'Mad Men' Deconstruction Episode 10: 'A Tale of Two Cities'
Let's hit the hookah and figure out whether the show wanted to seek comparisons to the book of the same title or it just wanted to shake things up with a name change and a defiant Joan.
One thing you can’t claim about this season of Mad Men is that Matt Weiner and his writers are coasting on what’s worked in the past. There’s a lot of experimentation in the story, the plotting, historical references and a yeoman’s attempt to keep tabs on Don’s existential crisis. The colors are brighter, the fashion (for the men, at least) drably pedestrian, the hair all over the place and virtually every longtime character showing a certain wear.
“A Tale of Two Cities” continues the trend, and there was a brief moment where I considered comparing and contrasting themes between the episode and the book of the same name, but I realized that we all read the tea leaves and metaphors a little differently from the next person. All that really needs to be said is that if you’re looking for parallels, you can find them.
The same can be said about using the Democratic Convention in Chicago with both the characters in Mad Men and the attempt at combining the two firms. Given that Ted -- who remains mostly a peacemaker here and a believer that the two sides should work together -- ultimately agrees to a mini-revolution that puts the SCDP folks on the outside, maybe the book will work better at connecting the dots.
In any case, we now have SC&P as the firm’s new name: Sterling Cooper and Partners. Never mind that all the missing letters have all the good accounts at this point. (Then again, that account is Vega, so maybe this gives the SCDP folks a way to distance themselves when things go badly.)
The literal tale of two cities is New York and Los Angeles, with the plot both upending the notion that people in California don’t do any work and that they idolize the big boys in New York; plus, it confirms that the two cities are worlds apart in approach to life, dress, etc. Even if Don got on the hash nipple and ended up in the pool, I think he might ultimately prefer Los Angeles to New York. (Let’s not forget that he was, in Season 2, essentially baptized as Don Draper in the Pacific Ocean, still one of the greatest visuals of the series.)
I thought this episode dealt with the Chicago riots well enough, if for no other reason than the event hammers home the political worldview divide between Don and Megan.
Two other elements that were small but important were Joan trying to finally break into the new world of women who get something done in the workplace without using their sex appeal to do it. In that way, from Season 1 onward, she’s been the exact opposite of Peggy. Yes, sleeping with the Jaguar sleazeball got her a partnership and secured the future of her son, but it set her back because everyone, from Harry to Pete to Peggy, sees nothing wrong with throwing that Night o’ Prostitution back in her face. But in taking that step forward -- trying to win Avon and be included in the closing elements -- she has incurred the wrath of Pete (all too easy) and Peggy (more interesting, because their career and lifestyle choices are now being verbally compared -- and the starkness is not flattering to Joan). And while you have to give Joan some credit for wanting to do this deal, let’s not forget she was having dinner because she thought it was a date. In Season 1, Bert Cooper told her that not only can she do better with men, she shouldn’t waste her life on the old. (This makes you wonder about Bob Benson -- did Joan not like the summery short-shorts and thus agree to be set up with this old geezer?)
To Peggy’s credit, she saves Joan. To Ted’s credit, he uses the we’re-in-this-together bit to calm Pete down.
The other element is a tad bit more of Bob Benson, the Internet’s favorite mystery man. Servant of evil or suck up? The pendulum continues to swing, as he does a lot of sucking up here and uses self-help motivational techniques to psyche himself up for the big break -- if Jim not wanting to be bothered as a babysitter constitutes a “big break.” Either way, it ultimately gets him on the Chevy account, so maybe being obsequious finally paid off.
(I’d probably be remiss in not pointing out that Ginsberg is called out by Jim -- for cashing Dow-Chemical checks -- as he rants about business being conducted when there’s a war on and nobody at the convention dares put forth a peace plank! The Jim comeuppance message sinks all the way in, ending in Ginsberg quoting Dr. Robert Oppenheimer about ushering in the Atomic Age with nuclear testing. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of the world,” Ginsberg says of the quote, which originally came from Hindu scripture. Make of that what you will, but it could be that Ginsberg is turning into Abe, or he’s just been enlightened about advertising.)
But of course, outside of the new name and the end-around game plan it might present with Ted and Jim, the intrigue rested with Don and Roger out in California. We get yet another Don fugue state, totally high on hash from the hookah moment, where he sees Megan as a hippie in Los Angeles, completely fine with Don “sharing” other women, admitting to Don that she quit her job -- which he would love, naturally -- and that she is pregnant. (Oh, no you don’t -- there will be no Sharon Tate connections to that one.) Seeing Megan in the high/fugue state leads to Don seeing PFC Dinkins, whom he helped marry in the first episode of this season, standing at the bar, sans part of his arm. Don wonders: If you’re dead and come back as a vision, why would your arm still be half off? “Dying doesn’t make you whole,” Dinkins says. “You should see what you look like.” Whoa -- dude. Don't be a buzzkill! And yet, if you’re interested in making something of that line, what could be more messy to reassemble from a dead person than, say, a body splattered on the ground after said person jumped out of a high-rise? Not ready to go there yet? OK.
The fugue/hookah-high scene comes to an end with Don watching himself floating in the pool, face down, then jumps to Roger saving him and Don spitting up pool water. Is this a wake-up call? Doubtful. Don doesn’t really listen to those now, does he?
Lastly we get a petulant, eternally frustrated Pete going into the creative department, taking a joint from Stan and sitting on the couch to get high, when a yellow short-skirted woman with great legs passes by (as one did to Roger in Los Angeles). Maybe all Pete needs to do is stay high. Maybe he needs to look at himself and, like Roger, realize he’s a curious child with a full head of hair and a thriving business.”
But then we’d have to allow that Pete’s hair is receding, just like the clients on the SCDP “side.”
Ultimately this episode gave out enough kernels -- the name, Joan, Don’s hash moments -- to keep the visual risk-taking streak quite alive for Mad Men this season. It was another enjoyable episode, though I’m assuming more people are chattering about Game of Thrones instead.
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