This review contains spoilers.
5.6 Far Away Places
Far Away Places was about trying new things, both for the show’s characters and its writers. Orange sherbet, LSD, jerking off anonymous cinema stoners, and giving Mad Men a Rashomon-style makeover were all attempted for the first time, some more successfully than others.
In many ways, Mad Men’s elliptical dialogue and predilection for ponderous, self-absorbed staring is the perfect fit for an LSD story. Roger and Jane’s trip finally provided Mad Men’s naysayers with an answer to why the show is full of characters having half a conversation then gazing determinedly at dust motes for twenty minutes. It was also very funny; comedy a thread of Mad Men that’s grown steadily more visible as the seasons have progressed. Roger’s Cruella Deville hair, his pink towel turban, and the cartoonish trick with the vodka bottle and the symphony were all worth a laugh, even if the upshot of Jane and Roger’s experiment was another expensive divorce.
We still don’t really know much about Jane, Mad Men’s secretary-turned-poet-turned-rich-housewife. She’s a flamboyant dresser (arriving for her night of intellectualism and truth-seeking decked out like Princess Leia at A New Hope’s Medal Ceremony), and a troubled soul who made a hasty but lucrative first marriage, but that’s about where the insights end. Actress Peyton List has struggled to stand out opposite John Slattery’s quipping playboy Roger, and if the divorce is her exit storyline, it’s hard to imagine she’ll be missed (especially if it means the stage is now clear for Roger and Joan to… well, just what will they do now?).
Things began however with another former secretary: the indomitable Peggy Olson. After last week’s short play about Pete Campbell, I can’t have been the only viewer to sink comfortably into my chair at the beginning of Far Away Places, expecting a similar meaty chunk of narrative devoted to everybody’s favourite copywriter. Peggy’s story being truncated a third of the way in for the triple-take rewind was initially a disappointment, and her section the most satisfying and recognisably Mad Men of the three.
You could imagine Peggy’s boardroom speech to her disgruntled Heinz client as word-for-word something that would have come out of Don’s mouth in season one (deliberately so, I’m sure), the point of difference being that male clients will take it from Don, but they’re not prepared to take it from “a little girl”, as Bert Cooper describes her. The character’s frustration with her lack of influence was practically palpable – Peggy evidently identifies with scrappy cub Elsa from Born Free, struggling to fight her way to the top of the food chain – and built up to a sordid release in a smoky cinema.
Peggy’s cinema encounter was a moment of transgression entirely believable from the Brooklyn kid who said “I’m Peggy Olson and I want to smoke some marijuana” and called posturing Stan’s bluff by stripping naked in a hotel room. The question is, is it the first time? Is Peggy a serial sexual rebel, like Brenda in Six Feet Under, seeking illicit thrills to release pent-up dissatisfaction? Or is she just really into lions?
Speaking of the wild, season five of Mad Men seems intent on showing Don’s beastly side. The opening two-parter showed Megan deliberately pushing Don’s masochistic buttons, leading to a pursuit clearly considered foreplay by both partners and a sweaty reconciliation on that once-pristine white rug. This week however, there was a horrible, very uncomfortable sense of menace in Don’s pursuit of Megan around the apartment (a call-back to the earlier savagery of Born Free). While Don’s treatment of women has never been respectful, as a beaten child he was ever careful not to discipline his children with physical violence, but it’s beginning to bleed more and more into his sexuality.
Peggy wasn’t the only one of Don’s former secretaries frustrated about work, and her partner’s attitude to her job. The stressed copywriter may be wound up that her boyfriend wants her to choose between him and her career; but unlike Megan, at least she has the choice: “I’m the boss. I’m ordering you”, Don tells his wife, clarifying his position on Mad Men’s continuum of attitudes to women’s rights. While Abe wants more of Peggy’s attention, Don treats Megan like a doll he can get out of its box to play with whenever he likes, and unlike Betty’s, Megan’s generation won’t stand for it, as evidenced by the world’s worst couple’s mini-break.
With his slow-moving, beautifully lit aesthetic, and heavily orchestrated scores, similarities between the style of David Lynch films and Mad Men have long been noted, but surely were nowhere more present than in Far Away Places. Peggy’s night-time phone-call to Abe had a distinctively Lynchian timbre, while the peppy sixties Howard Johnsons motel recalled Mulholland Drive’s bungalows and its diner, Twin Peaks. Going back one step, Edward Hopper seemed to be the inspiration for the lingering neon and black shot of Don slumped in the telephone booth like a depressed Clark Kent, against the lurid orange of the motel’s chalet roof. Sumptuous to look at then, even if the chop-and-change narrative jarred more than it cohered.
Mad Men hasn’t always stuck rigidly to a linear narrative – season three’s Seven Twenty Three topped its story with its tail, setting viewers a detective mission as to who Peggy had spent the night with and how Don wound up bloody and wallet-less, and flashbacks/dream sequences are used repeatedly – so there’s precedent for the non-chronological storyline of Far Away Places, even if there didn’t seem to be much point to it.
The chief criticism of Mad Men from non-fans is that it’s style over substance, and pulling tricks like this one will do little to convince critics otherwise. Still, at this stage of the show, it’s not about winning new audiences, and narrative contrivances aside, Far Away Places had plenty for fans to adore.