Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mad Men 5-6: Far Away Places

You know "Mad Men"'s heading full speed into the late '60s when each episode is progressively trippier than the last. This time, literally - three trips for the price of one!

The tripartite structure of "Far Away Places" was in some ways reminiscent of "Three Sundays" (one of my favorite episodes from season 2), but with a touch of Tarantino in its rewind-and-diverge time structure, and a bit of David Lynch in its casual dips into the surreal. "Mad Men" seems to be amping up the latter element this season - maybe to heighten the sense of cultural disorientation that was threatening to pull society apart circa 1966. If there's anything the show's made evident about that time, it's that you didn't need drugs to feel something was seriously off-kilter about your sense of reality.

And perhaps for that reason, Roger's acid trip was arguably not the most bizarre storyline of the week. That honor goes to Peggy, largely because her behavior was the most erratic and, at least at first blush, the least predictable. Without Don to back her up, her impulsive efforts to bully their annoying client into buying the pitch backfire spectacularly. And her response is...to get high, give a stranger a hand job during a showing ofa movie ("Born Free," for those of you wondering), and then nap on her office couch? (And what was Dawn still doing in the office at 8:30 pm, anyway?) But in some ways it made perfect sense. Peggy's character arc so far this season, rather like Pete's, has been focused on her subconsciously following in Don's footsteps - marginalizing her personal commitments, pushing clients to embrace her vision, even ditching work to go to the movies and hooking up with strangers - only to discover she can't be Don, no matter how hard she tries to imitate his power plays. She needs to find her own way, whatever that is, to "make it out there on her own"; whether she does remains to be seen.

As for Roger's trip, it may not have been the strangest but it was without question the most entertaining of the three. We'd expect no less of Roger, of course, even if he himself had no such expectations going into that evening. Still, neither he nor we could have anticipated that a walk on the psychedelic side would produce what may have been the first and last moment of real honesty - and liberation - in their marriage. Her therapist may have anticipated it, I guess But when was the last time we saw Roger so happy? And when was the last time Jane was so appealing? (That is, until she told Roger the divorce was going to cost him - and even that she said with an odd wistfulness, muting its impact.)

By contrast, Don embarked on his trip with the giddy excitement of a schoolboy, only to see his hopes of a romantic getaway transformed into his worst nightmare: losing Megan. (The audience got an early hint of this outcome with his desperate call to Peggy, at the end of *her* night: at that moment, I said to myself, "Megan's left him." I was partly right.) The debacle was mostly, if not entirely, his fault, and one he should have seen coming from the moment he peeled a clearly reluctant Megan off the Heinz pitch to go on a junket with him. This isn't the first time Megan's shown discomfort with her dual (and conflicting) role of wife/colleague, or even the first time she's argued about it with Don, but it's the first time we've seen the tension reach a true breaking point. Their fight quickly degenerated from angry to toxic, and from toxic to psychotic once Don got home and went berserk. This was no S&M role play, even if Don's demented pursuit of Megan around their bedroom had an eerie echo of both their post-"zou bisou bisou" sex and Don's fever-driven hallucinations of choking an unruly woman to death. It was damned scary.

So was Don's meltdown afterwards, because it revealed the damaged, unloved child in him who's well beyond Megan's powers - any woman's powers, really, I fear - to heal and make whole. Up till then, it was hard to say who had been acting more immaturely on that trip, Don with his foolish fantasies or Megan with her sulky petulance (her shoveling down that sherbet was exactly the kind of thing I'd have done as a kid), but in the end, it was Don, crying and clinging to her skirt like a lost boy. That dish of orange sherbet said it all, really: it's the treat he craved, the promise of bright sweetness and light and comfort, like the Megan he thought he'd married, like the image Howard Johnson's wants to sell to travelers. (It's surely no coincidence Megan's dress was almost the same color as the sherbet she rejected, as well as the iconic HoJo roof.) But as Megan observes, the place is a way-station, not a destination, and that line clearly applies to a lot more than the motel. It's an ill omen for their marriage, and perhaps for both their futures at Sterling Cooper.

Random observations:

-I used to love orange sherbet as a child, though I don't remember it being quite that traffic-cone shade of orange. But I had my sherbet at Friendly's, not HoJo's.

-I can't take credit for this one, but other critics have commented that the "sherbet scene" at Howard Johnson's mirrors - or rather, flips on its head - the idyllic "ice cream scene" on the Disneyland trip at the end of last season, which Don was at some level trying to recreate - or prolong. Nicely done, though "the pool's closed" (because someone pooped in it, no less) was a touch too much. Didn't really need the flashback to the post-Disneyland trip or Sally's plaintive "I don't want vacation to end," either. We get it, "Mad Men": you don't need to underscore the point.

-Fantastic final shot of Don in the conference room, watching everyone else pass him by. Again, a bit symbolically overloaded, but ambiguous enough not to be annoying.

-Ditto Roger's LSD trip, which was a hoot from start to finish despite being rather understated as these things go. I can't decide whether my favorite moment was the musical vodka bottle, the magical one-drag cigarette, or the (entirely logical) sight of Bert Cooper's face on a $50 dollar bill.

-Speaking of whom, yay for the return of Yoda-Bert! I didn't like his calling Peggy a "little girl," but I DID like his calling Don back from "love leave" and reminding him it's Bert's business, too. Now will that reality check be enough to snap Don back into form, or will Megan's presence continue to impede him?

-As some have surmised, Sterling Cooper's latest hire does turn out to have a Holocaust connection...and how! I can't imagine how a baby could possibly have born in - or survived - a concentration camp, but apparently it did happen. Prepared to see more of its impact on Ginsberg as we get to know him better.

-And also as some have surmised, Jane Sterling (née and soon to be again Siegel) is definitely Jewish. You'd think someone in Roger's white-shoe clan would have made an issue out of this, but I suppose Roger wouldn't have cared where love was concerned. In his own screwed-up, selfish way, he's a romantic.


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