Man oh man a lot went down in this week’s episode of Mad Men. Called “Runaways” in this installment, we get to see characters try to move beyond their limited circumstances. Though there were some heart-wrenching (and stomach turning) moments, what also characterizes “Runaways” is how funny the episode was – though by the end, some folks may feel guilty about laughing.
I’ve written this before, but it bears repeating – even though the show’s called Mad Men, it’s the women who are most compelling. Aside from Don, the show’s greatest strengths are in the complicated female characters – in this episode we have Megan, Peggy, Sally, and Betty all face their place in their lives – and none of it is pretty. Each woman isn’t where she wants to be, and it looks like there will be lots of work/journeying ahead. First Megan: her life is becoming more and more like Sharon Tate’s – she’s created this den of sexual liberation and artistic pretension in the Hollywood Hills. Her marriage to Don is cracked – possibly irrevocably, yet she’s too afraid to end it. Despite her protests in the last few episodes, Megan likes to be Mrs. Draper – not only is it financially secure, but it looks like she still pines for her husband, though their bicoastal marriage is obviously not working.
Don is due to fly out, but he gets a call from Stephanie, Anna’s niece, who’s pregnant, broke, and alone. At Don’s request, she meets up with Megan and the two hit it off, both marveling at each other’s beauty. Unfortunately, Stephanie steps in it a bit, and mentions blithely that she knew all of Don’s secrets. Don’s secrets – it’s a terrifying concept for Megan because he’s an infinite labyrinth of deception and secrets. Even though we know that Stephanie and Megan probably know all there is to Don Draper/Dick Whitman, the thought that his double life may not be the only secret in Don’s life is probably too much for poor Megan – she becomes icy and business-like writing Stephanie a generous check of $1,000 and sending her off before Don gets his reunion.
Instead, Don is placed into Megan’s world of decadence, and he feels out of place. It’s not because Don’s a moral prude – he’s far from it. At his peak, Don was bedding women left and right. But at this point Megan’s world is too far removed from his comfort zone, and so when he’s coerced into a threesome with her comely red-headed friend, it doesn’t have the desired effect: Megan’s hope for a renewed spark in their marriage is doused when Don’s interest in Stephanie remains unabated even after a night of sex with two nubile beauties. Megan also realizes that their kinky foray into sexual liberation was a big ole flop.
And while the second Mrs. Don Draper is having trouble figuring out her relationship, the former Mrs. Draper is also faced with a mess. Betty’s back and she’s a difficult political wife because she’s got opinions. And though she sounds like a proto-Ann Coulter – she’s supportive of the Vietnam War and disapproves of anti-war protests – she’s still feeling the chafing of the feminine mystique. Harry Francis is running for office and is starting to see just why Don found Betty so damn frustrating. At a party, Betty misreads the tone of the room and starts to trumpet the virtues of the Vietnam War, despite the general war fatigue of the room. Later in the evening Harry and Betty have a fight, and Betty reverts to her petulance – she resents being cast as arm candy, insisting that she’s not stupid, “I speak Italian,” she shouts. When Harry sarcastically suggests that she run for office, Betty doesn’t miss a beat and flippantly announces “that’s a good idea!”
But it’s not just her marriage that’s causing Betty pain – her daughter, Sally is a constant reminder of her failed motherhood. Sally is brought to the house late at night with a busted nose. Betty is beside herself at the thought of Sally’s beautiful face being marred in anyway – “It is a perfect nose,” Betty screeches are her daughter, “and I gave it to you!” Their absurd argument continues with a pouty Betty threatening to break Sally’s arm. Sally gives as good as she gets, and swats away Betty’s fussing over her nose by muttering, “It’s a nose job, not an abortion.”
All of this culminates into a heart-breaking scene in Sally’s bedroom. Bobby creeps in and the two lie in bed together. Bobby admits that his stomach hurts all of the time – which is probably one of the saddest lines in the show’s history. He’s internalized his mother’s abuse, plus all of the marital discord in his home life and the poor little guy probably has an ulcer.
And in what is probably the most sensational of Mad Men subplots, poor Mike Ginsberg is cracking up. He eyes the computer at the office warily, and his paranoia grows into a frightening descent into madness. He focuses his attention on Peggy, showing up at her door so that he work without the distraction. Peggy’s life at this point can’t be sadder: while a twitchy, neurotic Ginsberg is clacking away at Peggy’s typewriter, Peggy’s planted on the couch with her bratty kid neighbor, watching television. A few hours later, he tries to reproduce with Peggy, believing that the computer is turning everyone in the office homosexual. Obviously, Peggy refuses his advances and when he comes in the next day, no longer sweaty and fidgety, Peggy (and the audience) thinks all is well. He professes feelings for his boss, which is normal, and when he hands her a jewelry box, Peggy is expecting a cheap necklace, or perhaps a pair of earrings. So one can only imagine her horror when she finds a sliced nipple – the final image we have of poor Ginsberg, is he being wheeled away, handcuffed to a gurney.
This episode had me laughing a lot – Peggy, especially had some really funny moments when she was spurning Ginsberg’s advances. But there was an edge to the humor, because it was obvious that Ginsberg’s health was dovetailing. It’s been a while since we’ve seen Elisabeth Moss use some of her comic timing, and it’s nice to see Peggy’s life given a break: it says something about how the show treated Peggy so far that an episode that has her tousle with a mad man (see what I did there?) who gifts her with a sliced nipple is one of her better moments in the season.
I also loved January Jones’ performance – she indulges in some of Betty’s worst behavior, but there’s some value in her resentment of Harry’s treatment and condescension. After all, Harrys got some regressive ideas of gender roles, and though Betty is far from being a feminist, she’s been a bruised victim of misogyny and sexism. And though she doesn’t intellectualize her frustrations all that well, it’s understandable that she’s feeling hemmed in by the social rules around her. It would be too much to suggest that she wants to “runaway” from her life, but there is a sense that Betty’s reaching her sexism saturation point.
In “Runaways” we get a lot of conflicting story lines that are sort-of thrown together, and they clash with each other – and it’s a loud, dissonant clash, that doesn’t feel comfortable or unified. But that’s okay – things are getting confusing and the characters’ lives are getting messy and complicated. They are all embarking on new aspects of their lives and their world that are often confusing and unfamiliar – and the large, hulking computer is great metaphor for the impending future that will rely more and more on technology.
We also get some interesting commentary on social conservatism in “Runaway.” Betty’s embrace of right-wing politics is fascinating, but not surprising. It’s clear that while Betty may believe the nonsense she’s spouting off, she also is playing the role -a Pat Nixon-lite, who supports her husband. Despite Betty’s heated defense of her intelligence and savvy, she’s self-involved enough to make her oblivious to the country’s mood and tenor toward the Vietnam War. She far too young to be such a reactionary conservative, and yet it’s not exactly an ill-fitting suit for her. And though she’s still a stunning beauty, she’s also becoming a lacquered model of conservative wifedom and motherhood – her hair is a large helmet, and she’s traded her Grace Kelly soignee elegance for the starched look of a Young Republican.
Betty’s political conservatism is also linked to Lou’s. Poor Lou, by the way. He’s odious and gross, but it’s clear that he’s the crumbling dinosaur in the tar pit that’s Sterling Cooper & Partners. He also resents the genuinely talented creative team – especially when they spy his patriotic cartoon, which is god awful. The smirks and dismissive eyerolls of his team enrage him and he childishly calls them “flag-burners” and goes as far as trying to compare himself to Bob Dylan – you see, they both were unappreciated geniuses.
Politics have always played an important role on Mad Men – particularly presidential politics. As we approach the 1970s, we’re going to start seeing the seeds of the kinds of conservatism that plague our political discourse today. We saw how the Civil Rights Movement had its effect on the characters – and highlighted the generational divide – we saw Roger perform in blackface and Pete hotly defend the rights of African-Americans. Don was always in the middle – his age allowing him a view of both sides, and he played both sides. Except he’s firmly implanted in middle-age now, and he’s becoming less and less relevant, and more and more isolated from the younger folks.
I think “Runaway” is one of the strongest episode this season – a good, if slightly uneven season. I appreciate that Peggy and Betty both receive about equal screen time as Don – it’s clear that though it’s Don’s silhouette on the opening credits, it’s no longer just his story – and in fact, though it’s an important story, the story of the women in his life is equally compelling.
Some cool/random points:
- So Kiernan Shipka again effortlessly steals every scene that she’s in, but…
- For once, January Jones puts up a good fight.
- Just how awful a mom is Betty: “I’ll break your arm,” she promises a sassy Sally.
- It’s great that Sally’s so contemptuous of her mother – who is contemptible. It’s gross that Betty cares so much about beauty and relies so much on it – and it’s clear that despite Sally’s own stunning looks, she’s not interesting in defining herself in terms of her good looks.
- I thought the episode would feel like a spoof of Desk Set, but then things got decidedly much more seriously when poor Ginsberg started to lose himself in his paranoia.
- Given Ginsberg’s homophobia, it’s interesting to note that the Stonewall Riots are coming up – I wonder if this is a return of Sal Romano – possibly a newly radicalized Sal?
- I know we’re all wondering if Megan’s Sharon Tate-like life means she’ll also meet a Sharon Tate-like death.
- This is probably a stretch but maybe Ginsberg’s freaking out over the computers is tied to the use of IBM technology during the Holocaust – aaaaand, what do we think of Harry Crane’s use of the term “Final Solution” when discussing Phillip Morris to Don? I could also be reading too much into this…