Mad Men – A Tale of Two Cities
Upon reading the title of this episode I thought to myself, ‘Hmmm, whatever could this episode be about?’; needlessly sarcastic even in my internal narration. See, A Tale of Two Cities could well be the title of the whole season so far, stressing as it has the mirror-perfect dualities and dynamic inversions inherent in the Mad Men universe on both a character and city-wide level. So I went in thinking that I knew exactly what to expect from the hour, that it was to be a retread of things we’ve seen before, expressing ideas and evoking emotions that the show has since become overfamiliar with. I was right, but I was also very wrong.
Like most of Mad Men‘s symbolism the obvious existence of the season’s theme doesn’t necessarily render all readings of it as equally obvious; you simply can’t sum it up by just saying duality, the execution is far more multifaceted than the idea itself can ever be. So while this is yet another episode built from a base of dramatic juxtapositions, the particular pieces that it chooses to place in conflict are different and thus the philosophies behind these fights altered. I wasn’t sure at first just what the two sides of this coin would be – early on the episode seemed to be favoring the supporting cast, but this was yet another tease at a behind the scenes episode in a seemingly Don strong season – but as is so often the case a client spelled it out for me with his copy (as in writing, the show yet to introduce literal doubles).
“Do we try to be groovy or nostalgic? ‘Cause right now we’re somewhere in between.” Sage words coming from the side of the table that no-one would associate with Avon, words that take the ending of the last episode and twist it off in a new direction. We learned then the danger of existing between two poles and here we see the impossibility of doing so in the polarized era of the late sixties. Poor Cutler enters a room with Ginsberg during the Democratic Convention – who in this scene is a straight representation of the imagined ‘Age of Love’ left-wing; though in secret he is always subverting this stereotype with traits like his strict sobriety, though no-one ever believes him on that front – and is instantly labelled a fascist by fact of comparison; if you’re not with us then you’re against us, if you’re not on my side then you’re on the other. There is no room for ambiguity in the world of TV’s most ambiguous drama.
This particular divide is shown at its strongest through a double in settings that we have seen in the show before: New York versus Los Angeles. Switching from the sullen, snowy grey’s of Manhattan to California’s crisp summer sun is always a pleasant palette shock for Mad Men, even if the setting has rarely seen the best of the show’s scripts; here though the difference in locales is more than these shallow touches, its spiritual. California is indicative of the ‘groovy’ side of the United States and NY of the cold and old fashioned; like the two main political parties that perk up multiple conversations the two coasts represent the poles of thought crossing the country at that time and living, like voting, requires that you choose one or the other.
The characters of Mad Men are faced with this choice, torn between the two like Lotus at the party and also like her they often make surprising – and frankly wrong, I mean who turns down Roger in this form? – decisions. The firm of SC&P is split between the two hierarchies established in the original offices and each half wants to be the groovy one, to look forward, but like Megan on here marriage neither can quite convince themselves that it wasn’t a huge mistake. Joan embraces the old fashioned, aping accounts-man Roger and angering Pete by becoming a more beautiful version of him a mere week after befriending him; while Peggy risks out for the new, remembering that no matter what Abe says she isn’t actually a man. Pete, frustrated by a hairline crack in the walls of established reality ends the episode by driving a hammer through them. And Bob? Well I still don’t know what to think about Bob.
For all my defense of the show there was one symbol in this episode that smacked a little too hard for me, too smart for its own good, and as per usual my issue had to do with Don. During a California pool party – what we imagine when we think of Sixties business – Don tries something new and groovy, he finds a new drug, perhaps the perfectly titled one for a man with his dual obsessions; a ‘Hookah’ can both get you high and then get you off after only a slight shift in spelling, just like a lady can mother you and then molest you with only a slight shift of sentiment. That it’s offered to him as a ‘spare nipple’? Well, what can I say? The man’s been looking for Mommy in a bottle all these years, why not try a brazier? Pun intended.
If there is anyone who can sell a scene like that party though it’s John Slattery, who again directed a damn fine episode of the show. Don tripping Megan to an All Along the Watchtower sound-like was relatively subtle and slow but it still had the same impact as those sensational scenes in The Crash when it wanted to; the one-two punch at the bar followed by the fractured reveal of his near-death was an episode highlight. I need to also note that this is the second time this season that Don’s drug-use has been directly associated with illness; there he had a fever before the shot, here he got a cold from falling in the pool, both times he was coughing high. Perhaps this is a sign?
Whatever the case, although it is surely bad for his health I hope to see Don and the rest of the SC&P gang getting influenced because Mad Men always makes those scenes magic and given where time is taking them all I can’t see any alternative. For in the end time always makes this choice for us, dragging the old towards the new and passing the new as it becomes old. Like Mad Men it’s always the same and it’s always different.