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‘Mad Men’ review: The nature of the business

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

This iconic opening line of Charles Dickens’ classic novel A Tale of Two Cities nicely supplements the contrasting perceptions of the social and political turmoil chronicled throughout Mad Men’s fictional narrative and its corresponding historical subtext, but the philosophy can really be applied to any revisited bygone era. The late 60s serves as a convenient time frame from which to mirror the personal experiences of the show’s eternally tortured ad men (and women) within their evolving environment; although we viewers are looking at the story with the benefit of hindsight, our characters continue to struggle with their fear of the inevitable changes waiting in the unknown future.

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It’s fitting that Sunday’s episode, aptly titled “A Tale of Two Cities,” focuses on the differences between cultural trends in New York and Los Angeles, but a less literal metaphor concerning the widening gaps within the newly merged agency and its flailing employees marks the beginning of more localized, dividing conflicts that eclipse any purported bicoastal rivalry.

The backdrop grounding this week’s cross-country installment is the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, a city whose centralized location can be interpreted as both geographically and figuratively significant. The specific action surrounding our characters’ follies illustrates differences beyond physical settings and speaks to a broader statement about the shifting attitude and behavior of an increasingly progressive and rebellious society. As Don, Roger and Harry navigate the languid dreamscape of Hollywood with trifling success, their Manhattan colleagues propel their actions back home with the kind of neurotic anxiety Woody Allen would all but trademark just a few years later.

The troubling riots unfolding at the DNC make for a poignant, if not remarkably convenient, allegorical fulcrum to give the bookended plotlines remarkable balance throughout the episode. Increasing violence between protesters and police in Chicago deftly mirrors the escalating tension among agency staff, and each side is given adequate opportunity to present its case. Megan’s horror at the police brutality is met with Don’s cynical assertion that the protesters actually instigated the assault by throwing rocks first. He punctuates his incredulity by reminding Megan she “can’t even vote” and therefore shouldn’t justify such an emotional connection to American events. Well. So much for going back to Disneyland.

Jim Cutler, meanwhile, describes such contradictory behavior as his biggest pet peeve. “I hate hypocrites,” he tells the defensively liberal Ginsburg. “Like hippies who cash checks from Dow Chemical and General Motors.” Ouch. While Cutler might not quite live up to the accusations of bigoted fascism Ginsburg hurls his way, he does have a clandestine agenda against his new partners of which only a steadily agitated Pete seems to catch a whiff.

Part of what makes any transitional phase so overwhelming is the abundance of possibilities made available, and the subsequent paralysis when faced with making an ultimate decision on how to proceed. Ted describes the Chevy headquarters in Detroit as a bewildering series of doors, “like something out of Get Smart.” The comparison insinuates a feeling of suspicious confusion about what lies ahead, but Pete seems to be the only one bracing himself for imminent disaster.

Season six hasn’t brought much good fortune to anyone, but Pete’s personal and professional collapse is perhaps the most urgent out of an assembly of inevitable meltdowns. The destruction of his marriage paired with the loss of major accounts for the agency has left him in a whirling lurch. He can’t seem to maintain a firm grasp on anything, or even formulate a specific request. When Ted suddenly announces him as “head of new business,” Pete’s instinctive response to yet another surprise is vocal indignation, despite the fact the title sounds like a promotion. “I don’t want that!” he shouts, already irritated with Joan’s visible attempt to alter protocol and woo a potentially dynamite new client for herself.

After discovering her blind date with the new head of marketing for Avon was really a networking opportunity in disguise, Joan lights up with the realization she could generate agency business with the kind of legitimacy usually reserved for her fellow partners. Despite boasting extensive loyalty to the company and years of hard work, her agonizing decision to ultimately sleep her way to the top has come at the expense of her reputation. Of course, she’s also burdened with the negative advantage of simply being a working woman in 1968. She consults with Peggy on how to pitch Avon without “getting thrown off the diving board,” but erstwhile white knight Ted immediately tosses the ball to Pete anyway.

Joan’s decision to undermine normal business procedure and schedule a breakfast with Avon sans Pete leaves Peggy agape. She understands Joan’s desperation to redeem herself, but knows if Avon doesn’t come calling they’ll both be held accountable for the blunder. Pete, of course, is furious to have been overlooked once again and tries to argue the severity of Joan’s ethically debatable tactics, but Ted reasons that “possession is nine-tenths of the law … any agency business is your business.” Pete is not reassured, but he’s the least of Joan and Peggy’s concerns.

Their friendship has always been one of varying sincerity and depth, but the Avon debacle gives both women a chance to clear the air regarding their respective assessments of the other’s career path. Joan’s emotional response to the violence in Chicago alludes to her own feelings of helplessness at work despite inarguable drive and ambition, but the knowledge she might have thrown the first rock is what’s really bothering her. Watching Peggy ascend from secretary to copywriter to creative head is an accomplishment worthy of admiration today, but was virtually unprecedented at the time of Mad Men. Joan pretends she’d been supportive of Peggy’s transformation, but is quickly reminded she was anything but. In fact, when Joan tries to deliver a dig regarding Don’s assumed role in Peggy’s upward trajectory, Peggy offers the snappy revelation she actually didn’t have to sleep with him to reach her goals. Again, ouch, but Peggy ultimately reneges on her initial disapproval when Joan is taken to task in the conference room with Pete and Ted. “You better hope he really calls,” Peggy later says, after faking a phone call from Avon to rescue Joan from Ted’s raised brow and Pete’s death stare. The favor is an intended olive branch to bridge their differences, and the women’s solidarity leaves Pete stranded even farther from shore.

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Don and Roger are similarly outcast in Los Angeles, where their meeting with the Carnation execs couldn’t possibly go worse. During the plane ride Roger had coached Don on using their clout as New York bigwigs to help assert their bravado, but the West Coasters arrive with chips on their shoulders big enough to block even the brightest California sunshine. Roger may consider New York the “center of the universe,” but he and Don are only proven light years out of orbit after botching their pitch to the defensive Reaganites, and especially when trying to brandish their best red carpet moves for an industry party in the hills.

It’s typical fish-out-of-water humor at first, as Don sheepishly approaches a clique of hash smokers like he’s the new kid at school and Roger quickly realizes no one else is wearing their red satin ascot. Next to these two, Harry looks like he showed up with a couple of field trip chaperones. “Are you the guy who came in a taxi?” someone asks Don in disbelief, a question particularly hilarious to anyone in L.A. who’s witnessed a visiting New Yorker try hailing a cab. Don takes his first toke from the community hookah and nods, perhaps realizing this California excursion already presents an entirely different brand of soul-searching than his escapist walkabouts from the past.

While Roger spends his evening getting punched in the Sterlings by a reinvented Danny Siegel, Don succumbs to a lucid hallucination that only escalates his long-chronicled descent into self-loathing psychosis. His reaction to the hash is, fittingly, a complete antithesis from the garbled mania he’d experienced after Dr. Feelgood’s “energy serum” during “The Crash.” A tale of two cities, indeed. His entire surroundings, including time itself, seems to slow down instead of speed up, and the drawling wonderment in his voice when a vision of Megan appears at the party reveals a side to Don’s subconscious we hadn’t yet seen. Don had been putting the moves on the comely blonde hostess (whose resemblance to Betty can’t be a coincidence) when Megan suddenly shows up looking like she’s on her way to Woodstock. Don is confused but clearly happy to see her, and when she announces she’s not only quit her job but is also carrying their child, Don’s elated relief finally puts to rest the debate about his real attitude toward her success.

He follows her to the bar where he prepares a cigarette but is shocked to see the betrothed soldier he’d met in Hawaii now standing in Megan’s place, holding the same pesky Zippo Don tried to get rid of but couldn’t. Dinkins is clad in full uniform but missing his right arm, a detail Don admits he finds surprising after his friend explains he’d been killed in Vietnam. “Dying doesn’t make you whole,” Dinkins advises, adding, “You should see what you look like.” Wait, what? The following shot of Don watching himself float face-down in the swimming pool is genuinely eerie, and even after the scene is cut back to reality thanks to Roger’s off-camera CPR we are still unnerved by what Megan’s altered presence and Dinkins’ warning could mean for the rest of this season, and the series itself.

Rampant rumors about the similarities between Megan and Manson family murder victim Sharon Tate reached a fever pitch after last week, when Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant noted on Twitter it was “no coincidence” she’d styled Megan in the same Vietnam star t-shirt Tate had worn in a famous 1967 photo shoot. Although Don’s assumedly inevitable death seems to be the most pointedly foreshadowed element in a series rife with symbolism, the idea Megan is headed for an untimely demise has Mad Men conspiracy theorists frantically searching for clues. As Don sputters the pool water out of his lungs and undoubtedly revisits the highlights of his dream, Megan’s earlier recommendation he “go for a swim” now surely carries a whole new sense of painful irony. Fantasy Megan had told Don their unborn child was a “second chance,” but perhaps she was only referring to one of them.

Back at the office, Bob Benson finally finds himself getting thrown into the deep end when he’s offered the chance to accompany an unraveling Ginsburg to a meeting with Manischewitz. Cutler’s been eyeing him as a potential pawn with which to undermine the SCDP folks, and his decision to bring Bob on board with Chevy raises the stakes high enough for Ted to finally take notice. The fact Manischewitz is actually preparing to bolt doesn’t help validate Bob’s worth in the least, and Ted realizes Cutler is simply staging an in-house coup. “You’re splitting this place, and not in half,” Ted chides, but when they present their idea to finally formulate a new name for the agency, all evidence points toward an effort for the greater good. SC&P certainly has a cleaner ring to it than the alternatives, but Pete’s appalled at his colleagues’ inability to recognize what the dropped letters really signify, especially for Don. Bob Benson might be right in thinking you can’t just put yourself in the right place at the right time and hope for the best. The real key to success is in finding the right place and just staying there. What Pete is failing to remember is that Don Draper can never really be in just one place at one time, because he isn’t just one man. He is, in himself, a tale of two cities.

What did you think of Mad Men’s California adventure this week? Is Cutler plotting a tyrannical overthrow? Wasn’t the episode all about everyone’s second chances, not just Megan and Don’s? Is Megan already dead? Is Don? Will Pete and Stan become the agency’s requisite stoner duo? Will they invite Ginsburg? Is Joan’s job in jeopardy? Only three episodes left – somebody’s gotta jump out the window one of these days, right?

Season 6, Episode 10: “A Tale of Two Cities” (originally aired June 2, 2013)

Mad Men airs Sunday nights at 10/9c on AMC.

Images courtesy of Michael Yarish and AMC.

Follow Erin on Twitter: @ErinBiglow

One Comment

  1. Yes, the symbolism does roll on. Maybe I was just too exhausted by recent episodes to try to follow it. I’ll leave that in your capable hands.

    The pedestrian ad agency office politics provided a welcome and almost grounded retreat for me. The various plays in the NY office seemed typical of the late 60s ad world. It seemed viewer and characters had a chance to catch their breath. Even if the likely results are not promising for anyone.

    As far as the LA gang was concerned, another town, another drug, another drug culture, seemed to sum it up. I sensed palpable relief from Don and Roger on the plane home. Back to devils they know.

    The police riot in Chicago as metaphor or context for our characters’ world? Maybe so. The cops erupted violently agains young people whose politics, funny dress and west coast drugs were scary. Maybe they did sense that “the times, they were a’changin’.” And not in a good way. The cops were so frightened, angry and out of control they found middle aged hollow newsman Dan Rather threatening and attacked him.

    A very unsettled country. A tale of more than two cities for our battered band of ad freaks, I fear.

    Will three more episodes get us into the seventies? Now, that’s scary.

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