Slumped in his polyester airplane seat, looking like he’s just gone ten rounds with the entire state of California, Roger Sterling sums up this week’s Mad Men with typical withering sarcasm, imparting onto Don his belief that ”New York is the center of the universe.” As far as jet-lagged and cranky witticisms go, this one makes a splash in an episode that’s one constant monsoon of quotable Roger-isms, as it pulls double-duty for being the takeaway of the week. It’s not much of a moral to the story, and doesn’t get treated with the usual moving piano music, and slow push-ins TV usually includes when someone announces they’ve learned a lesson, but “A Tale of Two Cities” is by no means an after-school special. It’s a vacation before the season’s final three episodes, one that manages to use the second city in its title as a means to contrast the ways social unrest in your backyard make one consider what it takes to make, and keep home the way it is.
Mad Men has always had an interesting relationship with its non-New York sojourns, because there have been few occasions where the reason for taking a trip to another state or country has been completely unrelated to the agency’s business. Even when Don had his first taste of the hippie lifestyle, and a soul-cleansing reunion with Anna back in the second season 1-2 punch of “The Jet Set,” and “The Mountain King,” company interests were what brought him there in the first place. And while it appears that SC&P (that’s Sterling Cooper and Partners), is spreading its influence further across the country -with Chevy in Detroit, and booming TV business in California-, everything does come back to New York in the end.
This is home for all the characters of Mad Men (even Megan, who’s just as concerned about the state of things as anyone who can legally vote), which is a good explanation for why everyone has been so on edge lately. At the first signs of smoke, the Madison Avenue bunch often grab the first liquid in arm’s reach to try and douse the flames, which is a problem when most of those liquids come with a high proof. The decay of the city has been a huge throughline for the entirety of the show, but ever since Don started living in it fulltime, it seems like things have been going from bad to worse at an accelerated pace. People can’t even express their apprehensions properly without getting drowned out by police sirens, and you just have to take a look at Abe’s twin stabbings last week to know that panicking about the state of things can be just as dangerous as the state itself.
While the east coast looks like it’s going to be eroded completely by crime or rioting at any moment, Roger and Don’s trip to Cali looks to be every bit the sunny escape to the coast it’s often still advertised to be. Sure, the humidity is a killer, and the locals are a bunch of beatnik space cadets (you can imagine a young Jeff Goldblum somewhere at that pool party, desperately trying to remember his mantra), but everyone in the Hills seems way more relaxed than anybody who’s part of the continental US. This is all familiar ground the show has trod before, presenting California as a blissfully ignorant (and drug-dependent) resort for the whole country, one where you can forget your troubles, have a momentary epiphany, or become convinced that the secretary you barely know should be your future wife.
But things are different this time round; rather, so much has changed elsewhere, that not even California’s most potent supplies of hash can blot out awareness of the spreading turmoil in the nation. A precision cut links Joan and Don across thousands of miles, showing the pair at full attention, silently watching a broadcast of Chicago’s Balboa and Michigan turning into a warzone of protestors clashing with police. The same scene then makes an actual cross-country connection between Don and Megan on the phone, as the two continue to try and work on their relationship, even as now seems like the best possible time to find comfort in someone, anyone’s arms, regardless of wedding vows.
Even the locals are getting restless. Jack and George, the domineering double act meeting with Don, Roger and Harry to talk strategy for Carnation’s powdered breakfast food, nearly blowup the whole meeting thanks to simmering political tensions boiling over. Abe’s worst-case scenario of Kennedy as the nominee coming out of the ’68 DNC sounds like a pipedream in retrospect, now that Nixon has had the election all-but served to him on a silver platter by Humphrey, but even political lines of Democrat and Republican don’t seem to be much comfort when the country is tearing itself apart at the seams. Sterling’s getting punched in his gold nuggets by his pipsqueak pacifist of a former-employee for crying out loud! For as hard as they’ve tried to ignore it, those in the bubble of privilege are starting to realize that the increasing disorder on the streets could pose a serious threat to their well-warmed seat in the lap of luxury.
Okay, so guys like Don, or Cutler probably aren’t worried they’ll be having their heads cutoff, in addition to suffering the indignity of seeing their names removed from the side of the agency building, but in the spirit of a “crisitunity,” two of Mad Men’s Empire State-bound players respond to the turmoil in the office by solidifying their place within it, while also finding room to try and make some moves up the ladder. After unsuccessfully butting his business-minded skull up against the fraying conscience buried under Ginsberg’s Jew-fro, Cutler practically suggests to Ted that the pair stage a coup while Roger and Don are in absentia. Ted, of course, makes a reasoned plea for cooperation, because he’s Ted Chaough, and the worst thing he could ever do to even his archrival is pull a prank phone call. Principled nice guys are not who you want to have at your side when pushing another guy into the muck to save your skin means getting your hands a little messy…
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