Last week's Mad Men episode didn't bother to hide its 2001: A Space Odyssey fixation; it was named 'The Monolith," for Pete Campbell's sake! The spirit of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke presided over this week's episode — "The Runaways" — as well, however, and not just the scene where Michael Ginsberg lip-reads a conversation between Lou Avery and Jim Cutler in the glassed-in box that house's the firm's state-of-the-art computer. 2001 eventually develops into a fable about a machine that, given a semblance of human consciousness, develops some of the less admirable, more primitive human emotions: jealousy, fear, anger, and the urge to defend itself all costs. Likewise, Ginsburg, who took the destruction of SC&P's creative lounge (and the displacement of his beloved couch) to make way for a computerized tomorrow harder than anyone imagined, has come to believe himself under siege. Despite the "THINK" sign placed atop the machine, he's even form a coherent thought. The man is ready to explode until he removes his body's pressure valve — which he unfortunately has come to believe his right nipple.
Ginsberg handing Peggy Olsen a slice of his own flesh in a cardboard jewelry box — thoughtful to the end — is the strangest thing that happens here, but not by much. It's an odd and off-kilter episode, crammed with event and yet strangely diffuse, slowly preparing us for the mental breakdown in its final act. Before the wunderkind went Hannibal on himself, the most surprising incident was the menage à trois between Don Draper, his occasionally estranged wife Megan, and her female friend — the culmination of a series of moves Megan makes to try and get her husband's attention. He's drawn out to Los Angeles not by any compulsion to patch things up but by a phone call from Stephanie, the niece of the man whose identity he stole and perhaps the only living person who still calls him "Dick." She's pregnant and looks a little less Central Casting than the flower children who populated the commune Roger Sterling visited in last week's episodes, although the Capitol Records building looming over her shoulder as she placed the call was slightly hackneyed bit of scene setting. (Apparently the Hollywood sign was booked.)
Megan's already suffered the unpleasant surprise of thinking Don flew out just for the pleasure of her company once, so this time she deals with the competition in advance. She's all smiles for Stephanie at first, but it doesn't take long to dawn on her that this woman knows Don, or at least a piece of him, better than she ever will. The encounter turns awkward; Stephanie, with a professional transient's sense for when she's not wanted, makes her way to the door, a hastily written $1000 check in her hand. In theory, Megan wins this encounter, but where Stephanie's framed against the soft, sunlit expanse of the Hell-Ay apartment, Mrs. Draper is crowded into a kitchen corner, literally and figuratively up against the wall.
Megan throws a party, which at the moment is the only way she can find a crowd to perform in front of, and does a sexy(ish) dance with an unfamiliar man in an attempt to pique Don's jealousy. But it comes off as a sad echo of her sultry "Zou Bisou Bisou," and it's not even enough to get Don to come in off the porch. Her push for a three-way works, coming right after Don learns from Harry Crane that Lou and Jim are planning to push him out; there's still lead in Don's pencil, at least. But the morning after is a doozy. Sexual liberation works, but only for a pot-fueled night. Once the smoke has cleared, things go right back to the way they were.
"The Runaways" is organized around the theme of rebellion and authority, beginning with the discovery of Lou Avery's trial strips for a life-in-uniform comic strip called "Scout's Honor." Given the worsening situation in Vietnam — even Henry Francis, following in Richard Nixon's footsteps, has turned against it — the timing for a lighthearted look at Our Boys Over There couldn't be worse. (A telling confusion: One of Lou's underlings quips "He thinks he's Mort Drucker," confusing a Mad magazine artist with Beetle Bailey's Mort Walker.) But Lou interprets Stan and co.'s mockery of his idea as part of a general lack of respect for authority rather than a specific lack of respect for him, and makes them work late into a Friday night before smugly telling them he doesn't need to see anything until Monday. For him, the purpose of authority is to be wielded for its own sake.
At the Francis mansion, Henry's attempting to play the patriarch, but Betty, God bless her, is having none of it. When she shows up his shifting stance on the war in front of guests, he tries to slap her down; Betty feigns a headache and leaves him flying solo. Later, he berates her in their bedroom as Bobby listens in: "Keep your conversation to how much you hate getting toast crumbs in the butter, and leave the thinking to me." Still later, he tries to break up a confrontation between Betty and Sally by yelling, "Girls, girls!" as if his wife is just one more out-of-control teenager. But Betty is beginning to realize that Henry expects her to play the perfect wife in private as well as in public, twisting his words to make him see that he's treating her like "the help." As she reminds him, "I'm not stupid. I speak Italian."
"Time Zones," the first episode of Mad Men's seventh season, was organized around the idea of professional hierarchies. But those hierarchies are collapsing, or else becoming so tangled they no longer function. As a client pointed out last week, SC&P now has three creative directors — it's like a ship having three captains. It's only too fitting that the cigarette account Lou and Jim want to land is called "Commander": they'd love nothing more than to reestablish the chain of command, with themselves at the head of it. But as we head toward the mid-season finale in two weeks (the title: "Waterloo." Uh-oh) it's increasingly hard to tell who's in charge, or what that phrase even means any more.
Previously: Man vs. Machine