My advice is to take your time wrapping your head around the latest episode of Mad Men. If I had to hazard a guess, “Far Away Places” may wind up being one of the more divisive episodes in the show’s history among its fans.
The plot was outlandish and outrageous — hey, any episode where Roger Sterling takes LSD is going to be such — and it was structured in a confusing, non-chronological way (and not just while Roger was on psychedelics). I enjoyed just about every minute of it, but I can understand someone claiming that they didn’t.
On to the breakdown of this week’s episode.
1. The Violent Don Isn’t Going Away
I have so badly wanted to forget about the surprisingly violent tendencies that Don Draper has flashed through much of Season 5. But Matthew Weiner isn’t going to let us, is he? His physically charged sexual encounter with Megan during the season premiere and his fever-induced strangulation fantasy involving a former lover were hinting at a disturbing new side to our antihero.
“Far Away Places” gave us another glimpse at that side of Don, and, once again, it was pretty ugly. It started with Don pulling Megan out of work for a trip upstate under the auspices of checking out a potential new client in Howard Johnson. The impromptu excursion leaves Megan feeling like she has bailed on her team at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce with Peggy set to give her latest presentation to Heinz. Unlike Betty would have, Megan calls Don on his inconsiderate invitation, which leads to a progressively volcanic argument between the pair. Don tells Megan “there has to be some advantage to being the boss’ wife” — a shockingly tone-deaf (and profoundly disappointing) sentiment given Megan’s obvious ambition to be more than just Don’s arm candy and his usual penchant for fairness — and some time later she tells Don to “go call his mother,” which is probably worse considering she knows all about Don’s true past.
Don ends up driving away from Megan in the Howard Johnson parking lot, and by the time he realizes what a gaffe he has committed and returns to look for her, she is gone, leaving Don panicked with worry — his mind wandering at the myriad of grisly possibilities. Don finally returns to New York, where he finds Megan locked inside their apartment. What follows is yet another physical confrontation that ends with Don tackling Megan to the ground. A heart to heart ensues and the newlyweds seem to patch things up, but … how many times can this keep happening before Don drives Megan away, or worse?
Perhaps prophetically, Megan tells Don that they are “diminished” as a couple every time they fight, but I’d argue that Don has been diminished for, it would seem, most of their relationship, and in all facets of his life. It’s disheartening to see Don so preoccupied by his second marriage and devastating because it’s so clear there’s great depth to his love for Megan. Bert Cooper was speaking for all of us when he made himself useful for once and brought up how poorly Don is performing for SCDP directly. The thing we don’t know yet is if the pep talk will have any effect. Don is spiraling downward just as he did in Season 4; he’s spiraling for a different reason, but that doesn’t really matter does it?
2. Roger Sterling’s Long, Strange Trip
I wouldn’t have pegged Roger Sterling as the first member of SCDP to drop acid, but I’m not as clever as some folks it would seem. As you might guess by the way I’ve ordered my thoughts here, the biggest developments in “Far Away Places” are reserved for Don. The best storyline, though, belonged to Roger, who, out of nowhere, ends up taking LSD with wife Jane.
I’m not sure if Roger was motivated by a last-ditch desire to save his failing marriage or if he was simply bored. I am certain that I enjoyed the fallout from his Electric Kool Aid Acid Test — the orchestral music emanating from a bottle of vodka, his frank discussion with Jane about their doomed marriage and especially his lightness after the trip is over, punctuated by him bursting into Don’s office just to tell him that “it’s going to be a beautiful day.”
Now, I’m not suggesting Roger Sterling has attained nirvana, and I’m certainly not recommending you act on all the teachings of Timothy Leary, but it does seem to me that Weiner was offering LSD as a societal antidote for the ills of the 1950s. After all, who more than Roger represents that generation and its rapidly fading relevance? How unlikely is it that he, of all people, would be the SCDP employee to earnestly tell Don that it is “going to be a beautiful day?”
Oddly enough, I found myself liking this genuine, honest, non-acerbic, free (?) Roger quite a bit. Keep shoveling the sugar cubes down, Roger.
3. The Harder They Come
Here’s how you know Mad Men is legitimately great. Weiner packed an extended psychedelic sequence into a non-linear episode — two overdone tropes scattered throughout film and television for years — and was able to make it one of the most entertaining installments of the season so far.
I have to admit I rolled my eyes at first when it dawned on me that we were going to be dragged along for Roger’s trip, but it was poignant and provided stunning clarity and character development, something you don’t often see when psychedelic drugs and cinema/television mix.