Monday, April 23, 2012 Mad Men: Bad Trips
By Molly Lambert
"Can we go back to the days our love was strong? Can you tell me how a perfect love goes wrong? Can somebody tell me how to get things back the way they used to be? Oh God, give me the reason I'm down on bended knee." —Boyz II Men, "On Bended Knee"
Remember the leisurely pace of the early- to mid-'60s? Neither does anyone else, it was so fucking long ago. Everything now happens faster and more intensely. There's no time to dwell on the past on your Kodak carousel, lest you risk getting trapped in a wrinkle in time when you trip with your wife's psychiatrist. Any one of the events in last night's Mad Men would have made for a John Deere tractor accident-type talking point in a prior season; now we get them all at once, with a neat Pulp Fiction–style narrative trick reminding us that while Mars is an enormous planet, everything that occurs on it is happening at the same time.
When Peggy envisioned herself being Don Draper, it never occurred to her that she couldn't be Don Draper because old-school male clients like Heinz don't take so well to the kind of pushily swaggering "muscular" pitch rhetoric favored by Don when it's delivered by a woman (Bert calls her "a little girl"). She also runs the risk of becoming out of date, as Megan means Peggy is no longer the token woman or young person. Peggy's pitches all suddenly sound off-the-mark and square. Her boyfriend, Abe, doesn't like how preoccupied and stressed with work she always is. He's just trying to be sweet to her and all she cares about is a lucky pack of gum Don gave her once. Hannah Horvath on Girls would kill for a boyfriend like Abe! Maybe trying to sell beans to hippies is a fool's errand, but Peggy's pluck coagulates into hostility when her idea is rejected. Without Don to keep her in check (the ever-valiant Ken Cosgrove tries), she goes off on Heinz. (To be fair, Don's trademark brand of pushy rhetoric isn't working too great for Don tonight, either.) Pete appears just long enough to tell Peggy she's off the account, and Stan says, "Women usually want to please." Rather than punch a wall, throw a phone, or hire a whore, Peggy opts to assert her femininity by giving a hand job to a stranger who gifts her some marijuana in a darkened movie theater during a matinee. She smirks a little while washing her hands, feeling self-satisfied about her spontaneous secret reach-around. Maybe she is Don after all! You're not an uptight prig if you gave a rando a stoned hand job during a safari movie, right? The HJ was ostensibly in return for Peggy puffing on the joint, but it was really just an overstressed and formerly eager-to-please person confirming her basic human right to do whatever the fuck she wants. Lapsed Catholic Peggy realizes that neither God nor Don blessed the pack of gum, and she bombed Heinz on her own merits.
She returns to the office for a 4/20 couch nap and awakens to a frantic Don calling her and hanging up. Who else was reminded by Don of Anchorman's Ron Burgundy in the phone booth after biker Jack Black kills his dog? "I'M IN A GLASS CASE OF EMOTION!" Michael Ginsberg tells Peggy he was born in a concentration camp, and she realizes that none of her problems are as bad as the Holocaust (they rarely are). She calls Abe and tells him she needs him to come uptown so she can work out her other hand. Abe seems like the type of guy who usually wants to please, if you know what I'm saying. Abe's joke about The Most Dangerous Game reminded me that I forgot to make a joke last week when I thought the Jaguar executive was going to demand that SCDP take him to hunt human prey (which they did, in a way). Don spends the end of this episode chasing his wife around their modern apartment like after a French-Canadian gazelle, and I half-expected him to rip her throat out with his teeth.
Did ANYONE have money on Roger as the first person in the Mad Men universe to take acid? Peggy, Sally, Pete, and even Bert seemed more like the types to go in for mind-expanding drugs. A whole Rolling Stones concert passed without Don or Harry Crane boarding any magic buses! Certainly, staid Roger only went along with it based on the goading of his wife, Jane "I speak a little Yiddish" Siegel, whose LSD-doing outfit made her look just like Kim Kardashian. Jane's shrink, Patty Chase (Bess Armstrong), is part of a crowd advocating experimental therapy techniques such as the use of LSD. I personally could think of no worse "set and setting" for an acid trip than a dim and claustrophobically overdecorated rich-people apartment in Manhattan. The yellow rose that Roger later gives Jane comes from a vase on the table that dominates all the dinner table shots. Roger achieves liberation through hearing when he finally listens to his wife.
Psychedelic experiences amplify feelings and sensations that usually run underground. Roger never stops being Roger. He is still Captain Quips. When you think something terrible is going to happen on Mad Men, it usually doesn't. When you're not expecting it, that's when it does. Roger doesn't have the bad trip we may have been anticipating. His hallucinations are mostly auditory and more entheogenic burlesque than cosmic realization. The Beach Boys' "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" plays while Roger imagines his hair half-dyed like Two-Face from Batman. He hallucinates a comforting Don Draper reassuring him and sees himself dancing with Jane while a crooner cuts into The Beach Boys (Roger is old). Jane holds a single yellow rose in the cab like an outtake from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. They are sitting very far apart, because foreshadowing. He gets to the cosmic-realization part of his trip after a bath where he calls the 1919 Black Sox World Series and talks about Model-Ts. Wearing matching pink turbans and breaking up while talking at weird angles like a Bergman film, they seem more in tune than ever. The morning after, Roger wants to high-five about how sweet their breakup was, while aqua-robed bed mermaid Jane is horrified until Roger mentions something that she definitely said to her therapist Patty Chase.
Don and Roger are not good life partners, except maybe for each other. And even then, they'd end up wrestling to the death. Is there such a thing as too much alpha male? Yes, absolutely there is. Very much so. Don's dominating personality may have traditionally charmed clients, but it displeases Megan when he's overruling her sincere desire for pie. Let the woman have pie! She went to a fucking HoJo's in upstate New York with you when all she wanted was to figure out how to sell beans and bond with the other creatives. One of the best twists of this season is that Peggy, far from being competitive with Megan, has really taken her under her wing. Megan's optimistic good energy is so infectious, albeit possibly all a pose à la Don Draper. Megan can't sublimate her desires all the time, and she gets tired of Don's secondhand smoke and condescending daddy voice when he tells her about the "advantages" to being his wife and the big glass of orange sherbet she'll get to have soon.
Megan eats the hotel's famous fried clams. She smiles cheerily for the staff in her coral dress while sitting in a complementarily colored turquoise vinyl booth. The booth reminds us of the day Don fell in love with Megan on their trip to Disneyland. She didn't mind cleaning up a spilled milkshake then, but she's sure as hell not going to choke down perfume-tasting shit just to pacify Don's endless need for control. Don tries to put a sophisticated spin on the decidedly tacky hotel, but Megan is straightforward. It's a stopover. Nobody goes to a Howard Johnson in Plattsburgh for a relaxing vacation. They stay there on their way to or from somewhere else because they have no other choice. Don is not giving Megan any choices. He is giving her orange sludge, vacations she didn't ask for and doesn't want. Heinz guy's "Don't give me what I ask for, give me what I want" is the underlying mantra of the episode.
Megan's sarcastic eating of the ice cream was awesome, and should be cut into a GIF with Betty eating the sundae. Maybe Don assumed that just because Betty likes ice cream all women do? Megan is her own woman, and she likes pie. Whatever domination-submission scenarios may go on behind closed doors, she doesn't like being bossed around in public, and she doesn't actually want Don to dominate and control every aspect of her life. Don passive-aggressively suggests she call her mother to complain about him in French, and she insults his dead whore mother, which for some reason gets him all bent out of shape. Don leaves Megan in the HoJo's parking lot like she was Cher and he was Elton and they were at Circus Liquor, so that he can drive through some terribly rotoscoped trees — which, to their credit, look just like the terribly rotoscoped backgrounds of driving shots in Hitchcock films. We have no idea how long he is gone for, but it's still light when he gets back. Still, it could have been five minutes or an hour. With all the historical crimes that have been referenced in the last few episodes, Megan's disappearance takes on an especially ominous tone. The mundane details of the hotel's workings become sinister: a kid's accident in the pool, the corny Muzak, the faux-cheery bright lighting, neon sign, and pop colors of the diner. The performative hospitality of the staff. Just like Peggy, Don falls asleep in an inappropriate place and awakens disoriented and dazed. The drugginess of Roger's acid sequence permeated the other two storylines like a Sterling haze.
Driving home under the impression that his wife may have been murdered by drifters — or is maybe making sweet young-person hippie love to them — Don remembers leaving Disneyland after his sudden proposal. He whistles a Beatles song and Megan makes fun of him, saying she thought he didn't like that song. Music has been used a lot this season to underline how out of touch Don, Roger, and Pete have become. None of them understands that the next wave of culture is not going to leave or roll over with respect for its elders. Things will never return to the swingin', smokin', drinkin' way they were in 1960 (and thank god). Megan may have been turned on by the way Don fixed that sink, but she isn't aroused when he kicks down the door to their home or tackles her to the floor. She calls Don a pig, but that's letting him off easy. Don is a fucking monster, and just like Patty Chase predicted, he hasn't actually changed or matured. He is as entitled and brutish as ever, and when challenged by Megan he childishly drives off (that's a Kenny Powers move!) and then later gets down on both knees in a showy display of begging for forgiveness.
Megan is a failed actress, and that is how she has been able to play the role of the dutiful wife for as long as she has. She is also a human being with an ego and libido just as big as Don's, and she cares about proving herself as a creative. Back at the office Don puts on a smile and says the weekend was "great," then is shocked when Bert Cooper, the one person who can actually lay the smack down on him, does. Roger, revitalized, peeks his head in to say that he has news, but rather than tell of his divorce he simply says, "It's going to be a beautiful day!" It's a punchline because we have information that Don doesn't have about Roger, and information that Roger doesn't have about Don. Roger has been freed from his crisis of hating his wife and having to take care of or think about anyone else ever, while Don is just entering the void of dealing with his inability to avoid becoming physically and emotionally abusive in intimate relationships. As the snobby shrinks would say, Don is just reenacting the abuse heaped on him by his parents during his childhood. His father hit him and his mother belittled him. Rather than come back to Megan with his tail between his legs, he came back furious and violent (luckily, I have a side bet on how many times Don will tackle somebody this season). Megan has now demonstrated that she is capable of leaving Don, but Don has also shown himself to be capable of absolutely anything.