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The Trip: Far Away Places on Mad Men

“Every time we fight, it just diminishes this a little bit..."

There was a definite feel of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction to the latest installment of Mad Men, ("Far Away Places"), written by Semi Chellas and Matthew Weiner and directed by Scott Hornbacher, as the show went into uncharted territory, giving the viewer a series of interlocking and parallel stories that folded in on themselves, narrative origami that delved into the nature of truth and honesty, as well as perception. Laced with LSD, the episode may prove to be a divisive one: part of the effort depended on just how quickly one realized that the triptych's stories were occurring simultaneously and that there was a reset each time between the three plots (Peggy, Roger, Don). (Otherwise, you may have felt that you yourself had taken something.)

But there is also inherent interest to be had in pulling apart why these three individuals were cast in these particular stories, all of which revolved around taking a trip of some kind, stepping outside of their respective routines or senses of self to ultimately reach some hard truths about themselves. In their respective plots, they aren't coming together so much as they are falling apart, breaking down the bonds that exist between them to cast themselves as somehow independent and isolated, wounding their respective partners by falling into patterns that are unsympathetic or outright cruel, indulging in behavior that is perhaps "wrong" but pushes them to pursue a particular path. Whether that's back to where they were or someplace far away is up to them.

But there are questions that are kicked up by the dream-like and non-linear episode: Is there an absolute truth to be found in transgressive behavior? Does casting off our individual normative routines free us somehow? Is it beauty or folly?

Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) is clearly trying to fashion herself into Don Draper (Jon Hamm), and the episode plays up these similarities: her shocking display at the Heinz pitch, the camera holding on her lighting up a cigarette, indulging in a drink or four during the work day, and Peggy literally replacing Don within his own office. At the end of the day, she casts herself in the role of a Don Draper manqué, unhappily slumbering on the couch in his office until Dawn wakes her up.

Peggy's failure throughout the day--both with her boyfriend Abe (Charlie Hofheimer) and with the Heinz pitch--stem from the fact that she's a woman, a fact that's thrown back in her face by her lover and her client. Abe chides her for being like his father, needing a minute after coming home to find her equilibrium before being with him, obsessing over the missing violet candies, focusing always on work, putting her career before her family, before--seemingly--her own happiness, as defined by Abe.

Likewise, Don would have gotten away with telling the client the truth ("It’s young and it’s beautiful, and no one else is going to figure out how to say that about beans!"), and would have convinced said client to run with the campaign for its inherent beauty, nostalgia, etc. But Peggy is not Don, and she doesn't have the luxury of being a well-dressed, attractive man, one whose cast-off charisma is intoxicating to be around. Instead, Raymond (John Sloman) casts her in the role of his uppity teenage daughter, seeing her explosion as a tantrum rather than as something that's convincing or true. He fails to find an element of truth in her combative statement--which is, of course, not only true but apt--instead refusing to see her as independent of Don or as a replacement for him. Not surprisingly, Peggy is removed from the account, really for just telling the truth in the same way that Don has time and time again.

Her trip is an afternoon movie, fittingly Born Free, and she indulges in some marijuana and a furtive cinema handjob with a stranger (Joseph Williamson), wherein she asserts her own dominance over the encounter. Rather than allow herself to be pleasured by this stranger, to be passive and submissive in their encounter, Peggy reverses the situation, casting herself in the role of active participant in this anonymous semi-sex, attempting to fulfill her efforts to become Don Draper, the male pursuer, the one with power in the encounter.

Is it fulfilling? Has her transgression put her closer to an absolute truth? At the office, she literally washes her hands of the entire encounter, placing it into some dark file drawer in her mind. But her return puts her in the office just in time to eavesdrop on another awkward conversation between Ginsburg (Ben Feldman) and his father Morris (Stephen Mendel), which in turn leads to a moment of truth between Ginsburg and Peggy, albeit one that's couched in fictional terms. While Ginsburg casts himself as a Martian in his spoken autobiography, the truth tumbles out as well: he was born in a concentration camp, which somehow seems less true than if Michael really was was from Mars. But the fictionalization of his story is the only way Michael knows how to convey the horrible truth of the circumstances of his birth. In his own act of (minor) transgression, there is an absolute truth to his story: he is an outsider, searching for another of his kind, born in a far away place that's utterly unknowable except to those who experienced it firsthand.

Likewise, Peggy's own actions propel her back to Abe in a way. Calling him from her darkened apartment, she summons him over, saying that she "always" needs him. It's an apology, but it's also a plea. She doesn't want to be the only one of her kind, cast adrift in a place that's not home and never will be, without a tether, without an anchor. Without, really, a guide.

The notion of a guide echoes throughout the episode as well: unspoken in Peggy's story, a guide actively appears in the segment of the episode devoted to Roger (John Slattery), whose journey to truth takes him on an LSD-fueled vision quest with his wife Jane (Peyton List) when they attend a dinner party thrown by Jane's psychiatrist Catherine Orcutt (Bess Armstrong, yes from My So-Called Life), who hands out LSD--on a perfect silver tray of sugar cubes--while her husband Sandy (Tony Pasqualini) acts as their guide.

While we're not privy to what Jane experiences, the viewer is invited inside Roger's acid trip, one in which bottles of vodka become symphonic orchestras, his hair is turned half-black, he can experience the 1919 World Series, and Don arrives in his psyche as perhaps some sort of spirit guide through his subconscious. There's a lucid dream quality to the narrative here, a Lynchian atmosphere in which the inherent truth of everything--including inanimate objects, such as the bottle of vodka--suddenly becomes fluid and transformative.

There's also a sad, somber quality as well: the sight of Jane and Roger slowly dancing together at Catherine's apartment, the sense that they've stumbled into something beautiful and also tragic. That yellow rose she holds in the cab becomes nothing more than yellow petals cast over the rumpled sheets of their bed. The beauty of a rose is always transitory and fleeting: it reminds us that nothing lasts forever. Once cut, it's already in a state of dying.

Which can be applied to the marriage of Jane and Roger as well. Their trip enables them to speak the truth that they've been denying for so long, that their marriage is over and they're each waiting for the other to end it outright. This shared trip through the subconscious minefield of their relationship is the last one they'll take together, but the elimination of their boundaries and inhibitions allow them to speak aloud the uncomfortable truths they've been carting around for so long. The following morning, however, once they've reestablished those "norms" in their routine, it's Jane who can't come to terms with what's been said, what was admitted during their journey. Her knowledge that the marriage is over, that they're essentially leaving each other, is erased in the harsh light of morning. Instead, she returns too to her own normative position: if he wants a divorce, it's going to be expensive.

Their shared night of beauty--that bath, the talk on the floor (which is echoed as well in the Don/Megan storyline, though with a vastly different tone)--may have been true and honest, but the fact remains that divorce is an expensive business and whatever truths were uncovered may be absolute but it doesn't diminish our mercenary natures. The rose may be dead, but someone has to pay for it, after all.

Just as Roger and Jane fall apart, so too do Don and Megan (Jessica Paré) on their own trip. Theirs is a more literal journey, a trek to a Howard Johnson in Plattsburg, but what occurs on their trip is destructive and revealing, kicking up uncomfortable truths about the nature of their relationship and how Don sees Megan. The phone call that occurs in the Peggy segment--in which a near-hysterical Don calls the office frantically asking if anyone has called--is meant foreshadow a sense of dread within this part of the triptych. Just why is Don so sweaty and freaked out? Is he also on something? Whose call is he waiting for? Why is he so scared? It's here that the episode fulfills the promise of its non-linear narrative, giving us a part of a puzzle early on and then filling in the blanks by returning to the past before coming full circle. By withholding the nature of Don's distress, Weiner gives us a tantalizing mystery. The truth is also out of our own reach as viewers, until we too go on a journey of sorts to discover why Don is making that phone call.

The domesticity of Don and Megan's car trip (hell, they're headed for, of all places, Lake Placid) is at odds with how Don proposes they take this journey together. Rather than offer her the option of joining him (it's Roger's idea, after all), Don forces her to come along, viewing her as largely an extension of his own self rather than as an independent being, one who can make up her own mind and who perhaps does value her job. We've been told in numerous episodes that there are work-related benefits to being married to Don Draper, but Megan doesn't see this as one of those perks; rather, it pulls her out of her own ordered routine. But if Peggy seems hell-bent on becoming Don, here it feels as though Don is becoming Roger, his younger trophy wife suddenly not so enchanted by his behavior or attitude.

It's the small things that can often blow up in our faces the most, and here it's Don's refusal to let Megan order her own dessert--instead foisting the orange sherbet on her--that lead to a meltdown in which Megan downs a ton of ice cream and then Don ultimately leaves her in the parking lot of a Howard Johnson. His cruelty here is deeply felt, stranding Megan in an unfamiliar place while he heads out to who knows where. While Roger and Jane go on a shared journey, there's a sense here that Don and Megan are on different trajectories altogether, embarking on separate trips altogether. While Don waits in Plattsburg, he tries to track down Megan, hoping that she'll return before he sets out for Manhattan, only to discover that she herself went back to the city.

Before we get to their fateful encounter, there's a dream-like aura to this story as well, which isn't fueled by recreational drugs but by fear and paranoia. But even before Megan's disappearance, there's a hyper-real nature to the segment, everything is filled with super-saturated colors (including that of the Howard Johnson itself, something commented on by several characters), from the decor to the orange sherbet itself, lending everything that unfolds a sense of heightened reality that connects with both Peggy and Roger's narratives. Don's remembered flashback--which again puts Megan in the role of guide, giving her a map and a destination--is a stark reminder of the first blush of love and of a seemingly idyllic moment in time: the kids tucked up in the backseat (Mickey Mouse ears a souvenir of their trip to Disneyland), a Beatles song whistled in the air. But here the car is empty; Don is alone. He has no guide but himself, no destination but perhaps an empty house. A brightly colored hotel isn't the "destination" but ultimately a stop on the way to somewhere else. Or even back home, where things have perhaps changed forever.

Don has to kick down the door to his home to get to Megan, and then literally pursues her frantically around the apartment, as they collide with furniture and lamps, leaving destruction in their wake. He actually tackles her and throws her to the ground in the sunken living room, almost perfectly on the spot where she serenaded him earlier this season. Nightmarish and fueled by violence and a notion of male domination, their encounter is brimming with powerful truths about their marriage. Megan half-jokingly refers to Don as her "master," but there's something to the notion that he's controlling her, ordering her food, determining what her day will hold at home and at work. Don just wants to possess her, to hold her close. His tearful words to her (“I thought I lost you.") as they embrace at odds with the savagery of his pursuit through their home. But is their shared smile at work later that morning the truth? Are they happy and content? Or is there a secret war between them, a panicked flight through the state, through their home? Can they get past this? Or has their journey simply revealed their own inherent flaws to themselves and each other?

It's Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) who has one final piece of truth to dole out, reminding Don that he's been on a trip this whole time, "love leave" in fact, which has meant that he hasn't been present. He's been to a "far away place" this entire season, basking in the glow of his new marriage, falling into the same distracted traps that Roger has time and time again. His absence--whether physical or intellectual--has put the firm in jeopardy. It's another pall cast on the day, another truth that's too jagged for Don to swallow. Roger may see it as a "beautiful day," but I can't help but see darkness and pain to come.

What was your take on the episode? Did it warrant the non-linear treatment? Did you feel as though the characters' transgressive acts moved them closer to an understanding of them and their respective spheres? What happens to these truths, unboxed and exposed, once we return to our regular lives again? Do we pack them up and pretend they don't exist, smiling in the hallway, or do we attempt to confront them head on once more? Hmmm... Personally, I found a lot to reflect about here, and I'm glad that I--as always--took the night to think about the episode and turn it over in my head a few more times before sitting down to write about it. Ultimately, "Far Away Places" is a vision quest that requires us to parse the meaning of the iconography and psychic landmarks along the journey. Alternately surreal and gut-wrenching, it's a journey I'm glad that we as viewers--and the show itself--took.

Next week on Mad Men ("At the Codfish Ball"), Don, Roger and Pete attempt to bring in new business; Sally comes to the aid of a relative.

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