This week's episode of Mad Men, "The Runaways," was unsettling in just about every way.
"What am I, Cassandra?"
Whoa, whoa, whoa, Mad Men! I signed up for some critically acclaimed Sunday-night television, not the sight of a self-removed nipple. Sheeeeeeesh! Last night's episode, "The Runaways," continued to show us some of the hints of issues that will no doubt build to overwhelming developments in Mad Men’s final season. Don and Megan's marriage continues to be complicated (though was anyone else surprised to be seeing it continue at all?). Things are not all sunshine and puppies between Betty and Henry either. The computer remains a daunting presence in the SC&P office. And Don's future at work is, again, looking bleak. Much like Ginsberg's invocation of Cassandra, the mythological figure gifted with the power of prophecy but cursed with never being believed, several characters are pointing out to us this episode how things will end, with few believing in their predictions.
As per usual, there's little levity at the Francis household. Whatever the purpose of that weird dinner party-crawl was, it likely wasn't meant to result in a political spat between Betty and Henry (in front of his constituents, no less). Normally levelheaded Henry cuts down and attempts to control Betty every chance he gets: He dismisses her opinions, tells her what her role is, and disregards her intelligence. (Hey, she knows Italian, dude.) In their kitchen argument, Henry tries to get the upper hand with his wife by implying that he's clearly the brains of their marital operation, and, thus, the only one entitled to a political opinion—otherwise, he reasons, she would be the one running for office. And that leads us to possibly the most exciting prediction on the horizon, as Betty responds with a big ol' “Why not?” Betty Hofstadt Draper Francis 1972!
The sads don't just end with the adults in that gloomy mansion, though. Sally's potentially broken nose gives her mother a chance to place focus on her looks—which are, by extension, a continued legacy of Betty's own looks—while Bobby's suffering from an upset stomach caused by listening to his mother and stepfather fighting. Sally dismisses her brother's concerns about an impending divorce, coldly stating, "They're the dynamic duo. That's never going to happen,” but I wouldn't be surprised to see his fear come true before series' end. Betty is clearly outgrowing Henry's projected image of her. And while Sally argues with her mother about her nose injury, she also drops a couple of potential previews into the mix. "It's a nose job, not an abortion." "Don't worry about me finding a man." Will Sally's teenage rebellion morph into second-wave activism? Let's hope that's one prediction that comes true!
Out west, no California party in the Mad Men universe would be complete without a skeevy Harry Crane turning up, mumbling something about helping his young, pretty companion "find an agent." In their awkward escape from Megan's, Harry's loose lips drop the news that SC&P is perusing Commander cigarettes. This, of course, presents a problem for a company that’s still keeping Don Draper on their payroll (Remember that op-ed he penned?). In classic Draper fashion, Don calls the clients' bluff and convinces them that they don't really want what they think they want. Don's pitch could, in and of itself, be interpreted as a prediction of sorts, as he walked the Commander crew through exactly what it would be like to have him on the team. While his performance is right up there with the winningest of Draper pitches, Cutler, for one, remains unconvinced by Don’s attempts to preserve his job.
And then there’s Ginsberg. Oh, Ginsberg. When I had been thinking to myself about how I wanted more development from you and your co-supporting cast, this was not what I was imagining. Poor Ginsberg, whose just-last-episode paranoia about the computer's influence ("That machine came for us. And then one by one...") turned out, in "The Runaways," to be self-fulfilling. Not only did Ginsberg compare himself to Cassandra, only to be disbelieved, but he continues reminding us that this new computer will mean obsolescence for some of our Mad friends. (After all, while Ginzo clearly misinterpreted Cutler and Avery’s secret weekend meetups, his suspicion of them as secret wasn't unfounded.)
Between Ginsberg's mental stability, Sally's nose, Bobby's stomach, and Stephanie's pregnancy, the physical well-being of our Mad friends seems to be in a precarious position. Appropriate foreshadowing, since I can't imagine this final two-part season going down without taking several characters with it.
I liked that Peggy and Stan both seemed to be rocking similar neck-scarf looks this week. Friends 'till the end and bonded in both spirit and style, those two!
"This is an office made up of people who have problems with authority."
The tension between dominant culture and counterculture, authority and lack thereof, continues to drive this season forward, swordfights and rumaki and severed body parts (WHAT?!) and all. Don tells Lou that the people at SC&P office “have a problem with authority,” while Henry reminds his conservative houseguests that “wildness in the kids” is a national disease. But it’s not just the kids who are rebelling, though Sally and Bobby have both had it with the adults in their lives. Don, Betty, and Ginsberg are all attempting to fight the power in their own ways.
Let’s start with the severed nipple elephant in the room: Young Ginsberg, our wisecracking proto-hipster SC&P creative, suffered a psychotic break and left the office on a stretcher. Though his relationship with reality has fissured in previous episodes, Ginzo’s always seemed like more of a harmless, if ultrasensitive, eccentric than someone who’d slice off his own nipple and box it up as a peace offering for his boss. The office computer that loomed so large last episode, with its loud humming and ominous presence, triggered his downfall, and I’m wondering if we’re supposed to take anything away from that. Is Ginsberg’s story meant simply to remind us that mental illness wasn’t taken seriously in the 1960s? Was he rushed offscreen to make room for Ben Feldman’s new sitcom? Or is Matthew Weiner trying to tell us something about technology and the human condition? I’m not sure yet, but I hope I don’t need to cut off any body parts to find out.
Don, too, is struggling to take matters into his own hands. It took Harry Crane’s drunk bean-spilling to wake Don up to the reality that no one at SC&P wants him in the office, and that Lou and Jim are willing to go behind his back and pitch Commander Cigarettes to force him out for good. (Recall that Don took a very public stand against tobacco in season four.) By barging into their meeting at the Algonquin and going off-script, Don’s breaking the rules and risking his job, but he’s betting on that patented Draper genius to save him once again. When at episode's end he shoved Jim and Lou into a cab and whistled loudly for one of his own, it read to me as a gesture of victory, but it's worth considering that a lone taxi ride could just as easily signal defeat.
Meanwhile, up in Westchester, Betty’s waging a similar battle against Henry, whose chauvinism appeared out of nowhere in full force. (Since when is this guy such an ass?) I saw plenty of people on Twitter making fun of Bets for her “I speak Italian” line, but we have to remember that Betty’s always been valued primarily for her looks—something Sally used against her in their fight over her “perfect nose”—even though she has a college degree and does in fact speak Italian. And while I can’t say I agree with Betty’s politics or her parenting, hearing her assert herself—not to mention a possible political career—in the face of Henry's demeaning remarks was thrilling to me. Feminism is for jerks too, Betty, and we’d love to have you.
Megan’s dance at her hip actor party was a bittersweet callback to her “Zou Bisou Bisou” performance in season five. Then, she was supremely confident and danced a fun, sexy dance for her riveted new husband. Now, she’s so insecure about her marriage that she sends Don’s pregnant niece packing, and her performance seemed like a desperate, awkward bid for Don's attention.
Yet another reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey this week in the scene where Ginsburg's spies on a secret weekend meeting Jim Cutler and Lou Avery. Is Matthew Weiner just a Kubrick fan—or was Ginsberg right to fear that computer?
Sorry, does me wearing your robe make you feel even more threatened by my presence? My bad.
Get Out While You Can
I can't speak for my co-recappers, but I spent most of this episode right on the precipice of a cold sweat, sure that the year-plus rumors of the Manson Family coming for Megan Draper were finally being made manifest in the pregnant body of Don's not-niece, Stephanie. Hippies had already been painted as unsettling and cultlike in last week's episode; in Stephanie's visit to Laurel Canyon, there seemed to be a threat of menace in her every smiling, beatific move. Of course, this is Mad Men, and that's by now a standard repercussion of its symbolism-heavy textual and production style, but it was especially exhausting in this case, as I kept expecting Stephanie to be revealed as merely the advance woman for an entire band of wild-eyed, knife-wielding freaks doing their guru's depraved bidding.
Not that there wasn't something sinister about Megan throwing some money at the problem and Stephanie being back on the street within a few hours of her arrival. But it's a curious fact of Mad Men that by now, almost every interaction seems freighted with significance, so that when the payoff from one turns out to be, well, not much, the results of another will invariably make up for it. (Is that a nipple in that box, or are you just terrified of the consequences of a computerized world?)
One could argue that both Don and Megan are already haunted by Hollywood. For Megan, certainly, it's not just the place where she's failing to reap all the great rewards she'd been sort-of promised as an actress; it's also the place where Don lived out another life, before her. And Stephanie's presence confirms this: Not only was there indeed a sexual charge between Don and Stephanie when they first met back in Season 3, but the fact that they never consummated their attraction is much more threatening, in the long run, to Megan's trophy-wife consciousness. On the other hand, Megan's insecurity blooming in Stephanie's unwashed aura seems a little odd, as she'd seemed to be done with Don and her marriage so recently—and it makes her attempt to re-seduce Don via a threesome with bland, accommodating Amy seem like the action not of someone who has embraced her time and place (L.A., free-love era), but of someone who is simply, now, always acting. She should know, for instance, that Don is not exactly a three-way kind of guy. Unlike his pal Roger, more is not merrier for Don; more means more of a risk of opening himself up in the wrong way and revealing too much. It's notable that with all the ways we're seen Don satisfy his restless libido, this was both the first time a third party was involved and the first time he seemed reluctant. Whether or not the Manson Family ever makes the scene, the Draper family seemed to have a better chance of survival in New York City.
But then the offices of SC&P seem to have become a far scarier place in a relatively short time. There's the unavoidable, omnipresent computer, of course, its visibility and constant hum the catalyst for Ginsberg's terrifying mental break. But the mood and dynamics of the office have shifted, making mere binaries—singular vs. merged, creative vs. business, Establishment vs. counterculture—seem like sinister fault lines rather than workaday conflicts. Stan's embarrassment of Lou Avery, for instance, started as a goofy office lark, but, once Lou unloaded on his creative team for their lack of patriotism and insufficient respect for Underdog, his words hit Stan and co. harder that they expected. Meanwhile, the endgame of Don's intrusion into the Commander Cigarettes meeting and his apparent willingness to firebomb his own career for the sake of the agency isn't clear yet. While the act looked from the outside like the typical Don-as-Tarzan show, there was something grittier in the grandstanding. The show that has been teasing us with that falling-man image since the start has finally made us see that disasters don't necessarily need a body count.
I do have a few misgivings and half-articulated thoughts about the one Jewish guy in the office being the one to go all tinfoil-hat crazy that I'm not going to barf out here, but I will say that I wish Ginzo portrayer Ben Feldman best wishes in his upcoming foray into romantic-comedy sitcoms, and am happy for him that terrible mustaches will no longer be a wardrobe requirement.
Lou is so much more of a hack than we knew, but it turns out that he does have a flair for the dramatically, paternalistically bitchy. Still, you have to concede that He heard everything! From your first fart to your last dying breath! is going to look pretty sweet on his gravestone, someday.
Cultural/Historical References: Underdog, Mort Walker/Beetle Bailey, Bob Dylan, Capitol Records, and, once again, 2001: A Space Odyssey
Inappropriate Office Behavior: Oh, Ginsberg, we really hate to kick a man while he's down (and down one nipple), but this one's all yours.
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