Mad Men - Far Away Places

Mad Men Commentary: Episode 506 Far Away Places

Towards the end of season two of Mad Men, Don Draper joined Pete Campbell for a business trip to Los Angeles that saw Don going AWOL and ending up in the desert with a bunch of aristocratic oddballs.  It was the weirdest episode of the series…until this week.

Far Away Places, the title of this week’s adventure with Don and the SCDP gang, could have been directed by David Lynch, with its jumbled narrative, trippy themes, and general sense of unease.  It’s an installment where great distances are explored – from feelings of alienation to the bridging of great relational chasms to the literal separation of two people over a great distance.  It’s hypnotically fascinating, and like every other twist and turn in this wonderful series, I saw none of it coming.

The episode opens with a half-dressed Peggy, at home, frantically looking for a good luck charm pack of candy that Don gave her.  She’s preparing for work and a big presentation for Heinz, the bane of her existence.  Her boyfriend Abe has spent the night, but worry about the Heinz presentation has made her aloof.  He puts on a happy face and tries to distract her, but she’s having none of it.

As the conversation shifts to Abe’s frustration at Peggy’s emotional distance, she tells him, sounding more than a little like Don when he was married to Betty, “I need a second when I walk in the door.”  “You sound like my father,” he snaps, going on to explain that he’s a boyfriend, not a focus group before storming off.  This conversation will play out again, like an echo, but with a different man.

At the office, Peggy and her office-mates are all uptight and crabby.  Ginsberg, who’s been nothing but agitated since being hired (except for when Don pops-in for a rare appearance), is annoyed at Peggy when she walks in on a private phone call.  Stan blows in late and pissy because he couldn’t find a place to…piss on the way to work.  The one ray of hope for Peggy comes when she finds her lucky pack of candy, but it’s short-lived.  Just as Megan says “hello,” Don takes her away, for a last-minute trip to see a prospective client.  Peggy is stunned at this news, and Don downplays his absence, asking what good he would do just sitting there watching her do all the heavy lifting.  She sees it as bad news, as does Ginsberg (who’s been right 100% of the time since showing up).  Stan tries to boost her by telling her it’s a supreme vote of confidence from their hero.

The scene is an example of how good Mad Men is.  In that brief moment, we get so much information, but it comes in the form of behavior, not clunky, expository dialogue to telegraph the dynamics at work.  This is a two-part set-up that is paid off first in the conference room with Heinz, and more significantly, at the end of the episode, between Don and Bert Cooper.

The Heinz presentation appears to be going well, with Peggy giving a Don-like presentation of the proposed campaign.  The problem is, she’s not Don.  While Don Draper can tell a story about baked beans that gives it the gravitas of a Russian novel, Peggy can’t quite pull it off.  Not yet.  Instead, the guy from Heinz is frustrated, much like Peggy’s boyfriend Abe.

When the Heinz guy complains about the pitch, Peggy reminds him that they’ve done exactly what he asked for.  And then the Heinz guy nails her to the wall by telling her to stop writing down what he asks for and start giving him what he wants – the classic client lament.  Peggy’s instincts are right.  She turns the tables on the client, as she’s seen Don do dozens of times.  She accuses the client of liking the campaign, but liking a good fight even more.  She insults the guy in front of the room, giving him little room to save face.  Ken Cosgrove tries to ease the blow, but only manages a stalemate, and the client agrees to let them try again.

Stan and Peggy are left alone, to gather the boards and pick up the pieces, and Stan, who was once Peggy’s adversary, bucks her up with a back-handed compliment, telling her that he respects her “suicidal move.”  Stan’s own insecurities have surfaced today, and he seems to admire Peggy’s hard work and incremental progress at winning a foothold in a man’s world.  “Women usually want to please,” he tells her, not finishing the thought, the damning part where she did the opposite of pleasing her man with her words.  Right after that, Pete sticks his head in the conference room and tells her she’s off the account, and then disappears.  Nice.

So, why did Peggy fail?  Being a woman didn’t help, that’s for sure.  Mr. Heinz guy even told her that it was lucky he had a daughter, or he wouldn’t be so understanding, meaning he has experience with temperamental little girls.  Peggy has given a Don-like speech – both the pitch and the attempts at salvaging it – but like Pete, Peggy is missing that X-factor, that charisma that Don possesses, that gets him over the top, that allows him to sometimes insult clients who don’t get it.  Don understands the power game.  Peggy can’t blame it all on being a woman.  She’s missing that power dynamic that Don has cultivated and honed to a razor sharp edge.  And it costs her a spot on this account, at least until Don can get in front of the client and hopefully save the day.

Peggy retreats to Don’s office to lick her wounds and wash down this temporary setback with some booze.  She has a cry, then packs up and leaves for the movies passing Bert Cooper, who reads a paper in the lobby.  “Everybody has someplace to go, today,” he says as she leaves.

Peggy ends up in a nearly deserted theatre, where Born Free is playing, and yells at a guy smoking a joint.  She takes a hit, though, when it’s offered, with a shrug and a “What the hell.”  Following the rules has gotten her nowhere on this day.  The young guy moves to her side, and they finish the joint.  As she gets high, Peggy talks to the movie, saying, “she’s not going to make it out there on her own,” speaking of a lioness in the movie, but maybe about herself.  The joint smoked, the young guy puts his hand on Peggy’s thigh, but she removes it.  When he puts her hand on his crotch, she does him one better, getting him off as she watches the movie.  It’s a bizarre moment that plays off the earlier conversation with Abe, who accused her of not being present with him.  It’s another echo.  It’s also another Don move – going to the movies in the middle of the day.  But with a difference.

Rather than go home, Peggy goes back to the office, where she runs into Ginsberg and his father, who flirts and introduces himself as the original before his embarrassed son shoos him away.  The father wants access to the copier. He says it’s for his case, whatever that means.  More agitation from young Ginsberg.

Peggy crashes on the couch in Don’s office.  Don so dominates her life, and his office seems womb-like to her.  She’s completely dedicated herself to following in his footsteps, no matter the cost, and in this episode, we get a fresh look at how isolated she is from everything but the finite space of the SCDP offices.

Peggy is awakened from her sleep by Dawn, who is also working late.  It’s 8:30, and Don is on the phone.  He’s frantic, and asks if Peggy has received a call.  She launches into a mea culpa over the Heinz debacle, but that’s not why he’s calling, and he hangs up on her, mid-apology.

With nowhere else to go, Peggy retreats to her office to busy herself with work.  Ginsberg is also there, burning the midnight oil himself.  When Peggy comments on Ginsberg’s father and how nice he seemed, he tells her that the man is not his real father.  His real parents are from a far away place – Mars.  Peggy laughs at this admission, and from Ginsberg’s reaction, you sense that he’s told the story before, to similar reactions.  He assures Peggy that his Martians aren’t the earth-destroying kinds, like the ones depicted in HG Wells.  He refers to himself as being displaced.  He goes on to say that the truth was hidden from him, that his so-called father, the man Peggy met, told him that he was born in a concentration camp, and that his mother died giving birth to him in the camp.  He says that the man who raised him found him in an orphanage and tried to hide his Martian heritage from him.  He says that he received one communication from home.  It was a simple message – “Stay where you are.”

Peggy waits for a punchline that never arrives, and when she realizes this, her attitude towards his fantastic tale changes.  Finally, she asks him if there’s others like him.  He looks at her and says that he doesn’t know, that he’s never been able to find any.  Ginsberg seems to have found his actual origin story so hard to swallow and painful that he’s traded it for one even more fantastic, but more benign.  Sound familiar?

This is the kind of thing that really gets Peggy going.  He’s someone like her, someone like the oddball outsider she was trying to convey to Dawn.  Even though she’s only from Brooklyn, as far as Peggy – and most of Manhattan – is concerned, she might as well be from Mars.  There’s a future with these two, though it’s anybody’s guess what it will look like.  I’m still trying to decide whether young Mr. Ginsberg is a genius or a madman.

Peggy goes home and calls Abe.  She’s spooked and needs company.  Luckily for her, Abe’s a mensch, and he obliges her need.

 

It’s at this point that Peggy fades to background of the story, and the episode starts over.  Literally.

It’s the morning of the Heinz presentation, before Don steals Megan and Peggy blows it.  Roger arrives at work before Don (who doesn’t, these days?) and hides in Don’s office with some scheme up his sleeve.

Don arrives, and Roger hatches the plan.  It turns out that Roger’s old buddy from Double Sided Aluminum (remember the night of Roger’s heart attack with the twins?) has moved over to Howard Johnson, and works up in Plattsburgh, NY, near the Canadian Border.  Roger even has a road map.  He’s thinking debauched road trip.

When Don balks at the plan, Roger entices him.  “Ever hear the one about the farmer’s daughter?” he asks.  “This is where it all takes place.”  Roger’s forgotten who he’s talking to – the new Don.  And before Roger can say “howdy,” Don is inviting Megan and Jane along for the fun.  Roger pleads for Don’s help.  “Alone, I’m like an escapee from an expensive mental institution,” Roger explains.  “Together, we’re a couple of rich bachelor perverts.”

Don takes the map and hatches his own scheme, involving Megan, a room at HoJo’s, and a three-day weekend.  Ah, Roger.  You tried.

Instead, Roger ends up at a party with Jane’s friends, a bunch of upper middle-class intellectuals – like the guy Woody Allen skewered in Annie Hall in the Marshall McLuhan scene at the movies.  The host is an ascot-wearing professor who has the party engaged in a deep discussion over the meaning and definition of truth.  Another guest is a psychiatrist (Jane’s, it turns out) who suggests that “it’s a myth that tracing logic down to the truth is a cure for neurosis.”  When another guest asks if there is a cure for neurosis, another woman giggles and says “Love.”  It’s a Manhattan version of Pete and Trudy’s dinner out in Cos Cob, where Ken’s science fiction story would never be discussed.

Roger seems to be having a good time, despite himself, peppering the back and forth with his own witty commentary on who is scoring points, but when he sees an opportunity to bail, he goes for it.

The opportunity, as it turns out, is a transition.  The host is gathering everyone to his living room, where they will drop acid under his guidance.  Jane has told Roger about this, but he never listens.  He tries to get her to leave, but she talks him into staying, promising a beautiful evening together.  She tags her argument with, “it’ll be good for us.”

The host has everyone fill out a postcard, to be carried the remainder of the evening.  Roger’s reads, “My name is Roger Sterling.  I have taken LSD.  I live at 31 E. 66th street, #14A, NY NY.  Please help me.”  Nice address.  A tray of sugar cubes are passed around, and just before Jane and Roger eat theirs, he tells her, “You always say I never take you anywhere.”

And with the melting of the sugar cubes on their tongues, Roger and Jane embark on an evening that does something weirder than taking them on a journey.  Rather, the LSD serves as a bridge between a chasm that’s become as unbridgeable as the Grand Canyon.  They return from their far away places, and for a night, become as one.

The scene of the party guests tripping is, to coin a phrase, trippy.  Roger’s cigarette shrinks when he inhales, a bottle of Russian vodka, when opened, unleashes a deafening Russian symphony.  Bert Cooper’s picture is on the dollar bill.

The blow-hard professor explains, in the midst of all this that “only awareness can make reality.  And only what’s real can become a dream.  Only from a dream can you wake to the light.”  Jane’s doctor explains that the quote is from the Tibetan Book of the Damned, a nice joke.

As Roger gets deep into the experience, Don appears to him, assuring him that “everything is okay.  Now go to your wife.  She wants to be alone in the truth with you.”  Roger takes Jane, and they go home and share a bath in which Roger sees the 1919 World Series, the scandalous Black Sox series that was fixed.

After their bath, they end up on the floor of their bedroom, dressed in robes, with towels wrapped around their heads.  With their inhibitions and loathing put on hold, they have what may be the first truthful conversation in their relationship.  Jane confesses that the doctor is her shrink.  Roger asks if he wants to know what they discuss.  Jane hedges.  “Because it’s over?” he asks.  “She’s just waiting for me to say it is,” Jane says.  “What does she think of me?” Roger asks, predictably.  “She thinks I’m waiting for you to say it.”  They continue to explore their eventual demise.  Jane is reluctant, still clinging to the hope that they can maybe patch up their differences, but Roger is liking this.  Finally, he asks her if she’s as relieved as he is at this revelation.  She’s not.  And when he asks her what is wrong with them, she tells him that he doesn’t like her.  His response is heartbreaking.  “I did….  I really did.”  And like that, the bridge has been destroyed.  Kind of.

The next morning, Jane wakes to find Roger dressing for work.  He’s happy.  She’s discombobulated and remembers little from the night before.  As Roger recounts their admissions, she is horrified.  “Are you leaving me?” she asks.  He tenderly confirms that he is, and when she matter-of-factly states that it’ll be expensive, he says, “I know.”

 

The story re-winds one final time, to see the same passage of time from Don’s point-of-view.

Don enters his office, to find Roger in wait.  He takes the map and Megan, and lights out for the territories. The problem is, she doesn’t seem so eager to want to abandon the team.  As much as she loves Don, she feels the pressure of being the boss’s wife – the looks, the comments, the guilt.  But her protests are weak.  She’s a semi-willing co-conspirator with Don.

In the car, Don lays it on thick, building up the weekend.  This new-Don is something to behold.  He’s almost clingy, the way he seems to always be looking for an excuse to leave work early with Megan, not wanting her out of his sight (flu aside).  As they make their small-talk, the cracks begin to show.  Megan’s frustration is simmering just below the surface.

They arrive at the Howard Johnson, a place all aqua and orange, and are greeted by a cartoonish manager.  It’s almost like they are in Roger’s LSD-induced trip – with Don’s behavior, the garish colors, the goofy manager, and a hint of danger.

That danger arrives when Megan’s frustration spills over the top.  As she and Don eat a gluttonous meal – a sampler of everything on the menu.  When Megan rejects the over-hyped orange sherbet, Don can’t take it anymore, and the fight is on.

Megan keeps her comments restricted to her central beef – being pulled off the team – but when Don brings her mother into it, bitching about how she complains to her mom in French, Megan fires off a low-blow, asking Don why he doesn’t call his mother.  He winces as if she’s punched him, and storms out of the restaurant with her right behind him.

Out in the parking lot, she goes back on the offensive, and when she refuses to get in the car, Don leaves her in the parking lot.

A few miles down the road, he cools down and turns around.  Back at the Howard Johnson, he can’t find her.  She’s disappeared, and no one can tell him anything substantive about where she might be.  This sends Don into a panic.  He hangs around the restaurant the rest of the afternoon, hoping she’ll return.  As day turns to night, he comes unglued.

It’s at this point that Don calls Peggy, who wants to talk about the Heinz presentation.  But he can’t think about that – he’s freaking out.  He calls Megan’s mother next, but she hasn’t heard anything.  Don ends up falling asleep in the restaurant, until a state trooper wakes him at 1:45 in the morning.  With nothing else to do, Don starts the long drive home, and as he drives alone, he thinks back to happier times, recalling a moment on a drive upstate to return the kids to Betty after the California vacation.  It’s hard to know whether Don is actually in love with Megan or the idea of being happily married.

At home, he’s relieved to find the door chained, but Megan wants nothing to do with him.  She’s taken a bus home, and is hurt and furious.  His relief at finding her alive quickly turns to anger, and he chases her through the house until they fall into a heap on the living room floor, with her crying and him looking crazed.

“Every time we fight it just diminishes us a little bit,” Megan tells him, seeming to understand, for the first time, the long odds against a happy marriage with this guy.  But Don, whether afraid that she’s right or genuinely relieved to have found her alive, clings to her and confesses that he thought he’d lost her.  He seems truly desperate as he holds onto her.

A little later, they stroll into work, looking perfect and happy – a great show for the gang.  But the spell is broken when Don finds some art with “DO OVER” scribbled across it.  He finds out it’s from Bert, who is hanging out in the conference room (he has no office, remember?).  Don confronts him in a disrespectful tone.  Bert informs him that “a client left here unhappy, hesterday, because you have a little girl [Peggy] running everything.”  Don tries to defend Peggy and himself, but Bert sees right through him, accusing him of being on “Love Leave.”  Don tells him it’s none of his business, but Bert counters – “This IS my business.”  And then he leaves Don to think about that.  Don leans against the table and sags under the weight of Bert’s truth.  As he does, a parade of his underlings marches past – Peggy, looking morose, and Stand, Ginsberg, and Megan having a normal day.

Roger, as usual, gets the best line.  It’s also the final word.  “I have an announcement to make,” he yells, bursting into the conference room.  “It’s going to be a wonderful day!”  And then he’s off.

What in the world will a rejuvenated Roger Sterling look like?  Is Pete destined for yet another fight, this one a wrestling match for sales supremacy at the agency?  And what about Joan?  Will Roger pursue her and the son he’s so far ignored?  Will she have him?  And finally, what about Don?  Will he come back from love leave and take the weight off Peggy’ shoulders?

So many questions.

3 thoughts on “Mad Men Commentary: Episode 506 Far Away Places”

  1. He’ll need to replenish the coffer a bit if Jane’s words hold true; so perhaps there’ll be some self-centered motivation to up the sales numbers.

    Will Mona reappear? I think the personalities of Joan and Roger, especially Joan, are enough to keep an appropriate tension between the two without any third-party involved.

    All that to say I’m really terrible at predictions of any sort. Especially at 1am.

  2. I’m putting my money on Roger battling with Pete, now that he’s got some zip back in his step. And that kind of exertion could trigger another – fatal – heart attack.
    Just sayin’.

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