Season Seven, Episode Five (“The Runaways”): A very disjointed episode of Mad Men. Don Draper is marginal to most of its action; two watchable characters (Roger Sterling and Joan Harris) are absent from it entirely; and we endure two eruptions of gratuitous weirdness, one in the form of kinky sex, the other in the form of sexualized mutilation. Altogether, we find the story de-centered and distinctly schizoid.
De-centered and schizoid, and yet distinctly worth following. Megan Draper, shown here engaging in desperate and repulsive behavior, appears to be on her way out of Don’s lifeand ours. At her house in L.A., she throws a party for her acting class, all purple haze and sitars. With Don standing by in a plaid blazer, feeling as square as he looks (very), Megan appropriates a young guy and dances with him, like a filthy little exhibitionistin a scene that the entire Internet recognized as a bitter reprise of her water-cooler moment (“Zou Bisou Bisou”) from Season Five. In that earlier episode, she strove to please Don on his birthday by making him the envied center of attention with an impromptu cabaret show. Here, she seeks to marginalize and provoke himpresumably in order to strike a spark in her failing marriage. But Don is unsparked. The echo of “Zou Bisou Bisou” recalls a better time for Megan’s marriage, and for her character.
After the party, more desperation: Megan and her friend Amy detain Don for a threesome. This shocking! development (by now a cable-drama cliché) struck many viewers as weird in a stale way. What strikes me is this: The suddenly-sapphic turn in Megan’s character, observable at several points during this episode, is the sort of thing that cable writers seem to do with boring characters just before jettisoning them. Elisabeth Röhm’s 2005 exit from Law & Order is a fine example. After four seasons of fan complaints about her bland blondness, Röhm’s prosecuting attorney got fired by Fred Thompson’s D.A. Before the fade to black, she asked the question that had been on nobody’s mind: “Is this because I’m a lesbian?” (What?) This “twist” bespoke desperation on the part of the writerswho, having failed to make her character interesting in the present tense, sought to do it retrospectively. (Lesbianism is interesting, right?) If the pattern holds, then Megan’s weirdness, in its staleness, may portend her departure ahead of the final half-season. We can hope.
Meanwhile, Betty Draper Francis continues to be more interesting than anyone will give her credit for. It turns out that she has policy opinions, foreign and domestic. She views the anti-war movement as symptomatic of a general rebellion against legitimate authority, and she anticipates adverse consequences at home and abroad. And she says so, in front of her liberal neighbors. Republican politico Henry Francis (who was for the war before he was against it) is mortified by this evidence of sentience on the part of his decorative wife. He admonishes her: “Leave the thinking to me!”
Be it said that White Male Sin (here, Henry’s autocratic condescension) never brings out the best in the Mad Men writers’ room. But we can delight in this irony of Betty’s character development: Once the hollow housewife of Betty Friedan’s nightmares, now Betty Draper Francis is rebelling against patriarchyand the self she chooses to assert happens to be staunchly right-wing. Granted, the writers talk down to her almost as badly as Henry does; they have made her defend herself in words (“I’m smart. I speak Italian”) that were bound to light up Twitter with derision. And yet, as a character, Betty continues to overperform. She argues here that she is worth paying attention to (“Guess whatI think all by myself”), and we should pay attention when she says so.
Now then, poor Michael Ginsberg. Last week I defended his prophetic taste in mid-century modern furniture; this week his gift of prophecy shows its downside. As he says to Peggy Olson in his first scene: “What am I, Cassandra?” Meaning: “Why does everyone look at me like I’m crazy when I speak prophetic truths about this office computer (to wit, that it ‘makes men do unnatural things’ and has a plan ‘to turn us all homo’)?” Ginsberg’s previous eccentricities could be defended, with reference perhaps to Cassandra, as cryptic expressions of genuine insights. This week, alas, not so much.
Briefly, then: Ginsberg, in flight from the computer and from Stan Rizzo’s manly shoulders, visits Peggy late at night with an urgent request: “Peggy, we gotta reproduce. If there was a way to do it without having sex, I’d do it.” (Ginsberg, as he confessed last season, is a virgin.) Rebuffed by Peggy, Ginsberg regroupsand approaches her in the office the next day, apparently calm (“I’m myself again”) and bearing a gift. Think Van Gogh, only farther south.
With “I’m myself again,” the writers call back to a Season-Six episode (“The Crash”) during which the entire SC&P workforce put itself under the influence of drugs and/or alcoholthe one exception being Ginsberg. While the other copywriters exchanged quotes from Alice in Wonderland (“I’m not myself, you see.” “I don’t see”), Ginsberg, trying to get some work done, became exasperated: “I’m surrounded by lunatics” and “I’m the only person in the Time-Life Building who’s not out of his mind.” So, Ginsberg as Cassandra? Perhaps the “crazy” man is really the only sane man in the building. The suggestion is pertinent historically, since Mad Men has spanned the rise of the anti-psychiatric movement. It also helps to justify Ginsberg’s doomsaying cry to his coworkers as he exits SC&P on a gurney: “Get out while you can!”
It is a moment that could use a justification, since on its own it is fairly hackneyed. Critics have remarked that Ginsberg’s exit would have been more compelling if the character had been given more screen-time this season, instead of being called in sporadically to deliver the odd scatological joke. But this is nothing new: Ginsberg has long been underutilized. Since his arrival in Season Five, there has always been the promise of something exciting in his mash-up of eccentricity with genuine insightin particular, insight into womenbut that promise has never quite been delivered on.
Recall his Season-Five “Cinderella” pitch for Butler Footwear, which turned on a spookily brilliant psychological explication of the fairy tale: “She’s running down this dark side-street . . . and she’s only got this one incredible shoe for her incredible gown, so she’s hobblingwounded prey. And she’s scared. . . . [But] I guess we know, in the end, she wants to be caught.” (Butler Footwear exec: “I have to tell you, young man, you really know women.”) Crucially, Ginsberg’s insight into women has seemed related to his lack of attraction to them. During a late night at the office in Season Five, he puzzled the other male copywriters by turning his back on a tabletop burlesque performed by Megan’s slutty friendabsorbed as he was in the sight of Megan, then a purer picture of youth and freedom, dropping in on Don. (He mused: “She just comes and goes as she pleases, huh?”) Ginsberg has been able to produce his offbeat perceptionshas been “lightning in a bottle,” as Ted Chaough once saidbecause with respect to women, he has been curious and admiring, rather than desiring.
All of Ginsberg’s winning moments came in Season Five. Season Six kept him busy with a series of meltdowns, and Season Seven has displayed the total degeneration of his affinity with the fair sex. Ginsberg’s greatest hits in Episodes One through Four were chauvinistic jokes at Peggy’s expenseone about masturbation, the other about his superior performance on the Playtex account. I passed over these moments in puzzled silence, because I had taken Ginsberg to be the least likely man at SC&P to behave so crudely toward a woman. Now I take it we are to understand these jokes as symptomatic of his psychological decline, and perhaps as compensation for his increasingly exigent gayness.
And suddenly his gayness seems the key to everything. Presumably we are to reconstruct his affinity with women as an effect of his homosexuality. And, on a hoary psychoanalytic note, we recall that Freud explained paranoia, such as afflicts Ginsberg regarding the computer, as a result of repressed homosexual panic. Etc., etc.as if the writers thought that Ginsberg had not been interesting enough in the present tense, and sought to make him interesting retrospectively. (Gayness is interesting, right?) I will miss Ginsberg, but I have been missing him for some time, ever since the writers got bored with him.
Finally, Donthe de-centered center. Throughout this episode, Don is uncharacteristically out-of-action, and his marginality helps to fragment the story: We have no hero. Early on, he misses the joke, about Lou Avery’s comic-strip aspirations, that gets Stan and the copywriters into trouble. Later, when Lou torments him with moving deadlines, Don does not take the bait. Then he is a bystander at Megan’s party, neither dancing nor smoking the proffered substances. He ends up a passive (bemused, anyway) participant in the threesome. And crucially, while drinking at a bar with Harry Crane, he finds that he has been out of the loop on the big-tobacco scheme being plotted by Jim Cutler and Loua Machiavellian stratagem intended not only to land a big account, but also to push Don out of SC&P, since Don’s past antics have made him toxic to tobacco companies. (Harry says with regret, “You’ll have to go.”)
At this point, Don looks to have been overtaken by the action. But with four minutes to go in the episode, he goes off-scriptboth the partners’ and the episode’s. Crashing a meeting with the Philip Morris execs, he executes a classic Draperesque display of mastery, proposing his centrality to the campaign in terms that strike a spark for the tobacco men. Going off-script with clients is against the rules! But no consequences seem forthcoming. Out on the street, Don is told by a shellshocked Jim, “You’re incredible” (it is both a compliment and not a compliment)and whistles for a cab.
A comeback, with two episodes to go in the half-season? Note the tilt of his fedora, and gird your loins.