Tonight’s Mad Men was split into three parts, each focusing on a different character, but with the events taking place concurrently. While this is style of narrative has been used numerous times before, it is the first time that Mad Men has strayed from its usual linear storytelling format and the episode was weaker because of it. The stories of Peggy, Roger and Don were shallow and felt rushed and the usual slow pace of the show abandoned in an attempt to fit in more story.
Initially, we follow Peggy’s day as she handles her second presentation to the Heinz people, who had been unconvinced with the “Bean Opera” that was initially pitched. Peggy begins the day by fighting with her boyfriend, Abe, who is frustrated that all of her attention goes on work, rather than him, and wants the two of them to go to see The Naked Prey that evening. As someone who has always wanted to emulate Don Draper, Miss Olson comes as close as ever to achieving that goal in this episode. When Heinz are not completely with Peggy’s campaign, she chides the client, claiming he just likes to argue and secretly likes her idea – but, unlike Don in the past, her confrontational technique only leads to removal from future work for that customer. Peggy then drinks some hard liquor and takes off from work to watch
the movie Abe had wanted to see Born Free, during which she smokes pot and umm…lends a hand.. to the guy who shared his joint with her. Before she spirals into being the full Draper, Peggy snaps out of it following a conversation with Michael Ginsberg. The recent hire tells her that he is a Martian and, although she does not believe him, he Ginsberg knows it is true because the yarn they had spun him – that he was born on a concentration camp and his mother had been killed there – was completely fictitious. While it is unclear whether or not Ginsberg actually believes himself to be from another planet – a form of denial to cope with such a tragic entry into the world – Peggy is clearly affected by his story and she reaches out to Abe in the evening and tells him she needs him.
The second part of “Far Away Places” involves Roger Sterling take a trip with his wife, Jane, but one that requires no travel, just some L.S.D. It is always difficult for television shows or movies to portray hallucinations without going over the top, or being ridiculous, but I did enjoy Roger hearing opera music when he opened up the whiskey bottle to pour himself a drink. However, the trip that we see for Roger and Jane* is not the point of this story, rather the destination they reach. As had been suggested earlier in the season, this marriage is no longer one in which either party is happy and the drugs help them have an honest conversation and admit as much to each other. Although Jane does not remember this in the morning, Roger is not going to let the moment go and embraces the prospect of becoming single once again, even though he is warned that is going to be expensive. As we have seen with Harry Crane and Peggy Olson this year, Roger is not averse to handing out money to make problems go away, so paying off Jane in a divorce settlement will not be an issue for him. Since Joan has got rid of Greg, and now Roger is not going to be married any more, the possibility of Kevin’s parents getting together on a permanent basis have increased dramatically over the last few weeks.
*Who appears to be dressed like Princess Leia, even though it is 1966, a good 11 years before Star Wars was released
Finally, there is the story of Don and Megan taking a trip up to Plattsburgh, New York, to visit a Howard Johnson – a hotel and restaurant chain that was the biggest in America in the 1960s and 70s – who are a prospective new client for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Don forces his wife to miss the Heinz presentation to join him on the adventure Upstate, but she resents his tendency to order her around. When they have reached the Howard Johnson, the manager wants to impress the pair and provides them with a sampling of all the food they have to offer. The waitress asks if they would like dessert and Don insists that Megan tries the orange
sorbet sherbert – despite her wanting some pie – and then takes it personally when she does not like it, believing she just wants to embarrass him. Megan then hilariously pretends to love the sorbet sherbert, eating several spoonfuls (which she then spits out) to prove that, as always, her husband must be right. Don then complains Megan speaks to her mother in French, as he is convinced she must be saying bad things about him, to which she exclaims “why don’t you speak to your mother?”. Since we know that Dick Whitman has told his new wife much more about his past than he ever did with Betty, this jibe understandably upsets him and he storms out to the parking lot. When Megan will not get into the car at his command, Don drives off leaving her there, but he rues this decision and turn around to pick her up, only to find her gone without a trace. A frantic search for Megan becomes a long wait for Don as he is unable to locate his wife, fearing the worst he even calls his office and her mother to see if they have heard anything.
On his drive back to the city, Draper is imagining* a car trip with Megan and the kids in which they are all happy – he even whistles “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” by Sally’s favourite band – but Don’s journey is spent alone and consumed with fear that he will find an empty apartment back home. When he does arrive and finds the chain has been locked from the inside, he is clearly relieved – but quickly reverts to fight mode and chases his wife around the apartment. After they have collapsed on the floor, Don is relieved that the argument is over and is ready to move on from it, but Megan tells him that “every time we fight, it diminishes us a little bit”. The illusion of perfection Don and Megan present to the office is not altered when they return to work earlier than planned, but, before his day has begun, Draper gets a dressing down from Bert Cooper. Shoeless Bert tells his younger partner that he has spent too long on “love leave” and that leaving the department in the hands of Peggy has jeopardised the standard of work that clients are receiving. As if being chastised by Cooper was not enough, Don then has to deal with Sterling being in a fantastic mood; he can look at Roger and see a potential path for his own marriage to a much younger woman – first happiness, then that dissolves until eventually, they are to divorce.
*As a commenter pointed out – he was actually remembering the car journey that would have taken place after their California trip in last season’s “Tomorrowland” episode, since Sally was wearing Mickey Mouse ears, not imagining it.
If you want to see the best execution of parallel stories overlapping with each other - the later ones revealing more information about what has been seen before – I highly recommend the trilogy “One Two Three”, by Belgian director, Lucas Belvaux. There are characters common to all three of the films, though their relevance to the plot of each varies through the set, and each movie is a different genre – a thriller, romantic comedy and melodrama. Mad Men was aspiring to similar artistic brilliance in “Far Away Places” – I am just not convinced they were able to get there with the limitations that a 45+ minutes episode provides.