Mad Men: “A Tale of Two Cities”

Every season of Mad Men has its Los Angeles episode (though technically every episode is a Los Angeles episode, as that’s where the show is produced). The episode usually revolves exclusively around Don and delves into his past. Last season, Los Angeles only showed up in flashbacks, but “A Tale of Two Cities” brings us back to L.A. properly.

It’s an odd episode because of its absent core. There’s no overarching theme or ultimate goal of the episode, which actually makes it very unique in this season.

Most Mad Men episodes focus more on their themes than on their plots. They’re like short stories instead of chapters, which makes the show feel more like a series of beautifully crafted, interconnected short films. It’s what sets the show apart. It’s what makes Matthew Weiner such a special television writer.

This week’s episode is unusually scattershot for the pattern we’ve seen. Most of the experimental pieces of writing that Weiner has given us (he’s co-credited for writing this episode) has been obsessively focused on theme, but this episode rejected all semblance of centrality, which in itself is the core of the times.

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A riot in Chicago during the Democratic convention shocks the nation with its brutality. Chaos is erupting everywhere. After the assassinations and the civil unrest of the previous episodes, all-out political-warfare has begun. Nixon is going to win the election and lose the last semblance of trust between the citizens of America and their government.

Nothing will be the same for the country and its people, and SCDPCGC is still struggling to name itself.

The company is splitting apart just like the country, as Ginsberg so ineloquently puts it in an on-the-nose argument between Cutler and the mouthy creative force that is Ginsberg. The two companies aren’t meshing so much as working parallel and constantly looking for a way to stand out.

Cutler, in his impatience with the SCDP creative team, tasks Benson with babysitting Ginsberg on a lost cause campaign. Benson, who remains to be enigmatic in his infinite optimism, has turned into something of a magical wanderer in the show. He doesn’t seem to do any real work, but he’s always in the right place at the right time. Or, as he puts it, always in the right place, waiting for the right time.

He’s an interesting addition to the show, but I’m still waiting for him to feel like more than just a wandering plot device, constantly getting people out of bad situations. When’s he going to break? Will he break? How does he fit in? Or is the point that he never will?

Benson’s relationship with Joan was a good turn of events, but I’m confused as to why their partnership never materialized in this episode, the Joaniest of the season so far.

While meeting a man at a restaurant for what she thinks will be a date, Joan finds herself in the middle of settling a deal with Avon. However, in the interest of getting credit for a job well done, Joan leaves Pete out of the deal.

It’s a stupid career move that blows up in her face, but it strengthens the weak alliance between Peggy and Joan.

Joan’s attempt to gain strength as a businesswoman is admirable, but her risk may may not match the intended reward. In a company already suffering from too many fractures, Joan’s power play might cost her the relationship she has with “the only one who’s never broken a promise” to her.

I respect her confidence and her savvy, but it might be the only time I’ve ever seen Joan in a truly vulnerable position. In the conference room, Joan is shaky and terrified. It’s a position we’ve never seen her in, and it’s a tense moment.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Sterling, Don, and Harry have a meeting with Carnation and a party with Hollywood types in the hills.

Los Angeles has always been a source of comfort for Don, but the city turns into a strange nightmare as Don smokes hashish with a group of strangers and hallucinates.

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He sees Megan, who is a vision of all things hippy, totally fine with his wandering eye. He sees a soldier missing an arm, musing about being dead.

He sees himself, drowning in a pool.

Like the promotional poster for the season itself, Don watches himself from the outside, going in a different direction. Megan wants to live, the soldier lives even when he shouldn’t be able to, and Don is lying dead in a pool somewhere in Los Angeles.

Of course, he’s not dead. Roger saved him in a scene that resembled the moments following Roger’s heart attack. He’d said he’d return the favor.

Things are separating in the company and Don is separating within himself. The country is divided. The company, now just named Sterling Cooper and Partners (SC&P), is separated by an ampersand.

The division is growing, between Joan and Pete, between Cutler and Chaw, between Peggy and Chaw, between Megan and Don, and between the country and its own values.

That may be the theme of the episode, division, but there’s so much going on that we almost lose it.

A lack of clarity isn’t necessarily a problem, but all of the strings being pulled can become exhausting when you’ve got a week between each episode.

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  • Terry Barr

    It’s funny but whatever Don does, or thinks, or feels to or about anyone else, the one person he’s always consistent with is Pete, refusing ever to give Pete any boost, any compliment, hardly any acknowledgment at all. Pete should be smoking more!