Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"Mad Men" Review: "Far Away Places" (Season 5 Episode 6) - "You always say I never take you anywhere...”

Jessica Parè and Jon Hamm as Megan and Don Draper on "Mad Men"

As explained in this post, I’ve made a brief pilgrimage to California to see Bruce Springsteen in San Jose, which is why I didn’t get around to this fantastic episode of Mad Men last night.  But I had some free time this evening, so I bought the episode on iTunes and decided to write a review….only to discover that this was the worst week in the history of the series to skip an episode.  Seriously.  “Far Away Places” is such a wonderfully dense piece of television that I could write my college thesis on it; pumping out a review while on vacation?  Not exactly the ideal conditions to write about this particular hour.

But I’ll give it a go, and hopefully this review lives up to the polished standards I’ve tried setting for myself.  Let’s take an in-depth look at the season’s sixth hour, “Far Away Places,” and as always, this review contains heavy spoilers to give the hour a proper analysis, so don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode.

Spoilers for “Far Away Places” after the jump….

“The fire is primal. These kids, they all come there alone, and gathered in a circle they suddenly feel included. They're safe from whatever is out there, in the night, in the darkness…” – Peggy

No matter what it’s about – be it Heinz beans or something equally ridiculous – never ignore an ad pitch on Mad Men, especially in an episode like this one; they are often the key to interpreting the hour, and even given the experimental nature of the episode, “Far Away Places” is no exception. 

What is the force that haunts us in the darkness?  It isn’t just the absence of light, but a lack of understanding, an area devoid of clarity.  On a personal scale, it is a place inside ourselves that doesn’t make sense, an inner realm filled with truths we’re vaguely aware and possibly frightened of but can’t manage to shine light on; so we ignore them, and we let them fester, gaining power until they find opportunity to consume us.  Meanwhile, we move for the fire.  As Peggy said, it’s primal, a place we are instinctively drawn to and feel safe.  The fire can be anything that keeps us from confronting the darkness: for the kids in the story, it’s the company of others; for Don Draper, it’s his new wife; for Peggy, it’s her work; for Roger, it’s drinking, pretty women, and general debauchery.  In any circumstance, they are instinctual habits or pleasures that put a buffer between oneself and the darkness.  But a fire can’t burn forever, and when it goes out, we have to confront the darkness, within or without, if only for a little while. 

In “Far Away Places,” the fire goes out for Peggy, Don, and Roger; the buffer disappears, and the resulting disorientation forces each character to encounter their innermost darkness, issues we’ve seen these people grappling with throughout the season.  To create a similar feeling of disconnect, tension, and introspection in the viewer, writers Semi Chellas and Matthew Weiner and director Scott Hornbacher have crafted the single most stylistically experimental episode in the history of Mad Men.  The hour plays with time, aesthetics, sound, pace, and even dialogue in unexpected and challenging ways, all executed with the grace and precision of a Stanley Kubrick film to create an episode that is as unsettling as it is unforgettable.

Elizabeth Moss as Peggy Olson on "Mad Men"
The hour starts out on relatively sane ground, with a stressed Peggy preparing to give one of the biggest pitches of her career to Heinz.  As expected, she hits it out of the park, delivering what may be her equivalent to Don’s brilliant “wheel” pitch from season one.  But just as Peggy and the viewer expect events to go one way – an eager client praising all involved, perhaps – they take a sharp left turn, with Heinz being inexplicably dissatisfied by the presentation.  It’s happened before to Peggy, and with increasing frequency this season, but not on a pitch this big or this good, and it’s the final straw that extinguishes Peggy’s fire.  Internal confidence in and external praise for Peggy’s abilities are the buffers that keep her from confronting her own insecurities and frustrations about life at SCDP, but in that moment, the buffer evaporates.  Plunged into darkness, she enters a strange, sad spiral of bad behavior, beginning with her awe-inspiring tirade against the client. 

It’s one of Elizabeth Moss’ most invigorating, breathtakingly cathartic moments on the show – high praise given that Peggy earns more awesome acts of triumph and applause worthy one-liners than any other character – but it’s also a difficult, heartbreaking sequence to watch.  She can’t possibly strengthen the account by chewing out the client like that, and if she’s worried about the precarious position of her career, sabotaging relations with Heinz isn’t going to help.  But the client’s actions added so much fuel to every one of the many insecurities we’ve seen Peggy dealing with this season that she succumbs to her fears; the fire goes out, she’s lost in the darkness, and the rest of her decisions - whether it’s raptly listening to Ginsberg explain his Martian heritage or giving a handjob to a stranger – are attempts to make sense of the disconnect she feels with her own existence. 

The lure she finds in Ginsberg’s story is self-explanatory; she’s lucid and relaxed from the marijuana, of course, but more importantly, sees herself in his words.  Being from Mars, Ginsberg can’t find any others like him, and when Peggy is relaxed enough to admit it to herself, she feels similarly foreign to those around her.  It’s the same thing Peggy admitted to Dawn earlier this season, but hearing that sentiment from someone else lends it greater credence, pushing Peggy closer to actually considering what such feelings mean and how she should deal with them.  Given how clear it’s becoming that others at the office – Cooper in particular – are uncomfortable with Peggy’s gender, and that Ginsberg (if he’s not clinically insane) could be a viable contender for her job, Peggy probably should be worried about her position, and this dialogue prompts her to contemplate the unstable foundations of her life. 

After all, work is everything to Peggy, much to the detriment of her often-dysfunctional social life.  Abe seems to be another poor choice of boyfriend – interested in sex above all else and frustrated because Peggy’s busy schedule reduces his pleasure – but Peggy is too devoted to the firm to take notice of what she’s gotten herself into.  But with her usual buffer of confidence gone, Peggy seems to realize this as well, and rebels by going to the movie Abe wanted to take her to alone, getting stoned, and giving a handjob to a stranger with the kind of passion and spontaneity Abe desired earlier.  It’s a pointed act of defiance, and though it hints at a renewed level of awareness for Peggy, she sadly retreats to her usual buffers, going back to work and calling Abe to tell him “I always need you.”  Peggy’s ‘fire,’ as it were, is built on these sorts of deeply ingrained platitudes, and they aren’t so easily tackled. 

Jane and Roger Sterling on "Mad Men"
She may wish to try LSD in the future, because it works miracles for Roger, a character with significantly more psychological barriers standing in the way of true self-awareness.  We’ve spent a good chunk of time dealing with Roger’s many flaws this season, and seen what lengths he’ll reach to stop himself from confronting those issues.  But the LSD he takes with Jane tears away every pretension, and this is where the hour gets thematically explicit; Roger starts his trip by ‘hearing the music’ (metaphorically for the first time), is robbed of his cigarette (a key tool of his casually flippant, dismissive nature), sees his hair split black and white in his reflection (representing numerous internal dichotomies, from the struggle between old and young to any conflicting set of desires, of which Roger has many), and finally watches himself dance with Jane (clearly signifying the separation from the ‘self’ Roger needs to find clarity – if he can’t look at life objectively like this, he’ll never make it better).

Once Roger reaches that moment of clarity, he and Jane have the single most open, honest, and insightfully wandering conversation of their married life, coming clean about their fears, hopes, and suppressed desires.  It’s a magnificent piece of writing, dense with layered, simple phrases like “I knew that, but I didn't know it,” and the scene quickly becomes hypnotic.  Roger and Jane decide to call it quits – though Jane doesn’t remember it in the morning, and one has to wonder how much of their conversation actually took place – but instead of coming to this conclusion through a messy, drawn-out fight (the kind these two often partake in) the moment is treated as if Roger has, for the first time in his life, seen the light.  Unlike Peggy, who seems to be returning to normal by the time her story ends, Roger continues to act enlightened throughout the hour.  He’s got a lot left to work through, but for one evening at least, Roger tore down his barriers, saw with eyes unclouded, and finally told the truth to himself.  For a man who has largely predicated his existence on lies, the feeling is glorious. 

The same can’t be said for Don, who has spent much of the season thinking he found the answers to all his problems in Megan.  He’s been happier and more content than we’ve ever seen him before, and though there have been hints of discomfort beneath the surface, for the most part, we entered “Far Away Places” without any reason to be worried about the state of Don’s mental health.  By the end, however, it became clear that Megan isn’t so much a partner as a buffer, Don’s own personal ‘fire’ he runs to for primal comfort, a shelter from horrors internal and external. 

If their marriage were a true partnership, Megan wouldn’t react so strongly to Don’s actions at the Howard Johnson.  Their first few scenes together do a wonderful job showing just how happy Don is in this relationship, to the point where he’s stopped caring about work (Peggy really could have used Don’s help in the Heinz pitch) and just assumes his wife is equally laid back and content.  Even before their very public argument, it’s clear that Megan is simply operating on a separate wavelength; she isn’t as happy as Don, isn’t as excited about ditching work to spend time together, and isn’t appreciative of how he always commands their interactions.  These two are operating on separate wavelengths, and the way their fight spirals out of control demonstrates how much more serious this is than a minor squabble. 

When Megan leaves, Don and the audience both realize how crucial she is to Don’s current happiness; without her by his side, that mood completely disappears, replaced by anxiety, doubt, fear, and drinking.  In short, Don reverts to the mess he was in season four, and that’s a very precarious position for Don to be in at the moment; he can’t put this much stock in one person, no matter who she is, and the childlike way he embraces Megan at the end, as though she is his mother and primary source of safety, is positively unsettling (even though it comes on the heels of their chase through the apartment, a profoundly disturbing scene in its own right).  For Don, this isn’t a two-way relationship; she makes him feel comforted and happy, which is everything he needs at the moment, so Don hasn’t given any thought to what he gives to her.  And because Megan takes him back and doesn’t press the issue any further, Don doesn’t learn from the experience.  He had one night of disorientation without Megan, found her, and feels happy again, assuming she’ll always be there to keep his mind healthy.

But like the fire in Peggy’s pitch, such warm, primal shelter won’t last forever.  The flame has to burn out sometime, and as “Far Away Places” proved, few of our characters are equipped to deal with what happens next.  In an all-around different and daring episode of Mad Men, the biggest surprise may be that by the end, it’s Roger who has the best shot of facing his demons.  

Speaking of the episode’s experimental style, it is perhaps worth noting that I got through 2000 words of analysis without delving into the hour’s aesthetics, and I’m sure some viewers will feel that they gained little from such formal departures.  But that’s exactly what I loved about “Far Away Places:” it plays with style and conventions in subtle ways, even at its wackiest, preferring to affect the viewer subconsciously rather than obviously.  That’s why I made the Kubrick connection earlier; when Kubrick unsettled the audience, it was often because some element of the scene felt ‘off’ and one couldn’t quite put their finger on what it was.  “Far Away Places” does the same thing, even in the relatively stable or normal scenes before each character’s story gets wacky.  The way it’s written and directed often suggests disorientation without outright lunging for it, creating a casual sense of tension or discomfort in the viewer.  Even the largest stylistic experiments, such as the wildly out-of-order storytelling, only rarely draws attention to itself; Hornbacher doesn’t use dramatic visual signifiers to tell us when we are, and instead jumps around thematically, as the mind would when using drugs. 

The end result is that we, the viewer, become relaxed, objective, and thoughtful in ways we might not be during a normal episode, and that mindset is absolutely crucial to interpreting each story the way it’s intended to be read.  Thinking like the characters draws us further into their world, making for a unique experience that underlines the messages of the piece.  “Far Away Places” is sure to be divisive among fans, but I personally think it’s one of the best Mad Men episodes ever – the third time in a row I’ve typed those words this season – and like the best hours, I can’t wait to spend more time with it and see how my reaction evolves. 

Mad Men is on one hell of a hot streak this year, and given how much introspection has already taken place six hours in, one can only imagine what devastating turns Weiner is setting these charters up for. 
  
Come back next Sunday night for my review of
Episode 7, “At the Codfish Ball”

“Mad Men” reviews will go up every Sunday night an hour or two after the episode airs,
Right here on www.jonathanlack.com

3 comments:

  1. Brilliant write up of a brilliant episode... my first thoughts were that it was one of the most sophisticatedly written episodes yet. Can't wait for more.

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  2. Thank you! I absolutely agree about the writing. It was sublime. Sunday can't come fast enough.

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  3. Move over James Wolcott, there's an incisive, more serious critic of Mad Men online...excellent review as usual...change is what the 60's were all about, especially in urban areas. Nobody escaped the dynamism; Mad Men's writers and producers cannily portray personal upheavals in light of unprecendented societal change. This is NOT dramatic license; it really happened. Adult men and women who survived the Depression, WWII, Korea and followed the rules, now had the rug pulled out from them. Events shook loose everthing they believed in and counted on. It was a bad time to turn 40.

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