‘Mad Men’ – ‘Far Away Places’: The HoJo code

Senior Television Writer
04.23.12 483 Comments


A review of tonight’s “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as I buy you a backscratcher…

“Every time we fight, it just diminishes this.” -Megan

Only one of the three stories in “Far Away Places” features characters who have taken LSD, and yet the entire episode feels structured like an acid trip. It keeps cycling back and forth through the events of the same day to show it from the perspectives of Peggy, Roger and Don, but that’s a pretty familiar narrative trick in our post-“Pulp Fiction” world. What makes the episode feel so trippy is the way that time feels so fluid even within the context of each story.

Obviously, Roger loses all track of time while under the influence of the acid, but the time edits in the Peggy and Don stories feel nearly as elliptical. Time is clearly passing as Peggy goes through a lousy day at work, or as Don panics in the aftermath of a fight with Megan, but that time feels like it’s collapsing and expanding at random. Peggy lies down on Don’s couch in the day and is immediately greeted by darkness; Don’s search through the Howard Johnson’s for Megan simultaneously feels like it’s going on forever and for two minutes. (When the cop asks Don exactly how long Megan’s been missing, it takes him a moment to remember.) One second, Don is driving in his car, miserable and alone in the present; the next, he’s back in that idyllic moment last fall at the end of his “Tomorrowland” vacation with Megan and the kids.

A few episodes ago, Raymond from Heinz and Megan bantered back and forth about the title of The Rolling Stones’ “Time Is On My Side,” and this was an episode where it felt like time was on its side – and upside down, and backwards and forwards all at once.

The non-linear nature of the episode suggests that we’re seeing versions of the same story, over and over, just unstuck in time. Peggy is trying to become the Don of 1960, only it’s not working out so well for her because a woman can’t get away with the work and home life that Don Draper led back in the day. Don has become the Roger of 1963, only the dissolution of his marriage seems to be going faster and uglier because Don is more volatile than the easy-going, charming Roger.

And Roger? Roger’s at the end of this particular story. Peggy and Don’s relationships are in trouble, but they haven’t faced that truth yet. They’re still playing with what’s true and false, what’s possibly true, necessarily true, etc. Roger, though, has taken LSD, and rather than some clichéd cartoon about the middle-aged square having a bad trip(*), we see the drug accomplish exactly what its users intended: it shows them the clear, unvarnished truth of their lives. And the sad but obvious truth is that even if Roger loved Jane once – which he insists he did, in a beautiful line reading from John Slattery – he doesn’t anymore. And she doesn’t love him, and they shouldn’t be together. And even though Roger’s supposed to be the man who, like Brian Wilson in the Beach Boys song playing during the acid trip, just wasn’t made for these times, he reacts to the trip and its revelations not with anger, confusion or regret, but peace. He hasn’t been happy – we’ve seen that for a good long while now – and even though it’s going to halve his fortune for a second time, he’s okay with letting go of this depressing lie.

(*) I did love the few baroque details we got from Roger’s perspective, particularly the bottle of Stoli playing thunderous Russian music whenever the cap was removed. I feel like that’s going to be a selling point in the next round of those ads where Michael Imperioli asks what your tequila can do for you.

Peggy spends part of the episode under the influence of a less potent drug, but it doesn’t tell her much of anything about herself, save that she’s amenable to giving a hand job to a total stranger in a darkened theater if the mood is right. Don has left her stranded all season – a situation that only Peggy and Bert Cooper seem to recognize – and forced to essentially do Don’s job for him, she responds by acting very much like Don in the Heinz meeting. We’ve already seen that she can do a Draper-style pitch, dating all the way back to the Popsicle account in season two, but here we got not only the Draper pitch, but the classic Draper guilt trip that follows whenever the client acts too hesitant. But Don Draper can pull that off, where all it does is raise the hackles of the old-fashioned, paternalistic Raymond. So she takes another page out of the vintage Draper playbook with a mid-day movie, which turns into an anonymous sexual encounter, before she’s finally shocked back into reality by hearing the tragic origin story of Michael Ginsberg.

Michael’s a character unstuck in time as well, trapped in memories of his past that he’s tried to erase by wrapping them in a science-fiction story about refugees from Mars. Just as the guests at Roger and Jane’s party talk about whether the truth is the same on different planets, we know that Michael’s truth is the same no matter where you are in time and space, and it sucks, and it no doubt plays a huge role in his behavioral difficulties. But there’s a glimmer of hope, perhaps, in the exchange he has with Peggy, where she asks (playing along with the Mars story) if there are others like him, and he says, sadly, “I haven’t been able to find any.” Peggy’s history isn’t tragic on such a grand scale, but she’s more like Michael than he realizes, and maybe they can connect, either as colleagues or as more whenever Peggy recognizes that she and Abe are done as anything but sex buddies.

During the Heinz pitch, Peggy manages to suck Raymond back into the past for a time, but Raymond rejects the concept under the mistaken belief that young people don’t have the same affinity for the past that his generation does. Peggy argues that they do, and maybe with Don there, she could have convinced him; on her own, it’s a disaster that gets her booted from the account. But when Don tries to take Megan on a time trip with the orange sherbet, it’s his own nostalgia he’s focused on, and not any experience of hers, and it’s the breaking point in what started out as an uncomfortable day for them and ends as a very ugly one.

They start playing out every old argument they’ve ever had, and then Megan says, without realizing what she’s saying, “Why don’t you call your mother?” And then Don’s tumbling even further into the past, back to being little Dick Whitman, whore-son, growing up in a home with a drunk and a woman who resented him, and Megan’s words have stung him as badly as any said to him over the course of the series, and the only response Don is capable of is the trick the hobo taught him: to run away as quickly as possible. And by the time he recognizes that this kind of behavior won’t stand anymore and runs back, Megan’s vanished from the Howard Johnson’s, leaving only her sunglasses as a clue to fill him with worry, and anxiety and – when Don returns to the apartment to find her alive and well and not answering his panicked calls – anger. And suddenly we’re unstuck in time yet again, cycling in between the angry but consensual sex play of the season premiere and the horror movie nightmare of the Richard Speck episode. This isn’t a dream, though. This is Don Draper, awake and (mostly) functional chasing his wife through their apartment like he’s the villain in a slasher movie.

This is far more unnerving than anything we see during Roger’s acid trip. This is real. This is happening. This is our hero (more or less) and for a few moments, he is a monster.

Megan forgives him, for now, when she sees the pain and fear in his eyes. But after last week suggested that Don might have finally found some contentment in his marriage, here we see the truth – not the possibly true, not the necessarily true, but the true – and it’s that this marriage is built on a wobbly foundation, that the fights are going to keep coming and keep getting worse, and that Don is letting his work life atrophy as badly as Roger did during his own mid-life crisis marriage.

We end with another blast from the past, as Bert Cooper reminds us he’s not there just for name value and an open checkbook. He confronts Don with the truth of what’s going on in that place, and Don looks backwards and forwards, not sure if any of what he thought was real actually is. Don thought he had his present, his future and even his past figured out, and maybe none of that’s true.

I came to the end of “Far Away Places” not instantly sure how I felt about it – or, in some ways, what it was about. (And with an episode this idiosyncratic, I imagine I may be way off the mark on a whole lot of it.) But the more I’ve thought about it, and written about it over these last few hours, the more impressed I am with it. It seems such an obvious thing for the show to do an LSD episode at this point of the calendar, and yet they pulled it off in a way I never would have expected, with an episode that gave the feel of dropping acid even when everyone on camera was stone sober. Matt Weiner, co-writer Semi Chellas, director Scott Hornbacher and the actors combined to give us some of the most memorable moments the show has ever done involving Peggy (the explosion at the end of the Heinz pitch), Roger (the sad conversation while lying on the rug at the end of the acid trip) and Don (the chase through the apartment).

This season feels more formally experimental than the previous ones, with the nightmare atmosphere of the Richard Speck episode, the unexpected mix of comedy and violence in last week’s boxing match, and now… this. At 1:41 a.m. in the morning after it aired, I’m still not sure I understood 100% of it. But I know I liked it. A lot.

Some other thoughts:

* This week’s headline comes courtesy of my friend (and Chicago Tribune business columnist) Phil Rosenthal. The runner-up headline, by the way,  came courtesy of Fienberg: “Two For the Road,” the title of the great 1967 film with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney about the gradual crumbling dissolution of a marriage that was once idyllic, also told out-of-sequence. 

* Credit to those of you who, after the Richard Speck episode aired, suggested that Michael’s discomfort with the crime scene photos came because he was the son of a Holocaust survivor. I dismissed the idea, figuring that he was too old (at least 25 in 1966) for him to have been born in America and have the accent that he has. But given the truth of things, I could see a five-year-old Michael shedding any trace of what he learned in the camp, or in the Swedish orphanage, and building an accent and a personality out of what he was exposed to in New York.

* It’s funny: as I watched the HoJo’s scenes, I became convinced it was the same set, slightly redressed, they had used for the “Tomorrowland” scene where the kids spill the milkshake and Megan’s okay with it. Then I cued up that scene on Netflix, and the two don’t look remotely alike.

* For most of this season, each episode has opened with an extremely long opening act before the first ad break (last week’s was close to 20 minutes, I think), followed by much shorter acts after that.  I don’t know if there’s now a set formula for how long the first act should run, but the structure of the episode made it feel like the commercial should have come sooner, either right after we saw Peggy waiting alone in her apartment for Abe, or else after the Don/Roger scene established the time-loop structure of the episode.

* I’ve resisted the idea that Jane was Jewish, despite the mounting evidence – her name, Danny Strong playing her cousin, Harry mocking Danny by saying “You’re such a Jew!” – because it seemed like the show would have made a much bigger deal out of this circa 1962/63. In what may be her final appearance, we got one last piece of evidence I couldn’t ignore, with the bit about Jane speaking Yiddish while quoting her father. Oh, well. I still think that should’ve been dealt with back in season 2 or 3.

* Because I’ve only ever watched “Justified” – a show with a reputation for having terrible-looking green screen work whenever a scene involves characters talking while driving – on unfinished DVD screeners, I can’t speak to whether the Don/Megan scenes looked any worse than what “Justified” does. That says, they didn’t look any worse than many actual green screen driving scenes of the mid-’60s, and I’ll let it go for that reason.

* Great to see Bess Armstrong (Patty Chase from “My So-Called Life,” among many other roles) as Jane’s LSD-dropping shrink.

* My father’s half of the family is from Montreal, and we’d drive up there a couple of times a year when I was a kid. Same route every time, and every time we’d make one last stop for food, bathrooms, etc., at the McDonald’s in Plattsburgh. Never noticed the Howard Johnson’s in town. Apparently, it’s closed. I’d feel sad, but no one in my family has much of a taste for orange sherbet.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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