May 12, 2014

Mad Men: “The Runaways”

By Josh Oakley

“Stop humming. You’re not happy.”

Michael Ginsberg was born in a concentration camp. I don’t present this fact to lump this entire small minority of peoples into a group with the tragically insane Ginsberg. Rather, I believe it important to remember that he was initially defined by an act of men, cruel men who committed one of the greatest monstrosities in human history. The computer may have been Ginsberg’s last straw, but life had brought him to the point where that was possible. In season five’s “Far Away Places”, he admitted that he was an alien, and the story seemed funny until it revealed itself as a horrific front for the truth. And though nobody can be blamed for coping, what seemed justifiable at the time now seems to have been a warning sign. The man is not all right. The computer is not to blame.

When it comes down to it, computers are as man-made as anything else in the SC&P offices. They seem foreign, like technology handed down by a superior alien race. But they’re tools, like sticks and rocks and guns are tools. And the computer may not even be the most even of inventions on display in this season of Mad Men. There’s also the television, vividly present in what seems like every other scene. These two pieces of equipment are but one of the many methods that allow these characters to do what the title of this episode implies. “The Runaways” is a powerful hour of television that stealthily uses its kinetic energy to frame a story of how difficult it can be to face reality.

We’ll come back to Ginsberg, the ill-fated center of the episode. But there are plenty of examples of those looking to escape from everything around them. Bobby Draper, fearing divorce and likely something he’s too young to put into words, wants to leave his parents, taking refuge in Sally’s bed. This is the closest thing to a sweet scene we’ve had between the two. They’re tied together by virtue of having had three parents emotionally abandon them in different ways at different times. The talk of divorce serves as another escape hatch, one that Betty has used before. Both of her husbands have treated her poorly, so her wanting to leave is understandable. But it’s still leaving, a way to avoid problems that have built up over the years. Remember that her introduction in the series was a twist, a reveal in the life of Don’s life, not her own. She is a person constantly defined by her position in relation to others, whether it is a spouse or a child. Who is Betty Draper, in a vacuum?

Speaking of the wives of Don, Megan finds herself just as alone as Betty can’t manage to be at the end of the hour. She gets high and has a threesome with her best friend and her husband, trying to position herself as the most important person in his life. The appearance of Stephanie, a presence from the life of Dick Whitman, shakes Megan. She seems to know less than this younger woman, to the point that she doesn’t even know that Stephanie isn’t Don’s niece. That moment is rattling, as it seemed that Don had come clean. But he always has his secrets, and as Stephanie says, she knows them all. But as Megan counters, knowing somebody’s lies doesn’t mean you really know them. As has been explored throughout the show’s history, Don is a bit of an enigma, and nobody, not even Don, has a full grasp on his identity. Megan wants to say that she knows the man she’s married to, but she still uses avenues other than honesty to prove her love to him. Megan is stockpiling covers, reasons to avoid the truth after their last real conversation ended in pain.

Even Lou Avery considers himself a bit of a Bob Dylan, dreaming of a life outside of this business and in the world of cartoons. “Scout’s Honor” is one of a number of threads in this episode that begin as comedy and descend into chaos. The worst side of one of the show’s worst character bubbles to the top, punishing his entire creative team for Stan’s buffoonery. Lou may not be brimming with nobility, but he too is looking to get away.

In fact, the entire show feels built around this idea at times. Dick Whitman’s new identity has often been held as a symbol of deceit, the lies that wind up creating the truth of our being. But those falsehoods were also a way out of a life that Don didn’t want. Characters escape marriages and jobs, they move to new coasts. If you don’t run away every once in a while, the sludge of life can build up. As Ginsberg puts it, “There’s this pressure in my head, like there’s a hydrogen bomb that’s gonna go off.” Maybe all he needed was a vacation.

Ginsberg has mostly been used this season as comic relief, but the signs of his madness have been around since the beginning. There’s the story of his birth, and season six’s talk of “transmissions” to Bob Benson. His quirkiness seemed like an advantage at first, at least in a creative sense. It turns out, though, that he’s simply a man disconnected from the world around him, his causal absurdity curdled into tin-foil hat madness. His attempt to force himself on Peggy is horrific, compounded by his paranoid-homophobia. Then, he relents and it seems, for a just a second, as if everything will be ok. But you don’t just lose the craziness. It just presents itself differently. Ginsberg thinks he’s found his way out of the computer’s haze, tearing his nipple off and gifting it as one would a necklace. The scene is shocking in the purest sense of that word, coming from nowhere and manifesting Ginsberg’s hysteria into physical mutilation. He’s found a release from the buildup of waves of data, but it’s all just an illusion. Ginsberg may leave, but the computer is still there. Peggy glaring at this machine after watching its casualty wheeled out of the office is one of the starkest images the show has ever provided. This is what time does. Time is a machine that makes men do unnatural things.

Compare this story to Don’s. The last four scenes cut between the two plots, thematically bouncing them off one another. When Don finds out that Lou and Cutler are going after Philip Morris, he risks his job in order to save it. This is the opposition to the rest of the episode. Don isn’t looking to escape. He’s looking to stay. The fact that he even makes this attempt continues to pay off the promise of his recovery glimpsed in last season’s finale. Don could slink off to another company, or find something else to fill his days. But he’s determined to prove himself. He’s not running away from this problem, and that puts him a step above nearly everyone else, even his former self.

If Mad Men is a show about doors, as I posited in an earlier review, then “The Runaways” is yet another angle on what those doors can represent. Escape hatches are everywhere, from the ability to hitchhike back to school to the lure of a new city or a new job. Fresh starts seem nice and all, but they don’t represent actual change, just an opportunity to fuck everything up yet again. Fresh starts are easy, all things considered. Change is hard. Running away is simple. Staying is the challenge. Yet the world keeps throwing obstacles, reasons to deviate from the set plan. People built the computer, and it destroys people in turn. There is no monolith here, whatever the symbolism may suggest; we brought this upon us. The more appropriate tie to 2001 is that of Hal 9000, a product that was our fault and our near downfall. The war in Vietnam, mentioned extensively here, saw many young people die because older people had plans more important than human lives. The cycle of men rages on, and the computer continues to hum a tune. The song may sound something like “Daisy”, but it’s important to remember: we wrote those words, and we taught that beast to sing them.

“That machine came for us, and one by one…”

Grade: A

  • “I have a stomachache all of the time”: runner-up for saddest Bobby line of the season, after that stunner from “Field Trip”.
  • Is Don’s smile when Megan tells him that Stephanie is on the phone the most genuine we’ve ever seen him?
  • “I’m not stupid. I speak Italian.”

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