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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Review: Mad Men, "The Runaways"

Season 7, Episode 5
Grade: C+
Verdict: Another great Don plot is surrounded by some sub-standard writing and acting, along with a wildly out of place bit of expression as a character is shot out the door.

Ginsberg cut his nipple off. I repeat, Michael Ginsberg, in an act of assumed schizophrenia, cut his own nipple off and handed it to Peggy as a present.

This little plot development occurred as a continuation of Ginsberg's growing discontent with the presence of the computer that now resides in the office. Basically, Ginsberg's narrative function in the episode consisted of yelling at the secretary that mans the computer, being unable to work in the office on a Saturday due to the computer's noise and the irritation it causes him, and then making bizarre unwanted advances at Peggy while being certain that the computer causes "men to turn homo". All of this is the build up to his "pseudo-Van Gogh moment", of which the series is no stranger to gorier bizarre beats (need I remind you, dear reader, of the lawn mower incident?), but something felt oddly off here. It's as if the character was being played far more broadly than normal, to an almost cartoonish extent.

Michael Ginsberg is the one Mad Men character that I've often felt a sense of unease about, even from his introduction many seasons ago, when he tries to tell Peggy that he's an alien. He's always struck a discordant note with me, though perhaps that was by design. When we don't have a particularly keen understanding of mental illness, we're oft to reject it as "unusual" or even "repellent". Sadly, this side of human nature may be a contributing factor to why mental illness is one of the biggest healthcare disparities that the world faces today. Ginsberg has clearly been headed towards a psychotic break of a sort, all the signs have been there for years, so I cannot say such an action was completely unearned. It's just in the execution where things feel off, as if the writers needed to shuffle him off the show, so it was accelerated to a grotesque extent. I don't know if Ben Feldman is headed to another series or has something in the works, but this grand gesture had the sense of a manufactured exit, which is problematic.

He did have two very nice moments though, the first is another call-back to the 2001 allusions of last week's episode. While in the office on that fateful Saturday, he happens upon Lou and Jim discussing something behind the glass doors of the computer "office". This is a call back to when HAL is reading the lips of Dave and Frank, as Ginsberg is attempting to read their lips. This is where his assumption of their burgeoning homosexuality came to the fore. Is it possible that Ginsberg is the HAL 9000, full of dysfunction and needing to be shut down before he causes harm to others? A more prescient meaning to his actions can be found in his final line, likely, for the entire series (which amounts to the other moment of notice) when shackled to the gurney he's being taken out on, he screams "Get out while you still can!". At first, we think Ginsberg is referring to the computer and its transmissions that he was able to "cut off from going into his brain" but perhaps there's a deeper meaning in line with what he's saying with regards to a different type of machine taking control.

1969 marked the battle-grounds of Nixon's America, between the counter-culture and the rule of the establishment. The country was wracked with a growing sense of social instability following the assassination of Martin Luther King and the Chicago riots. Nixon was elected on a wave of fear, a sort of knee-jerk move by the "greatest generation" to restore the balance of power that they felt was slipping away into chaos. This is why the cartoon of Lou's that Stan finds on the Xerox machine when the episode opens is fairly emblematic of the central struggle that was running through the veins of the country at the time. The "old order" wants its control of the American consciousness again. It's a joke to Stan and the rest of the Creative team, but to Lou, "Scout's Honor" is his way of outwardly pushing his beliefs out into the world in an, only slightly, concealed form. When all of this comes to light, Lou outwardly shows his vulnerability calling his team "a bunch of flag-burning snots" and questioning their patriotism. Of course, my favorite bit is when he attempts to show how hip he actually is by bringing up Bob Dylan. This is a very conservative attempt at appearing progressive and with the times. "Is he hip enough for you?".

It's worth noting that Betty does the exact opposite when she's playing politician's wife during one of Henry's parties at their Westchester Mansion. Their guests, of some serious influence in New York politics, make comments regarding "wildness in the streets" and their concern with how the country is falling apart. When pressed for her opinions, Betty states her support for the war in Vietnam, which is counter to Henry's more calculated thoughts on the matter (in an attempt to line up with the President and the Rockefeller Republicans). This episode is showing us a more outspoken form of Betty than we've seen really ever, though some of that is a consequence of the gap between long-form appearances of the character. The Betty of today is a domestic, old-guard conservative through and through, but she's parlaying her message as an independent thinker using the same self-actualization as those in the counter-culture. Where Lou cites a central folk hero to try to prove a point to his hipper direct reports, Betty effectively uses the weapons of that generation to show that she's more conservative than ever. Though, none of that really helps her with Sally, who comes home with a broken nose and more vitriol directed at Betty than ever, with comments that remind us just how much a cog in the machine Betty really is. There's a particularly personal line set at Betty when Sally says: "It's just a nose job, not an abortion".  

The series itself seems to be playing with our expectations of just what Don Draper should mean to us. The latter example with Sally's outright poisonous reaction to Betty just yearns for thoughts of just how different things would be if it were Don taking Sally to the hospital and returning her home to her mother. Or how much better SCP would be as a firm if Don would just swoop back in (like Tarzan) and whip Creative into shape and kick that no-good Lou Avery right out the door! It's like Matt Weiner is attempting to pull a meta-trick on his audience; we scoff at the idea that these fools put Nixon into office just before he put the proverbial "thumb up our ass" during Watergate, but at the same time that "bring back the old days" line of thinking is what many who watch the series want to see occur with Don. Bring our hero back and maybe people won't be cutting their nipples off anymore.

Ironically, in-show, he's been replaced everywhere he turns. There's already two other creative directors at SCP, Henry has taken over the actual caring father role that Bobby and Sally probably see the most frequently, and Megan has Amy living with her on a regular basis. Even in his most sacred of places, in the bedroom with Megan, he has to share it with Amy now. Not that Don is necessarily arguing too hard against the idea of having a threesome with Megan and her best friend, but it just goes to show that literally everything he has now is shared. And, the one thing that was indelibly his, his contact with Stephanie, is even being taken away from him by a childish wife playing pretend (though admittedly, that relationship with Stephanie is something he himself stole by way of the adopting the real Don's identity).

Stephanie's return to the series is a welcome one thematically; given the appearance of an actress who eerily resembled her, to no coincidence, just two episodes ago. (I'm referring to the young lady who attempted to pick Don up at the restaurant when he was taking his offer letter from a rival firm). Stephanie is the last person who truly knows everything about him, and makes a point to even mention that to Megan when she arrives at her home to seek out shelter and support at Don's behest. Megan, who is already forced to see just how silly her hippie play-acting is, when faced with an actual homeless bohemian, is faced with another truth: that there's another woman who has access to a side of a Don that she just will never be able to crack. Megan's response is simple, make this person go away and Don's focus will return to her. Which she does; and as a follow-up to that act comes the attempt to titillate her husband while dancing seductively with another man and the set-up of the threesome with Amy. For about five minutes the next morning, the tactic almost works, but then Stephanie calls and Don's attention has shifted back, with Megan left despondent and Don heading to New York. All of the above would make for more compelling television if Jessica Pare and Caity Lotz were more convincing performers, but their shared scene was some of the most stilted line-reading the show has ever had. Needless to say, this is another area where the absence of Don Draper is cruelly felt, and much like Ginsberg's ill-fated adventure, sacrifices the quality of the proceedings.

So where does this leave Don? Left with not much else except a potential thawing of his relationship with Peggy and a very timely piece of information from Harry Crane, barges into a very big meeting between Jim, Lou, and the heads of Phillip Morris in the private room of the Algonquin's restaurant. While everyone else has a found a way to erase the importance of Don in most facets, Jim and Lou were aiming to make him permanently expendable in the eyes of SCP by landing the biggest big tobacco account possible. But Don is a man with nothing left to lose, and asserts his dominance by playing submissive. He pledges that he'll apologize for the letter that he wrote to the New York Times, making himself a sacrificial lamb and at the same time completely indispensable, ruining the play of the "villains" of our story. As we saw last week, Don has basically become refocused and re-energized towards the work at hand. He still has to prepare himself and take a minute to get to the point where he can turn on "Don Draper, ace ad man", but the Don that was willing to make a deal with tobacco is the same Don that Roger proclaims as a "genius". But the question really becomes, what's left for him to return to and regain power over? The times have changed, and SCP is a much lazier, more cynical, production-line firm than they were when Don was trying to keep Lucky Strike afloat. The good old days are gone, though hopefully we and Don won't end up taking a metaphorical Air Force One shame ride, proclaiming victory in painful defeat. 

Maybe everyone really should have listened to Ginsberg on his way out. Then again, he cut his nipple off.

Thoughts to ponder:
- The closing song: Waylon Jennings - "The Only Daddy That'll Walk The Line", that pretty much sums it up in the title alone. They are killing it with the music choices this season.

- I've pretty much given up hope that Peggy will have anything worthwhile to do this half of the season, as she's basically been sacrificed at the "altar of Don". I miss Peggy being the other tent-pole of the series.

- Bob Benson watch: Not one mention. Although, The Crazy Ones has been cancelled at CBS, so it's possible we could be looking at a return trip in at least the back-half of this season next year, at the very least. We can only hope!

- Lou went to the bathroom and barely rinsed his hands. Not only is he a prick, but he's gross to boot.

- Speaking Italian makes you smart.

- The computer was basically yelling at the audience to "Think!!", I've spent a good portion of my night piecing this episode together, so...mission accomplished you Kubrick machine you!

- Next week on Mad Men: More Pete! Hopefully for more than a scene.
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