Mad Men, Episode 4: Maniacs, Blowing It All Up

Michael Yarish/AMC Mad Men

“The Forbidden Zone was once a paradise. Your breed made a desert of it, ages ago.” — Dr. Zaius, Planet of the Apes

In the wake of a horrible tragedy, traditional comforts don’t always work. Things that usually make you feel better might make you feel bad or, worse, entirely disconnected. Television shows that were comfortingly absurd are suddenly jarringly unreal. All food becomes tasteless. Awards become meaningless. The usual Marxist bullshit can no longer blunt emotions about how terrible the world really is. Disasters tear open the screens put in place to protect us from horror and fear. All the other hungers and lusts are replaced with just one need: more information. After an unjust death, there can be no true satisfaction or closure. Just new facts, and an agonizing desire for more of them.

Peggy is easily bullied by pushy real estate agents named Ginny who are faintly reminiscent of her overbearing mother. Lucky for both of them, Ginny decides on their behalf that the Upper East Side does not support boho creative types shacking up. Screw ’em! Through one brief, extremely honest conversation, Peggy is rescued from becoming even more uptight and exacting, the total control freak she could be. Abe is a great match for her, similarly passionate but with a complementary temperament. Her braininess is a turn-on for him, and he doesn’t care that she outearns him. He puts up gamely with the obnoxious Ted Chaough taking his chair at the awards, and doesn’t let Peggy push him away. He chills her out, and they bring out the sweet, uncynical sides in each other. Abe’s slip to Peggy that he saw them raising their kids in a neighborhood more diverse than the Upper East Side didn’t feel like a manipulative parry. Elisabeth Moss’s isolated reaction shot on the couch when she realized that Abe genuinely loves her and is in it for the long haul was better than the last decade of romantic comedies.

Peggy is generally a depressive realist, but she’s equal parts Debbie Downer and Little Mary Sunshine. There’s something irrepressibly effervescent and open-spirited about her, which is why she and Megan are friends. The honeymoon period is over at Cutler, Gleason & Chaough, but don’t tell that to Ted Chaough. He blatantly flirts with Peggy, to the annoyance of his blowsy wife, Nan, who looks like she was three drinks in before she walked through the door. Like Don, Ted treads a weird line with Peggy. He’s a father figure and mentor, but he flirts with her, too. It makes Peggy uncomfortable, but both her ex and current boss know her well enough to recognize that the way to her heart is to praise her work. Meanwhile, Megan could give two fucks about writing ads, and she’s the one who cleans up at the newly meaningless awards ceremony.

Don is so hypnotized by Sylvia and her Betty Rubble wig that he asks the same question twice in a row. Soon enough, when he mishears the name of the town his mistress’s husband is taking her to for a week, he’ll be able to blame it on senility. Then he can go around New York boning all the taken ladies he likes, blaming his failing hearing for miscomprehension, like a (more) sexual Columbo. If Don thinks his big monologue about his inability to love his own children is going to help Megan deal with the eventual realization that he doesn’t really love her either, he is mistaken. Don has liquor and her father has Marx, but Megan is addicted to trying to change Don. Even though his wife is young and stunning, Don is cheating on her with an older woman who wears zebra collars. Don is obsessed with Sylvia and already bored of Megan, which is like going out for brisket when you have coq au vin at home.

Bobby Draper has long been an unformed lump of bread dough, portrayed by a stream of unmemorable child actors who couldn’t resist looking into the camera. But they wouldn’t be Don Draper’s son if they could resist impulsive urges, which is why the latest Bobby is seen stripping the wallpaper in his room because he resents it (his father) for being crooked (absent). Betty says that the scared kids want to see their dad, but making Don drive out to fetch them is really just a way to exact her vendetta. She’s still hung up on belittling Don’s “girlfriend” Megan, but after all her years with Don, she should know that by now he’s already cheating with another swarthy mistress.

As far as Don is concerned, “coparenting” better be the name of a rare aperitif; certainly it’s not a concept he’d care to explore in more depth. Don always tries to excuse his bad behavior with rational speeches where he admits to understanding that he’s shitty and explains exactly why, without actually offering to work on it. Megan is a sap, so she fell for his whispery sob story about his sucky dad, but he could’ve gotten her just as easily by clenching that strong jaw, biting his lower lip, and saying “in that tear are all the tears in the world, all the animals, crying.” Meanwhile Bobby is turning into a little A.J. Soprano, trying to stunt like his daddy with a crucial difference of always getting caught. Don’s only parenting trick is “Hey, look at this!,” which is similar to Betty’s most commonly used strategy, “Go look at that!” It’s been established that Don enjoys sci-fi, so it’s no surprise that he and Bobby bond over having their minds blown by Planet of the Apes, which used the terrain of science fiction for a thinly veiled allegory about racism.

Ginsberg goes on a forced blind date booked for him through OKAltacockers with Beverly, a nice Jewish schoolteacher. It played out similarly to the date on Girls brokered by yenta Carol Kane for her daughter with another skeevy mustache enthusiast, Adam Sackler. And Beverly’s next date (if there is one) probably won’t end with him forcing her to crawl on her knees through a bed of dusty nails, but who knows? Ginsberg is a mysterious Martian. I couldn’t even tell if he was really admitting to being a virgin or doing a self-deprecating stand-up bit. Ginsberg’s lack of obvious sexual interest in the charming Beverly goes unexplained, another bit of ambiguity for viewers to parse out for themselves. Is he gay? Asexual? Secretly in love with Dawn? Or simply annoyed that his father got involved in his personal life and therefore determined to sabotage the setup no matter what?

When Roger says Randy talked him off a roof, he doesn’t specify whether that roof was real or conceptual. I’m assuming Roger and Randy tripped the light fantastic together a few times, and are now entheogen bros, which is why Roger let him come in and pitch. I also get the feeling Roger’s acid phase might have lasted a whole year that only felt like a few short minutes. Randy the angel of Molotov cocktails is portrayed by William Mapother, who played Ethan “Goodspeed” Rom on Lost and specializes in weirdos. Randy felt like a visitor to New York from Twin Peaks. His cringe-worthy quoting of Tecumseh supports a Room 237 crackpot theory that Mad Men is a show about America confronting its disgusting and unseemly history. Don Draper is just an avatar for the United States, and his backstory a metaphor for the country’s violent, shameful past. Psychedelics are great for coming up with far-reaching theories that seem like they almost make sense but actually don’t. The answers are in Stan’s stoned laugh.

Reactions to MLK’s assassination were shown through the very specific prism of Mad Men’s insulated and overwhelmingly white world. Everyone was very upset except for Harry Crane, who remains the least likable character on Mad Men even though other characters have done more horrible things. Harry’s worship of the almighty dollar and total lack of empathy manage to make Pete Campbell seem sympathetic in comparison. Pete Campbell, who five seconds ago was the worst person ever! Vincent Kartheiser is so good. Give him all the awards. Harry’s casual racism is pretty inexcusable and sadly current. Today he’d be the guy arguing at parties that we live in a post-racial society. Roger Sterling was similarly uninterested, because he’s so far removed from social issues. Rich and fully out of touch, he lives in blissful ignorance.

We didn’t get to see Dawn or Phyllis or Hollis the elevator guy (where’s that guy been lately?) or Carla (I wish!) reacting privately, so we were left with the white characters’ reactions, and then the minority characters’ reactions to those reactions. While Peggy showed a rare display of effective maternal softness with Phyllis, who was upset and wanted to talk, Joan’s usual bosomy bolstering was totally awkward with Dawn, who wanted to not talk and especially to not be treated differently from all the other employees. One of the black kitchen workers at the diner Ginsberg and Beverly were at dropped a plate. The black usher at the movie theater didn’t feel like humoring Bobby Draper; he just wanted to sweep up the popcorn and get the hell out of there. Like other world-transforming historical events on Mad Men, the real plot was not the event, but the change stirred up in all the characters’ lives by it.

Despite all the hatred burning in his heart, Pete has always harbored a surprisingly liberal view of race relations. He was one of the more progressive Sterling Cooper employees in earlier seasons, suggesting that the agency cater to a black clientele through Ebony magazine. More recently, he seemed to retreat into what I figured would become a conservative reactionary fugue. I had really been picturing Pete Campbell turning into Peter Boyle in Joe, ranting about wanting to kill hippies. As always, Mad Men subverted my assumptions and then dunked on me. Throughout “The Flood,” Pete and Peggy (who had no scenes together) showed flashes of their younger, less jaded first-season selves. Like real humans, they’ve changed drastically over the years in some ways while remaining exactly themselves in crucial others. Pete is often terrible, but sometimes he is unbearably wonderful. Hell’s bells, I nearly wanted Trudy to take him back.

Trudy was the one who put “shameful” into Pete’s vocabulary for its eventual use as a conversational Molotov cocktail aimed at Harry’s greasy sideburns. Pete’s anger may have secretly been more about his own marriage than Dr. King’s death, but it was still cathartic to see someone get angry about something real. His embarrassing shot at bonding with the Chinese-food delivery guy was a misguided attempt to communicate with a fellow human being after being shut down by Trudy and Tammy. It also seemed a callback to Season 1, when the Sterling Cooper staff pranked Pete by hiring some Chinese workers to occupy his desk, and then laughed as Pete said, “Who put the Chinamen in my office?” Pete and Peggy are similarly stubborn, but they also have bursts of intense growth and sprout green shoots.

None of the major Mad Men characters has been directly involved in the civil-rights movement since that poseur Paul Kinsey took the bus to Birmingham with Sheila. They are nearly all Kennedy liberals, supporting civil rights in theory but accidentally showing an ugly discomfort about the race riots. Peggy is tangentially related to the movement through Abe’s journalism, but Abe is just documenting. Sylvia and Dr. Rosen are in Washington, D.C., where severe rioting took place in the days after MLK’s death. Mayor-Commissioner Walter Washington ignored J. Edgar Hoover’s proposition that they shoot the rioters, and went on to become D.C.’s first black mayor, as well as its first elected one. During the riots, he walked through the city himself and tried to persuade people to go home and assist those affected by the fires.

Michael Ginsberg gives another speech that really needs some Yiddish theater–style klezmer violin underneath it. Harry Crane is worried about New York getting blown up, but Bobby Draper is strangely Zen about it. Maybe mindfucks blow his hair back. I wish The SimpsonsPlanet of the Apes musical was a real musical (and also their musical version of A Streetcar Named Desire). Harry Hamlin is a bizarro-world Roger Sterling with bad breath. Henry Francis plans a run for office, and Betty starts thinking about crash diets. Abe and Peggy make a plan to gentrify the Upper West Side together as a team. What did Pete Campbell order from the Chinese restaurant? We will never know. Don stands on the balcony of contemplative thought, looking out at something that looks sort of like New York City but also doesn’t. Eventually, the emergency news cycle stops and regular programming resumes as if nothing had happened. It was just a bad dream.

Filed Under: AMC, Don Draper, Jon Hamm, Mad Men, Matthew Weiner, Peggy Olson

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ mollylambert

More from Molly Lambert

See all from Molly Lambert

More AMC

See all AMC

More Hollywood Prospectus

See all Hollywood Prospectus