'Mad Men' Deconstruction: Ep. 5: 'The Runaways'

Mad Men Peggy Episode 5 - H 2014

Mad Men Peggy Episode 5 - H 2014

What a strange season of Mad Men it's been so far. Most of the characters haven't been acting like themselves, and this very theme -- beginning with Don and Freddie Rumsen's Cyrano act -- was directly addressed in the first episode. Now, in the fifth episode, we get a shocking but strangely welcome reason for why Ginsberg hasn't been making sense since the very first scene he was in.

He's nuts.

An ad man isn't the artist that Van Gogh was, so in lieu of an ear, a nipple will have to do. As bizarre as Ginsberg's bloody nipple scene was, at the very least it explains his erratic behavior, which crossed the line into absurdity long before this revelation.

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It's nice to know you're not crazy for thinking that a character is acting crazy.

What then, is driving Peggy or Bert or Betty or any number of Mad Men regulars to be acting out of sorts? In "The Runaways," we didn't get a thematically pure resolution for everyone -- individual stories are likely to unfold at their own pace as these final 14 episodes play out -- but there was certainly a through line about the consequences (good and bad) about speaking your mind.

Nothing along those lines was clearer than the (possibly/hopefully) triumphant return of Vintage Don. His comeback is almost complete. From being ousted to pretending to have a job to having Freddie Rumsen do his pitches and finally and most damning, to saying "OK" to egregiously restrictive clauses laid out by the team at SC&P, Don ends "The Runaways" by preemptively stealing a Phillip Morris account from ridiculously ancient Lou Avery and too sedate Jim Cutler.

When you're most in need of him, Don is the only daddy that will walk the line.

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"You're incredible," Lou Avery says dismissively, outside the Algonquin, where the theft has occurred. "Thank you," Don says, turning Lou's put-down into another example of Don's abilities to run circles around Lou without even trying. He tucks the duo into a cab, looks at them like pathetic remnants and whistles for his own taxi -- a scene that had a strong Superman vibe to it on all fronts.

Of course, that potential account steal could set up Don trying to start his own firm (with whom? Harry, Pete, maybe Freddie and even Stan?), likely on the West Coast. Now, sure, Don still looks very, very New York when he's in Los Angeles, and he's not into the Megan actor/party girl vibe, but let's not forget that one of the most magnificent moments in Mad Men history was Dick Whitman walking into the Pacific Ocean, cleansed of his past and any sins therein. Dick/Don has history on the West Coast.

Mad Men often careens between a celebration of directness and truth-telling and then the whiplash-backlash of the fallout from speaking one's mind.

In "The Runaways," Ginsberg goes Greek and becomes Cassandra as he bemoans what technology will do to people. (OK, so in his world, computers turn everybody "homo," and he ends up insane enough to cut off his own nipple, but not all prophets are created equal.) But Ginsberg also believes that being able to tell Peggy that he's attracted to her is a way to unleash the power to turn off the humming in his head and cuts off his own nipple to release the pressure. In Ginsberg's case, this makes sense, but speaking his mind is a bad thing -- because it reveals that he's disturbed and/or mentally troubled.

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Being honest and speaking up is also bad for Betty, who has been so proud of Henry's political career and how that makes them a power couple that she completely forgets she's there to look pretty, not talk policy. So when she does it -- again, another character acting out differently (surely you remember how she normally shuts up and looks like Grace Kelly) -- she ends up speaking her mind to personal satisfaction but to Henry's annoyance, and there will clearly be ramifications on the homefront.

"From now on, leave your conversations to how you hate getting toast crumbs in the butter, and leave the thinking to me!" Henry yells. If Betty is having an epiphany about her place in the world, it probably helps to be boastful and believe it. "I'm not stupid. I speak Italian," Betty brags.

I don't have the energy to talk about Peggy -- that's a whole separate column; I'm still having trouble justifying her behavior this season. It's hard to justify a lot of this behavior, but I remain faithful that Matt Weiner has a master plan.

Elsewhere, Stan speaks out -- while high, of course -- about Lou's really bad foray into cartoons, and it costs him. Well, technically it costs everyone, including Don. That storyline illustrates yet again that whether Don is being purposefully one-upped in the elevator by an insecure Peggy or forced to cancel all his plans by the insecure Lou, he's playing the loyal soldier. Uncomplaining. Suck it up and do it, which is, clearly, out of character and another reason why his hijacking of the Phillip Morris account was so ballsy and retro Draperish.

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I'm not sure Megan was a real winner in her play to keep Don interested (via the threesome) or even salvage the marriage. But for the sake of argument, let's just agree that the Mad Men writers haven't really given Megan a clear linear path. At times, she appears to be over Don and done with the marriage since he evidently won't commit to Los Angeles even though she's an actress there. Other times she seems overly eager that he's around when he does visit, but sometimes loses interest or hatches dubious plans (see: menage a trois). So what was her truth? She felt threatened by pregnant hippie chick Stephanie and then got irritated with her when she said "I know all his secrets" (which Megan doesn't because Don won't let her in). "But you don't know him," Megan retorts then cuts Stephanie a check for $1,000 and sends her packing (later lying to Don about the events of the conversation). "I know what he likes," Megan says to the new third wheel -- but does she? Don certainly indulged after saying he didn't want anything, but maybe swinger-style Megan is a turnoff to him and threesomes are less of a sure thing to lock him down on the Best Coast.

Sally spoke her mind and did two things. She proved yet again that she thinks Betty is an unfit mother who's too focused on her own selfishness, and, secondly, she let the world know that despite catching him with the neighbor, Sally is Team Dad.

"Where would mom be without her perfect nose?" she says to Henry, who is cursing the day he let two Draper girls into his house. "She wouldn't find a man like you," Sally says. "She'd be nothing."

"I'm going to break your arm next time," Betty replies, honestly, putting an exclamation point next to her everyday-crazy, which is still a few clicks south of Ginsberg-level crazy, but still -- that's her own daughter. Might want to keep her alive.

Meanwhile, Bobby -- the Forgotten Son -- gets his second week of having a killer line: "I have a stomachache all the time," he says about the Betty/Henry home-building experiment. After "wishing it was yesterday" last week, it's clear Bobby really does want to run away with Sally, to be anywhere but in another household of a married couple yelling at each other.

It's a touching moment, beautifully observed.

Next, Harry tells the truth to Don, but it's kind of a drunken, Harry-esque way to disseminate delicate information: "Ted Chaough. Broken man" kicks it off (which is true, by the way), followed by the "you'll have to go" final solution that will occur when Avery and Cutler land Phillip Morris. "I'm going to make sure you're still important," Harry says to the man who always believes he is the most important person on the planet. I could see Harry dominating the television industry through advertising at a new Don Draper-led concern. Why not? Give Harry a computer and some rope and who knows what will happen?

"The Runaways" was kind of a staccato episode where the almost unnatural stop-and-start of survival methods intertwined with numerous plot-forwarding revelations. We may have a new agency ahead. We may have seen the last of Ginsberg. (And, frankly, I'm worried about his dad now, mentally preparing to find him carved up in the apartment they share.) Two marriages could collapse. Two children could go missing -- and if not now, soon.

Whatever happens in the final two episodes for this season, we know from Sunday that telling the truth is only for very, very specific times. People can misinterpret what you're thinking and doing and deconstruct your motives without a real clue to their truth and meaning.

Also, in an episode where there was no Pete, Roger, Joan or Bert, and so many characters continued to act in ways that are clearly different than how we've perceived them in the past, good-guy Don, who is willing to write copy for Peggy and work late for Lou (and, if you will, partake in a threesome because Megan thinks it's a good idea), decided to be the character we've known all along.

Don is back. Or at least it appears that way. And if that's so, a small part of the weird turn that Mad Man has taken has now returned to normal.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine