Mad Men Season 6 Recap: A Tale of Two Cities

Peggy sits in a restaurant, wearing a white plaid suit

Welcome back! This week, Mad Men went to California, and you know what that means: Drugs were taken, hippies were lampooned, and Roger got a well-deserved punch in the family sterling. Meanwhile, back at the office, a new power duo was secretly born, and Jim Cutler decided it was high time we embraced Bob—that means you, Internet conspiracy theorists! Wish Annalee a happy birthday and join us for a recap of "A Tale of Two Cities."

Out with the old, in with the groovy.
During their secret business meeting, Andy from Avon Cosmetics confesses to Peggy and Joan that he's "not sure if we should try to be groovy or nostalgic. We're somewhere in between right now." And with that throwaway assessment, he successfully summed up Mad Men Season Six. It's 1968 and no one can decide what's best: the solid, three-piece-suited past or the freewheeling, ascot-wearing future.

Like every episode this season, last night's gave us an on-the-nose title: "A Tale of Two Cities." In this case it refers not only to New York and Los Angeles (the geographic equivalents of nostalgic and groovy, respectively) but also to SCDP and CGC (the agency equivalents). In Los Angeles everyone is embracing a new way of life—the men look like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, the women dance in cages, and every pool party comes with "a free nipple." Roger and Don, whose styles of work and dress have barely changed in a decade, stick out like sore thumbs (sorry Rog, but no ascot can make up for that buzz-harshing you gave Danny and Lotus). Don is so out of place in this modern scene he literally shuts down, has a drug-induced nightmare, and collapses into the pool. Mad Men has been trying to tell us something, and last night it practically shouted it in our faces: Don Draper is a relic of a bygone era, and his unwillingness to change will be his undoing.

Meanwhile, back at the office, the fight continues between those who want to take a step back and those who want to move forward. It's no coincidence that we saw some key characters stop in their tracks to watch coverage of the DNC protests: What's happening outside the office is a higher-stakes version of what's happening within. The tension between the protesters on television struggling to change the system and the police officers beating them down to enforce it mirrors the way Pete, for example, tries to strong-arm Joan into backing off of the Avon account because she's not an account exec, or the way Jim Cutler tries to fire Ginsberg for "insubordination" when he gets political during a Manischewitz meeting. (Though to be fair, Ginzo crossed the line with that Nazi talk. Are we worried he might be losing his grip on reality a bit, with that talk of receiving "transmissions"? Someone call Beverly!)

Peggy and Joan's interactions reflected this tension between the old and the new as well, but in a slightly different way given their status as women in a male-dominated workplace. Peggy is shocked when Joan cuts Pete out of the Avon meeting, but when they argue it's clear she doesn't want Joan to get in trouble. I must admit, I was thrilled to see Joan and Peggy conspire together to get the account, and I was equally crushed when things didn't go according to plan and they turned on one another, each accusing the other of sleeping her way to the top, both knowing it isn't true. As the only two women to have risen in the ranks at SC&P so far I want Peggy and Joan to team up and look out for one another, but their complicated relationship is more realistic. They're both fighting the office status quo because they want the respect they weren't given in the past, but they have different ways of doing so. While Peggy works to reinforce protocol because she's been praised for following the rules (or at least appearing to—don't forget her secret pregnancy and her affair with Duck), Joan's only gotten to where she is by breaking them. But by looking out for one another and working together (and knowing how to work that secret office listening device), they're effectively blending old and new ways of doing things--something their male coworkers can't yet seem to manage. Now they just need that Avon account!

Assorted thoughts:
• You've seen the Internet rumors about Bob Benson, yes? I laughed out loud when Ginsberg asked if he was gay. He might be (it would explain a few things, though not his creepy too-sparse office full of self-help books) but that line was delivered straight to the audience. Same goes for Cutler's "WHY ARE YOU ALWAYS DOWN HERE?" dig. But seriously, what is up with that guy?

• Clearly Don was hallucinating at the Hollywood party, but that's not the first reference to Megan being pregnant. Are we just seeing into Don's fears, or could another Draper baby be on the way?


Death becomes her, him, everyone
Last night's episode was all eerie otherworldliness and ghosts from Mad Men's past. The violence at the DNC protests in Chicago cast a morbid shadow over Megan and Joan. Ginsberg was haunted by his morals for contributing to the war effort via big business. We were even reunited with Danny, err, Daniel Siegel. (Missed opportunity, though: Didn't California seem like a great opportunity to see our old pal Paul Kinsey?). With so many reminders of the past, "A Tale of Two Cities" showed us exactly who can move on and who is left stuck with unfinished business.

The episode opens with the partners hammering out a name, something that logically should have happened episodes ago (right?!). With very few of the partners letting go of their previous selves, there's predictably a debate over which former agency comes first in the most awkward amalgamation of initials. Finally, the obvious suggestion comes up; with so many letters needing representation, why not drop off the ones of the now deceased partners? Ted's face seems to scream "TOO SOON" and the issue of there being too many C's is brought up, so this idea is quickly cast aside. It isn't until the closing of the episode that the issue is resolved, with everyone sort of agreeing on Sterling Cooper & Partners. SC&P. Not only is this barely a fresh start from SCDP, but that P on the end serves as a spooky reminder of the presence of poor Lane Pryce. Nothing about this "new" name spells evolution and adaption, so it's not hard to imagine SC&P falling apart in the near future.

Don, a man who has obviously benefited from his own powers of adaption, is as haunted as ever. California has always had an otherworldly quality on Mad Men, largely due to it being seen through Don's eyes. Being the home of Anna Draper, and thus part of the birth of Don's second identity, makes it a more fond memory than anywhere Dick Whitman ever existed in (though that bar is admittedly not very high). While The Golden State makes him comfortable enough to tell his almost party hook-up, "I told you, my name is not Don," it is not without its fair share of ghosts. Don is visited by a one-armed and uniformed PFC Dinkins, who guides him to a vision of his own watery death. While this vision seems to smack of Dick Whitman's need for another fresh start, it's not like a new identity is a feasible escape anymore. Don is as stuck as ever, whether in California or in New York (fun fact: Mad Men Wiki tells me that June 2nd was the original  Lt. Don Draper's birthday. GHOSTS!).

While the agency and Don both seem to be held down by their pasts, I'm hopeful for Pegs and Joanie. Joan's whole plotline with Avon called back memories of both Peggy's discovery as a creative talent, as well as Joan's lost opportunity after showing a knack for reading TV scripts and matching them with advertisement. All season we've seen Joan be judged for sleeping with Herb, so it was particularly crushing to see a reference to Peggy's own ascension almost become another let down for our favorite redhead. However, in a scene staged in what might have been the same rooms as the Belle Jolie demonstration and observation, the ladies are able to manipulate Pete and Ted into letting Joan have Avon. It's significant that these two, who had once been watched through the glass, are now on the other side pulling the strings. While anchors to their past relationships and decisions continue to try to hold them down, neither character is left feeling haunted. If I'm writing fan fiction about any two on this show, right now it's all about Peggy and Joan and their future kickass agency!

Assorted thoughts:
• This week left me with so many questions. Where is Ken? Who is Bob Benson, REALLY? What's going on with Ginsberg? Where did Joan get her floral dress and do they carry my size?


Joan sits in a green and yellow floral dress
Avon calling!

Be slick. Be glib. Be you.
That's Roger's advice to Don as they wing their way to California, where our silver fox is, as ever, flying by the seat of his pants with regard to client management. Convinced of New York's primacy in the world of serious business, Roger isn't concerned about hooking Carnation; in his opinion, the duo can't lose, either in business or in the more important matter of socializing: "Our biggest challenge will be not getting syphillis." And as advised, Don easily transforms into his California Don persona, slipping into an off-white linen suit, real-talking Carnation into a possible deal, picking up a hookah "nipple" as offhandedly as he pours a few fingers of office Scotch, and otherwise nodding in every way to his past ease as a shape-shifter. But "being him" also means acknowledging where that ease has stiffened and cracked. It's notable that Don seemed less than shocked to be on the receiving end of a drowning rescue; though I don't agree with Esquire's reading of this as a suicide attempt, the fact that Don seemed to take his near-death experience (and the dream that went with it) as a matter of course does point to a way in which he's taken up permanent residence on the precipice this season.

Indeed, this is an episode that is in many ways about characters becoming new, or at least heightened, versions of themselves. In Joan's case, this involves taking a drastic step to free herself from being the partner-in-name-only she's become increasingly resentful of by going above Pete and Ted's heads to secure the Avon account. It's a desperate, risky move—who knows the wrath of Pete Campbell better than Joanie?—and it's worth wondering if her recent medical scare has anything to do with her willingness to do it now. And I'll admit that for a minute, I expected the presence of two women at the secret breakfast to be a deal-breaker for Andy Hayes—though, as Kelsey noted, his company is stuck between the past and the present, it still seemed possible that he would default to tradition when it came to who was managing his business. That it didn't seem to faze him was another hint that Joan and Peggy would secure the account.

The episode brought out Peggy's cautious, good-girl side as she worried over the consequences of Joan's maneuverings. It also brought out a flood of long-held resentments toward her office comrade, both about the lack of support Peggy perceived from Joan early in her time at the former Sterling Cooper, and her sheer frustration at how she perceives Joan's sexual capital reflecting on all women in the office—she didn't directly state this, but it's possible that one reason Peggy wanted Joan to be aboveboard with Hayes was so that the other partners wouldn't assume she went the Herb Rennet route to get the account. After inadvertently going rogue last episode with near-death results (will we ever hear from Abe again?), Peggy seemed to be grasping as desperately at status quo and protocol as Joan was at sudden opportunity.

And Pete, of course, was in full hissy-fit flower all through the episode; it could just as easily have been titled, "A Tale of Constant Bitchface." His petulance was increasingly comical, and increasingly tweaked by his coworkers, from Ted informing him that he had a new title (the actual title escapes me right now, but Pete out-Campbelled himself with his peevish reaction—"I don't want that!") to Don brushing off his attempt to get the senior partner riled up about the agency's name change. The episode's climactic scene (which vied with Roger's poolside cock-punch as the night's most gif-able) looked less like Pete's attempt to find out what all the drug fuss was about than a momentary surrender to keep his head from actually exploding with frustration. His relative youth aside, Pete is the most old-guard and change-resistant of everybody; there's as much likelihood of him toking up regularly as there is of Roger retiring his racist/sexist/short jokes. But the entitlement with which he Bogarted Stan's joint is very much in character—did you think he would take a page from Peggy's book and announce "I'm Pete Campbell and I would like to smoke some marijuana"?

Finally, there's Bob Benson, launcher of a thousand conspiracy theories. It was tempting to start believing at least half of them when we got a load of his creepily empty office and almost-bare desk as he listened to the Dale Carnegie–endorsed motivational record "How I Raised Myself From Failure to Success In Selling." Whatever he is—office brownnose, corporate spy, creative hype man, all those and more—he fully became it in this episode, with his speech to a cowering, crazed Ginsberg ("You're not death, buddy!") saving the Manischewitz meeting and securing him a key role in Jim Cutler's shady plan to put the squeeze on his colleagues in the Chevy deal. And he's right: Manischewitz makes some tasty wine.

Assorted thoughts:
• I was rattled enough by last week's Megan-Draper-as-Sharon-Tate theories to be on edge this week about another home invasion while Don was in California. But despite a somewhat troubling Internet enthusiasm about Megan being murdered this season, I doubt that Mad Men would be that literal.


Cultural references: The Democratic National Convention riots; Alice in Wonderland, "Father of the Atomic Bomb"  J. Robert Oppenheimer 

Office inappropriateness: Let's just say that Ginsberg is lucky that adverstising is a haven for eccentrics, because that outburst would not have flown so well in other offices.

Most gif-able moment: We love you Roger, but when you start making short jokes, it'd be wise to consider that your target is at the same level as your pants.


by Andi Zeisler
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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.

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4 Comments Have Been Posted

I spent most of this episode

I spent most of this episode yelling, "Get it girl!" whenever Joan was on screen. I love where they're taking her character.

Happy birthday, Annalee!

Kelsey, you NAILED it with this: "Don Draper is a relic of a bygone era, and his unwillingness to change will be his undoing." Yes.

I loved FINALLY getting to see Joan & Peggy realize some of the potential in the moment they spent together earlier this season when Joan walked Peggy to her office. Another gem of yours that I wholeheartedly agree with, Kelsey, is: "I want Peggy and Joan to team up and look out for one another, but their complicated relationship is more realistic." Same... Same.

Something I really expected to see in today's recap was a reference to the truth in Don & Megan's exchange early in the episode where she jokes that marrying him was the worst mistake of her life and he says he hates actresses. Although the scene was sincerely sarcastic, on paper it would have looked like some pretty frank confessions.

I felt the same about Don's hash trip-- TRUTH.

And I loved seeing Danny. Every time I see him anywhere, I squeal, "Jonathan!" Because he was Jonathan on Buffy, and I like seeing him work.


I am cracking up at your "same..." joke!

I totally agree that Don and Megan's exchange, while playful on the surface, revealed the truth in their feelings for one another. She regrets marrying him and he resents her work as an actress, and they're both miserable. Don hallucinated that she was pregnant—do you think it might come true and further complicate things between them? I'm guessing no, since that would be a little too obvious, but they wouldn't be the first couple to try and fix their relationship with a baby.

I love seeing Jonathan too! He's hilarious.

Belle Jolie room or...?

You know, I thought of the one-way mirror room from Season 1 where the ladies of SC try on the various lipsticks, but didn't we completely change venues once the small group decided to break off and form its own ad agency? Isn't this a totally different office building?

Even if it's not the same office, kudos on reflecting that scene -- now it's the guys behind the pane of glass being viewed (read: eavesdropped upon) and the ladies have the gaze.

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