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Mad Men Recap: That Machine Makes Men Do Unnatural Things

Ben Feldman as Michael Ginsberg - Mad Men _ Season 7, Episode 5 - Photo Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC

What's the counterculture, and what's the Establishment? As Mad Men glides into the '70s (BLOODY NIPPLE IN A BOX), it gets harder to tell. Written by David Iserson and Matthew Weiner and directed by Christopher Manley, "The Runaways" feels like kin to season seven's "The Crash" and the counterculture-commentary-heavy "A Tale of Two Cities," and it has a mostly light, comic vibe, punctuated by moments of melancholy and (BLOODY NIPPLE HACKED OFF).

Sorry. 

Let's take a second and collect ourselves before we (BLOODY NIPPLE. LAWNMOWER FOOT. BAYONET. CHEST. NIPPLE. BLOODY).

Anyway ...

Mad Men has been praised as a rare must-see cable drama that avoids genre hooks — horror, sci-fi, criminals — and it is that. But it's also a drama from one of the key writer-producers on The Sopranos, and it shares the latter's penchant for out-of-nowhere perversity, some of it unsettling. Exhibit A is Ginsberg's spiral into madness this week, marked by paranoid visions of the new office supercomputer making straight folks gay ("That's the computer's plan: to turn us all homo!"), a surprise visit to Peggy's apartment to escape the machine's infernal hum, and a peace offering that you really, really hoped was a piece of pepperoni or something rather than what it actually turned out to be, which was just, um, argh. Let's not talk about it again, except to say that (1) the headline on this recap seems bizarrely prescient in retrospect, and (2) Ginsberg's offering didn't really track with anything we've seen from Ginsberg in the past; his ranting and raving last week was purely comical and did not seem a prelude to dementia. (UPDATE: Actually, I have been reminded that Ginbserg had a breakdown before a presentation to a client in "A Tale of Two Cities," in which he declares, "I can't turn off the transmissions.")

There's a tendency to ascribe specific intent to every twist on a halfway-intelligent TV show, none more so than Mad Men. But once in a while, it pays to remember that this is, in fact, a TV series, and sometimes it's going to make expedient choices and try to frame them in a clever or at least surprising way. Actor Ben Feldman has recently appeared on HBO's Silicon Valley. (And his NBC comedy pilot, A to Z, was just picked up.) I have no idea what bearing that had on his exit, but the timing is convenient, and it seems strangely fitting that Ginsberg would make his (at least temporary) exit after being driven mad by the very device whose existence would, in a roundabout way, provide Feldman with one of his first post–Mad Men acting gigs. The Ginsberg scene's plot also yielded a nifty Kubrick joke that felt like a leftover from last week's Kubrick-homage-fest: Ginsberg, slaving at the office on a Saturday, surreptitiously observes Lou Avery and Jim Cutler's private conversation in the computer room (formerly the break room), his eyes scanning between them like HAL 9000 lip-reading the astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It's all part of a larger conflict that's expressed comically but has serious stakes: the tension between counterculture and Establishment forces for control of the American identity. When Ginsberg says he's worried that the machines are taking over, maybe what he really means (even if he doesn't realize it) is the Machine, i.e. the Man, i.e. the Corporation, brother. Nixon has been in the White House for a couple of months now, carried there by a tidal wave of "law and order" sentiment. Nobody knew where things were going, but there was a growing sense of social instability: that the old order, whatever it was, was crumbling. By 1969, post-Chicago and the murders of Martin Luther King and two Kennedys, there was a growing sense of futility on the left and the right alike, plus bitterness and sniping about whom to blame for the nation's perceived decline and loss of collective will. You see that unpleasantness manifested in different ways throughout "The Runaways." Lou rants against the hippie-looking employees who made fun of his Beetle Bailey ripoff comic, asking Stan if he can "be smug" from across the room and calling the snickering assemblage "a bunch of flag-burning snots." During a party at Betty and Henry's Westchester home that Henry hopes will cement his authoritative aura, guests discuss how vandals took out some streetlights. Dialogue includes, "It's a national disgrace, wildness in the streets" and "I know all anyone wants to talk about is Vietnam, but things are falling apart here, too." The counterculture in turn saw this sort of thinking as the rankest hypocrisy: a prizing of superficial politeness markers over deeper moral and social principles. As Norman Mailer wrote in The Armies of the Night, "The American corporation executive, who was after all the foremost representative of Man in the world today, was perfectly capable of burning unseen women and children in the Vietnamese jungles yet felt a large displeasure and fairly final disapproval at the generous use of obscenity in literature and in public." Or as Kurtz put it in Apocalypse Now, "We train young men to drop fire on people, but we won't let them write 'fuck' on their airplanes because it's obscene."

The episode's core conflict can, in fact, be distilled to the Freudian mistake over which comics artist Lou is trying to imitate, Mort Walker (creator of the super-square Beetle Bailey) or Mort Drucker (the Michelangelo of Mad Magazine, a counterculture Bible). There's further (deliberate) confusion in Lou's rant about how the hit animated series Underdog was created by Chet Stover, an executive at rival firm Dancer Fitzgerald, and how this proves that genius (if you can call the creator of Underdog a "genius") can come from anyone, anywhere, and that if you need further proof, just consider that young fella Bob Dylan. (As if "The Times They Are a Changin'" was just a career move!) 

Out in Los Angeles, Megan has fully adopted the proto-'70s Los Angeles version of hippiedom, throwing a party and dancing with a hirsute, handsome young man (a fellow actor?) in plain view of her visiting husband, then inviting her pal Amy to join her and Don in a threesome. (What was up with the James Bond harem music in that scene? What was up with that scene?) And yet Megan's "if it makes you feel good, do it" approach feels more circumstantial than deeply felt. She's uncomfortable with the sudden appearance of Don's very pregnant "niece" Stephanie Horton — paying her $1,000 to get her out of the house before Don arrives — and seems generally uncomfortable not just with Stephanie, but with what Stephanie represents: a truly marginal existence, as opposed to Megan's fully funded showbiz facsimile. The series itself is uncomfortable with Stephanie, as it always has been with counterculture figures (see last week's visit to the commune upstate). Mad Men deflated beatniks early on, and now it deflates hippies. It has no more of a romantic view of them that it does of Madison Avenue types. Stephanie isn't so much making a statement as stumbling through life, and Megan treats her with barely concealed distaste. 

Megan: "You can take a shower if you want."
Stephanie: "Is it that bad?"

Megan: "Do you want to eat outside?"
Stephanie:
"No, I do that all the time."

We're reminded via Stephanie that Megan is wearing Anna Draper's ring. Mad Men isn't the sort of show that gives us access to characters' thoughts via voice-over, but this was one time where I briefly wished that it were that kind of show. How does Megan see herself? As the life mate of a troubled man? As shelter from a storm? As an inconvenience dealing with an inconvenience? Or somebody who's just muddling through life like everybody else? (Probably the latter. I don't think she or anyone else on Mad Men really knows who they are or what they want, and the only exceptions are fundamentally shallow people like Lou.)

I'm not sure what to make of the fact that both Stephanie and Megan offer Don variations on "I'm sorry this is the reason" to frame their communicating with/spending time with Don, but it feels significant — as if Mad Men is deliberately equating the two female characters in some glancing way. 

There's considerable suspicion among the younger writers that Don is one of them, and realistically, he probably isn't. "Don's still part of the faculty," Stan quips — an observation borne out later when Don stops by Lou's office seeking permission to turn in his work and go to Los Angeles, only to be told that Lou's going to tuck him in tonight. (Don's threatened, metaphorical "tucking in" by a corporate suit on Friday and Megan and Amy's garden-of-earthly-delights version on Saturday pretty much cover the gap between Establishment and counterculture attitudes.) When Lou presses Don about what Don would do if the positions were reversed, Don offers him a piece of advice (“This is an office made out of people who have problems with authority ... Don’t help them”) that Lou summarily rejects. (“I’m not taking management advice from Don Draper.” He’s a small-minded jerk, Lou, but he’s not always wrong). And you get the sense that ultimately what Don wants, I think, is to be in charge again. That's why he barges into that tobacco meeting based on information gleaned from Harry Crane in Los Angeles ("helping her get an agent" is such a skeezy euphemism) and sets himself up a sacrificial lamb for the industry, the better to position himself as indispensable. He doesn't want to be part of the Machine. He wants to be, to quote Pete's wonderful formulation from season six, Tarzan, swinging from vine to vine. When he whistles for a taxi outside of the Algonquin, it's the urban man's jungle war cry. 

ODDS AND ENDS

* I've read a lot of complaints that it doesn't make sense for Peggy to have treated Don in such a chilly and superior way this season. I don't understand why this wouldn't make sense, given Don's drunken idiocy in season six, his persistent condescension toward Peggy (even when he's being nice and praising her creativity), and the fact that Peggy finally, finally, finally got into a position of authority comparable to Don's in the early seasons and is worried that he'll take it back from her. Peggy's conversation with Don in the elevator at the start of this episode felt just about right to me. She's thawing a bit, and perhaps remembering that she does like and respect him, but she needs to assert the power differential: "I hope you understand I mean on the team."

* That rear-projected Los Angeles street scene, complete with Capitol Records building, was painted by Matthew Weiner himself, on a sheet of cardboard. I'm kidding! But Jesus, was it bad or what? Nearly as bad as the green-screen work in the driving scenes. Get it together, Mad Men. You're such a handsome show otherwise.

* The left-right, Establishment-counterculture conflict is also expressed, rather more subtly, in the tension between Betty and Sally, who injured her nose swordfighting with golf clubs at school. There's a lot going on in their argument, including the embedded awareness of how beauty often defines women (Betty asserts that she gave Sally her "perfect nose" as if it's an heirloom that she stupidly vandalized). Sally's "It's a nose job, not an abortion" is a tiny knife to Betty's heart, and a line that you could spend a whole article unpacking.

* Megan's half-oblivious, half-knowing dance at the party feels like the flip side of the one she performed for Don on his 40th birthday at the beginning of season five.

Photo: Justina Mintz/AMC