Smart Mad Men Recap: S7E5, “The Runaways”

SPOILER ALERT: A teeny bit of blood goes a long way on Mad Men.

AMC's Mad Men

“A belated Valentine’s Day present! xoxo” – Ginsberg

Everything you need to know about this episode of Mad Men can be summed up by the look on Don Draper’s face as his wife leans in to kiss another woman. Or maybe it’s the look on Jim Cutler’s face when Don marches into a meeting with Commander Cigarettes he wasn’t supposed to know about. Or poor Peggy, reacting with horror and revulsion to what is surely this show’s most disturbing twist. It’s the same face I wore for the majority of “The Runaways,” a face perhaps best described as:

The fuck??

Maybe it isn’t such a bad thing after all having Mad Men’s final season broken into two half-seasons. It forces Matt Weiner and his team to say everything they’d like to say in a cohesive – even spectacular – way. “The Runaways” was by no means their best episode, but it sure was impressive in its sheer WTF-ery. Between the jumpy editing and the intangible rising tension paralleling Michael Ginsberg’s mental illness, the show covered a lot of ground and distilled the chaos of the late 60’s into shocking and uncomfortable human moments – far better, I might add, than last season’s attempt to do so in the drug-addled episode “The Crash.”

We’ve seen signs of Ginsberg’s iffy mental health before, but boy, have they been few and far between. Were it not for Ben Feldman’s idiosyncratic performance, always toeing the line between eccentric neurotic and off-the-deep-end-bonkers, his decline may have felt unsubstantiated and sudden. It’s hard to forget his forlorn speech about being born in a concentration camp, his minor panic attacks, or his assertion in season five that he’s a Martian.

An ominously humming contraption like that IBM machine may not be enough to set someone off so completely, but Ginsberg’s unraveling built nicely throughout while still managing to deliver a shocking conclusion. There’s something about seeing Sally’s beautiful face mangled that signals a flash of horror later on (I was tempted to include a picture of that cute lil’ nipple in this recap, but then people would stop reading). The entire sequence is capped with a brilliant shot of Peggy, red-eyed and distraught, looking at the infernal computer with what can only be described as hatred.

The overt Stanley Kubrick reference, too, feels satisfying when we later learn Ginsberg may not have been hallucinating. Lou Avery really is Mad Men’s villain. Together he and Jim Cutler are little more than Pinky and the Brain, but I kind of love that Mad Men so clearly has an unlikeable, capital V-villain right now – in powder blue cardigans and grandpa glasses, no less. In that very getup Lou COMPLETELY LOSES IT during a pitch meeting after overhearing Stan make fun of his cartooning “dream” (Lou: “flag-burning snots!” Stan: “#sorrynotsorry” Don: “lol” Peggy: “wtf”) and then takes it all out on Don because he can. When Don proposes they all go home instead of being needlessly punished, Lou asks him if that’s what he would do. “No, Lou,” says Don. “I’d let you go.” How’s that for honesty, bitch?

Meanwhile, Stephanie’s back, and seems to have fallen prey to Matt Weiner’s broad condemnation of hippie culture. A former Berkeley student is suddenly dirty and unsure of how far along she is in her pregnancy? Must be another symbol of the pointlessness of the counterculture! Caity Lotz is a rather luminous actor and has some nice moments in her ambiguous scene with Jessica Paré, but she can’t do much here behind the literal and figurative grime Weiner, co-writer David Iserson, and director Christopher Manley have smeared on her. Besides, I’m more interested in Megan and her apparent determination to spice up her marriage.

Look, I’m not speaking from experience or anything… but threesomes are confusing. They’re political and bewildering and messy in a weirdly intoxicating way. The look on Don’s face says it all, and when he has trouble making eye contact with his wife the next morning, she reacts with dismay. What’s Megan’s deal? It was strange when she and Stephanie called each other “beautiful” and “truly magnetic” within moments of meeting, but I didn’t see that as an indicator of Megan’s bi-curiosity. At the end of the episode she seems frustrated, but more in relation to Don’s evasiveness than her friend Amy’s. Cheer up, girl. Your party was “out of sight.”

Don, who’s allergic to grooviness, unexpectedly takes Harry Crane out for a drink when Harry Crane shows up at Megan’s house. Their scene, in which Harry Crane reveals Don is being actively coerced out of the agency, frankly doesn’t make sense in either its setup or execution. This season’s done such a great job of honoring these characters’ histories in subtle and credible ways, so this impromptu trip to the bar – in which these men acknowledge their resentments but don’t work them out – felt both clunky and hard to swallow. The plotting became plodding; it’s a pretty huge leap for Harry Crane to betray his bosses like that, and clichés like “Guys like us, we’ve got to look out for each other” don’t quite bridge that gap. “We go back a long way, don’t we?” Please.

But maybe Harry Crane’s just yearning for the days of yore, when Don’s identity as an ad man constituted clear-cut authority. We see a glimpse of that man when Don swaggers into the meeting with Phillip Morris, dick (Whitman) swinging. For the most part, though, shit continues to hit the fan. This episode was served with an extra helping of crazysauce, capturing the chaos left in the wake of a decade that demolished all the rules. Everything, from Margaret’s name to Ginsberg’s sanity to Sally’s nose, is in flux right now, and Don’s questionable position at the agency continues to represent this entire era’s free fall.

Stray thoughts:

  • What the hell is Betty suddenly talking about politics for, and why is this power couple so out of sync? Henry (whose dinner blazer I crave desperately) was visibly uncomfortable watching Betty wade into those waters – how is this the first time their respective opinions about Vietnam have come up, ever? The Francis family is a shouty mess right now – Henry has to break up a blistering fight between Betty and Sally by screaming “Girls!” – but Bobby sneaking into his beloved sister’s room was poignant and sweet.
  • Shirley’s skirts are becoming absurdly short. And absurdly fabulous.
  • The guy’s schizophrenic, but there ain’t nothing strange about Ginsberg being riveted by Stan’s shoulders. Have you seen them? Mmmmm.
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