Unpacking Mad Men’s Missing-Mom Motifs in Last Night’s Episode

Photo: AMC

Mad Men’s timeline-twisting acid trip “Far Away Places” has plenty to unpack: the sex, the drugs, the rock and roll. And we’re not being facetious — Peggy’s casual encounter at the movies; her joint, and Roger and Jane’s trip; the Beach Boys soundtrack, and Don’s somehow-off whistling of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” are all still rolling around in our brain. But this episode wasn’t as different or offbeat as it seems at first glance. Instead, it poked at the same issue Mad Men often, maybe even usually, explores, one we’ve seen Don grapple with the entire series and one the show seems curious about from a variety of angles. “Far Away Places” is about absent mothers.

Peggy attempts to turn her terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day at work into a hazy afternoon at the movies, so she heads off to see Born Free. Peggy could have gone to see, oh, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which opened the same day, but instead she chose a movie about abandonment, adoption, and making difficult but correct choices about family planning. (Pride planning? For lions?) Born Free is about three orphaned lion cubs who are reared by an attractive, noble blond couple who eventually send the two male cubs to zoos but teach Elsa, the female cub, how to live in the wild. It’s devastating for the Adamsons to raise the cubs for so long only to have to part with them, but they know that it’s in the lions’ best interest, in their nature — plus, you know, it’s dangerous for humans to keep lions in the house past a certain point.

Gee, could Peggy Olson have a strong reaction to a story about what happens when a mother rejects her young? Strong enough that she’d do something rash to block out some of the shame she feels? (Something like a rando hand jibber?)

She didn’t expect to have that strong a reaction to the movie, because once upon a time Don accidentally lied to her. Don told her to try to forget about placing her baby up for adoption, and that it would “shock” her “how much it never happened.” When Don told her that, that she could completely block out part of her past and she’d be fine and maybe better for it, he meant it. But he was wrong. Don’s past did catch up to him, in catastrophic ways that are still ruining his life. Those secrets ended his first marriage. They’re infecting his second, too, which we saw in frightening focus in “Far Away Places.” He’s utterly unhinged after Megan snaps back at him about his mother, so unmoored that he leaves her at that bright, tragic HoJos and then terrorizes her in their own home.

All because she said, “Why don’t you call your mother?”

Peggy hasn’t forgotten what Don said, because she hasn’t forgotten anything he’s told her — or given her, like her good-luck pack of candies (that she’s never opened). We saw her snap at a client, just like the magical Don Draper would, we saw her drink and smoke and pass out on the couch, just the same way we watched Don do those things, except now Don knows, at least a little, how raw his childhood wounds still are. Peggy hasn’t quite gotten there.

Neither has the office newbie Michael Ginsburg, yet another product of a mother who couldn’t take care of him. Just like everyone else at SCDP, he’s made up a story for himself, a story that’s nicer and better and less sad than the story of how he actually came to be who he is, and his story is more extreme than everyone else’s because his actual origin story is more extreme, too. There’s only so much hurt and fear we can hide, though, before the stories we tell ourselves and others become too transparently fantastical, and we have to — with or without the aid of LSD — “live in the truth.” Michael turns his horrifying story of being born in a concentration camp into the woeful tale of a lonely Martian (paging Ken Cosgrove), yet another character on this show who feels, acutely and constantly, that he does not belong and is not like anyone else.

So what’s the cure for this neurosis? Love, just like those drips said at the dinner party Jane and Roger attended. But that’s a little-girl answer, an incomplete answer. Don has someone’s love, and it’s not enough. Peggy doesn’t need to worry about not being a mother, because according to her boyfriend, she sounds just like his father. Ginsburg’s dad, real or not, seems to love him quite a bit. “Kids have memories,” Peggy says defensively during the Heinz pitch. She’s not kidding.

Unpacking Mad Men’s Missing-Mom Motifs