Mad Men Episode Commentary: ‘A Tale of Two Cities’

This season has toggled between exciting and frustrating, and more than any episode “A Tale of Two Cities” showcases its pros and cons.

Pro: Joan stumbling into herself. Christina Hendricks was aglow with the thrill of hitting new notes in a character too often used as window dressing. She begins the episode believing herself on a blind date with a paunchy and drab marketing professional, and finds herself pitching SCDPCGC (or whatever it is called). This event plays perfectly into Joan’s arc, dovetailing with the fallout from Harry Crane’s outburst in the partners’ meeting. Hendricks does a nice job of expressing Joan’s realization of just how much is at stake for her as she guides the Avon account into port. If she wants any real respect, she has to make things happen, otherwise she will always be the woman who slept with Herb to make partner. And she will step on a few people to get there.

Joan’s story also swept up Peggy and Pete, and did so in ways that integrated each characters’ pasts with Joan. Peggy called Joan out on Joan’s often snarky and unsupportive attitude as Peggy made her way up the ladder, even pointing out that she did not sleep with Don Draper to attain her current status, making Joan’s scarlet ‘A’ just a but more vivid. But when the chips are down, Peggy chooses to help Joan out, completely reversing the power dynamic between the two. Pete gets the short end this week, finding Joan—with whom he has sought to cultivate a deeper peer relationship (probably connected to his never-ending quest to emulate Don)—double-crossing him out of a desperation he lacks the empathy to sense. The last moment of the show, Pete, fresh from a rant to Don about how this “isn’t the same business,” sitting on the couch and smoking the rest of Stan’s joint as Janis Joplin thumps over the soundtrack, is a perfect microcosm for where this show and its world are going—a place where only the strong survive, as long as they can figure out what being strong even means anymore.

Con: California. Boy, was this dreadful. Don Draper samples yet another drug, and the audience is supposed to be really, really excited about that. The writers dredge up a completely forgotten character for Roger Sterling to act like an ass to. Don embarrasses himself in public yet again because he’s just so angsty, and once again we are all supposed to care. We get more insufferably pseudo-mystic visions from the depths of his tortured soul, and finally he jumps into the pool in a likely suicide attempt. And how many trips to California has this show served up now? Old, tired notes, from a character that feels older and more tired with each go-round.

What is most bizarre is how awkward and detached scenes between Megan and Don have become. It seemed as if Don were now looking to redefine his relationship with her. This week, they had two scenes together, one where they cuddled on a chair, and another where they spoke by phone from opposite coasts. Guess which seemed more heartfelt. The writers seem at a loss as far as what to do with these two, and what was once a fascinating transformation for Don has become a baffling cypher.

Pro: The Democratic National Convention. Throughout everything, history is happening whether these people realize it or not, and now they find themselves bouncing off it constantly is what drives this series.

Bonus pro: Bob Benson steps up. The amiable accounts man actually starts looking like a real person this week. His scene with Ginsberg was terrific, the best scene for either character yet this season. With all the speculation about Benson’s actual motives, it may be an odd sort of disappointment if he ends up just being a very nice, hard-working guy looking for his chance. Is the shoe going to drop?

More history, more of the supporting players, and less of the Don Draper treadmill of despair, and this season could turn out to be quite interesting.

About Justin Mitchell 48 Articles
Justin Mitchell is a freelance multi-media journalist and writer working in New York. In addition to his work at Review Fix, Justin has written for Latitude News, The New York Daily News, and Feet in 2 Worlds. Follow him on twitter: @mittinjuschell

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