One of the hardest lessons from the late ‘60s was that there’s a fine line between rebellion and hedonism, that freeing yourself from all authority can quickly take a dark turn. The Summer of Love is already in Mad Men’s rearview mirror, and we’ve certainly felt the shift in some ways: the hip, artsy types who experimented with drugs to expand their minds are now full-blown heroin addicts. Free love becomes an escape from any real intimacy and, as the country would come to figure out a few decades later during the AIDS crisis, is not without its consequences. And of course, the innocent “peace, love, flowers in your hair” vibes that had been slowly but surely undermined by riots and assassinations were lost forever when the Manson Family murders (which the show’s been not-so-subtly building up to for weeks now—more on that later) brought the whole decade to a bloody, horrific conclusion. Challenging authority, demanding equal rights, standing up for what you believe—these are all obviously admirable, important things that we should always try to do. But we all have to report to some authority, even if it’s just our own conscience, or else the whole thing starts to turn into The Lord of the Flies. It’s a fine line, and it’s up to us to toe it without slipping too far onto one side or the other.
But you probably want to talk about that nipple.
And of course you do—Ginsberg’s Van Gogh-esque offering to Peggy was easily the show’s most unexpectedly gory moment since…well, since the last time it showed us a severed body part, when Guy’s foot got mangled in that infamous lawnmower incident. And like the lawnmower, we could see it coming; it wasn’t a secretary drunkenly, precariously fumbling around the office on a riding mower this time, but rather the way the camera lingered on that box in Ginsberg’s hands. With every passing second, it became more obvious that there was going to be something weird and gross in there, but for some reason that didn’t make the reveal any less shocking.
Ginsberg’s always been a little off, but what used to pass as harmless quirks—speaking with no filter, telling Peggy he’s a Martian, all those mismatched ties—was clearly some real mental illness, and it’s a little sad and surprising that when the authority at Sterling Cooper & Partners gets shaken up, he’s the first one to crack. After all, he’s always been the “pure” one at the agency, the virgin who never drank or smoked and was truly just there to work. You’d think it’d be Don or Roger, someone a little more out-of-control, who’d be the first in the office to be carted away to the looney bin. But Ginsberg’s always had issues with authority, from his very first interactions with Don to his suspicion of Lou and fear of the computer, and when those all got switched around, when it was no longer clear to him if his boss was Don or Lou or some robot overlord controlling him through technology, it was enough for him to short-circuit.
But it wouldn’t be a Mad Men episode if the theme wasn’t carried through the entire thing, and while Ginsberg’s departure from reality and the rules that govern it was the most dramatic, he wasn’t the only character grappling with authority in “The Runaways.” It started with the discovery of Lou’s “Scout’s Honor” comic, which resulted in ribbing from Stan and Lou exasperatedly telling his subordinates “you’re all flag-burning snots.” Then it continued with Betty standing up to Henry after she accidentally said the wrong thing about the war at a party (“every authority is up for grabs”), failing in her trophy-wife duties of keeping her mouth shut, smiling and echoing her husband’s opinions when prompted.
The most significant, however, was Don, who found himself rebelling against Cutler and Lou’s command while still being an authority figure to others. He makes a last-minute trip to California after getting a call from his “niece” Stephanie (who is really Anna’s niece). She’s on the West Coast, pregnant and in need of cash, and—since this is the new Don, capable of love—he tells her to go to Megan’s until he can fly out and catch up with her. When Stephanie arrives, there’s an immediate vibe between her and Megan; they tell each other how beautiful they are, and Megan suggests that Stephanie take a shower (as someone who was watching with me said, “This is like the beginning of a porno.”). But all that flies out the window when Stephanie makes the mistake of saying she knows all of Don’s secrets, and a jealous Megan makes up some excuse about Don not liking the fact that Stephanie’s boyfriend is a musician who’s currently behind bars for selling weed, cuts her a check for $1000 and sends her on her way. Don’s obviously upset, and Megan has the party she told him she would cancel, challenging his authority over her and dancing with some non-Don guy and then eventually surprising her husband by initiating a threesome with him and her friend Amy. Megan clearly has no problem sharing Don sexually, but love’s a different story; when anyone shows any signs of having a real connection to Don—regardless of whether it’s platonic or not—she goes off the deep end.
At Megan’s party, Don’s able to briefly run away thanks to a surprise encounter with Harry Crane. They duck out and go to a bar, where Harry tells Don that Lou and Cutler are pursuing a Commander cigarettes account and trying to use it as a means to oust him from the agency. They know that Don’s letter to big tobacco from season four means no Philip Morris brand will ever work with him, but a cigarette account would also bring in enough cash to buy Don out of his partnership. So Don walks into their meeting uninvited and sells himself to the Commander guys, pitching them on his years of tobacco experience and his knowledge of the American Cancer Society’s marketing strategies. He can play both sides, toeing the line between underdog and oppressor, and by episode’s end it seems like he’s saved his job—for now. Lou openly tells him he’s incredible, but Cutler’s more threatening. “You think this is going to save you,” he tells Don, and although he’s trying to insist otherwise, it very well could. We saw a flash of the old Don in that room, and if he can find a way to juggle that with the positive strides he’s made in his personal life, he just might make it out of the ‘60s without slicing off any nipples.
—Lots of Manson hints this week: Stephanie being in the late stages of pregnancy (like Sharon Tate was when she was killed), Megan remarking that Don would “murder someone”...and Stephanie’s boyfriend being a musician in prison. (You know who else was a musician and spent a lot of time in jail? Charles Manson.)
— “Don’s still part of the faculty.”
—Peggy also seems to be adjusting to her new authority over Don, realizing that she needs to be cordial to him and making small talk about his weekend plans in the elevator.
—Poor Sally and Bobby. Especially little Bobby, who wants to run away with his sister because he has a “stomachache all the time” from the stress of being around Betty and Henry’s fighting.
— “You know who had a ridiculous dream and people laughed at him?” “You?”
— “This is an office made up of people who have problems with authority.”
—Once again, the end-credits music nails it, with Waylon Jennings’ “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line”: “Everybody knows you’ve been steppin’ on my toes/And I’m gettin’ pretty tired of it/You keep a steppin’ out of line/You’re messin’ with my mind/If you had any sense you’d quit. Cause ever since you were a little bitty teeny girl/You said I was the only man in this whole world/Now you better do some thinkin’ then you’ll find/You got the only daddy that’ll walk the line.”
— “Leave the thinking to me.” Jesus, Henry. Get with the times!
— “Where would Mom be without her perfect nose?”
—Never thought I’d see the day where Harry Crane would be telling Don “I’m going to make sure that you’re still important.”
— “You know what would make you feel better? Drugs.”
— “I’m not stupid. I speak Italian.”