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Mad Men: “The Runaways”

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Todd: What the holy hell was that, Sonia?

It’s weeks like these I’m glad I have you to bounce ideas off of, because “The Runaways” is either brilliant or a boondoggle. It reminds me of season six’s “The Crash” in just how out there and messed up it gets, but it’s like that episode in slow motion. It keeps teasing connections that never come, perfect moments that remain thwarted, and by the end, Michael Ginsberg has cut off his nipple, Don has had a threesome, and then he has gone back on everything he once pretended to stand for in the name of saving himself from getting fired from his own agency. But why? What is he trying to save himself for? What is the place that he hopes to walk into and own all over again? That place is gone, and it’s being consumed from within by some new era that’s springing up right in front of him. Maybe Ginsberg says it best: “Get out while you still can!”


Okay, let’s work backwards. Waylon Jennings. “You Got The Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line.” Don trying to take power from Cutler and Lou. Stephanie as a daughter figure Don never sees. Sally as the daughter he actually has whose nose is broken (except not really) but he never finds out about it. Henry as the surrogate father. Henry as the surrogate Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon.

Richard Nixon! Waylon Jennings is Richard Nixon! The rise of the Republican right largely piggybacked off the desire to see moral order and certainty arise, the desire to have “daddy” come back in and make everything right again. But that’s not how it works! You can’t just have Don Draper walk in and change the fact that everything is falling apart and the apocalypse is coming through his mere presence. Nothing can ever go back to the way it was, because that’s not how life works.


Call me Michael Ginsberg, but I think I’m on to something here.

Sonia Saraiya: Oh sure, that makes about as much as sense as anything that happened in this episode. Ginsberg has always been one of my favorite characters, one whom I felt I could get intuitively without needing much to go off of. So I’m not sure what I’m supposed to make of this descent into… madness, right? This is madness. This is like, a psychotic break, spurred by paranoia about a large computer.


Of all the stories Mad Men could tell, why this one? Last week’s “The Monolith” felt pat; “The Runaways” feels scattered. I guess I could advance the argument that Matthew Weiner wants us to feel as confused and scattered as these characters did in the ’60s, when everything got turned upside down over and over again. This is an episode that starts with a bad cartoon called Scout’s Honor, and it turns into Ginsberg losing his mind and Don somehow finding the truth about Lou and Cutler and deciding to have a threesome.

I can see some shapes through the mist, though I don’t know if my shapes are at all accurate. Ginsberg’s breakdown might be just one of many things the show could do with Ginsberg to get rid of the other great copywriter on staff; Peggy’s good, but not amazing (anymore?), and anyway, she’s more of a management role under Lou, handling accounts on her own. With Ginsberg disposed of, there’s a role for Don to fill, as the resident (non-insane) genius at SC&P. And madness is fitting for the mad men of Madison Avenue. But I’m not quite sure if that’s enough of a reason to justify the grotesquerie of Ginsberg’s descent. Is it a bit too literal (and maybe unrealistic) to make the connection between displaced creative power and Ginsberg’s sudden madness once the computer comes in? Did the future make him nuts? Is that really how simply we’re supposed to view this?


While we chew on that, there’s that other thing that happened: the threesome. This, I understand a little more, if only because Jessica Paré has some wonderfully understated moments of resentment, vulnerability, and frustration in this episode. She’s both still pining after Don, on some level, and also morbidly fascinated by his relationships with other women. There’s a weird, intimate vibe in her scenes right from the start; I had this sense she was going to start making out with Stephanie when they started telling each other how beautiful they each were, and Amy’s presence in the house is never explained, despite Don’s repeated questions. Are Megan and Amy lovers, now? Is Megan also sleeping with the acting-class friend who dances with her at the party? The answer is pretty clearly “no, but it’s not weird you thought that.”

You get the impression, in that final scene with Megan, that she was hoping sleeping with another woman while with her would bring Don closer to her. But then that’s thwarted by Stephanie’s phone call, which makes Megan upset. I could not quite figure out why Megan seemed so threatened by Stephanie, except that maybe they’re somewhat close in age. And where Megan is pretending to be bohemian, Stephanie actually is. Megan has Don paying her bills; Stephanie is knocked-up and homeless. Stephanie is this self-contained and mature vessel of possibility, while Megan is a lanky out-of-work actress who could pass for a teenager.


What is going to happen next weekend, when Don goes back to Los Angeles?

Todd: Now that I’ve had my coffee and done some thinking, I can be slightly more rational about this episode, slightly less free associative. Or maybe we should just type a long string of question marks before mutilating ourselves and proclaiming dire warnings about the world that’s going to hell around us?


What I keep coming back to is the fact that this season is set in 1969. Matt Weiner has said that he wanted to reflect the way that 1968 made the country feel like it was coming apart at the seams in the show’s sixth season, and that was reflected both in the chaotic times within the ad agency and the way that Don Draper’s constant carousel of self-abuse and disappointing others came to an abrupt stop when he went so far over-the-top that he had no choice but to start being honest. I think this story being set in 1969, then, is trying to convey the sense so much of the country had at that point in time: These characters are heading into Hell. The end of the world has come right to their doorstep, and there’s nothing they can do to stop it. What’s interesting is that the shape of that apocalypse looks very different for everybody else, but they’re confronting it nonetheless. Half the country wants to shove the genie back into the bottle—perhaps with the help of a lovable little scamp in the comic strip Scout’s Honor—and half the country wants to let the genie out even more. We know neither side will wholly get its way. Don Draper keeps making deals with every devil he can find, because if the Bible has taught us anything, it’s that the only way out of Hell is through. You have to die before you can be resurrected.

Think of how consciously this season is constructed around the idea that when Don enters the picture, everything will make more sense. The show is doing this to its audience by having us wonder if, hey, everything is going to be okay once Don shows up again, if the weirdness of the show’s rhythms will right itself. And the characters sort of keep doing this, too. Once he’s back at work, the copywriters think that he’ll make everything better again. Instead, their break room is replaced by a computer. Peggy is one of the few who doesn’t view the return of Don with anything like pleasure, because she knows how that may further marginalize her. She expects to be erased by the great white dude in his shining armor. (Lou feels sort of the same.) Hell, even Megan seems to expect that dragging Don into whatever her life is now will right the ship. Betty has a new husband. Stephanie just needs money, but she knows Don’s the guy who can give it to her—not just because he’s rich, but because she just has that feeling about him, you know? Every character in this episode keeps turning to Don, expecting him to act like a protagonist, but he’s been relegated to supporting character land.


What’s fascinating is how often the season and episode seem to be looking at Don’s worst fear coming true: He is being erased. It’s as if by admitting that he was Dick—instead of, say, Pete finding it out—the whole façade he’d built up for himself started being torn down around him. Jim and Lou try to reverse one of his most signature accomplishments. Megan more or less seems to have replaced him with Amy. And when Sally needs help, it’s Henry who gets it for her, not Don. This is why I think Betty, ultimately, might be the key to unlocking this episode’s potential riches. The Betty of season one would have meekly sat back and said whatever her husband wanted her to; this Betty has a voice, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. You can put a monkey in an Army uniform and have him salute, but it’s not going to bottle up the unrest and make the world 1960 again through science or magic. (I love that I get to type that sentence.) The thing about stopping the end of the world is that that just ends up being the end of the world for somebody else. Apocalypses breed apocalypses.

I still don’t know why Ginsberg cut off his nipple, though. Maybe I need more sentence fragments. Okay… Waylon Jennings… The Dukes Of Hazzard


Sonia: Yeah, Betty seems like the key to this episode for me, too—though I literally cannot figure out why. As opposed to every other story in this episode, hers is the most straightforward—there’s her asserted independence and her attempts at perfection and then, right on cue, her petulance and passive-aggression kick in. Unfortunately, Betty will never be ugly—so she will never be free of the many traps she’s laid for herself. Her beauty is her privilege and her prison.

Betty makes me think of Shailene Woodley, incongruously—because the other day Woodley asserted that she is not a feminist, which is a statement she never could have made without the salutary effects of feminism. Betty is pro-war, family values, domestic smiling Republican—but she’s using the language of independence, free thinking, and self-actualization that the hippies and beatniks are using.


It’s sadly unsurprising that Sally’s relationship with her mother has not improved at all—and it’s heartbreaking to see that Bobby internalizes his mother’s abuse by making himself sick. But what’s particularly compelling in “The Runaways” is how Sally is willing to be outright poisonous about Betty’s superficiality. She isn’t just angry with her mother—she, in fact, holds Betty in contempt. Sally makes casual reference to Betty’s worthlessness without her looks and husbands’ habit of beating up their wives, and her words are received with such little surprise that it’s clear this scene has played out before. Nothing Sally is saying is new—meaning that Betty has been living with a walking and talking manifestation of her deepest self-hatred, which is also maybe her conscience. I doubt this was intentional in the slightest, but “The Runaways” did air on Mothers’ Day. Betty Draper is certainly more people’s mothers than any greeting card would like to admit.

In the grand tradition of sentence fragments, I’ll offer up the following: Madness is a kind of freedom. I imagine for Mona and Roger, seeing Marigold shacking up in the sticks with a commune of like-minded jezebels is about as shocking as Peggy’s horror when Ginsberg theorizes that the machine is making men “homo.” The ’60s were about breaking down so many ideas of what it meant to be “sane.” Because civil rights sounds crazy to a member of the Southern landed gentry. And sexual liberation sounds insane to the mother of two teenagers. Is thinking a computer is sending waves through your brain really that far off? I think Matt Weiner is having a bit of fun with us in “The Runaways”—because after all, where does our sense of superiority come from? All we have is the benefit of history, looking back. But these people were shocked by deviations from the status quo, just like we are today. But presumably if everyone 40 years from now starts cutting off their nipples because of wifi (which, weirder things have happened), Ginsberg’s rant and subsequent hospitalization will seem prescient and alarmingly totalitarian. If only he could read Scout’s Honor until he found his way back to a simpler time and place—and at the same time, thank goodness that’s not the only way out of madness. Reverting to what has happened is even more terrifying—a non-acknowledgment of the madness is even more madness.


Todd: I keep coming back to Stephanie as I close out my thoughts on this episode. One of the things final seasons of shows do often is bring back former characters for one last reprise of their old adventures, one last bow. But Don and Stephanie never meet. She and Megan spend time together, and Megan cuts her a check, and that’s it. The story doesn’t find resolution, perhaps because there’s no resolution to find. Most of life is that, right? Boats passing in the night and all that. We keep waiting for Stephanie and Don to come back together, because we think that will give the story more meaning. But there’s no meaning. There’s just more chaos, the deeper down you go.

That, ultimately, is what I think “The Runaways” is getting at. We want to see Don stride into that room and convince Phillip Morris that he’s the guy who can get them what they want. We want to see him put Cutler and Lou in their places. We want to see him whistle for a taxi and have the car come right to him. More than anything, I think, we want him to get the old band together, to team up with Peggy and Pete and Joan and Roger and Bert and kick some ass, take back the company that’s supposed to be theirs. But it’s not really theirs anymore, just as the America that was unquestionably Don Draper’s in the pilot has crumbled out from under his feet, both through acts he’s undertaken himself and acts that have taken place around him. The world around Don Draper has become a different place, but he’s stayed the same. It’s not the computer that drives you mad; it’s everything the computer represents. You will be replaced. Maybe not today. Maybe not even a year from now. But you will be. And you can’t stop it. Maybe that’s the ultimate tragedy of Mad Men: The more you long for stasis, the more the universe starts readying a new version.


But seriously. His nipple? What even?

Todd’s grade: B+
Sonia’s grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • “The Runaways” was written by Matthew Weiner and David Iserson, and it was directed by Christopher Manley. [TV]
  • Betty is very smart. She speaks Italian. [TV]
  • Megan’s dresses in this episode, oh my god. [SS]
  • When Megan comes out after the threesome, she’s wearing the same robe she gave to Stephanie at the beginning of the episode—highlighting the differences between their bodies and the similarities of the two women even more. [SS]
  • Sally really takes great relish in saying the word “abortion” in front of her mother. I love the way she’s practically daring Betty to slap her. [TV]
  • THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BOBBY DRAPER: “I have a stomachache all the time.” [SS]
  • “We’re idiots, okay?” [SS]
  • The computer admonishes us to THINK. I am, IBM! I am! You saw what this episode did to me! [TV]
  • “The main door was open and you don’t check the peephole? This is a bad neighborhood!” [SS]
  • Amy is from Delaware, and you met her on the phone. [SS]
  • Next week on Mad Men: That looked like Don and Peggy talking to each other like civilized human beings. I’ll be making a high-pitched keening noise for the next week or so, thanks. [TV]