But they’d never play “The Times They are A-Changin'” over the closing credits, because that would be entirely too on-the-nose. I think most people accept the notion that Mad Men is ultimately about the transformation of social and popular culture in the U.S. over the course of the ’60s, for better and for worse, but it’s the kind of program that shows its homework (so to speak) rather than simply declaring its intents. Simply compare the tone and appearance of the show in its first season (1960) to the look and relationships of the current season (1966): Where once Mad Men’s world revolved around the needs of white men in dark suits who inhabited somber spaces, now those men are finding the world wants to do its own thing.
I think the most recent episode, “Far Away Places,” was as up-front about this social transformation as any episode has ever been. It used a very unconventional (for the series) structure to tell three separate stories, all three of which had at their hearts the strain that the cultural revolution exerted on relationships between men and women in that era. The three plotlines were linked by a single scene, and each played out in its entirety before looping back to the junction point (as it were) rather than running in parallel, which made for a bit of confusion the first time it happened.
Each chapter carried the theme of “kicking and screaming into the cultural revolution.” Peggy’s plot line seemed the most like a continuation of the past few episodes’ setting and plot details — oh em gee office drama and all that. The entire idea of Peggy as Don’s protege has never been more obvious, as she’s been forced by circumstance (read: Don’s indifference) to effectively become him. Which she did a little too well, not only effectively running the creative department and coming up with a great campaign but also having her own Draper Tantrum in front of a client. The problem is that while she directed a withering, Don-worthy screed at her client, she lacked the seniority and — being a woman — the social standing to pull it off. Whereas long ago Don was nudged and encouraged to make nice with Rachel Menken after blowing up at her and her multi-million-dollar account, Peggy was immediately dropped from the “sell beans to teens” job altogether. Things were different for women in 1966 than they’d been in 1960, but not so different that a stodgy middle-aged white man didn’t hold the power here. So, Peggy left work to make her own power play of sorts in a dark theatre, helping in her own small way to sow the seeds (if you will) of the cesspit that was 1970s Times Square in the process.
The second chapter demonstrated a different sort of social change: The adoption of drugs by upper-class intellectuals. Where Peggy was content to pass a joint with a stranger and Don perpetually inoculates himself with alcohol, Roger Sterling (at his wife’s behest) went to hang out with one Dr. Leary and experiment with LSD. I’m sure this is the scene most people will be talking about from this episode, since it did a pretty convincing job of creating a drug-trip sensation (at least, convincing for those of us who have never dropped LSD ourself): The overlapping music, Roger rather pointedly seeing himself become one with a magazine ad (a thesis statement for the series if ever there was one), the sudden jump cuts between scenes, the too-honest comedown afterwards. Strangely, this section of the episode marks the most fleshed-out characterization Roger’s second wife Jane has ever been given, though it was mainly in the service of ending their relationship. Knowing how much thought goes into the characters’ costume designs, surely it’s not a coincidence that Jane’s divorce precipitated while she was dressed in a Cleopatra-inspired (read: Elizabeth Taylor) outfit? In the end, it was clear that while the times are a-changin’, they didn’t bring instant victory for women. Divorce came far more easily here than it did even a few years before, but clearly Jane didn’t really want it as much as she wanted simply not to have to hate her philandering, apathetic husband.
The final portion of the episode was the most interesting to me, though, because while it seemed to signal a return to the status quo of the series in many ways — more focus on Don’s story, and Don ultimately being told to get his act together and start thinking like an ad man again — it demonstrated the greatest changes at work. Don is reaching middle age in a country increasingly dominated by youth culture, and the strain on his marriage (to a member of said youth culture) is telling. He still wants to be the man society has told him to be, taking charge and choosing for his wife and being the man of the house and all that, but Megan has other ideas; she wants to be her own person, free from under his thumb. Don’s initial reaction of fury and petulance was typical of the brooding, self-centered man the series has always been pinned on — always storming out on or running away from a conflict — but the fallout was new. With his previous marriage, Don never apologized; the best he could muster by way of apology even for flagrantly cheating on Betty and vanishing for months was a simple, “I haven’t treated you with respect.” The only time his façade broke in front of Betty was when she confronted him about his true identity and discovered the pitiful reality of his life. But here, he brought the episode to its epilogue by tearfully apologizing to Megan and confessing how terrified he had been of losing her.
Don is changing with the times, as his little flashback in the car demonstrated. Resist though he might, determined as he may be to remain set in his ways, Megan’s world is exerting itself on him. Insinuating itself into his way of thinking, just like the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” got stuck in there. The question isn’t whether or not Don will adapt to the new world where his kind no longer rules quite as overtly in the past, but rather if he can change in time to keep Megan from bailing on their marriage and leaving him a broken ruin of a man. The thing about Don is that he is, ultimately, an ad man, and while wealthy middle aged white men may not be able to rule the America of the future as overtly as they did the America of the past, they continue to hold the country — the world, really — in a stronger hammerlock than ever before through the pervasive power of advertising. We all know Don will “win” in the end, at least professionally, but what makes him an interesting character is that he may never feel like he’s won personally… and honestly, he probably doesn’t deserve to, because after seeing him chase and tackle his wife you remember that, oh yeah, he’s kind of a creep.
Anyway, what really made the final third of the latest episode so interesting to me personally is the way it was set predominantly in a shiny new Howard Johnson’s motor lodge. That stood as the single most alien and unusual aspect of the entire episode (even more than Ginsberg’s strange rant about being an alien). People of my generation have never seen a new Howard Johnson’s like that, with its immaculate orange roof and teal trim; to me, Howard Johnson’s were always these shabby, faded places that even as a kid felt decrepit and unhappy — remnants of the optimism Dr. Leary told everyone to focus on, which had degenerated with time and the crash-to-reality bringdown that was the ’70s. I have to wonder if HoJos ever really looked like they did in this episode (shiny, hyper-saturated, clean, new) or if its day-glo simply immaculacy represented Don’s vision of the place. It’s interesting that the deeply cynical Don Draper seemed so taken in by Howard Johnson’s, but I suppose to a man like him something so bright and happy — a place where families could come for a quick, deep-fried meal before hopping into the pool and zipping away in their massive steel-framed eight-cylinder station wagon the next morning — must have seemed like a sign of true progress after growing up on a dusty, miserable farm steeped in post-Depression poverty… which the episode pointedly called back to with Megan’s cruel barb about Don’s mother, the first time I can recall any reference to Don’s early life outside of his own memories.
Megan could tellingly see the place for what it really was — somewhere you stop when you’re on the way to the place you actually want to go — where Don somehow saw its eye-searing plastic and formica, doomed to grow grimy and cracked within a decade of use and abuse by tens of thousands of travelers, as a destination in itself. The subsequent argument that dominated the remainder of the episode ultimately served as mere window dressing on the generational divide between the two characters, but the truth of their incompatibility was laid bare by their reaction to the Crayola-hued motor lodge of the future.
In short, another good episode.