Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
Oh, “Mad Men.” Just when you’ve started to get your mojo back, you dish up a completely disjointed episode, one that doesn’t cohere so much as leave viewers with a scattered feeling that all is not as it seems. Lou secretly dreams of becoming a cartoonist. Betty secretly dreams of being treated like a human being. Megan pretends to know what Don would want, but she doesn’t really have a clue. There were good moments in this fifth episode of the season, but mostly it was one moment of “What the hell?” after another.
“That machine came for us!” Remember the lawnmower incident from Season 3? That bloody accident came to mind last night when Michael Ginsberg suddenly went off the deep end, cut off his own nipple, and gave it to Peggy in a gift box. Certainly it’s possible to cast about for some hidden meaning to this event. Ginsberg is the one character who always speaks his mind. When he first joined the agency, this made him a breath of fresh air and honesty. When Jim Cutler and Ted Chaough came into the picture last season, Ginsberg was the one calling Cutler a fascist. And now that an IBM computer has been added to the office, Ginsberg has deduced that they’re all doomed. Ginsberg lives with his father. He’s outspoken but also, in some ways, old-fashioned. He’s not flexible. He can’t try on a whole new life like Roger Sterling or Don or Stan might. Instead, he falls to pieces.
Unfortunately, though, Ginsberg’s plotline feels like a screwball cousin to Ken Cosgrove’s shooting accident and Lois’ ill-fated spin on a lawnmower. Like those events, this one came out of left field. Throwing in unexpected violence and treating it as comedy seems like an echo of Matthew Weiner’s time on “The Sopranos.” But it’s problematic, because where violence and even bloody accidents fit with the tone and the theme of David Chase’s drama, on “Mad Men” these plot points don’t fit seamlessly into the existing fabric of the show. When Ginsberg said, “There’s this pressure in my head like a hydrogen bomb going off,” it’s easier to wonder, intellectually, where this twist is headed than it is to become concerned about his character’s fate. And who wept along with Peggy as Ginsberg was wheeled away? Anyone? Well, maybe that’s because that story line was not only unexpected but bizarre and emotionally barren. Some moment of grasping Ginsberg’s emotional state and feeling sympathy for him early in this episode would’ve gone a long way toward allowing us to feel the weight of that final scene. Instead, Ginsberg’s mostly been acting like a cartoon character this season. Emotionally, there was no impact and no payoff there. If you’re going to send a regular character to the sanitarium without any dramatic impact – well, why do it at all?
That kind of a story choice makes “Mad Men” feel more like a thematic puzzle than an emotionally moving narrative. Unfortunately, that intellectual distance, that removed sense of “What does it all mean?” reigned throughout this episode, because many of its major scenes lacked emotional weight until you factored in their thematic import. When Anna Draper’s niece, Stephanie, shows up in L.A. and does her salt-of-the-earth pregnant lady thing, it’s clear enough that soon, Megan will be thrown for a loop. But what will set her off? Will it be Stephanie’s beauty, her familiarity with Don, her choice to become a mother while Megan pursues her career, or her ability to be in the moment without trying to control it? All of these seem like likely factors, but mostly we suspect that Stephanie makes Megan uncomfortable and insecure because she claims to know all of Don’s secrets.
This is one thing that haunts Megan the most: the idea that she doesn’t know her own husband. She’s constantly trying to get Don to tell her the truth, to open up to her, but she usually fails. So she’s left to pretend that she knows Don. She tells Stephanie that she knows how Don will try to control her. Then she seems to believe that Don will get jealous at her dancing with another guy, and instead Don leaves and has a drink with Harry. Finally she assumes that Don will want to make out with two women at once. Sadly, this is her only accurate guess, and even so, Don tells her he doesn’t want anything. He mostly seems puzzled by her behavior, and isn’t manipulated or even influenced by her various attempts at acting out. In her attempts to control Stephanie and Don and her friend, Megan in effect controls nothing and no one, and she winds up alone. She doesn’t know the man she’s married to at all.
As with Ginsberg’s plot, the meaning of these events add up, but their emotional impact is minimal. One scene at the start of the episode, where we’re reminded that Megan is struggling to feel OK with her new life in L.A., would’ve done a lot to help us invest in her various ill-fated moves after that.
Next, we find Betty railing against her role as quiet and supportive politician’s wife, maker of little hot dogs and owner of the perfect nose. First Betty aptly points out how small protest can lead to open revolt. “First the kids start out protesting, and then the next thing you know, every authority is up for grabs,” she tells the neighbors, and then the next thing you know, she’s openly questioning her husband’s views on the war, and, later, his authority over her. “I’m tired of everyone telling me to shut up,” she tells him. “I’m not stupid. I speak Italian.” Henry Francis is more condescending and dismissive than usual, leading Betty to openly ignore his wishes, even indicating that she might just run out and get a job, leaving him to navigate his political dog and pony show all by himself. Although Betty’s scenes at least feel more raw and unnerving than Megan’s, it’s still hard to feel the heaviness of a fight between her and Henry Francis when we so rarely have a chance to see either of them acting like real, vulnerable human beings.
The real gift of this episode, of course, was seeing Don swing back into action. Thanks to Harry, Don finds out that Lou Avery and Jim Cutler are meeting with Philip Morris, and if they get the account, Don will have to be fired. Instead of becoming depressed, Don takes Freddy Rumsen’s advice from last episode and fights back. He shows up at the Philip Morris meeting unannounced, looking more dapper than he has in months, and makes his pitch. “I’m the only cigarette man who sat down with the opposition,” he tells the guys from Philip Morris. “They shared their strategy with me, and I know how to beat it.” This doesn’t convince them, so he suggests a new strategy. “I just keep thinking what your friends at American Tobacco would think if you made me apologize. Forced me into your service. They are still your competition, aren’t they?” This is obviously irresistible to them. But you have to wonder about Don, who’s basically willing to sell his soul for the chance to be on top again. Yes, Don has always been that way. But at a time when he’s finally starting to resist temptation and act like a principled adult, giving up his principles for work again can’t be a good thing.
“You’re incredible,” Lou tells him afterward. “Thank you,” Don replies. Then Jim Cutler goes straight to the heart of Don’s dilemma, his continual compulsion to escape into work rather than face the realities of his messy personal life. “You really think this is going to save you, don’t you?”
Maybe we secretly think this might save Don, too. It’s hard not to root for him when he’s got his swagger back after so long. In reality, we should probably be listening to Ginsberg instead who, as he’s wheeled out of the SC&P offices, yells, “Get out while you can!”
Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.More Heather Havrilesky.
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
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