This review contains spoilers.
6.10 A Tale of Two Cities
Canny mathematicians will note that despite its name, this week’s Mad Men was a tale of not two, but three cities. New York was the backdrop for Joan’s power-grab and bickering within the seven-letter coalition, Los Angeles was home to a hip Hollywood party and Don’s latest dance with death, while Chicago picked up this season’s ‘the world is ending’ theme with its televised police brutality at the Democratic Convention riots.
Aside from giving Mad Men reviewers an excuse to trot out our tedious best of times/worst of times puns, the Dickensian title also asked us to draw parallels between revolutionary France and the US in the summer of 1968. Rioting, unpopular foreign wars, establishment figures being assassinated, a bunch of people writing poems about flowers… it’s all just a little bit of history repeating. After Ken’s tap dance number a couple of weeks ago, come the closing credits I was braced for a rowdy chorus of Do You Hear the People Sing? Instead, we had Janis accompanying Pete Campbell’s slow-mo sink further into irrelevance. Joyful.
Similar joy came from the reappearance of the cure for the common ad man, Danny Siegel (I knew there was a reason Life Cereal earned a mention or two this week). Now a beads, beard, and batik movie producer, Daniel is the second former SCDP suit we’ve seen reimagined as a sixties cliché, after Paul Kinsey’s stint last year as a dissatisfied Hare Krishna. Add those two to the brief return this season of Burt Peterson and Duck Phillips, and Mad Men looks to be sweeping out the store cupboard ready for its final bow. One word Weiner: Salvatore. Don’t let me down now.
John Slattery’s directing duties this week certainly didn’t stop Roger’s presence from being felt. Ever the comic relief, Roger’s run-in with Danny and Lotus earned him a punch to the nuts, probably not his first, nor his last. The attack didn’t seem to put him off his stride though. From Roger’s “Be slick. Be glib. Be you” advice to Don on the plane (the man even speaks in ad slogans), to his volley of height gags and “Our biggest challenge is to not get syphilis” Vasco da Gama bit, the curious child was in fine verbal fettle.
The same can’t be said for Don, whom the writers sent out of his mind for a second time in almost as many weeks so we could have a poke around inside. What did we find in there? A pregnant, sexually permissive Megan, and the return of The Doorway’s PFC Dinkins, now one-armed, dead, and bearing a dreadful message from beyond the veil. “Dying doesn’t make you whole. You should see what you look like” Dinkins told Don, before he came upon his own body floating face down in the pool.
As trips to California go, this wasn’t Don’s most successful. Previous sojourns in the golden state have coincided with life changes, from his season two separation from Betty, to Anna’s death and his proposal to Megan in season four. This time around, the big event was almost dying, but what did it really change?
Think back to Don’s fascination with doorman Jonesy being resuscitated in the season six opener and ask yourself: was nearly drowning a transformative moment for Don? Did his out-of-body experience scratch that death-wish itch and reset his priorities? Or was it just another event that happened to him, about which he’s unable to feel anything? My money’s on the latter.
(Incidentally, knowing what we know about Dick Whitman’s confusingly Oedipal early years, one wonders if he’d even have started smoking that hookah pipe had the blonde not referred to it as a nipple…)
Sylvia may have prayed for Don to find peace, but when has Mad Men ever shown us anyone achieving that, least of all Draper. Kurt Vonnegut taught us that all fictional characters should need something, even if it’s just a glass of water. In Don Draper, Matthew Weiner’s given us one who needs everything.
Back on Madison Avenue, while the men were bickering over their place in the pecking order, Joan took a risk and expanded her territory. Glad as I am for her professional victory – aided in no small sum by a magnanimous Peggy – Mad Men’s focus on the gutsy women who beat the odds comes at the cost of some of its realism and pathos.
Beautiful, I thought, when it looked as though Ted had let Peggy down again, and Pete was off to take credit for Joan’s work. How frustrating, how truthful, how… Mad Men. While Pete chinks glasses with the other kings of the universe, Joan is left folding laundry and watching the world burn. Yes it’s unjust, but it rings powerfully true, even in 1968.
Now Joan’s “revolt” has been appeased without bloodshed, the worry is that Mad Men’s women, from Peggy to Dawn to Megan and now Joan, can’t stop succeeding. Perhaps it’s the show getting all of its ducks in a row for its final season, but if we only follow the successes, don’t we lose most of the actual story? Love watching them win as as I do, there’s a danger that Mad Men’s women are becoming too good for their own good.
Minor concerns aside, A Tale of Two Cities was another strong entry in a superlative season. The Mad Men cocktail of comedy, social document and existential crisis was well-mixed, and served with style.
The established players’ stories were as compelling as ever, but particularly enjoyable this week was the interplay between newcomers Jim Cutler (a terrific turn from Harry Hamlin), Bob Benson, and an increasingly neurotic Oppenheimer and Bhagavad Gita-quoting Ginsberg. The riot footage too, which could have turned the episode into a history class, was an elegant tool through which to connect cities and storylines, and shore up the season’s theme of impending chaos.
What’s next? It’s only a few short months until Nixon gets in and finally extinguishes the legendary hope of the sixties. The way Mad Men’s played it so far though, has it ever felt that hopeful?
Oh well, at least we now know how to address our company correspondance, without anybody having needed to get a bigger door…
Read Frances’ review of the previous episode, The Better Half, here.
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