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Lyons on Mad Men: Ginsberg Was Always Struggling — He’s a Martian, After All

Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson, Jon Hamm as Don Draper and Ben Feldman as Michael Ginsberg - Mad Men _ Season 7, Episode 5 - Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC
Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson, Jon Hamm as Don Draper and Ben Feldman as Michael Ginsberg - Mad Men _ Season 7, Episode 5 - Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC

“I’m from Mars. It’s fine if you don’t believe me, but that’s where I’m from. I’m a full-blooded Martian. Don’t worry, there’s no plot to take over Earth. We’re just displaced. I can tell you don’t believe me. That’s okay. We’re a big secret. They even tried to hide it from me. That man, my father, told me a story I was born in a concentration camp. But you know that’s impossible. And I never met my mother because she conveniently died there. That’s convenient. Next thing I know, Morris there finds me in a Swedish orphanage. I was 5; I remembered. And then I got this one communication. A simple order: Stay where you are.”

“Are there others like you?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t been able to find any.”

Mad Men’s Michael Ginsberg reached a crisis moment in his mental-health struggles last night, but that severed nipple is not the first time we’ve known Ginsberg to be detached from reality. In fact, the very first time we see him, in season five’s “Tea Leaves,” he confesses to being a bit unhinged. “I didn’t pick this profession, it picked me,” he tells Peggy, who’s interviewing him based on his promising portfolio. “I didn’t have any control over it.” He thinks he sounds passionate, but he really sounds desperate. “I have no hobbies, no interests, no friends. No girlfriend, no family.” He says he’s the kind of guy who talks back to the radio (and note that it’s his office radio malfunctioning that really sets him off in “The Runaways”). Peggy rolls her eyes and tells him that makes him like everyone else. “I’ve never been accused of that,” he replies. It’s self-deprecating and almost endearing, except for how deeply lonely he sounds. He reminds Peggy again, after he surprisingly gets the job, that she’s the only person who cares that he got a job. But by the end of the episode, we know this isn’t true: Ginsberg lives with his father, who very much does care that he got hired.

A few episodes later, in the drug-seeped “Far Away Places,” Ginsberg delivers the Martian monologue above. Peggy plays along, but it’s not playful at all: They’re both very serious, very sad, very alone. That’s the episode where Peggy gives a hand job to a stranger at the movies, and we know she’s feeling a bit “displaced,” too. In season five, episode four, Roger gives Peggy a secret assignment. In season five, episode nine, he’s giving secret assignments to Ginsberg instead. Ginsberg’s mental illness has been present for a long time, but it most often served as a poetic translation of Peggy’s own feelings; he often relives or reflects her experiences, and thus his warped take is understandable both to her and to us. In season five, Ginsberg’s convinced that Don is sabotaging him — and Don is, just as Don has taken Peggy’s work and everyone else’s work and either cruelly tossed it aside or taken credit for it or accidentally-on-purpose forgotten to use it in the pitch meeting. So Ginsberg doesn’t seem paranoid so much as just a little more paranoid.

But Ginsberg’s odd vow that he was not like other people has been true. In “The Other Woman,” he’s the one who comes up with the evocative tag line “At last: Something beautiful you can truly own.” He comes up with the line after watching one of Megan’s friends pretend to be a jaguar, which wasn’t beautiful, nor was it something anyone was particularly interested in owning. For everyone else, and for the direct charge from Jaguar, the campaign is about car as mistress, the car is the other woman, etc. But Ginsberg’s line is about Megan, who’s not anyone’s mistress (well, not yet, anyway): She’s Don’s wife. But it’s her perceived freedom that irks him, even though we know Megan is very much trapped in the roles Don wants for her. Ginsberg, not for the first or the last time, doesn’t see what other people see.

Ginsberg spends season six getting stranger, though he’s not the only one: Stan grows that beard, after all, and smoking weed in the art room becomes de rigueur. Ginsberg’s intensity and awkwardness don’t seem to bother anyone, but that doesn’t make them appropriate: He loudly proclaims his virginity on a blind date. “You’re a sexy girl, and you smell great,” he stammers. “I’m sure my father told you what a lothario I am, but I’m not. I’m very anxious about it. I’ve never had sex, not even once.” He orders soup, which is not inherently a weird or bad thing to do — pro soup! — but it’s played here as a major social gaffe.

In “A Tale of Two Cities,” Ginsberg flips out on boss-man Jim Cutler — not the first employee to have an outburst, certainly, but Ginsberg takes things too far. “You’re disgusting, you know that?” he shouts. He calls Cutler a fascist, and Cutler deflects. “I’m a fascist because I gave you a deadline?” he snaps.

“You’re a fascist because you love business and you hate everything else: freedom, blacks, Jews!” The fight continues. “You rooting for the Soviets in Prague too, you Nazi?” Eventually Bob Benson intervenes, and Cutler leaves. “You’re a truncheon, Cutler!” Ginsberg shouts after him. Later in the episode, Ginsberg is sitting on the floor of his office, rocking back and forth, swearing he’s not going to the Manischewitz pitch meeting. His meltdown is jarring enough that his officemate Stan calls Bob for help. “I’m a thug, I’m a pig, I’m part of the problem!” he wails. He’s sweating, pale, agitated. “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds!” he says, invoking Robert Oppenheimer. Bob tries to be encouraging. But it’s no use, really. “Listen, man, I can’t turn off the transmissions to do harm. They’re beaming ‘em right into my head,” Ginsberg says. So those transmissions have been coming in for a while. Then he seems to calm down for a moment, and he stares at Bob. “Tell me the truth,” Ginsberg says. “Are you a homo?”

Sterling Cooper, Sterling Cooper Draper Price, SC&P — these are not supportive, holistic work places, or bastions of mental health and stability. Lane hanged himself in his office. Alcoholism is a given. Drug use is rampant. Depression and anxiety are as present as linoleum and fluorescent lights, and emotional and verbal abuse might as well be named partners. A man once had his foot severed in a riding-lawn-mower accident, and the art department once threw X-acto knives at each other; Ginsberg, the only sober one, winds up stabbing Stan anyway. Good luck standing out as “the crazy guy” in this environment. Ginsberg’s been a wreck for a long time, it just never seemed like a problem before — which points to one of the recurring themes of the season: How bad would things have to be before someone does something? How broken will Megan and Don’s relationship have to be before one of them attempts to change anything? How much can Sally act out before something really bad happens? How long can SC&P keep Don on such a short leash? Betty’s ready for a change, she says, but she doesn’t know what, exactly. No one gets along with Lou — how long can that stay the same? “It’s time for a conversation,” we heard in the season premiere, but no one seems to be having much of a conversation. Instead, there’s just a nipple in a box.

Mad Men’s Ginsberg Was Always Struggling