Welcome to the beginning of the end, Mad Men fans! Come back every Tuesday for a breakdown of the latest episode comprising the first half of this seminal show’s seventh and final season. Want more Mad Men discussion? Be sure to subscribe to the Not Great, Pod! podcast featuring me and Messrs. Corey Atad and Kevin Ketchum. Feel free to give us a rating, like us or follow us, and please shoot us an email with your questions, comments and crackpot theories at [email protected]
Watching this final season of Mad Men, it’s hard not to feel that creator Matthew Weiner is trolling us fans. The imagery he’s employing is downright spooky when examined alongside the real events of the summer of 1969 in which actress Sharon Tate was brutally murdered at her home in Benedict Canyon in Los Angeles. Not that the same fate will likely befall Megan over in Laurel Canyon, or even Anna Draper’s niece Stephanie, although surely the grisly event will be addressed in some way in the series. But Weiner and company are clearly building tension. Everyone’s on edge - nothing remains steady, from relationships to work to one’s sanity. They’re building a sense of confusion as the decade ends, with characters wondering what the hell they went through and why. They’re building helter-skelter.
“Get out while you still can” may as well be the theme for this season, and it certainly applies to the fifth episode, “The Runaways.” Even the season’s biggest villain Lou Avery has an (albeit far-fetched) exit strategy in his “Scout’s Honor” cartoon. Naturally, he responds to the teasing he receives from the creative team in top insecure form, rebuffing Don’s advice to not make things worse by giving Stan and company more ammunition. Don’s right, and Lou’s mistake is discounting not only his advice but his uncanny ability to salvage a bad situation with a smile and a smooth pitch. Harry’s tip to Don about Cutler and Lou’s strategy to land Commander cigarettes — a move they assume would get Don forced out of SC&P given his past behavior with tobacco companies — is all he needs to take a stab at a second chance. He breaks one of his stipulations, however, by going “off-book,” and Cutler’s parting words to him are foreboding: “You think this is going to save you, don’t you?” Perhaps Lou’s line is more telling, as he looks at Don with a sense of wonder and incredulity: “You’re incredible.”
Don resorted to his old ways to out-scheme the schemers and escape his current stalemate of a situation, a method Megan interestingly employs on him during his visit to L.A. He came to see Stephanie, who calls him out of the blue to reveal she’s pregnant and “running out of bread.” Don sends her to Megan, whom he encourages to keep the situation “a family matter,” but Megan’s interactions with Stephanie (Caity Lotz) are soon tinged with jealousy that extends beyond the fact Anna Draper’s niece is a beautiful young woman. It’s Stephanie not minding Don finding out about her lifestyle — “I don’t care. I know all of his secrets.” — that sets Megan on edge. Don may have told Megan about his Dick Whitman past, but that’s not the same as him truly opening up to her and letting her see a part of him he has mainly only shown to Anna, Stephanie and Sally. Watch how Don’s demeanor changes when he talks to Stephanie; his mask drops, and he lets hold of the breath he didn’t realize he was holding. He will quickly drop everything and fly to L.A. to see Stephanie and care for her, while his visits to Megan are more of a charade now than signs of devotion.
Megan sending Stephanie on her way with a check for $1,000 (that’s ($6,438.50 in today’s buying power) is petty, but it’s not nearly as desperate as her attempt to seduce him into opening up to her. The trick has worked in the past, and even as Don goes along with the threesome Megan prompts alongside her friend Amy (Jenny Wade), it doesn’t change anything. In the light of the next morning, their problems are still there. “That poor girl,” Betty said of Megan last season. “She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.” Sex, and even romantic love, won’t get her closer to Don, but Megan can’t find another option.
In his polo shirt and plaid sports coat, Don is thoroughly out of place at Megan’s party, and his old-fashioned sensibilities are matched in Betty’s remarks to neighbors about the Vietnam War. The writers are beating the us-versus-them theme a bit hard here, first with Lou calling his younger co-workers “flag-burning snots” and then with Betty ruminating on how the war could be won if those darn kids would stop protesting and start building morale for the country. Even more out of sync is Henry’s outburst at Betty for having an opinion (From now on keep your conversation to how much you hate getting toast crumbs in the butter and leave the thinking to me.”), though perhaps viewers’ lack of a substantial Henry story line of late has us forgetting that all he wants out of Betty is for her to be a trophy wife. At least she eventually snaps back that she’s capably of thinking for herself, although surely the irony of this position compared to her naïve sentiments on the war doesn’t occur to her.
Sally, however, has learned plenty from Betty’s life and marriages and wants nothing to do with kowtowing to authority or relying on her looks to be accepted. Their exchange is brutal and well-practiced — “Don’t worry about me finding a man. I already have you to keep me in line.” — with Sally’s droll responses making her a perfect match for (and copy of) Betty. Bobby, however, feels sick at hearing Betty and Henry fight and fearing another broken home. His line about always having a stomach ache heartbreakingly conveys the struggle of children caught in the middle, as does Sally’s sisterly affection toward him. But she’s right when she conveys her sympathies — he’s too young to leave. He can’t get out.
Ginsberg’s struggle to break free is by far the saddest, and looking back, signs of his mental instability have been present for a while. The unavoidable presence of the ever-humming computer is enough to send him over the edge, the machine spinning along in an almost mocking fashion as the humans surrounding it struggle to make sense of their lives. The computer doesn’t have to make sense of anything or contend with emotions, yet it’s easy to imagine an artificial intelligence thriving inside. Ginsberg’s insistence that the machine is filling him with waves of data and possibly making him gay is only compounded by his seeing Cutler and Lou conducting a secret meeting in its room. The homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey is perfect, as Ginsberg pans between their lips as if he is the computer. Yet his paranoia (not to mention his cutting off his own nipple and presenting it in a box to Peggy) and break with reality speaks to the long line of sad events that have occurred at this company, notably Lane’s suicide two years before. That death marked a turning point for SC&P, and despite the merger and no matter how many accounts they add, something at the very heart of this world is broken. The work with Chevy and Commander and the impending big blows to those businesses could spell doom for SC&P. But the problem is deeper than a few potentially failed accounts. The company is a living thing, and it’s spinning and spinning, but it won’t last forever.
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter. Embellished photo of the computer looking angry courtesy of the hilarious blog Mad Men Screenshots with Things Drawn On Them.