Monday, 23 April 2012

Television - Mad Men 'Far Away Places' analysis / review

Those who have been criticising this season for Mad Men for being too theatrical - as per the Pete Campbell punch-up last week, the nightmare sequence the week before, or the Zou Bisou Bisou performance in the opening episode(s) - won't have found much solace in 'Far Away Places', possibly the weirdest and most structurally experimental episode of the series to date. Depending on your point of view, it might also have been one of the best.

People being unprepared for the passing of time has been a recurring theme for the series, most memorably evoked in that famous scene where Don pitched the Kodak Carousel. Nostalgia is a comforting memory of things loved, but can also blind to what is happening in the present. Just as many of Mad Men's viewers will be getting a kick from watching a programme set in what they might remember as a 'better time' - though the programme itself would seemingly beg to differ - the characters are just as guilty in trying to live in the dream state of a rapidly disappearing era.

This episode's dominant theme was the search for real truth at the crossroads between dream and reality. The characters at the centre of the three narrative segments each bury themselves in their illusions at some point, trying to escape life's unpleasant truths, but while the trip back to reality is a bumpy one, it also reveals things they needed to know about themselves. Roger's marriage is a disaster, born of short-lived infatuation and bereft of any genuine emotional connection, and needs to end. Peggy is not Don Draper, no matter how hard she tries. Don wants his marriage to work, but has to confront the Dick Whitman part of his nature which compels him to take flight at the first sign of trouble.

The sequence this episode will likely be remembered for is Roger's LSD trip, a wonderfully mounted sequence evoking a sense of bodily and temporal disassociation, and the impossibility of discerning what is and isn't reality, without lapsing into the trite hallucinogenic imagery that even the great Breaking Bad has been guilty of. The singing vodka bottle was wonderful, as was Roger's delight at discovering it, but things quickly went in a more disturbing and Brechtian direction, highlighting the character's many insecurities. The sound editing team deserves kudos for a series of perfectly pitched effects, be it a cigarette zipping back, the vodka  bottle, or Roger speaking while his mouth wasn't moving. The latter situation was a sly evocation of his feelings of irrelevance, while his half-white, half-black hair (and later hallucination of a ball game from 1919) played on his fear of growing old and desire to keep living in a fondly-remembered past.

For an evening that began with him being bitterly forced to follow his wife to a dinner with her friends, they ended up lying together on their bedroom carpet, being more honest and intimate with each other than since first meeting. She relays to him exactly what her therapist thinks of their marriage, and they've known all along but refused to admit either to themselves or each other. He finally concedes that it has to come to an end for both of their sakes. It's a beautifully played scene, especially Roger's tender admission that he did once like her, even if it's probably a stretch to suggest it was ever anything more than that. She was his rebound following a divorce, a gorgeous young woman with whom he had nothing in common. In the drug-induced dream, he and his wife can be as close as they've always wanted, yet with that honesty comes an awareness of how horribly suited they are in reality. As Jane's snooty friends (one of whom might be Timothy Leary, which seems a step too far for historical cameos) suggest, real truth lies in the intersection between dream and reality.

Don was the only main character not to take any drugs in his segment, but has been living in a dream state for most of his adult life. Don Draper is a lie created to escape the ugly truth of Dick Whitman residing in his soul. In his marriage to Megan, he has shown willingness to accept and thus defeat that part of himself, but the pair as still in their honeymoon period and, given their exceptionally brief engagement, have not yet had to deal with each other as real, flawed human beings. The first sign of trouble was how little they understood each other's worlds at the birthday party Megan threw for her husband, while Don has previous been forced himself to repress sinful temptations in the shape of old-flame Andrea.

In taking / dragging Megan away from work for what he sees as an idyllic break at a Howard Johnson's - from what I gather, it's a chain which cannot be described in such reverential terms these days - he's trying to recreate the blissful moments when they fell in love in last season's finale, 'Tomorrowland', and his memory reverts to those days during his drive home alone. It's telling how his first serious argument with Megan comes in a diner much like the one in California, and over an orange sherbet, reflecting how he started seeing her as a prospective wife after she coolly dealt with his children spilling a milkshake. Already angry at him for not taking her work seriously - she sees herself as part of a team and wants to be respected by her co-workers, while he seems to see her as someone to play with around the clock - she flips her lid after he accuses her of trying to embarrass him, and says something immediately regretted. In true Dick Whitman style, he gets into his car and abandons her.

Where the submissive Betty would have waited for him to return, she takes the first bus home, leaving him terrified and wandering hopelessly around in the location he had imagined as a dream, but had become a living nightmare. Like Roger, his worry and guilt dislocated him from any sense of time and place, beautifully reflected in an editing style which allowed minutes to seem like weeks, while several hours could pass in a single cut. Returning home, he finds her locked in their flat, so breaks down the door and pursues her violently until they are both lying, distraught, on the white carpet where they previously made love.

Don's anger is brutal and terrifying, Dick Whitman in full force, but admitting his fear of losing her salvages what could have led to a break-up. Don wants to keep hiding from the truth, to live in a peaceful lie with someone who will never question him, but if he's going to make his marriage work (as he wants to, proven by his turning down Roger's offer to spend a weekend acting like 'old perverts'), he can't keep running. By that same measure, Megan's going to have to come to terms with her husband being more complicated and conflicted than she could have imagined, and realise that diminished expectations may turn out to be a good thing after all.

Peggy has a similarly sobering epiphany after a rare bad day at the office, when the Heinz executive rejects her latest pitch as being everything he asked for, but nothing of what he wants. She attempts the old Draper tactic of going on the attack, but as forward-thinking as she is, it's a strategy which won't work coming from a woman in a deeply paternalistic society. She's unceremoniously dumped from the account, and follows another Draper law by consoling herself with an afternoon movie. Taking a drag from an offered joint, she returns the favour with a handjob seemingly driven out of her need to prove she can still satisfy a man, whether sexually or at work. We've seen Peggy at war with her femininity several times before, notably in her confessions to Dawn, and it has rarely been more evident than her attempt to salvage a scrap of self-worth in a moment when both her love and work lives are failing.

It's only when listening to Ginsberg tell his sad tale about pretending to be a martian to avoid confronting his true identity as a concentration camp baby (making sense of his disgusted reaction to the crime scene photos in Mystery Date) that she becomes aware of how she has been hiding behind her work to avoid opening up to boyfriend Abe, who feels increasingly used and frustrated by her refusal to engage with him. As Don and Megan return to the office, things look much the same but have been changed irrevocably by those individual realisations. There is a sadness to the goodbye they share before departing to their respective work. Roger, for once, is full of boundless optimism. Peggy keeps her head down. It is up to Bert Cooper, the SCDP watchman, to shatter Don's final illusions: he has been neglecting his work and the company is suffering because of it.

Cooper has, by and large, accepted his place as a figurehead at the company table, but in doing so is more conscious of the true state of affairs than many of those seemingly more important than him. He's an old man, but not longing for lost power or living in a dream of the past. He just sits and watches, occasionally popping up on a five dollar bill, but only interfering when strictly necessary. He's like a Mad Men Time Lord, but for his being the only one seemingly uninterested in time travel. Don's greatest professional success may have come from his ability to tap into the power of nostalgia, to understand the human desire to hold onto the most beloved memories of the past, but such illusions are poor foundations on which to build a present day life. The safety of dreams offer a comforting reassurance of who we are and who we want to be, yet it's only through confronting reality's hard truths that it becomes apparent how much work is needed before one can become the other.



Angie said...

Wow, great summary. I think Don leaving Megan at the Howard Johnson's signals the beginning of the end for them. Megan is no longer the boring Don worshiper that she started out as. I think she will end their relationship eventually, leaving Don heartbroken.

Xander Markham said...

Thanks for your comment, Angie! I seem more optimistic than most for the state of the Draper marriage, because it seems Don genuinely wants to improve and not repeat his mistakes with Betty, even if his worst Dick Whitman impulses still break through in moments of weakness. They're worlds apart in many ways, but also complement each other quite well. He certainly won't want to inflict another divorce on Sally, Bobby and Gene, in any case.

Jay Mucci said...

Excellent analysis of last night's episode. I'm not sure which way Don's marriage will go. The honeymoon is already quickly starting to end... and things could easily go permanently sour in the near future for Don and Megan. In some ways, Don's decision to marry Megan (much younger than him) reflects Roger's quick decision to marry Jane. So it could turn out that Don was merely infatuated with Megan, just like Roger was with Jane... but I DO think that Don & Megan's marriage might possibly have more sturdiness to it. It's clear though that Don doesn't quite understand Megan so far, and the fact that she actually wants to be at the office for legitimate reasons, and not just because she's his wife. The scene towards the end where he was on his knees, hugging her tightly showed that he is realizing that he could just as easily lose everything again, and that he is perhaps seeing things slip away and he doesn't know how to finally break free from his demons once & for all. He's trying... but the old Dick Whitman keeps showing up.
One thing... I don't think that was supposed to be Timothy Leary... for one, it didn't look anything like the real Leary. I think Matthew Weiner would have gotten an actor that actually resembled him. I think it was just Roger making a joke (in his own kind of way) about how this professor resembled a Leary type of person, and Roger had probably heard of Leary before and so he made the joke of calling him "Timothy Leary"... but I really don't think it was supposed to actually be him. I'd have to see the episode again though.