Sunday’s Mad Men (“The Runaways”) begins with a viewer warming about sexually explicit material, and if you had told me we’d be seeing a three-way and a nipple, I’d have assumed they’d be connected somehow. But not on late-Sixties Mad Men, which is slowly descending into madness.
Now this is the Sixties that I remember. The previous four episodes this season have taken place in 1969 at specific dates on the calendar, but those shows, being preoccupied with the office dynamics at SC&P and Don Draper’s personal woes, didn’t really examine what it was actually like to be alive in 1969. “The Runaways” has no obvious date (although it presumably occurred in May 1969), yet it really did feel like the late Sixties.
There was a certain craziness to that period, just as there’s a madness to the climax of any revolution (think of how the French Revolution turned out) and we see this played out in an episode with pregnant hippies, families fighting over Vietnam, drugs everywhere, sexual license, lion mane beards and literal insanity.
What was so bizarre about the sixties was how half of upper middle class white America went a bit beserk while the other half pushed back in reaction. We see these two sides of America playing out right in SC&P, with the creatives stoned half the time and hating their corporate overlords. They are delighted to discover that Lou Avery, their paper-pushing talentless boss, has a secret ambition to be a rich and famous cartoonist. Why, his dream is to emulate W. Watts Biggers, a former colleague at Danzer Fitzgerald who created the cartoon “Underdog.” He wants to launch his own cartoon series called “Scout’s Honor.” This is hardly a profound ambition, because “Underdog” was a cartoon series of such surpassing mediocrity that even I, as a young TV addict, refused to watched it. How mediocre is it? Check this out.
When Lou discovers that his staff is laughing at his corny Army-based strip, he blows up, “You’re a bunch of flag-burning snots. You’ve got a thing to learn about patriotism and loyalty.” This is the kind of non sequitur that would routinely intrude on any argument in 1969.
Vietnam was an important theme last season, but has barely been mentioned at all this year. Ironically when a Vietnam-themed fight does break out, it’s because a wife is trying to keep up with her husband’s evolving views. Betty opines that she supports an all-out victory but Henry has “moderated” his position and now favors a slow withdrawal, which is Nixon’s strategy. We finally do learn that Henry won his state senate race last November, but we don’t learn what he really thinks about Vietnam (since he seems to be only saying what he thinks is politically expedient — that he supports the President) or why it’s even important for a state senator to have a position on Vietnam in the first place.
At the heart of the dispute between the two Americas is a debate over authority. If you’re of a certain age you probably remember the self-satisfied “Question Authority” bumper stickers and tee shirts that were so popular in the early 1970s. Betty and Don are not usually on the same page but they each have something insightful to say about questioning authority. Before putting her foot in her mouth about Vietnam Betty observes that when the kids started protesting the war itself, they eventually began to question all authority, which led to vandalism and other examples of acting out. This is a pretty smart comment but Don has an even subtler observation. He tells Lou that, “This is an office of people who have a problem with authority” and that he shouldn’t make himself such an easy target. Don knows that to get the most out of creative people you have to let them blow off some steam, advice that Lou won’t or can’t take because he doesn’t actually have the skill or earned respect to pull off.
Of course, when it comes to questioning authority, Don Draper himself is the master. He doesn’t fit in the world of comfortable Republicans like Lou, Jim Cutler, Henry Francis or Bert Cooper, and he also doesn’t fit in with Megan’s counterculture friends either. But when it comes to breaking the rules, the hippies have nothing on Don. Which leads to the amazing climax of the show, when he crashes a meeting where Cutler and Avery are trying to woo Commander cigarettes, which would result in him being tossed out of the agency once and for all. Four years ago, when the firm lost Lucky Strike and was on the ropes, Don penned an ad in the NYT avowing that the agency would, on general principle, never again accept any cigarette advertising. Now, if Cutler and Avery land Commander they will have the power to eliminate Don for good, using the new mega-client as an excuse.
But in violation of all the rules he agreed to when he rejoined the firm two months ago, Don comes into the meeting with the cigarette bigwigs and offers to resign. But then he turns the tables by suggesting that they’d be better off convincing him to stay and work on the account, given his knowledge of the business, his insight into the anti-smoking opposition and the bragging rights they’ll gain from making anti-smoking crusader Don Draper become their boy toy. It’s a masterful stroke, one worthy of the Draper we’ve seen in action over the years. Because if Commander agrees to go with SC&P now (a big if), Don will be back calling the shots and Lou will be out. As Lou says to Don as they stand outside the Algonquin hotel, “You’re incredible,” and as Don responds, “Thank you.”
Don seems to be the only character on the show who is not being undone by the Sixties; after all, the personal dislocation he suffered as a child was so much worse than this. The other characters are not doing so well. The moral deterioration of Megan Draper is actually a little sad, and she behaves atrociously this episode. The once prim receptionist who flowered into the confident Zou Bisou Bisou singer of Season Four is now a mess. Peggy once marveled that she was the girl who could do everything, but her acting career is not going well and her confidence is shot. She’s smoking dope, hanging with hippies, and dancing lascivious tangos in front of her husband.
For whatever reason (maybe it’s actually love), she’s desperate to hang onto Don (but not desperate enough to move back to Manhattan), which leads to some questionable decisions. When Don asks her to take care of Stephanie, Anna Draper’s pregnant niece, she is so jealous that she pays her to leave before Don can arrive. (She was probably unnerved that Stephanie recognized her wedding ring as originally belonging to Anna and then lost it completely when Stephanie off-handedly says, “I know all his secrets.”) Sending away a needy pregnant girl who actually looks like a Madonna is unforgivable, but arranging a soft-core porn three-way with your husband and best friend is crazy. Don seems unfazed the next morning (again, having survived worse) and Megan’s friend has the good sense to slink away in shame, but Megan is in worse shape than ever, not quite realizing that sex is not what turns Don on. Power, a much more attractive mistress, is luring him away from her back to NYC, not another woman.
Of course it’s one thing to say that Megan’s acting crazy and it’s another thing for someone to actually BE crazy. Ginsberg’s Van Gogh moment has been a long time coming. From the very beginning he’s demonstrated schizophrenic tendencies. And no wonder — born in a concentration camp, living with his father and still a virgin. That’s a lethal combination. There are a couple of early hints in “The Runaways” that Ginsburg is about to blow, in addition to the obvious references to the hum of the IBM computer and the building pressure. First he says “That machine came for us, one by one” which seems like a reference to the famous poem about how first the Nazis came for the socialists, then they came for the unionists, then they came for the Jews, then they came for me. Ok, maybe that’s a stretch but it’s certainly not a coincidence that Harry Crane calls the Cutler/Avery power play to get rid of Don the “Final Solution.” I have to believe that that extremely freighted phrase refers to the one concentration camp victim in the office.
In any event, Ginsberg’s self-mutilation symbolizes the nervous breakdown that the whole country is going through. Don seems set to survive, but it looks like there will be plenty of collateral damage before we make it into 1970. Some other thoughts:
— Ginsberg’s snooping of the Cutler and Avery meeting inside the silent computer room is another obvious homage to the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when HAL lip-reads the conversation between the two astronauts who plan to shut it down. Unfortunately Ginsberg cannot lip-read so he thinks the computer is turning all the men “homo.”
— Peggy is right when she tells Ginsberg that the IBM is “only a computer” (i.e., only a tool), but the furious glare she gives the machine as Ginsberg is being wheeled out suggests she’s had it with what it stands for, the soullessness of the office and, by extension, her life. It would not surprise me if she gets over her aversion to Don and throws in with him. She’s had her little fun, condescending to him on the elevator by telling him she’s “happy to have (him) on the team,” the kind of patronizing BS that a senior manager says to encourage a junior subordinate. But in her heart she must know that Don’s return is the only way that her professional life will become important to her again.
— There seems to be a general expectation on the Internet that someone must die on Mad Men before the season is over. There have been numerous clues about this, starting with Lane’s Mets pennant and the coyotes howling outside Megan’s house, but I can’t imagine Matt Weiner doing something so obvious. Besides, what could be more violent than glimpsing Ginsberg’s carved out nipple? I think Weiner is now in a position to say “Been there, done that.”
— There are only two episodes left this half season, which will lead to an infuriating ten-month wait for the final seven. This also means that a significant cliffhanger is coming up. The cliffhanger at the end of the Breaking Bad first-half final season drove huge ratings for the final half season and AMC is undoubtedly hoping to strike lightning again. What that cliffhanger will be only a fool will guess.
— Who are the runaways named in the episode’s title? Stephanie is an obvious example. She’s run away from her middle class life and she also runs away from the Drapers’ house. Bobby Draper wants to run away with Sally, but can’t. Don is a perpetual runaway and he runs away from Megan to get back to NYC and save his career. And to some extent, Ginsberg is a runaway. Going insane is the ultimate way to runaway from your unhappy life.
— It seems that no Mothers Day airing of Mad Men would be complete without Day Betty Francis demonstrating how NOT to be a mother. Your daughter injures herself and you YELL at her? No wonder Sally hates her. And no wonder Bobby has a stomach ache all the time.
— I’m worried about Bobby Draper. He’s miserable and wants to run away but is “too little” to escape. That scene with him in bed with Sally was so sweet, though.
— Henry’s transformation from a preternaturally patient father figure into an overbearing husband seems a bit abrupt. Just last week he was trying to reassure Betty that her kids loved her and all of a sudden he’s saying things like, “From now on keep your conversation to how much you hate getting toast crumbs in the butter and leave the thinking to me”? Of course he was provoked. One dirty look from Henry and she bails out on the rest of the night, making him go to the homes of the other neighbors by himself. I guess like Ginsberg’s madness, the surprise isn’t that he snapped but that it took so long.
— When Megan wrote out Stephanie a check for $1000, I couldn’t help but think how Don gave the junkie Midge all his cash when she tried to sell her boyfriend’s painting. And also how he tried to buy off his half-brother Adam in season one. Megan and Don are not all that much different in their appreciation for what money can buy, starting with that Laurel Canyon house. She might like the bohemian lifestyle but she likes it with a checkbook. I’ll give her a little credit and assume she’s not hanging on because Don’s a sugar daddy, but truly, if she dumped him, she’d be living down in West Hollywood near that phone booth where Stephanie called from.
— Twice Megan offered to make Stephanie spaghetti. I think this is a sly inside joke about what a bad cook Megan is because when she and Don were newlyweds that seemed to be her signature dish. And she always made it plain, without sauce. I wonder if the reason Stephanie refused the steak was because she was having morning sickness, or whether the thought of eating Megan’s cooking wanted to make her throw up. Speaking of food choices, Betty serves her guests Rumaki, which are bacon-wrapped appetizers. Wikipedia already points out that Betty also served Rumaki at a dinner party in Season Two, after which she and Don quarreled. Not a lucky dish for her.
— Megan has even more reason to fear Stephanie than she knows. Stephanie is the only person in the world who can still call her husband “Dick.” And the way his face lit up when he called him looking for help, just because she identified herself as his niece, suggests a very deep primal need for a family connection that she cannot provide. (BTW, will we learn whether Megan can have kids? A couple of years ago she said it was impossible and this week she tells Stephanie that Don’s kids are enough for her.)
— The decline of the Francis household harmony is sad for the kids, but it does give rise to the funniest line of the night. Betty: “I’m NOT stupid. I speak Italian.”
— Second funniest line, Harry Crane to Don: “I’m going to make sure you’re still important. I don’t know how. It’s going to take some thought. It’s going to take some major brainpower. In fact, you might have to figure it out.”
— Third funniest line, an exchange between Lou Avery and a very stoned Stan: “You know who had a ridiculous dream and people laughed at him?” “You?” The fact that Lou goes on to compare himself to Bob Dylan is the icing on the cake.
— I love the detail about how Sally injured herself sword fighting with golf clubs. I’ll bet anything that this happened to one of the show’s writers when he or she was a kid.
— We have now confirmed that Megan lives in Laurel Canyon, which is where Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash were living in 1969. Graham Nash was probably writing “Our House,” his paean to their domestic arrangements, just as Megan was plotting the three-way. I’ve already noted that Joni’s second album, Ladies of the Canyon, referred to arty women like Megan, who were her neighbors then. But what really struck me is that the flowery view from the window the morning after the three-way looked a bit like the cover from Joni’s first album.
— The song playing on the HiFi at Megan’s party? “You Made Me So Very Happy,” by the jazz rock group Blood Sweat and Tears. I still have that album in vinyl. Perhaps an ironic usage, given that neither Don nor Megan make each other very happy.
— The concluding song? “The Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” by Waylon Jennings, another guy with authority issues. Yep, Don Draper will be the only Daddy that’ll walk the line by the time we’re through.
— The last shot of the episode is a classic Draper power scene. He’s shot from below, wearing that dated fedora. He looks like he stepped out of a 1954 edition of Life Magazine. It’s a timeless look, just like power plays are timeless.
— What’s with Peggy’s “Me and Julio down by the TV” deal? Is this what she’s been reduced to? Watching TV with the neighbor kid on a Saturday night?
— I’ve made this complaint before but I’ll restate it. The huge void in the whole Mad Men series has been the absence of Baby Boomers and their issues. Much of the turmoil of the Sixties was caused by Boomers who didn’t want to get drafted, but aside from Sally, Glen and Mitchell (Sylvia’s draft-dodging son from last season) Boomers have been invisible. Megan’s friends seem too old to be boomers and even Stephanie is probably too old (the oldest boomer in 1969 would have been 23 years old and marching in an anti-war protest. I think we need to see the return of Glen soon. He’s possibly old enough to be drafted, which would cause a huge crisis in the show.