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Monday, April 23, 2012

Mad Men: "Far Away Places"

Who the hell are these people? That seems like the best place to start with tonight’s unusual installment of Mad Men, which featured a lot of experimentation, from the narrative tricks of the storytelling, to the sexual adventures of girl-about-town Peggy Olsen, and of course the psychedelic trip of Mr. and Mrs. Sterling. Let’s start with the fragmented timeline. Usually when shows resort to such a thing it is with the idea of playing up the inter-connectedness of the plots and overlaying some Easter eggs in the early storylines only to have them pay off later on in a satisfying conclusion. I’m thinking especially of Coupling, which did this kind of thing extremely well, and of How I Met Your Mother, which has had more scattershot results when reaching into the big bag of narrative trickery. There is also a tremendous early-run episode of House titled “3 Stories” that sort of plays the same game. But what did Mad Men gain from this unprecedented departure? I was shocked when I realized that Roger Sterling walking into Don’s office was in fact on the morning of the day we just spent with Peggy. But the only real moment where the stories intersected was in Don’s frantic phone call to Peggy, which made me spend the rest of the episode wondering if Don had crashed a car and killed his wife or somehow murdered a hooker at the Howard Johnson’s. What about the title? What “Far Away Places” are we talking about here? Peggy’s movie promises a journey to the distant plains of Africa, but Peggy is barely paying attention toking up and giving a handy to her neighbor. In a chilling conversation with Peggy, Ginsberg claims to be a Martian, because it’s the only way he can bear to reveal his terrifying history as a baby born in a concentration camp. (I’m a little worried that Mad Men might overdo it with Dawn and Ginsberg, making them a little too representative of their races without making them complex characters like the rest of the ensemble, but damn if that wasn’t a great scene.) The closest thing Don gets to a far away place is a Howard Johnson’s upstate, where the eager manager is sorry about the pool but eager to push the clams. Don’s mind goes to some dark places when Megan disappears from the lodge after their childish argument ends with him driving away in the car to cool off for a while, and then later he flashes back to the ride home after the trip to Disney from “Tomorrowland” when he and Megan first got engaged. As for Roger, well, he never let Manhattan, but probably took the furthest trip of all. Jane’s “friends” turn out to be a troop of drug experimenters led by the famous Dr. Timothy Leary, an early proponent of LSD. Rogers drops out just to please his unhappy wife, and ends up hearing opera when he opens champagne, hallucinating Bert Cooper onto currency, and seeing the Black Sox throw the World Series from his bathtub. (Interesting coincidence: Yesterday was Jack Nicholson’s 75th birthday, and Sterling’s World Series hallucination was reminiscent of the scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest where McMurphy imagines the World Series into existence to the delight of his fellow inmates.) And know to ask the most annoying question: What did it all mean? And what did we learn? We learned that Abe’s swinging ‘60s attitude doesn’t extend so far as to be fine with Peggy loving her work as much or more than him. That was one of the episode’s more interesting parallels, as Abe and Don both acted with the same condescension to their partner’s work life. We learned that Megan Draper is fairly immature, even as she raises some fair point in her arguments with Don. It’s absolutely true that Don treats her work like a hobby that he’s indulging, but perhaps she could have handled her anger better than mock-enjoying an orange sherbet just to embarrass him. We learned that Bert Cooper still gives a damn. Which is surprising, given his lack of an office. Even Don seems to have forgotten that, yes, this is his business. Also, he still thinks of Peggy as a little girl. No idea how much time has passed, but Pete looked fully recovered when he pulled Peggy off the Heinz account. LSD sure seems to have cleared Roger’s mind, as he serenely ends his ill-considered marriage to Jane the morning after their little trip. I’m very curious to see if the show follows up on this. Will Roger keep dropping acid? Will the show maintain its positive portrayal of drug use, or will we get Sterling having flashbacks? We learned that the Drapers have a really fucked up marriage. Seriously, that scene in the apartment was deeply disturbing, but the most disturbing part was probably how quickly Megan seemed to forgive Don for his brutality. Indeed, Megan seemed almost touched that Don cared enough to kick down the door, chase her all over their apartment, and tackle her hard onto the floor. I think this is going to end even worse than Don’s first marriage. Oh, and we learned that you have to try the clams at Howard Johnson’s. Yeah, I think I’ll pass.

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