There are episodes of “Mad Men,” like last week’s “The Better Half,” where it’s hard to believe how much is packed into a single hour of television. Then there are episodes like “A Tale of Two Cities,” where you reach the end and think, “That’s it?”
That’s not necessarily a bad thing: One of the practical realities of series television is that not every episode can be a doozie. Even on a lean, mean cable show like “Mad Men,” there are the functional placeholder episodes whose purpose is to keep things moving along without rocking the boat too much. We all deserved a little breather after the one-two punch of “The Crash” and “The Better Half.” Between the unexpected visit from Grandma Ida, Don and Betty’s sexy night at sleep-away camp, Peggy’s accidental disembowelment of Abe and Bob Benson’s shorts, the last few episodes have not been wanting for stimulation.
So, yes, maybe we needed a breather. Even still, “A Tale of Two Cities” feels a tad disappointing. Using the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago as a backdrop, the episode revisits two of “Mad Men’s” favorite themes -- office politics, and the notion of California as a place for self-invention. Again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with going back to these subjects once again, but what’s frustrating about “A Tale of Two Cities” is the sense that it’s cobbled together from leftovers from two of this season’s more polarizing episodes. Take the historical-moment-illuminating-personal-crisis of “The Flood,” add the slightly-too-on-the-nose-drug-induced-visions of “The Crash,” throw in Harry Crane in a double-breasted saffron-yellow blazer, and you’ve got “A Tale of Two Cities.”
The end result is an episode that feels not just uneventful but redundant — but, hey, at least there weren’t any Dick Whitman flashbacks.
But let’s start at the beginning. As the episode opens, Don is plunked down in front of the set, tumbler of rye in hand, watching the intentionally dull proceedings at the Democratic National Convention. (Interesting how Don, who used to be such an avid moviegoer, now seems to prefers the small screen, that opiate of the masses. And HBO isn’t even around yet!) Megan is shocked by the party’s reluctance to discuss the war in Vietnam, and almost as shocked by her husband’s cynical non-reaction to the news.
The generational and emotional divide between these two has never been greater (even Megan’s outfit, a striped sweater and a pair of jeans, makes her look like a teenager), which is why Don’s suggestion that she accompany him on his business trip to California reads as desperation. “We’ll go back to Disneyland,” he says. “From what I remember, something amazing happened there.” The reality of the Drapers’ marriage does not quite live up to the Disney fantasy, and husband and wife have settled into a state of barely disguised contempt. “I hate actresses,” Don says, and it’s not entirely clear that he’s joking.
The gulf is even wider once Don lands in Los Angeles. As violence erupts the following day at the convention, she calls him up in his hotel room. Once again, he’s numb, cracking glib jokes about Conrad Hilton. She’s upset, warning him after a long, awkward pause not to leave the hotel in case a riot breaks out. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says. “Really? You can if you want to,” she replies. At this point, these two have grown so far apart that an official breakup hardly seems necessary.
For Don, California has always had a utopian, sun-dappled, dream-like quality to it. Even those times when he wasn’t falling for his secretary over a spilled milkshake, it was the only place where he was free from the crushing burden of his assumed identity. His latest trip out West offers no such escape, only the reminder of the life he’s made for himself. Don, with his suits and his cynicism, can no longer be comfortable in California; he’d rather take a taxi than ride in a convertible. It can’t help that he’s accompanied by Roger, who on the flight to L.A. warns Don not to lapse into the drawl he uses when he’s had too many drinks. Without knowing it, Roger’s issued a clear warning: Dick Whitman ain’t welcome here.
Like a cloud of smog, Roger, Don and Harry descend upon the City of Angels, expecting everyone in California will roll over for an agency with seven initials in its name. The truth is different: Their New York skepticism is off-putting not only to the traditionalists at Carnation, but especially to the hippies at a hedonistic Hollywood party.
This entire sequence, which plays like one long outtake from “The Party,” teeters on the brink of parody. There are hookahs and dashikis and mute flower children named after plants. The point, it seems, is that Don & Co. are out of place in this milieu, despite how much they’d love to fit in. Adding insult to injury is the fact that Jane’s diminutive cousin Danny, last seen when he was let go from SCDP at the end of Season 4, has reinvented himself as a successful film producer. Roger seems especially offended by transformation and resorts to ugly bullying, but it’s Danny who gets the last laugh, felling Roger with a karate chop to the groin.
“Mad Men” may be the story of Don Draper, but it’s Roger who’s gradually become the show’s one-man Greek chorus, week after week delivering the line of dialogue that most clearly articulates the episode’s key themes. “What are you going to do when you fail here, keep going west?” he asks Danny. In the moment, he’s not trying to be profound, yet his insult speaks directly to Don’s ongoing crisis of identity.
After a few hits of hashish, Don has visions of a pregnant Megan and the soldier who took his lighter. In a callback to his Royal Hawaiian pitch, Don plunges into the pool, but it’s not quite the magical jumping-off point of his imagination. Instead, when he comes to, his soaking wet suit clings to him like a second skin. There’s no escaping it.
Back on the East Coast, small-scale mutiny is under way, not unlike the one taking place in Chicago. Ginsberg, too distracted by the convention, calls Cutler a fascist and has a meltdown before his pitch to Manischewitz.
Meanwhile, in the episode’s most intriguing subplot, Joan and Peggy team up to make a play for Avon, but it goes disastrously wrong when Joan gets territorial. Desperate to prove her worth as something other than an office tour guide/concubine, she cuts Pete out of the meeting with Andy Hayes. As extraordinarily capable as Joan is, she’s clearly out of her comfort zone, and as the meeting ends, Avon seems anything but a sure bet.
Peggy is livid and, back at the office, makes her frustration clear. It’s a fantastic scene, one that works, in part, because the motivations of both women are so clear and so sympathetic. Joan wants to prove she has something to offer other than her body, while Peggy just wants to win the business. It’s reminiscent of the argument in Season 3’s “The Summer Man,” only this time it’s Joan who’s in the wrong. As Peggy puts it, “I never thought I’d be in the position to say Joan, you’ve made a mistake.” Neither did we.
In a stark indication of how things have changed, it’s Peggy who saves Joan from Pete and Ted by eavesdropping on the intercom and manufacturing a well-timed “phone call.” Clearly, Peggy has learned a few things from Joan, the consummate problem solver. Let’s hope Joan, for her own sake, starts taking some notes.
--The agency finally has a name (Sterling, Cooper & Partners). What do we make of the fact that Don doesn’t even care that “Draper” isn’t part of it?
--Between Megan’s (possible) pregnancy and Don rubbing elbows with Hollywood hippies, this episode certainly didn’t do much to quell the Sharon Tate conspiracy theorists out there.
--The riddle wrapped in an enigma that is Bob Benson became a little less mysterious this week, as we caught him listening to a self-help record by Frank Bettger. So maybe he is just really ambitious and doesn’t have something else to hide. But then again, why did Ginsberg ask that question, seemingly out of nowhere, about his sexuality?
--Joan’s flowered dress is to die for.
--Meredith wins the Miss Blankenship Memorial Prize for hilariously clueless secretary.
--“Harry Crane is a wizard and has a computer the size of this restaurant,” says Joan. “Mad Men,” we NEED to see that computer.
--Line of the episode: “ There’s an extra nipple here when you come back.”