by: L.P. Hanners
From the height of abnormality, to the sublimity of beauty, oh what a difference a week makes…
In “The Runaways,” the fifth episode in this final season, we were haphazardly ushered to the brink of insanity wherein one of the most memorable, and cringe inducing, moments in Mad Men history catapulted us off into the deep end like never before. While Ginsberg gifting Peggy with a nip-in-a-box was the height of irregularity for the episode (Ginsberg’s wise enough to know when a gift needs givin’!), it wasn’t by any means alone, as strange occurrences in this off-kilter episode were bountiful. An episode that found the youth in revolt, and proved the age old adage: three’s company.
“The Runaways” built its foundation around the theme of rebellion and authority. An idea that was birthed when SC & P’s creative team discovered Lou Avery’s trial strips for a life-in-uniform comic strip called “Scout’s Honor.” When Lou catches wind that he has become the butt of an office joke by a bunch of “flag burning snots,” he puts his foot down, strong arming the staff into working late into the evening, an act which further underlined his deep-rooted insecurities relating to Don. The mere mention of Don’s name seems to derail all of Lou’s thought processes. And within the subtext of this battle for power, we not only learn the depth of Lou’s anxieties, but we grasp a great deal more about the new Don. A man who is shelving his ego for the opportunity to once again thrive within a system that is desperately trying to chew him up and spit him out. A man who time and again, shockingly, finds a way to rise above trite and tiresome office politics. And a man who realizes he is going to have to change in order to adapt to the times. This new Don is endearing, respectable, and – frankly – seems too good to be true.
While The Battle of Scout’s Honor wages on, ultimately playing itself out in an unfulfilling manner, Betty is campaigning for respect from her husband Henry (“I’m not stupid. I speak Italian.”). As Sally ((It’s a nose job, not an abortion.” Damn!)) and Bobby ((Bobby has been an intriguing character since last season’s “The Flood,” curiously and innocently ruining the wall paper in his room. It’s intriguing to speculate over how closely his journey through life will mirror his father’s?)) fight the good fight of adolescence, we find Ginsberg battling tooth and nail to hold onto his very sanity. In yet another homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ginsberg loses control after misinterpreting a conversation between Jim Cutler and Lou Avery. And in what appeared to be a tragic unraveling caused by sexual frustration and a life spent trying to fit in, Ginsberg crumbles in the most peculiar of ways.
Michael Ginsberg, mad as a hatter, was always able to blend in seamlessly with the creatives at SC&P; a crew of worker bees, second class citizens, grinding for the man through a haze of marijuana smoke. All the while, and despite his quirkiness (or maybe – because of it?), he was astonishingly relatable, eventually becoming one of the most beloved characters on the show. His awkward, but somehow successful interview with Peggy still resonates with the Mad Men faithful, and his eccentricities were humorous, awkward and charming. Ginsberg wore his heart on his sleeve, which was admirable in a world full of deception and backstabbing. One can only hope there’s more to Ginsberg’s story, but for now we are left with a chilling reminder of what life at SC & P can do to a person ((I apologize if that felt like a eulogy for Ginsberg – but I am fearful we may have seen the last of him.)).
It was merely a few weeks back when Megan was ready to end things with Don, and while this is still more than likely the case, you wouldn’t know it from her actions, specifically her generous inclusion of Amy in their sexual relations. But the psychological underpinnings of the threesome are twisted, and motivated by far more than pleasure alone. Megan is manipulating Don, and his puzzled reaction to her offerings hint that Don is piecing it all together. Yet for this evening Don was willing enough to go along for the ride.
It isn’t merely behind closed doors where Megan is muddying the waters of her relationship with Don, it’s everywhere. Enter Stephanie, Anna Draper’s daughter and an authentic link to Don’s past who shows up to Megan’s dirty, broke, and pregnant. Megan agrees to help Stephanie, but when she arrives, Megan can only see her beauty. She is convinced that if Don has not already slept with her, he wants to. And she is further ruffled by Stephanie’s casual and intimate knowledge of Don’s (Dick’s) backstory.
Stephanie’s appearance offered Don an opportunity to repay an old debt, as he was once the one in need, and Anna Draper showed him an extraordinary amount of mercy. She gave him, literally, another life. Now, Don’s been given the opportunity to repay his debt, and he is authentically pleased to maintain this connection to a critical period of his past. Yet, Megan’s jealousy won’t allow this. Her spite won’t allow this. And her insecurities show Stephanie the door before Don can even board a plane in New York for a visit. Disheartening.
It’s still unsettling that we found Don so desperate that he turned to Harry Crane for comfort, but through all the madness of the the episode it was in this conversation that the episode veered in its most compelling direction. In a scene at a bar reminiscent of his pow-wow with Ted that originated the merger, Harry lets it slip that Don’s job is once again in serious jeopardy if they land a new tobacco account (for obvious reasons). A fire long dormant ignites within Don, a man who has always possessed the uncanny ability to reinvent himself. Armed with the information to present the perfect pitch to Philip Morris, and to potentially make himself invaluable to a company hellbent on washing their hands of him (specifically speaking – Jim Cutler), Don presents a pitch that puts him right smack dab back in the game! And that Mets banner invoking the storied comeback of the ‘69 ‘Miracle Mets’, continues to feel as poignant now as ever.
The over-sensationalized presentation of a threesome, and the heart-breaking conclusion to Ginsberg’s subplot ((The most overtly sensationalized incident on the show since the infamous lawn mower accident in season three’s “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency.”)), resulted in a heavy-handed, but passionate episode. An episode which much like its namesake, appeared to be barreling out of control, attempting to escape from so many of the ties that authoritatively bind. It was a whirlwind, an excessive and often reckless episode. But luckily sweet relief would lie just around the corner…
It isn’t hyperbole to discuss last week’s episode of Mad Men, “The Strategy,” amongst the all-time greats ((Directed by Phil Abraham, a man who began as a cinematographer on The Sopranos and Mad Men‘s first season)). This is simply fact. In a season where it felt as if Matt Weiner was stripping things down to their bare essentials, bringing the show back to basics (I mean this is the best possible way), we have been left vying for a sense of direction, and left bewildered more times than once. Yet in an episode so blatantly, and beautifully, about family, we were satisfied in ways we had always hoped for, as a connection long in the making came home to roost in one of the most beautiful moments in television history (again, without hyperbole).
In discussing this episode it’s hard to look past two particular moments that felt a long time coming. It’s hard to really spend time talking about Megan further preparing for life on her own, the loss of Chevy, Harry Crane’s promotion (WTF!), Roger’s return to operational competence, or Pete’s bemused bicoastal love triangle in the aftermath of such a meaningful moment. Dissecting the blatant sexim that pervaded the episode or even the politics of the Burger Chef account that framed the narrative seems trivial in light of the sheer emotion resulting from an office slow dance, and an unexpected family meal shared between three broken souls. Yes, this episode was about family, and the many ways this idea can be defined. But it was also about why we need family, why we need people in our lives. Because sometimes the pain and regret is just too much to handle all alone. Sometimes its fascinating who is there for you in the most trying of times.
But, before we dedicate the remainder of the discussion to these pivotal and affecting moments in time, we must throw a glancing blow at the return of Bob Benson.
Bob Benson was a curious addition to the Mad Men cast, a spirited enigma whose role within the Mad Men landscape became the subject of tireless speculation. Benson is another one of the show’s professional opportunists, the new generation of Don Draper’s, but his function within this saga was always perplexing. Sure Bob was a lens through which we could examine closeted homosexuality in the late 1960’s, but what Bob Benson seems to excel at is teaching us more about those he comes in contact with. And this was never more evident than this week when Bob proposed to Joan. What was revealed about Joan is that she still has hope. That she she won’t settle, and that she would rather die alone than reconcile with anything other than true love. And if there is any justice in the world, we will be giving the opportunity to bear witness to Joan connecting with that destined somebody.
What, I ask, is the perfect Mad Men moment? What would be the makeup of the scene that you would conjure into existence if given the opportunity? Even if we were to let our mind run rampant with possibilities, nothing we could envision would come close to what we experienced this week between Don and Peggy. It was like a fantasy. A dream that was played out through the last half of the episode, where everything we had ever hoped that would happen between Don and his protege came delightfully together.
It’s no secret that Don and Peggy are the core of the show. The two protagonists whose complex bond remains the show’s heart and soul, its very essence. Don has always respected Peggy more than she ever knew (until now – “I worry about a lot of things. But I don’t worry about you.”). And it is Peggy who, along with Sally, has the ability to draw humanity from the enigma that is Don Draper.
Since Don’s return, we have witnessed an intricate role reversal between Don and Peggy from season 4’s “The Suitcase,” the series’ most highly acclaimed episode. Both episodes were about exhaustingly abusing the junior copywriter. And it’s hard to ignore the blatant parallel’s here – one character leaning on the other, metaphorically and physically, as Don did when he was told that Anna Draper had passed, and as Peggy did during the dance. The dynamic between Peggy and Don in season 4 set the tone for what the show has turned into, and for this moment to manifest itself is so astonishingly touching. They’ve affected each other’s lives in ways that they’ll never know.
The slow dance as Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” softly hovered about Don and Peggy was easily the most heart-warming moment of the season ((A season which included a moment when Don’s daughter Sally confessed her love for him. There is something so special about the moments where a man like Don, who deems himself unworthy of love, receives it from those he holds most dear!)). Don and Peggy laid it all on the table (“That I never did anything. And I don’t have anyone.”), and through an honest interchange they become equals. Both broken. Both lost. And both filled with an unending sadness over the choices they have made, how they have lived their lives and the lonely, dissatisfied place they find themselves in. It was an entirely platonic moment of affection, and because of this it was genuine, heartbreaking and all-together empowering.
An episode rife with awkward homecomings, and discussions about the construct of family comes to a close with Peggy, Don, and Pete at Burger Chef. Peggy is surrounded both by the man who made her a mom and the man who helped exonerate her of that responsibility. The pitch she stumbled upon in conversation with Don – “What if there was a place, where you could go, where there was no TV, and you could break bread and whoever you were sitting with was family?” – becomes realized fully. Don, Pete, and Peggy, once again, find themselves struggling with their own personal warped senses of family values. Their own failures, massive ones. Mad Men has always been a show about these struggles. And for each of these characters “The Strategy” was about finding family, yet the modern family varies from tradition. In that closing moment we feel a sense of hope for a connectedness in an often cruel and unforgiving world. Three lost souls struggling to find a place, fit in perfectly for once. All three alone, together. A family of misfits, but a family nonetheless. Absolutely beautiful.