Every so often Mad Men likes to throw out convention and see just what it can do in the hour-long drama format, and last Sunday’s episode “Far Away Places ” was this season’s first full-bore experimental episode – in addition to being one of the show’s best installments yet. With three stories that take its characters to deeper and darker places it’s an episode that similarly demands three reviewers; which coincidentally, the Barker Chappell Daglas reviewing agency is able to provide. Cory Barker of TV Surveillance, Andy Daglas of The Vast Wasteland and myself are here to be your guides on this trip Mad Men takes us with its sixth episode.
Let the sugar cube melt on your tongue, chase it with some orange sherbet, cue up Pet Sounds to be perfectly in sync with The Naked Prey, and let’s begin the roundtable on “Far Away Places.”
Les: Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, it is not dying, it is not dying, lay down all thought, surrender to the void…
Oh, sorry – got caught up in the atmosphere of things. Well, what an episode of Mad Men this was, eh? Big cracks forming in everyone’s relationships. Don takes a road trip with Megan to capture the spirit of their earlier California sojourn, only for him to realize that she’s more interested in work than he is, setting off an argument that leads him to abandon her in a Howard Johnson’s parking lot. Roger Sterling takes acid in the presence of none other than Timothy Leary (maybe), and awakens from the 1919 World Series to realize it’s been over with Jane for ages. And Peggy, frustrated by both Abe and the implacability of the Heinz client, takes out her frustrations by deciding she’s Peggy Olson and wants to smoke some marijuana again, and also give a handjob to a random beatnik in the theater.
But before we get into the actions and consequences, I have a question to ask, gentlemen: what the fuck is going on this season of Mad Men? I mentioned this briefly when we talked about the dreamy atmosphere of “Mystery Date,” but it’s starting to seem more and more like the show has been taking sections out of the David Lynch playbook. Megan’s “Zou Bisou Bisou” song, the extended dream where Don throttles his personal demon, the darkened scenes of Pete in a driver’s ed class – every episode has a moment where I stare dumbfounded at the screen at the sheer strangeness of it. And this episode in particular felt unstuck in time (“Poo-tee-weet?”) as we bounced between the three stories, to the point that I was legitimately confused for ten minutes before I figured out what their game was. Mad Men‘s always been a show with a hint of the surreal to it, willing to push the envelope in regards to use of dreams and dark comedy, but they’re getting to a point where I half-expect red curtains in the conference room as Cooper talks backwards, or Megan to whisper “Silencio” in the darkened apartment.
This isn’t so much a complaint as I appreciate art that does that sort of thing – and I did really, really like this episode – but it feels so alien compared to what’s come before. What do you think? Do you think this season has been appreciably weirder than the previous ones?
Cory: Hold on. Did everyone write down the pertinent information on their notecard: My name is Cory Barker. I live on the internet. I have just taken LSD, and watched an episode of television that might make more sense on said LSD. Wait, why does Andy holding a pitchfork? My keyboard keys are in Italian.
Seriously though, our buddy Ryan McGee tweeted last night that this episode was simply Matt Weiner daring his favorite people, television critics, to make sense of events in the typical recap/review form.* Needling aside, I actually believe Weiner is that wrapped up in derailing popular interpretation of his story that he would do something like this. And as you said Les, this isn’t just a single episode occurrence. This whole season has filled with dream sequences, dream-like states and now a whole lot of drug use. Now, I don’t actually think Weiner is writing his series simply to troll Myles McNutt (though he should), but it certainly feels like this season of Mad Men is unlike anything we’ve seen before. Perhaps you could argue that the dreaming and the drugging are all part of a larger allusion to “the times,” or that these scenes are here to evoke the transitory nature of these characters lives at this very moment. Both could be correct, both could be wrong. Or, if you’re on LSD, both could be correct and wrong. On that note, I’m curious what we think it might “mean” that the only episode to not include a dream sequence was last week’s Pete-centric affair. In five weeks, Don, Betty, Roger and Peggy have all had “different experiences,” but Pete’s just stuck in his awesome/shitty life, eh?
*I guess it’s a good thing we eschew those typical patterns. HOW ABOUT THAT, WEINER?
We obviously recognize that this is a different version of the series, so I guess my question is this: Do all the dream sequences and “drug sequences” help or harm Mad Men, or at least your perception of what it is? I know folks often got up in arms about all the dream sequences on The Sopranos, and again, it somehow feels like Weiner remembers that and is now doing them just to troll us. Andy, what do you think?
Andy: And I suppose you’d have me fight off this rabid platypus-bear without the help of my trusty trident? Yeah, it’s a trident by the way, not some hick pitchfork, you unlettered nitwit. You’ve always had it in for me, Barker. And how do you know your keys are in Italian? THEY USE THE SAME LETTERS AS WE DO, THOSE THIEVING BASTARDS.
In case it was not obvious, I think Les is on to something that this season is distinctly trippier than previous ones. It seems more violent, as well: Don chasing Megan through the apartment in a frenzy (again hearkening back to “Mystery Date”) might be the scariest scene the show has ever done. But it’s 1966, and as Cory pointed out last week with the frequent allusions to the news, we’re entering a trippier and more violent era.
In some ways, the characters are confronting those shifting landscapes directly: Roger parties with Timothy Leary! (Tune in next week when Bert Cooper chills with Ravi Shankar!) In other ways, their internal breakdowns are simply accelerated by the years of subtly accumulating cultural tensions. Don is wounded by his much younger wife’s failure to appreciate the touchstones of his nostalgia. Raymond from Heinz fears that the young bean consumers of America will have a similar disconnect to Peggy’s memory-lane campaign. She hits the nadir of her terrible horrible no good very bad day when she pitches a Draperian hissy-fit in response—and finds that even though six years of professional advancement have made her Don’s creative equal, six years of societal advancement isn’t nearly enough for a woman’s arrogance to be given the same latitude as a man’s.
Cory, you asked about how the frequent use of drug/dream sequences evoke those moments from The Sopranos. It could be that I haven’t watched the latter show in many years, but I feel like it handled these sequences in a totally different way than Mad Men does. One reason why dream sequences are so polarizing is because there are basically two ways to do them: Make them obvious as hell, laying bare a character’s subconscious; or make them dizzingly oblique, subtext wrapped in metaphor seasoned with freakiness. Real dreams tend to follow one pattern or the other, but either approach can feel like a crutch or a cop-out in a dramatic context.
The Sopranos tended to favor the loopy, quasi-Jungian approach. On the other hands, Mad Men‘s forays into para-reality this season have been pretty damn direct. Even Roger’s trip was generally straightforward, apart from a few loopy moments (and hilarious ones—that musical bottle was like a vintage Looney Tunes gag). The soul-baring conversation it triggered between Roger and Jane was effectively bittersweet, even though I’ve seldom had any investment at all in that marriage.
The morning after, I’m still not totally sure how I feel about this episode. I know I loved everything going on in Peggy’s portion of the triptych (more on that later), but I’m ambivalent about the other two-thirds. Which leads me to ask if either of you have any thoughts on the episode’s time-loop/anthology-esque structure?
(Heh. I do love the idea that Pete’s the only one who doesn’t get to play with cool narrative twists this season though, Cory. Because OF COURSE he’d be the kid who everyone ditches when they find a cool new place to hang out.)
Les: I think they should be inviting Pete along on these trips, if only because it would give us an excuse to have more Trudy. But then again she’s plenty busy in the Dreamatorium these days, fighting off Blorgons and the like. I’d like to see Pete have his own awakening dark night of the soul, but I think his arc’s more centered on his own self-loathing than it is any moment of realization.
As to the triptych structure, once I figured out what their tactic was – I think it hit me comparatively late, at the moment where we’re Don’s heading to get Megan and we see Roger at Dawn’s desk for the second time saying “It was a dumb idea” – I was more impressed by their willingness to experiment than I was irritated by the fact they were subverting our expectations of what the show’s supposed to be. Mad Men‘s usual structure is to be very linear with the passage of time, save the occasional flashback to Dick Whitman’s past: it’s always implied that even if we jump between departments and houses, what we see is taking place immediately after the scene we just saw. Here, we were still getting that linear structure, it just had two instances where they hit rewind and showed us another side of that story. (It’s not like we were creating three different timelines dependent on who did and didn’t go to Howard Johnson’s.)
I do think that I’m going to need to watch this episode again to determine how much I think it worked, but the more I think about it the more I think it was the right decision. All three of these stories were particularly important ones for all three of the central characters, and they each had a focus that would have been broken up had Weiner and company kept shifting back and forth between them. Roger’s acid trip for instance felt like a real acid trip: when you’re on LSD, you can’t suddenly decide to not be on LSD, you’re locked in for the full eight to twelve hours, and coming to that realization is one of the most important parts of doing the trip right. Had his increasingly accentuated reality been broken up by cutting to Peggy in the theater watching The Naked Prey or Megan shoveling sherbet down in a petulant gesture, it would have undercut the build of his visual hallucinations and the gear-shift into deep introspection. And to that end, I think it also made us care far more about the dissolution of the Sterling marriage – a relationship which like you Andy, I’ve never been very invested in – because it gave us an unbroken sequence of the problems they have and the resignation both felt at the end. (“This will be very expensive” is all Jane has left to say.)
Cory, I’m sure you have thoughts about the structure, but I’d like to turn to the actual plots by asking where this leaves Roger on the start of this “beautiful day.” We’ve talked about Roger feeling useless at the firm and surviving only by virtue of his money clip, and now he’s not only single again but the first to take the plunge into psychedelia. I doubt he’s tie-dying his vests anytime soon, but do we think this heralds the character’s reawakening?
Cory: I’m a storytelling structure mark, so it’s likely no surprise that I loved the playful, but I think purposeful, nature of this episode. As you mentioned Les, the almost “separate” structure for each of the three characters resulted in some fine and interrupted stories. I would agree that Roger’s LSD-enabled journey to realization was the most effective, for a number of reasons. Not only was the LSD trip an opportunity for the director Scott Hornbacher and John Slattery to let loose (even more so than normal in the latter’s case), but it does feel like a pivot point for the character. I don’t think Roger is going to descend into drugged debauchery like some period-piece cliche, nor am I sure that this means he’s immediately going for Joan. Yet, this might be the awakening Roger needs to feel more motivated, at least at work. Jane was something of an albatross around his neck, basically since the moment they got married, and that new-found freedom could mean all sorts of compelling things for the character moving forward.
Peggy’s segment was evocative, but less successful.* Her single-minded desire to nail the Heinz account was a bit one-note, and I’m still unclear how I feel about her journey to the movie theater. Though, to be fair, I immediately started making the connections between her actions here and the number of times skipped out on the office to go fool around with randos as well. Much has been written and said about the comparisons between Peggy and Don, but I’m not sure we were ready for them to manifest in this way. Her lack of satisfaction with her current situation plays right into the season’s larger themes, as does her directed attempt to step outside of that current situation. But just like Pete last week, trying something different just to feel or to get closer to something you think want doesn’t always result in what you think it will. Neither Pete nor Peggy were especially ashamed of their respective actions, but they certainly weren’t proud either.
*Though it’s possible that the charm of Roger’s segment and the intensity of Don’s made Peggy’s look less successful in retrospect. A second viewing is likely in order.
The final third of the episode was really tremendous to my mind. We’ve sort of been waiting for the top to blow off of the new Draper marriage and it finally did so here, and in magnificent (-ly awful) fashion. The three of us have constantly discussed Don’s disinterest in his work (more on that in a second) and I loved how this episode addressed that by having Megan suggest that she actually likes and wants to work. It’s not that I don’t believe Megan, but I think I’m sort of like Don with this issue: Megan might think she wants to work, and might like it, but she hasn’t really done anything to earn it. As a viewer, we can slightly scoff, and as her husband, Don can just disregard it because he doesn’t give a damn about the work anyway. But again, the tension that’s been there all season between Don’s come-what-may borderline “happiness” and Megan’s burgeoning desire for independence made for an entertaining argument. Clearly, Don picturing the journey back from Disneyland evokes a sense that the happiness Don assumes he has (and wants so badly) with Megan isn’t actually there at all.
There’s more to get to with Don in particular, but I’ll just say this: The one thing I didn’t like about the episode was the conclusion, which felt a bit cute for my tastes. The suggestion that much of this episode’s events were caused mostly by Don’s disinterest in anything not-Megan was already there, I didn’t really need the slow-motion walking. Ultimately, it took away from what was already apparent, at least to me. Andy, how did you feel about each “segment” and that ending?
Andy: We disagree to varying degrees here. To me, Peggy’s story clicked as a manifestation of the career fears she expressed to Dawn in “Mystery Date.” At the same time she’s questioning whether she has the fortitude to continue in this world, Don’s absence is heaping greater responsibility on her. She’s tired of having to “act like a man,” and though it’s gotten her far, she can still be penalized for doing just that in the wrong context. Her (not irrational) frustration with Heinz could be seen as the sort of ballsy client contempt her mentor perfected, or it could be seen as a masterpiece of self-sabotage. When she’s presented with the chance to regain some measure of control – first by ditching work for the movies, then by serving up some unorthodox concessions – it’s no wonder she seizes it.*
Roger’s story was charming, no doubt. The dissolution of his marriage was well-handled, but I didn’t register it on any emotional level. Jane’s never been a particularly well-developed character, and I’ve always felt a bit detached from Roger’s personal-life stories (the ones that don’t involve Joan, that is). So while the levity was squarely in Weiner’s and John Slattery’s wheelhouses (“It’s the 1919 Series!”), the stakes just weren’t there.
My reservations about Don’s and Megan’s story were just the opposite. I was heavily invested in those stakes, and put off by the execution. This is more an emotional response than a critical one, but I’ve been a fan of their relationship this season. I’m not naive enough to believe it would mosey along all sweetness and chanteuses. Still, I was holding out hope for more of a gradual crumbling rather than a volatile, frightful implosion. The segment was tense and powerful, and mostly hard to watch. It didn’t work for me because it worked so well.**
**It’s also possible that my viewing experience was colored by dejection from the start, having watched this episode right on the heels of the grimmest Game of Thrones yet.
As far as the Drapers’ respective work ethics go, I’m on Team Megan. We’ve seen that she takes pride in her career (although we don’t really know how good she is at it), and that she values being part of the team. I completely buy that she would want to be in the trenches with Peggy and Stan at a critical moment, even if that means missing out on a weekend of travel lodge sherbet.*** It underscored again the central conflict that was bound to eat away at this marriage: He’s ready to rest on his laurels; she’s still trying to accumulate hers. This window of time during which they see eye to eye, from “Tomorrowland” on through this week, represents the intersection of two lines traveling in opposite directions. Sort of like Benjamin Button, but with ambition instead of physical aging.
***I, too, pronounce it like it rhymes with Herbert, and I will never spell it correctly on the first try as long as I live. And this is coming from a guy who loves to use pretentious French expressions!
I also dug that final shot. Sure, it was a bit obvious. But it was also a perfect stroke of the soothingly precise mise-en-scène**** at which Mad Men excels.
****See what I mean?
Les: I don’t think I was as moved by the ending sequence as some were in either direction (appreciation of the Godfather-esque scoring aside), chiefly because my attention was still fixed on the welcome return of a Bert Cooper who actually commands influence and respect at the firm. His astute observation that Don’s been on “love leave” and that it’s been costing the firm was spot on, and brought back some very pleasant memories of the time he used his knowledge of Dick Whitman to force Don into a contract. (“Would you say I know something about you?”) Seeing Bert, who’s so irrelevant to the firm’s day-to-day he doesn’t even have an office on site, say to Don’s face what everyone else has been saying behind his back seemed to knock away what little facade of normalcy Don put up after his fight.
And yes, what an ugly fight that was – it seems that Don’s actions in “Mystery Date” weren’t enough to kill his personal demons, as that chase scene in the apartment showed just how ugly Don can be underneath his well-tailored exterior. Mad Men moves so slowly that when we get to such a kinetic scene it’s jarring, particularly because those scenes usually tend to augur some sort of unpleasantness. Andy, I agree that I was expecting more of a slow burn to the serious conflicts of that relationship, but the escalation made perfect sense to me since Megan hit the one trigger that you can’t come back from: to invoke Don’s mother is to invoke his past as a “whore-child.” He can mention that in casual conversation with a madam if he’s controlling the information, but anyone who throws that in his face has woken the dragon.
So it’s almost unquestionable at this point that the honeymoon’s over for Mr. and Mrs. Draper. Are we heading for another Roger and Jane meltdown? It can’t be a coincidence that the image of Megan and Don on the floor post-chase mirrors the Sterlings at the very end of their trip (pink towels aside), right down to the tragic Cassandra phrases each wife offers.
Jane: “I knew we were going somewhere and I didn’t want it to be here.”
Megan: “Every time we fight, it just diminishes this.”
But I think unlike the Sterlings, Don and Megan have a potential way out. Both of you discussed how this episode proved that Megan wants to work, wants to build something of her own, and I think with this clear break between her and Don she’s going to throw herself into the business more and more to prove something. What if she’s actually good enough to distinguish herself, even more than Ginsberg has so far? Would Don feel more respect for her as a peer, or feel as threatened by a mature and independent woman as he did by Dr. Faye? (Who, by the way, I was half-convinced was one of the people at Leary’s* party and had to double-check the credits to make sure.) And if she fails, does Don try to force her into a more docile role (bearing him another child perhaps as he suggested after the Campbells’ dinner party) or does she strike out on her own?
*If that was Timothy Leary after all – I couldn’t find any credits to confirm or deny. For now I’m going to say it was.
Whichever way it shakes out though, I’m almost positive that this will come at the expense of poor Peggy – I’d bet Sterling’s money clip that Don’s going to take it out on her for not handling business in his absence, even with the obstacle of Cooper and Heinz execs seeing her as just a “little girl.” I think it’s going to be a bad couple of episodes coming up for Peggy.
Speaking of Ms. Olson, while I agree hers was the weaker of the three stories next to Don and Roger, she had two very interesting interactions that have stuck with me twenty-four hours later (sharing the milk of human kindness in a theater aside). First, Dawn wakes her up on Don’s couch, in an almost mirror image of how the two almost had a bonding experience in “Mystery Date.” Then, Mike Ginsberg relates to her that his father is actually his adopted father, and in a story so hard to believe it could have sprung from Dave Algonquin’s pen, we learn that he was born in a concentration camp. How’d you feel about either of those moments?
Andy: Ginsberg’s story unsettled me – not just the truth of his back story, but also the fantastical fiction it’s couched in. I’m unsure how the show wants us to take this, honestly. It makes sense that an adopted child born in a concentration camp would convince himself of an entirely different personal history. But to devise so outlandish a story suggests a more worrisome disconnect from reality. And if he’s insincere, either about his whole history or about the extent to which he believes his alternate version, then he’s fucking with Peggy in a truly dark way. Ginsberg has been all over the map in these few episodes, but each new facet of his characterization so far has seemed to suggest some degree of sociopathy. I’m curious to see where the show takes him, but right now it’s hard for me to foresee anything but problems.
Cory: You both make some great points about all these stories, which leaves me to pose a few questions. First of all, with minutia in mind: Do we think what Don did, sort of grabbing Megan to stop her from running, constitutes domestic abuse? I saw some people talking about it on Twitter and I’m not sure exactly how I feel about it. That’s not something we should take lightly, but the episode didn’t linger on it at all (not that makes it okay, of course) and we’ve certainly seen worse transgressions like that before. I don’t think Don intended to harm Megan in that instance, and I certainly felt like Weiner and Hornbacher were trying to evoke the physical scene from the premiere as a way to show how the relationship has changed, but I’m curious to see what you guys think.
On a larger level, I’ve been thinking a lot about this episode and the “revelations” it brought these characters. There’s a sense here that each character reached a “truth” about themselves or a relationship, but what happens when you reach that point because of an external force (like drugs or a physical[ish] altercation)? Are these three people any different than they were before these experiences? Are they just fooling themselves into thinking change has occurred because the experience was so intense? So, I’m wondering what sort of consequences will result from the events of this episode, if any. Is this episode a turning point for the season?
Les: I’ve often called Don Draper a “magnificent bastard,” but in his treatment of women I regularly drop the “magnificent.” For all his charm and worldliness, women bring out the darkest parts of his psyche: Leaving Bobbie Barrett tied to the bed, grabbing Betty and calling her a whore when she says she’s going to Reno for a divorce, and of course his dominating reaction to Megan’s striptease maid service in the premiere. As you say Cory, we’ve seen much worse over the course of the show, but I think this one felt particularly worrisome coming so closely on the heels of his homicidal fever dream. I don’t doubt Don’s breakdown at the end of it was sincere, but after seeing what happened in the other instance where a woman defied him? Well, let’s just say I’m to the point where I’m not ruling out actions just because they don’t fit in the story.
Your question of it being a turning point has me thinking back to the near-flawless “The Suitcase” from season four, which was unquestionably the high point and turning point of that season as Don started pulling himself out of his half-drunk divorced stupor. Is this a similar instance? I don’t think so. Don seems jarred by Cooper’s accusations, but nowhere near the point he was then (granted Anna’s loss was far more devastating) and I didn’t get the impression he was prepared to come out of this and start swimming laps. And Peggy’s clearly feeling a bit more adrift for succeeding at all the wrong parts of being Don Draper – and closer to the mysterious Mr. Ginsberg – but as I said above, I think any thoughts of change in her mind are going to get pushed to the side as she bears the brunt of Don’s frustration. Both have been through much darker nights than these, and sadly I think both have further to fall.
I will however be very interested to see how much the acid has changed Roger’s worldview, either in terms of his feud with Pete or his malaise over getting work done. He’s fooled himself on being able to change before, but he’s also the only one in that office saying “it’s a beautiful day,” and (as Don proved) temporary happiness does strange things to people.
And given that next week’s episode is called “At the Codfish Ball,” named after a song from a Shirley Temple musical, I’m sure everything’s going to be bright and shiny ! Right? … Well, at least there’s apparently more Joan and Sally. Until next week then!