Mad Men switches up its storytelling techniques this week, showing us three concurrent stories of Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), Roger (John Slattery) and Don (Jon Hamm). Likely to be polarizing to many viewers, I didn’t find the narrative deviation distracting as the episode was still ripe with symbolism and character development.
Let’s take a closer look after the jump.
Peggy was first up in what we would normally assume to be a Peggy-centric episode. Little did we know that we would be jumping back to 9am after each commercial break to get a different take on the day. Kudos to Man Men for not relying on gimmicky intertitles to let us know what was going on (Thanks for having faith that we would figure it out ourselves…)
But back to Peggy. I think many viewers will pick up on the very obvious allusions that Ms. Olsen is quickly resembling the female version of Don Draper. The signs are all there: being dismissive to her boyfriend, putting work above all else, being sexually adventurous – but there’s a huge difference between the two. Where Don effortlessly pulls this off (well effortless in his appearance of pulling it off) Peggy is publicly floundering. Her Heinz pitch was uncomfortable to witness as she defiantly tried to sway the client after he shot down another one of her presentations. He tells her to “Stop writing down what I asked for and figure out what I want“ before dismissing her with a curt “You’re lucky I have a daughter or else I wouldn’t be so understanding.” Even her sexual prowess is regulated to a dark theatre with a stranger. Her lewd act is an attempt to regain some power after being unceremoniously dethroned in Don’s absence. After all, “Women usually want to please”. And please she does by symbolically and literally taking the man by the nuts. It may appear that Peggy’s sex prevents her from being Don Draper, but the ambivalence in her actions is worth taking pause over.
Working into the night after her afternoon exploits, we get one of the best scenes of the night when Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) confesses to Peggy that he’s an orphan, allegedly born in a concentration camp. He literally identifies himself as a Martian, not so subtly suggesting his innate alienation. The scene is wonderfully constructed as he confesses everything to Peggy via a reflection in the office window. The meaningful framing suggests that he is yet to be whole, confined by the glass barriers, very much echoing Peggy’s role at SCDP. Her storyline ends with a heartfelt, late night call to her boyfriend, declaring that she does indeed need him – a stark contrast to how we opened the episode.
Onto Roger’s story, which I felt was definitely the weakest of the three, no doubt sandwiched in between with hopes of blending in unnoticed. The short story: Roger takes LSD with wife Jane (Peyton List) and while tripping, they finally get the courage to admit to one another that their marriage is over. Initially, the sequence started off as if we were going to get Roger’s perspective during his trip, but quickly the hallucinations turned gimmicky and uninteresting. Oddly enough the most memorable moment came the next morning when the LSD trip was over and the ramifications of an honest, unadulterated conversation were dealt with. Roger had the spring back in his step, finally respecting his soon to be ex-wife now that they’ve learned each others ‘truth’. Looks like Roger has freed himself from the lonely alienation that comes with a loveless marriage.
Finally, we join the Drapers as they play hooky from work. Taking Megan (Jessica Paré) away from the Heinz team on big pitch day, Don playfully demands she accompany him to one of the newest Howard Johnson motels in upstate New York. Under the guise of work, it’s a thinly veiled attempt to take her away and make a long weekend out of it. She reluctantly agrees, but once they arrive at the garish motel, all the tension built up between the office and the destination results in one of the most realistic fights between a couple I’ve ever seen on screen. Don’s disrespect of Megan doesn’t come in one foul swoop (ala Roger blatantly telling Jane to “shut up.”), but rather more subtly in smaller instances that could easily be looked over as nothing of consequence. For instance, he whisks her away from SCDP, oblivious to how Megan actually enjoys working and being part of a team. Or take a look at how he inconsiderately lights up a cigarette in the car, cracking a window only after she starts coughing, gently ‘nagging’ him to do so. It seems her dislike of orange sherbet (Who doesn’t like orange sherbert?!) was the tipping point as Don accuses Megan of embarrassing him. Why can’t she be the woman he pictures her to be? Megan isn’t faultless either as she fully admits to playing into his expectations as wife vs. worker, letting him call all the shots. When he tells her to go crying to her mother, Megan hurtfully fires back that Don run to his. Ouch. These two are on equal playing fields, but Don shuts down as Megan opens up wounds that will never heal (since Don’s prostitute mother is long gone).
He storms out of the restaurant/motel, gets in the car and abandons Megan despite her protests. It was painful to see him driving away and leaving her as the battle lines weren’t clearly drawn. Of course, he regrets it and comes back. But it’s too late – Megan is gone. He sticks around for over 12 hours before returning home. It’s pretty significant that he’s trapped at the HoJo’s – which we’ve explicitly been told is never the destination, but merely a stopover. Again, take out your metaphor decoders: Why can’t Don get to his ‘destination’? Why are his relationships always good ‘on the way’, but – like this predicament – stall midway without ever reaching the destination?
Megan is safely home but furious. She refuses to talk to Don who brutishly kicks down the door and chases her around the entire apartment. Again the darker motivations come to the surface – he’s trying to possess her and control her. When he finally does grab her, he collapses in exhaustion and relief. She stands up, but Don, still on his knees, grasps her waist and weeps in her stomach – much like a lost child reunited with his mother. There’s a lot going on between these two, and it’s interesting to see it unravel with each passing episode. They do kiss and make up, but I sense an impending train wreck approaching.
Ultimately, although presented as distinct, there was a very clear through line uniting these separate stories. The blogosphere is on fire dissecting the symbolic meaning of this new narrative structure, but the framework was neither distracting nor immensely intriguing. It seemed very much in line with Mad Men‘s fashion: it was seamlessly introduced, and once it was clear we’d be working with a loose flashback structure, the non-linear format ceased to take center stage. Rather it was the themes of displacement and alienation that tied everything together nicely, giving us a richer picture of these characters that we can’t help but find fascinating.
- After Heinz leaves the pitch in a fury, it was about time that someone called Don on his BS and hands-off mode of running the show. At episode’s end Cooper (Robert Morse), the King of Doing Nothing, ironically is the one to pull Don back in line as Creative Director. He accuses Don of being in a love coma, and not paying attention to the sinking ship that is SCDP. The glass door closes on Don, superimposing the bar-like blinds from the windows over-top of him. Not unlike the imagery in classic melodrama, it looks like Don is metaphorically jailed by SCDP once more.
- I appreciated how Ken’s (Aaron Staton) allegiance to Peggy was still evident during the pitch. He delicately balances their friendship with his duties as Account Manager. When the Heinz guy asks “Do you believe this girl?” Ken diplomatically answers, “I don’t know, can you?”
What did you think Mad Men fans? Did you enjoy the fancy new narrative structure? How do you think Don and Megan will fare? Now that both Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Roger have left their respective spouses, think something is a brewing? Sound off in the comments section.
Mad Men airs Sundays at 10pm EST on AMC