Well, we made it through the Mad Men speedball that was “The Crash” and the opiate that was “The Better Half” to arrive at “A Tale of Two Cities,” which, in my estimation, is one of the best episodes of the season. True, death still latched onto Don like a bad hangover and we came no closer to answering the “Who Is Bob Benson” question that has consumed the interwebs the past few weeks – despite his increasing presence – but everything about this John Slattery-directed episode just seemed to fall perfectly into place.
The sirens that literally sounded the alarm on the increasing violence in New York last week have made their way west to Chicago, where the Democratic National Convention (signifying that we’ve now hit late August 1968) and the accompanying riots have everyone from Don to Megan to Joan to Stan to Ginsberg glued to their TVs and radios. The schism between the Establishment and the younger generation has begun to spill over into the workplace as Ginsberg tears into Jim Cutler for supporting the war in Vietnam (playing fast and loose with the term “Nazi,” which may just be the result of his harrowing upbringing). Ironically, the one who spends most of the episode the most mellowed out is Don, who goes to L.A. with Roger and Harry to meet with their West Coast clients – and then ends up at a party in the Hollywood Hills. More on that later.
Back in New York, the focus is on Joan and Peggy, who, more so than Megan this episode, encapsulate the burgeoning liberated-woman role as Joan, fed up with being viewed as a secretary, goes above business protocol and single-handedly snatches up a new account. This unwillingness to play by the rules, as well as her burning desire to make a name for herself as a partner by doing something other than sleeping with a client, is symbolized in two songs played during the episode. One is “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” by Jeannie C. Riley, which can be heard during the Hollywood Hills party. The other is Big Brother and the Holding Company’s “Piece of My Heart,” which played over the closing credits. Both songs are sung by strong, tough women who refuse to take any shit from men, and they couldn’t have been better choices for the Joan/Peggy story line. Incidentally, when I asked Matt Weiner back in April if he could name one song that represented the mood of 1968, his answer was Janis Joplin singing “Piece of My Heart.” So even then he was hinting at the importance of this particular episode, though he couldn’t reveal the song’s usage at the time.
Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves
Joan is on what she thinks is a blind date orchestrated by her friend Kate, but it turns out all Avon’s new head of marketing, Andy Hayes, was after was a little advertising advice. Joan’s hardly bummed over this failed shot at romance. In fact, she’s giddy over the possibility of bringing in some new business. But when Ted orders Pete and Peggy to take the initial meeting instead, Joan takes matters into her own hands, which is pretty easy considering that she was told to make all the arrangements (again, still the secretary). Pete is deliberately not invited to the power breakfast, putting Peggy in a superawkward position that leads to an incredible scene between the two women in the office lobby after they both worked their advertising magic on Andy. Peggy reprimands Joan for going over Ted’s and Pete’s heads, because now she’ll probably never get to work on the account once they get wind of her underhanded maneuver. But what was more powerful about this scene was how Peggy finally got to unleash eight years of frustration on Joan for her passive-aggressive treatment once she became a copywriter: “You made me feel like I couldn’t do it,” she tells Joan. Seeing people break the rules, be they male or female is a nasty thorn in Peggy’s side because, as she reminds Joan, she worked her way up. Except Joan reveals she always thought Peggy’s success was the result of having slept with Don. Peggy sets her straight, but Joan is firm in her resolve: “I have to do it myself, Peggy. This is the only way I could do it.” Given how everyone at the company views her after Jaguar, Joan is right. She could only prove her worth by overstepping her bounds.
But this doesn’t excuse the fact that, in Pete’s infuriated words, Joan’s actions were a “breach of the fundamental rules of this business.” As Joan is reamed out in the conference room by Pete and a much-calmer Ted, she is just about to be forced into admitting her transgression when a quick-thinking Peggy sends Meredith in with a fake message from Andy Hayes, effectively saving Joan’s ass. To Ted, what matters is new business was brought in, no matter how it was done. “Pete, we’re all working together,” he says, still cool as a cucumber.
Now that Don is back from L.A., Pete storms into his office to stomp his feet over this latest injustice, but he’s interrupted by an announcement by Jim, Ted and Bert (Joan is noticeably uninvited) who have finally settled on a new name for the firm: Sterling Cooper and Partners. It’s a blow to the ego for Don, Ted, Jim, Pete and Joan, yet everyone except Pete seems to be taking this decision with grace and dignity. Once he’s alone with Don, Pete whines that “this is not the same business anymore.” Don, who would rather see Pete actually do business rather than complain about it, tells him, “If you don’t like it, maybe it’s time to get out of the business.” It’s unlikely Pete will head out to Wichita, as Duck Phillips suggested last episode, but one thing is for sure, he’s had enough of the daily grind. He walks into the creative lounge (a.k.a the anti-Establishment clubhouse), relieves Stan of his joint and takes a long, slow drag as the opening chords to “Piece of My Heart” wail in the background. The slow-motion effect of the smoke exhaling from his lungs as he ogles a yellow-minidress-wearing office girl walking by signals that even the most straitlaced members of the older generation can’t escape the allure of the omnipresent counterculture.
While Joan was pulling a Tess McGill and Jim and Ted were figuring out how to not make their firm sound like a doctor’s eye chart in New York, Don was off having the 1968 version of his lost weekend from Season Two. Harry takes him and Roger to a Hollywood Hills party, complete with women named Lotus, hookahs and Jane Sterling’s cousin Danny – now a hotshot producer in a dashiki, love beads and a mustache. In fact, the only thing missing was Jeff Goldblum trying to remember his mantra. I was just happy that Megan couldn’t join her husband on this California trip because the conspiracy theories that she’s Sharon Tate are freaking me out a little too much. Don loosened up enough to get his lips around a hookah “nipple,” but all it got him was a hallucination of a long-haired, headband-wearing hippie version of Megan who announced she’s pregnant, and oh, Pfc. Dinkins, the groom from Hawaii, now dead and missing an arm, showed up to spook Don into thinking that he too had died. There he was, floating facedown in the pool – until Roger slapped him awake. We’ll never know if Don had an “I am a golden god!” moment, but he definitely was in that pool, judging by his drenched face and clothes. I thought it was a nice touch that as soon as he was back in the office (he went straight from the airport) that he had Dawn get Megan on the phone. I’m cynical enough to know that their marriage is doomed, but I do enjoy seeing Don trying to do the right thing every now and then.
So, Bob Benson. What did we learn this week? He likes to listen to the audio version of the self-help book How I Raised Myself From Failure to Success in Selling. Does this mean he’s on his second career? And he’s succeeded in winning over Jim Cutler after he chastised Ginsberg for being insubordinate toward his superior, so much so that even after a botched meeting with Manischewitz, Jim puts Bob on the Chevy account. If anything, judging by this episode, he’s just a nicer version of Pete Campbell.
Previously: Only the Lonely