Recap

'Mad Men' Recap: What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been

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Apr 23, 2012 | 9:38am EDT

Mad Men RecapHello, class, and welcome to Non-Linear Narratives 101. My name is Dr. Moylan. Please take out your copies of Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier and Virginia Woolfe's The Waves and let us begin. We'll start by addressing the issue of last night's episode of Mad Men where the action unfolded in three distinct waves, reuniting at certain flash points, and showing how the characters of our show interact and influence each other.

The narrative technique employed was not a straight line through time from A to B vacillating between characters and separate arcs but was rather three straight lines on the same grid, one for each of the three characters showing only their perspective on events over a certain period of time. While this structure is meant to show how the characters are on a similar trajectory, it also shows their isolation. They are not sharing the same space, they're not equal characters in one text but rather they are the main character of each of their own texts.

Still there are motifs and central themes that we see while visiting with Peggy, Roger, and eventually Don. Drugs play a part in most of them, especially a visual through-line of a lighter, the source of ignition, the agent that kicks off the drugs. We also see male-female dynamics at play, and a dedication to work and how disorienting and destructive that can be. There is lying on carpets (or furniture) either together or alone, and some elements of cinematic genre classifications with Peggy's story using the conventions of a sci-fi drama, Roger's a psychedelic expedition, and Don's a psychological thriller.

All of the stories intersect at the beginning with Peggy, Roger, and Don filling out the details of one morning in the office, and, by adding up the three lines we get the complete story. However the only other lines that reintersect are Don and Peggy, when Peggy talks to Don on the phone. Roger never reintegrates himself with the rest of the characters, a trajectory that the character has been on all season, furthering himself into irrelevance. Now that we see how they fit together, let us look at them separately to see how they play out.

Peggy: We start by seeing Peggy searching around her room for a case of lavender candies that Don gave her once, something that's a good luck charm that she takes to her presentations. Her (rather hunky) boyfriend Abe has spent the night and he complains that he's sick of playing second fiddle to her job. Why can't she just go to the movie with him once in awhile and not think about work? He's also upset that half the time she doesn't want to "make love" with him when he comes to spend the night with her. He leaves in a fit. As usual the theme with Peggy is going to be about gender expectations and career aspirations, something she's constantly trying to balance.

In the office Peggy is nervous about her presentation for Heinz Baked Beans, who already rejected her first pitch about a "bean ballet" in the first episode of this season. She finds her lucky charm but then her real lucky charm, Don, decides to run out on an expedition and takes Megan with him. Her team is short staffed going into a presentation. She pitches Heinz on a scene of college kids around a campfire, telling them it is a scene of fighting off the night and the scary darkness that's all around them. It's similar to Ginsberg's successful pitch to the shoe company about Cinderella's stalker and it shows the sort of lurking dread that's been pervading the action all season, as if there is something just out of reach that is trying to destroy the characters.

Heinz does not like the pitch. Well, their rep does like the pitch, but he can't say he likes it. Like an annoying executive he says, "Stop showing me what I asked for and show me what I want." Being unclear of one's spoken and unspoken desires is another theme that we see running through each of the stories. Anyway, Peggy, when challenged, does what her mentor Don would have done and gets a little aggressive with the client, telling him it is excellent work that actually made him feel emotion. However, there is one big difference between Don and Peggy and that is what is between their legs. If a man were to do that, he'd be seen as ballsy. When Peggy does it, she is seen as impertinent, and the Heinz rep even likens her to his daughter, infantilizing her and couching her in a role where he is the one in charge, not her.

He leaves in a huff and wants Peggy taken off his account. Don left Peggy in charge and she f**ked it all up. But this only shows, once again, that Peggy has no role model for what she's doing. Don can teach her how to come up with great ads, write copy, and hone her ideas and pitches, but she can't mirror his behavior when dealing with coworkers or clients. The way that men and women are expected to act, even in a professional capacity, is completely different. Without Don to show her what to do, Peggy has to figure it out on her own, being Don's surrogate isn't going to cut it.

Next: Peggy plays PG-13 hookie.

[Photo: AMC]

Peggy goes off to the movies to forget about her troubles and meets a stranger in the movie theater who gets her good and stoned and comes to sit next to her. In the darkness he makes his move, putting his hand on her thigh. If there is one thing that Peggy hates more than being condescended to it's being an object. She doesn't want to be some tart used to fulfill men's desires, especially considering that the time she was used in such a capacity (with Pete Campbell) it ended with her having a secret baby and being locked away. Peggy takes his hand off her leg, and instead puts her own hand in his crotch. She does not want to be the passive recipient in this relationship. She wants to be active, she wants to be the one in charge. Finally, here is a man who will let her take his fate into her own hands, so to speak. That's all Peggy really wants is a man to appreciate her for being a woman, but to trust her enough to steer the ship.

After an ample hand washing, Peggy runs into Ginsberg having an argument with his father in the hallway of the office. He's trying to get dad to go home. Like so many of the other employees, he's pissed when the worlds of his professional and personal life interface, but he keeps blaming Peggy for butting into his life, even though it's unfolding in their shared professional space. She's not actively seeking out information, she's just passively observing what's going on.

Peggy falls asleep in Don's office and this time it's Dawn waking her up instead of the other way around. Peggy gets a call from Don and this is the first hint that we get that the narrative is not going to run in a straight line. Don is at a pay phone speaking hurriedly and his hair is mussy. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then Don's forelock is the doorway to his psyche. When it's messy, he's messy. Don't you love how that always happens? Anyway, Don is upset but Peggy can only think about herself, going on and on about Heinz even after Don hangs up.

She goes into her office and Ginsberg starts to open up to her. "I'm a Martian," he says. He tells a story about how he's not even a human and that man she saw in the lobby isn't his father. He says the man found in him a Swedish (or was it Swiss?) orphanage because he had been born in a concentration camp and his parents had died there. He says that's impossible, but if it's 1967 and Auschwitz and other concentration camps were liberated in 1945, it seems to be just about right based on Ginsberg's age (I'm guessing he's in his early 20s). But he doesn't mean impossible physically, but psychically. How can he be from a concentration camp and his parents dead and he lives a wonderful life in America? How can he process that? Instead he says that he is an alien and has been given instructions to stay there and he's waiting for a message from Mars for further instruction.

This story sort of echos what Peggy said to Dawn when she slept over, "There aren't many of us, and we have to stick together." Peggy sort of buys into Ginsberg's story in that she understands his isolation and loneliness, which are manifested and literalized into his feeling that he is an alien. Still the story is confusing and unsettling. She doesn't know whether Ginsberg really thinks that or if this is just another one of his crazy quirks that he so often displays, as if he's taking her for a ride. However this is the theme for this episode, it would seem. That we're all aliens here trying to form connections. We all feel lost and alone and out of place and don't know what we're supposed to do or what our greater purpose is. While we try to understand each other and form bonds, they are always fraught and never seem to last. We're all in this on our own.

She goes home and calls Abe and tells him that she always needs him and he comes over in the middle of the night. She's finally in control and her man seems to have ceded to her demands.

Next: Roger gets really groovy.

Mad Men RecapRoger: Alright, class, I'm just going to come clean: I have taken my fair share of LSD in my day. While I've never seen what the experience is like accurately depicted on stage, screen, or song, this episode of Mad Men was clearly written by some people who have tripped once or twice in their lives. They got most of the fundamentals exactly right.

The story restarts with Roger and Don discussing something in the morning. One of the major reasons to employ a non-linear narrative is to create confusion or disorientation. Viewers are so used to seeing a show go from A to B (especially when every episode of the series thus far has been structured like that) there are a few moments of feeling totally unmoored while trying to acclimate to the shifting and unfamiliar structure. This is generally a reflection of how the characters feel, especially one like Roger who is about to go completely unmoored while taking LSD.

Roger wants to take Don off on a Howard Johnson boondoggle to get away from his wife and get drunk and hire hookers and do whatever it is that Roger Sterling does at a motor lodge in upstate New York with another man. Don decides that rather than taking Roger, he's going to take Megan and make a weekend out of it. Now we know where Don and Megan are off to and we know it doesn't end well, creating in the audience a sense of impending doom and dread, which is one of our big major themes this season (it appears).

Instead, Roger is stuck going to a dinner party with his wife Jane, the secretary that he married after his heart attacks so that he could feel young and vital again. It seems they aren't a match made in heaven and she wants to dress like a Martian princess and hang out with snooty intellectual types while Roger wants to, I don't know, lie around with his hand in his pants and watch My Mother the Car on television.

Roger goes with her to this fancy dinner party hosted by Angela Chase's mom from My So-Called Life and they have a very deep discussion about truth. "I think the truth is real on any planet," Jane says, because she is a Martian princess and she knows what happens on other planets and we're already thinking about aliens thanks to Ginsberg and it all reverberates in our skulls rather nicely. Then Angela Chase's mom says something that sort of explains the whole episode and possibly all of life. That tracing logic back to the point of truth is sort of pointless. Even once we know the truth we still make the same mistakes. That means it doesn't matter if we're an alien or human because everything is flawed and the truth is inconsequential, even though we somehow feel it is somehow essential to our existence.

The everyone drops acid! Turns out Angela Chase's mom is Jane's psychiatrist and they are going to take drugs in a controlled environment. Jane thinks it will bring them closer together, to go on a trip without leaving a very well-appointed apartment and in a safe atmosphere. The other doctor who will be guiding them tells them that they have to go into the experience optimistic or else it is going to be bad. Oh, how true that is. Every time I was unsure about dropping acid it turned out to be a very negative experience, but if you're trying to have fun and approach it with an open mind it can be a very different experience. (Kids, don't do acid though. Really. It's not worth it.)

Roger initially thinks that the drug isn't working until he starts, and I think this is the technical term for it, tripping balls. The music comes out of the vodka bottle and his cigarette miraculous shortens. One of the things the show gets right is that tripping takes a long time, usually six to 10 hours (in my experience) and it starts in waves and peaks in the middle before lessening out near the end. This is how it starts with Roger, with a few slight hallucinations about his age and advertising. Then his guide tells him not to look in the mirror, another really bad idea for those who have dosed. When Roger does he sees himself as a man who is both young and old at once, a man who may look old on the outside but is young on the inside. Well, he may know he's getting older, but he sees the world in the same way he always has, so he doesn't perceive his age the same way that those who see his gray hair do. When he starts to freak out and needs someone safe, instead of seeing his guide, he sees Don, equating work with a place where he feels comfortable, something that he can latch onto while the world spins around him.

Next: Why so smiley, Roger?

[Photo: AMC]

He and Jane go home and get in the tub together and we see them down to their fundamental nature. Roger is happy and exuberant, but living in the past, watching the 1919 World Series, one that is also tainted by the Black Sox's scandal. Jane is scared and self-conscious, worried that Roger is laughing at her when he is expressing joy. They both end up with pink towels wrapped around their heads (a good look for Roger) and discussing their relationship. They both agree that it's over. Jane was waiting for Roger to say it was over and Roger was waiting for Jane to say it, but now they both know. They've gotten down to the truth of their relationship and that is that they don't really love each other, and possibly never really did.

In the morning they wake up and Roger is happy, which can't be true. The day after tripping is one of the worst of your whole entire life. You wake up with your tongue feeling like a burned out cigarette butt sitting in an ashtray that has been left out in the rain and crapped in by a bird. Your back hurts, your mind is fuzzy, and you're trying to sort out just what was real and what wasn't. One of the other truisms about tripping is that while coming down from LSD and starting to rejoin reality, you always solve all the world's problems, then you promptly forget those solutions the next day. This is just what happens to Jane and when Roger tells her that he's leaving her, she gets sad. She didn't remember a thing of what they talked about. Like the ad exec what she says she wants and what she really wants are two different things.

But she acquiesces and tells him that it will be expensive, but they move on calmly into their next chapter. Roger, while so afraid of being alone that he married Jane, has found happiness and vitality on his own. He's the only one who seems to be happy in his isolation.

Mad Men RecapDon: Alright, so Don takes Megan away to a weekend at Howard Johnson, which seems so glamorous you want to die. He tells her that they are leaving work right away, even though she wants to stay for the Heinz pitch. He sort of orders her away against her wishes, since he's both her husband and her boss. As they're driving up north (in a car ride that looks so fake it's almost like it's a joke about movies from the '60s and how fake their car rides look) Megan is wearing her super fierce sunglasses and she tells him to tell her about HoJo so that she can fall asleep. It's clear that she doesn't want to be there.

When they arrive at their dinky destination, they eat a whole bunch of food, but Megan is still excited about ordering dessert. Don says they'll have orange sherbert and two spoons. He's been telling her about this all day and is excited to share this experience with her. When it arrives she tries it gamely, but says it tastes like perfume. Don gets upset like she's trying to embarrass him and she shoves all the sherbert in her mouth in a move that is both hilarious and terrifying and just waiting to be made into an animated .gif to live on the internet for all of eternity. First "Zou Besou" and now this. The awful, humiliating things these writers make Megan do.

But Megan is pissed, and I would be too. Don doesn't listen to a thing she says. He just sort of orders her around and bullies her and doesn't take her feelings or desires into account at all. He can't compromise. He wants this little woman to do whatever he says and when she doesn't he bristles against it. Don gets upset that she is defiant and brings up how she always calls her mother. "Why don't you call your mother," Megan says, which is just such a nasty burn to Don for so many reasons (his mother is dead, his mother was a prostitute, he's ashamed of his mother, he's hiding his real identity, and on and on and on for a million therapy sessions). Don gets in his car and leaves Megan at the HoJo, screaming at him in the parking lot that she's talking to him.

That's the difference between Megan and almost every woman we've seen Don with up to this point: she fights back. Sure, Betty would pout and yell, but she always caved in the end. Megan is also in the position where Don is in total control of her, both at home and at work, where her not unsizable ambition is starting to take shape.

Next: Don takes an ill-advised fake drive.

[Photo: AMC]

Don takes another fake drive and gets his head about him and goes back to HoJo to apologize or work it out or order Megan into submission again, but we'll never know, because she's gone and he finds her fierce sunglasses in the parking lot. The waitress says she left with some boys and we start to get worried. This is like the plot of Frantic where Harrison Ford's wife mysteriously disappears and he has no clue where she went or if she's been kidnapped.

He spends a tense night in the HoJo, calling everyone (including Peggy, which we saw earlier) and their apartment seven million times. In his desperation, he calls Megan's mother, wondering if she called. He can't bring himself to confide in her about what happened. He can't open up to another person, even in his emotional fragility. Just as we think Dick Whitman is fusing into Don Draper to become one person he reverts back to his stoic and secretive ways.

While driving home, the narrative fractures once again, and we see Don and his kids in the car with Megan returning from their vacation to California, the one where he fell in love with Megan and proposed to her afterwards. He's remembering her in the rose tint of hindsight, but he wakes up and she's not there. He has no idea where she is. She is lost and so is he.

When he arrives home, she still won't let him in. This is just a repeat of the fight they had after Don's birthday party, and it seems like they're going to be one of those Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton couples, whose passion is defined more by their make ups and break ups than by a steady placidity of mutual affection. She won't let him in the house and he kicks the door down, chasing her around the apartment. What is he going to do when he catches her? Is he going to murder her? Beat her? Force her into some sort of submission. Don needs to appreciate this is not a problem that he can control by force, as he has all his past engagements with women. He needs to stop making the same mistakes over and over again, even if he knows the truth about himself. And why can't these two just break up already and we can never think about Megan again? Like Roger and Jane, they're just delaying the inevitable. Don knew the truth about Roger's relationship and still made the same exact mistake himself.

Finally they crash onto the rug and have some semblance of an adult conversation and seem to make up, though there's no resolution at all. They just sort of drop the argument and continue to coexist. Even back at the office later that morning their kissing and heading off in their separate directions. If they don't solve this problem, it will continue to be a problem and will only escalate. Also, what is up with people lying on the floor? Roger and Jane curled up on the carpet together in a gender reversal of the famous John Lennon and Yoko Ono pose from the cover of Rolling Stone, and of course we have Don and Megan rolling around naked on the floor of their dirty apartment from the first episode. Is this Mad Men's version of hitting rock bottom?

When he gets to the office, the narrative is fractured again, this time by Bert Cooper who comes out of the blue with a story of his own. Don confronts him about an ad that the former creative chief told Don to redo and Bert tells him he has been on "love leave" and hasn't been putting the work into the place that he needs to. He "let a little girl run the place" and it's fallen to shit. Megan is really in for a rough time once Don starts devoting himself to work all the time. Then we see a shot of the whole team walking in one direction and Peggy walking in the other direction. If you can't tease that symbol out for yourself, then you deserve to fail this whole damn class.

Roger bursts in and says that he has an announcement to make. Just when you think it's going to be about him and Jane busting up he says, "It's going to be a wonderful day." Someone this declaration of optimism only seems to heighten the cloud of dread that is closing around everyone. Looming and dread, people. Get into it!

Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan

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