Mad Men, Week 9: Everybody Must Get Stoned

Michael Yarish/AMC Mad Men

“If any of you are secret poets, the best way to break into print is to run for the presidency.”
—Eugene McCarthy, 1968

The late ’60s weren’t all assassinations, bad trips, and riots. Some of the trips were actually pretty great. Don’s occasional trips to Los Angeles are a fan favorite, usually serving as a broadening respite from the chaos of his New York life. Compared to the depressing, dread-soaked tone of the rest of Season 6, this episode was positively uplifting. Sure, Don almost drowned and the California business trip was a bust, but Peggy helped Joan and Pete Campbell got high!

In its sixth season, Mad Men has taken to indulging in nostalgia for its own earlier self. Don and Betty’s summer-camp sex made us flash back to all of the nice parts of the Draper marriage (there were some!) and filter out all the lying, infidelity, and threatening intimidation that broke it up. Another trip to Los Angeles was just the ticket to a fond recollection of Don’s previous West Coast day trips to San Pedro and Palm Springs. But the cranky Don and Roger, who didn’t care for Harry’s topless car or the dry heat, might have been happier had they just gone to Disneyland.

Roger Sterling’s presence in L.A. ensured that Don’s identity didn’t slide too far off the map. Roger spoke for the viewership when he encouraged Don to be his best smart funny self. Everyone knows Don’s been phoning it in. With all the fresh blood pumping through the office, it takes an old hand like Roger to remind Don of what he used to be like. Going to California always crosses the Dick Whitman and Don Draper streams, but Roger was his same old self, even if hitting on the flight attendant and sending the pilot a drink are no longer regarded as the charming gestures they once were. Roger makes a typically ignorant remark about Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, calling him a Mexican. While Don and Roger don’t encounter it on their extremely cloistered business trip, in 1968 the Chicano civil rights movement is in full flower in Los Angeles following the East L.A. walkouts.

I’m sure Stan has a decent hookup for Thai stick in New York, but there’s no question that his shit is inferior in quality to whatever’s getting passed around at the Hollywood party. Don’s mommy issues guarantee that he’ll never turn down a free nipple, and although Don handles his liquor like a champ, when it comes to drugs he can be kind of a freshman. It was surprising that he wasn’t more familiar with intravenous amphetamines the other week, at least as an observer, since the practice of injecting a combination of speed and heroin known as a speedball was invented by American soldiers during the Korean War. I guess he wasn’t in class that day.

Harry’s promise of Hollywood power players probably made Don and Roger envision an older group than the young, hip, and stoned crowd they were greeted with. Their Rat Pack style was totally out of place among the faux-hemian movie business crowd. Hip is relative, since newly successful Danny Siegel resembled a mustachioed Jay Sherman in a dashiki. The party looked a lot like the Hollywood Hills party from Shampoo, which takes place on election eve of 1968. While Don and Rog could sense that the party was stocked with people who are utterly full of shit, they nonetheless desperately wanted to be accepted there. Roger took an aggressive tone with Danny Siegel, hitting him below the belt in an attempt to impress Lotus from Sacramento and then getting hit slightly above the belt in return. In their suits and skinny ties, Don and Roger stuck out like a couple of narcs. They are verging dangerously into Old Guy in the Club territory.

The party may have looked very cool and hedonistic, but that doesn’t mean it was actually fun. If Instagram and party photography have taught us anything it’s that the harder someone tries to look like they’re having fun the less believable it seems. In that sense, it was exactly like an authentic Hollywood Hills party, replete with unattractive moneyed dudes surrounded by hot babes. The only difference is in real life the people in the pool would be skinny dipping. Things get cut short when Don gets way too turnt and winds up facedown in the pool (spoiler alert), Sunset Boulevard–style.

Ginsberg and Cutler get into a fight about Vietnam, with Cutler arguing that “politics are private” while a fired-up Ginsberg rejects his approach before being reminded his checks come directly from Dow Chemical, more or less signed in blood. Eternal opportunist Bob Benson steps in to make peace and instead catches the brunt of Cutler’s wrath. Bob Benson, harmless go-getter or secret sociopath? What if the secret is that there is no secret? Ginsberg’s frank question about Bob’s sexuality went unanswered, as Bob evaded giving a direct answer (not like he had to). Could Bob Benson be hiding behind a candelabra made out of blue cardboard Anthora coffee cups? Or maybe he honks for both Joanies and Stans.

I was curious what would happen when Peggy and Pete Campbell were forced to interact in this episode, and not too surprised when all that happened was Pete yelling a lot about getting shafted. At this point, Pete and Peggy are so far in the past it’s hard to believe they were once one of the show’s integral pairings. People change and their alliances shift accordingly. Peggy and Stan make a much better fantasy pairing, because both of them know exactly when is the right time to leave the room — before all the yelling starts.

Joan just assumes that the divorced older man her friend Kate put her in touch with is interested in her romantically, and is surprised to learn he wants her business advice. Christina Hendricks shifts between Joan’s whispery flirtatious voice and girlish giggle into the more practically informed tone she uses for business. Determined not to get boxed out of the account, Joan goes around Pete and schedules breakfast without him. Joan knows that if Pete brings the account in, she’ll never touch it again.

Harry Crane made sure he didn’t have to share the television department with Joan, and Joan can’t let another opportunity pass her by. Avon is a makeup company, which is certainly in Joan’s jurisdiction. But it’s also a Fortune 500 company, which according to Pete is in his. Peggy is a Lisa Simpson who respects authority to a fault, even though authority fails her (and everyone else) all the time. She knows that pulling off Avon would impress the partners, but screwing it up means she and Joan would both get fired. Joan wore the exact right executive realness bright-blue power blazer for her meeting with Avon, but failed to take the proper tone of supreme, knowing confidence.

Pete is so angry that someone went around him again that he falls down an endless spiral staircase, bumping his ass on each step while exclaiming “HELL’S BELLS!” Here are some things I enjoyed imagining Pete Campbell doing stoned: eating a slice of pizza, listening to Beethoven on headphones, petting an extremely fluffy dog. There, now don’t you hate Pete less for destroying his nascent friendship with Joan in the name of business and his pride? Peggy had a point, but she knows that Joan has one, too. The system is rigged to favor those who are already in power, and if Joan doesn’t seize some for herself no one’s ever going to give it to her. That was what Joan meant when she compared herself to Peggy, but Peggy misreads it and insults Joan with her typical lack of tact.

Big glass picture windows provide the illusion of transparency, but the key element is sound. Don and Megan’s big picture windows seemed so luxurious at first with their wide-open view of the New York skyline. But the Grandma Ida break-in proved that an upscale zip code does not guarantee safety because nowhere can genuinely promise that. The glass conference rooms at the SCDP office are nifty but pose an issue: How can the partners yell at each other without broadcasting to the whole office that they are doing it? Once Peggy decides to breach office ethics, too, she does it like an absolute boss.

Don is about to get his after-prom grind on with a random mod blonde when he sees a headband-wearing double of his wife. Fantasy Megan tells Don that she’s come out to L.A. and quit her job, and also she both knows about and is cool with Don’s one-sided forays into polyamory. If that’s not enough, Megan’s L.A. hippie double is pregnant in Don’s hash hallucination. Then she morphs into PFC Dinkins, the soldier Don met in Hawaii, who informs Don that he died in Vietnam. As the tragedies pile up at home while the war produces more and more body bags, it becomes obvious that Cutler’s hands-off approach to politics isn’t really possible. Don tells Megan she shouldn’t worry about things because she’s Canadian. She encourages him to swim to clear his mind, but he tries to wipe his brain permanently by doing the dead-man’s float.

If you buy into the “Megan Is Sharon Tate” theory, Megan’s pregnancy will do nothing to disprove it to you. I originally thought they were setting up Sylvia to be the one who dies, since her name and temperament recall Sylvia Plath and she’s much more unstable than happy-go-lucky Megan. Maybe Sylvia and Megan are secret lovers who are plotting against Don together, and Grandma Ida was a plant they hired. Maybe Bob Benson is Pete and Peggy’s son and his dark secret is that he’s a time traveler from the ’80s. Doesn’t he seem so ’80s?

I don’t know that I think anyone’s going to die, since we had a big death at the end of last season with Lane. I’m not sure they’d pull that stunt again for the sake of having a big climax before the finale. I honestly have no clue what will happen next, which is how I like it. Even without a body count, the death of the progressive optimism that characterized the counterculture is more than tragic enough. The guys from Carnation are the human incarnation of the fascist boot that will soon come tramping down on all those antiestablishment ideals. They may be humorless dicks, but those ice cream cone posters are beautiful. The Reagan fans at Carnation reprise Cutler’s insistence that you not mix business and politics, even though they are lifelong bedfellows.

The assholes from Carnation have one salient point about East Coast bias that Don and Roger accidentally prove by being a couple of Greenbergs all during their trip. You know it’s a bad scene when Harry seems like the cool, funny one in the group. They bomb all three of their meetings and ruin a party. They try to fit in and fail, probably prompting at least one hippie chick to ask whose dad was facedown in the pool. They act completely square around the Californians, frustrated that their New York social currency carries no weight out West.

Calling the newly amalgamated ad agency SC&P is a brilliant way to nod to the firm’s lineage while announcing that it’s moving forward into the future. They can just turn all the Ds into ampersands and keep the old SCDP-branded stationery and cups. The name change starts to feel more sinister when you think about Don Draper’s “D” being stamped over with red ink. Severing the D symbolizes the compromise between the two firms. After all there’s no C for Chaough or Cutler, and Gleason and Pryce are both dead.

If the symbolic crossing out of Don’s fake last name means Don is marked for death, Chaough and Cutler should also take extra precautions when smoking hash at parties in the Hollywood Hills. Don’s been coughing a lot lately, and maybe I’m cynical but I think he’ll probably end up with emphysema or lung cancer by the end of the show. No one here gets out alive! I would like the cryptic scenes from the next installment to be replaced with a loop of Pete Campbell blowing weed smoke that says “JUST CHILL TILL THE NEXT EPISODE.”

Filed Under: Don Draper, Mad Men, Megan Draper, Peggy Olson, Vincent Kartheiser

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ mollylambert