We noted, earlier in the season, that the writing had changed slightly. It seemed to us that the writers wanted to address head on the oft-mentioned complaint about the show that “nothing happens,” and we wondered if perhaps this was a result of the long, sometimes nasty negotiations with AMC to get it back on the air in exactly the form the creators wanted. It’s dangerously easy to read way too much into Mad Men and we fell into that trap ourselves, thinking that perhaps Matt Weiner had been ordered to craft a more eventful, buzz-worthy season. From “Zou Bisou,” to Joan giving her rapist his walking papers, to Pete getting a well-deserved bloodying, the number of water-cooler moments has been noticeably greater than in seasons past. But nothing could have prepared us for last night, what with Peggy handing out handjobs, Don turning into a monster right in front of our eyes, and the piece de resistance, possibly of the entire series to date: Roger Sterling, tripping balls.
But this wasn’t about giving the public and antsy TV executives something to get excited about. The crash of events this season has been a commentary on not just the times, but on time itself. Last episode, Pete’s high school crush noted that time seemed to have sped up around her, which is not an uncommon feeling for young people as they leave behind childhood and enter adulthood, but Pete readily (and sadly) agreed with her, inadvertently voicing what many people were feeling. With the confluence of events around them, from race riots to serial killers to Vietnam, time seems to be spinning out of control for everyone. “I just wasn’t made for these times,” sing the Beach Boys. “How can a few numbers contain all of time?” asks Jane. “What time is it?” ask Roger, Don, and Peggy as they are awoken, both literally and figuratively.
Which brings us to our next point: the dialogue this season is far more on-point than in seasons past. Characters will not only openly state the themes of each episode, they will state them over and over again. This could be taken in a less charitable manner, i.e., a dumbing down of the scripts for a show that is often too obscure for the average audience member, but we don’t think that’s the case. This is, again, a commentary on the times in which these characters are currently living. With long-simmering racial tensions violently exploding, the conflict in Vietnam escalating, and the increase in post-War violent crime, what was subtext is now text; what was background is now center stage. Events are spinning out of control, forcing people to, as Jane’s therapist intoned, “live in the truth together.” But first, they have to run away and go on trips.
Peggy in 1966 is turning into the Don from five years earlier. She starts off the day by ignoring and dismissing her romantic partner in a haze of work concerns. (“I’m your boyfriend, not a focus group!” could have, with one word change, been a classic Betty line). She gives an impassioned, sentimental, memory- and emotion-stirring pitch about the most innocuous of products, and when the client proves to be difficult (the Heinz guy is the absolute worst kind of client to have; one who doesn’t know what he wants and constantly shoots down excellent ideas), she pulls a classic Don Draper “I’m not here to teach you about Jesus” moment. And it was beautiful. But unfortunately for her, 1966 (and many would say 2012) was not a time in which women could act like men and get away with it. Just a few episodes before, drunken Peggy was whining to Dawn about not being sure if she wanted to act like a man, but here she was, doing exactly that. And when the client reacted angrily (with an undercurrent of implied violence: “Miss, if I didn’t have a young daughter…”), she pulled the classic 1961 Don move of leaving the office in the middle of the day to go see a movie and have a meaningless sexual encounter. Then she goes back to the office to work well into the night and, after the shitty day Abe wished on her was over, called him up and ordered him back in her life.
Roger and Jane take a journey through the psychedelic sixties and inadvertently arrive at a truth neither of them were prepared to state without the help of some magic sugar cubes. It’s to the show’s credit that they didn’t resort to a lot of silly visuals and hallucinations to portray an acid trip. For Roger, it was more experiential. He was able to comment on the proceedings without opening his mouth; able to experience events while at the same time observing them; able to travel through time, back to the 1919 World Series while bouncing through the night, time speeding up and slowing down simultaneously. It was a wonderfully disconcerting set of scenes and it says something (kind of hilarious) about the alcohol-soaked brain of Roger Sterling that he found the whole thing highly amusing, eye-opening, and kind of not that big a deal, all at the same time. He woke up the next morning perfectly refreshed, happy, and ready to face the world – and his new truth. He is the only person who ended the episode in a happier place than when he started. Roger is defined by his lack of introspection (as opposed to Don, who’s defined by his tendency to wallow in it), so he found the enforced introspection brought on by LSD to be liberating and, in typical Roger fashion, not something to be lingered over. He found his truth and happily moved on from it. “It’s going to be a beautiful day.”
Don and Megan take a trip themselves, but it turned out to be the darkest trip of all, as the shaky foundations of their marriage are finally exposed, both to us and to themselves. We knew things couldn’t have been as rosy as they’ve been depicted so far, but watching Don stalk, chase, and tackle Megan in their home was easily one of the most horrifying moments of the series. It exposed the violence inherent in his character in a real-world way, instead of in a dream loaded with metaphor or in “harmless” sexual role-playing. What was subtext is now text: Don wasn’t killing an old girlfriend in a dream; he was chasing his own wife as she ran screaming from him in terror. Megan isn’t Betty; that much has always been clear. Betty wouldn’t have had the strength to confront Don so forcefully during their marriage and in retrospect, that may have been a form of survival instinct playing out. On some level, she knew that if she really and truly confronted him about his failings as a man, the likelihood of him lashing out violently was very high. Megan probably didn’t understand that before now, or else she wouldn’t have made the most scathing and hurtful riposte possible: “Why don’t you call your mother?” That was a gasp-worthy line, given that she apparently knows his personal history better than Betty ever did. And the question of whether Don has truly changed (although it was never really a question for us) has been answered: No. Because what did he do when faced with unpleasantries? He ran, like he always has. “What kind of person does that?” asked Megan. A hobo; a man who is incapable of making a home or forging ties. And Don, the violent events of the summer and its rash of murders foremost in his mind (“I thought I lost you.”), escapes to the past, remembering a time when Megan was his subordinate and therefore, a much more likely partner for him to pursue. Things were easier for Don when Megan still worshipped him, just as things were better for him when Betty did the same.
In the end, it was zen lion Bert Cooper who brought him to heel by raising one massive paw and swatting the cub who’s getting out of line. Don confused his reprimand for personal advice, thinking he was talking about the state of his marriage, and told him it was none of his business. “This IS my business,” snapped Bert, bringing the subtext once again to the text and letting Don know that his business life was in tatters while at the same time (and perhaps inadvertently) revealing to him that his personal life was about to follow. When Bert mentioned the “little girl” in Don’s life was he talking about Peggy or Megan? And how can it be that we’re just noticing now that the two women most important to him have the same root name? As Don sat in the conference room and literally watched the office pass him by, it was interesting to note that his wife was going in one direction and his protege in another.
And finally, along with the journey and time themes that dominated the episode, there was a sub-theme playing out regarding the Jewish experience. Abe offered to say a brucha over a new pack of Peggy’s lucky gum; Jane spoke Yiddish while under the influence of LSD; Michael revealed not only that he was born in a concentration camp and adopted (something that jolted Peggy, who gave up her own child for adoption), but also that he was rather severely damaged by the knowledge. We don’t quite know how to take the latter revelation. His talk of being a Martian and receiving messages from his home planet didn’t sound like a joke or a quirk to us; it sounded like the delusions of a schizophrenic. In an episode that left our heads spinning, we honestly don’t quite know how to take that last bit. Maybe by the time we get to our “Mad Style” post in a day or two, we’ll have it figured out. We’ve got to come down off that trip first.
[Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC]