There are few shows on the air more effective than Mad Men at portraying how the feeling of everything spinning out of control can seem completely normal in the moment. Through its camerawork and editing choices this season, the series is focusing more and more on its notion of how time seems to have sped up and raced past these characters. They’re losing their youth. The culture values people far younger than them. The political and social movements of the age make less and less sense. And everywhere they look, there’s something slipping away from them, something they once thought they had a firm grasp of. Put another way: This week’s Game Of Thrones episode seems to take place over a couple of weeks, if not longer. This episode of Mad Men takes place over the course of a single day (and a bit of the next morning). Yet both feel epic. It’s just that this is an epic of interiors.
Mad Men will often do one or two structurally adventurous episodes per season. The series usually takes its cues from short fiction, turning each episode into a smaller tale about one or two of the characters. Yet there’s room within each season for a story that plays around with that format. Take, for instance, season three’s brilliant “Seven Twenty Three,” which is three largely separate stories that comment on each other thematically and dovetail in unexpected ways. Another good example would be season two’s “The Jet Set,” which gets Don out of his New York office and into the bright sunshine of California, only to find that the whole experience reveals just how Don Draper/Dick Whitman-y he is, even outside of his normal environments.
“Far Away Places” is perhaps even more adventurous than that. It’s a story of three people having one long, fascinating day. Peggy Olson has a bad day at work, goes to a movie, gets high, gives a guy there a hand job, and gets jolted back to reality (and to the problematic nature of her relationship with Abe) by the origin story of Michael Ginsberg. Roger Sterling goes to an LSD party with his wife, drops acid, and has a long conversation that culminates in the end of his marriage. Don and Megan Draper take a trip up the road to Plattsburgh, have an angry fight over orange sherbet, and nearly see their marriage dissolve when he abandons her in the parking lot. Only the last minute save of Don weeping over how he thought he’d lost her is enough to temporarily patch over the offense. The episode ends with a beautiful image: Don Draper, having been given a pep talk by Bert Cooper, stands in the conference room, watching the office pass by him. We know what they’ve all been up to. He does not. The world swings by him, but he is standing still.
What’s ingenious is the way the episode establishes symmetry and thematic unity among these three stories. It zips forward in time, then back again, returning to the past to pick up with a new character on their way through the day. Once we return to the meeting between Don and Roger again (for the final time), there’s a certain glee present in knowing that we’re going to embark on some completely different story, and the show’s confidence in presenting all three of these vignettes—Peggy’s personal short story, Roger’s drug-fueled trip, Don’s road movie—as essentially pieces of the same whole keeps anything from going off the rails or becoming too much to bear. There’s zippy humor here, but also a sense of how a whole day can get away from you. Time both dilates and expands. Peggy goes to sleep, and it’s suddenly night. Don sits down in a booth inside of Howard Johnson’s, and it’s suddenly quarter-to-two in the morning. Roger goes to a polite dinner party with Timothy Leary and Angela Chase’s mom, and he’s suddenly sitting in a tub with his wife and witnessing the 1919 World Series at the other end of his bathroom. Things seem to be going along as they always were, but then they can change in an instant.
All of the stories hinge on relationships in some way. Peggy begins hers by having a nasty tiff with Abe that seems like it should dissolve whatever’s left of their relationship. Yet by the end—after her hand job in the dark and her conversation with Michael—she’s invited him over to her place to keep her company, if you know what I mean. Roger and Jane seem to be on the verge of their marriage ending at the episode’s beginning, which has seemed to be the case all season. Yet in the middle of their drug trip, the two seem closer than ever, until that very closeness, that very honesty, opens them up to the point where they both admit their marriage isn’t working. Don gets on Megan’s bad side by treating her less like the modern woman she is and more like his wife to be pushed around, and by the time she’s not liking the orange sherbet, the two of them are dangerously close to a huge argument. She goes nuclear, asks him why he doesn’t call his mother. He leaves her. She seems gone, until she isn’t.
After they’ve made up, Megan says she doesn’t like when they fight because every time they fight, it “diminishes what we have.” It’s a perfect line, I think, at describing the way that new relationships—ones in the blush of first infatuation—are slowly worn down and eroded by the simple fact of having to deal with a human being who’s not yourself, of making compromises and looking past yourself to what somebody else wants. I love that the fights between the two are so terrifying and physical, that there’s still this element of him wanting to dominate her and her refusing to be dominated that seems to both fuel their sexual escapades and bubble up into some genuine, personal nastiness between them. It’s not the healthiest dynamic, and I can’t imagine we won’t see more of this play out as the season goes on.
That said, I like that the greatest enemy this season is almost the passage of time itself. As things go on, we change and evolve. We become ever so slightly different, and maybe the people around us don’t see us in quite the same ways as they did. Right after Don realizes that Megan could be gone forever, he briefly remembers a time when the two of them were far happier, when he was returning from the trip to California with her and his kids, and she got the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” stuck in his head. (This would have made a great closing credits song if I believed for a second this show could have afforded the rights.) That’s increasingly a memory in the distant past for him. No matter how the rest of their relationship proceeds—even if they stay married until one of them dies—they’re never going to be as happy as they were in that moment again. If they attain happiness, it’ll be a different kind of happiness. You fall in love. You learn more about each other. And then comes the first fight. And then another and another. Pretty soon, you don’t feel as flush with newness as you once did. And that’s when the true test of whether you’re going to stick the relationship out comes. Don and Megan are rapidly entering that stage, and it has both of them just a bit discombobulated.
I had assumed all three storylines in this episode would feature drug use, after both Peggy and Roger’s did, but Don’s featured nothing of the sort. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it, too, was about the haze that comes from having your body’s chemicals get jacked by a foreign substance. And look at this: Peggy’s high and comedown happen relatively quickly, as the marijuana she smokes in the theater wears off fairly soon after she uses it. Roger’s high and comedown takes much longer, lasting most of the night, though it’s gone by the time morning comes. But the high Don is on—the “love leave” Bert refers to—is the kind of high that takes months and months to wear off. Does it matter what causes the chemicals to change, what causes the endorphins to speed up? Peggy and Roger both reach epiphanies about their relationships in the midst of their respective highs; Don and Megan’s epiphany about their relationship causes the high to begin to crumble. As I said, there’s a way for these two to stick it out. But that transition from infatuation to measured compromise is one of the roughest any couple has to traverse.
The episode’s director is Scott Hornbacher, who was previously responsible for season three’s woozily beautiful “Wee Small Hours” and season four’s “Waldorf Stories” (which I remember almost nothing about). His work here is the sort that often receives Emmy nominations, and it would be terrific if he did. The showiest sequence, of course, is the long drug trip Roger goes on, which is filled with all sorts of cool visual tricks, like the way that time seems to elongate in the small room where Roger and his compatriots drop acid, or the scene where he’s speaking but his mouth isn’t moving, or the gorgeous image of he and Jane lying, heads touching, on the floor, admitting their marriage just isn’t working. Hell, it’s worth it for the image of Roger as half young, half old (though that’s the makeup and hairstyling department’s work, I suspect), or for the wonderful usage of “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” by The Beach Boys.
But the other two segments of the episode are just as beautifully shot. The whole sojourn at the Howard Johnson’s is among the most technically precise segments of the series, confining Don mostly to one location, managing to make it look at once beautiful and menacing. Hornbacher uses the bright, Technicolor oranges of the establishment—reflected both in the glowing roof behind Don or in the big disk of orange sherbet pushed in front of him that he seems so happy to receive—to set off against the volatile emotions expressed by the couple inside. The shot of Don using the pay phone to call Peggy (a moment we know is coming, since we saw it play out on her end earlier), the Howard Johnson’s lit up behind him like a beacon of a life he knows he wants to lead but can’t yet get just right, is gorgeous. Almost as beautiful are the late-night Peggy scenes in her segment, particularly the one where she and Ginsberg talk about his origins as a child born in a concentration camp. The two are mostly lit by key lights, presumably for the work they’re doing, and I like the way the whole scene plays up a place I assumed the show would go with them—a tentative romantic relationship—but makes it feel more like the shifting of feelings between two colleagues than it does a will-they/won’t-they thing.
Yet if there’s a moment worth singling out here, it’s that final image. Don Draper’s been a man at a crossroads all season—hell, all series, really—and now, he’s got to get his head back in the game. Yet at the same time, he’s held back by his old feelings and prejudices, like his belief that if he tells Megan they’re going to head up to Howard Johnson’s to check it out, she’s going to drop everything to go. (Why would she be so into work if he’s not? His fear just might be that her renewed interest in work means she’s lost interest in him. The characters in Mad Men are always projecting their own feelings on top of others’ emotions.) He’s a man who needs to take some bold steps and make some big choices to get back to where he was—lest he keep putting everything on Peggy, who’s not yet ready herself (nor are the clients willing to accept her).
But outside, the carousel goes round and round, and Don Draper stands at the center, watching it carry everyone past.
- Matt Weiner co-wrote this week’s episode with Semi Chellas, who’s responsible for the highly acclaimed Canadian drama The 11th Hour. I haven’t seen it, but maybe some of our Canadian commenters can pipe up.
- Howard Johnson’s is a chain that’s largely disappeared from the American landscape, but it was the place to stop for a bite to eat around the time this episode takes place. Its meals were about as gourmet as chain restaurant fare got at the time, and it was known for providing a good experience just about anywhere you went, even if it was also seen at the height of homogeneity. (I think it’s telling that Don, who’s always just wanted to fit into the ideal American life, really likes it, while Megan isn’t as enthused.) There are a handful of the old restaurants still around, but most are gone, including the flagship one in Times Square. Here’s a good website with the history of the place.
- I’m 95 percent certain the movie Peggy sees is Born Free, about a lion cub raised in captivity, then released into the wild. Parallels, perhaps?
- I was also sure the show was trying to suggest the man Roger drops acid with is Timothy Leary, but he’s not credited as such in the closing credits. So maybe Roger’s calling him “Leary” disparagingly?
- It was a little weird to have Bess Armstrong—such a big part of My So-Called Life, one of my favorite shows of my adolescence—turn up here as Jane’s psychiatrist. Wild.
- The image of Don popping up in the mirror to talk to Roger had me half convinced I was watching a Sopranos dream sequence.
- Thanks to Nick Petrilli for the screencap.
- Next week on Mad Men: Bobby Draper speaks!