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Dark Side of the 'Mad Men': The Pink Floyd/Sterling Cooper Connection

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Jon Hamm as Don Draper in 'Mad Men' and Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side of The Moon'
Jon Hamm as Don Draper in 'Mad Men,' with Pink Floyd's 'The Dark Side of The Moon.'
Frank Ockenfels/AMC; Courtesy of Harvest Records.

Mad Men fever is raging everywhere, with just a few more days before the excellent two-hour season premiere. How do you endure the agonizing suspense, while preparing to jump back into the story? You reappreciate the glories of last season. Which can only mean one thing: Roger Sterling's acid trip synched up with Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon. Let's do this.

They might seem like an odd pair, but Pink Floyd and Mad Men share the same crucial themes: Time. Money. Home. Alienation. The passing of youth. The fear of death. And hanging on in quiet desperation, which is the Sterling Cooper way. Mad Men finally got psychedelic last year with the pivotal episode "Far Away Places," as Roger became the first of these Sixties guys to try LSD. That turns the Pink Floyd/Mad Men connection into a whole new trip. Floyd had an "Interstellar Overdrive." So will this be an "Intersterling Cooperdrive"? Or more like The Draper at the Gates of Don?

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There's only one way to find out: Cue up Side One of Dark Side – on vinyl, preferably a scratchy beat-up copy with bongwater stains – and put on "Far Away Places," Episode Six of Season Five, set in the summer of 1966. When you watch Mad Men with a Floyd soundtrack,  the strangest things start appearing, just like The Wizard of Oz. (The first time Don Draper smoked weed, back in 1960, he said, "I feel like Dorothy. Everything just turned to color.") Don is a total Pink Floyd character, right? He fritters away the moments that make up his dull day, he works his run-rabbit-run hustle, but where does it get him? Shorter of breath, and one day closer to Sally changing her name to Saffron and hitch-hiking out to the West Coast. (But only getting as far as a macrobiotic commune in Fort Wayne). And Don turned 40 last season, just as Dark Side did last month.

Drop the needle on the record right when the episode hits the 7-minute point, as Peggy Olson walks out of the office in a daze. Those introductory heartbeats fade in, weaving into the stereo-shifting sound effects of "Speak to Me." Bert Cooper speaks (just like the gnomic old man who does the spoken-word comments on Dark Side): "Everybody has somewhere to go today!" Peggy hears the heartbeats as she steps into the elevator. She's always been mad. She knows she's been mad.

Peggy does have somewhere to go: Her afternoon weed break at the movies, watching Born Free while bumming a joint from a stranger who looks like Nick Mason circa 1966. She takes her first toke as the guitars of "Breathe" kick in, and we're officially under way. As Roger Waters and David Gilmour harmonize, Peggy breathes in the air, and she's not afraid to care, or at least to stroke off the Nick Mason guy. ("All you touch and all you see," eh?)

Then Ginsberg tells a way-stoned Peggy about being born on Mars, to the spacey synth loop of "On the Run." His face gets mirrored in the night window as he claims he's "full-blooded Martian." Lane might not approve, but he's not in this episode – this is where he essentially vanished from the story. Poor Lane is the Syd Barrett of Mad Men, the doomed English-schoolboy figure whose absence looms over everything. Wish you were here, Lane. Shine on, you crazy chocolate-bunny-loving diamond.

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For "Time," the timeline jumps back a few hours and the action shifts to Roger Sterling. The majestic opening chords ring out as Roger rides the elevator up to the fateful LSD party. He swallows the sugarcube and gets dosed by the mom from My So-Called Life. The Julie Christie-esque blonde crawls on the floor sobbing "I don't wanna die," to the piano chords of "The Great Gig in the Sky," with that Bert Cooper-esque old man muttering, "I am not frightened of dying." The song hits its soul-scream crescendo as Roger freaks out in the mirror, where he sees Don, always the Gilmour to Roger's Waters.

Flip the record for Side Two, and the jingling cash registers of "Money" take over, cued by the hallucination of Cooper's face on the five-dollar bill. Roger and Jane trip together (Roger: "What time is it?" Jane: "How could a few numbers contain all of time?") until they break up in the morning. She warns, "It's going to be expensive." Roger says, "I know." Money, it's a hit, so don't give him that goody-goody-goody bullshit.

Don and Megan have their awful Howard Johnsons meltdown to "Us and Them," a song of conflict. (The scene, like the song, goes on a little long.) "Any Colour You Like," of course, refers to HoJo's flavors of sherbert, although it turns out Megan doesn't like any of them. Don flashes back to happier times in the car with Megan, whistling the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand." (Which was recorded, like Dark Side, at Abbey Road, and engineered by Piper at the Gates of Dawn producer Norman Smith.)

It all ends with "Brain Damage/Eclipse." After his long night of despair, Don returns to the office a haunted man, the type who shouts but no one seems to hear. We see Don's face at the the line, "There's someone in my head, but it's not me." Bert Cooper is the lunatic on the couch, muttering his cryptic prophecies. Yet there's an eclipse as Roger pops in his head and smiles: "I have an announcement to make. It's gonna be a beautiful day!" Everything under the sun is in tune.

But then the joyful organ of "Eclipse" fades out and we hear those ominious final heartbeats as Don sits alone in the half-darkness, unsure about whether this bright new day has any place for him.

And as always, that's where Mad Men leaves us: There is no dark side of Don Draper, really. Matter of fact, he's all dark.

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

Rob Sheffield

Rob Sheffield is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, where he writes about music, TV and pop culture. He is the author of two books, Talking To Girls About Duran Duran and Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time.

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