In parallel storylines, Peggy, Roger, and Don slam into some inconvenient truths — and, oh yeah, Roger drops acid!

By Adam B. Vary
April 23, 2012 at 10:56 AM EDT
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S5 E5
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One of the most common complaints with Mad Men has been that precious little happens over the course of its initial episodes, that everything is just a series of exquisitely written and acted set-ups to the eventful payoffs awaiting at the end of the season. Well, already this year we’ve born witness to Fat Betty, Don going American Psycho on his psyche, and The Great Pryce vs. Campbell Fight of 1966. But if there were any lingering doubts that this is not your father’s season of Mad Men, I give you Roger Sterling on LSD.

The entire episode was about unexpected and/or uncomfortable realities smacking our characters hard in the face, and each of them deciding whether to embrace it, or go racing the other direction. As if to drive home just how “new” this new season of Mad Men really is, these stories weren’t told concurrently, but as their own individual strands: first Peggy, then Roger, and finally Don. Intriguingly, separating the story lines only heightened the sense of thematic connection between them — and also our sense of mystery, as the fate of Don’s spontaneous jaunt to visit a Howard Johnson’s upstate with Megan was left dangling for the first 37 minutes. On a lesser show, this structure might have felt too gimmicky, and in truth I may come ’round to feeling that way after mentally masticating over this episode over the next few days. But I doubt it.

Let’s keep to the framework, and start with Peggy. She did not have a good day, and it started with a fight with Abe, her sexually progressive boyfriend who nonetheless was beginning to chafe under the psychological weight of all the work Peggy has been bringing home with her. But the moment Abe expressed his frustration, Peggy — frantic about her impending presentation with the hard-to-please folks from Heinz — seemed all too eager to pull the trigger on their relationship. “I’m your boyfriend!” he spat as he walked out the door. “Not a focus group!” Peggy’s been so busy blazing her trail, she hasn’t stopped to recognize just how far afield she is from the “usual” way a woman behaves, in a relationship, or at the office.

Things went from bad to worse when the man Peggy really counts on, Don Draper, bailed on Heinz, pulling Megan away from the presentation for their trip up to Howard Johnson’s. In the past, Peggy had counted on Don to cajole — and, if need be, coerce — the client into taking the campaign they’d been given. But with Don so checked out these past few months, Peggy realized she was going to have to do it herself. When the Heinz rep sighed again at her idea — a concept built on the nostalgia of a summer campfire and the meat-and-potatoes tagline “Home is where the Heinz is” — instead of backing off, Peggy, her hands in her pockets, tried her best Don Draper imitation…and failed miserably. “You do like it,” she said, her face set, her voice firm. “I think you just like fighting. It’s young and it’s beautiful. And nobody else is going to figure out how to say that about beans.”

Had this come out of Don’s mouth, there’s every chance the Heinz guy would’ve felt cowed, or even charmed, into agreeing to the campaign. But Peggy didn’t know how to make these words sound light and self-evident; instead, they sounded like an affront. “You’re lucky I have a daughter or else I wouldn’t be so understanding,” the Heinz guy growled, and like that, Peggy was pulled off the account.

NEXT PAGE: Peggy takes in a movie, and tokes up some dope

With nothing else to do all day, Peggy threw back a finger of scotch in Don’s office, and then retreated to the movies. Rather than see the film Abe wanted to go to — the brutally violent colonial African survivalist thriller The Naked Prey — Peggy opted for the far more pleasant and uplifting colonial African family drama Born Free, about a young lioness raised by kindly Brits until she’s released back into the wild. When Peggy first caught a whiff of the reefer the man behind her was smoking, her old good girl habits lasted all of five seconds. “You’re going to get in trouble,” she told the pot head. “Want some?” he asked. Peggy shrugged. “Sure, what the hell?”

If Peggy couldn’t be Don in the workplace, she was certainly trying hard to be him outside the office. As a giggly Peggy wondered if the lioness was going to make it on her own, the pot head tried to put her hand up her skirt. Again, her old instincts kicked in — she grabbed his hand, and he then placed it on his crotch. Then another, different, what-the-hell experimental urge overtook Peggy. She opened his fly, and gave the pot head his own personal happy ending just as the female lion in the film roared.

Back in the office, Peggy passed out in Don’s office, awakened at 8:30 p.m. by a frantic phone call from Don, who seemed entirely uninterested in how the Heinz presentation went that day. (I loved, by the way, Dawn’s subtle frown as she woke Peggy up, a mix of genuine concern and “Oh, so you can sleep here, but I can’t?”) After her afternoon bender (mild by Don’s standards), Peggy was ready to own her screw up, telling Don “I take full responsibility” as he hung up the phone. As we would see later, this was already light years more mature than anything Don was capable of. But it took a peculiar and unsettling exchange with a contemporary she barely knew, Michael Ginsberg, for Peggy to begin snapping her life back into focus.

Turns out, Michael is even more of a strange ranger than we’d thought. “I’m a full-blooded Martian,” he told Peggy, with all sincerity. “Don’t worry, there’s no plot to take over Earth.” Peggy had asked Michael about the man she assumed was Michael’s father, who’d stopped by the office to use their photocopier so he could “build my case.” My guess: It has to do with the Holocaust. Michael told Peggy he was adopted, that his father had told him that he’d been born in a concentration camp, that his mother had died there. The only possible explanation — which is to say, the only way Michael knew how to deal with this impossibly sad personal history, and to share it with others — was that Michael was in fact not of this Earth at all. “Are there others like you?” asked Peggy, cured of the drunken tittering that had first greeted Michael’s story. “I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t been able to find any.”

Haunted by the sudden specter of someone so much more alone and anomalous than she’d ever be, Peggy called Abe. “You need me?” he asked. “I always need you,” she said, and meant it. She told him about Michael’s revelation, incredulous that it was even possible. But Abe knew better, and explained it to Peggy in the simplest way one can acknowledge the truth, however awful it may be: “It happened.”

NEXT PAGE: Roger drops acid, and ends his marriage

When we dissolved back to the office, and to Roger sauntering up to Dawn, I was momentarily convinced that it was the next day, possibly the following Monday. And then I admit I became a bit bumfuzzled when Roger tried to convince Don to join him on a trip up to Plattsburgh, New York, to check out the possibility of winning Howard Johnson’s as a client. At least, I think that’s what they were talking about — part of my confusion was that the entire convoluted scheme was never all that clear, beyond that Roger meant it as a chance to get away from Jane and indulge with Don in being “rich, handsome perverts.” Instead, Don commandeered the trip for himself and Megan, leaving Roger to shrug at Dawn, “It was a dumb idea.”

It turns out Roger had been desperately trying to avoid yet another dinner party with Jane’s pretentious friends. At least Jane looked fantastic, all dolled up like a James Bond villainess. Still, Roger had to sit through conversation about the psychological hoo-haa of truth and relativism, and who wants to hear someone bloviate on and on about that claptrap? (Reading about it is an entirely different thing.) “Your mistake is that you’re assuming that because something is true, it’s good,” the ascot wearing host gently admonished a guest. “It’s a myth that tracing logic all the way down to the truth is the cure for neurosis or anything else,” added his therapist wife (the amazing Bess Armstrong, of My So-Called Life). These pronouncements resonated throughout the episode, but I don’t think we were meant to take the discrete charm of the bourgeoisie at this shindig at face value, especially since so much else of what they said that night was complete and utter nonsense.

More on this in a bit, though, because, holy crap, Jane took Roger to an LSD party! Roger, of course, had no idea, having tuned Jane out the moment after she brought up another evening out with people he doesn’t know. “Please, I don’t want to do this alone,” Jane pleaded. “It will be good for us.” Be careful what you wish for. (By the by, the host was not supposed to be LSD pioneer Dr. Timothy Leary, despite Roger’s joke; his character’s name is credited as Sandy Orcutt, which is an anagram for “Candy Tutors,” whatever that means.)

I could write 3,000 words just about what happened after Roger let a sugar cube of psychedelic chemicals dissolve on his tongue. So many of Roger’s hallucinations fed right back into his horn-dog Peter Pan syndrome: The half-grey-half-black hair dye ad; the Beach Boys’ “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” playing overtop a far older song I couldn’t quite place; Roger cackling in the bathtub as the 1919 World Series unfolded in his head. It was a telling detail that Roger imagined Don to be his spiritual guide, but I adored so many of the small, silly details, too: The bombastic (possibly Russian?) opera that played after Roger uncorked a bottle of vodka; the cigarette that collapsed like an accordion the moment Roger began smoking it; the five dollar bill with Bert Cooper’s face on it; this image:

Really, though, the long, strange trip was all about stripping away Roger’s defenses — his glib charm, his fragile ego — and building up Jane’s self-assurance and confidence so they could both admit to each other that their marriage was over. As Roger and Jane stared at the ceiling, the truth came gently tumbling out of them: “It’s over.” Their hostess wasn’t Jane’s friend, she was her therapist, who thinks Jane has been waiting for Roger to tell her their marriage is over so she won’t have to. And although Jane’s thought about having an affair, her love for Roger was real. But, Jane added, “I just know for a fact that you did not fall in love.”

“So what was wrong again?” asked Roger.

“You don’t like me.”

“I did. I really did.”

The next morning, Roger was ecstatic. This exchange could have been done with screaming and tears. Instead, marveled Roger, “It’s just so beautiful, how we were able to be there together, in the truth, like you wanted.” Poor Jane, though, was unsettled. “I knew we were going somewhere,” she’d told Roger the night before, “and I didn’t want it to be here.” She wasn’t relieved that Roger was leaving her, and seemed hurt that Roger appeared to be so unburdened. “It’s going to be very expensive,” she warned, turning away from his embrace, denying him the pleasure of taking in the fashion precursor to Jennifer Lopez’s 2000 Grammy dress. Looks like that giant wad of money Roger is always using to pay off people to solve his problems is about to get much smaller. Roger may have a sunny outlook now, but Jane’s therapist was right; coming to terms with a hard truth isn’t a simple salve for one’s woes. In fact, it can prove much messier than just coasting along on a blithe cloud of denial.

NEXT PAGE: Don really likes orange sherbet

Then again, not dealing with what’s staring you in the face isn’t exactly a solution either. From the first moment Don proposed going up to Plattsburgh with Megan, there were big, flashing warning signs that what he was doing was, in Roger’s words, “a dumb idea.” Megan clearly did not want to go; she preferred to stay behind for the presentation. “I’m the boss,” said Don flippantly. “I’m ordering you.” During the drive up, Megan told Don she felt like she let down the team by leaving, and again, Don was incredulous: Why wouldn’t his wife prefer playing hooky with him over slaving away back the office?

As I watched this scene unfold, this is what I typed into my notes: “Don doesn’t understand that Megan wants to work. She likes to work.” And lo and behold, after suffering through a mighty sampling of Howard Johnson’s menu, Megan witnessed Don shift from ordering orange sherbet for her into brainstorming ideas for a Howard Johnson’s campaign. She’d had enough. “You like to work, but I can’t like to work,” she said, with no question mark. Didn’t Don understand that he’d embarrassed her by sweeping her away at the last minute? And that maybe she doesn’t enjoy orange sherbet? But, no, when she told the waitress that it tasted like perfume, it could have only been to embarrass him. But Megan isn’t Betty. When she’s pissed, she doesn’t resort to passive-aggressive pouting. “I’m sorry,” she said, her voice raised. “Maybe you could make up a little schedule so I’ll know when I’m working and when I’m your wife.”

Since it was apparently time to share resentments, Don whined that Megan is always complaining about him in French to her mother, as if he would know for certain. And that’s when Megan went too far: “Why don’t you call your mother?” Low. Blow.

Matthew Weiner has been clear in interviews that at the end of last season, Don had two choices: Faye Miller, a contemporary and intellectual equal, who was geared up to help Don finally lay to rest the ever-looming original sin that is Dick Whitman; and Megan, young, eager, who personified the promise of the future, of forgetting the past and remaking himself anew. But now, almost a year since his spontaneous proposal at Disneyland, here was Megan, using Don’s past as a cudgel, demanding that he see her as she is, and not who he wants her to be. But he couldn’t. So he ran, driving off without her.

Almost instantly, Don regretted it, and he drove back. But it was too late. Megan was gone. He found her sunglasses in the parking lot. She was seen leaving with some other men. She wasn’t in their hotel room, or in the ladies room, or in the pool. (Gotta love Weiner and co-writer Semi Chellas for slipping in a “Kid pooped in the pool” joke into the middle of Don’s latest personal crisis.) Megan was obviously not coming back — and after Don had called her home in Canada, he knew she hadn’t gone running back to her parents either. But instead of calling the cops, or local hospitals, or driving home himself, Don remained at the HoJo, so paralyzed by the notion that his second perfect marriage may not be so perfect after all, he was unable to admit even a basic truth: “You were a pig to your wife, you abandoned her and drove away, and she probably caught a ride back home. Regardless of where she is, though, she isn’t coming back here. You can leave the Howard Johnson’s now.”

NEXT PAGE: Bert Cooper brings the hammer down

Finally, well past 2 a.m., Don pulled himself together and hit the road, thinking back to his drive from airport after that fateful trip to Disneyland. “I don’t want vacation to end,” whimpered a sleepy-eyed Sally. “Me either,” said Don, wide awake.

When he got home, Megan had chained the door shut. She was, obviously, furious. She’d taken the bus home, a six-and-a-half hour trip, and then got propositioned at 5 a.m. at the Port Authority when all she wanted was a cab. So she hit Don. They struggled. And when she ran into the bedroom, and he chased her in there, my stomach sank — was this all part of some elaborate, deeply twisted S&M sex game? But just as quickly, my fears were allayed. Don chased Megan back out to their living room, and they crashed to their sunken floor, the wind knocked out of Don, and Megan sobbing.

“It was a fight,” sighed Don. “It’s over.”

“Every time we fight, it just diminishes us a little bit,” Megan replied, the only clunker of the night. (Kudos to Jessica Paré for selling it, though.) Everything that Don had been so desperately trying to build for himself suddenly seemed so fragile. He grasped Megan, on his knees, clutching her to him. “I thought I lost you,” he said, but what did he think he had lost? Megan, or his idea of her?

Back at work the next morning, the Drapers walked in together, somehow looking like a million bucks, their usual steadfast stride only slightly dampened. Don stopped Megan before she turned into Peggy’s office, to exchange a knowing, freighted look. I love you. We’re okay. Right? Megan nodded and smiled, and if Don noticed her wipe her nose — a reminder of the tears she was shedding just minutes before — he didn’t acknowledge it. No, Don had righted his ship. His life was back on course. Or so he thought.

When he got to Dawn’s desk, there was a message waiting for him, in the form of a mock-up for a Playtex ad with a red mark struck through it and “DO OVER” written on top. Mr. Cooper dropped it off, said Dawn. “Bert Cooper?” asked Don, as if there was anyone else in his office with that name.

I’ve missed Bert these last two seasons. He seems to understand who Don really is better than anyone other than maybe the late Anna Draper. “A client left here unhappy yesterday because you have a little girl running everything,” Bert said with his characteristic snake-eyed smile. Don, shocking no one, refused to hear what Bert was telling him. Everything’s fine! We just need more bodies! That penny-pinching Lane’s to blame!

Bert tried again, zeroing in on the thing he knows Don still enjoys, still takes pride in doing: His work. “You’ve been on love leave. It’s amazing things have been going as well as they are with as little as you are doing.”

“It’s none of your business,” said Don, still evasive.

“This is my business.”

And with that, Bert walked out, hoping as he left that he’d awakened the monster he’d decried last season after Don’s Dear John letter to the tobacco industry. A happy Don Draper, it turns out, was bad for business. As Don sat alone in the conference room, watching his world pass by him — a chagrined Peggy, a somehow still hopeful Megan — Roger barged in. “I have an announcement to make! It’s going to be a beautiful day!” Whether he was still high off the LSD or being free from an unhappy marriage, Roger was a man who had at least allowed himself to face the truth, and — for the moment — it had cured whatever lingering neuroses Roger Sterling allows himself to have. He was a happier man for it.

Don, meanwhile, was so terrified of spoiling his happiness that for the last 24 hours he refused to face some simple truths that were staring him in the face. The biggest one of all: Megan likes her work — in fact, she’s beginning to love her work — but she cannot work at SCDP anymore if their marriage is going to work. As Don slumped down on the conference table, we were left to wonder if Don was finally awakening to that truth.

What did you make of “Far Away Places”? What did you make of Stan’s non sequitur story about the large breasted girl who goes by Salome, is balls-out funny, and makes him question his artistic talent? Do you think Michael really believes he’s a Martian? And whose hand do you think was holding that cigarette in the promo for next week’s episode? (My money’s on Sally.)

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Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper in the Emmy-winning ’60s-set drama
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