Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mad Men: “A Tale Of Two Cities”

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Say what you will about this episode, but very few Mad Men parties end with Roger getting punched in the nuts and Don nearly drowning. So there’s that.

“A Tale Of Two Cities” is a marking time episode. There’s nothing wrong with this. All shows have to do them from time to time, and Mad Men’s general stylishness and sense of wit can make a Mad Men marking time episode a lot of fun. Think of last season’s “Christmas Waltz,” essentially the definition of a non-essential Mad Men episode but one that also contained some indelible moments, like Don and Joan bonding in the bar. And “A Tale Of Two Cities” blends that sort of marking time atmosphere with one of my favorite Mad Men modes: California. I know that some aren’t big fans of the show’s previous trips to the Golden State, but I’ve always liked the way the West Coast imparts a bit of a laid-back vibe upon the proceedings, and season two’s “The Jet Set” is one of my favorite episodes of the show. Seeing Don and company having to deal with people who imagine themselves “groovier” is always fun, and watching the two awkwardly wander around a Hollywood party (attended by the long absent Danny Siegel) was the night’s best centerpiece.

Yet “A Tale Of Two Cities” seems to be missing something all the same. There’s little sense of purpose to why all of these stories are being told at the same time, even if they’re all fairly entertaining stories. I was hugely invested in whether Joan would get in trouble for her Avon faux pas and relieved when Peggy did her best to save the day. Yet at the same time, it was so obviously the writers’ attempt to give Joan something to do here in the late stages of the season. Everything was completely consistent with the character as established—if Joan were being honest with herself, she might admit there’s a dim nugget of resentment inside of her that she burnishes a bit when she’s alone—but it also required everybody to act just a little bit dumber than usual. I’m not sure I buy that Joan wouldn’t realize the dangers of trying to handle things on her own. She’s completely capable, and I hope to God she made the sale and didn’t just convince Art to start sending makeup kits to offices. But she surely understands what a snake Pete can be, right?

This episode was full of this sort of business. Cutler goes to Chaough with his wishes to simply dismiss all of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce junior personnel who are all still hanging around. (Only Pete seems to recognize the takeover from within that could happen if everybody lets their guards down.) Don, Roger, and Harry strike out with several companies on their California trip. Don has a drug-fueled dream sequence/after-death experience that seems to suggest that Megan is pregnant again, that the private he befriended in the season première is dead, and that Don is drowning (which he actually is). The firm chooses a new name—Sterling Cooper & Partners, the only name that’s equally offensive to everyone—and gets started on a logo. It’s all stuff that feels like table-setting for the final three episodes of the season, but curiously, it really feels like table setting, where this show is usually at least a little bit more creative in setting this sort of thing up. There’s another election brewing, and this one will be won by Richard Nixon (and not Dutch Reagan, to the consternation of the executive from Carnation).

There’s some stuff in here about the increasing difficulty of reinvention, about how the older you get, the harder it becomes to simply drop everything and remake yourself. There’s a nice little parallel between what Don, Roger, and the firm as a whole are trying to do and what Richard Nixon successfully achieved—namely, coming up with a way to force everybody to swallow their second act—but even though we see some substantial successes for SC&P in this episode, we still don’t see them really bringing in any new business. The staff is impressive, and everybody’s blown away by the thought of the talent they have assembled, but what have they done for the ad world lately? The Chevy account is the whole reason the firm exists, and that moves forward, tentatively, but the Manischewitz account is going into review, and Joan had better hope the guy from Avon calls back. Everything is very tentative right now, and the company’s tenuous grasp on the future doesn’t suggest anything like the confidence many of the partners are trying to project.

In a way, this is what the Democratic Party is going through in primetime television: There’s an external order, but the entirety of the operation is suffused with chaos. The new guard is coming along, the great cycle is rolling around to the other party, and nobody’s quite sure how to manage that transition gracefully. Back at the office, this is being handled by giving Bob Benson more and more responsibility (making it seem even more likely that he’s being set up for some sort of late-in-season reveal that will utterly destroy everything) and by everybody grousing about everybody else. Joan says that her job is to know what someone else will want before they know they want it, but she seems unable to anticipate things as keenly as she once did. And maybe that’s because the wheels are coming off. The “vulgarity” Matthew Weiner talked about so much in post-season five interviews increasingly dominates both the public sphere and the workplace. This has led to several necessary truths being spoken, but one always gets the sense that many of the characters feel somewhat adrift in this new world (except for Bert Cooper, forever at home in any world he finds himself in).


If I seem to be talking around myself here, it’s because I am. “A Tale Of Two Cities” has several beautiful moments, and it’s mostly skillfully constructed, but I constantly found myself asking, “Yes, and…?” As the episode approached its final act, I realized that it was almost over, and while I couldn’t exactly say I was actively disliking it or anything, I also couldn’t find anything to hold onto in the middle of everything. The episode seems as adrift as its characters—with all of that messy table-setting, to boot—and perhaps that’s where we’re meant to be dragged by the nose. If Mad Men started out as a series about a bunch of people who were incredibly confident in themselves and their image, then it’s gradually turned into a show about people who don’t quite know which way is up anymore. The increasing use of drugs underscores this point handily, rather than verging on being cheap, as some critics have alleged: At least in the middle of a trip, Don knows which way up is, even if it keeps changing. At SC&P, he increasingly seems checked out, the man who’s important to the overall foundation of the company but less important to its day-to-day operations.

All of which brings us back to Joan, who understands what she wants—to work accounts—but doesn’t yet understand all of the processes that might bring her to that point. I found the breakfast with the Avon executive to be perhaps the best scene in the episode (with the possible exception of Don’s trip/near-death experience at the party), perfectly written so it’s easy to imagine the result going either way. It’s easy to imagine Joan winning over the executive and getting him to consider SC&P for his future business. It’s also easy to imagine that her excitement and bluster created a situation where he didn’t feel as sure-footed as he might be used to. (Notice how Peggy feels at sea throughout the meeting, and if Peggy feels at sea…) Joan is used to knowing where all the bodies are buried, as it were, but now that she’s pushing into something she’s only observed, rather than working her way up, she’s created uncertainty where there need not be any. It’s easy to side with Joan over Pete, because he can be such a loathsome human being, but he has something of a point about how the system is set up to create certain protections for everybody involved.


Of course, if Joan manages to land the account, then it’s all okay, baby. And it’s fascinating to contemplate why Peggy sticks her neck out for Joan—even if no one will ever know it was Peggy who sent the fake note (and I don’t trust Meredith to keep her mouth closed). The two have always been uneasy allies at best, but they each recognize in the other something that sparks to what they’ve experienced working in this office. The scene where Peggy admonishes Joan for not working her way up is another standout in the episode—compared to the “That’s what the money is for!” scene that AMC played during a commercial break, it’s not all that different—bringing in so much of the show’s history and the characters’ prior relationship and making them central to what was happening. In general, season six has been at its best when it’s been engaged in conversation with the show’s past, but this episode kept awkwardly nodding toward prior episodes (like the Conrad Hilton mention). The Joan and Peggy scenes show how it’s done gracefully and tellingly.

In the past, Don’s sojourns to California—and the self-discovery he engages in while there (something Roger underlines during the flight back home, when he says that the only way to be happy is to love yourself for what you are)—have been hugely central to the episodes they’ve occurred in. Here, the business trip feels oddly perfunctory and sidelined in ways that don’t always benefit it. The Hollywood party sequence is a lot of fun, if only to watch Roger pick on Danny until Danny’s had enough, but it also doesn’t feel like it adds up to much of anything. The show is ticking along on something about how Don is realizing that he really does have some sort of feelings for Megan, and the drug trip sequence underscores some of this (while also ramping up the “Megan is Sharon Tate!” weirdness that’s been floating around the web all week). Or maybe Don just associates her with the place because he fell in love with her during that Disneyland sojourn back in season four, the point at which he apparently realized he needed some stability, even if it wasn’t the stability many viewers had wanted him to grab hold of.


Maybe it’s appropriate, then, that Don’s trip to California feels like so many grains of sand slipping through his fingers in this episode. Increasingly, all of the characters feel that way on this show, looking out their windows at a city embroiled in conflict and a country tearing itself apart and seeing that reflected in their inner lives. Is this really what their lives have become? Is it really what their country has become? The longing for stability is going to propel Richard Nixon to the presidency in a couple of months, but it’s also something that’s ultimately ephemeral. (After all, Americans continue to believe that the violent crime rate is up, even though it’s been down for decades.) True stability only emerges from within, but figuring out who you are and what it is you want is rarely easy.

The world changes, and those changes mark the tick of some clock that seems to be winding down or speeding up, given the hour. Avon is less sure how to find women now that they’re in the workplace; maybe the company should stop by offices. The basket that Avon sends Joan—is it an invitation to a new business relationship or simply following up on a suggestion she made during the breakfast that the client took to heart? It takes instability and uncertainty to make change, but after a while, it can feel exhausting, and you might just want to feel where you’re standing firmly beneath you. The problem with the job that these people do is that it’s constantly tossing distractions up in front of people, trying to keep them from finding that real and lasting stability that can only come from within. And maybe that’s what this episode and season are up to, too: By throwing enough stuff in front of us, they might just be distracting us from the true story, which is about how everything dulls just a little bit, how everything becomes just a little bit less personal and a little bit more corporatized. Maybe the answer was right there all along: The future is slick and impersonal and looking for answers in all the wrong places. Bob Benson is the man of tomorrow.


Stray observations:

  • Due to how much time it takes to write up both this and Game Of Thrones live in one night and due to my presence in the city of Austin, Texas, next weekend, you’ll be joined by the very talented and terrific Brandon Nowalk for next week’s episode. Try to behave.
  • The album covers on this show are one set of props that always appear to be antiques. Every time somebody’s holding an album on this show, it looks vaguely yellowed, like it’s been in someone’s attic for a few decades, where most of the props are perfectly buffed and sheened to look brand new. Am I crazy on this?
  • I’m really enjoying how central Ted is to this season and to keeping the two agencies from leaping at each other’s throats. His little talk with Cutler about how they can’t fire all of the SCDP people was highly amusing.
  • Is something going on with Ginsberg in the background of this season that just hasn’t been played up as much as it could have been? He really seems like he’s slowly disintegrating, and nobody much cares to help him out (outside of easy-answers-peddlin’ Bob). This may merit further investigation. (Is it all a spinoff of his reaction to the Martin Luther King, Jr., assassination? Seems like it might have been!)
  • This episode was directed by John Slattery with his usual visual flair. In particular, I enjoyed the Steadicam shots of Megan leading Don and Don following during the Hollywood party sequence.
  • Of all of the characters fans desperately hoped might return to this show at some point, I have to imagine that Danny was rather low on the list, even if he’s played by the awesome Danny Strong.
  • Next week on Mad Men: Peggy Olson just has to get that door open now.