Monday, April 23, 2012

Mad Men, Season 5, Episode 6: “Far Away Places”

This week’s episode had much less hilarious material than last week’s (which I didn't get the opportunity to write about), but was no less fantastic for it. The episode features three stories which occur more or less simultaneously, but which are narrated sequentially, which raises an interesting formal question: Why arrange the order of events so that each of the different stories appears sequentially, rather than crosscutting between them as they occur? One answer could be because it makes more subtle the thematic connections between the various stories. Each involves characters going on a “trip” of sorts: Peggy gets high; Roger and Jane drop acid, and Don and Megan take a trip to Howard Johnson’s (and get “high” on their adrenal glands during another intense fight).  Additionally, each story also features romantic relationships at different stages.

However, episodes of Mad Men often create parallels and themes without resorting to temporal backtracking; theoretically, crosscutting could also work in this one, as it does in others. I think a better answer can be found by examining the content of the stories. Each story is compelling in itself, but each one is also more compelling than the last, and breaking them up might have scuttled the momentum each accumulates.

The first story is Peggy’s; she has a fight with her boyfriend Abe, nearly catastrophically blows the second Heinz pitch, gets high and jerks off a guy in a movie theater, takes a nap, bonds with Michael, and then reconciles with Abe at the end of the day. Of all the stories, hers seemed to me the most perfunctory, serving mainly to provide yet another piece of evidence supporting Bert’s knowing accusations of Don at end of the episode, where Bert insists that Don has been on “love leave,” and that he needs to return to minding the store. Don's absenteeism is an arc that has been simmering for a while this season; we’ve seen it in his Stepford Wife-like statements regarding not caring about work and his disinterest in arguing with clients over the direction of ad campaigns (the latter of which Peggy pointed out herself a few episodes ago).

Thus it’s relatively relieving that Bert notices it and is in a position to do something about it. Bert’s demand that Don redo the underwear ad implies that Bert’s not just a figurehead, and provides a nice means of making Don snap out of his love-spun stupor. I like this development both because I want to see Don back on his ad game, but also because it makes sense that Bert would be the one to notice it, and to try to fix it benevolently – he’s always had a way of gently getting Don to do things he doesn’t want to do (like getting him to sign a contract in season 3). Ultimately, Peggy’s story seemed the most episodic, much like what we might find in any other episode, and probably could have been cut to and away from at will without disrupting it. The same is not necessarily the case with the other two stories.

The second story involves Roger and Jane’s LSD trip. Lots of hilarious stuff here, from the dog collar-like notes everyone writes before they drop acid, to the singing liquor bottle and shrinking cigarette, and all of the other various reactions the party guests have to the drug (although my favorite shot might have been the one of Roger and Jane during the cab ride back to their home – the obvious-looking rear screen projection was a nice touch, as was Jane’s face). This story takes place mostly over the course of a single evening, and thus cutting to and from it along with the other stories could have had the effect of making the acid trip seem like it lasted for ages. Treating it all in one go allows us to watch the progression of their trip, and prevents us from being distracted from the poignancy of the (thus far relatively gentle) dissolution of their marriage.

One of the reasons I liked this story was that unlike the season premiere, it showed that Roger and Jane still have some happiness between them, something I thought necessary if the show was going to keep them together (or so it seemed, until the end of this story). On another show, they might become bickering caricatures, but I wanted the show to back away from that ledge, and it did so successfully, even as it still ended their marriage. The scene of Roger and Jane lying on the floor, having what is perhaps the first sincere conversation they’ve had in ages, was especially bittersweet, even if it’s the product of an LSD trip.

As moving as Roger and Jane’s story is, Don and Megan’s story is the one that would have suffered the most from crosscutting. For a moment (specifically, the moment where Don finds Megan’s sunglasses on the ground of the parking lot after returning to Howard Johnson’s), it seemed like this story was going to go turn into a version of The Vanishing. That is, this story was by far the most suspenseful and intense of the three stories – like Don, I was genuinely concerned for Megan’s welfare. This show has a propensity for surprise in its story resolutions (season 3’s reinvention of SCDP, season 4’s Megan surprise, etc.), so I wouldn’t put it past the show to kill off a character this way (especially one as new as Megan). And given that I am on the record as liking Megan (which is still true, even though I’m beginning to have serious concerns about her and Don), it was somewhat anxiety-inducing.

I liked the honeymoon-ending conflict between Don and Megan here – Don is being his usual insensitive self, engaging in many of the same negative behaviors as in his marriage to Betty. He runs roughshod over Megan’s concerns and desires when he insists on taking her to Howard Johnson’s, trying to make her fit into a preconceived mold of what he thinks she wants, when at the moment she wants to concentrate on work (he also cancels her order of pie and replaces it with sherbet. What a boor!). Thus it galls her when Don uses the trip as an opportunity to think about the appeal of Howard Johnson’s. Megan observes, “You like to work, but I can’t like to work.” This is a great example of precisely why I like Megan; unlike Betty, whose resentment would have passive-aggressively simmered close to the surface (and mostly likely would have been vented onto her kids), Megan speaks up and voices her displeasure. She’s able to stand up to Don and call him on his bullshit, and as a result is once again much more sympathetic than Betty. Then Don displays more familiar, horrible behavior, pulling a Dick Whitman and abandoning Megan after she hurtfully brings up his past during their fight. All of the things that have been bugging Megan come up in this fight, but instead of dealing with it like an adult, Don flees, and pays for it with his guilty conscience

This spat between Don and Megan and the suspense that resulted from it was good drama, but the conflict becomes even more intense when Don discovers Megan at their apartment the next day, much to his relief and irritation. When their fight turns physical in a Benny Hill-like mad scramble, I started to wonder whether the ways in which Don and Megan are good for each other outweigh the ways in which they are so clearly dysfunctional. This is the second time a fight between them has turned physical, and this time it didn’t end in love-making. It’s like they’re in a codependent manic-depressive relationship. When it’s good, it’s great, but when it’s bad, things quickly turn batshit insane. Just look at Don when he corners Megan in the bedroom – he’s a wild animal here. More than just “diminishing” their love every time they fight (as Megan puts it), Megan is actively put in physical jeopardy (twice!).

That being said, we can see how they got here: Don is driven by his guilt and a night of being on the verge of panic, while Megan is driven by the horror of being abandoned by Don at the hotel. Had this story been crosscut with the others throughout the episode, not only might the climax of their confrontation have been more jarring, but this story’s intensity also likely would have detracted from Peggy’s and Roger’s stories by distracting us from concentrating on their much less imperiling circumstances. Imagine cutting from a disheveled Don hanging up the payphone and worrying about the possibly-dead Megan, to Roger and Jane lying on the floor, exploring the failures of their marriage. Even if the juxtaposition might have made the thematic parallels stronger and more easily grasped, it would have almost certainly made me impatient to get back to Don and Megan, and would have given the Roger and Jane story – not to mention the Peggy story – short shrift.

Other thoughts:

- The Michael Ginsberg reformation continues. He’s growing on me.

- Interesting how even Megan is more interested in work than Don. Megan wants to stay for the pitch, but Don couldn’t care less.

- Jane speaks Yiddish. She is Jewish!

- Nice use of film style as Roger starts to feel the effects of the LSD: disorienting extreme close-ups, eyeline matches where Roger appears to be observing himself, momentary access to Roger’s interior monologue, disappearing and reappearing Don, etc.

- Megan’s ability to shovel sherbet into her mouth is pretty impressive, and also gross.

- I loved the reaction on Don’s face when Megan asks why he doesn’t call his mother – Jon Hamm is fantastic.

- Don’s phone call to Megan’s mother was another nice touch. You can practically see thought balloons above Don's head: “I lost your daughter! I’m a terrible person."

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