Monday, April 30, 2012

MAD MEN Partners' Meeting - "Far Away Places"

Welcome to the Mad Men Partners' Meeting -- a roundtable discussion of this week's episode from your friendly neighborhood LowBrowMedia savants.
This is a spoiler-heavy zone. You have been warned.

airdate: April 22nd, 2012

Jon: Mark, I completely agree with your assessment of "Signal 30" last week being the best installment of the season thus far. Because of that, I was expecting "Far Away Places" to feel a little flat in comparison. But that wasn't the case at all, as there were plenty of great moments once again. This was a week filled with high-level stress, experimentation and fear culminating in big changes for a trio of our principal characters as they went off to new, very different destinations.

Forgive me if I've forgotten a past episode that has done this before, but I'm fairly certain this is the first time Matthew Weiner and company have played with how time operates within the structure of an episode. Sure, they've given us flashbacks and dream sequences before, but I believe showing us the diversions of three characters took from a seemingly random suggestion of playing hookie between Roger and Don one morning and rewinding to that moment each time to that point to follow a different character's day was entirely new. And what makes "Far Away Places" all the more impressive is each are entirely different vignettes and yet are somehow complimentary when strung together.

First up was Peggy, who had a rough start to a trying day when the boyfriend fails to understand the pressure she's under at work. And that stress is only exacerbated by Don's removal of Megan before the team can review the latest beans pitch for Heinz. With Don headed to upstate New York, Peggy is left to take the lead of the meeting with the Heinz executives, and well... she simply lacks that Draper magic touch we've come to know in previous seasons in presentations like this. I don't remember Don criticizing the client after the Carousel speech, which this was pretty clearly modeled after. Following the disastrous pitch, Peggy takes off for an afternoon matinee (an idea she spurned the boyfriend on that morning) to blow off some steam. There, she smokes a joint with a stranger and, for good measure, dishes out a handy. She then returns to the office, sobers up and eventually calls up the boyfriend in an attempt to salvage whatever it is they have left together. Typical day for anyone, really.

Next comes Roger's day, where he was forced to attend a dinner party thrown by friends of his trophy wife, Jane, after Don swooped away with his plan to go on a business daytrip to a Howard Johnson hotel. Roger's unhappiness with his marriage has been hinted at all season and explicitly expressed by Don to Pete in the cab last week, and feelings between the two (or lack thereof) came to a head in "Far Away Places." Now, this turned out to be a far different dinner party than we saw at the Campbell's house last week. Jane's friends were a collection of snooty, outwardly drab intellectuals who "businessman" Roger who discusses Frank Lloyd Rice in order to fit in, much to their dismay. But no sooner was Mr. Sterling was ready to hit the road when a plate of sugarcubes laced with lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD, was placed before him. (Btw, if you only associate acid with hippies, Badass Digest wrote a great piece this week on the drug before it was outlawed. In fact, B.A.D. has posted fantastic Mad Men-related articles each week based on the historical aspects of each episode's background plot threads this year.) Aided by some wonderfully fun camerawork, Roger's trip was fascinating and, at times, hilarious to watch. And because I adore Pet Sounds, I was so, so, so, so happy to be reminded of "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" as soon as Timothy Leary's wife (or was Roger joking?) hit play on the reel-to-reel as it resonated marvelously with the episode. Ultimately, Jane and Roger get alone in the truth together, reveal their respective boredom and unfulfillment with their marriage to one another, and agree to separate. It was probably the most pleasant breakup in television history. And at that point, he no longer needed his note to get home because it was a beautiful day indeed for him.

While Roger ended "Far Away Places" on cloud nine after starting out miserable as ever, Don went on exactly the opposite trek. After hijacking Roger's hookie plan as an excuse for he and Megan to escape the office for the day. He's giddy as can be at the prospect of showing off HoJo's orange sherbet to her. However, she's still trying to earn her place at SCDP, so the idea of blowing off her share of the work for an important meeting with Heinz to eat dessert on the other side of the state is not a top priority of hers. She tries to express this to Don, but his insistence to recreate their California excursion from close of last season only elicits a childlike tantrum from Megan in order to get his attention. This reaction forces Don to engage in his own overreaction, leaving Megan standing alone watching his car pull away. I have no doubt the Don of past seasons really would have left her there, but a short while later on the highway, he realizes his mistake and returns to the hotel. But... dun-dun DUN! Megan's long gone, save for her discarded sunglasses in the parking lot with word from the HoJo staff that she hitched a ride with some random dudes. Guilt consumes Don, not just for his parts in that argument, but maybe you've noticed every episode has had talk of a serial killer this year? Yeah, he's fearing the worst while spending the night in the the hotel's restaurant desperately hoping for her return. (Man, how did people then do anything without cellphones?) Eventually Don drives back to their apartment, where he finds Megan. (Surprise! She wasn't murdered.) They reconcile, but I think it's safe to say the honeymoon is officially over.

So, we have Peggy and Megan lashing out, Roger finally free of his languid marriage, and the veneer of the Draper marriage cracking a bit more. Brian Wilson might as well have been talking about these characters when he composed that Beach Boys' song the Sterlings tripped to. Not too shabby of a week, eh? I didn't even bring up Ginsberg's Martian story or how frickin' awesome Bert is. Will he swoop in again soon with yet another an amazing one-liner, or was this week his "she was an astronaut" of season 5? Tell me what you thought, brothers!

Mark: Damn, Jon. I think saying the honeymoon is over is the understatement of the century. After that extremely disturbing display of Don chasing Megan through the apartment and knocking her to the ground like a serial killer, it's clear that those fucked up power dynamics we were talking about back in the season premiere are growing more wildly out of control. Sure, they seem to have reconciled for now, but that reconciliation was like putting a band aid on a severed limb. I hate to say it, Jon, but I think the "Don's a changed man" theory is officially kaput. I think he's been keeping things pretty well in line, but if his tranquility is shaken so easily by one fight, causing him to instantly revert to Don Draper Classic and leave Megan in the lurch at the HoJos, then I think things don't bode well for these two. You can only have creepy-sexy underwear fights for so long. Eventually the new car smell wears off and you're left to sort out the fact that you have two profoundly different worldviews. Then it's just a hop, skip and a jump to chasing your significant other around like Jason Voorhees.

It is interesting that serial killers have been mentioned so often this season. Perhaps it's a metaphor for the creeping dread these characters feel as they become increasingly confused and disoriented with where the world is headed. Don is stuck in the past and disconnected from how his business and society at large are changing, and he's trying to force Megan into the role of the subservient wife who shouldn't have any use for work when he wants to rush off to Howard Johnsons to recreate their Disneyland trip. At work, Don has been a mentor to Peggy, and he certainly trusts her ability, but I don't think he left her alone to run the Heinz pitch because he believes in her. The Heinz rep was a dickhead, but still Peggy isn't ready to do this on her own. She needs more experience and guidance before she'll be able to pull off her own Carousel pitch, but Don just doesn't care anymore. The fact that he had to be called on this by shoeless Bert Cooper was just a nice surprise. Don's dazed moment in the boardroom as he watched the young faces of SCDP literally pass him by was a great closer. This season's (nay, series) recurring theme of time passing people by was made literal in many ways in this episode. Time was all over the place in "Far Away Places", mostly because everyone seemed to be getting high (What, no shrooms for Don and Megan? That would have tied the episode together, and I hear they go great with orange sherbet and clams). Between Don and Peggy's blackout naps and Roger's disappearing cigarette, the loose sense of time gave the whole affair a druggy vibe. Drug experiences are hard to capture on screen, though, and honestly I didn't care for a lot of the Roger moments, except for his two-tone hair which was a nice visual metaphor for the duality of Mr. Sterling.

With Joan and Greg calling it quits and now Jane and Roger having the most existential break-up imaginable (I thought you were supposed to impulsively get married when you're under the influence?), could it be that Weiner and co. are setting the table for the big Draper divorce? Eh, I don't want to get ahead of myself, but Don and Megan have a lot of tests coming their way and I think they're both too immature to handle them.

I love Peggy. She's so earnest, and Elisabeth Moss' line reading of "It was the beans that brought them together on that cool summer night" delighted me to no end. I hope she and her Trotskyite fella can work it out. To be honest, I liked the non-linear structure of the episode. It played into the definition of Mad Men as being a televisual short story collection, and it continued this season's streak of interesting technical exercises. But I have to be real, I was slightly disappointed that Peggy's story was cut short a third of the way into the show. Part of me didn't want it to end after that superb scene between Peggy and Ginsberg in the darkened office. Beautifully shot, beautifully acted. After his reaction to the Richard Speck pictures a couple of episodes ago, I knew something was up with Michael, and my mind went to the obvious: he was in some way effected by the holocaust. Then I thought maybe the timeline didn't match up. But the fact that he was born and orphaned in a concentration camp just blew my mind, and the way he presented that information to Peggy through his story of being a Martian was the perfect blend of disorienting and deeply sad. Come on, Jon and Mike, you guys have been strangely silent on Ginsberg. I love this guy. Am I alone?

Overall, I liked this episode a lot. It took some chances, provided some great period detail and in its own weird way kicked the story of this season into gear. Mike will be back next week, so we'll see the rest of you then!

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