout = Don Draper. Both can take anything but an order!
- A fairly standard sub-theme in the episode: The clash between the Establishment and Those Irreverent Young People (i.e. the “flag-burning snots”). Lou couldn’t stand the fact that his employees thought his comic was corny and outdated (he really lost them when he compared his work to that of Dylan. You may have miscalculated a bit there, Lou). But his disgust was reflected in Betty’s condescending remarks about the Young People Today and their lack of respect for authority, etc.
- Now that Anna’s gone, Stephanie’s the only person left in Don’s life who has the right to call him Dick. I think that means a lot to him, for complex reasons. By the way, I don’t mean to imply that Don only cares about Stephanie because she ignites his savior complex. I also think he sincerely likes having “family” in the sense that other people do. There’s not much about Don/Dick that feels normal, and having a “niece” allows him to feel more like other normal family folk, I suspect.
- This week in Lou is the worst: Keeping Don late and then not looking at his work until Monday anyway.
- I think Amy was into having a three-way because she’s actually in love with Megan. Just a theory.
- Just to go micro for a second, I loved one subtle moment in the bar between Don and Harry. A semi-drunk, nervous Harry started sharing work gossip with Don, but Harry closed up again when Don didn’t treat him like a friend. Don instantly sensed what Harry needed and clapped him on the back, acted friendlier and ordered more drinks. He went from Batman to work pal in the blink of an eye. What Harry didn’t realize was that it was all an act. Don just had to know what Harry knew about the new account Jim Cutler and Lou Avery were going after. In any case, in that moment, he read Harry perfectly. When Don’s on his A-game, there are few who can touch him.
- I really thought Lou was going to fire Stan when Stan said, “You?” That whole scene in Lou’s office was a classic moment of “Mad Men” comedy in an episode that really needed it. Because none of us can unsee what was in Ginsberg’s box.
- Speaking of Ginsberg, I know I’m not the only one who detected signs of psychosis or schizophrenia not long after he made his first appearance on the show. I always had a feeling he was going to lose it some day, but that didn’t make the pathos of his breakdown any easier to bear. I don’t know if Ben Feldman will be back, but if not, here’s to a really wonderful performance as Ginsberg. The character could be quite dryly funny at times, but there was always a deeply rooted humanity about him — an intensity and a wellspring of compassion that lurked just below the surface. Part of the reason the breakdown was so sad was because Ginsberg was always just a little to sensitive. He always felt things too much. That fed his creativity, but it also fed his madness, which overtook him in the end. Poor guy.
- Speaking of great performances, Elisabeth Moss did a wonderful job showing Peggy’s range of reactions to Ginsberg’s descending madness. I laughed out loud at the way she said “Time to go” in her apartment, and her horrified reaction to Ginsberg’s gift was quite memorable as well. But what sticks with me most is the mixture of fear, revulsion, shock and sadness that washed over her face as she edged out of the room and away from Ginsberg. She truly liked the guy, and in that moment she knew that his life as he knew it was over.
- Nice of Stan to go to the hospital with Ginsberg. Stan’s always up for a joke and a toke, but he’s also a really good friend.
Ryan McGee and I talked about “Mad Men” (as well as “Penny Dreadful” and other shows) in last week’s Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.
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