Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Mad Men 7-5: The Runaways

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness...
-Allen Ginsberg, "Howl"

If you haven't yet seen this week's episode of "Mad Men" (and don't mind spoilers), try to guess which of the following happened:

A. Don has a threesome. Roger is not involved.
B. Don, on the verge of ouster, throws a Hail Mary to save his job.
C. Betty embarrasses Henry by speaking her mind.
D. Ginsberg cuts off his own nipple.

The answer, of course, is "E. All of the above."

Every once in a while, "Mad Men" likes to throw a "wtf did I just watch" episode at its audience. Often, though not always, drugs are involved. They're marginally involved here, though a bigger player is the new office computer, which finally drives Ginsberg completely off the deep end.

One could read all sorts of cultural and psychological subtext into both the trigger and the response, though I don't know if I even want to try. Ginsberg's always been a bit off - lately more so than ever, unnerved by what he sees as the harbinger of the dehumanizing forces that are coming for them all. That he interprets the outward signs of these forces as turning men into "homos" is a little weird but frankly not especially weird for Ginsberg, and I'm hesitant to conclude it's a manifestation of his own repressed homosexuality. Even if that is part of it, his breakdown has more complicated roots. Arguably more of a construct than a totally convincing character, he's always come across as something of a mad prophet, an idiot savant, one who's especially sensitive to the dark, twisted, and corrupt side of humanity.

But seriously, cutting off one's own nipple? That there is some fucked up shit.

Still, one could see his removal of "the valve" as a symptom - or an extreme case - of the unease and instability that afflicts all the characters. In fact, everyone else in this episode seems lost and precariously on edge, from barefoot and pregnant Stephanie, who reenters Don's life and exits again before he can even see her, to anxious Megan, who quietly banishes the threat she perceives Stephanie to pose, only to fail to draw Don back into her orbit, to bumbling Harry, who wanders into and out of Megan's party, unsure of how he should handle the weakened but still formidable giant that is Don Draper, to Don himself, who pingpongs from the receiving end of Lou's petty vindictiveness to Megan's version of Hotel California and back again to deliver what he can only hope is a coup de grĂ¢ce against the former. Not to mention Betty's stumble from incredulous shock at being left to twist in the wind, when she inadvertently goes off Henry's script, to furious rejection of having to stick to a script at all. Even poor little Bobby tries to escape the pain and anger in his house, only to have to settle for temporary refuge in his sister's bedroom.

Perhaps it's deliberate, but the overall effect of all these comings and goings, freakouts and resets, threats and fleeting reprieves is to give the episode a very choppy, disjointed feel. It doesn't help that we've had pretty limited exposure to half of the characters that are prominently featured this week - not enough to provoke much reaction beyond bemusement and maybe a small pang of sympathy at their fates. As for the characters we do know well, Megan and Peggy each seem stuck in a rut, while Don and Betty are still searching for their long-term trajectories. In some ways, Betty offers the most intriguing possibilities. Over the years we've seen her anger and discontent build and fester, and, like a much dimmer echo of Ginsberg's, it finally seems to be reaching a breaking point. (Though as the necessary catalyst, Henry Francis being an overbearing dick feels forced and out of character.) But what will she do with her budding desire for independence? Will she find a constructive outlet for once, or will she relapse into bitterness?

If Betty's beginning to explore the possibility of a new role in life, Don appears bent on reestablishing his old one. "I don't want anything right now," he says, heavily, as Megan and "Amy from Delaware" coax him into some fairly half-hearted three-way action. In fact, Don does clearly want something else: to regain a sense of authority, in both his personal and his professional life. Hence his eagerness to see and help Stephanie and his giant F-U to Lou and Cutler in hijacking the meeting with Philip Morris. The latter move may have worked, at least for now. Still, one can't help sensing that Don may be winning battles only to lose the war. "Get out while you still can," a departing Ginsberg implores his former colleagues. Don isn't with them, but he might do well to heed the advice. Even if it comes from a lunatic with one nipple.

Random observations:

-Highest gross-out factor since the infamous John Deere episode, ever so many seasons ago. When Peggy opened the box, I thought at first it was Ginsberg's ear. But no, it was worse.

-Ginsberg's ramblings about the computer's bad vibes was somewhat reminiscent of the unhinged general in "Dr. Strangelove" and his obsession with "precious bodily fluids."

-Also, a callout to "2001: A Space Odyssey": Ginsberg watching Lou and Cutler plotting in the computer room, unable to hear what they're saying. (Only unlike HAL, Ginsberg doesn't read them quite right - though he is correct that they're up to something.)

-Once again, the writers go out of their way to make Betty into the worst mother on earth. Sigh. She really wasn't always this way.

-Unexpectedly sweet, if sad, scene of brother-sister bonding with Sally and Bobby. It's good to have occasional reminders that Sally's aversion towards her mother hasn't totally curdled her affections towards the rest of her family.

-Visually, the show has been laying on both the hippie look and the hideous proto-'70s fashions pretty thick this season, as well as the contrast between the counterculture (Megan's party) and the establishment (Henry and Betty's friends). Can't say I care much for either, but aesthetically the latter is so much worse. I sincerely hope checked jackets never come back into fashion. Especially not when paired with striped ties.

-Line of the week: "I'm not stupid. I speak Italian." Oh, Betty.

-Runner-up: "Hello, everyone. Bye, everyone." -Amy from Delaware, leaving the most awkward Morning After ever.


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