04/23/2012 03:14 am ET Updated Jun 22, 2012

'Mad Men' Recap: What A Long, Strange Trip It Was

Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 5, Episode 6 of ABC's "Mad Men," entitled "Far Away Places."

I began watching Sunday's episode of "Mad Men" (Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on AMC) a half-hour after it began airing, and before I logged off Twitter, I saw a few tweets along the lines of "What the hell?"

Then I began watching the episode, and it wasn't long before I was saying, "What the hell?" About 17 minutes in, before we'd fully figured out that the episode was toying with timey-wimey experimentation, my husband muttered, "We're going to meet some weird Europeans in a minute."

The comment was spot-on, given how much this episode reminded me of "Jet Set," which was tonally and structurally a rather odd hour of "Mad Men." It was an hour that, as I recall, inspired a lot of passionate "pro" and "con" chatter.

"Far Away Places" was much, much weirder than "Jet Set," and I'm of mixed minds about it myself. One the one hand, I really respect the attempt to change things up and experiment with different narrative and structural conceits; "Mad Men" certainly isn't giving us a mildly altered reproduction of a previous season, and within each season, the show likes to play around with different delivery systems, if you will. Some episodes are like thrillers, others echo Updike or Cheever; some are more emotionally direct while others are formal and highly structured. That's one of the big accomplishments of the series: That it draws on many different styles and yet remains of a piece.

Still, it took a while last night to figure out that the narration had been broken up into three different chunks (we saw Peggy's strange day, then Roger's trippy night, and Megan and Don's road trip from hell). It was interesting, but were the relatively simple truths at the heart of the episode more efficiently delivered this way? Possibly, but the way the weird structure called attention to itself was slightly distancing.

Perhaps it was better for the episode to be broken up into separate timelines, even though "Far Away Places" radiated, at times, a kind of self-conscious cleverness that I'm not particularly enthralled by. But I have a feeling there is a certain kind of film nerd who absolutely froths with delight at this kind of thing, and to you, film nerd, I say: Go nuts, this "Rashomon" was for you. Enjoy it, drink it in, write that PhD thesis on "Mad Men's" post-existential something-or-other. I have a feeling that this will be a divisive episode, but the good news is that I'm betting it worked like gangbusters for those on the "pro" side.

As for me, I think parts of it worked and parts of it were a little tedious, if I'm being brutally honest. It was an interesting experiment, and, again, I was glad to see the show try something new, but it was more of a funky, interesting curiosity than something that'll end up on my list of all-time favorite "Mad Men" episodes. Still, I won't soon forget "Far Away Places," and perhaps that is what's ultimately most redeeming about it.

In the end, the episode delivered truths that were definitely not all that good: Don can be a brutal bully and is as tormented by his private demons as he ever was, despite his "love leave"; Peggy is self-destructively angry about the fact that she'll never be taken as seriously as her mentor is; and Roger's a selfish, ultimately immature man who will never understand how much his narcissism hurts others. I tend to think those realities would have come through loud and clear no matter what, but perhaps the stories did pack a bit more punch separated into mini-episodes for each character.

Let's stop for some sherbet and break this hour down section by section:

Peggy: She's turned completely into Don, personally and professionally. She smokes, she drinks too much, she treats the people in her personal life like crap, she obsesses about work, she's a sexual risk-taker and she ultimately does deeply crave human connection. Say hello to the female Don Draper!

But she can't be him, ultimately. What's making Peggy angry, what's contributing to her risk-taking behavior, is the realization that being a woman in her profession will probably always be a problem. For a younger-status female to confront an alpha male (or almost any male, really) is unacceptable. When Don tells a client he'd better love the pitch, the client slides back down into beta male status and obeys. They're not humiliated; more often than not, they become Draper fans. When Peggy does that kind of thing, she's seen as a "overly sensitive" bitch who needs to be taken off the account. Peggy's lived with this double standard for a long time, but she's finally gotten really angry about it, and what's more, a checked-out Don threw her to the lions (lions, get it?!) before she was truly ready. She still needs the candy package Don gave her as a good-luck charm, but she would much prefer to have him around. But as Bert so rightly told him, Don mentally left the building months ago, and he needs to check back in before more accounts walk out the door and more employees self-destruct. That old song-and-dance about just needing more bodies isn't going to work anymore.

Here's my question about Peggy: Do you think the dissatisfaction and even rage we saw in this episode were properly and fully set up? I go back and forth on this. Obviously we've seen some references to her frustration, but when I think about the things Peggy did in this episode, as well as what Pete did last week, I wonder -- did we get enough glimpses, in previous seasons and previous Season 5 episodes, of their unhappiness before it became this obvious and concrete? It's a lingering query in my head, and though I was fine with the pace of the early part of the season, I wonder if the show should have devoted more time to Peggy's life.

Take Joan's breakup with Greg by comparison -- that was so well set up that it was actually a little overdue. We certainly weren't surprised by that. I'm not sure Peggy's outburst toward a client and Pete's willingness to cheat on Trudy were quite as carefully prepared, though I generally buy what happened this week and last. Overall, I think the season's tone and themes cohere, but these are just things I occasionally ponder.

One last thought about Peggy: She's become Don Draper right down to the nostalgia-tinged pitches. Maybe she needs to have a psychological or even personal break with Don, because he's not of her generation. If she's going to succeed in any capacity in the long term, she'll need to tap into where the kids are coming from, not channel aspects of Don's famous "Carousel" pitch from ye olden times.

Roger: This is where things bogged down a bit (though Roger laughing at a singing vodka bottle will never not be funny). Things in the dinner-party conversation were a little on-the-nose and dry, and let's be honest: Watching other people trip is kind of boring. Er, so I hear. What ends up happening is that you watch other people say things like, "Look at my arm!" and that's not necessarily all that interesting. (Exception to the previous statement: I will happily watch Walter Bishop of "Fringe" trip any time.)

Director Scott Hornbacher tried hard to make this section both appropriately weird and occasionally amusing, but there was just so much symbolism and oddness that it started to resemble a dream sequence, and I'm generally not a fan of the heavy-handed trippiness of dream sequences. This episode did better than most at conveying what an LSD experience is like, but there's still a limit to what can be done, and it's hard for what transpires not to seem a faintly goofy.

There was an interesting callback to the Jackie/Marilyn ad with Roger's weird hair moment, and the Beach Boys song "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" was certainly apt, given how out of touch Roger (and Don) have been lately. But again, the on-the-nose symbolism occasionally took me out of the moment, and when there were two songs playing and Roger and Jane were having a strange drug-addled conversation, I found that a bit trying.

Ultimately, the real gateway that the drug provided was a chance for Roger and Jane to finally acknowledge that their relationship was a disaster, and had been for a long time. This truth, however, wasn't beautiful or good for Jane; despite having had a generally positive LSD experience, in the cold light of day, she was still looking at a wrecked marriage and a painful divorce. The fact that Roger could feel so chipper about the whole thing just reveals how distanced he's always been from life -- at work and at home, he's never really been engaged.

And that, more than anything else, was the aspect of this episode that truly resonated with me. It's why all the science-fiction references this season make absolute sense, because there's a huge array of science fiction that explores themes of absence, apartness, dislocation and alienation (if you'll forgive the pun). These are all characters who are finding that they're disconnected and lonely; they're orbiting other people all the time, but they can't feel their most intimate connections consistently. Like the robot in Ken's story, they want to pull out a bolt on the bridge, just to see what'll happen.

Last season was the story of Don's alienation and despair, but this season it's about how society as a whole is falling apart and rules don't seem to matter anymore and thus connections are fraying. That much change is scary, and while pot and acid might mask those roiling emotions in the short term, in the long term, they can't fix connections that aren't working. Hence the "lost in space" analogies.

Don: We've always known Don can be a bully and a creep, and he proved that in his storyline in "Far Away Places." Here's the conundrum that even Megan can't seem to crack: Don often wants to dominate and control the women in his life, but he can't respect or be turned on by a passive woman who puts up with his worst behavior. He wants a mother-figure who will cradle his tormented head; he wants a toy he can take out of the drawer and play with when he wants to; he wants a lioness who will fight him. Megan has to contend with all that psychodrama -- and she's his employee too. It's a lot. In fact, it's too much. And that's definitely dawned on our favorite French-Canadian.

I found Don and Megan's fight absolutely realistic and perfectly calibrated in a "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" sort of way. He bullied her into doing what he wanted all day long, then he played the passive-aggressive victim when she fought back. Ultimately he goaded her into saying that awful thing about his mother, and that allowed him to play the role of the injured party -- because God knows, he couldn't just admit he was wrong about any of the things he'd done. Ultimately, Megan's departure brought out all of Don's feelings of abandonment, which erupted into rage at their apartment. I don't think any of us would have been surprised if he'd hit Megan, and of course, the violence that did occur was contemptible and wrong. "Get in the car" and "I thought I lost you" are two sides of the same coin, and ultimately, those two sides of Don are hell on the woman he's married to.

In terms of highlighting the fault lines in that relationship, this segment did that well enough, but there were times when Don's vigil in the Howard Johnson began to feel a bit draggy. One of the more effective parts of this segment was Don's memory of returning from his first trip with Megan, after they went to the Magic Kingdom with his kids. Don Draper really does like the beginnings of things; Faye really had him down cold.

And yet he does care for Megan -- or at least, he needs a woman to hold on to when he feels that primal sense of abandonment that has haunted him his entire life. He can't call his mother, because his mother was a prostitute who died, and Don was raised without love and lived most of his life dogged by a sense that he didn't belong anywhere. He's the robot on the bridge; he's the one who's never experienced the warmth of the campfire; he's the Martian. Right now, Megan's the one who's willing to put up with this man's dark depths, and she's willing to put a good face on things as they stroll into the office looking like a million bucks. But how long can this particular facade last? Don't look in the mirror.

The final scene of the episode saw Don being called on the carpet, professionally anyway, by Bert Cooper, who hasn't just been doing nothing all this time: He's been observing what's been going on, and the old lion proved he's hasn't missed a trick. As Don sat alone in the conference room, his younger colleagues passed by in the hallways. He was separated from them, and mostly out of touch with what their fears, anxieties and concerns.

The last image of the hour was the iconic back-of-the-head image of Don Draper, looking out at an empire that ... let's face it, may be crumbling around him.

A few more notes:

  • If you want to read a fascinating and extremely well-researched history on the role of psychedelics in the West from the middle of the century onward, check out Jay Stevens "Storming Heaven," which chronicles, among other things, LSD's post World War 2 emergence from a Swiss lab and its status in the '50s and early '60s as a tool used by fashionable psychiatrists and earnest researchers interested in helping people achieve psychological breakthroughs. As an article in this week's New York Times Magazine notes, it's taken decades for this kind of research, which was taken very seriously five decades ago, to become even semi-respectable again after the psychedelic tumult of the '60s.
  • That scene in which Michael asserted that he's an alien -- well, that was certainly strange. But, in a way, thinking that you're from Mars might be less painful than thinking about the fact that you were born at a concentration camp. I can't wait until we learn more about Michael Ginsberg; he's an odd duck, but there's something about him that inspires pity and sympathy. Maybe the alien will be able to make Peggy feel less alone.
  • "Women usually want to please." But being that kind of woman would make Peggy a fairly terrible ad person, because good ads have a point of view and if she doesn't defend her creative point of view -- rather than simply agree with others -- Peggy will ultimately fail at her job. So she's stuck with a Catch-22, and that would make anyone act out. Maybe not in a midtown movie theater with a stranger, but still...
  • The classic "Pet Sounds," the album heard on the soundtrack, was the masterpiece of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who was experimenting with LSD at the time.
  • Bert Cooper's face on the money -- that was genius.
  • Ryan McGee and I frequently talk about "Mad Men" on the Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast: Check out recent editions of the podcast on iTunes or here.