MAD MEN, SEASON SIX/EPISODE 10: CALIFORNIA DREAMING

by Claire Moshenberg on June 9, 2013

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After tiring episodes, tiring story arcs, and tiring adventures with Don Draper, one person still brings the charm: Roger Sterling. He has continued to be delightful and true to form, which is showcased in “A Tale of Two Cities,” a John Slattery-directed episode.

I’m worried that this recap series has gotten too negative, especially since I was still unimpressed with the most recent edition while the people watching the episode around me were thrilled with it. “A Tale of Two Cities” has some of that old Mad Men verve and sparkle, but is it enough? Especially when it still uses so many Season Six tropes that are . . . well, tired?

So I offer this small love letter to Roger Sterling, who steals the episode and deserves more screen time. There are still good things about Mad Men, and they tend to stroll into the room with perfect silver locks and a crisp drink in hand.

HISTORY IS HAPPENING!: 1968 is rife with historical importance, but watching Mad Men, you would think every death and shooting is just set dressing.

This episode continues the bizarre “History is happening!” theme of the season, where historical events are treated lightly and used solely to create inorganic character development. Martin Luther King is killed and Pete Campbell becomes an out-of-nowhere civil rights supporter (while everyone else awkwardly hugs and Don gets drunk and kind of likes his kids); Bobby Kennedy is killed and it’s tacked on to the end of an episode.

We’re supposed to see this as tense historical background, but it doesn’t quite work. That’s evident in “A Tale of Two Cities,” where everyone is watching the Democratic National Convention, but it feels oddly stapled to the story arcs. I miss the cause-and-effect of old episodes, like in Season One when the firm was working on a political campaign and people watched the election, or in Season Three when Kennedy was killed. In those episodes, historical details were laid out, characters moved forward, everyone processed the events in unique and character-developing ways, and iconic historical moments were treated holistically and with respect. Now a TV is clicked on, a character cries unexpectedly, someone makes a big decision. It’s an odd formula tucked into an odd season.

ROGER IS WRONG ABOUT EVERYTHING: Poor sap thinks the major potential clients in California will holler, “Golllllly!” mid-meeting, and may not “tie their pants with a rope,” but will bow and grovel to the two big New York ad men swooshing through their front door. But at the table with Carnation, no one wants the big-talking big shots, and no one is interested in the New York attitude.

At a party in the hills, former in-law and former employee Danny has transformed himself into successful movie director Daniel J. Siegel, and he has lithe and lovely Lotus on his arm. Roger takes jabs — at his work, at his height, at his new name — as a way to disarm him of his confidence and his girl, but Daniel can buy and sell this town now, no matter how short he is. Later, Roger stares into Lotus’s milky stoned face and compares notes on acid, letting her know that if she’s trying to see through him, he “is this handsome and this rich.” When Daniel returns to retrieve her, Roger continues his litany of potshots, bragging that he’s a boxer with the assurance of a man who thinks he won’t get punched. But then he does — hard, with no return fight — and Daniel trounces off with Lotus as Roger sits, defeated.  “New York is the center of the universe,” he says on the flight home, as though it’s California that’s the problem, not Roger — who even in New York is alone and not allowed to have contact with his son or grandson.

His only solid advice, which is heartily ignored, is that Don harken back to old-school Draper. “Be slick, be glib, be you” — a fine motto that crumbles when thoroughly baked Don nearly drowns himself in the middle of a swinging party.

CALIFORNIA DREAMING: Pretty hippie Megan shows up post-hash, and she’s open to sharing partners, ’cause it’s California! And she quit her job because she couldn’t bear to be apart! And she’s pregnant! And it’s a second chance and she’s guiding him right into his perfect fantasy! And they’re lighting her perfectly, like Betty in the last episode; they’re lighting her and pinking her cheeks and making her look like someone loved and in love, instead of someone tired and abandoned. Then the army guy is back with one less arm. “Dying doesn’t make you whole. You should see what you look like,” he says, and Don’s looking at himself floating, and it’s real. Don nearly drowns as his dream closes.

Sloppy stuff, guys. Heavy-handed, obvious, and exhausting. If I never see a dream sequence on this show again, I’ll be a happy girl.

GINSBERG AND BENSON — WHO ARE THEY?: Is Bob Benson just a square peg in an increasingly paisley world? He hasn’t done anything explicitly disturbing — in fact, he’s been overtly helpful, especially to Joan. His striving is over the top, but it lacks the malicious “I want mine!” power of Campbell’s similar striving in earlier seasons. In this episode, Benson just seems like a young guy who’s trying to get noticed in a complex work environment, the annoying but harmless coworker who’s high on self-help and cheeseball sayings.

So why does he still creep me out?

Ginsberg is explosive and exhausting in this episode, which has been his M.O. all season. It’s the same bad Woody Allen impression: He’s neurotic! He’s political! He’s sweating, he’s nervous, he doesn’t like weed, he doesn’t like work, he’s a cog in the machine, he has a questionable mustache! He’s a caricature. Just look at that ridiculous “I am hippie, hear me roar!” outburst at Cutler — read it line by line and it’s the stuff of high-school creative writing about the ’60s.

So why did I walk away from this episode nervous about Ginsberg? The transmission line. He says he can’t stop the transmissions in his head to do harm. Ginsberg says all kinds of things that never get returned to; something about this line makes me think we’re going to hear it again.

PETE GETS HIGH: Pete steals a joint, inhales, and suddenly everything is in color. A girl in bright yellow dress saunters by, Janis Joplin wails, and — though he still has that sneering smirk on his tightly wound face — there’s a shift. Campbell might be ready for a Sterling-style introduction to the wonder of drugs, and I’m ready to watch his conservative, little-boy character unravel and reform into something fun and new.

QUICK HITS:

  • I could watch Roger Sterling in hipster glasses slinging pithy barbs all day. Also, Roger Sterling’s Captain-Kangaroo-meets-Thurston-Howell outfit is the fashion highlight of this season.
  • If I wasn’t sold on casting Harry Hamlin as Cutler before, I sure as hell am now. A killer performance in this episode, full of deeply quotable one-liners like, “My politics are private, but this presentation isn’t,” and “I hate hypocrites, like hippies who cash checks from Dow Chemicals.”
  • So, it’s a week after this aired, and as much as I want to luxuriate in every delicious detail of Joan crushing Pete Campbell and taking over an account, I feel like you’ve seen it. You know it’s glorious, I know it’s glorious. And I have my fingers tightly crossed that it works out, because I cannot stand to see that deeply sad Joan face that Christina Hendricks does so well.

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Claire Moshenberg is a San Francisco-based author, activist, and new-media consultant. She is co-proprietor of the web site Charm City Jukebox and a contributing editor of The Spleen.

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