Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Runaways" (season 7, episode 5)

Mad Men - "The Runaways" (season 7, episode 5)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode until the series finale. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on May 11, 2014/written by David Iserson and Matthew Weiner; directed by Christopher Manley): "You know who had a ridiculous dream, and people laughed at him?" an incensed Lou Avery asks, after his employees discover his secret monkey-in-the-army comic strip Scout's Honor. "You?" Stan deadpans. I watched this scene twice, somehow forgot about his retort on re-watch, and burst out laughing both times - but as that flippant insult echoes throughout the episode, it carries quite the sting. Michael, Stephanie, Megan, and Don all strive and fail, some more spectacularly than others. Even Betty, in a far more modest (and conservative) manner, falls on her face when she opines on the Vietnam War while hosting a round-robin house tour - shocking her neighbors and enraging the more cautious Henry with her hawkish opinion. Sally, who shows up with a battered face from schoolyard shenanigans, is more defiant in her defeat; "it's a nose job, not an abortion," she spits in her scandalized mother's face. Later, her warmhearted heart-to-heart with Bobby when he sneaks into her bedroom will lend the episode its title.

Michael, of course, has the starkest downfall. We - alongside Peggy and his other colleagues - have tolerated and even chuckled at the neurotic creative's eccentricities for several seasons. So if he starts to cross the line here - insisting that the office's new computer is turning the men of SC&P gay, racing to Peggy's apartment to type up his work and then trying to seduce her - it's easy to brush it off as Michael being slightly more "Michael" than usual. (The computer's constant hum agitates him so much that he stuff his ears with tissue paper; maybe that's all that has him on edge?) Ranting his conspiracy theories as Peggy's nonchalant ten-year-old tenant Julio (Jacob Guenther) marches into the apartment to watch TV, the whole situation just looks like another lark. Eventually, back in the office the following morning, it's not so funny. Calmly informing Peggy that he loves her, and that he's removed the pressure valve that was causing him so much trouble, Michael hands her a gift box containing...his severed nipple. The next thing we know he is being carted off on a stretcher. In a sudden, alarming crash it becomes apparent that Michael is severely psychotic and maybe has been for a while. This is an unforgettable shift of perspective.

Don's drama is less violent and shocking, but no less potentially consequential on both the personal and professional front. Stephanie, his "niece" (eager to play the benevolent uncle, he conveniently forgets how he once tried to bed her), calls from L.A. to ask him for money; she's seven months pregnant, a countercultural dropout at the end of her rope. He insists that she visit Megan and stay there until he can fly out. Initially Megan welcomes her warmly but a few missteps - most fatally Stephanie's offhand comment that she already knows all of Don's secrets - spoil the bonhomie. Megan coldly writes a $1,000 check to the guest she now regards as a rival, pretending (and maybe half - ok, a quarter) believing that she's asking her to leave for her own good. She even deflects blame onto Don for being too meddlesome, judgmental, and controlling. With her disappointed husband all to herself, Megan throws a party for her acting class in their (?) home, dancing in a manner reminiscent of the bohemian shindig Don attended in season one before breaking up with his mistress. She then entices him into a menage a trois with her flirtatious friend Amy (Jenny Wade). Whatever Megan thinks this will achieve, it doesn't - they are more estranged than ever the next morning, especially after Stephanie calls to say she promised Anna that she wouldn't disrupt Don's life.

In one rare triumph, however, Don does accomplish something in California. Running into Harry at Megan's place by surprise, they go drinking and Harry spills the beans. Lou and Jim are plotting to sign Commander, the Philip Morris cigarette brand, which will force Don out of the company given his infamous letter. Don races back to the East Coast and triumphantly swoops into the Algonquin just in time to screw up the meeting for his fuming would-be executioners. Who's laughing now?

My Response: Although Mad Men has always been about change, the pace has escalated, the stakes seem higher, and a number of characters appear to be teetering on the edge of something irreversible. In this episode alone, Don's job and marriage, Michael's sanity, and the office's own physical integrity and workplace environment are severely threatened and/or demolished. Between the Moloch-like computer and the ascendance of the Jim/Lou axis, SC&P appears to be in the midst of a hostile takeover; it wouldn't take much - say the death of Bert Cooper and the retirement of Roger Sterling, both highly plausible - for the agency (not just the post-'63 incarnation but the entire legacy of the company Don joined in the early fifties) to become unrecognizable. Don's cigarette stunt is exactly the sort of thing we hoped he'd do when re-joining the firm, at least going down with a fight. Megan, on the other hand, is attempting everything in the book, and outside of it, to save her marriage but the wedge is being driven deeper and deeper. Her impromptu threesome is a good signal of what really troubles her, not so much Don sleeping with other women, but - as I've noted several times - him freezing her out emotionally. Ultimately, for all of Betty's objections to his philandering, that sense of alienation was what broke up their marriage as well.

Speaking of Betty, her own life appears to be at an impasse. Her current tensions with Henry could blow over or continue to escalate, but her fraught relationship to her own children is on a pretty unbroken downward trajectory. A couple episodes ago, in particular, demonstrated how little growth she's shown as a parent, even if the show struggles to cultivate sympathy in other areas of her life from time to time. Unlike, say, Peggy, Betty is a figure whose well-defined place in the narrative ended over half the series ago and unless this final season can conceive of a storyline for her that meaningfully connects to other threads, she's going to continue seeming like a cameo player on what was once her own show. For the most part, characters are headed toward clear endpoints or at least forks in the road but it's harder to predict what comes after that (because I think those decisive moments will arrive in a couple episodes, at the end of this mini-season or at most the very beginning of the next, rather than at the very tail end of all season seven). I suspect, not based on anything concrete but just a general sense, that the final arc of the series may take Don in particular off the beaten path. Will California, and Stephanie in particular, be pursued as some kind of key to salvation? The West Coast has always been the promised land for Dick Whitman and I can't imagine Don won't move there eventually, whether or not that move does anything to re-ignite his marriage.

Next (active on January 10, 8am): "The Strategy"Previous: "The Monolith"

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