Mad Men, Season 5, Episode 6: Far Away Places
What a peculiar episode that was, formally rather different from what we’ve come to expect from the show (although it most closely resembles Season 3’s “The Fog”), but a few hours on from having seen it, I still can’t quite shake it. Told in three vignettes, all taking place over the course of one day, we begin with Peggy in an argument with Abe, unable to balance her work concerns with her home life. At the office, Don and Megan take off, leaving Peggy to do the Heinz pitch solo. Her work is typically evocative, but when the client resists – deeming adolescents incapable of nostalgia – she makes a fairly typical Draper move by insisting, rather forcefully, that they don’t know what they’re talking about. It backfires, and after being taken off the account, Peggy retires to a movie theatre where, whilst watching Born Free (!) she gives a stranger a hand job after passing a toke back and forth. Back at SCDP, Ginsberg’s heartbreaking origin story snaps her back to herself, and she rings Abe to ask him to come over. The episode then zips back to Roger’s arrival at the office, where a failed attempt at an alcohol-soaked day with Don fades out into an initially stilted dinner party with Jane’s friends. They drop LSD, and rather than having its characters engage in crazy shenanigans around the city, it allows both Jane and Roger to arrive at the sad truth that they no longer love each other, and that the marriage is over. Don also has a sort of epiphany, as his trip with Megan to a motorway lodge ends in an argument about his desire to exert control at all times. When she, in a fit of exasperation, brings up his mother, Don drives off, only to return to find her missing. Many hours later, he discovers her at home, and after kicking in the door and chasing her around the apartment, is brought to his knees by Megan’s observation that “every time we fight, it diminishes this a little bit.” The next day, Bert Cooper admonishes him for leaving others to do his job for him. “Far Away Places” ends with Don looking out at his co-workers from behind a glass door, a piece of overt symbolism that is perhaps a step too far, but is nevertheless a neat summing up of what has taken place over the previous day.
What’s particularly impressive about “Far Away Places” is how it evokes time slipping away. Peggy, Don and Roger each have, to quote Roger, “shitty” days that seem to carry on interminably. Peggy falls asleep on Don’s coach in the afternoon only to wake in darkness. Megan vanishes sometime shortly after lunch, and Don’s search through the gaudily-coloured restaurant slides into the early hours of the morning without him even seeming to realise. Roger’s drug trip takes him on a similarly elliptical route, back to the 1919 World Series that he sees in his bathroom, to memories of a happier time with Jane, and full circle to the present and the couple’s realisation that their marriage is over. Each of these characters has reached a point in their lives where time has seemed to run away from them, and this is less about a counterculture leaving these people behind, and more to do with the sudden realisation that they’re not who they thought you wanted to be anymore. Like Pete last week, Peggy’s superficial resemblance to the Don of seasons past is striking. Her pitch, which plays on nostalgia just as the Carousel pitch did in Season 1, and the angry retort that the client doesn’t know what he wants, were Draper moves through and through, as was the furtive trip to the cinema and her liaison with a stranger (note that she takes control sexually here). Peggy has always been a character starved of real companionship, her moments of connection among the most touching the show has ever produced, either with Don in “The Suitcase,” or, briefly, Joan in “Tomorrowland.” So it’s appropriate that it’s the tentative beginning of a potential new friendship with Ginsberg that pulls Peggy back from the brink here and forces her to reassess her relationship with Abe. If Peggy is able to pull things back, the same isn’t necessarily true of Don, who here repeats old mistakes in more troubling, violent ways. His need to dominate, implicit in his relationship to Betty, is both questioned and loudly rejected by Megan, a woman whose modern ways the show has been at pains to stress at every available opportunity. When Don drags her away for the afternoon, she feels that she has let her team down, and she’s irked by his insistence that she like what he likes (in this case a sherbet ice cream). It’s not just that Don isn’t moving with the times – as “Signal 30” proved, Don still has pulling power with both men and women – but that he is a bully. His reaction to Bert’s calling card at the end of the episode – “What the hell is this?” – is proof yet again of his sense of entitlement, of how used he is to not being questioned. He softens here after both Megan and Bert point out what he’s been eager to resist all season, that his “love leave” (both in terms of the time he’s spending away from work, and his idealised notion of Megan as a modern woman who is also subservient to his needs) points to something flawed and unpleasant in his character. If Season 4 saw Don Draper learn to open himself up after three long seasons of closing himself down, Season 5’s focus appears to be realising the depths of his own frailty and reassessing a future that’s suddenly not looking quite so rosy anymore.