A quick run-through of everything this week’s episode of Mad Men has to offer: threesomes, cartoon monkeys, hippie parties, evil computers, and a guy who cuts off his own nipple. But if you want to get to the heart of the strangeness of “The Runaways,” you have to appreciate the peculiar choices episode director/series cinematographer Christopher Manley made in shooting it.
The ep poses a stark contrast to Mad Men‘s usual structure (a few patient, meaty scenes many minutes in length, flowing seamlessly into one another) with a collection of jagged 15-second clips that lob off mid-conversation or immediately after someone picks up the phone; twice this latter technique is used, once with Betty and once with Megan. We can chalk this up to the throughline of people not getting what they want in this episode — Don wants to see Stephanie (the niece of the late Ana Draper, who phones him in hopes of getting a little support for her fatherless baby-on-the-way), Megan wants to save her marriage, Ginsberg wants to defeat the nefarious machine wreaking havoc on Sterling Cooper & Partners (and woo Peggy), Lou Avery wants a little respect for his beloved comic strip creation Scout, and Betty wants… ugh, who knows — a theme that collapses when the most unpredictable desire is met: Don gets his groove back.
Way back when, Don earned the ire of cigarette kingpin Philip Morris when he penned an editorial decrying the health problems caused by their product. It was the first in a string of antics that fissured Don’s stellar reputation in the advertising game, particularly in the eyes of his own bosses and partners. The climax of that string, of course, cost him his place at SC&P at the end of last season, so a mending of the former might be the right touch (psychologically and thematically) to undo the latter. We can’t really see Mad Men let Don taking his seat back at the head of the industry, so we’re a bit perplexed as to what his apparently fruitful ad hoc chat with the Philip Morris boys this week will lead to (if not just the displeasure of Lou Avery and Harry Hamlin). But mystery aside, Don’s determined play at the cigarette account is the only thing about “The Runaways” that feels cohesively put together.
The episode is littered with awkward gambits. Cautious reveals are shafted for abject ones (re: the initial shot of Stephanie’s pregnant body), subtlety is all but foregone in thematic references (that 2001: A Space Odyssey send-up went over nobody’s head), an incriminating conversation is overheard by the wrongest of persons from a bathroom stall (come on, guys, didn’t something like this just happen in “A Day’s Work”?). “The Runaways” strings together incredibly bizarre conceits, Michael Ginsberg’s sudden schizophrenic explosion topping the lot, with such overt techniques and uncomfortably paced scenes that you can’t help but wonder if what you’re watching is next-level genius or a severe artistic mishap.
But the material is all interesting. Even the dreadful locking of horns of Mr. and Mrs. Francis lands us some cherished time with Sally, whom we get to see adorn little brother Bobby with that same big-hearted kindness to which she treated Don a couple weeks back — it’s adorable, and dripping with severity. Megan’s play at a drug-induced threesome “for Don” (after growing jealous and suspicious of his concern for pregnant Stephanie) might be frustratingly ill-fated, but we get the feeling that it’s the penultimate straw for the pair. And Ginsberg losing his mind over Sterling Cooper & Partners’ new computer, devising homophobic conspiracy theories, jumping Peggy in her own apartment, mutilating himself (his severed nipple “for Peggy” beats Megan’s ménage à trois by just a touch as the worst way to win someone’s heart), and being carted off by mental health professionals is all enthusiastically stirring, if still outrageous enough to call the script’s judgment into question.
But, being told mostly from Peggy’s point of view, it has its place. This job will kill them all. The future has no patience for (or interest in) men and women who aren’t ready for it. And as Ginsberg is wheeled off screaming, Peggy begins to cry. Both for her suffering friend and for herself. Having seen her own era take down Don, she knows she might be next.
Episode grade: B, with bonus points to Don for getting us away from Megan’s banjo party so quickly