Monday, May 12, 2014

"Mad Men" Review: "The Runaways" (Season 7 Episode 5) - “Stop humming! You’re not happy!”

The seventh and final season of Mad Men continues with its fifth episode, “The Runaways,” and just as always, I have an in-depth review and analysis of the hour for your reading pleasure. To do the episode justice, this review contains spoilers – as always, do not read unless you have seen the episode.

Spoilers for “The Runaways” after the jump...

“The Runaways” is another episode, like last week’s “The Monolith,” where reducing the content to the core, eponymous idea doesn’t necessarily miss the point, but inevitably deemphasizes or ignores the richest substance of the hour. So while it would be easy to read this as an episode full of literal or figurative runaways – Don breaking rank with the agency at the end, Megan breaking trust with Don to alter the course of their relationship, Betty stepping out of line in Henry’s (appallingly sexist) eyes, Sally and Bobby wanting to run away from their dysfunctional parents, and of course, Ginsberg making a firm, possibly permanent break from reality by cutting off his own nipple – I’m not sure it would really be an accurate interpretation, because in one way or another, directly or indirectly, each of those scenarios is that of a person confronting their problems (some more sanely than others). It might be more precise to say that “The Runaways” is an episode about a bunch of characters who feel like society or circumstance is running away from them, and who are running desperately (or, in the case of Betty, treading water haughtily) to keep up.

Case in point: Michael Ginsberg, who emerges from the background here to serve not only as the core source of humor in a very funny hour, but also as the episode’s thematic cipher. As it did last week, the computer continues to serve as a beacon for all sorts of internal anxieties, each of them bottled up in a thoroughly neurotic Ginsberg, so distracted by the hum of the machine (isn’t that a loaded analogy?) that he finally does what he has been threatening to do for years and jumps headfirst off the deep end. Ginsberg has trouble enough making sense of the world on a good day – remember when he told Peggy, back in season 5, that he was an alien from Mars? – but with the computer having completely uprooted his status quo, its hum serving as a constant reminder of how much has changed around the office and how much change there is yet to come, the world starts feeling awfully fluid, as if everything he knows could melt away at any time. The computer will force change, he fears, creating a “pressure in [his] head ... like it’s a hydrogen bomb about to go off.” Combined with all of Ginsberg’s homophobic language here, these are sentiments positively loaded with contemporary anxiety, of changing sexual norms and modern weapons of destruction, ideas that combine, as they always have done for many people, as equating to the ultimate end of everything.

When put in those terms, it’s hardly surprising Ginsberg would go to an extreme like self-mutilation, so it’s a major credit to the episode that the moment plays as such a genuine, horrifying, hilarious shock. Even in minor appearances, Ginsberg has been the show’s comedy MVP all season – most of the quotes in my review headlines have come from him – and up until the fateful scene, “The Runaways” keeps him on that same comic vibe. But the way Ben Feldman plays those scenes, shaking apart in increasingly unexpected rhythms, and especially the way Elisabeth Moss plays off of him – just look at the range of emotions she displays, from bemused to incredulous to furious to worried, as Ginsberg tries to ‘seduce’ her – creates this deeply ingrained manic sensibility that leaves us right inside Peggy’s headspace, mostly sure this is just Ginsberg having an episode, but open to the possibility that something worse might be at play. So when the moment comes – and the entire ‘nipple-in-a-box’ scene is a masterpiece in perfectly calculated timing, of both the comedy and horror varieties – it lands as both a shock and an organic step for Ginsberg to take, the duality of the moment making it deeply disturbing even as it is hard to stop laughing (if only for Peggy’s reaction – Elisabeth Moss has a talent for reaction shots).

That scene is the episode in microcosm – the entire hour has this vibrant, unpredictable energy to it, a simultaneously light and momentous fervor that has always marked Mad Men at its very best, but which has been mostly absent so far this year. The script by David Iserson and Matthew Weiner is positively crackling with terrific, witty, gorgeously constructed dialogue (I jotted down more quotes in my notes than for any other episode this season), and Christopher Manley, who directed the previous best episode of the season, “Field Trip,” again hits it out of the park with a tight, energetic atmosphere. I think the greatest advantage “The Runaways” has is that it services more of the cast at once than any other hour this year; Don is still at the center of things, but the true ensemble quality that felt diluted in recent weeks really felt palpable here, and every performer turned in absolutely stellar work, almost all as a result of getting to bounce off others.

And that’s not just a stylistic strength, either – the core theme of the hour, of characters grasping at increasingly fluid and unfamiliar circumstances, demanded an ensemble quality, because so much of how we define our status quo (and how it changes) comes in how we interact with others. So we get Ginsberg engaging in a desperate, forced two-hander with Peggy (and mutilating himself when she turns him away), Bobby turning to Sally to voice his fears about another parental upheaval (in what is, if I’m not mistaken, the single most significant interaction the two siblings have ever had on the show – and a great scene to boot), and Betty...well, basically just getting haughty at Henry. I like the underlying ideas of Betty’s subplot here, that she’s uncomfortable with how her husband and daughter see her as nothing more than a trophy wife, but when her only reaction to stonewall Henry and get angry at Sally, the entire story seems out of step with the rest of the episode, which is about characters taking more extreme measures. Perhaps that’s a statement in and of itself – that Betty is incapable of taking a big step when she feels lost, which is why she tends to stagnate more than any other character – but I find that thematically unsatisfying both because we know Betty can break away from her status quo if she wants to – this entire life with Henry is a direct reaction to Don’s actions in Seasons 2 and 3 – and because that’s been the thrust of Betty’s narrative since Season 4. There is nothing new being presented here, and while I still think January Jones has an uncanny ability to make Betty’s snippy dialogue sing – the venom in her voice when declaring “I’m not stupid; I speak Italian” was a thing of beauty – the show needs to either give her something new to play, or move on to other characters.

Once again, though, Don’s arc is at the center of things here, and it’s another really strong episode not just for him, but for Megan as well. Don spends most of the episode attempting to balance his loyalties to Anna Draper with his obligations to the agency – the former represented by Anna’s niece, Stephanie, the latter by the far less agreeable Lou Avery – before both responsibilities are torn out from under him. Once Lou decides to take off early, and Megan manipulates Stephanie out of her apartment and back on the road, Don finds himself in a brief spiral of aimlessness, uncoupled from the goal-oriented behavior he’s been exhibiting all season, and largely unaware of (or uncomfortable with) the woman right in front of him – Megan, who should, of course, be one of Don’s responsibilities, were he not too preoccupied to notice how small he makes her feel on his brief, unplanned trip to LA.

“The Runaways” gives us a nice sense of the downside of Don’s self-imposed rehabilitation, of how in his efforts to change, Don has boxed up his various commitments into rigidly defined times and spaces. Work is the responsibility he commits himself to during the week, Megan is the obligation he carves out weekends for on the side, and it seems, at the start of the episode, that such compartmentalization has left him in a relatively stable place, able to focus his energy where it needs to go by maintaining a strict schedule.

Anna Draper, however, belongs to a class of loyalty several rungs above either of these – she is the only person to whom Don has ever shown true, unconditional, selfless love and support – and even in death, Don is ready and willing to upend his careful life organization for her. All it takes is a brief call from Stephanie to get Don planning an impromptu trip out to LA, and the moment he does so, things become complicated. Lou – hilariously awful after Stan uncovers his “Scout’s Honor” cartoon – makes Don stay late, and Megan, in the interim, subtly but forcefully turns Stephanie away. It isn’t that Megan necessarily views Stephanie as a sexual threat, dislikes her, or even distrusts her motivations – it’s just that Megan has never seen Don jump into action that fast for anyone before, let alone Megan herself, and she’s hurt to see such strong evidence that Don still feels more loyalty towards Anna Draper – a dead woman he only loved platonically – than he does her. Just look at Megan’s face when Don gets the call from Stephanie in the kitchen – after over a day of Don being aloof and distant, even after Megan engaged him in a three-way (more on that later), Don lights up and springs into action upon hearing Stephanie’s name, more alive and responsive that Megan could make him feel throughout the entire weekend.

Don is oblivious, of course, not ignoring Megan out of mean-spiritedness, but because this isn’t the weekend he assigned to pay attention to her. We see multiple times during the episode that Don is continuing to try mending his marriage – he promises Megan he’ll return again next weekend, surprised she would ever think otherwise (to his strict life categorization, not doing so would be an affront) – but that his own compartmentalizing inevitably leaves him insensitive and oblivious. And once he learns from Harry that Cutler and Lou are planning to bring in another tobacco company, which would once again leave Don on the outs with the agency(*), everything starts to feel hopelessly in flux.

(*) I suspect many viewers may have missed why a tobacco client would result in Don’s automatic dismissal, given the relevant action occurred all the way back in Season 4, and “The Runaways” makes no explicit effort to catch people up. In short: A major subplot that season was the newly-formed Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency losing Lucky Strike, their biggest client, and as a means of controlling the agency’s image, Don took out a full-page ad in the New York Times decrying Tobacco on moral grounds, spinning the story so it looked like SCDP was ‘getting out’ of the Tobacco business, rather than losing it. The move angered many of the partners – Bert Cooper especially, leading to much of Cooper’s hostility towards Don this season – but ultimately proved effective, even as the consequences of Don’s bold, rogue actions are coming back to bite him more and more this year. Needless to say, no tobacco company would ever want to work with Don Draper again after what he did.

With the world running away from Don, in directions he could not foresee and cannot compartmentalize, his only choice is to break the rules – to “change the conversation,” in Don’s own parlance. Doing nothing would result in automatic termination from the agency once the tobacco account is signed, and while intervening in the way he does here is a major risk – the contract he signed upon his return specifically forbade going off-script in meetings, let alone confronting a client by surprise – he stands to make himself essential to the agency once more. If the tobacco people buy Don’s pitch, offering himself up sacrificially before explaining the many benefits he (and only he) could bring to the account, then the tobacco people will come to the agency for Don Draper, and Cutler’s power over him will be lost. And if they don’t, then Don will go back to the exact same place he was in before, lost and aimless with the world slipping through his fingers.

“You think this is going to save you, don’t you?” says Cutler pointedly in the last line of the episode. I don’t suspect Don has any illusions of the risk he just took, though – this was the only move he could make to attempt stabilizing his circumstances, something that could be said of every character in the episode. When it starts to feel like the world is running away from oneself, is moving in directions one has no power over, people are liable to do extreme things, to lie, to manipulate, to flee, to break the rules, to fight back in whatever ways they can – even if that means, in the tragicomic case of Michael Ginsberg, cutting off one’s own nipple.

Other Thoughts

  • Subplots on Mad Men always feels tightly connected thematically, but there is more narrative interweaving here than we usually get, adding to the overall cohesive punch of the episode. For instance, Lou’s old-man speech about patriotism to the copy writers cuts straight to Betty discussing her conservative values about Vietnam to the party – notice that, for both characters, it’s having their old-world American values challenged that sends them spiraling – and Ginsberg’s entire crisis has further dark payoff in Don’s story, where we learn, from a comically desperate Harry, that Cutler and Lou are planning something sinister (though it’s nothing that would impact Ginsberg negatively).
  • I mentioned Elisabeth Moss’ mastery of expressive, hilarious reaction shots – and it bears repeating how on fire she was in every scene with Ginsberg – but it was a good week for Jon Hamm reactions as well. Hamm has found a wonderful new expression of forced-bemusement this season for situations that make Don uncomfortable, trying to keep it together rather than going off the deep end – best exemplified by here at Megan’s party, when Megan starts dancing with another man – and his reaction to Ana’s awkward exit from the party (“I’m gonna split. Great party!”) was priceless.
  • Also in funny Don Draper behavior: I love how Don heard Amy playing around on the phone for all of five seconds at the start of the episode, and found her so immediately annoying that he quietly shunned her the rest of the hour (much of the tension of the three-way comes from Don being thoroughly unattracted to this woman).
  • “I hope you know how much I appreciate this” – Harry has been waiting to hear those words his whole life.
  • In an episode rife with homophobic, sexist, and racist language, Betty may have taken the cake with this curt, loaded dismissal of the maid: “She can handle the homework. I’ll handle the silver.” Ouch.
  • Finally, on the three-way scene, which I suspect will be the episode’s most-discussed sequence behind Ginsberg’s self-mutilation. It’s a scene I would have to watch several more time to make my mind up on, as it dances dangerously close to self-parody – it’s shot and scored like the cheesy male-fantasy version of the scene, and while that’s obviously a deliberate choice, I still can’t decide whether highlighting the weirdness of the scenario upfront truly fit, or was just a distraction – but I think Megan’s role in the scene is fascinating. Jessica Pare’s face says a lot here, as we watch her looking at Don kissing another woman – clearly working out her anxieties (her discomfort with Stephanie wasn’t primarily sexual, but that’s always going to be an underlying concern with a philanderer like Don) by observing her husband with another woman. As one of the copy writers said early on of Lou’s cartoon, it’s all very Freudian, and stylistic concerns aside, it’s absolutely fascinating.

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

Mad Men reviews post every Sunday night, an hour or two after the episode airs. Come back next week for my thoughts on the season’s third episode, “Field Trip.”

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