Mad Men: This Comes With All the Strings
by Jen Doll
Last night, something very gross and surprising — unless you were watching while you watched Twitter, which I tend to do, in which case it was still surprising but at least allowed for a little prep time — happened on Mad Men. Spoiler: This is a recap, and therefore, there will be spoilers. But before we get to all that, let’s talk briefly about the episode was about. While last week’s show was about lost children, “The Runaways,” the fifth of 7 episodes we’re getting this year, involved, in my view, property. Ownership. Who is in charge of whom, who tells who else what to do, in relationships, in work, in families in social constructs. Who is dependent, who is no longer as dependent as they used to be? There’s a strong aspect of gender dynamics in this, including with Betty, who’s a bit tired of the old ways of doing things, and also in Don and Megan’s relationship. There’s also that power dynamic at Sterling Cooper that’s been simmering all season and, well, let’s get started, shall we?
The show begins with Stan finding Lou Avery’s pet project, cartoons called “Scout’s Honor” that were left by the copy machine. Lou being a wannabe cartoonist is sort of hilarious, given his utter humorlessness in all other areas of life, so Stan laughs and takes them, and shares them around the office. “Scout’s Honor” is the joke of the day, though Don, of course, is above it. Note: This is a very literal “property” storyline — property left behind and reclaimed by another — but it has psychological applications, too.
Don and Peggy meet in the elevator, and there’s some awkward formal talk. Peggy is technically his boss, but she is still unsure how to treat him in this power shift, and he isn’t making it easy. In the office, Ginsberg continues to spiral over the new computer that’s been installed, Wrinkle-in-Time “It”-like, in a glassed-in portion of the office, a label of “Think” hanging on it ominously. There’s a woman in there working, and Peggy thinks Ginsberg is checking her out, but really, he’s in the horrible thrall of the machine. “She belongs to it,” he says. It’s only a matter of time before the machine gets him, too.
Don receives an unexpected phone call from Stephanie, Anna Draper’s niece. She represents the lost children side of things we saw last week; she’s dressed like a hippie and covered in dirt and 7 months pregnant and in need of help, calling from L.A. Don sends her to Megan, after all, they’re both “family.” When Don calls Megan to tell her Stephanie’s on the way, her friend Amy is there in her apartment, listening. Don asks, “Could you get rid of her? I’d rather keep this a family matter.” But what family is to Megan and to Don is very different. Again there’s a kind of property discussion here; who belongs to whom, in terms of rightful relationships, and what information belongs to which people in those relationships. When Stephanie arrives, Megan is struck by the beauty of her pregnancy, her impending motherhood — things Megan doesn’t have, and which surely gall her. Megan is welcoming, though, offering Stephanie food, a bath, and her home.
Back in the office, there’s boyish joking over Lou’s cartoons in the bathroom, but Lou, in one of the stalls, overhears. In a creative meeting he’s furious. “I heard everything,” he says; the secrets are out, they’re anybody’s now. But because Lou is the boss, and a sadist, he’ll make everyone pay; they have to stay at work to finish that night. This interferes with grownup Don’s planned flight to see Stephanie (and Megan), and when Don attempts to leave after finishing his work, Lou pulls rank — “Don, you’ve been the boss,” he says — and forces him to stay until it’s just so late he won’t be able to make his flight. Who owns whom? Lou is trying to assert his power here, as he has been all season, while Don fights back within the structure he’s been forced to accept at the firm. But Don Draper doesn’t really lose, not for that long.
At Henry and Betty’s party, there’s talk of vandalism in the neighborhood that leads to talk of Vietnam, and Betty asserts her opinion, which Henry tries to gloss over, and then contradicts. He’s the politician, not her, is the subtext, and Betty is pissed, so much so that she skips the later parties and stays at home in bed. Later, when Henry confronts her, he tells her to keep her conversation to housewifely things, essentially, and “leave the thinking to me.” A worried Bobby (poor Bobby Draper!) listens at the door. Note: These three parallel-but-different power plays between Lou and Don, Megan and Stephanie, and Betty and Henry all involve the push-pull of who’s in charge, whose opinion matters, who gets to determine the story.
Back in Megan’s apartment, Stephanie and Megan are talking about the story as it’s been determined thus far. Megan wears Anna’s ring, from Don, for example. Stephanie, however, is the one who’s pregnant. “You’ll probably have some of your own,” says Stephanie, and Megan responds, “Don’s kids are plenty for me,” though we know that’s hardly the whole story. There’s girl-talk, Stephanie wondering how hard it must be to maintain the long-distance marriage, while, in her own life, the father of her baby is in jail after being busted for dealing grass. He doesn’t know about the baby, and Megan assures her, “I won’t tell Don.” This is where it turns. Stephanie’s response: “I don’t care, I know all of his secrets,” makes Megan cold and threatened. How could this other woman, one about to have a baby Megan didn’t get to have, know more about her own husband than she does? She’s so angry because she knows it’s true, and so she offers Stephanie $1000 to essentially get out of town. “This comes with no strings. I really think it’s better this way,” she says, and Stephanie takes it, and leaves.
In the morning, Don arrives to find not Stephanie but Amy in his wife’s house, washing the dishes, and Megan tells partial truths to cover up what really happened. She and Amy head off to buy things for the party she’s planning. Note, again, on this property theme: It’s her party, her house (where the phone rings for her), her rules, her life. “Anything for you, Don?” asks Amy. “I know what he likes,” says Megan, asserting her role in the relationship, or attempting to do so.
As Betty puts away silverware after the party (housewifely things), she gets a phone call. Sally’s been sword-fighting with golf clubs and, apparently, broken her nose. Henry picks her up and brings her home, where Betty gives her an angry lecture about, what else, who owns what on her body: “You can’t be trusted on your own, that’s your face, young lady.” “That’s right, it’s my face,” says Sally, and the teenage snark is unbelievable and deliciously brutal: “Where would mom be without her perfect nose? She wouldn’t find a man like you, she’d be nothing,” she tells Henry. “It was a perfect nose, and I gave it to you,” says Betty. Maybe that’s Betty’s nose on Sally’s face, but Sally is willing to spite the face to get back at Betty.
Things are getting worse for Ginsberg. He hears the whir of the computer wherever he is in the office, and plugs his ears with tissues in an attempt to get work done. He witnesses a secret meeting between Jim and Lou in the glassed-in computer office. Watching their lips move, he can’t hear what they say, but, as he tells Peggy when he arrives at her door, he suspects that “they’re homos. That machine makes men do unnatural things.” Ginsberg is sweaty and behaving erratically and making no sense, and Peggy lets him stay to watch TV (and, because I’m all about property right now, I must add that a neighbor boy also comes over to watch, telling Ginsberg the typewriter is too loud. This is his space). Later, Peggy wakes to see Ginsberg staring at her, saying strange things. “Peggy, we got to reproduce,” he says, leaning over her. “There’s pressure in my head, like a hydrogen bomb about to go off.” She gets him out of her apartment.
Megan’s space is packed with festive partygoers in an array of hippie garb (and, on Megan, an amazing Pucci-esque dress), while Don stands outside in his plaid sport coat, a man apart. He turns down weed from Amy, and watches Megan dance provocatively with a strange man who she knows, but he doesn’t. Clearly there is a shifting of old roles here. I can’t help but think of Megan singing for Don for his birthday back in the premiere of Season 5. Things have changed. But back to “old roles,” there’s Harry at the door of the party, with a woman who’s not his wife. Don and Harry leave to get a drink on their own, where Harry, a little bit drunk and nostalgic, confesses that Don is in trouble — Jim and Lou are pursuing Philip Morris, and if they land it, Don would have to go, given his anti-cigarette screed in the Times. This bit of information motivates Don, though; he orders another round.
At Henry and Betty’s, Bobby sneaks in to see Sally, who, he says, he wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. Bobby Draper right now is the ultimate property, an utterly trapped dependent, and, fearing that his parents are going to get a divorce, or that the fighting will simply go on forever, he has a stomachache all the time. Sally scoots over in bed for him and then tells him, “They’ll never let you out. You’re too little.” (Again: Poor Bobby!)
Back at Megan’s apartment again, Don just wants to go to bed, but Megan has other plans. With the blurring of the lines of control, there is sexual exploration to be had. And so, Amy and Megan and Don have a threesome, even though Don protests at first, and, when things get started, looks at Megan as if he barely even knows her. In the morning, Don gets up, and Megan comes into the kitchen wearing the robe that Stephanie had borrowed, though on her it’s flat across her stomach. The phone rings, and it’s Stephanie, back in Oakland. Don tells her he wants to be a part of her life; once off the phone, he tells Megan he needs to get back home (to his life). She stares, Amy slips away. This didn’t work as planned.
Henry and Betty have an important fight, because it’s almost as though Betty, who’s long resisted her friends’ talk of careers and roles outside of motherhood, is starting to get it. Henry comes home and asks her to go outside with him. And Betty says, “You come in and ask me to move just because you feel like moving. I’m tired of everyone telling me to shut up, I’m not stupid… I speak Italian.” Ha, Betty, but also, you do think for yourself, and by yourself! Own it. When Henry tells her maybe she should run for office (sarcastically) she tells him that might be a good idea. Oh my God, I so want the next episode to involve Betty Draper/Francis for president buttons.
Finally, the gross/surprising part of the episode: Peggy’s in her office. Ginsberg comes in and tells her he’s himself again, though he has feelings for her, he’s realized. “That happens when you work with people, but that’s not real,” Peggy says, perhaps as much to herself as to him. Ginsberg tells her not to worry, he removed the pressure. He hands her a box, and there it is, the valve that he cut off to release the pressure: his bloody nipple on a square of cotton. Peggy is stricken, but calmly leaves and calls for help. Later, Ginsberg is taken out on a stretcher, ranting, and Peggy looks at him, and then the computer, with its horrible THINK stamped on it, with eyes red from crying. It’s heavy-handed, but the property, in this particular case, won.
Last scene, of course, involves Don, as they pretty much always do. He interrupts the Philip Morris meeting and introduces himself, making the potential client an offer he doesn’t think they can refuse. “I’m also the only cigarette man who sat down with the opposition,” he says. “They shared their strategy with me and I know how to beat it.” And, if Philip Morris publicly makes him apologize and forces him into their service, doesn’t that look like they’re in charge, in the most impressive of ways? He would be their property… except, of course, he’s running the show. After the meeting, Don is on the sidewalk hailing a cab, which he gives to Lou and Jim, because he can. “You’re incredible,” says Lou, and Don says, simply, “Thank you.” “You think this is going to save you, don’t you?” asks Jim, and in the ultimate power move, Don closes the door for him, and whistles for his own cab.