Monday, April 23, 2012

I'm Roger Sterling & I Want To Take LSD

Season 3's seventh episode, Seven Twenty-Three, told three stories of private shame and wanting through flashback.  For Betty, it was coming to terms with her desire for Henry Francis, for Peggy, it was the aftermath of having been wooed by Duck Phillips to join Gray but ended with the two having sex, and for Don, it was avoiding putting his signature on an employment contract that would formally tie him to Sterling Cooper. Ultimately, Bert Cooper cajoled Don into signing, by first reminding him that Bert knew his secret and then, appealing to his need to avoid being tied down, by subtly reminding him that "Don Draper" did not really exist, and after all, "who is signing this contract, anyway."

While not directly analogous, the aptly named Far Away Places shares many similarities in its narrative construct to that third season stunner.  Like Seven Twenty-Three, this episode tells three stories in one - Peggy, driving herself at work is again shot down by the executives from Heinz, Roger, in a half-hearted attempt to satisfy his second wife Jane, attends a pretentious dinner party hosted by professorial navel gazers, and Don alights to a literal "far away place," a long drive to Plattsburgh to visit Howard Johnson's, a potential client. In their own ways, each story takes its character to a far away place. 

Peggy's trip is both literal and metaphorical.  After getting into a fight with Abe, she must prepare for a second presentation to Heinz, a client that has already shot down her first idea for an advertising campaign.  When the same outcome occurs, Peggy attempts to "pull a Don Draper" and convince the executive of the wrongness of his decision and, after pushing too hard, gets herself kicked off the account.  She goes to a local movie theater where a stranger offers her marijuana and, after she accepts, sits next to her.  A few puffs later and Peggy shows her gratitude with a hand job.  Later, after learning that Ginsberg was born in a concentration camp (an assertion she questions (and talk about a far away place!)) she feels regret and invites Abe to her apartment. 

Drugs play a role in Roger's actual "trip," as he ingests LSD at a dinner party.  Initially, I thought that the idea of Roger Sterling taking acid might qualify for a "jump the shark" moment for Mad Men, but like other awkwardly presented scenes from this season such as Megan's Zou Bisou Bisou performance and Peggy's girl's night with Dawn, the execution minimized what on paper seemed ridiculous.  It was not overplayed, no pink elephants or overt hallucinations, but instead, a point of clarity reached with Jane, each confessing they were miserable and wanted a divorce. 

Meanwhile, Don and Megan take a road trip to upstate New York but argue bitterly in the Howard Johnson's restaurant, resulting in Don taking off in the car without her.  After calming down, he returns, but she is gone.  He is frantic and worried, circling the parking lot, loitering in the restaurant and finally, calling his mother-in-law to see if Megan has called.  When he finally gives up and goes home, she is there waiting but does not want him in the apartment.  He breaks the lock and chases her down, the two collapsing in a heap on the floor.  When she tells him that fights like this erode what they have between them, he melts, as she stands, he clings to her desperately and having been so fearful of losing her, weeps uncontrollably. The catharsis is brief.  Although they return to work the next day all smiles, Don is on the receiving end of a short, but stern lecture from Bert that Don has been neglecting his job, handing over his responsibilities to "that girl" (Peggy) who Bert suggests is not yet ready for that task while Don has been on "love leave." In other words, "get your shit together because we cannot have our copywriters mouthing off to Heinz executives and putting accounts at risk."

In this way, Far Away Places acts as a nice book end to Seven Twenty-Three.  The dinner party discussion centered on the idea of truth and this episode allowed Don, Peggy and Roger to get to their own truth, albeit at some personal cost.  For Don, it was a flashback to the Disneyland trip with Megan, when the two of them were returning Sally and Bobby to Betty and Henry at their new house in Rye, and how happy he felt. Instead of fearing stability and permanence, he desperately wants it. For Peggy, instead of using her anonymous movie theater liaison as a final straw to break up with Abe, she is remorseful and wants his love and affection. For Roger, he willingly takes ownership of his life instead of allowing it to control him. He needed his much younger wife to articulate something he felt too, but the words having been spoken, he is unburdened and, when he greets Don the next day, proclaims it is going to be a "beautiful day." 

The episode also reminds viewers that much goes on off camera.  Roger's dissatisfaction with Jane was rarely articulated over the past two seasons, but they started out happy, like Don and Megan.  Perhaps they had their own Howard Johnson's moment where their love slowly began to crumble. Peggy is following in Don's footsteps in more ways than one - she drinks his same Canadian Club, takes naps on the couch at work and ditches her job to go to the movies, only she opts for clumsy hook ups instead of more discreet encounters.  And while Don and Megan's relationship has been largely positive, she knows enough about him to know how to insult him in a way that will set him off - "why don't you call your mother." ZING.  

To watch Mad Men now is a much different experience than it was when the show premiered.  If you are like me and keep an eye on your Twitter account while watching, commentary is instantaneous, and often negative toward particular scenes or themes being explored.  Indeed, much of the tweeting I read suggests the show has lost its fastball, is falling into camp and missing the hip vibe of earlier seasons. Viewers remind me in many ways of "Picky Deadheads," fans who used to critique song choice, or the playing of band members in real time but now speak ruefully of no longer having the band intact.  

But the truth is that the show is evolving with the times and some of the people who were "cool" are now "old" and the themes explored in this season have been darker but more inchoate. The world is no longer at a distance to the characters, who were able to use the walls of the advertising agency to keep the world at an arm's length.  No longer can Don jet off to Rome to inspect Hilton properties, he now must drive to a down scale Howard Johnson's.  Drugs, which were once tut-tutted by Peggy's secretary Violet, are now casually used, and of course, it is now racial and religious barriers that are being broken (Don's comment about not hiring a Jew "on his watch" from Season 1 is obviously no longer operative and the agency has hired its first black employee, Dawn). The times they are a changing, and if that means Roger "tunes in," or Peggy jacks off a stranger in a movie theater, I say, bring it on. 

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