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Mad Men: A Return To Form?

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The latest episode in this most uneven of Mad Men seasons, A Tale of Two Cities, was actually a good one. Coming just a week after the least viewed episode since 2009, and just as I was thinking it might be time for a pithy 400 or 500 words on the show jumping the shark, it was a welcome arrival.

Which is not to say that it's a great or, in the end, especially important episode, just that it wasn't the clanker that some of the recent efforts were. There were no major reveals in the episode, but there was a fair amount of action, more than the usual, and most of it thankfully out of the inner hell the show too often inhabits, on the road and out on the town, focused on Mad Men's core advertising milieu.

Beware of spoilers, as always, and here's an archive of my pieces on the show, in The Mad Men File.

It's late August 1968 in Mad Men universe. Which means that the blood-in-the-streets debacle of the Democratic National Convention took place on television before the mostly outraged eyes of our characters. While Don Draper and Roger Sterling took a major excursion to Los Angeles ("two cities" -- NYC and LA), their agency underwent a silent coup which ended up with their merger partners in SCDPCGC actually holding the upper hand. Naturally, Ted Chaough, who is looking like a better version of the still quite functional Don, minus the sometime playboy routine, and his previous agency partner, Michael Kuzak, er, Jim Cutler -- also have a great new name for the agency. Sterling Cooper and Partners. So things are back, at least namewise, to where they were at the beginning of Mad Men. But for a near total changing of the guard. Which includes the women learning how to work together to take much more power in the agency.

California may be a lot stranger than New York -- Don and Roger are taken to a party in the Hollywood Hills by Mustang-driving Harry Crane (Chevy doesn't make Mustangs, Harry, the agency's job is to beat the Mustang!) -- but its power is growing. And while our boys have a drug-fueled adventure with LA's hipoisie, they have a sobering experience with some of the Golden State's power elite.

Meeting the morning after some serious police beatings on the streets of Chicago, Don and Roger have trouble reading the signals from top Carnation executives. While Megan and others on the phone from the Big Apple had been appalled by the violence, so too were the LA execs. Just in a different way. Don and Roger slide from faint sympathy for the protesters, only to learn that the view in the corporate suite is that the Democrats are now deservedly dead for all time, to calm assurance that Richard Nixon can take control and smooth things out, and then to the realization that Nixon is seen as a closet liberal. It's the harder-edged "Dutch" Reagan, then in his first term as California's governor, that the Carnation CEO sees as the man to take charge. Which he will do 12 years hence.

With the California corporados giving major pushback in the meeting to New York sharpie ways, things don't go so well on the business front. It's a more copacetic scene at the party in the hills, even though Don and Roger's garb and ways are wildly out of phase. More copacetic that is, until Roger gets punched in the groin by the cousin of his ex-wife. And Don has a bad hashish reaction and ends up face down in the swimming pool.

Little Danny Siegel, the guy whose creative book consisted of endless riffs on somebody else's idea but had to be hired because he was the cousin of Roger ex-wife Number Two Jane Siegel, got fired a couple of seasons back. Of course, given his notorious lack of any originality, he resurfaces as a movie producer! (This is an irony that plays a lot better now in this era of remakes and sequels than it did in the actual 1968, when movies were in the midst of a cultural revolution all their own.) After a few too many gibes from Roger, who is slow to realize that the stoned beauty he chats up is going home with little Danny and not him, the advertising dunce-turned-movie macher punches Roger in the balls and parades away in fine fashion.

Incidentally, Danny Strong, who plays Danny Siegel, actually is a producer. And a writer. He won two Emmys for Game Change, the excellent HBO film on John McCain's presidential campaign and the rise of Sarah Palin, as the film's screenwriter and one of its producers.

As for Don, well, that was a nice Sunset Boulevard image of him there in the pool. Which came after he hooked up with a woman looking rather like a cross between Betty Draper Francis and Julie Christie in Shampoo. Between the making out and the hash pipe, Don conjures up a sudden vision -- which for just a moment seems like it might be real -- of a very hiply garbed Megan, looking quite fetching and naturalistic, telling him it's all right and they have a great future together because she's just moved to California. Megan, who we saw early in the episode getting along well with Don back in the Big Apple, is not mad at him for playing around on her because, hey, it's California. Better yet, she's quitting acting and having his baby. Okay, this is a hallucination.

Don is thrilled. Until she turns into the soldier he helped marry in the season opener in Hawaii. Who is quite dead, not to mention acerbic about what it means to be dead.

Fortunately, unlike the last time he passed out by a pool in California, Don takes care not to hit his head. So aside from a cold, he's none the worse for wear after being fished out of the water by Roger and other celebrants.

Back in New York, they find some big changes.

Ted Chaough has cleared the blockage of their advertising work at Chevrolet. He and Cutler have come up with the aforementioned agency name change. And Joan Holloway, having learned that what she thought was a blind date with a top Avon exec was actually a business meal, has seized the opportunity to land a big account for the agency. In the process, she works with Peggy but ditches Pete Campbell, who had planned to ditch Joan since he is the accounts man and she is, well, not.

Joan busts business protocol in doing it, and rubs rule-follower Peggy very much the wrong way. But in the end, the two women agree that it is for the best, and of course the best way to bust up the male-dominated power bottleneck. On the fly, they learn to get past their differences and work together.

Which leaves Pete quite dissatisfied, smoking a joint and listening to Janis Joplin belting out her signature tune about a piece of her heart as the episode ends. Will he mellow out and go with the flow? Will he quit? Well, one thing is for sure. Pete won't kill himself, as so many imagined last season.

In this episode, the show did a good job in integrating the massive events of the time with the lives of these characters, and in keeping the focus on advertising as it did so. For at least this episode, it escaped the airless and soapily melodramatic rut it's been in for much of this season.

As one longtime observer and promoter of the show put it before the latest episode: "I think Don is lost and consumed by angst. Jaha."

Fortunately, those anvils of despair, of Don's endlessly impending doom, were in the background in this episode.

But we might have another sort of disappointment on our hands.

Is the ubiquitous Bob Benson another of the show's red herrings? After all, he ends up getting a sudden promotion. To go to Detroit to liaise with Chevrolet. This, after we see him psyching himself up to a self-motivation record. I guess he's not a government agent or investigative reporter after all. Does he even matter?

While Bob Benson may or may not be a red herring from Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, last week's episode did give rise to a massive red herring from some of the zealous audience.

There is this wild meme going around about Megan as Sharon Tate, because she wore the same t-shirt -- a five-pointed red star on a white background -- Tate was photographed wearing in 1968. Sharon Tate of course being Roman Polanski's late actress wife, who was slaughtered by the Manson Family.

There is a better explanation for Megan wearing that shirt than that it is a foreshadowing of her murder.

The five-pointed red star is a classic Communist symbol, very typical of the period, and especially typical of the angry politics of the time. It's a rebellious fashion icon. Thus it is perfect for Megan's deeply concerned and at times confused state of mind.

Naturally, the fan(atic)s who obsess about these things jumped to the conclusion that the shirt and "Grandma Ida's" ability to get into the Draper's fab flat in the episode before last means that Megan will be murdered a la Tate.

It is, ah, possible to over-think these things, especially absent the entire context. Sometimes a cigar is not an anvil.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

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