On what is actually my favorite show, as in most greatly enjoyed, Doctor Who, there is a hand-waving phrase to cover the shifty plot twists inherent in the saga of the antically enigmatic traveler through time and space known as the Doctor. "Wibbley-wobbley, timey-wimey." As in, the flux capacitor went thataway and moving right along.
To that phrase, for the latest episode of Mad Men, add trippy-wippy.
The episode shifts through time and perspective, like, oh, say, Pulp Fiction, and only one of the three stories in (not so) "Far Away Places" centers on an LSD trip.
As always, there be spoilers ahead. Incidentally, you can see all my Mad Men pieces, going back to 2009, here in The Mad Men File.
The hairpin plot twists so evident in last week's episode continue in this one, as does the sense of suddenly (seemingly?) impending doom.
First, and probably least interestingly, to Don and Megan Draper.
A few weeks back I wrote that Don and Megan have a pattern of bickering and making up, sardonically noting that it's something that will never get old for them (or the audience). Meaning I found it to be getting old for me.
It looks like it may at last be getting old for them, too.
Don decided to take Megan away from work on an extended excursion to sample the delights of orange sherbet at a Howard Johnson's. Stuff ensues and an angry Don takes off, only to quickly return to find that Megan has taken off, leaving only her cool shades behind. He waits and calls and flips out in insecurity, finally thinking to return home to their swanky pad in Manhattan only to find that she is there and has chained the door. They then come close to having a horrific physical fight only for Don to dissolve into grief like a little boy, holding on to Megan as if she is his mother.
This latest episode reveals, not surprisingly, that Don is pretty domineering and Megan, who made a hard to forgive jab at Don about his mother, is pretty childish.
Don's sudden decision to marry Megan at the end of last season seemed spurred, at least in large measure, by how great she was with his kids, especially troubled daughter Sally, during their vacation to the California future world known as Disneyland. (It's already turned out to be "a small world after all" here in California, if not quite as cheery multi-culti as the song, but we're still working on getting that monorail, er, bullet train.) But this season, when it seemed like Betty might have cancer, he's expressed serious doubt about Megan as their mother.
Much as I like Megan, Don would probably have been better off with the much more mature and better educated Dr. Faye, whom he throw over at the end of Season 4. She's not a natural with kids, but that doesn't seem like a big factor now, as it did at the time.
Megan, of course, in her youth does represent a fresh and uncomplicated future. But the future frequently gets complicated when it becomes the present. And Megan isn't just an alluring symbol, she's a person with her own will and mind. To her credit, she wants to work and learn the ad game, and not just be yanked away at Don's whim.
By the end of the episode, Don and Megan have made up and returned to their glossy united front in public. But now they know for sure they have deeper issues.
Roger and Jane Sterling are a couple that not only knows they have deeper issues, they're very well practiced at avoiding them, and one another.
It was a very deft touch to have Roger Sterling be the first Mad Men leading character to use psychedelic drugs. It's counter-intuitive, but actually makes great sense, given his ingrained hedonism.
And using the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, one of the greatest albums of the '60s (the Beatles put out Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967 in part to try to best it), as soundtrack material was inspired.
While "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" by the brilliant Brian Wilson, whom I've met and is something of a casualty of the era, seems too on-the-nose for this character who clings to the style and values of a now twice bygone era, i.e., the '50s, it actually comes with telling irony. For it is Roger who achieves the breakthrough LSD was intended to produce.
He and Jane had various amusing trippy perceptions during their own electric kool-aid acid test, lovingly and lengthily recounted elsewhere, but it was the dapper Roger who achieved both clarity and calm resolution in the end.
Their marriage is over.
Is Roger going to bring this sort of calm incisiveness -- which might otherwise have required years of Zen meditation -- to bear in, and on, the future? Thus making him a man who is decidedly made for these new times? Stay tuned.
In the last episode, it was Pete Campbell who, after ascending, suddenly seemed on the verge of destruction.
This week's episode presents Peggy Olson as the new candidate. Was this a very abrupt plot development, too?
After blowing off likable but rather clingy boyfriend Abe, who tells the workaholic he's tired of her treating him like "a focus group," Peggy presents another very bad pitch for Heinz, one which makes the hilariously lousy "dancing baked beans" from the beginning of the season seem inspired. Then, acting like she's Don Draper, she tries to intimidate the client into accepting the campaign, which naturally does not work. In fact, Heinz gets Pete to pull Peggy from the account altogether.
Things go from bad to worse when Peggy spins out to boozing it up in the office, then plays hooky by ducking out to see Born Free -- the cloying hit movie about lions in colonial Africa -- in the middle of the day. There, after warning a pot smoker that he can get in trouble, she does a 180 from censorious to licentious and starts smoking dope herself. She then responds to her fellow smoker's romantic advances by giving him a hand job.
When Bert Cooper confronts Don for being too checked out from his work, saying he's essentially leaving the creative department in the hands of "a little girl" and placing the agency in jeopardy as a result, that's obviously unfair and sexist. But the original name partner of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has a point. Peggy is only 26, talented, but not very well-educated as a high school grad who went to secretarial school. She doesn't have Don's knowledge, experience, or style.
It's 1966. Even a truly accomplished female character would struggle in this highly sexist era.
While Mad Men is becoming decidedly stranger, it's still no X-Files. And Peggy Olson is no Dana Scully.
Yet the show has taken on something of a scifi cast, with Ken Cosgrove an accomplished scifi writer on the side and Roger and Jane fatefully deciding to technologize their perceptions.
Which brings us to Michael Ginsberg, an intriguing and studiedly odd new character whose role in all this is still emerging. He tells Peggy that the man who came to use their copy machine is his adoptive, not biological father, and that he, Michael, is a Holocaust survivor, born in a concentration camp. This has been so traumatic for him that he thinks of himself as coming from Mars. Peggy asks if there are other Martians among them. (In New York, as if she had to ask.) Michael doesn't know.
He evidently feels like a stranger in a strange land, to coin a phrase. (That's a little joke.)
And there we are at chapter's end.
Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, trippy-wippy.
What makes the zigs and zags of Doctor Who work is that the show is fun. Yes, it's sometimes tragic and there's frequently a dark edge to it. But the humor is always humming in the background and the characters are likable and sometimes lovable.
While I appreciate all the characters on Mad Men, there aren't many likable characters. As Megan said, tellingly, to Peggy early this season: "What is wrong with you people? You're all so cynical. You don't smile, you smirk."
But they are interesting.
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