Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Far Away Places" (season 5, episode 6)

Mad Men - "Far Away Places" (season 5, episode 6)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. Both parts of season seven will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on April 22, 2012/written by Semi Chellas and Matthew Weiner; directed by Scott Hornbacher): Peggy spends the day alone, embracing a hedonistic and contemplative escape, before returning to the lover she fought that morning. Roger spends the night with his wife, in their greatest moment of bonding, before peacefully ending the marriage. Don tries to spend the afternoon and evening with Megan, a spontaneous ice cream excursion that sours and curdles, before he loses her - permanently, he fears - only for them to wind up back in one another's arms, sadder and a little more broken than before. Despite their echoes, these three tales of restless, terrifying possibility barely intersect (save for a handful of moments that literally repeat themselves from different points of view). They are told in isolation, one after the other, in an anthologized form that heightens their comparative qualities: tales of the lonely self smashing against the walls of thwarted communion.

Peggy and Abe bicker because she's more concerned with her upcoming Heinz pitch than fooling around (in all senses) with the more carefree bohemian whose sense of masculinity seems threatened by her responsibilities. If she's too much the man of the house for Abe, she's still far too much the little lady for Raymond, who brushes off her more toned-down "baked beans at campfire" concept and recoils when she finally pushes back against his perpetual naysaying (at Raymond's behest, Pete quickly informs her she's off the campaign). Belatedly taking Abe's suggestion to play hookey, but doing so alone, Peggy dips into a dark theater for The Naked Prey, an unexpected joint, and an even more unexpected opportunity to give a stranger a hand job. Returning to the office mostly to take a long nap in Don's office, she runs into Michael's father, or "father." It turns out Morris adopted the boy, born in a concentration camp, from a European orphanage in the late forties although Michael swears he actually comes from Mars and that his home planet has offered only one simple communique: "Stay where you are." Compelled both by the new co-worker's displacement and the all-too-real roots of that displacement, Peggy calls Abe and asks him to come over.

While this is unfolding, Roger launches an odyssey of his own. He won't roam on foot like Peggy nor by car like Don (who steals Roger's initial idea of a roadtrip to take Megan on a "fact-finding" trip to Howard Johnson's), yet he'll end up further afield than both of them. Jane's intellectual social circle - including her psychiatrist Catherine Orcutt (Bess Armstrong) - are taken with the latest bourgeois fad: retreating to the living room of their well-kept penthouse apartment, writing their names, addresses, and cause for concern on slips of paper as a "just in case" failsafe, and then gently laying a sugar cube on their tongue and letting it dissolve. That's right, the mid-sixties are shading into the late sixties as LSD grows in popularity, not just at the still-mostly-hidden heart of the youth counterculture but among the curious minds of the postwar generation searching for meaning in their middle age. Roger is nonchalant ("How long does it last?"), neither resistant nor excited, but the trip has a profound effect. Rather than swirling colors and psychedelic music - aside from the Beach Boys' "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" gradually drowned out by a big band ballad more appropriate for his own youth - Roger is subjected to come-to-life advertising motifs, strange behaviors of tobacco and alcohol (or at least their packaging), and even a vision of Don standing in for guide Sandy Orcutt (Tony Pasqualini). Roger and Jane dance, bathe, and lie together on the floor, eventually acknowledging the unspoken fact that their marriage is over. Roger continues to readily embrace this insight the next morning, while Jane more reluctantly accepts its truth. At work, Roger promises a baffled Don that it's going to be a beautiful day: his bored, shallow, restlessly desperate outlook has dissolved along with that sugar cube.

The sober Don is actually the character most likely to be experiencing a severe hangover, his impromptu excursion with Megan transformed into a full-blown marital crisis. Aside from her wounded reaction to his underwhelming birthday (a sorrow that revolved around what she wanted from him), Megan's frustrations haven't been given much voice. Now her despair at this lack of autonomy finally spills over. Sarcastically spooning orange desserts and shouting that he's allowed to structure his life around work while she isn't, she castigates him for dragging her away from the teamwork at the office. Poor Megan has always served the role of appendage to Don, and sharing a workplace has only compounded the domestic hierarchy rather than alleviating it. Fed up by his criticisms of her French exchanges with her mother (the only times she's allowed privacy in his presence), she snaps, "Why don't you call your mother?!" This is, of course, the worst thing she could say to Dick Whitman, and Don drives away in a fury, leaving her yelling in the parking lot. When he returns a few minutes later, she's gone and the rest of his night is spent trying to make sense of a vanishing that feels as existential as it does literal. Last seen leaving the restaurant with a group of young men, she hasn't called anyone else, doesn't answer the phone, and never shows up at the location again. Unsurprisingly, she got a ride to the bus station and took a long overnight voyage back home, but we sense the issue was never really where she went, but the fact that she went, period. For the first time she passed out of Don's control.

The two reconcile after a frantic confrontation, Don chasing Megan through their rooms, but at the office Bert is exasperated with flaky employees of any flavor. Delivering an old-fashioned brassiere ad with a red-inked "Re-do" scrawled across it (I haven't checked, but I suspect it is one of Don's earliest submissions to the agency when he was hoping to break out of being a clothing salesman), the oldest member of SCDP scolds Don for being a dilettente. When Don tells him to mind his own business, the man who owned the preceding agency as far back as the Roaring Twenties tells his employee-turned-partner "This is my business." Playtime appears to be over, and not a moment too soon for Don; he needs the work to distract him from what was supposed to be a pleasure.

My Response:
This, aside from a premature viewing of the pilot, was the episode I'd seen the most of before starting this viewing diary. I thought I recalled wandering in and out of the room when it first aired, but based on who was watching it, the timing must have actually been about a year later, after the season hit DVD. I also saw more of it than I remembered. Indeed, I was surprised to learn that the same episode includes Peggy getting high and jerking someone off in a movie theater, Roger tripping on LSD, Don and Megan at the Howard Johnson's, and even the flashback to the Disneyland trip. My memory held these encounters as independent entities...which, I suppose, they are in a sense. During past moments of Mad Men experimentation, like the flashback-structured "Seven Twenty Three" or the eerily dreamlike "The Jet Set," I regretfully observed how the episodes were forced to interrupt their reveries for the mundane necessity of ongoing plot details and crosscutting between characters. Ensemble serialized television can tease us with the avant garde but generally cannot, aside from Twin Peaks (and even then only rarely), completely dedicate itself to a given dramatic and aesthetic focus. For a moment I thought we were reaching our limit in "Far Away Places" when we cut from Peggy's late-night call with Abe to Roger casually strolling to Don's office. Then the realization hit that the chronology was resetting, and thus this ordinary bit of business was one of the show's most subversive elements thus far.

This isn't to suggest that Mad Men's feet completely lift off the ground. Peggy's personal odyssey includes and is even largely motivated by some obligatory wheel-turning with the perpetually unpleased Heinz client. All of the storylines remain rooted in ongoing character arcs (not to suggest this is a weakness - after all, it's often a strength - so much as a boundary). First-time director Hornbacher, encouraged by the innovations of first-time writer Chellas, pushes the visual and particularly the aural texture in new directions without quite triggering a vertiginous response in the viewer although we do get close at times. Roger's acid trip was what I had in mind when I recently alluded to a high point for Slattery - the details were vague, but the Russian-singing vodka and accordian-like cigarette left a strong impression. The sequence isn't quite as trippy as I thought, but by imbuing the experience with slightly askew precision (carefully composed shots and sharp edits stitched together in disorienting ways) rather than a plunge into oversaturation of sound and image, Hornbacher does capture something that more self-consciously "far-out" sequences often miss. Contrary to cinematic cliches, expanded consciousness is often less about getting lost in a fog than discovering clarity.

Sandwiching the Sterling breakthrough are Peggy's cannabisized wanderings and Megan's distraught disappearance (the only vignette unfueled by narcotics, unless HoJo's perfume-flavored ice cream counts), neither leading to quite the moment of revelation that Roger has although both allow characters to scratch beneath their own and other characters' surfaces. It's tempting to find a direct parallel between these three stories and Michelangelo Antonioni's "alienation trilogy" from 1960 - 62: L'Avventura about a woman's never-explained, nor resolved, disappearance on a rocky island; La Notte about a couple drawing apart and together around a chic party; and L'Eclisse about a woman wandering through modernized areas of Rome after a breakup. In fact I started writing that sentence with the conclusion that "Far Away Places" didn't match up so perfectly with these works, but now I'm not so sure! That said, each of the stories contains elements not just from its most direct correspondent but the other films as well. Don chasing Megan around the room exists on a purely physical level which evokes the choreography of action in L'Eclisse. The recognition of loss when Roger takes leave of Jane conveys a poignant finality closer to (the admittedly still unresolved) L'Avventura than the ambiguity of La Notte and L'Eclisse. Don's and Megan's morning-after dialogue may be even more similar to La Notte than Roger's and Jane's exchange, and the same goes for Peggy's implicit reconciliation with Abe (closing a loop that L'Eclisse leaves open). And the abstraction of elements in the Sterling trip - particularly the framing of Roger staring at his gray/brown hair - strays closest to Antonioni's bold visual flourishes in an episode that stretches but does not radically upend the show's house style.

Most distinctly, if the characters all leap momentarily into the void, they are pulled back to where they began by episode's end: the tether was never really broken. Peggy continues to drift in a world that hasn't figured out how to accommodate her yet if it ever will; lost, but no more so than before, she has a work routine to keep her steady albeit perpetually frustrated. Roger certainly does move on from where he was, although the easy-to-predict end of this relationship feels less momentous than the collapse of his marriage to Mona, and it's not as if he shot so far into the ether as to skip work the next morning (still, his sunny attitude hints at a more permanent shift). The Drapers' situation is, it initially appears, the least fundamentally altered and their crisis the most artificial: why didn't Don leave immediately for the obvious destination of their apartment, rather than hanging out at Howard Johnson's as if it was a portal to wherever Megan's spirit had sunk? Yet somehow they feel the most damaged by the experience. "Every time we fight," Megan cries, "it diminishes this." Perhaps the problem is that they, particularly Don, are tethered not just to the present but to the past. Our lead character is always presented as a man unusually liberated from his own history, although its absence (of comfort, order, and particularly love) haunts him more than any presence ever could. Maybe it's easier to pretend you're a Martian than an orphan, and that you were born on another planet instead of where and how you really were.

Next (active July 26, 8am): "At the Codfish Ball"Previous: "Signal 30"

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