The most appropriate reference in Sunday’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” the 10th episode of “Mad Men” Season 6, may be former agency employee turned producer Danny Siegel’s mention of a film possible adaptation of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” If the series has done anything this season, it has been to lead fans down their own trippy rabbit holes as we dissect every detail in this complex tableau on American life. More than any other season, Six has spawned numerous theories and countless blog posts on its allegories (our fearless leader, Dustin, is all over this), and allusions made in recent episodes aren’t easily scoffed at. “A Tale of Two Cities” will only ramp up conjectures, and even as it takes its name from the 1859 Charles Dickens novel, this “Tale” is not so much about New York City versus Los Angeles, where Don, Roger and Harry visited, but between the old and the new, the rich and the poor, the complacent and the engaged. Society continues to splinter along generational lines as the Vietnam War rages and mores relax. The feeling of everything being out of one’s control is omnipresent, and the boiling point is almost upon us.
The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago serves as a backdrop for the events in late August 1968, with characters checking in on its progress (or lack thereof) through radio and TV broadcasts. In L.A. on business to meet with Carnation, Sunkist and other accounts, Don watches the rioting between protestors, bystanders and police as Megan watches in New York. She calls to share her disbelief in the situation, but Don isn’t as concerned with the upheaval. He is even surprised at Megan being so upset — she’s not even a citizen. “You can’t even vote,” he tells her. “But I live here,” she replies, almost choking up. This is her home; what happens here matters. Stan and Ginsberg are equally concerned with the convention and the rejection of the peace plank to bring about an end to the war. Ginsberg immediately loses his cool when confronted with Cutler’s glib reaction to the news (“I refuse to be distracted by events in which I have no actual stake or participation”), calling him a fascist and bemoaning the plight of the underdog. Ginsberg has a point, saying, “This whole thing works because people like you look the other way.”
Cutler, however, has a point as well against the younger generation: “I hate hypocrites, like hippies who cash checks from Dow Chemical and General Motors.” Ginsberg’s cries would be better heard if they came from a place of actual suffering, although he isn’t as privileged as a lot of the hippies and activists of the day. (Yes, they are the ancestors of hipsters.) Cutler also points out that he served in the U.S. Air Force, likely during World War II. Roger fought in that war, too, and both the real Don Draper and Dick Whitman fought in Korea. It is interesting that the veterans of war are the ones more content to be blasé about Vietnam. They’ve lived through war. They know suffering. But instead of trying to stop its cycle, they would rather bury their heads in the sand. Ginsberg’s slight breakdown later at the office, as he prepared to meet with reps from Manischewitz Kosher Foods alongside Bob Benson doesn’t bode well for his future. “I’m not scared,” he tells Bob. “I’m a thug. I’m a pig. I’m part of the problem. Now I have become death.” Perhaps he will be a key player in Episode 12, which takes its title “The Quality of Mercy” from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” which itself concerns a demanding Jewish moneylender? Or will it be a vengeful Arnold Rosen? Will this make everyone as uncomfortable as I am right now?
Ginsberg wasn’t the only one spiraling out of control at the office. Joan has spent most of the season trying to keep a brave face as nearly every one of her colleagues belittled her and essentially called her a whore. Joan wants to succeed — she wants her role at the agency to matter and be worthwhile — but not only has she not been given that opportunity, she’s afraid she won’t get a chance even if she asks for one. After a lunch date with Andy Hayes (Spencer Garrett), the head of marketing for Avon Cosmetics, turns out to be based on business, not pleasure, she seizes the opportunity to bring in the account herself. She turns to Ted on Peggy’s recommendation, but he immediately hands control to Pete, which made sense considering Pete’s role. But Joan is afraid of being “knocked off the diving board,” and she cuts Pete out of the deal and gets away with it, possession being 9/10 of the law as Ted points out later. Peggy is right, though: Jumping the chain of command isn’t the same as working one’s way up, and Joan better hope Andy calls and her gamble pays off. Joan’s words for Peggy were more cutting, however: “You were so brave letting Don carry you to the deep end of the pool.” When it comes to fighting tooth and nail to be recognized, Joan has Peggy beat by a mile.
In L.A., Don, Roger and Harry take their own beating from Carnation executives, who contend the agency’s work with Life cereal is a conflict of interest with their own instant breakfast. They aren’t impressed with the New Yorkers and their way of business, and the account is just one of many the agency has lost/been close to losing in recent years. They landed Chevy, sure, but these ad men are no longer invincible. Don and Roger looked quite out of place at the Hollywood Hills party they attended with Harry, with Roger losing out a wooing battle with Danny (now Daniel) and the tripping Lotus and looking far from his self-described conquistador self a la Vasco de Gama. “Our biggest challenge is to not get syphilis,” he told Don on the plane ride. What Roger got was a punch to the groin from Danny after one too many short jokes. What Don got was (briefly? almost?) losing his life after smoking hashish and deciding to take a dip. Perhaps he was just thirsty, as party host Cindy directed him to the pool to quench his thirst. Whether or not her recommendation was part of his afterlife visions is unclear, but we do know Don seeing Megan and PFC Dinkins (whom Don met in Hawaii) at the party came as he floated face-down in the pool outside looking like William Holden’s character from Sunset Boulevard. Megan, now with long hair and a headband, reveals she has quit her job, moved to L.A. and is pregnant with the couple’s “second chance.” Dinkins, missing an arm, reveals that although his young bride thinks he is missing in action, he is actually dead. No, he didn’t get his arm back in the afterlife — “Dying doesn’t make you whole,” he tells Don. “You should see what you look like.” He does, just in time to hear Roger yelling “Man overboard!” from off-screen before coming to, resuscitated by his friend.
Don’s drowning was foreshadowed in the season premiere with his advertisement for the Royal Hawaiian hotel depicting a man essentially committing suicide via ocean (which itself reminded colleagues of A Star is Born). Don saw it as freedom, and even Megan knows how much being in the water relaxes him. Accidental or intentional, the drowning in L.A. didn’t lead to his demise, but the ghosts he was haunted by reveal his desire to escape, whether it be starting over in an honest life or letting go completely of life altogether. Megan’s presence at a Hollywood Hills party only furthers the theory that she resembles Sharon Tate, who was murdered by the Manson Family while eight months pregnant in her Hollywood home in August 1969. Megan was even styled similarly to Tate, although we don’t know yet if she is actually pregnant. Death, however, appears to be knocking at “Mad Men’s” door again this season, and it could very well be Megan — one of the only characters that qualifies as a good person — who is sacrificed. (Or, if Dustin is correct, she already is dead.)
Pete isn’t interested in being thrown overboard, and the loss of Avon to Joan leaves him disillusioned. Ted’s advice to take one for the team considering “all agency business is your business” isn’t sufficient, nor is Don’s recommendation that if Pete doesn’t like the new way of business, perhaps he should get out of it altogether. Pete has embraced some of the societal change — he was made for the free love movement — but he isn’t ready for the old order of business to be replaced with flexibility. His partners easily concede to the suggestion of finalizing the new agency’s name as Sterling Cooper & Partners, with Don, Ted and Jim equally swallowing their pride and loss of their names in the brand. “That name is a consolation prize,” Pete protests to Don. “It’s a gravestone to our resistance.” But the older generation isn’t listening. So Pete is left to do what most others of the period do: he gives in. He walks into the creative room, takes Stan’s joint from his lips and takes a drag. The scene slows down as smoke billows from his mouth and a faceless woman walks by in a short dress — a nice callback to the song “Harper Valley PTA,” on changing attitudes regarding women and propriety, which played at the L.A. party, although it is Big Brother & The Holding Company’s “Piece of My Heart” that leads viewers into the credits thanks to director John Slattery’s always excellent use of music. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.