A review of tonight's “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as my computer's making me a homo…
“I know what he likes.” -Megan
What a strange episode of “Mad Men” was “The Runaways,” full of long-lost characters like Stephanie, strange bedfellows (sometimes quite literally), desperation plays and the mental disintegration of poor Michael Ginsberg. By the time he presented his severed nipple to Peggy in a box – in an episode that also featured a threesome and Sally being injured in a sword fight of sorts – I began wondering if I hadn't somehow left tonight's “Game of Thrones” on for an extra hour. The show has done crazier episodes – Roger taking LSD, or Don turning into Richard Speck – but they ultimately felt more cohesive even with all their weirdness, where “The Runaways” at times felt like a collection of odd ideas all placed into the same episode in the hope that they would fit together. As it turns out, many of them did, but not enough to make this stand out as one of the stronger entries so far of season 7.
Ginsberg has always been presented as someone with a few pieces of his psyche assembled out of order, and also as the most unbridled id of all the creatives to walk through any of the offices where Don or Peggy has worked. So if anyone was going to go crack up from the presence of Harry's super computer, it would be him. But he's also been such a non-entity this season (delivering one great joke per episode, then disappearing) that his breakdown didn't have the impact it should have. It tied in with the episode's larger themes about people trying for insane, wildly self-destructive solutions to problems that either don't exist or aren't fully understood, but it could have been so much more if Matt Weiner and company hadn't suddenly remembered five weeks into the season that future NBC sitcom star Ben Feldman can do more than deliver jokes about farts and masturbation.
The computer isn't trying to turn Ginsberg gay, any more than Stephanie is an actual threat to Don and Megan's marriage (which is plenty threatened for other reasons), any more than the other partners want Don out specifically so they can land the Philip Morris account (when the clips from previous episodes reminded us of the many many other reasons they want him gone). But everyone comes up with an irrational plan to escape or fix their current situation, with most of them seeming as likely to succeed as Lou Avery's “Scout's Honor” comic strip.
Stephanie appears for the first time since season 4's “Tomorrowland” – the very episode where Don proposed to Megan with Anna Draper's ring – and whatever awkward sexual tension there once was between her and Don (most of it on Don's end) seems long gone now. He's just pleased to hear from her, to be reminded of the one wholly uncomplicated, happy and easy relationship he's ever had with a woman (the actual nature of his relationship with Anna was very complicated, but the feelings they had for each other were not), and to have the opportunity to actually be the uncle he's pretending to be. But Megan – 3000 miles away from Don, and with a pathological fear of rejection – takes one look at this girl, stunning even beneath her hippie filth(*) and behind her baby bump, and is taken aback. Even worse, she realizes that Stephanie knows so many of Dick Whitman's secrets – secrets that Megan has viewed as a special bond between her and her husband – and decides to buy her way out of a potential problem. (Megan's embarrassed when her friends see symbols of her wealth like the color TV set, but has no problem using Don's checkbook in situations like this.)
(*) The “Mad Men” makeup people never skimp on the fake dirt for the hippie characters, do they? It's a nice shift away from the classic pop culture depiction of the flower children as beautiful and squeaky-clean.
Megan sends away a beautiful young woman who is essential to Don, and tries to replace her with her friend Amy, who can be fun for a night but then discarded – as extraneous to Don as a man's nipple (attached or otherwise). But Stephanie has the good timing to call the house the next morning, reaffirming her connection with Uncle Don, and leaving a bitter Megan throwing her cigarette against the counter. The two of them don't work – they're almost as far apart emotionally, temperamentally and culturally as they are physically, as we're reminded of whenever one of them winds up at a social gathering for the other – and nothing either tries seems to be improving things. Don goes along with the threeway because he's drunk and because he's a heterosexual male with certain biological imperatives, but in the morning he's just confused, and his mind is quickly filled with thoughts of Stephanie, and of the news Harry gave him at the bar the night before.
The show has been trying to parallel Don's current wife and his ex this season, with Betty reappearing in another episode featuring a lot of conflict between Don and Megan. As with her field trip with Bobby a few weeks ago, her conflict with Henry played more as something designed to give January Jones material than as a story compelling enough to merit time away from the office (and from absent figures this week like Joan, Roger and Pete). But what's at least somewhat interesting here are the cracks we're seeing in Betty and Henry's marriage. Betty's an awful mother, as usual – here threatening to break Sally's arm for talking back to her, and apparently filling poor Bobby with such dread that he has a stomach ache all the time – but for most of the previous three seasons, Henry has generally been patient with her and all her neuroses, putting her on a pedestal at times and at others talking her down from her more extreme behavior. Here – just as Don feels completely separate from Megan as he watches her dance suggestively with a male guest – Betty realizes how little of his life Henry shares with her when Vietnam comes up during small talk at a neighborhood progressive dinner. Henry angrily demanding that Betty “Leave the thinking to me!” is some pretty heavy-handed villainy, though Bobby makes clear to Sally(**) that this isn't the first such fight he's heard through the walls. When Betty hung out with Francine in “Field Trip,” she was reminded of how many more options there are for women in 1969 than there were in 1960; rather than trying to work on her marriage the way Megan and Don are in their clumsy way, might Betty finally start working on herself and finding an identity away from being the trophy wife?
(**) The frequent Bobby recasting undercut the sweetness of Sally inviting him into her bed just a bit. Mason Vale Cotton's been playing Bobby for a few seasons now, but I don't feel the link between the two characters that I would if we'd had the same actors playing both parts this whole time.
And at the moment, Don seems much more concerned with a Hail Mary pass to save his marriage to SC&P than he is with whatever's going on with Megan. Interrupting Cutler and Lou's meeting with the Philip Morris execs not only violates half the stipulations in his agreement with the other partners, but seems a 180-degree turn from the guy who agreed to those stipulations in the first place because he wanted to fix the mess he had made. Of course, he didn't realize then just how rigged the game was, and how little anyone at the agency still wanted him around. At the bar, Harry suggests one option for the future, with Don moving to the California office to replace the irrelevant Ted. Don instead has his own plan in mind, and though Jim Cutler does some figurative mustache-twirling when he scoffs at the idea that the Philip Morris stunt will be Don's salvation, the tobacco execs at least seemed intrigued by the possibilities. You can read it either way, just as you can read Don authoritatively whistling for a taxi as him regaining his swagger, or him being anxious to get the hell out of there because it's very possible that Jim is right and he's just made things worse for himself.
In a traditionally-structured “Mad Men” season, an off-kilter episode like “The Runaways” might still have value in building momentum for events happening later in the year. But we only have two more episodes of the show in 2014, and whether or not Matt Weiner has structured what's left as two mini-seasons or a regular season stretched over two years, the ones that don't entirely work stick out more in a smaller sample size.
Some other thoughts:
* Caity Lotz has been very busy on “Arrow” since her last appearance as Stephanie. (And given Jon Hamm's own resemblance to a superhero, it may be for the best that he didn't share physical space with the Black Canary.) And the show dipped into the CW casting pool some more with Jenny Wade from “Reaper” as Amy. (She was also a regular on FOX's short-lived “Good Guys,” a place where Ginsberg's mustache might have been happier.)
* Because the show didn't work in enough “2001” references last week, we get Ginsberg trying to read Cutler and Lou's lips as they talk in the computer room, just as the HAL-9000 read the crew's lips to figure out they were plotting against him.
* The check for a grand that Megan writes Stephanie would be worth a little over $6000 in today's dollars.
* “I'm not stupid. I speak Italian!” Even Betty seems to understand that her most appealing moment of the series was that trip to Rome.
* Most of the night's unexpected intersections got explained at some point, but why is Peggy watching TV with Julio from upstairs? Is she just that lonely? Babysitting?
* Ginsberg's fear of the computer, interrupted by frequent ads for “Halt and Catch Fire,” AMC's new show about the '80s personal computer boom: stealth marketing for the channel's next series, or Matt Weiner trying to warn people of the dangers of thinking too much about computers, and thus against watching “Halt”?
* Elisabeth Moss doesn't have enough to do in the hour as a whole to seriously consider it as an Emmy submission episode, but Peggy trying to stay composed after realizing what Ginsberg has done to himself was among the better scenes she's ever had to play on the show. For that matter, Stan has existed almost entirely as a comic relief character since he joined the agency, but Jay R. Ferguson was excellent in our brief glimpse of a worried Stan following his buddy Ginsberg to the hospital.
* Another element that could have used more build-up: Harry being so happy to be in Don's company, only an episode after the two of them were sniping at each other as they have for the last several seasons. Some of it's just the booze, and the fact that neither fit in at Megan's party, and some of it's a reminder that they did get along once upon a time – Don has even seen Harry in his underwear – but it still didn't track well with what we've seen between the two of them of late.
* Songs tonight included Blood, Sweat and Tears' “You've Made Me So Very Happy” at Megan's party, and Waylon Jennings' “Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line” as Don whistles for his cab.
* Also, “Underdog,” the inspiration for Lou's adventures in cartooning, featured one of the great theme songs of any '60s cartoon, and has been covered memorably many times by, among others, Butthole Surfers and Ted's band on “Scrubs.”
* If Betty is serious about running for office with minimal experience, she should absolutely consult with Kristina Braverman, who might also be able to help her set up a school for special needs kids (even if autism spectrum disorders weren't widely diagnosed in 1969), discuss hair coloring tips and commiserate over what it's like when your husband has a thing for his secretary. Really, a lack of evidence of time travel is the only excuse for the two of them to not be best friends, immediately.
* For that matter, if a time machine existed in the “Mad Men” universe (maybe that's what's really in the former creative lounge space?), Lou and Buzz Hickey from “Community” could bond over their cartooning ambitions. Though first Lou would have to meet Trudy Campbell so things could get truly weird.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org