This season of Mad Men is turning out to be interesting. If I look at the individual components, I can't really name any single episode so far that stands out as great; "Far Away Places" probably comes closest, just for its structural complexity, but it doesn't have the emotional high notes—or the accompanying performances—that would make it, for me, one of the show's finest. (For my money, last season's "The Suitcase" is probably the high-water mark.)

However, it would not surprise me if this season, as a whole, turns out to be Matthew Weiner's masterpiece.

The best achievements in any art form are those that demonstrate, and expand on, what only that art form can do. Television is a long-form medium, and one of the things it does better than any other is handle the passage of time. A movie, for example, can span many years—even generations—but we experience it in just a couple of hours. Television shows don't occur in real-time, of course, but they do play out slowly; we live with their characters over several years, and we experience the changes and evolutions of their worlds gradually. (It is always something of a shock to go back and watch the first season of a beloved show after it's been on the air a few years: the actors are all so much younger, the characters fresh and unformed, the worlds simpler and strangely textureless. Just as in real life, everything you remember seems a little bit smaller when you go back.)

Like all the best television shows—and I sincerely believe it's one of the all-time greats—Mad Men understands and exploits the peculiar charms of this format. In fact, the unique ability television has to cover slow cultural changes and character development is written into the show's mission statement. The year 1960 was not the setting for the show, it was the departure point, and over the past five years Matthew Weiner has been gradually taking us through the tremendous changes that transformed American society in the 1960s. It has been gradual—there were very few abrupt jumps, and refreshingly few examples of the clumsy historical markers that a lesser show would use to signal change—but the process has been steady and dramatic. (Go back and watch the pilot episode now, and you'll be shocked how different the world of Mad Men was when we began five years ago.)

This season, it feels the Weiner's long, slow burn has finally brought Mad Men to a boil, as the societal changes that have been happening all along have now reached a tipping point. The frequent mentions of riots, Vietnam, drugs, and random crimes lend an overall air of menace and anxiety to the season, and more general paradigm shifts—most importantly the civil rights movement and the sexual revolution—have begun to have their influences on the characters. Everything is less stable, more transient, more uncertain. Gender roles and moral values are shifting faster than characters can adjust. The status quo is changing, and time—as many characters have already pointed out—seems to be moving faster.

"Far Away Places" plays out in three short stories, occurring simultaneously, that do not so much advance this overall narrative as reflect it: in each of the storylines, characters grapple with the tentative solidity of their own lives, the slippery hold they have on who they are and what is important to them, and the changing, sometimes elusive nature of reality. And—though the second and third segments are from the points of view of the male characters, these are really the stories of three women—each of whom was, at one point, Don's secretary—who are negotiating these uncertain waters and still trying to find their places.

Peggy has, for five years, fought to be exactly where she is right now: she is effectively the Creative Director of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Don—as Bert Cooper tells him towards the end of the episode—has basically checked out, leaving Peggy in charge of everything. She may not have the title or salary yet, but she has the position, and she has the confidence of the man she most admires.

But now that she has most of what she wanted, does she still want it? A couple of episodes ago she hinted to Dawn that she was unsatisfied, and tired of trying to act like a man. Part of that frustration, no doubt, is that it doesn't really work: Mohawk Airlines still wants a copy writer with a penis, and Heinz keeps rejecting her pitches. In the meeting with Heinz, she gets angry at the client's inability to recognize quality work: she acts, in short, exactly like Don would act. (It's her version of Don's "I'm not here to tell you about Jesus" speech from the first season—which, significantly, was how Don sold Peggy's very first concept.) The difference, however, is that when Don does it, people listen, and here it doesn't work. "Do you believe this girl?" the Heinz man asks, and implies that the only reason he's not being more rude is because he has a daughter. Peggy may have Don's talent, and she may have his trust, but it doesn't mean other men are going to listen to her. (Even Burt Cooper complains that Don has "a little girl running everything.")

Peggy's assumption of what has been, until recently, the "male" role is not going over any better with her boyfriend Abe, who is feeling neglected. "You sound like my dad," he tells her, when she says she needs a second to herself when she comes home from work. I doubt Peggy is anywhere near as neglectful to Abe as, for example, Don was to Betty, but, because she is a woman, even her supposedly liberal boyfriend resents her career. "Most men wouldn't even have this conversation," he tells her.

And so Peggy steps away from it all for a day: she simply steps off the treadmill for a few hours and stops being the high-powered business woman that she's fought tooth and nail to be. Interestingly, she doesn't go spend the day with her boyfriend either: it's not a choice between the traditional man's role and the traditional woman's role, but a semi-conscious desire for a third alternative. Abe wanted to go to the movies with her, but she goes by herself, and there she smokes some pot and gives a handjob to a total stranger. She's done things like this before—this is the same good Catholic girl, after all, who slept with Pete Campbell back in the very first episode—and it has never been a search for sexual satisfaction so much as a quest to have a different kind of life from the one society tells her to have. Like the Heinz executive, she isn't sure what she wants, but she knows what she doesn't want: she knew she didn't want to be in the secretarial pool, but now she's not sure the view is any better from the conference room. She hasn't found an identity that fits, and she's still looking.

At this point in history she's something of a misfit, caught between two eras, and it's an encounter with another misfit that brings her story to a close. In what I do think is one of the best scenes of this or any other season, Michael Ginsberg tells her he's from Mars. "Don't worry, there's no plot to take over Earth," he says. "I'm just displaced." She laughs at first, until she realizes he's serious. He doesn't blame her for not believing him: they tried to hide the truth from him as well, he says. "That man—my father—told me a story I was born in a concentration camp, but you know that's impossible. And I never met my mother, because she supposedly died there." Elizabeth Moss is tremendous in this scene, her face shifting from amusement to sympathy and sadness, her voice becoming gentle as she registers the damaged boy before her. "Are there others like you?" she asks him, softly. "I don't know," he says. "I haven't been able to find any." His story puts her problems in perspective, but it is also a scene of recognition: she, too, is alone, displaced by history, searching for her place in the world. Each in their own ways, Peggy and Michael foreshadow the sometimes chaotic quest for a new identity, a different reality, that an entire generation will take.

And Roger Sterling gets a dose—literally—of that approaching era as well. "Turn on, tune in, and drop out," Timothy Leary advised—or, in Mad Men's timeline, will soon advise—and Roger and Jane turn on at a party with some lefty intellectuals.

As the middle sequence in a very dark episode in a very dark season, Roger's trip is a comedic highlight, showcasing John Slattery's considerable gifts for reaction-based humor. He begins with bored, scoffing responses to the pseudo-intellectual claptrap of their hosts and their promises of a beautiful experience—“Dr. Leary, I find your product boring"—but once the acid kicks in he is delighted and bemused. (Kudos to the production team for not overdoing the visual tricks here—there are, thankfully, no swirling colors or fantastic hallucinations of the kind that most shows would rely upon.) I loved the booming Russian music that accompanies his opening a bottle of Stoli—alchohol will always be his first love, after all—and the subtle time lapses like his instantly disappearing cigarette.

But, as funny as the entire sequence is, there is also a genuine purpose to it: the party hosts have established that the entire experience is about truth. "It's a study of the ways that things are true or false," says the host, Sandy, describing his academic pursuits. "Some things are possibly true. Some are necessarily true. Some thing used to be true, some will be true. Some are true on this planet, but not necessarily others." Does that mean there's no such thing as good and bad, then, another guest asks, since all truth is relative? "Even if the truth is what you call relative," Sandy responds, "good and bad are not relative. Your mistake is that you're assuming that because something is true, it's good."

I've said again and again that Mad Men is about America waking up from its dream of itself, and putting to rest the suburban '50s ideal. Here, we have the "mind-expanding" ideals of the '60s—represented in the intellectuals and their faith in drugs—blowing a hole in Roger's lingering illusions about himself and his relationship. Roger has been grappling with—or, more accurately, avoiding grappling with—the truth of his changing reality for a very long time. He always assumed the the things he knew to be true were all good, but the world is changing around him (and, in many ways, for the better). As a result, many of the things he thinks of as "true" now fall into the category of "used to be true." The white, WASPy, male-dominated world he ruled like a king used to be the truth. ("When is everything going to get back to normal?" he asked recently.) His status as a powerful and successful man used to be the truth. ("I'm certainly aware you're skilled in this arena," Lane told him last week. "I was," Roger responded. "Now I guess I'm Professor Emeritus of Accounts.")

And he used to love his wife. ("You don't like me," Jane says, towards the end of their acid trip. "I did," Roger says. "I really did.") Roger and Jane do arrive at the truth through LSD, but just because something is true, that doesn't mean it's good: their marriage is over, and has been for quite some time. In the larger sphere of the show—and the society it depicts—the kind of marriage they used to have is also over: Jane, the husband-hunting secretary who achieved her goal of marrying an executive, has woken up from her old-fashioned dream. Her fantasy life has turned out to be just as flawed as Betty's, and just as flawed as Joan's; all three of them thought they could be happy and content finding a man to take care of them, but that dream is no longer enough (if it ever was).

Whereas Peggy prioritized her career over her personal life, and Jane sublimated herself completely to a man, Don and Megan are attempting to achieve a balance: theirs may be the new model for relationships in the mid-1960s, but they are experiencing some serious transitional pains.

Don has never truly understood that Megan's career is important to her: he likes that they work together because it means they can have quickies in his office, but he doesn't take her ambitions seriously. (This, despite the fact that, just before the very first time they slept together, she told him that she wants to do what he and Peggy do.) Don is trying—he has changed already, and he will change more—but he is still very much locked into an old-fashioned view of gender roles.

It doesn't help that he himself has no interest in work right now: as Burt accuses him at the episode's end, Don has been on "love leave" for months, and love is an even more intoxicating drug than the ones Peggy and Roger take. So when the opportunity arises to play hooky and take a field trip up north, Don pulls Megan away from the Heinz creative team—of which she is a member—and "orders" her to accompany him.  What's heartbreaking about this trip is that Don is so happy, like we've almost never seen him before: he's like a goofy kid, just thrilled to be on a road trip with his best girl. He doesn't pick up on the fact that Megan is not as happy: she wants to be at work, takes her responsibilities seriously, and wants him to value her place on the team. (As others, apparently, do: "She's really been my junior on this," Peggy says, of Megan's contribution.)  But Don doesn't get it: "What are you worrying about that for?" he asks her. "Are you feeling bad because they have to work and we don't?"

Their fight is wonderfully realistic and organic: Megan slow-burns while Don misses all the signals. He is being goofy and loving, but it comes off as patronizing and condescending. At Howard Johnson's (a wonderfully fitting, old-fashioned, brightly colored '50s kind of place), she wants pie, and he quickly corrects her and orders orange sherbet. When she doesn't like it, the fight erupts.

Don does love Megan, but he is—so far—incapable of acknowledging the truth: that she is her own person, and not just an extension of his own views and desires. "'Get in the car!'" she screams, mocking how he treats her. "'Eat ice cream! Leave work! Take off your dress!' Yes, master!" He leaves her in a temper tantrum, driving off: he pulls, in other words, a Don Draper, the relationship equivalent of how he would treat a disagreeable client. Just like when Peggy tried it earlier, however, it doesn't work: he comes back to find her gone, and spends the next twelve hours worrying about her in a nightmare scenario that feels like The Vanishing.

Their reconciliation—if we can call it that—is brutal. He kicks the door of their apartment in, and chases her around the apartment, finally tackling her on the floor in the exact same spot where they had their similarly disturbing reconciliation the day after the party. "It was a fight," he says. "It's over." He is trying to sweep it under the rug—to avoid dealing with the reality—but she won't do that. "Every time we fight, it diminishes us a little bit," she sobs.

Her next words are significant: "I have to go to work." Don embraces her, crying himself over how he thought he had lost her. Their posture, too, is important: Megan is standing, strong, resolute, ready to return to the office, and Don is on his knees, begging her forgiveness: she has all the power here, and has made it clear that she is not going to sublimate herself to him. Those old roles—those old truths—no longer hold: they will have to find a new way to live.

I know much of the fan and critical community has already written off their relationship as a mistake, but I haven't: I actually see the new Mr. and Mrs. Draper as a fumbling, awkward step towards egalitarian relationships on Mad Men. Don has shown, as he shows here, that he is capable of adapting—the question will be whether he can adapt quickly enough. There have been other red flags—last episode he made an off-handed comment about having a baby, and Megan dismissed the notion as "impossible"—that indicate they still have many fights ahead of them, and many compromises to make. Like the other characters in the show, they are living in—and representative of—a time of difficult, sometimes violent transition, and they are blindly, clumsily navigating their way through it as best they can. As Megan says of HoJo's, where they are now is an in-between phase, not a state but a process. "It's not a destination; it's on the way to some place."

Additional Thoughts:

  • There's a lot to be said about the way time itself is handled this episode: in all three storylines, the characters experience time jumping forward suddenly, in microcosmic examples of how time seems to be speeding up for the nation as a whole. The only reason I haven't discussed it more here is that my review is very late, and by now the subject has been well-covered in other write-ups. (Todd VanDerWerff's review for the A.V. Club is particularly strong on this subject.)
  • Lovely choice of music for Roger's trip, and specifically for the portions where he looks in the mirror and grapples with his own age: it's the Beach Boys, singing, "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times."
  • Another musical cue: Don humming "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in the car with Megan, during a flashback. The Beatles have always symbolized the future on this show, and he used to find them both loud and overly sentimental. Now, he's embracing them: another sign of his transition from the '50s worldview into the swinging '60s.
  • It is a dark episode, but I still maintain it's an optimistic one, promising that the new truths history has to offer will not all be bad ones. Roger, who has feared the future more than anyone, fittingly gets the last word: "It's going to be a beautiful day."

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