"Mad Men" on drugs

Roger takes the leap into LSD, while Peggy and Don dramatically discover their own dependencies

Published April 23, 2012 9:17AM (EDT)

 Jon Hamm in "Mad Men"
Jon Hamm in "Mad Men"

Nelle Engoron recaps "Mad Men" every week on Salon. She is the author of "Mad Men Unmasked: Decoding Season 4."

As long as we’re being totally real with each other, I have a confession to make: I’ve never taken LSD. But I did work at a Hojo’s for three summers in high school, and the particular shades of orange and turquoise the company used for its décor and uniforms is forever burned into my brain. I’ve been seeing those colors all season on “Mad Men” and feeling a bad acid flashback to the long hot days I spent in a polyester uniform serving up “tendersweet fried clams” and sticky bowls of ice cream. But I kept shaking off the feeling that those colors represented anything significant. Like others who’ve picked up on subtle symbols and made predictions about the show, I should have realized that this was a sign something big was going to happen in a Hojo’s.

Wait, let’s go back a minute. Because that’s what happens in the latest “Mad Men” episode, “Far Away Places.” People go back a minute or a day or two, and they race forward in time as well. The parallel storylines of a day in the life (when a man blew his mind out in his car) of Peggy, Roger, and Don are supposed to remind us of how time can get all wonky when you’re under the influence of a drug, as all three are during this episode. Peggy goes with her familiars, alcohol and marijuana, Roger takes the leap into LSD, and Don drowns himself in the new drug he’s addicted to called Megan. (I’d say “love” but it looks more like possessive dependence to me.)

Actually, there’s another substance they’re all sampling and it’s called honesty. It didn't become a widespread drug of choice until the 1970s, but these are trendsetters we’re following, so they’re ahead of the curve. Instead of puking up martinis as we used to see them do, the characters are starting to spill their feelings with equal force, and with some of the same messy consequences. This week Peggy, Roger, and Megan each find out that other people can’t always handle the truth, even when they’re entitled to it.

In a time when the famous tweet their most personal thoughts and ordinary people blog about their sex lives and both rush to appear on embarrassing reality TV shows, it can be hard to believe that until very recent human history, people considered it sinful, vulgar or simply inappropriate to talk about what they really felt or thought. The shift from hiding one’s true self to revealing it to your intimates to broadcasting it to the world is one of the biggest changes in human culture that’s ever occurred, and “Mad Men” has been exquisitely illustrative of the moment when this change began.

Abe starts off the honesty binge in this episode by accusing Peggy of the typically male sin of compartmentalizing, saying she puts him in a drawer and then pulls him out when she needs him. Pulling it out of a drawer when she needs it is exactly what she’s desperately trying to do with her “good luck” box of violet candy from Don, but she finds it only to lose her real lucky charm, Don, who leaves her in the lurch to play hooky with Megan. Abe’s promise of a brucha (blessing) is angrily transformed into a wish that she have a bad day, a curse that comes to pass with her truth-telling to the Heinz clients. After they reject her Blazing Saddles with Boomers bean campaign, Peggy tries to impersonate the missing Don by telling them she knows better than they do. But as every woman painfully realizes at some point, behaving like a man at work doesn’t, well, work.

After she accuses the client, Ray, of ignoring the feelings that the "Home is Where the Heinz Is" campaign has engendered in him, he says that’s precisely the trouble – the campaign must be sentimental and old-fashioned if it appeals to an old fart like him. Stop writing down what I say and figure out what I want, he scolds her, placing Peggy in the classic female bind of desperately trying to please a man even if it means doing the opposite of what he says. Ken suggests that Peggy’s passionate feelings show how powerful the campaign is, but all the client can see is young woman who’s told off her Daddy. Seeing which way the wind is breaking, Ken then lets loose with the words every woman hates to hear and tells Peggy she’s being overly sensitive. (Remember, Pegs, when they garrote you, it’s only business, not personal.)

Criticizing the client for having no response other than, “I don’t like it,” she tries to put the right words in his mouth, just as he’s suggested she do. “It’s young and beautiful,” she argues, “You have to run with it.” But in fact, he doesn’t, and Peggy’s the one who’s run off the account.

As an ex-Catholic, Peggy knows that she wasn’t “Born Free” but watching Elsa’s story play out onscreen, she can’t help but empathize with the young and sheltered lioness trying to survive in a hostile environment. “She’s not going to make it out there on her own,” a stoned Peggy moans to the strange guy she’s met at the movies. “Aren’t you worried?” she asks, trying to find common ground, but he responds with the assuredness of male privilege that everything will turn out all right.

That’s a different answer than we would get from Don, who after having been called “Superman” in the last episode, now spends his time in a phone booth unable to transform himself into the hero he once was, either to his wife or to his business partners. He instead ends up re-enacting the African movie that Abe wanted to see, “Naked Prey,” in which humans are hunted like animals.

Ordering Megan to join him on a business trip, he fails to recognize her desire to be part of the “team” at work, seeing only the society of two that he’s constructed in his possessive fantasy. Megan’s also seeing double, as she’s whipsawed between the twin roles of employee and wife at Don’s whim, as well as torn between her ambition and that female “desire to please” that Stan congratulates Peggy for lacking. In Don’s fantasy, Megan has no desires of her own, not even when it comes to dessert, and he gets his just ones when she uses the truth she knows about him and throws not a drink but his dead mother in his face.

Having angrily refused to “Yes, Master” him like Jeannie, she’s deserted by Don, but rather than waiting for him to come back and rescue her like he expects a woman to do, she strikes out on her own. At first frantic and worried, Don is furious rather than relieved when he finds her safely at home, chasing and catching her (the Naked Prey of his dreams) before showing his emotional dependency by kneeling at her feet and revealing he was terrified that he’d lost her. A mute Megan merely nods to acknowledge the power she has over him.

It’s precisely this power that the old lion Bert has roused himself from slumber to rebuke Don for. Telling him a client’s walked out because Don left a “little girl (Peggy) running everything,” he accuses Don of having been on “love leave” and neglecting work to his – and the company’s – peril. When Don tells him it’s none of his business, Bert reminds him of whose name comes before his on the sign, and when Don claims he only needs “more bodies,” Bert makes it clear that it’s not the body but the head (of the department) that’s required. Already immersed in a do-over of married life, and never one to balance home and business well, it’s an open question whether Don can fulfill the command that Bert’s scribbled all over his work.

With Don down, it’s only natural that Sterling would rise, but who knew an expanded mind would give him lift? Last season I suggested that Roger might somehow embrace the progress of the 1960s while avoiding the embarrassment of becoming the old guy in love beads, but I wouldn’t have guessed he’d be the first of our merry pranksters to drop acid. (My money was on Peggy.)

Having been talked into it by Jane, who doesn’t want to face the truth alone, Roger’s the one who has the breakthrough, but only in discovering the chemical version of no-fault divorce. “I imagined screaming, fighting and lawyers,” he marvels, “But we were able to be there together in the truth, like you wanted.” Insecure Jane has a temporary truth blackout and recovers from it only to show she hasn’t changed at all, telling Roger it’s going to be an expensive divorce. “I know,” he says with the calm of a man who’s not only been down that rabbit hole before, but has seen the truth that’s made him free – of an unhappy marriage.

Having conjured as his psychedelic guru not Jesus or any other deity but Don, and fixating on details such as what color his hair is and why the Stoli bottle is singing in Russian, Roger doesn’t seem enlightened but merely on a more interesting high than usual. Like Tony Soprano, he’s too inflexible to be transformed by a mere hallucinogen, but his cheerfulness suggests he’s shrugged off the sour Roger and will join Bert in reasserting his dominance at the firm.

With this episode's tilt of the seesaw back to the older generation from the flailing youngsters, we’re reminded that while the 1960s saw a cultural shift towards youth, like a drunk, no historical change walks a straight line. For all the claims that Don and others have made that the “kids” increasingly hold the cards, the real truth (if we’re telling it) is that older white guys like Bert and Roger never truly lost power, even if they began to hide behind the scenes while fresh young faces took the public glory.

A plaintive story that Ginsberg tells Peggy illuminates this point. Revealing he was born in a concentration camp, he frames the seemingly impossible event as a fable in which he’s a Martian (perhaps soon to be our favorite one) sent not to conquer Earth but merely to live there as a displaced person, unable to find any others of his kind. With his mother dead (just like Don’s), he’s located in an orphanage by his supposed father, who sends “one communication – a simple order: Stay where you are.”

Such is the message that elders have always sent to their children, putting them in their place and ordering them to stay there. But these traditions are unraveling faster than Peggy and Don’s careers, leaving the older generation to wonder at these alien creatures they’ve given birth to, who seem to come from a far away place. They may not want to conquer the world yet, but just wait until they find others of their kind -- as in Peggy’s pitch, when the kids arrive at the campfire alone, but feel included when they gather in a circle, safe from whatever's out there in the dark.

Sitting in the darkness of her apartment, Peggy turns to Abe for solace of her own, not after she fails at work, but after hearing Ginsberg’s story, which she requires his insight to make sense of. “You need me now,” Abe says without rancor, to which she replies softly, “I always need you.” By agreeing to come and comfort her, he proves his earlier assertion that he’s not like most men, who would leave rather than play the traditionally female role of nurturer while she pursues her career.

“Is there a cure for neurosis?” one of the LSD party guests asks a shrink who’s argued that discovering the truth of why you behave a certain way doesn’t do the trick. “Love works,” comes the answer from another guest. Real love, it might be added, which doesn’t require the other person to change for you and acknowledges when the most loving thing may be to part peacefully.

Abe and Peggy demonstrate the first, and Roger the second, while the damaged Don can’t understand that real love isn’t trading the separateness he had with Betty for the merging of identities he seeks with Megan. Don fantasizes longingly about a never-ending vacation in which Megan is still the eager young woman who fulfilled every desire he had, from the sexual to the maternal, but Megan has shattered that fantasy by asserting desires of her own. Rejecting Don’s possessive, angry love, she explains that, “Every time we fight, it diminishes us a little bit.”

In doing so, she’s implicitly asking him to grow rather than to shrink, to become a bigger and better person than he’s ever been before. For that he will require something stronger than any drug: The realization that the truth about himself is neither good nor bad, but merely relative. Like Ginsberg, his origins are improbable and full of tragedy, but running from them is what has made him miserable. It’s only by accepting that far away place where he began that he will finally find a home in the present, whether the Heinz is there or not.

By Nelle Engoron

Nelle Engoron is a freelance writer, an Open Salon blogger and the author of "Mad Men Unmasked: Decoding Season 4."

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