Mad Men: Season Five, Episode 6
Far Away Places
Every once in a while, Mad Men wants to remind us that its not like any other show on television. When it does this, strangely enough, is when it becomes most like The Sopranos, the show where creator Matt Weiner hung his hat before this series got its start. That show was never afraid to change itself structurally in order to pursue an interesting idea, and in fact was content by late in its run to leave reality behind for weeks at a time in order to pursue some thematically relevant psychological revelations of its characters. Within this own show's universe, "Far Away Places" is most akin to the season three classic "Seven Twenty Three," which gave us a dream-like vision of three characters progressing toward their disparate fates. "Far Away Places" takes us through a day in the life of three of our characters, but the structure of the episode is so dynamic, the score so cinematic, the editing so crisp, that it, too, often feels like a dream. As I am wont to do, I will take each of these journeys on its own merits.
Peggy is having trouble with her boyfriend, for exactly the reasons one might expect. He feels like she focuses too much on work, she feels like he is inattentive to her needs and stresses. She has the Heinz presentation that morning, he is talking about going to the movies that night. Peggy sees Megan whisked away, which also removes the support Don could and would have given in that meeting. Her pitch goes poorly, which leads to her pushing way, way too hard to get the client on board. She is booted off the job, starts drinking, and decides to go, by herself, to the movie she was supposed to consider seeing with her boyfriend. There, she gets high, gives a stranger a handjob, and returns to work, where she promptly passes out until night has fallen. Dawn wakes her, she gets a strange call from Don, tries to absolve herself, is ignored, and then gets back to work, where she hears an origin story from Michael Ginsberg, about how he was born in a concentration camp. She goes home, calls her boyfriend, and asks him to come over.
Roger (I promise this pedantic plot summary is going somewhere) is dragged to a dinner party with Jane's friends that he desperately does not want to go to, where he drops acid. What follows is a pretty obvious trip through his psyche, but done with enough visual flourish and editing panache to make it great fun to watch. The alcohol and cigarettes he indulges in quite literally sing to him of escape. The pictures in the magazine he looks at, and later, his own reflection, make him confront his own fears of aging and being irrelevant. He confronts his womanizing side by staring at his wife's psychologist as she bends over. And most importantly, he basically completely ignores Jane. Throughout the scene at the dinner party, Roger's only contact with his wife is physical, the only way he engages with her is to tell her she's beautiful. That all changes when they head home, though, and the two engage in a deep, starkly honest conversation about the dissolution of their marriage. In the morning, Roger says, matter of factly, that he is leaving. Jane first doesn't remember, and then doesn't want to acknowledge the truth the two reached in that conversation. But where Roger only longed for escape with Don at the episode's opening, by its end, he has found the escape he really wanted all along.
And then there is Don. He whisks Megan upstate to Howard Johnson's, tries to feed her orange sherbet, and then leaves her in the parking lot when she makes some (completely valid) points about the way he disregards her thoughts and desires in favor of his own. "Get in the car, eat ice cream, take off your dress," she scream, "Yes master!" And then he leaves her in the parking lot. From here, the episode does something stellar, putting us very effectively in Don's head as he returns, searching for Megan and finding her nowhere. Intellectually, I was always pretty certain Megan would be fine, but for much of this sequence, I, like Don, was plagued by the sinking feeling that she was dead in a ditch somewhere, another lost opportunity caused by Don's selfishness and inauthenticity. Mad Men is not the type of show to surreptitiously kill off a character like Megan, of course, and it would have been completely out of left field if she did die this week, but the simple fact that the episode had me considering the possibility speaks to how effectively it puts us in Don's headspace. The next day, the two return to work, seemingly back on the right track, even though, as Megan says, every fight diminishes what they have a little. Don returns to a talking-to from Burt Cooper, who points out that Don has been on love-leave, and needs to get back to work.
"Far Away Places" plays with time in some very fascinating ways. This season has already established itself as being about how time can just sort of get away from you (I'm thinking of the conversation between Pete and his driver's ed crush last week), and this episode plays with the way time can dilate and contract, even within a day. Peggy falls asleep, and night falls. Megan disappears, and time stops for Don. And Roger and Jane lose all track, with her even asking, in a drug-induced stupor, "how could a few numbers contain all of time?" Everything seems to be crawling along like just another day, and suddenly, everything changes and the characters are left wondering where they are, and how exactly they got there.
Each of these stories is also, at its core, about a relationship. Peggy fears Abe is going to break up with her and so goes on a personal journey that leads her back to him. Roger and Jane have been teetering on the brink of divorce for a while now, but spending a night together, removed of their inhibitions allowed them to finally be honest and admit that their relationship is dead. Megan wants Don to treat her like a modern woman, who likes to work and is in control of her own life, while Don thought he was marrying a nanny, a woman who could satisfy his needs and mother his children in ways Betty never could. He wants to take her on new adventures and show her the glory of orange sherbet--she would rather be a part of the team at work and, quite frankly, prefers chocolate. She explodes pretty quickly, escalating the argument as someone with her maturity level might, first by acting out and eating the sherbet in protest, and then by going nuclear, asking Don why he never calls his mother. He leaves her. He thinks he loses her. He doesn't.
That line, referenced above, when Megan says each fight diminishes what they have, is a near perfect encapsulation of what this episode has to say about relationships. When they are new, they're easy--you put on blinders, introduce each other to all of the elements of your lives the other is not familiar with, and you slowly build a life together. Then the fights start coming, and happiness can be slowly eroded, worn down by the simple weight of compromise, the cold hard fact that to please someone else, you will have to give up something about yourself. For some people, this bonds them closer together; for others, it is this sacrifice that slowly, methodically tears them apart. There's also a disturbing physicality to the fights between Don and Megan. He seems to want to dominate her completely, and she refuses until she relents. Its a problem I'm sure we will deal with again as the season goes on, and it speaks volume about what Don wants from Megan, and what she thinks she's giving him.
The flashback to Don whistling "I Want to Hold Your Hand," as he drives to drop Sally and Bobby off after the Disneyland trip that put these two together is a wonderful moment, a reminder of the blissful ignorance that exists at the beginning of a relationship, and it seems to strike Don, then, that he may never be as happy with Megan as he was in those first few moments. And to some extent, that's true. The kind of happiness found at the beginning of a relationship is fleeting. What Don can hope for now is that he can build a different sort of love, one built on companionship, devotion, and mutual understanding. This is the sort of love Don Draper has never excelled at. He loves each of his dalliances, when they're new, but eventually things sour, they get routine, and he gets bored. You can see the struggle going on beneath the surface here: This time, Don wants things to be different. But he's always been very good at beginnings, at luring people in, at getting them to see things the way he does. What he struggles with is that next step, the one where the honeymoon is over and things start to get serious.
To some extent, the haze that lingers over this episode is drug induced in each instance. For Peggy, the high is all too brief, and she is quickly washing her hands and getting back to the real world. Roger, as always, would rather live his life in an altered state, escaping in booze, cigarettes, and this time, into LSD. He feels at peace the next morning as he disassembles another marriage dispassionately, but whether he has really come down from his high is an open question, and when he does, I imagine it will be a rude awakening. Don, though, is high on Megan, on the "love leave" Burt references, the sort of high that changes things, even if the altered state never lasts quite as long as we'd expect.
Don Draper is a different man this season, and part of that is surely his honeymoon period with Megan, but I wonder if something else is at work here. The man we met back in season one was frozen by fear, stoically facing a life full of paranoia, carrying a secret that weighed him down, a secret he protected by creating a completely falsified persona. These days, the cat is out of the bag, and Don doesn't have to be "Don Draper" in the same way he used to. The Don we knew, the Don he fabricated, worked hard to keep the focus off of his personal life, but this Don's secrets are out. When Don tells Burt to mind his own business, Burt astutely points out, "this is my business." Burt lives for the job, even though he has been completely marginalized in the new firm. Burt treats his work the way Don used to: it is a central part of who he is and how he defines himself. In that way, I think, the show may be dealing with a different sort of sweeping change that can draw its roots back to the '60s. Burt Cooper is an old fashioned man, defined by his work. Don Draper is discovering that he wants to be something different, a man that can have both a fulfilling work life and a rich personal life. How he navigates that divide, and whether or not he loses something on either side, are questions I look forward to exploring in future weeks.
The final shot of the episode speaks, as usual, volumes, as Don stands alone in the conference room after receiving a pep talk about how he needs to get his head back in the game. Don has always been a man in existential crisis (hell, his whole character is basically built around the question of his authenticity), and now he is stuck between the man he was (an old fashioned, head in his work philanderer) and the man he might yet become (a happily married man capable of balancing his work and his personal life). He is held back by the things he has trained himself to want: control over everyone around him (especially the women in his life), freedom to abandon everything at the drop of a hat, and respect by those he has crazed recognition from. Yet he is also propelled forward by a desire to be a different person. And if there is one man we know to be capable of change, at least outwardly, its our Dick Whitman. The question this season seems to be asking him is whether he can change where it counts.
-One of my cinematic weak-spots is the inversion of pop songs, subverting their meaning for darker purposes (one of the most obvious examples is the shoot out in Face/Off set to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"). The show's use of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and to a lesser extent, the Beach Boys "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" was excellent, even if it is the sort of thing I am primed to love.
-Of course Don, who constructed his whole persona around the idea of being the ideal American, loves Howard Johnson's. Megan is not as satisfied by its facade.
-This show very occasionally toys with the sort of surrealism The Sopranos deployed all the time. Considering that show is one of my all-time favorites, I am completely on board for this sort of exercise, though this show often seems more restrained when it attempts it. I'm not sure if that's purposeful or just Weiner's sensibility being different than David Chase's, but its something to consider.
-"All absence is death if we let ourselves know it."
-"It's not a destination. It's on the way to some place."
Tags: Mad Men