By John Andrew Fraser
Normally, an episode of Mad Men will follow two or three (or maybe four) of the show’s characters through their respective worlds over the course of a couple of days, or a week, or some other roughly equivalent amount of time. Sometimes very little seems to happen to these characters on a surface level during this amount of time, but there will almost always be some thematic element that ties these stories together. Characters’ lives will run parallel, or contrast, or connect in some way. I’m not quite sure that ‘The Runaways’ is that kind of an episode. From the beginning, it was almost bursting with plot points, and a ton of characters were involved. This made for a sometimes chaotic, yet very entertaining hour of television. You know something weird is going on when there’s a scene involving a threesome on Mad Men and it doesn’t even come close to the episode’s craziest moment.
Lou Avery is even more lame than we could have possibly imagined. I was a big Underdog fan growing up, and I can tell you, Scout’s Honor is no Underdog. Who wants to watch a weird monkey cartoon when they could watch an awesome dog fight crime? When Lou weirdly equates himself to Bob Dylan after the rest of the creative staff finds out about his cartoon ambitions, it only makes him look more pathetic.
Remember two weeks ago when I suggested that the girl who approached Don during his business meeting with a rival ad agency might have been Anna Draper’s niece, Stephanie? Turns out I was wrong, because Stephanie shows up in this episode seven months pregnant and looking like she belongs on Marigold Sterling’s commune. Apparently, you could take cross-country flights like it was nothing in 1969, because when Stephanie calls Don at the office, he tells her to go to Megan’s house in Laurel Canyon and to wait for him. On the surface, Megan does all the right things when Stephanie shows up. She cooks her steak, gives her clean clothes, and lets her take a bath, but there was definitely still the sense that Megan couldn’t wait to get Stephanie out of her house. She’s hosting a party for her acting friends, and she doesn’t want Don’s messy past to get in the way. Ultimately, Don never even gets to see Stephanie. She’s probably the most literal runaway in this episode—it appears she has tuned in and dropped out—but really this episode is full of young people thumbing their noses at the older generation, from the “flag-burning snots” that make up SC&P’s creative team to Sally Draper.
Speaking of Sally, she sure knows how to land a blow where it will hurt the most (and in this way she’s probably more like Betty than she’ll ever admit). After Betty rightfully gets upset with Henry for leaving her in the dark with regard to his political views on Vietnam and for generally treating her like a child, she receives a call from Miss Porter’s—Sally’s bruised her nose (while sword fighting with golf clubs…). When Betty starts to lay into her daughter, Sally points out that Betty would be worthless without her perfect looks. This had to cut Betty deep, after failing to be the perfect mom on Bobby’s field trip earlier this season and then leaving Henry hanging at the progressive dinner here, she must be wondering, “what exists beyond life as a trophy wife?” I’m interested to see where Betty goes from here. It’s becoming increasingly obvious to her that she’s not content with her current life and that no one really values her. Maybe she’ll go to work with Francine.
Back in LA, Megan gets to have her party. Everyone’s getting high and listening to Blood Sweat and Tears until Harry Crane shows up. Don’s tired of watching Megan dance with some other guy, so he asks Harry if he wants to go out and grab a drink. At this point, we’re about forty-five minutes into the episode, but that doesn’t mean that Matthew Weiner and co-writer David Iserson can’t drop a bomb on us—Harry tells Don that Lou and Jim Cutler are actively pursuing Phillip Morris’s Commander cigarettes and that if they land the account, Don will be out of a job at SC&P, since he famously told off American Tobacco in the New York Times after Lucky Strike dropped SCDP as a client back in season four. Don is so floored by this news that when he returns to Megan’s later that night, he can’t even seem to enjoy a threesome with Megan and her actress friend, who looks like Julianne Moore. Don’s mind is on work. Plus, he really wanted to hang out with Megan and Stephanie while in California, the extracurriculars with Megan’s red-headed actress friend aren’t going to fill that hole.
Sensing what’s on the line, Don shows up to the Phillip Morris meeting unannounced. Even though neither his “partners” at the agency nor the Phillip Morris guys really want him there, Don pitches himself as the ultimate tobacco salesman, someone who saved cigarettes from the gallows. Someone who told off American Tobacco, which just happens to be Phillip Morris’ biggest competitor. Whether this pitch works for Don or not remains to be seen, but it might be the most “Don Draper thing” he’s done since about season four.
Okay, so I saved the weirdest for last. I always thought that Michael Ginsberg seemed like kind of a strange guy, and some of his comments have been especially off-color this season. When he sticks tissue paper in his ears in an attempt to drown out the computer’s humming, he looks like the alien he always claimed to be, but nothing could have truly prepared me for Ginsberg’s fate in this episode. It was crazy enough that he felt like the computer was going to turn everyone in the office gay and that he tried to have sex with Peggy, but the “nipple gift” has to rank right up there with Mad Men’s weirdest moments—it’s alongside Peggy stabbing Abe with a makeshift bayonet and the lawnmower accident in the season three episode ‘Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency.’ This has to be the strangest way that a character has ever been written off a show, and poor Peggy, as if her life hadn’t sucked enough already this season, she had to be the one to call the mental facility to come take away one of her co-workers (plus, she had to look at a severed nipple).
Lou Avery and Jim Cutler might be the closest thing Mad Men has ever had to bad guys. I kind of liked Cutler’s final words to Don, “you think this will save you?” It seemed so evil and a little over-the-top for a show that doesn’t usually do those kinds of things. But I can’t say that I’m not eagerly anticipating some kind of ultimate showdown between Don and these two. Lucky for Don, he’s known the secret of tobacco all along—it’s toasted.