Mad Men season 7 episode 5 review: The Runaways

Review Frances Roberts 12 May 2014 - 16:32

The Runaways was vintage Mad Men, sharply scripted, strongly thematic and ending with a grotesque discovery...

This review contains spoilers.

7.5 The Runaways

Michael Ginsberg isn’t the first SC&P employee to be wheeled out of the office on a gurney and nor, one suspects, will he be the last. Between heart attacks, hangings and ride-on lawnmowers (not to mention out-of-office car accidents and accidental blindings) the Sterling Cooper workforce has suffered more than its fair share of wounds.

Ginsberg is the first, however, to be wheeled out in restraints after uttering what has to be the creepiest and most Lynchian line in Mad Men’s seven year history. Ben Feldman’s matter-of-fact delivery of “It’s my nipple. It’s the valve” was a moment of unexpected grotesquery, a dark conclusion to last week’s manic couch comedy and a reminder from Mad Men that civilised man is always just a low hum and a box cutter away from psychosis.

Considering his beat poet namesake and Mad Men’s increasing absorption of sixties counter-culture figures (didn’t you have Lou pegged more as a Tony Bennett than a Bob Dylan fan?), we should have seen Ginsberg’s breakdown coming. Those season five claims to Martian heritage might have set the alarm bells ringing at least.

In almost any other show, someone like Ginsberg would have remained a loveably neurotic oddity: the paranoid office virgin, how fun it is to wind him up and watch him go. Not in Mad Men. Proof of this show’s gloriously pessimistic heart is that its wackadoodle character turns out not be comic relief, but shockingly, dangerously unhinged, the first victim of The Machine.

The question is, now that Peggy’s seen one of the best minds of her generation destroyed by madness, will she take Ginsberg’s advice and get out while she still can?

Nearing the mid-point in its final season, Mad Men is inviting us to consider all of its characters’ prospective exits. Each one is on a path to somewhere in the show’s remaining nine hours, but where will we leave them? Lengthy explanations are hardly Matthew Weiner’s style so we’d be fools to expect a Six Feet Under-style fast-forward recap in the final episode. That’s not to say there won’t be clues.

Take Betty for instance, a character unfulfilled by (and terrible at) motherhood who’s bristling with frustration at being intellectually underestimated. While Megan, Peggy, Joan and the rest of Mad Men's women are poised to enter the 1970s, Betty’s marriages have kept her in the 1950s.

This week, after Mrs Francis publicly ventured an opinion on something other than the toast points or silverware, she was reprimanded by a husband who told her to “leave the thinking to me”. Her rejoinder to Henry’s mocking suggestion that if she’s so smart she should run for office may have been characteristically childish in tone, but her meaning was clear. Telling Henry, “I don’t know what I’m going to do but that’s a good idea”, points to a potential exit for Betty, one in which Birdie finally escapes her cage.

Which, let’s be honest, wouldn’t be the worst thing for Betty’s kids, from poor Bobby - just one of this episode’s would-be runaways with his constant stress-induced stomach ache - to caustic Sally whose smart mouth is more than a match for Betty’s toxic rebukes. As Sally knows all too well, Betty has long believed that a woman’s importance lies in her attractiveness, a trait revisited in this week’s volley of nose-job-related insults and threats of violence. Incidentally, Henry interrupting his wife and step-daughter’s arguments with “Girls, girls, please” positioned him as father to both, showing Betty to be another wife who, as James pointed out in relation to Megan a fortnight ago, is infantilised by her husband.

Speaking of Megan, another war was being fought in The Runaways, a largely one-sided battle for Don Draper’s attention. Despite using some dirty tactics on the dance floor, in the bedroom and with her chequebook, Megan failed to secure it and back Don went to New York to win the only fight he’s ever shown much interest in: that for his career.

Megan’s hostility towards Don’s beautiful ersatz niece, Stephanie - now a hippy Madonna with child - was notable from their first meeting. Not only did Stephanie represent a threat to Megan’s status as the most beautiful girl in the room (surely it occured to her that Don might not just be the ‘great-uncle’ but the father of that baby) but more importantly, Stephanie knew Don, or rather Dick’s, mysteries.

In an update to series two’s reductive “Are you a Jackie or a Marilyn?” Maidenform pitch, Mad Men’s viewers were invited this week to consider the contrast between Megan and Stephanie. (It’d probably be too much of a stretch to make a link to Mulholland Drive here, much as I’d like to). The cut from unkempt Stephanie’s phone call to glamorous Megan being groomed by Amy from Delaware couldn’t have made the difference any clearer, and then later in the episode, both women - one blonde and luminous with pregnancy, the other brunette and svelte - were shown wearing the same robe. One was from Don’s past, the other supposedly represented his future. One professed to know all his secrets, the other had recently been humiliated by his having kept them from her.

Having dropped out of Berkeley, Stephanie numbered amongst the episode’s titular runaways - of which Dick Whitman is, of course, the ultimate example. Let's hope her exit from the show is more positive than the last inconvenient, unexpected relative sent packing with a pile of cash... 

On the subject of exits, after this week’s swinging party and threesome, it occurs that we may already have met Megan’s future self in that lascivious swinging season six co-star who, along with her husband, tried her best to get Don and Megan into bed. It beats being murdered by the Manson family I suppose, one of the current obsessions of Mad Men's fandom.

All of which leaves us little time to talk about Lou’s Underdog aspirations or the generation-gap battle and power-play their discovery precipitated. Nor to remark on Don’s uneasy ceasefire with Peggy (who, like season one Betty with Creepy Glenn had resorted to using the neighbour’s kid - roughly the age hers would have been by now - for company) or indeed, Don's last ditch attempt to rescue his skin in front of big tobacco.

We just about have enough space left for a few final questions: firstly, is Don Draper still important? Secondly, will that little performance at the Algonquin save him? Thirdly and most importantly, when the heck is this season going to get a Joan episode?

Read Frances’ review of the previous episode, The Monolith, here.

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