Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Mad Men Season 7, Episode 5: The Runaways (Recap)

Usually, there's a unifying theme in each Mad Men episode, but Ginsberg's breakdown was such a shocking development, it's hard to connect it with Megan's insecurity, Cutler's power play, Lou's pettiness, Henry's exasperation, and Betty's burgeoning independence.  So let's save it for the end.

Don is at peace with his new role at SC&P; he's cordial with Peggy, he's on time with his work, and he's regained enough swagger that the lower-level employees still think of him as management.  He's patched things up with Megan and even gets a call from the past to remind him of the good old days in California and to make him feel needed and important to someone.

In a scene reminiscent of Season One when Kinsey's unpublished play Death is My Client was a source of much humor and ridicule around the office, it turns out that Lou Avery has aspirations of becoming a rich cartoonist and has a bunch of cartoons based around a military-inspired monkey named Scout.  Stan discovers the artwork and lets his mocking of Lou go too far... all the way to Lou's ears.  Lou will not be challenged and he exerts his power by ruining everyone's evening including Don's. Don handles Lou's petulance surprisingly well.  He get in a jape - telling Lou that if it were up to him, Lou wouldn't be there - but he doesn't implode.  He is on his best behavior.

The call from Anna's niece Stephanie brings a smile to Don's face and he's looking forward to a California reunion as soon as he can hop a plane, and he sends her to Megan to wait for him.  But Stephanie is not a welcome guest in Megan's house.  She mentions, twice, how beautiful Stephanie is, but that only shows how threatened she is by the glowing, expectant hippie for whom Don will drop everything.

Megan clearly has trouble handling the shared history Stephanie and Don have and the fact that Stephanie knows the real Dick Whitman.  When Stephanie reminds her that she knows all of Don's secrets, a switch goes off in Megan and she basically buys Stephanie off, getting her out of the house before Don can get there to see her.  Megan tells Stephanie that the money comes with no strings and that is one truthful statement she made.  She wants no strings because she wants Stephanie - and what she represents - out of her and Don's life forever. Then she lies about it to Don.  Megan's lack of confidence in her relationship with Don manifests itself  further by her trying to make Don jealous at her party via some provocative dancing.  When that doesn't work, she pulls out all the stops and invites her friend Amy from Delaware into their bed for the least sexy threesome I've seen on TV.  Desperation, thy name is Megan.

Sally Draper has an accident at school and busts up her nose.  She comes home and instead of a hug and warm cocoa she's given a lecture about damaging the money maker and knowing the value of a good, aquiline nose.  Betty is as shallow as ever, only concerned with Sally's looks.  Sally has been fed up with Betty for some time and her preferring to slink off to be alone was not surprising, but the visit from Bobby was unexpected and sweet  They haven't spent much time together and their age difference and differences in life experiences create a chasm between them.  But when he tells her how he wants to runaway and how the escalating fights between Betty and Henry are giving him an upset stomach, it's a monumental bonding time for the two of them. Instead of hitching a ride back to school to get away from her toxic mother, Sally stays to support her brother.  Awww.

It seems that Henry's frustration level with Betty has hit DEFCON 1.  He was uncharacteristically harsh with her, but understandably. It can't be easy living with a grown woman who refuses to grow up and then the first time she does speak her mind it's to commit the cardinal sin of discussing politics at what was supposed to be a friendly social outing. The other wife followed the rules - "the rumaki is delicious" was her contribution to the discussion - why couldn't Betty play her role as the dutiful spouse.  This is the tension of the time as the old rules are starting to give way and Henry is nothing if not from the old school.  Betty's retort, "I'm not stupid.  I speak Italian." may be one of the greatest Mad Men lines of all time, but it does remind us that she (unlike her husband #1) is a college graduate and maybe had she been born later, or with a mother who didn't focus on looks, she might have been a career woman.  Maybe it's time for the Betty we saw in Shoot - taking matters into her own heavily armed hands - comes back to take control of the rest of her life.
"Well, I'm going to make sure that you're still important. I don't know how.  It's gonna take some thought.  It's gonna take some major brain power. In fact, you might have to figure it out." - Harry Crane to Don Draper
Harry's conversation with Don at the bar.  Halle-effing-lujah. It's easy to forget that Harry was not always insufferable, that once he and Don got along reasonably well and Harry was a smart, hard-working guy who was just trying to get some respect in the office for what he did.  Somehow, he's become the enemy over the years, and computer-gate landed squarely on his shoulders.  Yet, he has always respected Don and the work he does and part of Harry would like to keep Don around.  So he tells Don what he knows - that Cutler and Avery are secretly meeting with Phillip Morris and trying to land that big tobacco account.  Don knows what that means for his future at the firm.  There's no way a tobacco client will hire the firm where the author of "the letter" still works.

Armed with that information, Don hatches a plan.  If he is forced out of the company he started, it won't be because of these yahoos plotting against him behind his back.  He crashes the meeting Cutler and Avery are having with the Phillip Morris execs and offers himself up - he'll quit so they can get the business.  But then comes Don's real pitch and it's one that's been used before.  How much better for them if the author of the letter was forced to apologize and go to work for them?  Wouldn't that make their competitors a little nervous.  Don is trading off his (old) reputation (as a genius) and hoping he's not now known as the sot who was raised in a bordello.  He's hoping the Don Draper name still means something.

Don walks out of the meeting and strides confidently to the street to hail a cab.  Obviously, his appearance at the meeting had some repercussions as he was followed quickly by Cutler and Avery.  They insult him and snarl, but Don doesn't seem at all worried. And he's right not to worry.  They've been planning on getting rid of him since he was brought back.  Things can't keep going the way they are, so he either rides this out until he's fired or shakes things up.  You know what Don says, if you don't like what's being said, change the conversation.  So now he's in charge of what's being said.

There was no reason to be surprised about Michael Ginsberg's mental breakdown.  We've known from early in Season Five that he was a terribly broken young man and, as discussed below in the foreshadowing section, we had ample evidence that he was headed down this road.  It was a very realistic portrait of someone whose mind was wired to be wickedly creative but also to harbor deeply irrational thoughts.

Ginsberg was an important character for Don Draper's arc.  At first, Don was dazzled by his creativity, possibly seeing a bit of himself in Michael's book of ideas.  But there was an uneasy tension and jealousy that revealed some of the worst of Don.  That moment in the elevator where Ginsberg, not out of anything but honesty, says he feels sorry for Don and Don shoots back that he doesn't think of him at all was not only harsh and hurtful, it was a total lie.  Don was threatened by the young copywriter with the inventive ideas, that's why he didn't pitch Ginsberg's idea for Sno-Ball back then.  Don needed to win.  He needed to prove he was sill the alpha male.  But, if it weren't for Ginsberg, Don may have walked out of SC&P never to return.  Ginsberg was the first person to welcome post-meltdown Don back to the firm and to treat him not like a pariah.

Ginsberg has been under-utilized this season and that may be why for some his break from reality seemed - for lack of a better word - crazy.  But it was completely predictable, even if the manner in which he expressed his inner turmoil was startling.

With Ginsberg gone and Ted checked out mentally in California, there is a bit of a brain drain at SC&P.  Whether that bodes well for the most creative of the people left - Don and Peggy - remains to be seen.  Don's tobacco gambit will either work (in which case, there's no need for the second half of Season 7) or he will flame out brilliantly and have to develop a Plan B.  Whatever happens, it's going to be difficult for the firm hiring new employees in the future now that they can add self-mutilation to the list of awful things that have befallen people at the office. 


There were a number of Holocaust references in this episode, which remind us of Ginsberg's origin story.  If we are even to a small part shaped by the story of how we came into this world, no doubt Ginsberg has been marked from day one as a doomed, helpless victim of his time and surroundings.  Born in a concentration camp later found in an orphanage, that identity was sewn into the fabric of his identity.  So we hear him say "That machine came for us. And one by one..." - reminiscent of Martin Niemoller's famous poem ("First they cam for the Socialists...") We have Harry's mention the Cutler-Avery meeting with the tobacco company as the "final solution."  And Wagner's music (Hitler was a big fan) was even played in the background before Henry returned home.

The friend of Megan who was in bed for the threesome was named Amy.  I had my own Mad Men flashback as Megan started seducing Don, despite his protestation, which reminded me of the molestation scene from the whorehouse with Aimee.  I don't know if that was deliberate, but if so I would have expected Don to be more agitated the next morning. 

The song played at the end was Waylon Jenning's "Only Daddy That'll Walk The Line" which was a pretty bad ass way to hint that Don is tired of playing nice.

Ginsberg asks if he's Cassandra (as in, what am I a fortune teller).  Interestingly, Cassandra was cursed with never being believed. Perhaps Ginsberg's final message "get out while you can" should be believed.

Last week I extolled the virtues of Caroline, Roger's secretary.  This week let's pause and appreciate Meredith.  Really loved hearing Don dictate to her: "S-T-R-A-T-E-G-Y. Meredith, honey, I don't want that spelled out, I just want it spelled right."  Her comment last week about her weekend - wouldn't you like to know, her confusing having to change his plane reservation with having to cancel her plans.  She is adorable. As sweet as she is clueless, she's one of the few bright spots remaining at what increasingly is a very negative work environment for everyone. 

There is growing discussion of the rift between the anti-war movement and the old guard who believe favoring pulling out of Vietnam to be disloyal and Un-American.  Lou mentions it when he's calling out Stan for insulting his military-themed comic and the husband at the Francis' (and Betty) mention it as well.  Even with a Republican president pushing for withdrawal, there was a huge divide in the country who thought we should stay and fight and those who thought we should cut our increasingly huge losses.

It's ironic that a major plot point comes with the opportunity SC&P has to get back into the tobacco business (and Harry talks about his media plan) right before tobacco ads would be banned from TV.

Two references to someone tucking Don in.  First, Lou says it in a needling/threatening manner, then Amy in a sexually playful manner.

The scene of Bobby crawling into bed with Sally when he was upset was reminiscent of a scene in Season 2, Episode 2 when Bobby was having trouble sleeping - he thought he saw a ghost - and Betty showed him no compassion, just sent him back to bed.  Don took him upstairs and tucked him in, but later found Bobby sleeping in Sally's bed (where he felt safe).

Another parallel to early in the show was the discussion of Sally's nose.  In Season One, Betty's jittery hands led her to a minor car accident with the kids riding in the back (sans seatbelts as was the norm back then).  Betty panics at what could have happened - what if Sally had suffered a tiny scar.  ON HER FACE.  It was inconceivalbe to Betty that something so horrible could befall a girl - what would Sally do or be if she wasn't beautiful?


Ginsberg:  Stop humming! You're not happy!

Betty: They get so tongue-tied around us.  They can only pretend so long we're just regular neighbors.

Lou: I don't know, Stan. Can you be smug from over there? 

Lou: You know who had a ridiculous dream and people laughed at him?
Stan: You?

Don:  No, I'd let you go, Lou.

Lou: I'm not taking management advice from Don Draper.

Stephanie: I know all of his secrets.
Megan: But you don't know him very well.

Henry: From now on, keep your conversation to how much you hate getting toast crumbs in the butter and leave the thinking to me.

Sally: It's a nose job, not an abortion.

Sally (to Betty):  Don't worry about me finding a man. I already have you to keep me in line.

Bobby:  I have a stomach ache all the time.  

Betty: I'm not stupid.  I speak Italian.

Ginsberg: I'm myself again.

Ginsberg: Get out while you can!

Lou: You're incredible.
Don: Thank you.

Jim: You think this is going to save you, don't you?


Many people thought Ginsberg was comedic fodder, an odd Woody Allen-ish character, but the signs of mental illness were there from his first scene, in Season 5's Tea Leaves.  He tells Peggy that he didn't pick advertising, it picked him.  That's okay, many people might say that about their career.  But then he adds, "I didn't have any control over it." He goes on to tell her that he's a great employee because he has "no hobbies, no interests, no friends.  I'm one of those people who talks back to the radio."  Peggy even says on that first day, "I thought you were crazy when I met you and you have confirmed it."

A few episodes later, in Far Away Places, Ginsberg and Peggy have the follow exchange and you watch as Peggy goes from thinking he's joking to realizing that he's telling her what he believes to be the truth:
"I'm from Mars. It's fine if you don't believe me, but that's where I'm from. I'm a full-blooded Martian. Don't worry, there's no plot to take over Earth. We're just displaced. I can tell you don't believe me. That's okay. We're a big secret. They even tried to hide it from me. That man, my father, told me a story I was born in a concentration camp. But you know that's impossible. And I never met my mother because she conveniently died there. That's convenient. Next thing I know, Morris there finds me in a Swedish orphanage. I was 5; I remembered. And then I got this one communication. A simple order: Stay where you are."
"Are there others like you?"
"I don't know. I haven't been able to find any."
Last year, in A Tale of Two Cities, we find Ginsberg is sitting on the floor of his office, rocking back and forth, in full blown meltdown.  "I'm a thug, I'm a pig, I'm part of the problem!  Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds!"  Then the most telling line, "I can't turn off the transmissions to do harm. They're beaming 'em right into my head."  This is not open for interpretation, these are not the words of a sane man

So why were the signs missed?  Well, back in the mid-60's we weren't as aware of mental health issues as we are today, especially something as complex as schizophrenia.  It wouldn't be until 2001's A Beautiful Mind that a movie shined a light on the disorder and then the cinematic floodgates were open (Donnie Darko and K-Pax came out that year as well). We viewers suspected that there was something seriously wrong with Ginsberg (claiming to be from Mars, complaining about the transmissions, etc.) but it's not surprising that his co-workers thought he was a little "off" but not seriously mentally ill.

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