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'Mad Men': Hallucinations And Love Songs Are Often Mistaken For One And The Same

Jane Sterling (Peyton List) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery) made progress, in a way, on Sunday night's <em>Mad Men</em>.
Jordin Althaus
Jane Sterling (Peyton List) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery) made progress, in a way, on Sunday night's Mad Men.

Sunday night's Mad Men took 20 minutes or so to reveal its structure. We watched Peggy Olson fight with her boyfriend, flame out at the Heinz presentation, take herself to the movies, smoke a joint with a stranger, hook up with him (after a fashion) in the dark, return to the office, hear the sad story of Michael Ginsburg, and then meet up with her boyfriend again. Only a mysterious, frantic phone call from Don suggested that there were pieces missing.

And then, of course, we circled back to Roger's story of the same day, and then to Don and Megan's. The fact that both Peggy and Roger spent a significant chunk of their respective stories on drugs, of course, added to the generally disorienting feeling of the episode. Of course, Peggy just smoked pot, while Roger and Jane went off to a party to drop LSD with her psychiatrist, which is substantially more ambitious, experience-wise. (Don and Megan didn't do anything stronger than orange sherbet, and figuratively speaking, she did not inhale.)

Peggy's story is part of a slow build – part of her broader, and probably doomed, effort to become Don. She tried to handle the Heinz guy's displeasure with her pitch as aggressively and contemptuously as Don would, and she learned that that's not for everyone, that approach. The totally one-sided encounter with the guy in the theater seemed to be about, more than anything, wanting someone to be happy with her in a situation where she can't make anyone happy at work or at home. The Peggy story was strong because it seemed to move her somewhere with regard to several important relationships, including her relationship with Don, whom she barely saw.

The problem with Roger's story was the same as the problem with most stories about people who are on drugs. Watching other people get drunk or high is not in and of itself particularly entertaining, whether in real life or on television. Roger's encounter with the bottle of booze – which boomed with music when he opened it – was funny, but entirely too much of the rest of his story was devoted to using hallucinations to underline, somewhat obviously, things we already knew. He fears aging, he longs for a simpler time, he feels Don's judgment hanging over the way he behaves – this has all been made clear before. John Slattery gave High Roger his all, but only his final conversation with Jane, in which they agreed to end their marriage, really resonated. Maybe the dissociative experience of hallucinating was the only thing that could have brought them to that point, so perhaps it was narratively necessary, but it wound up seeming a little ... gimmicky, the camera tricks and so forth.

The Don and Megan story had a number of excellent and necessary moments. There was a surprising amount of "This marriage works very well, because they really get each other" analysis going around after "Zou Bisou Bisou" and the later quasi-violent sex scene in the season premiere, and it was a relief to see the show deal with the fact that this marriage is, in fact, ridiculous, and it is based on the same fundamental lack of respect that marks Don's other relationships with women.

This was as clear as the show has been about the fact that this was not play – Megan was genuinely frightened of him when she was running away in the apartment. Don may believe that this is somehow connected to the vision of her crawling around in her underwear and baiting him earlier in the season, which felt at least partially voluntary (though perhaps something she was doing for his benefit and not her own), but this was purely anger on one side and fear on the other. He certainly had reason to be upset about her bringing up his mother, but he was already being unkind and controlling before that – she was absolutely right that he showed no respect for her work when he hauled her out of the office. Driving off and leaving her behind was an entirely different level of wrong. Coming home and kicking in the door did nothing to make him seem less creepy and unstable, and then they argued, he somehow blamed her for the fact that he "thought [she was] dead," she tearfully went to slap him, and then he grabbed her, and when she got away from him, he chased her. They certainly both played a role in escalating it, but he never physically fears her, while she palpably fears him, for good reason.

If there was a disappointment in that final scene with Don and Megan, it was the familiar sight of Don sort of pathetically whimpering up against her and being taken back, which is a rhythm that's already very familiar: he violently explodes, and women wind up comforting him and/or wanting him more. Unlike Peggy's story and Roger's story, Don's story seemed to advance and then retreat. Obviously, we're being prepared for further marital problems, but watching another Draper marriage break down so soon feels a little familiar, no matter how different Betty and Megan are. There's certainly rich material to be mined here, which is to deal with the fact that the common element in Don's bad, weird relationships is Don. Both Betty and Megan have been, at times, widely derided characters (especially Betty), but it is sincerely to be hoped that Mad Men has now turned the corner toward forcing Don Draper to recognize that Don Draper is scary and violent because of himself, and not because he had a chilly, spoiled wife. His insistence to Pete last week that he wouldn't have cheated on Megan if he'd met her first – that is, that his cheating was Betty's fault – is the kind of delusional nonsense that we may well be about to see him forced to confront.

Mad Men is, at times, its own worst enemy. It is at its strongest with simple, compelling stories, and with surprising notes of humor, like last week's Lane/Pete fistfight. But for all its beauty and quality and wisdom and well-deserved accolades, it's also a show that gets in its own way from time to time with a lot of ostentatious technique, and having a time-jumping episode so soon after a dream-sequence episode suggests that there's only going to be more of that to come.

No one would want the show to stop being thoughtful and multilayered, certainly. Costume designer Janie Bryant does beautiful, subtle things with costumes, for instance, that only become evident to the people who choose to spend a lot of time breaking them down. But there are times when the announcement of what's going on becomes distractingly heavy-handed, as it was when Roger pondered his age as the Beach Boys' "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" wailed in the background. There's a fine line between "delicate, complex explication of themes" and "OH FOR CRYING OUT LOUD I GET IT ALREADY," and that song choice was firmly on the wrong side of it.

This was an episode that was, in the end, perhaps a little long on cleverness. It got its strongest moments from its simplest ones: Michael and Peggy talking, Roger and Jane talking, Megan reacting in obvious terror to her own husband. It probably didn't need quite so much signaling of so many different kinds, and it probably didn't even need the odd structure. It didn't even need LSD. It might, however, have needed the orange sherbet.

[The headline is mercilessly stolen from the absolutely gorgeous, heart-ripping Paul Simon song, "Train In The Distance," which feels more like a broken heart than any other song I've ever heard.]

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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