Don and Roger head to L.A. for some continental culture clash (and hash) while Joan scores a win at home
“Beyond the age of innocence…into the age of awareness.” – Tagline for Medium Cool.
There are multiple versions the most formative era of the mid-20th-century: A tale of two Sixties, as it were. One is the hippy-dippy version: the Summer of Love, Woodstock, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The other, like the bad patches of a good trip, is the penny’s darker flip-side: Vietnam, Altamont, “Helter Skelter.” Mad Men this season has partly been concerned with depicting these two visions of 1968 and how they dovetail into each other. That’s what I think last week’s whole Sharon Tate shirt hullaballoo was about. I find it hard to believe Weiner would be so symbolically blatant as to use the shirt to mark Megan as a murder victim, but I can see him using it as yet another visual reminder of the turmoil and darkness existing just under the surface of these times.
As that tagline from Haskell Wexler’s cinéma not-quite-vérité classic Medium Cool implies, the period brought with it a certain loss of innocence. We watch the characters in this week’s episode as they grimly follow footage of the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the setting for Wexler’s film, and pretty much everything is underlined by a current of uneasiness. People may still be going to parties in L.A. where they hang out and smoke hash, but elsewhere in the country things are in upheaval. We’ve heard a lot of bad news delivered over the radio and television in the past ten episodes.
But while Chicago experiences political turbulence in the background, “A Tale of Two Cities” focuses mostly on differences between the two coasts. Don and Roger head to Los Angeles along with Harry to take some meetings, hoping to use TV airwaves for less depressing, more marketable, purposes, and discover what many stand-up comedians have since confirmed: the culture is different over there. Back in New York, Joan puts her foot down but nearly manages to shoot herself in it in the process, and the alphabet soup of SCDPCGC finally gets pared down to the simpler and more elegant SC&P.
The topic of an acronym change is broached at the start, with Cooper offering to chisel his name off the door along with the “deceased parties”—that is, the tragically departed Frank Gleason and Lane Pryce—but the motion is tabled when Don and Roger have to leave. On the plane ride, Don is surprised by Roger’s lack of preparation, but the Silver Fox has always been the kind to improvise his way through any sort of trouble. “We are conquistadors,” he says. “Our biggest challenge is not to get syphilis.”
NEXT PAGE: To hash and to hold…
Roger’s cavalier attitude doesn’t quite pay off. He gets a great moment at the end of a meeting with Carnation, who see the Life Cereal account in SCDPCGC’s (whew!) portfolio as a conflict of interest with their instant breakfast. Roger takes a pin to the built up tension with a simple “Get over it,” demonstrating again his ability to read a situation, but it still doesn’t save the L.A. trip from being a failure. After they’re taken to a party by Harry (who, with his candy-apple red convertible and radioactive orange suit, is entirely at home playing in the shallow pools of Tinseltown) Roger encounters a figure from SCDP’s past: Danny, former employee, relation, and nepotistic benefiter. In the years since his firing, Danny has transformed into a hobnobbing glad-hander and Paul Simon look-alike. He holds court with beautiful, stoned women at the party like, well, Paul Simon at that L.A. party in Annie Hall.
Roger thinks he can scrape Danny off his shoe but quickly finds that he’s out of his element. His brand of charm doesn’t quite work out here in the dry heat—how could it in a place where people say things like “Nice rappin’ with you, Rog”?—and he ends up both cock-blocked and cock-punched by Danny, who steals away his tripping Pocahontas. Roger’s night at least ends better than Don’s, who takes a hit of hashish and ends up floating face-down in the pool Sunset Blvd.-style. For someone who has such a high alcohol tolerance, Don has terribly crazy reactions to other drugs.
This time he hallucinates a hippiefied Megan, out on the West Coast among her acting brethren, who catches him making out with another woman but tells him it’s okay. She then tells him that she’s pregnant and that it’ll be a second chance for them. Don’s imagination is giving him both forgiveness for his transgressions and redemption. Then it coughs up a ghost. Private Dinkins from Hawaii shows up —the majority of him, at least—and offers a symbolic light, informing Don that not only did he lose an arm in the war, but he lost his life. “My wife thinks I’m MIA, but I’m actually dead,” he says, and since it’s all in his brain anyway, it’s not hard to see how this might also be a statement that applies to Don.
There’s something fascinating about the way Mad Men—a show set in New York but filmed in L.A.—portrays California. It’s always mythic and dreamlike, the uncorked and unmoored alternative to bespoke claustrophobic Manhattan. It’s the kind of place where Don and Megan’s marriage could be conjured up out of nothing. Tonight’s episode, along with its Dickensian title, seems to imply the two coasts were fundamentally at odds long before any Tupac-Biggie feuds. On the plane back home, Roger praises his natural environment and expresses a belief every New Yorker secretly holds in his or her heart: “New York is the center of the universe.”
NEXT PAGE: Joan gets all up in the business…
Meanwhile, back at the center of the universe, Joan is looking to hook some new business. She may have won her seat at the table, but she hasn’t yet managed to garner the respect that goes along with the title. When what she thought was a blind date turns out to be a blind business meeting with an unhappy representative for Avon, she jumps on the chance to prove her worth. But like that time in Season Two when she read TV scripts for Harry Crane only to be replaced by a new male hire, the firm’s hierarchy tries to shunt her off the project. Underestimating the differences between Joan and herself, Peggy convinces her to talk to Ted about her lead, sure that he would never steal the food from off her plate. By this point, Peggy is used to being treated more as an equal, and so she’s disappointed and apologetic when Ted immediately calls down Pete to grab the baton from Joan.
Joan finagles the meeting with Avon so that she attends in Pete’s place and Peggy is shocked. Still, Joan shows that she’s more than up for the task of reeling in accounts—which we should already know considering, as she says, she’s “in charge of thinking of thinking of things before people know they need them.” Back at the office, Peggy confronts her, finally airing out old grievances about Joan’s initial lack of support for her rise from the role of secretary. “So brave letting Don carry you to the deep end of the pool,” Joan retorts, and Peggy replies, “I never slept with him,” which is both a defense and an attack. The insinuation stings Joan, but they still make up in the end, which is good because I’d be sad without their unspoken girl-power solidarity.
When Pete finds out about Joan’s power play, he’s unsurprisingly apoplectic over the breach in company code and calls in Ted. Joan is prepared to face the music, but Peggy saves her at the last minute by pretending that she had (ding dong!) Avon calling. So Joan ends up with her job and the account just as long as Avon actually does call.
For Pete, this is just yet another thing that’s making him unhappy. While he doesn’t have all too much to do this week, he gets some of the episode’s best moments, including peevishly exclaiming “I don’t want that!” when informed he’s been given what is technically a promotion. And then there’s that badder than badass final shot, where Pete finally stops giving a crap and commandeers Stan’s joint, puffing bitterly and staring at a young employee’s rear as she sways by, Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” playing in the background. “Laid-back” isn’t a word I would ever use to describe Pete Campbell even when supine, but maybe he’s finally about to loosen up on the reins a little. Don gruffly tells him that if he doesn’t like the job, he should find another one, which probably would be one of the best things that ever happened to Pete.
Ginsberg, on the other hand, doesn’t partake of the wacky tobacky. Worked up over the protests, he bites the hand that feeds him and picks a fight with Cutler, calling him a fascist and a Nazi, which, considering the source, is no small insult. Bob Benson pops up to cheerfully stick his nose where it doesn’t belong and ends up being given an opportunity to chaperone Ginsberg to their Manischewitz meeting. Unfortunately, Ginsberg is spiraling despite a pep talk from Benson, which seems ripped straight from a well-dogeared page in some Dale Carnegie book. I laughed out loud when Ginsberg quoted Oppenheimer’s “Now I am become death” and Benson could only respond with a genial “Come on buddy, you’re not Death.” Something about this semi-comic interaction made me wonder if Bob’s secret is that he’s actually the protagonist of his own show, a much happier and upbeat show than Mad Men about a good-guy worker bee who climbs his way to the top of an ad agency, and all of our favorite characters only have supporting roles. Or maybe I’m wrong and he’ll just turn out to be a crazy killer like some (see No. 4) are predicting. Maybe the reason he knows Ginsberg isn’t Death is because he is. Who knows? The mystery remains.
“This is my stop.” Stan is never at a loss for a good exit line.
Don really can’t go to California without doing something impulsive. Something in the air brings out the ship-jumper in him: so far he’s abandoned business meetings, gotten married on a whim, and smoked himself into a pool.
When Ginsberg asks if Bob’s gay, which many suspected given his utter lack of sexual tension with Joan, he doesn’t flinch and denies it circumlocutorily. But even if he is, it’s not the full answer to “Who is Bob Benson?” At the very least, he’s been ratcheted up a few professional notches, with Cutler sending him to help Ken with Chevy in Detroit.
“On the bright side, Conrad Hilton’s probably in the building right now.” Don holds grudges as impressively as he holds his liquor.
Both the stylish party set to “Harper Valley PTA” and the slow-motion ending probably gave Wes Anderson a boner.
“A series of busts and not the kind I like.” Oh Roger.
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