This is actually a tale of quite a few cities.
Sure, the duality of last week’s “The Better Half” carries over here, but the division in this week’s Mad Men isn’t just a New York vs. Los Angeles thing anymore. It’s Chicago, where the whole nation looks on in horror as cops clash with protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It’s Montreal—two cities in one—where French and Anglo citizens work around a language barrier every day and where Megan was raised. It’s Detroit, where Ted finally catches a glimpse of that mystery car. And of course, it’s London and Paris hundreds of years earlier in the novel this week’s episode takes its name from, when Charles Dickens’ characters were dealing with a revolution of their own.
No, the real divides here—between young and old, anti-war and pro-war, those who question authority and those who blindly accept it—have been been depicted on the show in the past, but the indication in “A Tale of Two Cities” is that we’ve reached the point where they’re everywhere, where the battle is being fought on multiple fronts. The riots in Chicago set the tone for the episode, and after we open on footage of the convention, we head to the agency for a partners’ meeting, where like the delegates gathered in the Windy City, our guys are trying to decide on a name to represent them. SCDPCGC is a mouthful, and no one’s thrilled about having their name dropped from the ticket so to speak, so the discussion’s tabled until Don, Roger and Harry return from their L.A. meeting with Carnation instant breakfast.
On the plane ride over, Roger seems to think they’ll wow the clients by simply showing up. “We are big New York ad men,” he tells Don. “Be slick, be glib, be you.” Once they land, Don retires to his hotel room, where he gets a long-distance phone call from an upset Megan as they watch the riots unfold on TV. It’s obvious the generational divide exists within their own household—their own marriage—as a shocked Megan asks, “Can you imagine a policeman bashing your skull? It would change your whole life.” “Honey, they were throwing rocks. They knew what they were getting into,” Don responds. When he realizes how upset Megan is, he reminds her she can’t even vote. “Yes, but I live here,” she says, taken aback.
The next morning the riots are still on everyone’s mind, and politics creep into the small-talk that opens the meeting with Carnation before one man—Jack—shuts it down. “This is a business meeting,” he roars. “Those long-haired fools shame this country.” It’s clear that California isn’t just the forward-thinking hippie paradise Don likes to escape to from time to time. The conversation then shifts to the agency’s attitude. Carnation feels as though they’re being treated like a bunch of rubes (because they are, particularly by Roger), and the rest of the meeting is tense and unproductive. Afterwards, with Harry as their White Rabbit, Roger and Don explore a wonderland of L.A. house parties, where they’re each surprised by how much they don’t fit in. Roger runs into Danny, the hapless wannabe ad man who is cousins with his ex-wife Jane. He’s Daniel now, in full hippie regalia, and he’s a Hollywood hotshot working on a film adaptation of—you guessed it—Alice in Wonderland. Roger (who seems to think showing up to parties in yachting outfits is what all the kids are doing these days) can’t resist the opportunity to make fun of him, but when he crosses the line by trying to take home Danny’s date, Lotus, he winds up getting punched in the nuts. Ouch.
Don’s experience, on the other hand, is less painful but near-fatal. He smokes hash with a group of hippies he stumbles upon, and although no one blew smoke rings like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, his question of “Who are you?” is one that’s been posed to Don on multiple occasions throughout the series. So Don wanders further down the rabbit hole, and he winds up making out with some blonde before he’s tapped on the shoulder and interrupted by…Megan? It’s obvious right away that this is some sort of dream or hallucination sequence, as Megan’s got long hair and is dressed like a hippie. Don’s caught off guard and tries to offer an explanation for cheating, but Megan dismisses it with “It’s California. Everybody shares” before revealing she has quit acting and is pregnant with “a second chance.” She leads Don down a hallway before turning into the soldier Don swapped lighters with in the season premiere. He’s in uniform, missing an arm now, and after he reveals he died in combat, Don asks, “How come you didn’t get your arm back?” “Dying doesn’t make you whole,” he responds, and Don wanders outside to the pool, where he sees himself face-down in the pool before he’s revived by Roger and whisked back into his body.
Last week the Internet exploded with a theory that Megan will be murdered this season after she wore the same shirt Sharon Tate wore in a 1967 issue of Esquire, and this episode didn’t exactly do anything to debunk it. Was she with Don and the soldier in some sort of afterlife? After the trip, Don goes straight to the office, and we don’t see him return home this episode. Is it possible he’ll return to his apartment to find Megan dead? More likely than not it’s just a red herring, or perhaps a metaphor for their dying marriage (I mean, c’mon. Don’s idea of heaven is a wife who lets him make out with other women, abandons her dreams for him and gets pregnant with a baby she doesn’t want), but it’s fun to think about. Either way, California—and more specifically, the water—has turned on Don. It’s been his personal sanctuary for years now, and swimming has always signaled rebirth for him (think of his baptismal dip in the ocean in season two’s “The Mountain King” or swimming laps in season four’s “The Summer Man” as a way to get his drinking under control and straighten his head after some post-divorce depression). That’s why, when on the plane ride home, Roger tells him “you’re a terrible swimmer,” we have to sit back and wonder what’s changed.
Meanwhile, the revolution continues at home while Don and Roger are away. Cutler and Ginsberg get into a shouting match about the war, and that pesky Bob Benson intervenes (but not before Cutler asks what we’re all thinking: “Why are you always down here?! Go back upstairs”). Joan thinks she’s on a blind date (I guess she and Bob aren’t exclusive?) with the head of marketing for Avon, but it turns out he’s just interested in business. Hippies don’t wear makeup, and they’re not sure if they should go groovier or more nostalgic. She’s excited about the prospect of bringing in an account, and when she’s told to leave the rest to Peggy and Pete, she goes behind everyone’s back and schedules the meeting without Pete. He’s outraged of course, rambling on about chains of command and systems and running to tell Ted, and it looks like Joan’s in trouble, before Peggy swoops in and has Meredith lie about Avon being on the phone for her. The power dynamic between these two has completely shifted, and although she has Joan’s back, Peggy’s not happy about it. She confronts Joan about sleeping with Herb from Jaguar and reveals she’s disgusted by the whole thing. “I know you can do this,” she tells her. “This is the only way I could do it,” Joan responds, and it’s obvious we’re looking at two different generations of women here (remember, Peggy’s still in her 20s, while Joan’s gotta be in her mid-to-late 30s at this point). Joan feels as though using her sexuality is the only way she can break through the glass ceiling because that’s what was ingrained in her from an early age. And regardless of how she did it, the fact remains she did, which threatens Pete. By the end of the episode, however, the old adage “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” seems to be the new strategy, as the partners agree to the new name Sterling Cooper & Partners. This is the last straw for Pete, who wanted his name on that door, but when he goes to complain to Don, he’s told that things are different now and “if you don’t like it, maybe you should leave.” So instead, stuffy, straight-laced Pete Campbell—Pete, who doesn’t even smoke cigarettes—marches right out, snatches a joint out of Stan’s hand and takes a hit in slow motion as Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” plays us out.
Hey, it was Bob Dylan who said “you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone for the times they are a-changin’,” and after his symbolic brush with death, Don knows this better than anyone.
-No coincidence that after Ginsberg has his meltdown about being a hypocrite for working in advertising, we hear “Harper Valley PTA” (“Then you have the nerve to tell me you think that as a mother I’m not fit /Well, this is just a little Peyton Place and you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites”) playing at the party in California.
-Was Joan’s floral dress her own version of hippie chic? It’d fit with her rebellion this episode.
-Bob blows the Manischewitz meeting but instead gets a promotion—he’ll be working with Ken on Chevy. Seriously, who IS this guy?
-”Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” Is Ginsberg’s mid-freakout quoting of Robert Oppenheimer (quoting the Bhagavad Gita) merely him grappling with his own hypocrisy, or is it foreshadowing some catastrophe later in the season?
-”There’s a pool full of water out there, Don.”
-After Ted mentions that the guy at Chevy who’s dissatisfied with their work is named “Jack Something, just like all of them,” we see that the Carnation guy is also named Jack.
-We never see how Don got in the pool. Was he just stoned and careless, or did he mean to jump in? Was his suicidal Hawaii ad from the premiere hinting at this?