The title of Sunday’s Mad Men episode was “Far Away Places.” Like so many episode titles, and like Mad Men itself, the phrase can be interpreted on many levels. Written by Semi Chellas and series creator Matthew Weiner and directed by exec producer Scott Hornbacher, this episode is a kind of anthology.
It features thematically related short stories about key Mad Men characters, plus a coda. All three episodes deal with different kinds of confinement and the difficulty or impossibility of escaping them. All show characters bumping against the limitations of their lives and lashing out against them, sometimes with purpose and insight, sometimes reflexively and incoherently. Each story reflects the others, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely. And within each section, scenes, lines, and images reflect scenes, lines, and images from elsewhere in the episode. In fact, more so than most episodes of Mad Men, you could describe this one as a hall of mirrors — a comparison made official by moments in which characters look at actual or figurative reflections of themselves.
Think of Michael Ginsburg telling his heartbreaking concentration camp story while looking at Peggy via the reflection of an office window, or the LSD-tripping Roger Sterling looking at a half-“old”/half-“young” magazine ad that reflects (there’s that word again!) his overgrown teenager mentality, and the subsequent shot of Roger looking at himself in a mirror and visualizing the ad character’s half-dark, half-gray hair atop his own head. The LSD sherpa warned Roger not to look in a mirror, but he didn’t listen. Likewise, Michael’s monologue to Peggy describes two journeys, one real (the concentration camp baby ending up in America) and the other fanciful (the Martian). Peggy’s boyfriend Abe invites her to go watch a journey film, the 1966 action picture The Naked Prey, about a Brit traversing a great stretch of African veldt while being hunted by natives “Remember when we used to represent double-sided aluminum?” Roger asks Don. “I remember twins, and a hospital,” he replies [italics for emphasis]. “I think the truth is good because it’s real, on any planet,” Jane says just before the acid sequence, a line that connects with Michael’s insistence to Peggy that he’s not a concentration camp baby, but a Martian. Throughout, the lyrics of the Beach Boys’ “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” prominently featured in the Roger-Jane LSD sequence, are reflected in images and lines, to the point that it starts to seem like the episode’s invisible Greek chorus.
The first story in the anthology, Peggy’s, ends somewhat inconclusively, with her calling her boyfriend Abe Drexler, whom she fought with earlier, telling him Michael’s haunting concentration camp story and asking him to come over immediately. The second story, Jane and Roger’s LSD experience, finishes decisively and positively, with the couple making the painful decision to end their marriage. The third story, Don and Megan’s disastrous road trip, ends decisively and, to my mind, badly, in that they both recommit themselves to a union that they both long ago realized was doomed. The Don-Megan story reflects the Roger-Jane story, in that they’re both about unhappy marriages. The episode’s coda — with Bert Cooper chastising Don for leaving “a little girl in charge of everything” and warning him that his love-leave is over — feels like a rebuke to the other three sections. It has demoralizing finality and weight, like the sound of a prison door clanging shut.
The editing is somewhat fragmented, the chronology somewhat jumbled, with hints of overlap, such as Don’s panicked phone call to Peggy. Each segment includes a shot of the key characters on their backs as seen from above, a perspective that suggests not just sleep but death. Taken together, the three stories have a sharp-edged, glittering, collage aspect, like a mosaic made from framed photographs that were smashed into pieces and then reassembled into a self-contained, prismatic artwork.
The first story seems exclusively focused on one character, Peggy, but it’s a partial reflection of characters (and themes) in the other segments as well. This first segment shows how, in both work and love, Peggy’s at least partly a prisoner of sex. Her unhappiness mirrors some of Megan’s dissatisfactions in the Don-Megan road trip chapter. The idea of Peggy and Megan as inverted reflections of each other becomes piercing when you realize how Peggy’s subplot in the very first episode of Mad Men, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” foretold what would happen to Megan. Peggy is a secretary who did not become an unofficial concubine/possible mate for her boss, Don, but a trailblazing female copywriter instead. Now Peggy has to cope with a unique set of pressures and constraints, all related to the fact that she decided to break a mold instead of trying to fit into it. “Every time I get the inspiration / To go change things around / No one wants to help me look for places / Where new things might be found,” sings Brian Wilson in “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.”
In theory, Peggy’s in a relationship of equals with Abe, but it’s not truly equal. His account of their love life makes it sound as if she’s having regular sex more out of a sense of obligation than because she really wants to (she’s often exhausted from work, she explains), and hints of condescension and passive-aggressive whininess creep into his end of conversations. There’s a stray line in the episode about how women instinctively want to please, and of course you think about that in the movie theater scene when Peggy gets felt up by a male flirt, and rather than allow herself to be masturbated by him, jerks him off instead. (The subsequent scenes with Peggy washing her hands in the ladies’ room — another mirror shot! — and then returning to the office complicates this reading, though; she seems, not happy, exactly, then centered, like somebody who at least managed to direct a moment in her own life.)
Why does Peggy do what she does in this episode? Why do any of the characters make the choices that they make? We can speculate, and so can the characters, but nobody will ever really know. Mad Men is committed to this type of storytelling, which gives us glimpses of characters’ interiors but rarely tries to explain much less summarize them. As Catherine, the acid-dispensing psychiatrist says (and how great is it that she’s played by Bess Armstrong, Angela’s mom on My So-Called Life?): “I have patients who spend years reasoning out their motivation for a mistake, and when they find it out, they think they’ve found the truth, and they probably have. But then they go out and make the same mistake.” She adds, “It’s a myth that tracing logic all the way down to the truth is a cure for neurosis or anything else.” Or as Brian Wilson sings a few minutes later, “They say I got brains / But they ain’t doing me no good.”
Unlike Peggy, Megan took more or less the path that Joan outlined way back in the pilot. Peggy entered the workplace surrounded by many women who expected that they were there to be helpmates or sexual partners to the men, maybe both. Joan advised Peggy that most men want something between a mother and a waitress, and advised her, “Go home, take a paper bag, cut some eye holes out of it. Put it over your head, get undressed, and look at yourself in the mirror. Really evaluate where your strengths and weaknesses are. And be honest.”
Megan traded on those “strengths and weakness” with such sweetness, decency, and un-self-consciousness that it was hard to hate her for it, but when you look at Megan’s marriage to Don, her role seems more in line with Joan’s waitress-mother description. Don fell in love with Megan when he saw her taking care of his children during their trip to Disneyland (in “Tomorrowland,” an episode that seems to mirror the Don-Megan road trip in “Far Away Places”). He proposed to her right when her waitress-mother-concubine energy was at its peak. In essence, he didn’t propose to Megan, but to an idealized image of Megan: a symbol. Megan accepted a marriage proposal from a man who was himself a symbol, and a self-made one at that: a brooding, dashing, boss and daddy figure that the much younger Megan, in her innocence, thought she could understand, heal, and save.
Now she’s pushing against Don’s half-smothering, half-neglectful view of marriage, demanding more self-determination than he’s willing to give, and growing increasingly distressed over Don’s refusal to hear her needs and respect her wishes. Don is treating Megan in a way that devalues her as both an employee and a mate, which is bound to lead to disaster. And he seems more attached to the idea of a happy marriage than to actually creating a happy marriage. They’re both playing roles for which they’re ill suited, even though they either don’t realize it or (by the very end of this episode) realize it but then deny it and retreat back to the status quo. Don wants Megan to seem, in the firm’s eyes and his own, like something more than Don Draper’s wife. At times Megan seems to want that, too. But then both Megan and Don turn around and do things that make Megan seem like a lovely bum who’s drawing a salary while using her status as a partner’s wife as a get-out-of-work card.
Until Megan entered the office, Peggy had started to seem like an emotional, if not workplace, equal to Don, and at times a sort of younger big sister (oxymoronic language intentional). But as she confessed to Dawn (whose name is a homophone for Don!), she had to realize that she couldn’t succeed by acting like a man; she had to find some other way, and she’s still working things out. Peggy temporarily forgets her own advice in this episode when she pulls a Don Draper and tells off the Heinz executive for only knowing what he doesn’t want. It’s a full-on Don-style assault similar to the tantrum Don pulled in the opening of season four, She’s greeted with anger and condescension because she’s not Don, and more specifically because she’s a woman.
The centerpiece of the Roger-Jane section is a hilariously dry LSD sequence. “It’s like a boat trip,” their guide warns them. “You have to cast off without worrying about sinking.” This scene is very much of its time and place. Circa 1966, LSD was in vogue in certain quarters. Lots of people were taking the drug as part of consciousness-raising experiments, to get outside of themselves and visit faraway places — meaning places where the preconceptions of self wouldn’t weigh them down and they could see the world and themselves as they actually were. That’s what happens when Roger and Jane drop acid: They have humorous and scary hallucinations, but they’re all dream-logic reflections of their personalities and problems. Roger’s encounter with the half-dark-haired, half-gray magazine man is one example; another is the way Roger’s cigarette produces an accordion-like sound when inhaled, which to me seemed a very clever way of suggesting that Joan just might be his life’s addiction.
I also loved the music in this sequence: the aforementioned “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” from the Beach Boys’ groundbreaking Pet Sounds. I’m already dreading complaints that the title was a too-on-the-nose reference to Roger, the perpetually boyish silver fox, and that it expressed the older characters’ dislocation from youth culture too obviously. That interpretation fails if you actually listen to the lyrics of the Beach Boys’ song, which Wilson wrote as a half-prediction, half-apology for his ahead-of-its-time musical sense and a more generalized statement of alienation.
This sequence might be the least judgmental, most period-innocent depiction of the cosmic insight that people took LSD to experience in the mid-sixties. Nobody “freaks out.” They just take acid and deal with the mind-bending results. Roger and Jane’s experience is surreal, funny, and occasionally disturbing but never gratuitously weird or horrifying. “It’ll be good for us,” Jane tells Roger, and as it turns out, she’s right. The filmmakers’ detached perspective on the trip — mostly third person limited, with a few subjective flourishes — keeps the focus on Roger and Jane’s personalities rather than turning the scene into a psychedelic spectacle. Of all the sequences in Mad Men to date, this one reminded me most of a Sopranos dream sequence, with a key difference: It’s not a dream or “real,” but a scene that’s suspended somewhere between the figurative and the real. It’s an inner journey taking place in externalized space, with the viewer standing at some remove, watching it happen. “And you always said I never take you anywhere!” Roger grins at Jane before placing the acid under his tongue. And as they very gradually return home from the Trip, they can’t deny what needs to be done.
“Is there a cure for neurosis?” Jane asks at the pre-acid-trip dinner. “Love works,” says a female guest, and Catherine the psychiatrist shoots her a knowing look. Megan would agree with that sentiment, but the episode’s final section, the road trip sequence, casts it into serious doubt. The smiles that Don and Megan exchange when they return to the office suggests all’s well that ends well, but we were privy to the misery of their trip; we know this isn’t a happy ending but more of a stay of execution. Don drags Megan along on a vacation that’s really a fact-finding mission to Howard Johnson’s, a chain that was so ubiquitous and so strongly associated with postwar consumerism-as-science that Stanley Kubrick featured a sign advertising a “Howard Johnson’s Earthlight Room” in the space station sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Don is at his most casually piggish in this section, never seriously asking Megan her opinion about anything, and running roughshod whenever she does dare to state what she wants. The agonizing low point comes when the Howard Johnson’s waitress asks the couple if they want dessert; Megan orders pie, but Don shuts her down and orders orange sherbet (I love his period-accurate mispronounciation of “sherbert”). She eats it angrily, proclaiming how much she loves it even though she hates it for tasting perfumed.
Don runs out on her, because that’s what Don always does when things get too hot. When he returns, she’s nowhere to be seen. She’s said to have taken off with some young people — a detail that dovetails with this season’s impending sense of generational changeover; Don’s fear that he’s too old to keep up with Megan; and most of all, the sense of random, horrible violence rumbling beneath recent episodes. For a second I thought she’d get abducted and murdered by a maniac (shades of Richard Speck), but then I remembered that Mad Men comes out of the Sopranos school of dramaturgy, which favors unresolved dread over obvious setups and gruesome payoffs.
This section of the Don-Megan story is more about the psychology of Don Draper, who was “abandoned” by his mother when she died in childbirth, and who has devoted the rest of his life toward accumulating outward signifiers of domestic bliss that’s he’s actually not built to enjoy. When Megan disappears, Don’s expression is terrified and bereft, like a kid who’s gotten separated from his mommy in a department store.
No wonder he responds with terrifying rage when he finally returns home to Megan, chasing her through the apartment like a home invader and finally tackling her in the living room. They flop on the floor on their backs — evoking a similar shot of Roger and Jane in the second segment and Peggy on the couch in the first segment — and come to an exhausted, defensive-seeming rapprochement. “Every time we fight it just diminishes us a little bit,” she tells him. After a moment she adds, “I have to go to work,” and stands up. “I thought I lost you,” Don says, kneeling before her and pressing his face against her stomach. His position suggests both a little boy tearfully embracing his mother and a man doting on a mate’s pregnant belly. Both have powerful maternal associations, and rightly so, because that’s what Megan is to Don: his mother-lover, the replacement for the mother he lost.
I was reminded of another great pop song that will probably never be used in Mad Men unless the show keeps its story line going through 1980, when Paul Simon’s One Trick Pony soundtrack was released: “That’s Why God Made the Movies”:
When I was born
My mother died
She said, “Bye-bye, baby, bye-bye
I said, “Where you goin’?
I’m just born
She said, “I’ll only be gone for a while”
My mother loved to leave in style
That’s why God made the movies…
Say you will, say you will
Say you’ll take me to your loving breast
Say you’ll nourish me
With your tenderness
The way the ladies sometimes do
Say you won’t, say you won’t
Say you won’t leave me for no other man
Say you’ll love me just the way I am
Say you will baby, now
Say you will, just say you will.