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'Mad Men' recap: Tripping to faraway places
OK, let's break down last night's "Mad Men," entitled "Far Away Places," and begin with the same caveat emptor as precedes all these posts -- very little thinking or Googling has gone into this (except enough to get me past my deficient knowledge of Cornel Wilde filmography).
Meanwhile, let's just go ahead and admit our communal befuddlement at this episode -- at once fascinating, bleak, pretentious, puzzling, engaging.
"Far Away Places" opened new doors (of perception) behind which were more doors.
Of course the story lines were all parallel -- it was even an anthology, with each story mirroring the next (bringing to mind that memorable scene when Roger, under the influence, is looking in the mirror and told to look away) ... the themes of male-female entanglement, and disentangle (and yes, hair, once again is a predominant metaphor.)
The themes of travel ... of being a stranger in a strange land ... of life on Mars, or in Plattsburgh ... of alienation, pursuit, and of a generation born during the Holocaust, amid the Holocaust ... and food.
Has any episode of "Mad Men" ever more luxuriated in food before? (Many have but not quite like this.)
There was a lot going on last night and the temptation is to overthink it, but that's probably a bad temptation, and one of the problems (or at least challenges) of "Mad Men" this season -- this complex layered system of storytelling that insists on some deep intellectual response on the part of the viewer, due to the profusion of symbols and references. That's fine except:
A.) That's not how we typically watch TV is it? and B.) after chasing the rabbit down this rabbit hole all you're left with are more rabbits and holes down which to chase them. "Lost" played the same game with viewers, and was eventually forced to admit that most of the rabbit holes were dead ends.
It can all be a bit precious, too -- last night's complex interplay of colors, and acid dream sequences, and the notion of strangers in a strange land tended to make you think about the theme of what was happening instead of what was actually happening.
A good episode? Sure -- but a difficult one, more heavily freighted with symbolism than actual plot. Some thoughts and impressions, in no particular order.
-- Peggy and the beans. Peggy channels Don, sexually, stylistically. She even passes out on a couch, and how many of those have Don passed out on? After a fight with Abe, Peggy is enjoined to have a lousy day, and she proceeds to have exactly that and then some. She gets in the face of Mr. Beans -- tells him he is a word man, and knows only the word "no," then gets fired off the account. Drinks ensue, a chance sexual encounter in a darkened theater, and much more.
And -- idol thought -- why beans? Couldn't the agency have landed the ketchup account or at least relish... Beans? Beans are funnier than relish, I suppose.
-- Roger, tripping. Let's dash through the LSD trip and go straight to the bathroom scene -- although perhaps instrumental to note that in 1966, the use of LSD as a psychotherapeutic tool, while pretty far out there, wasn't a criminal act by any means, and in some instances considered a viable and even valuable exercise. (Note Roger's flippant referral to "Leary" -- who a year later would become a counterculture king of the "Turn on, tune in, drop out" generation.)
Roger and Jane in a bathtub, and Roger has his own fevered dream of the 1919 World Series. Let's play with this a bit -- why a corrupted World Series and why Roger's evident delight in visiting? Simple -- rather than the corruption of the American dream, the idea of time travel.
This episode twists time in a whole variety of ways, most notably with parallel story lines that happen simultaneously but seem to happen sequentially. But Roger doesn’t see the corruption -- he sees the reality of the moment. He's there, in Chicago ... right there, at that very moment. That's Roger's trip ... as well as a trip to enlightenment. Jane on acid? She sees something funny happen to her arm; Roger on acid? He sees the entire truth of their marriage, which is to say, he sees the entire lie of it.
-- "The Naked Prey." A Cornel Wilde film from 1966, about a man on safari in Africa who disses a local tribe and must pay the consequences. But why this film? The idea of pursuit ... far away places ... and of course alienation. Consider that both Roger and Don were also stripped naked, figuratively speaking, with diametrically opposing reactions; Roger became empathetic, enlightened; Don became regressive infantile, to the point of getting on his knees before Megan. Their relationships are identical -- both cast off the old wife for the new, in each case a secretary. The end of Roger's foreshadows the end of Don's -- he just doesn't quite know it yet. [Meanwhile, one of my smart readers tells me the movie may have been "Born Free" instead of "The Naked Prey;" hey, what about a double feature?]
-- Howard Johnson. Once there were hundreds of HoJo restaurants, now only a handful, and a couple in upstate New York, where Don and Megan decamped. That orange Day-Glo roof was a highway fixture of yore, as ubiquitous as the Golden arches themselves, but to Don it was as exotic destination, a strange orange antiparadise, with a boat in a parking lot, a pool closed for some mysterious reason, an endless assortment of ice creams, a manager with an unpronounceable name.
This Hojo's sequence was a wonderful bit -- a "Mad Men" high point that captured the spirit of this great series in almost every particular, but best -- I think -- with that boat in the parking lot. High and dry, it was just there, stranded like Don, a stranger in a very strange land.