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In a rousing return to form, the “Far Away Places” episode of Mad Men was its most ambitious this season and one that, given the last couple of overly-obvious efforts, would normally cause serious worry about its ability to pull off not only an LSD episode – a cliché landmine if there ever was one – but also a fractured narrative, the deepening of current motifs and subtle transformations of character spread throughout the cast.
Regular readers of these deconstructions will already know that I’ve had some issues with Mad Men being more obvious and less subtle in its storytelling this season. And in all seriousness I’m not sure whether the changing nature of the times (in the series) necessitates a broader kind of storytelling. It just may. But “Far Away Places” certainly gives me hope that the nuanced storytelling of old is not, in fact, a thing of the past and that a sure hand was all over this episode.
I’ve been waiting for “the LSD episode” with increasing trepidation. But it was handled brilliantly here, with insight, surprises, unpredictability, excellent humor and a really lovely, smart ending.
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I have to think that Matthew Weiner, who learned so much from David Chase’s love of dream sequences on The Sopranos, really guided this one home. It hit all the right notes and was able to effectively convey opposite tonalities in the same scene. Specifically the scene where Roger and Jane are on the floor, in their robes and bright, matching towels wrapped around their heads (which, on Roger, was hilarious) and Roger’s clarity about the truths of their relationship garnered through the LSD trip. The scene was great unto itself, but even more effective when the same exact elevated shot was used to frame Don and Megan after their frightening fight in their apartment, which ended when they crashed to the floor. A lot of visual excellence in this episode, directed by Scott Hornbacher.
This is probably as good a place as any to clear up this notion of being “too obvious” and what that means (at least to me). Yes, sometimes the storytelling this season has been a little too neon-tinged for my taste. The Mad Men audience doesn’t really need to be hit on the head. But my worry is mostly about outsized scenes – the horror-movie allusions, the Lane-fights-Pete moments. Some of you may have thought the metaphorical story arcs in “Far Away Places” were too clear – Roger and Jane’s drug trip vs. Don and Megan’s road trip; the fracturing relationships of those couples, plus Peggy and Abe, etc. But I would like to think that this drama Renaissance we critics keep harping joyfully about has had the desired effects – since The Sopranos in 1999 through The Shield, Deadwood, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, etc., viewers are no longer watching television passively but engaging in all of the working elements of brilliance that go into actually making such series (nuanced writing that uses metaphor, minor background aspects that play into the larger narrative; cinematography, lighting, sound) and are thus more likely to pick up on such things. Meaning, those features are more obvious because we are all more knowledgeable about their use.
So, no, I don’t think the actual story in “Far Away Places” was too easy to figure out – I think the entire episode had a skill that’s evident in the very best Mad Men episodes. For example, two small, excellent scenes that didn’t need an exclamation point of any kind to draw attention to their importance: Ginsberg proclaiming he’s from Mars (speaking of far away places) to hide from the fact he was born in a concentration camp (just an incredible scene all around); and the final scene of Stan, Ginsberg and Megan walking one way and Peggy in the opposite direction, with Don, having just been scolded by Bert Cooper, framed in the middle and looking off into the distance. Hell, I could do a whole deconstruction on that scene alone.
Ah, but the other stuff is more important. First, it was great to see Jane looking less frumpy/bloated than in the season’s first episode, where she was dowdy-downed to let Megan shine more brightly. In this episode, we got the first inkling that her character was going to get at least one chance to shine or have meaning before departing. As she and Roger prepare to attend what starts as a dinner party with psychoanalytical banter and then becomes an acid dropping party, it’s Jane who’s looking to broaden her life, to find meaning and maybe happiness beyond being some trophy wife. Roger just wants to stay home and be miserable. Who would have thought he would come out of the rabbit hole more enlightened (at least about the truth of his relationship)?
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Hell, maybe this whole deconstruction should have been the LSD angle – and maybe I’ll revisit that in more detail later – it was just that good. A nice wink to Roger’s seemingly invincible drinking/partying powers when we are led to believe the LSD hasn’t had any effect on him – then he opens the bottle of booze and it’s a full-on brass band experience. The gray hair gambit (from the photo in the magazine) hints that Roger knows he’s too old for Jane (something Don hasn’t quite faced with such exactitude). Having Don give him the pat “everything’s going to be okay” speech in the mirror? President Bert Cooper on the five-dollar bill? (A sly nod to the end of the episode where it’s reiterated – to Don – that it’s Bert’s money and business they’re all playing with.) And the scene in the bathtub where Roger sees the 1919 World Series and Jane says, “Were you there?” And her low self-esteem that kicks in when she thinks Roger was laughing at her. Oh, the disparity between the two. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say this season was a warning sign to all middle aged men to forgo the midlife crises and trophy wife because no good will come of it.
I also dearly loved “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” from the Beach Boys playing in Roger’s LSD drip. If ever Roger had a theme song for this season…
Peyton List as Jane finally got something to do besides stand there. It was nice for her to at least be seen to have some kind of ambition, to want to examine her own life. She was also unwrapped and allowed to be lovely – which in its way gave more truth to Roger’s understanding that he had to leave (because, as she said, he didn’t like her). It would have been easier for Roger to look at her body and stay put. Her, “It’s going to be very expensive” line was classic, too.
Away from the genius of the acid tripping, it was nice to bring Don out of his happiness, since it doesn’t suit him well (yes, it was periodically nice to see him content after all these years, especially when it comes to fidelity, but Don’s not a happy person and he’s never going to be able to settle into his life). We got that hint after his birthday party – the embarrassment and the distance of age. In “Far Away Places” he returned to being a man who can’t seem to be with women (for any length of time) who think for themselves. And so he treats Megan like a child and yanks her out of work and takes her own a road trip that poetically comes unraveled over orange sherbet and Howard Johnsons – two things that will probably have no resonance for a woman of Megan’s age. This was all very old school – very let me order for you, let me tell you what you want in life (and from the menu). When the waitress at HoJo’s asks about dessert, Megan says “How about some pie?” Don: “No, you know what, just three scoops of orange sherbet and two spoons.” (What makes that line so wonderful is “No” as the preface). Just after Megan pokes a pin in Don’s strange obsession with Howard Johnson’s by saying, “It’s not a destination; it’s on the way to some place,” she then deflates him further by saying the orange sherbet “tastes like perfume to me.” Cue the argument.
Don was mean and dismissive to her during the argument, naturally, and when Megan references Don’s mother, well, it’s implosion time in the Dick Whitman cranium. But before he leaves her at HoJo’s, there’s this difference maker: Megan calls him on his attitude as he demands they leave.
“Go ahead, you think more of what some truck-stop waitress thinks than what I say. Get in the car! Eat ice cream! Leave work! Take off your dress! Yes, master!”
We’re beginning to learn that when Megan gets pissed off, she can speak her mind as well as anyone.
The key to the scene is Don leaving. Don always leaves. But this is beyond being angry — it’s a male power play. He has the car. He’s the husband. He runs the show (anyone who had a flashback to Season 1 when Don walked out of the meeting with Rachel Menken because she sassed him, then points for you). I also liked in this scene how, when the episode what rearranged, we got to see him on the other end of his call to Peggy and her intoning, “It didn’t go well” – mirroring the events in Don’s situation – then the part Don doesn’t hear from Peggy: “I take full responsibility.”
How many times has Don done that?
Even when he returns from leaving her and feels overwhelmed by worry and regret, he ends up mad at Megan for not picking up the phone. “Because you’re a pig – you left me there!”
OK then, now we’re getting somewhere. Don is a pig. He’s from a different era than Megan, just as Roger is from Jane. His decision to marry Megan was as rash as Roger leaving Mona for Jane. And when Megan shows a feistier spirit than Betty (again, women from different eras, ultimately), Don doesn’t know how to control her so he ends up chasing her around the apartment and wrestling her to the ground. Whatever you think about Megan, Jessica Pare has really given her a sweetness and optimism that’s heartbreaking when it’s manhandled. When she cries “How could you do that to me!” while on the floor of the apartment it makes Don’s actions more stark, less easy to dismiss. “Every time we fight it just diminishes this a little bit,” she says, with more maturity than Don has ever shown. His “I thought I lost you” panic that leads him to holding her with that haunted, vulnerable look, also had all kinds of Rachel Menken shades to it in its outright desperation.
Finally, there’s Peggy, whose drive for independence and career success seems more and more like a far away place she’ll never get to. Abe doesn’t understand or appreciate her much anymore, feeling neglected because of her devotion to work. After her attempt at being Don is dismissed by an older male client (who scolds her and says it would have been worse but that he also has a daughter – gah!) the rejection of her creative ideas, lack of support from Don and general strain of pushing the rock up the hill, she gets high at a mid-day movie and gives a hand-job to a stranger (which, given the look on his face, sends him to his own far away place). At the end of the episode, Bert dismisses her – to Don – as “a little girl.” If you’ve ever thought of being a trailblazer, look again at how much thankless work it is. (But seriously, there’s a lot more to talk about here in regard to how far Peggy has come in “a man’s world” and whether the effort has left her just as unhappy and dissatisfied as every other person at SCDP).
This episode, in all of its cut up forms, truly felt complete and well-conceived. It had just the right touches at the right times. And I think it was even more ambitious than the two-hour double-episode premiere to the season.
What’s ultimately best about it, however, might be that whatever brief happiness Don Draper found seems to be evaporating.
Bert Cooper: “You’ve been on love leave. It’s amazing things are going as well as they are with as little as you are doing.”
So true. And it welcomes back to us Don’s existential crisis – like orange sherbet on a freshly pressed white dress shirt.
But of course, when one door closes another one opens – and it’s Roger, suddenly freed from his unhappiness!
“I have an announcement to make – it’s going to be a beautiful day,” he says.
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