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TV Recap: Mad Men “Far Away Places”

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

Hand job, high jump, HoJo’s – let’s get cracking!

First, we’ll imagine a hypothetical viewer who, in some drunken Netflix rampage, goes directly from the debut episode of Mad Men to this latest one. He or she will probably think that Peggy Olson, our earnest, innocent, and awkward proxy in The Land of The Panty Girdle, has been possessed by the ghost of Don Draper. (Common warning signs of Don Draper possession include, but are not limited to: smoking; casual sex outside of marriage, which may lead to a desire for high-risk encounters in public places; occasional irritability arising from sexual partner’s expression of personal needs; aggressiveness and over-confidence at work; operating a typewriter while inebriated; passing out on the office couch; more smoking.)

But we’ve had all these years in between to see Peggy’s slow, sometimes sad, but always sympathetic road to the character who starts off this episode with post-coital snappishness toward her boyfriend Abe. It’s not unlike the short temper Peggy sometimes aimed at her previous boyfriend, Mark. Abe points out that Peggy’s too quick to “want to push the button on the whole thing,” and I think it’s premature to pronounce them broken up, but we’ve never seen Peggy in a happy, stable, long-term relationship and I’m starting to worry that’s something she’ll never get. (We could blame her tragic past with Pete Campbell, but after last week I sort of don’t want to pile on that poor @$$#01e too much. Let’s say it’s Duck’s fault.)

Peggy’s keyed up because it’s the day of her big presentation to Heinz Beans, and she can’t find her lucky pack of violet gum. (Mad Men prop fetishists will want to freeze-frame Peggy’s desk drawer

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

for a glimpse of Canon slide mounts, Eagle pencils, two kinds of typewriter ribbon, and Parker Quink, a quick-drying, non-clogging ink invented in the 1920s and still sold today.) She finds the gum, canceling one possible bad omen, but in the next instant Don shows up to say he won’t attend the meeting – he’s going instead to a Howard Johnson’s restaurant upstate with Megan, who has been Peggy’s “junior” on the Heinz presentation. Peggy is so unnerved she has to bum a smoke off of Stan. Sensitive viewers might find this more transgressive than Peggy’s first toke on a reefer back in Season 3.

“Balls out,” Stan said, and here come Peggy’s: one thing she’s learned from Don is that part of her job is to occasionally make her own accounts people uncomfortable. In the Heinz pitch, Peggy displays the talent for direct, emotional connection that’s precisely what made Don recruit her for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in the first place – and it doesn’t work. The client is unimpressed, but instead of backing off the concept, Peggy challenges him: “Do you know how often people come in here and look at work and feel something? Almost never.” It’s thrilling even though we hear Don Draper in every emphasis. The unflappable Ken Cosgrove flaps momentarily, then folds his account-man wing around the client, leaving Peggy in defeat. Pete makes an expensive appearance to tell her she’s off the account. This would not have happened to Don; it would not have happened to Peggy if Don had been at the table. Bring on the dancing beans.

When Peggy takes a mid-day slug of brown liquor and announces that she’s going to the movies, it’s almost a parody of Don Draper tropes. We’re treated to a shot of Bert Cooper enjoying the socks off his extended irrelevance: “everyone has somewhere to go today.” At the theater (instead of The Naked Cornell Wilde, Peggy opts for Born Free) Peggy shares a joint with a young guy wearing striped pants and then tugs him off. Right there, I mean, jeez, Peanut – we’re not ten minutes into this.

Back at the office late that night, Peggy works with an open bottle beside her and Michael Ginsberg across the room. He’d been prickly toward her earlier but they’re quite companionable now, and he reveals in an eccentric but believable monologue that he was born in a Nazi concentration camp and adopted after the war. I think it’s this talk, and not guilt about the afternoon handjob, that makes Peggy softer with Abe when she calls him and asks him to come over.

All of this, especially the beautifully keylit Peggy–Ginsberg scene, is handled with Mad Men’s trademark panache by director Scott Hornbacher. But this episode turns out to have a structural quirk that we haven’t even seen yet, except for the brief glimpse of a parallel narrative with Don’s baffling payphone call: the same day repeats twice more from other points of view*. We go from Peggy’s apartment at night to daylight at SCDP, where Roger and Don are pantomiming their rivalrous and much-tested friendship. Don’s offhand cruelty (“I remember twins…and a hospital”) is batted away by Roger’s serene mood, which is due to the prospect of landing then-ubiquitous restaurant/motel chain Howard Johnson as a client. Roger proposes “a completely debauched and unnecessary fact finding boondoggle” for him and Don, “a couple of rich, handsome perverts” having a free weekend on Howard Johnson’s dime. But when Don insists on bringing Megan along, Roger backs out, leaving himself no escape from a dreaded party with his wife Jane’s awful new friends.

Roger and Jane (who is wearing some kind of Assyrian royal concubine hairdo and earrings about the size of the Venus of Willendorf) arrive fraught ’n’ frosty at the dinner party hosted by Jane’s psychiatrist, Catherine (played by Bess Armstrong). At the dessert and coffee stage we’re given enough sophomorically pretentious chit-chat to see why Roger loathes these folks – he seems to have wandered into a scene from The Sopranos featuring Dr. Melfi’s horrid colleagues. (Catherine has “some celebrities” among her patients, and lucky for her Peter Bogdanovich isn’t around to accidentally-on-purpose spill their names.) When Catherine’s husband suavely suggests it’s time to “turn on,” Roger tries to beg off but Jane insists they stay. Sugar cubes are served from a silver tray, and the guests, suddenly participants, are asked to write out:

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

(Some of you youngsters might be skeptical about it, but the historicity of acid tripping among the bourgeois intelligentsia is well attested, as in the often-told tale of how John Lennon and George Harrison were dosed by their dentist at a party in 1965. LSD was not even illegal in the U.S. until October, 1966, the month after this episode takes place.)

Fortunately we get no melting walls, and not a kaleidoscope eye in a carload. The trip sequence is treated mostly naturalistically, as if from the viewpoint of an undosed facilitator, but with time-displacement tricks, jump cuts, and outright silliness: when Roger thinks nothing’s happening and pours himself a vodka, the Russian Army Chorus explodes out of the uncapped bottle. His cigarette seems to smoke itself while making a bleating horn noise; Bert Cooper’s face appears on a five-dollar bill.

Acid trip cliché is also avoided in the choice of music with The Beach Boys’ “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” instead of more obvious songs. (I couldn’t help thinking: “It was kind of funny to ‘Yellow Submarine,’ but who could afford it?” Of course, another track from Revolver is evoked when someone mentions the Tibetan book of the “damned” [in the translation by Frank Lloyd Rice].)

Roger flips through a Life magazine; his attention is caught by a men’s hair color ad with the model’s hair half silver and half black. Roger stares into a mirror and sees himself that way; then the black-haired half turns into Don Draper, who tells Roger to go to his wife, who wants to be “alone in the truth with you.”

This might be the best advice Don’s never given, and the last stage of Roger’s trip – aside from the part where he hallucinates Ken Burns’s Baseball in the bathtub – spins down into an unprecedentedly honest conversation with Jane in which they seem to agree to end their miserable marriage. Jane confesses that, although she was never unfaithful to Roger, she once kissed another man. Roger asks if the guy was younger, and Jane strokes Roger’s silver hair: “No, that’s always been real.” It is nearly the only touching moment these two have ever shown us on camera, so it is unfortunate that they each remember it differently in the morning. “It’s going to be very expensive,” Jane points out realistically, and Roger calmly agrees.

Another fade back to the same morning at SCDP – Don tells Megan that Howard Johnson is going to put them up for the weekend and they can leave right away. Megan hesitates; she knows she should be available to Peggy for the Heinz pitch, but Don once again says “I’m the boss” and then they’re away to Plattsburgh in Don’s new Cadillac. Don is sure he’s bestowing a rare treat – a reprise of their trip to Disneyland last season, without the kids – but Megan is out of sorts, feeling she abandoned the team at work, and becomes the first woman ever to ask Don to open a window when he smokes. (The color scheme in this scene, with Don’s indigo coat and matching tie, Megan’s salmon dress and gold necklace, against the maroon car interior and outside greenery, is, as usual, both realistic and slightly unreal.)

The Howard Johnson’s restaurant is yet another deliriously detailed Mad Men period set. (Junior Drunk Monkeys who are inexplicably lacking access to Wikipedia might need to be told that this chain, which prospered with motel/diner combos along interstate highways, was once everywhere in the U.S. – there were more than a thousand of them in the Mad Men era, but only a few remain today.) Don and Megan are met by Dale, the obsequious manager, who plies them with plates of everything on the menu that’s orange, yellow, or brown. Don buys cheap junk in the gift shop for Sally and Bobby – Megan has to remind him he’s got three kids, which is probably the first and last time I’ll compare Don to Homer Simpson.

The vivid piles of food are almost untouched when the waitress comes by for their dessert order. Megan orders a piece of pie, but Don countermands it for the spécialité de maison, orange sherbet, which nicely complements the bold aqua of the booth upholstery. Don can’t help assessing the restaurant from an advertising perspective, so Megan points out that he’s still on the job but wouldn’t allow Megan to stay at the office and do her job. Don finally notices how much his overdetermined pursuit of a fun getaway is steaming Megan, and at that very moment the orange sherbet arrives, an iced glans penisoverflowing its parfait glass (the set decorators and clothing designers on this show get a lot of praise, but all hail the food stylists!). Megan takes one resentful bite, says it tastes like perfume (très français), and asks for chocolate. Don accuses her of trying to embarrass him and they both boil over – Megan all but vomits pretending to enjoy the sherbet, Don calls her ungrateful, suddenly we’re in the parking lot and Don’s speeding off alone in his Caddy.

Don cools off and returns to find Megan gone. The waitress thinks she left with “those fellas over there” (no longer there). Hours go by in a montage of increasing distress – Don’s hair musses itself as he smokes, drinks coffee, makes payphone calls. At the end of his tether, he phones his mother-in-law in Montreal (we only see him drop one coin to make this international call, so I assume he asked an operator to bill it to his home number, an easy-to-abuse procedure that was once the birthright of every American) – Megan’s not there.

On his drive back home, Don has a flashback to a happier roadtrip with Megan and the kids – I guess if you’re only whistling you don’t have to pay for Beatles songs. Don’s relieved to find Megan at their apartment, but she’s still livid – she had to spend six hours on a bus. She accuses him of abandoning her (dude, you kind of did) and their earlier argument escalates to a hard-breathing physicality, Tony-and-Carmela style: Don chases her all over the apartment and finally tackles her onto the carpet, where they are framed the same way as Roger and Jane during their end-of-marriage scene. We’ve seen how rambunctious Don and Megan’s sex play can get, but this is more dire and consequential, as Megan thinks fighting “diminishes” what they have. As always we’re not completely sure what Don thinks about that, but we can see what he does: he embraces Megan’s midsection like a child with his mother – “I thought I’d lost you.”

Megan’s forgiveness frees us, at last, to move on to the next day. Sleeping dragon Bert Cooper awakens to yank Don’s chain about the Heinz disaster – “because you have a little girl running everything.” The final shot of schools of SCDP employees swimming in different directions along the hallway is nearly too balletic, a bit of How To Succeed in Business business, but if you can’t handle that kind of thing I don’t know why you’re watching this show.

One of my reasons for giving this one an unapologetic “A” is that, while we often recall a great episode of a show with shorthand like “that time Omar went to court” or “the one where Tony had to shoot Steve Buscemi,” this one offers a new memory hook every ten minutes. Because of its story structure, we’ll find it easy to remember that “the one with Peggy’s hand job” is the same as “the one with Roger’s acid trip,” is the same as “the one where Peggy turns into Don,” is the same as “Don and Megan’s first big fight.” Some eminent reviewers, Mad Men fans in high internet places, like to strike a pose deploring the show’s tendency to touch all the thematic bases – but if that’s a cardinal sin, all the best shows have indulged in it. Megan puts a bird on it** when she observes that a Howard Johnson’s is not a destination, but a place you find yourself on the way to someplace else. Certainly Jane was not Roger’s destination; we didn’t think “well, that’s Roger sorted out then!” when they married. Megan and Don’s marriage isn’t over; if Don figured out why Megan was so angry, then it was tested and strengthened. Peggy got a hard knock but her career isn’t over, despite Bert’s growling, and maybe now she sees the limits of following Don and will be a success in her own style. Social tides will make that easier for her, a long eventually from the show’s now.

* This could be compared to Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs (or whatever, Groundhog Day or Short Cuts if you’d rather), but cable dramas like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad have also used nonlinear storytelling. Even Mad Men dabbled in it for the third season episode “Seven Twenty Three.”

** When Portlandia references are outlawed, only outlaws will ride fixies.

Mad Men, Episode 5:6 “Far Away Places”: A

Allan Ferguson was born recently near Disneyland and has lived up and down the great state of California for all the years since. He is currently in La Mesa near San Diego where he practices graphic design and recreational atheism. He can be reached evenings and weekends at and apparently on the YouTube, somehow or other.