Spoiler Alert! This piece contains spoilers.
Episode 705 of Mad Men, “The Runaways”, was marked by a series of jolting responses by a few of the characters that seemed to come out of left field. In each case, the character was backed into an emotional corner and felt compelled to bail on the old script.
It was a tweener episode in a tricky final season that is split into two mini-seasons. That means this first seven episode run needs to build to a kind of mini-finale, or jumping off place, to keep us on pins and needles until Mad Men comes back next year to wrap up the series.
The title of the episode is tricky at first, but when all of the definitions of “runaway” are considered, it makes more sense. In this installment of Mad Men, there is Stephanie Horton (a literal runaway), Michael Ginsberg (whose paranoia runs amok, causing him to lose his grip on reality), Betty (who snaps and gives up on the status quo), Peggy (who long ago fled her family and its trappings), Megan (who, in an act of desperation, tries to re-capture the lost passion of her marriage) and finally, Don, who learns that his penance is not appreciated and flips the script in order take control of his destiny.
Don does the work.
The first thing that stands out about this episode, “Scout’s Honor” aside, is how productive Don is. Things are almost back to normal. Almost. Lou is still in charge and Don still answers to Peggy but aside from that, his workload is increasing.
It’s good to see Don working, and there’s a sense that he is enjoying it. After Bert’s dressing down, followed by Freddie’s tough love, Don has made the necessary adjustments that allow him to show up for work every day and focus on the job at hand rather than the fact that he’s reporting to bosses with a fraction of his talent. He’s living out the Serenity Prayer.
Even when Lou loses his cool in front of the team, over his cartoon, Don puts his own feelings aside to give his rival some reasonable advice, which Lou flatly rejects. Don is back from the dead, thinking about the good of the agency for a change.
One interesting plot twist has to do with a call Don receives from Stephanie Horton, Anna Draper’s neice. Remember her? Back in season four, in “The Good News”, she is the one who tells Don that Anna is dying of cancer…right after he hits on her. The kicker in this bit of information is that Anna has no idea. The details were kept from her by Anna’s sister. When Don becomes angry that Anna is in the dark, Stephanie says, “Please don’t make me sorry that I told you.” Remember this bit of dialogue….
Stephanie’s call to Don is for help. She’s a pregnant, homeless hippie and needs some money and a place to stay. Don, happy to hear from her, gives her Megan’s address and tells her to go there, that he’ll be in later in the evening.
After he hangs up, Don calls Megan and tells her Stephanie’s coming and that he’ll be in later. Megan is surprised because Don isn’t supposed to visit until the following weekend. She tells Don she’s happy he’s coming and eagerly agrees to help with Stephanie.
I’m not taking management advice from Don Draper.
Speaking of Lou Avery, the tension between him and Don is nearing a breaking point. SC&P isn’t big enough for the two of them, and it’s a matter of time before Lou utters that phrase.
The episode begins with Stan finding a folder on the Xerox machine containing a cartoon by Lou called “Scout’s Honor.” It’s a rip off of “Beetle Bailey”, with a monkey in the Beetle Bailey role. Stan can’t help but take the folder back to his gang for them all to laugh at.
Later, when Mathis runs into Stan in the men’s room, they improvise a dirty skit featuring Lou’s Scout. Just as they finish, the toilet flushes in one of the stalls, where Lou has been taking a dump. Lou says nothing in the bathroom, but blows his stack in the creative meeting, calling his team a bunch of “flag burning snots.” He punishes the team by postponing their meeting until late in the day. Basically, he keeps them all after class. Don takes all of this in without a word. He just rolls with the punches and books a later flight to L.A.
When Don brings his finished work to Lou, dressed to leave for the night, Lou calls him out for his “rookie maneuver” and asks Don how it would look if he let him leave early. Don suggests letting everyone go. Lou asks him if that’s what he’d do, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “No, I’d let you go, Lou,” Don says, finally showing his hand. Lou shrugs off the insult and tells Don it’s too late for that and refuses to let Don leave.
This is a key moment, because Don doesn’t resort to his usual tactics. In the past, he wouldn’t have taken crap from a guy like Lou, but this time he swallows his pride and turns to leave. As he passes through the doorway, he turns and offers Lou some insight into Stan and the guys and their need to poke fun at authority, but Lou will hear none of it. He brushes the olive branch away with an insult. “I’m not taking management advice from Don Draper,” he says. With that, Don goes back to his office and let’s Megan know he won’t be in L.A. until the morning.
Later, well into the evening with Don hard at work, Lou stops by Don’s office dressed in his overcoat and hat. He smiles and tells Don that he changed his mind and can wait until Monday to see Don’s work. It’s an F-You to Don that is layered with irony, since we’ve seen Don pull maneuvers like this with Peggy and his team over the years. As soon as Lou strolls off, Don turns off his typewriter and checks his watch, but it’s too late. Just as Lou planned it.
Don doesn’t yet know it, but he has a surprise in store for Lou, later in the episode.
I don’t want you to be in a bad mood…
When Don calls Megan to tell her about Stephanie, Megan is eager to jump in and help. Why the sudden shift in attitude from Megan? The last we heard from her, she was freezing Don out, hurt with the news of his suspension from the agency and voluntary absence from her. And why the cold response from Don, when she cancels her weekend plans for him?
Megan has loved Don all along, but Don has always run hot and cold with her. It doesn’t take a licensed therapist to see that this relationship is all but over, but Megan appears to have regrouped and is fighting for their marriage, even if Don is preoccupied with rebuilding his reputation in New York.
Megan’s willingness to go along with Don’s plan takes an abrupt turn when Stephanie makes a seemingly offhanded remark during a conversation. Don is still in New York, and the two women are getting to know one another. Megan has insulted Stephanie a couple of times by referring to a need for a shower and offering to feed Stephanie outside.
This leads to a comment from Stephanie on Anna’s ring, which Megan wears, the rejection of the steak Megan has prepared for her and the clincher, saying she knows all of Don’s secrets. Megan stiffens at the remark, and nearly chases Stephanie out the door, after writing her a $1,000 check.
Between the personal rejection that comes from being an aspiring actress and the uphill battle of being in a marriage with Don Draper, Megan’s insecurities are out of control – like the proverbial runaway train.
When Don finally makes it to town, he’s sincerely disappointed to have missed Stephanie. Megan is less than truthful in her characterization of Stephanie’s sudden departure. Suddenly, Don’s reasons for being in L.A. have run out, and he’s in a rotten mood. When Megan’s friend Amy, from Delaware, flirts with Don, it seems a forgone conclusion that something will happen between the two.
Later, at the party Megan throws for her acting class at their place, Don is hit-on again by Amy, who has been emboldened by marijuana. He seems immune to her advances, but when Megan dances with one of her classmates, a bearded young rake, he seems to go from jealous to bored in a matter of seconds. Megan sees Don’s expression, which she must have taken for jealousy, and immediately leaves the young guy for her husband.
Right on cue, Harry Crane shows up with a pretty young wannabe on his arm. Don spies him and rushes to greet him, not wanting the encounter with Megan. When Harry explains that he’s helping the young girl find an agent, Don whisks him off to a nearby watering hole, leaving Harry’s young date with Megan.
Later, when Don returns home, drunk and shaken by Harry’s big news, he rejects Megan and Amy’s invitation to get high and goes to bed. Shirtless and reeling, he is surprised when the two women sweep into the bedroom and initiate a threesome. Don seems freaked out by the unexpected turn the night has taken, but gamely goes with the flow.
The next morning, Don is the first to awaken. Megan sleeps next to him. Amy is on the far side of the bed. Don lifts his head to see that she is there and that what he remembers happening did indeed happen.
Later, when Megan finds Don in the kitchen looking for coffee, she is frustrated to find that her attempts at sparking something new and different have failed. The threesome, it turns out, was a desperate attempt to rekindle some passion in their failing marriage. Things don’t look good for these two.
I’m tired of everyone telling me to shut up. I’m not stupid. I speak Italian.
Betty and Henry share in the marital strife, this episode, when Betty decides she’s through with being a mere ornament in Henry’s life.
As Henry amps up his political ambitions, Betty’s role is to bee seen and not heard, which she’s accepted without question. But when Betty speaks her mind about national affairs at a dinner party they host, Henry rudely brushes her aside and changes the subject.
Like Megan, this response seems sudden at first, but when Betty’s past is taken into consideration, it’s easy to see how this slight could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Later, after the party, Henry comes up to their bedroom to confront Betty. Their fight reduces Henry to sexist insults, the capstone of which is advice to Betty to confine her conversation to how much she hates getting bread crumbs in the butter. He punctuates his argument by telling her to leave the thinking to him. Nice.
It’s hard to tell where these two are going. Perhaps an unexpected visit from Sally provides a clue. When Bobby slips into her room at night, seeking comfort from the bickering, Sally assures him that the “Dynamic Duo” won’t divorce. When he tells her he has a stomach ache every day, Sally declares that she’s sneaking off in the night to hitch a ride back to school – a runaway move. But when Bobby asks to come along, she decides to stay put.
I removed the pressure…it has an outlet.
Poor Michael Ginsberg. When Peggy hired him, he showed up for work nipping at Don Draper’s heels. Talented, but a bit wacky, he settled into the role of resident crank. This season, his role has morphed to that of Cassandra of Greek mythology, a goddess blessed with the gift of prophesy, but cursed so that no one pays her any heed.
As the announcement of the computer installation took hold, it was Ginsberg who sounded the alarm, warning the other creatives that they were suddenly expendable. He’s right, of course, though not in the way he means.
One Saturday, Ginsberg works alone in his office on some ad copy. The humming of the giant computer drives him to distraction until he stuffs his ears with Kleenex. Later, when he goes to get a cup of coffee, he spies Jim Cutler and Lou in the air conditioned room that houses the computer. In yet another nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ginsberg – like HAL – tries to read the lips of the men as they converse.
This leads him to pack his things and run to Peggy’s apartment, where she’s found pouring chips into bowl as if preparing for company. Ginsberg recounts the story to her. When she asks what it means, he tells her that it obviously means Cutler and Lou are “homos.” He goes on to explain that the new computer causes men to perform unnatural acts.
As Ginsberg tells his tale, there is a knock at the door. It’s Peggy’s “date” – young Julio from upstairs. Evidently, they watch TV together. It’s a nice bit of comedy. Ginsberg begs Peggy to let him work at her place, unable to work either at the office or home. She relents.
Later, after Peggy has fallen asleep on the couch, Ginsberg sits staring at her as she regains consciousness. Julio has gone. Ginsberg expands his theory and tries to get Peggy to sleep with him to prove that he is still somewhat normal. With this, Peggy shoos Ginsberg away.
When Ginsberg shows up for work on Monday morning, he shows up in Peggy’s office looking clean and refreshed. He explains that he’s realized what’s going on. He knows the computer was causing a build-up of pressure within his body and that he’s relived the pressure. Peggy says she’s glad, and Ginsberg hands her a small box containing the key to his relaxed state of mind. She opens the box and finds his bloody right nipple ensconced, like an engagement ring.
Peggy shrieks, horrified first at the sight of Ginsberg’s nipple and then at the realization that her friend and co-worker has gone mad. She collects herself, asks Ginsberg to have a seat, then leaves her office to call for help.
As Ginsberg is wheeled out of the office, bound to a stretcher, he looks back at her and screams for her to leave while she still can.
Peggy is stuck. Having left the launch pad, headed for the stars, her career trajectory has stalled out midway, leaving her frustrated at doing work for a dolt like Lou Avery. Though she may be acting as a project leader on good assignments, she has no real future at SC&P as things stand now. Ginsberg’s parting words are likely good advice.
I’m going to make sure you’re still important.
There was a bombshell in this week’s episode, and continuing a trend for the season, it comes from Harry Crane, whose star continues to rise.
After he and Don leave the party, the settle in at a local bar. At first, Don is taciturn, but Harry breaks the ice by hinting something ominous concerning Don’s future.
Harry confesses that he’s been put in a strange position by Lou and Cutler. He tells Don that he respects him and hates that he might have to leave. Don’s attention piqued, Harry goes on to say that he wants to help find a way to keep Don employed at SC&P.
This, of course, seems like another sudden shift in attitudes, especially when recent events with the computer are factored in, but there you have it. Harry and Don go back a long way, and Harry likes Don, even though Don has never really had much use for him.
“I’m going to make sure you’re still important,” Harry tells Don. He says it’ll take major brainpower, which will likely mean Don needs to come up with a solution. Harry goes on to say that the solution is not to get rid of Don, but to relocate him to L.A., where he can be with Megan and replace the useless Ted, whom Harry dismisses as a “broken man.”
Don presses in and asks Harry what’s going on, and Harry tells him that Lou and Cutler are putting together a deal for Commander Cigarettes, a division of Philip Morris. Harry explains that if the deal is won, Don will have to leave – a consequence of the infamous open letter he published in the New York Times, which is still causing trouble for the agency all these years later.
When Don gets agitated, Harry tries to calm Don down, saying “Don’t make me sorry I told you.” This is a weird echo of the conversation Don had with Stephanie when she told him about Anna’s cancer. What’s up with this, and why is this boomeranging back around? Is this some foreshadowing for the crowd predicting Don’s imminent death? Stephanie was in the episode for a reason, and it has something to do with death and rebirth.
The news of Anna’s cancer was a sudden shift in perspective for Don. As he visited with her that last time, she took his hand and told him she knew everything about him and loved him still. Later in the season, in “The Suitcase”, Don and Peggy have a moment. She witnessed him taking the call when he learned of Anna’s death. He broke down crying in front of her, a rare loss of composure that came on the heels of another in which he vomited in front of her before passing out in her lap. Afterwards, the two shared a tender moment before resuming the normal work rhythms.
I have to think that Stephanie’s presence in this episode is a callout to those two episodes from season four, reminding us of the connection between Don and Peggy, with many references to those two episodes. As Don rebuilds his identity, I can’t imagine him not repairing the relationship between himself and Peggy. Perhaps a common enemy like Lou will be the lightning rod of reconciliation.
Regardless, Don takes Harry’s information and gives him a heartfelt thanks.
The next we see Don, he’s calming himself at the Algonquin Hotel, where he’s about to barge in on a secret meeting between Lou, Cutler and three executives from Philip Morris.
When the point man from Philip Morris reminds Don of his letter, Don acknowledges it by promising to resign should SC&P win the business. Cutler thanks Don for volunteering to save them the trouble of firing him.
Don shift gears, however, by making a pitch for him to handle the business. At first, Philip Morris is annoyed at the idea, but when Don offers up a chance for Philip Morris to “force” him to apologize, as well as capitalize on Don’s insider knowledge of Lucky Strike, it’s too much for Philip Morris to say no to. Don, sensing he’s made his point, thanks them all for their time and leaves Cutler and Lou to mop up.
Cut to the street, where Don hails a cab. Lou and Cutler join him. “You’re incredible,” Lou tells Don. It’s unclear whether Lou meant it as a compliment or insult, but Don says, “Thank you” as though it was the former. There is a swagger in Don’s step. He knows he just scored. He opens the door to a cab and Lou gets in. Cutler joins him, then looks up at Don and says, “You think this is going to save you, don’t you?” Don says nothing. He merely slams the door then whistles for the next cab, the opening chords of Waylon Jennings’s “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line” play. The first chorus goes:
“Everybody knows you’ve been steppin’ on my toes
and I’m gettin’ pretty tired of it.
You keep a’steppin’ out of line and messin’ with my mind
If you had any sense you’d quit…”
Don’s back, and with the look he flashed Lou and Cutler as he left the Algonquin, he served notice that he’s not going quietly into that dark night. With only two episodes left this year, expect a lot of fireworks.