In This Is 40, comedy sage Judd Apatow’s savvy meditation on the perils of aging and uncoolness, there’s a fun exchange between Sadie, the hormonal teen, and Pete, the once-hip Dad, that captures their generational differences in a nutshell. The teen is hooked on Lost, the smoke monster-filled whodunit, while Pete prefers the subtle nuances of Mad Men, which leads to this cultural impasse:
Pete: “What Don Draper has gone through beats whatever Jack is running from on some fucking island!”
Sadie: “A bunch of people smoking in an office… it’s stupid!”
Like Sadie, Mad Men’s detractors—and there are quite a few, judging by the show’s lagging ratings—always levy the same criticisms against Matthew Weiner’s impeccably stylized drama: nothing ever happens. There are no wheelchair bombs, beheadings, or six-minute oners. And since the WTF quotient is so very low, some see it as, well, masturbatory. Mad Men boasts the most affluent audience on television (excluding pay cable), with 54 percent of its adult viewers aged 25-54 making over $100,000 a year, so a healthy chunk of its audience consists of rich people agonizing over the #firstworldproblems of other rich people.But Mad Men has had its share of big moments. Betty Draper pulling her best Annie Oakley impersonation with her neighbor’s pigeons. Lois running over Guy’s foot with a John Deer lawnmower, spraying blood all over his co-workers. Don getting slapped around by a prostitute. Roger tripping on LSD. Sure, they’re not as out there as a brother raping his sister beside the corpse of their dead incestuous son, and Mad Men is, for the most part, a master class in period atmosphere, mood, and characterization, but every now and again, the show hits you with a left hook that leaves you stumbling for the ropes.
“The Runaways” is one of those episodes.
Let’s get the small stuff out of the way. The fifth episode of the show’s seventh and final season opens on an odd note when Stan (and his marvelous ascot and beard) finds a copy of Scout’s Honor, Lou Avery’s ridiculously puerile comic strip, in the Xerox machine. Ginsberg, meanwhile, is freaked out over SC&P’s IBM 360—its humming taunting him like Tell-Tale’s floorboards—and Stephanie, Anna Draper’s niece whom we last saw in Season 4’s “Tomorrowland,” when Don proposed to Megan with Anna’s ring, has resurfaced as a grimy, heavily pregnant hippie. Megan takes one look into Stephanie’s sparkling blue eyes and, sensing a threat, says, “You are so… beautiful,” to which Stephanie replies, “You are truly… magnetic.” It’s a wonderful display of shade-throwing by the aspiring actress who’s exhibited very keen detection skills when it comes to Don’s former flames (Don, of course, tried to put the moves on coed Stephanie after driving her home from Anna’s on New Year’s Eve ’64). So, jealous Megan cuts the mom-to-be a check and sends her packing—unbeknownst to Don.
Then, Betty screws the pooch by speaking out against Vietnamization in front of Henry’s constituents: “First, the kids start off protesting and the next thing you know, every authority is up for grabs. I mean, if they learned how to support their country, sacrifice in hard times, we’d have the morale to win the war.” Now, I feel for Betty. Yes, she’s a terrible mother, but she’s also a woman with desires who’s constantly stifled by the patriarchy—in the form of alpha males like Don and Henry—and tends to take it out on poor Sally, who represents the possibility and freedom she’ll never have. “Where would Mom be without her perfect nose?” Sally says, reminding her of this very fact. These two know how to push each other’s buttons.
And Betty isn’t really pro-Vietnam, this is merely her way of rebelling against Henry’s suffocating Father Knows Best routine. Later, she gives Henry a real piece of her mind when he comes home in a huff and tells her to move from the kitchen to the living room. “You come in and ask me to move just because you feel like moving. I’m comfortable in here, or I wouldn’t be sitting in here! I’m tired of everyone telling me to shut up. I’m not stupid. I speak Italian.” Hell yeah, Betty. This, coupled with little Bobby’s tale to Sally of witnessing Betty sending Henry to the living room one night with a pillow, may hint at a new, no-bullshit Betty, which would be very fun to see.
Now for big moment numero uno.
Weiner loves juxtaposing Don and Megan’s martial problems with Betty and Henry’s, and “The Runaways” was all about these disparate power struggles.
Megan, lonely, decides to throw a fiesta for all her actor and hippie friends—only Don is there sticking out like a sore thumb in a checkered sports jacket sucking all the good vibes out of the room. A group of said hippies then begin to play “Petite Fleur,” the celebrated instrumental by Chris Barber Jazz Band, and Megan gets down with some random stud in the living room to make Don jealous, as he looks on with relative indifference. The scene is a throwback of sorts to her infamous “Zou Bisou Bisou” moment—there’s just something about French music that gets the French-Canadian all hot and bothered. Don goes out for drinks with Harry and when he returns, Megan and her ginger friend Amy are all sorts of high and horny, so Megan—desperate to bring the spark back in their relationship—decides to initiate a threesome. “Kiss her… I know you want to,” she says. But Don isn’t into this forced naughtiness, so Megan lies him down on the bed and straddles him while Amy takes Don’s hand and moves it up her skirt. Pretty scandalous by Mad Men standards. When Don bails the next day, and Amy awkwardly bounces, Megan is once again left all alone, and frustrated.
The episode’s second “oh wow” moment involves Ginsberg and the IBM 360, whose humming is slowly making him crack up. One evening, he sees Lou and Cutler talking by the computer and comes to a bizarre conclusion: “They’re homos,” he tells Peggy. “That’s the computer’s plan: turn us all homo”—before proving he’s not by forcing himself on her. Later, he propositions Peggy once more, this time in her office. “I realized it was the waves of data… they were filling me up,” he says. “I had to find a release. I removed the pressure, and now it flows through me without affecting me at all.” He hands Peggy a tiny gift box. She opens it, and screams. It’s Ginsberg’s bloody nipple. “It’s my nipple… it’s the valve,” he says. So Peggy calls 911 and gets the loony copywriter sent off to the nuthouse.
Ginsberg’s personal saga of man vs. machine is both a fun bit of foreshadowing to a future when people like him are supplanted by computers, and also another example of a member of their ad firm succumbing to the extreme pressures of the place (see: Lane Pryce).
Side note: It’s funny to see the characters freaking out about an IBM 360 while, during every commercial break, AMC runs promos for their oddly-titled new series Halt and Catch Fire, about the '80s PC boom.
The name “Ginsberg” is also interesting here, since the plight of Mad Men's Ginsberg seems eerily similar to that of Carl Solomon, the protagonist of Allen Ginsberg's “Howl” who finds himself ground to a pulp by “Moloch”—a symbol representing the systems of control in post-WWII America. Ginsberg the ad man beats back against the conformity of the computer and is swallowed whole.
Earlier in the episode, Harry Crane pops up at Megan’s shindig and, over drinks with Don, lets slip that Lou and Cutler’s master plan to oust Don is to land Phillip Morris—which will force Don to leave SC&P, since he penned that incendiary op-ed against the company. Don hijacks Lou and Cutler’s meeting at the Algonquin, saying, “I just keep thinking what your friends at American Tobacco would think if you made me apologize, forced me into your service.”
All season, we’ve encountered a professionally neutered Don, who’s been reduced to Lou’s second-in-command; a member of middle-management who can’t be alone with clients and is contractually obligated to “stick to the script”; someone on the outside looking in. Finally, Don’s gained the upper hand against Mad Men’s version of Randolph and Mortimer. So, in “The Runaways,” Don engages in a half-hearted ménage-a-trois AND outsmarts his frenemies.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Don Draper we know and love is back.